Author's Note: Special thanks to wingedmercury for beta-ing this chapter (read her stories if you like Naruto!), and MeriLynelle for brainstorming with me on Grindelwald. Thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter: A. Deca, TK Grimm, Kissable-Luxury, MeriLynelle, BananaDrama, le-femme-cavalier, Molly Dooker, (), moor, Que9, Chamilia Lutien Tinuviel, Victoria, Cellar, Annevader, Shubhs, wingedmercury, HerGoldenWings, and Account Currently on Hiatus.

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Disclaimer: the HP universe does not belong to me; I am just borrowing.

Lesson Four: Exegesis

By the time Tom returned to his townhouse, his tux was soaked in the shoulders from the melting snow, and his fingers were nearly numb from the cold. His eyes burned with exhaustion; these charity balls always went on far too late, and by the end he was usually too keyed up to go back home and to bed anyway — especially when he ran into Gellert Grindelwald.

And there's another one tomorrow night...or rather tonight, he grumbled inwardly after a glance at the clock on the wall. He undid his bowtie in front of his hall mirror, staring at his reflection. His home was silent, but distantly he could hear the thumping of his neighbor's speakers, hammering out the driving but monotonous beat of club music.

He was admittedly feeling a bit lightheaded from all the champagne he had consumed over the course of the evening; after running into Grindelwald he had been filled with the usual clamor of triumph and rage. Grindelwald sought to ruin his life — and in a way, he had been nearly successful.

But he would never get even with Tom.

The kicker was that while Tom had always despised Albus Dumbledore, he really had never intended for him to die. It had been a sort of happy coincidence, really. Most people might call him heartless for feeling no remorse over Albus Dumbledore's death, but Tom called himself pragmatic.

The ironic thing was that Albus Dumbledore had been the one person standing in the way of his advancing career, and Tom had always been sure that when Albus died, his career would have continued on its path. But as it turned out, Albus dying was the one thing that could also bring his career to a screeching halt.

Going down this road of thought was always dangerous for Tom, especially alone and drunk at night. He wisely bypassed the bar where all of his fine wines — gifts from his elite 'friends' — were stashed, and instead gulped down glass after glass of icy water, waiting for sobriety to return.

Still feeling inebriated and overheated, Tom flung his tuxedo jacket and shirt onto the arm of his dark green leather sofa, and sat down heavily at the other end, where his laptop was waiting. He perused his usual news blogs and checked his email before he abruptly remembered something he'd learned that evening. Amidst running into Grindelwald and gallivanting about with Severus, he had nearly forgotten.

It wasn't hard to Accio the facts: Viktor Krum was suspected of having had a homosexual affair with a German man last summer. But as far as he could tell, that was the only allegation. Otherwise, the paparazzi had little to say about Krum. He led a fairly boring life aside from his career. There were plenty of old pictures from Krum's brief time at Hogwarts University, and Hermione Granger was in most of them. In spite of himself, Tom realized he was actually grinning. In most of the photographs, Hermione was talking passionately about something, a gleam in her eyes that was becoming familiar to Tom...and Viktor was listening, his expression one of confusion. Tom guessed that Viktor was no idiot — he couldn't see Hermione ever tolerating an idiot — but he could see why there were rumors that he was mentally subnormal. He looked like the classic footballer, with his broad structure, close-cropped hair, and somewhat glazed-looking expression.

So was Viktor Krum actually gay? The results were as of yet inconclusive; Tom studied the photographs from the German nightclub repeatedly and could not be sure that Viktor was merely having a good time with a close friend or looking for a squeeze.

Maybe Hermione was even aware of it? Tom scoffed at that: Hermione did not strike him as the sexually liberal type. He highly doubted she would be open to her fiancee using unknown German men to take care of his 'needs.'

Then again, he also highly doubted Hermione would end up marrying Krum at all, especially given that she was meeting other men in the middle of the night. Maybe she's a little minx after all... he mused, chuckling a bit. Making a mental note to be on the lookout for more regarding Viktor's sexuality (which made him feel a bit creepy, admittedly), Tom shut his computer down.

Just as he was alighting the stairs, he heard a knock on his front door. Through the glass, he spotted a familiar wild-haired silhouette. Bellatrix. He considered simply ignoring her and was about to do just that when he heard the lock click open and he groaned, banging his head against the wall. She must have found the spare key.

"Tom, you hardly talked to me last night. I was beginning to think you were upset with me," Bellatrix whined as she came in, a gust of snow entering with her. The door slammed behind her and grudgingly Tom turned to face her as her hungry dark eyes roved over his shirtless form.

"Bella, it is five in the morning, and I am exhausted. Leave before I make you." There was no reasoning with Bellatrix when she was like this; she sauntered up the front hall, leaving her glittering purse on the low table below the mirror, and twined her body around his. Her hands moved lower and she let out a disappointed mewl against his neck when his body clearly did not respond to her touch. Anyone else and he'd be worried that he was growing old before his time, but with Bellatrix it was hard to work up any excitement.

"I missed you," she whined, her lips moving against his collarbone. Tom let out an irritable sigh.

"How can you miss me? You never leave," he pointed out, pulling back from her. Bellatrix pouted.

"I know you don't like it that we're going behind Rodolphus' back, but I told you, he doesn't mind," she urged, approaching him again. Tom sniggered.

"No, I'm not nearly that moral," he said, pushing her away. Was this an appropriate time to call the police. Yes, she had used a key to enter, but wasn't this sexual harassment? Still, his baser instincts were crying out that it had been a while... And, in spite of her (many) flaws, Bellatrix was a beautiful woman. There was just the small problem that she was mostly repulsive to him.

"Rodolphus is going out of town today," Bellatrix began breathlessly, drawing little circles on his chest with her long red nails. "And I haven't a date for the Greengrass' benefit."

"Boo hoo," said Tom shortly. No way in hell was she roping him into going to that stupid thing with her. "Bellatrix, go home. I'm tired, and you are getting on my nerves."

Bellatrix snarled before stalking away like a dejected cat in heat. "And leave my key on the table," he added. She froze in the doorway, and very slowly, set her key on the little table before leaving. When he was sure that she wasn't coming back in again, he locked the door and with a sigh went to bed. Just as he was about to fall asleep, it occurred to him that he ought to find a more permanent way to discourage Bellatrix's advances.

In spite of going to bed so late, Hermione woke when her alarm went off and rose immediately. She had a number of important missions to complete today — the first one of which would be occurring at the closest newsstand possible. She had not forgotten Tom Riddle's point about her argument with Ron potentially being a subject of the tabloids, and she wanted to be prepared for it.

She threw on her coat and sprinted down the stairs, realized she had forgotten to lock her apartment, and ran back up. By the time she was actually outside, she was panting for breath. Her panic was rising as she ignored her fatigue and ran as far as she could.

"Ello, 'Ermione! How are yeh doing terday?" the familiar friendly, booming voice of Hagrid greeted her as she skidded to a stop in front of his newsstand.

"Hello, Hagrid. Is it alright if I flip through the tabloids for a moment?" she panted. Hagrid nodded and automatically went to make her usual plain black coffee as Hermione began wildly pushing apart the magazines in search of some sign of her encounter with Ron.

By the time she was satisfied that there was no record of the argument, she straightened to find Hagrid furrowing his brow at her suspiciously and holding her steaming styrofoam cup. She paid him and accepted the coffee, still feeling a bit scattered.

"Should I ask?" he said cautiously. Hermione sighed and pushed her hair, which was a bit sweaty now, from her face.

"I've become a bit of a target for the tabloids," she explained in resignation. "Because of Viktor proposing, and all. And I'm just worried that I'll see another awful picture of myself." For some reason, Hermione was reluctant to relate her encounter with Ron to Hagrid. It may have been because Hagrid knew Ron just as well as he knew her, but deep down, she worried that Hagrid would view the situation the same way Tom Riddle had: as her stringing along Ron, killing him with 'kindness' and reveling in the male attention.

Hagrid smiled kindly at her.

"Don' worry about the picture, 'Mione," he consoled her, instantly lifting her spirits. Somehow Hagrid always managed to do that. "No one who counts would pay any attention ter that."

"Thanks, Hagrid," said Hermione sincerely. She made a mental note to bake something for Hagrid sometime. She'd knitted him things before, and in retrospect she rather thought even her terrible baking might be preferable. In spite of her horrendous knitting abilities, however, Hagrid still always wore the rather lumpy mittens she had knitted him, even though everyone else had commented on how atrocious they really looked. "How have you been?" she asked hastily, feeling a bit selfish for dumping her problems on him. Another customer came by and ordered a hot sandwich and Hermione stepped aside, sipping her coffee and waiting. Now that she knew there were no pictures of her and Ron eating together, she felt much more relaxed.

"Oh, yeh know, been fine. Fang's sick again, and the vet's bills are just too damn pricey," Hagrid said mildly as he handed the customer their sandwich. Hermione was baffled by how Hagrid could be relaxed about everything, even his pet being sick. Whenever Crookshanks had any problems, she was a nervous wreck. Actually, any time there was anything wrong in her life, she became a nervous wreck. Probably ought to work on that, she mused guiltily. "Harry told me about that critic's review of S.P.E.W.," Hagrid added a bit darkly, frowning.

And in spite of everything, Hermione was smiling now.

"I'm over it," she said honestly. "Now I'm just trying to find a way to improve it. I talked to that critic — Tom Riddle — and he actually had some really good points about why it was so unsuccessful."

Used to others being bored to tears by what she was interested in, Hermione paused, giving Hagrid a chance to stop her from rambling. But, as always, he was all ears, and was waiting eagerly for her to continue. "And," she continued, "He said it was sort of irrelevant for the audience that is receiving, I have to find a way to make it more relevant to the Hogsmeade socialites."

Hagrid chuckled as he handed another customer her coffee and a copy of the Daily Prophet. "What?"

Hagrid shook his head at her.

"Good luck with that, 'Ermione." He looked her over. "Do I need ter remind yeh that yer as far from those socialites as yeh can get?"

Hermione's cheeks burned. "Yeh don' know a thing about being an immigrant or a socialite."

Hermione held up her chin haughtily as Hagrid continued to chuckle and shake his head.

"Well. Then I'll just have to do more research," she sniffed. Hagrid shrugged.

"S'no point. No motivation for these rich people to care more about lowly immigrants," he said mildly. Hermione could see that there was no convincing Hagrid, and she decided to give up for now. Still, it planted a seed in her mind. Hagrid was right — she had no idea of the life of the socialites in Hogsmeade. How could she possibly pander to an audience with which she was unfamiliar?

Maybe she would have to find some way inside the upper crust crowd of Hogsmeade... but how to go about it?

I'm sry about last nite. Can we have a do-over of that convo?

Hermione shrugged off the usual irritation that plagued her when people couldn't even write out the whole damn word in text messages before hitting 'reply.' Her fingers hovered over the keys of her phone as she considered typing her assent to Ron, but at the last moment, she changed her mind.

I would like to hang out with you AS FRIENDS, but in terms of Viktor, we've nothing left to discuss.

It was a hard text message to send, but in the end she felt the better for it. Hermione stashed her phone in her coat pocket before continuing on her trek about Hogsmeade. Only a few more applications left to drop off, and then she would return to her flat to do some research on the glossy world of Hogsmeade's elite... She was pleased to have a project, but she was also anxious about it. There was no obvious starting point for this particular project, and no clear path. Still, this was the biggest challenge she had had in years.

She passed by Gladrags and smirked to herself, recalling how Tom had eyed the suit in the window, before stopping stock-still on the road, annoying the people around her who were in a hurry to wherever.

"Oh my god," she stammered aloud.

Why the hell hadn't she seen it before? Now that she could see it, the solution was so obvious that she was humiliated by her own uncharacteristic stupidity.

She couldn't just research the socialites. She had to become one of them.

Okay, so maybe becoming a socialite was impossible, just like it was sort of impossible for her to become an illegal immigrant. But she couldn't just Accio the thought processes of an elitist — she had to experience them for herself.

Had she supported littering (which she absolutely, under any circumstances, did not) she would have tossed her applications over her shoulder that very moment. What was the prime stomping grounds for the rich and famous of Hogsmeade? Gladrags. Obviously.

She just had to solve the teensy tiny problem of actually getting a job there.

Hermione began striding down the road, breathless from the excitement of coming up with a plan. Already her keen mind, which was a bit rusty from lack of use, was formulating all kinds of plots. By the time she reached her flat, she had her first step detailed. She was just sitting down at her laptop when her phone began chirping.

"Yes?" Hermione demanded testily without checking the caller ID, as she tended to do when consumed with one of her plots.

"Geez, sorry for bothering you. I know you're probably busy saving handicapped Lithuanian beetles or something," Ginny replied sourly on the other end. Hermione exhaled and was about to snap at her when she recalled that Ginny happened to be an integral part of her plan.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you, Gin. Must be that time of the month," she said sweetly, doing her best impression of someone who didn't mind being interrupted for what was likely petty gossip or complaints about Harry's messy flat.

"I'll get over it, I promise. Anyway, everyone's getting together tonight at Dean and Seamus' for drinks. Are you in? Please say you're in; I need your cool logic when Dean and Harry start snarking at each other," Ginny begged in a rushed voice. Hermione rolled her eyes broadly. It was true that she was one of the few people who could effectively reign in Harry when he lost his temper. Ginny was also typically good at it, but considering she and Dean had had a particularly passionate relationship preceding Ginny and Harry's relationship (and considering Ginny had always been rather vague about where one relationship had ended and the other had begun), she wasn't the best person to save that situation.

Dean and Harry had been teammates on the football team at Hogwarts, which for some reason made the war over Ginny all the more bloody. Boys. She was just relieved that they hadn't been playing American football together, because that sport seemed so violent compared to soccer, and the boys would have been able to do so much more damage to each other on the field.

Speaking of boys, Ron would undoubtedly be there. Was it wise to attend a group get-together at which he would be present, after the past twenty four hours?

If I don't go, he'll know it's because of him... Hermione resisted the urge to bang her head against the wall. With Tom's critique of her behavior towards Ron in mind, this whole situation seemed even more tiresome than it had before.

"Yes. I'll go," she growled grudgingly. Ginny squealed her pleasure and hung up abruptly before Hermione had the chance to say anything more. Oh well. I'll just have to ask her tonight.

Ron hadn't texted back yet, so Hermione resumed her initial mission and checked her email. She gasped when there was a new message from none other than Tom himself, in reply to the email she had sent about his defense of her.

Miss Troll —

I accept payment in deletions of abhorrent plays. Remember, the backspace is your best friend. (You probably have no other friends anyway.)

Kisses! (ha. You wish.) Voldemort

Hermione rolled her eyes but found herself grinning.

Tom —

I happen to have a new project going, and was wondering if you'd be willing to offer some insight. Could I interview you, by any chance? I could pay you. And fear not: the backspace key and I have become intimately involved.

Hugs, (Just in case I do have cooties — and they are contagious — after all. You could use some humbling.) Miss Troll

Satisfied with her email, Hermione sent it, feeling a flutter of excitement ripple inside her. Now that the email was sent, she felt restless, and even as she went about her usual internet errands, she obsessively refreshed her email, even though it hadn't even been enough time for any human to actually even read an email.

"Thank god. I thought I was going to die without you," Ginny greeted, jokingly throwing her arms around Hermione as she stepped in the door. Hermione nearly didn't hear her over the thumping techno.

It was actually sort of funny that Dean and Seamus were best friends, and yet made sense, in a sort of insane way. Dean was cool, good at sports, attractive, and artistic. He was tall and lean and had never wanted for female attention (except from Ginny, of course). Then there was Seamus, who did some sort of hacking job for a private company and blew up things in junkyards in his free time with Ron's older twin brothers. He was short, freckled, and had never actually had a girlfriend. Yet the two boys had been inseparable for as long as they'd known each other, and post college that hadn't changed.

The flat was packed to bursting with people, most of whom Hermione wasn't too familiar with. She had always had a small group of very close friends, and had never felt the urge to stray too far outside that ring of friends.

Her stomach turned to lead when she spotted Ron talking to Lavender by the keg, and the old insecurities arose like acidic bile. Or maybe she actually was about to throw up; she couldn't be sure.

"H-how's Harry holding up?" Hermione asked brightly, trying to ignore the burning jealousy. It's just a habit. You don't actually have feelings for him anymore, do you?

She tried picturing herself kissing Ron, pulling his shirt off, and the instant revulsion she felt was answer enough. So why did she still feel so jealous? Was Tom's point about her constant need for validation actually correct? She inwardly squirmed uncomfortably. She was finding more and more reasons, lately, to dislike herself.

"Oh, he's alright for now. He got cornered by Ernie an hour ago," Ginny said blithely, gesturing to a corner of the flat. Indeed, Ernie literally had Harry cornered, and Harry looked like he was trying to hide his boredom behind his plastic cup of beer. Ernie was nice, but a bit pompous. After landing a relatively impressive desk job, he never went anywhere in anything but the requisite pressed button-up shirt and khakis with the crease down the middle and stuffy loafers. Indeed, he was wearing just that now, and was drinking a glass of wine instead of beer or a mixed drink like everyone else.

Hermione debated going to rescue him, but she didn't feel like listening to Ernie tonight. For all of her talk about needing Hermione, Ginny flounced off to chat with Lavender and Ron (which Hermione found to be rather insensitive, actually), leaving her standing awkwardly alone.

The calvary came in the form of one Luna Lovegood, who was sitting on the coffee table, totally immersed in what appeared to be a porn magazine. Hermione made a beeline for the blonde girl, relieved that she had found someone to talk to.

"Luna! How've you been?" she asked loudly, perching beside the girl on the coffee table. Luna took several moments before she could tear herself away from the magazine.

"I had no idea that they made fucking machines," she replied mildly, holding up the magazine. It was currently open to a girl strapped to what appeared to be a mechanical rocking horse. It can't possibly feel that good, Hermione thought skeptically as she observed the porn star's look of absolute ecstasy. Then again, with Ron's 'skills' in bed, Hermione was fairly sure she'd never actually orgasmed, and she still wasn't quite convinced that these mysterious orgasms actually existed at all.

"Neither did I." Hermione had long since become accustomed to Luna and all her eccentricities, and even though she often found Luna tiresome, beggars couldn't be choosers. "Where did you find that, Luna?"

"Dean's bedroom," she said brightly. "Come see, there are lots of them!"

Hermione felt a little guilty about rummaging through Dean's room, but nevertheless followed Luna through the throng of sweating dancing bodies. Luna barged in as though it were her own room, not even bothering to be slightly secretive about it.

Dean's room was, like most boys' rooms, a complete pigsty. No surface was safe from used, smelly athletic jerseys, it seemed. The same went with old socks. Hermione wrinkled her nose as Luna sifted through Dean's nightstand.

"Luna, are you sure Dean would appreciate you doing that?"

"Oh, I'm sure he wouldn't be happy about it," she said vaguely before producing another pornographic magazine. "Ginger Snaps. This one is probably because he still would like to bang Ginny," Luna concluded thoughtfully.

"That is so much more than I wanted to know. Thank you, Luna. Come on, let's get something to drink." Hermione was beginning to feel like alcohol was the only way to salvage this evening. She was reluctant to approach the keg, but luckily it seemed that Ron had moved away from it.

"Sometimes I like to drink until I pass out," Luna said, as though this weren't a horribly depressing revelation, as Hermione passed her a cup of beer. Hermione tried very hard to not react to that particular confession. "I heard your play was panned by Voldemort."

Did Luna have the slightest idea of how to converse appropriately? Perhaps Hermione was not as accustomed to Luna's antics as she had originally thought herself to be.

"Yes. Yes, it was," she replied flatly, looking out at the party guests. Harry was trying to interrupt Ernie, but Ernie was clearly bulldozing ahead in the conversation, either unaware or uninterested in how much Harry didn't want to hear. Ron and Lavender were currently pressed very close together on the couch. From across the room, Ron met Hermione's eyes challengingly. Oh, for fuck's sake... She took a long swig of her beer — for medicinal purposes, of course.

"You shouldn't feel too bad. It's his fault that Albus Dumbledore and that prophet Dobby are dead."

Hermione promptly choked on her drink. She whirled around to face Luna, who was complacently tilting her cup so she could blow raspberries against the surface of the beer, creating bubbles.

"Excuse me?"

"Oh yes. He indirectly murdered them," Luna replied with the confidence of one who might state that it was raining whilst standing in a downpour.

"How on earth did you come up with this?"

But Luna wasn't listening; Dean was passing by and she reached out to grab him.

"I like gingers too," she said dreamily. Dean's face was the picture of horror poorly masked by feigned confusion.

"Luna, you're so odd," he said dismissively, but her grip tightened on his arm, and she would not relinquish her hold.

"We could wear wigs and role play," she suggested. "I'll even let you call me Ginny."

Hermione took this as her cue to leave this particular discussion immediately.

Ron and Lavender were currently snogging on the couch, and his hands were wandering up her shirt. It's a wonder he has any room in there, given the padding in that pushup bra, Hermione thought rather meanly. She idly toyed with the idea of dumping the remainder of her drink on Ron's head, but decided that might give the impression that she wanted to be in Lavender's place. And despite her jealousy, she sincerely did not wish to be. By the look on Lavender's face, she was enjoying her make-out session with Ron far more than Hermione had. Hermione mentally cringed as her insecurities roared up again. Perhaps she was just sexually subnormal?

She carefully kept her eyes averted as she passed them by on her search for Ginny. But apparently Harry had escaped Ernie's clutches, because he and Ginny were in the corner, lip-locked.

"Glad I could be of service, Ginny," Hermione said loudly on her way out, but of course, Ginny did not hear.

The hallway was oddly silent after the deafening festivities, and was honestly something of a relief. The rush of cold air was pleasant after the pressing humidity of the flat. Still that relief was melancholy as she recalled the feeling of seeing Ron and Lavender together. Would she ever be completely free of this feeling of loss?

Confused and uneasy, she found herself dialing Viktor's number once she reached outside. It went straight to voicemail, and she nearly hurled her phone into the street in her frustration.

Ginny made up for her ignorance of Hermione at the party in spades: the redhead was only too delighted to help Hermione get a job at Gladrags...and by the end of the ordeal, Hermione was a little disgusted by how easy it had been.

Ginny had styled Hermione, and though it had been painful to part with her money for fashionable clothing, Ginny's choices had been stylish, plain, flattering basics in neutral colors — which Hermione really couldn't find any reason to object to. After Ginny had finished, Hermione hardly recognized herself.

"See! You look so much better like this, Hermione," gushed Ginny as she put away an unreasonably sized box of eyeshadows. Hermione shrugged.

"It also took two hours," she pointed out, thinking she was being a voice of reason here, but Ginny blinked in confusion.

"So? I spend about two and a half hours getting ready. That's pretty low-maintenance!"

Hermione realized that there was no point trying to explain to Ginny why this was absurd, and instead graciously thanked her for her help.

Ginny's presence when Hermione sauntered into Gladrags to pick up an application also helped enormously. As usual, the moment they entered the gleaming department store, salespersons descended on Ginny like flies, and when Ginny explained why they were there, Hermione hadn't even been given an application.

"You ought to meet our manager," said one salesperson pragmatically, leading Hermione by the arm to the top floor. "God — you know Ginny Weasley," she muttered, as though this were some miraculous act of a higher power. Hermione resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead pasted on a sweet, placid smile. Observation number one about socialites: the right name will get you anything.

The main office was off of a hallway with a floor tiled with colored glass that caught the tiny halogen lights installed in the ceiling. It was beautiful but also a bit like being led into a preschooler's interpretation of heaven.

"Gellert...we've got someone you just have to meet," called the salesperson as they reached a vestibule much plainer than the hall. The wallpaper was a pale cream silk and enormous windows looked out over a fantastic vista of Hogsmeade — though today, like most days, was a sullen gray. A frosted glass door with modern hardware seemed to lead the way to an office, with Gellert Grindelwald, Manager cut through the frosting, revealing a glimpse of a darkened office.

There was silence. Just when Hermione began to feel that perhaps this Gellert Grindelwald was out to lunch, the door, seemingly of its own accord, burst open with a bang. The salesperson did not seem to be at all shocked by this occurrence, and it was with great reservations that Hermione allowed herself to be led into this office.

Compared to the airy feeling of the hallway and waiting area, the office felt claustrophobic and dark. Modern furnishings with wood so dark it was nearly black took up the room, and heavy blinds blocked out the grey winter light. A smooth, plush leather office chair was behind an enormous streamlined desk, and the chair was turned away from them, facing the window. Hermione fought the urge to roll her eyes as she saw a hand pop up from behind the chair; this Gellert Grindelwald looked old. The hand that was gesturing had several plain, silver rings on the long and elegant bony fingers.

Suddenly the chair spun around, and they were faced with an ancient looking man with bright green eyes and shoulder-length silver hair. Crows feet lined his eyes, giving the impression that he was silently overcome with mirth, and he looked like he must have once been extraordinarily handsome. Even this old, he held a certain beckoning quality.

With his other hand, he was stroking a white cat complacently. Really? Leather chair, dark office, white fluffy cat? She had to physically stop herself from sniggering.

"This is Hermione Granger. She knows Ginny Weasley," whispered the salesperson. Grindelwald let his gaze rove over Hermione in mild interest. "We can't pass this one up."

Hermione was overcome by the urge to point out that, as Viktor Krum's potential fiancee, she had some fame in her own right, but she went with her instincts to keep her mouth shut and let her protege do the talking here. She hated special treatment and eagerly sought chances to prove herself, but in this case she'd be willing to waive any work to get this job. It was an integral step in her work towards changing the world, so any shortcuts were welcome.

The expression on Grindelwald's face made it seem like he was preparing a monumental statement, and Hermione and the salesperson both waited with bated breath.

"Who is Ginny Weasley again?" he asked, blinking. "Drawing a blank here."

The salesperson bristled.

"Only the most famous and successful ginger supermodel," she replied stiffly. Grindelwald quirked an eyebrow.

"There's more than one ginger supermodel?" he sounded genuinely surprised. "And this Jenny Weatherby —"

"Ginny Weasley," interrupted the woman testily. Grindelwald waved his hand in a blasé manner.

"Right, well, whatever," he said boredly. "This is her dog-sitter or hairdresser or something?"

If Hermione hadn't been dependent on him to get this job, she would've found him hilarious. As it were, she was beginning to feel impatient.

"Best friend, actually," she replied quickly, hoping to look appropriately self-deprecating. Grindelwald studied her.

"Leave us for a moment, Greengrass," he said, his bright eyes still fixed on Hermione. The salesperson — apparently under the appellation of Greengrass — hastily left, though Hermione guessed she was going to remain in the vestibule, straining her ears to hear. "Sit. Please," said Grindelwald, gesturing to one of the dark, sleek leather chairs across his desk. Hermione uncomfortably slid into one of the chairs, wincing when the leather made an embarrassing rubbing noise against her jeans.

To her shock, Grindelwald actually began chuckling at the noise.

"S-sorry," she stammered, heat rising in her cheeks. She looked away, because Grindelwald's gaze was just further embarrassing her, and her gaze snagged on a photograph on a shelf. It was Grindelwald, sitting in a garden and looking highly displeased, while a man with long, silvery hair and a crooked nose sat in the dirt, in gardening gear, laughing at him.

"Oh, that's Albus," Grindelwald explained when he saw where she was looking. "Albus Dumbledore, my late partner."

Her mouth went dry as she suddenly recalled what Luna had said. This man — in the photograph, with piercing blue eyes and a knowing grin — was dead? Possibly because of Tom Riddle? "He died tragically. He was murdered at the protest in Diagon Alley six years ago. But you were probably in diapers then," Grindelwald added dismissively.

"Actually, I was in college, though I was abroad in France at the time," Hermione replied tartly, letting her temper get the better of her. Grindelwald quirked an eyebrow.

"So why are you really here, Helen?"

"Hermione," she corrected automatically. Grindelwald ignored her.

"You certainly lack any sense of style. You look like you fell out of the goddamn Ann Taylor factory," he mused, studying her quizzically. "You don't have that look that most girls who apply here have. You're wearing almost no makeup, and you aren't slobbering all over me in my presence. So why are you here?"

For one agonizing moment, Hermione considered just telling the truth. She could tell Grindelwald she was just here for research; there was something inviting mischief in his twinkling green eyes that made her want to spill the beans on this grand plan. But a last glance at that photograph of Albus Dumbledore made her clam up. She was also interested in finding out the truth behind that whole story, and how Tom Riddle might be involved. Odds were if she told Grindelwald she was here for research, even in the unlikely event that he did grant her employment, he'd be party to her motives and it would probably be even more difficult to learn the truth.

"Actually, this is rather embarrassing..." she began slowly, her sharp mind weaving a story as she spoke, "...I don't know if you're a football fan, but my boyfriend is on the Bulgarian football team, and we're considering taking the next step. And since he's in the press so much, I feel like I should try to do what I can to be more of the ideal match for him. At the moment, I'm not really someone that a man like him would enjoy having accompany him in the public eye. I thought working at Gladrags would help me become more polished, both in my behavior as well as my own personal style."

She mentally did a victory dance as recognition sparked in Grindelwald's eyes. He stroked his cat contemplatively as he studied her, cocking his head to the side.

"I see... you must be Viktor Krum's fiancee," he concluded softly. The cat let out a pleased meow, almost as though it were trying to say it had guessed that too. A smirk curved Grindelwald's lips. "Interesting. Krum's considered one of the best soccer players in the world right now. Though he's not too bright, is he?"

The usual defensiveness for Viktor's sake rose in Hermione.

"He's brilliant," she said curtly. "But he's very shy in front of cameras, and English is, after all, his second language." It was actually true that Viktor was quite intelligent, though calling him 'brilliant' was a bit of a stretch. He had done just fine in his schooling which she considered impressive as it had never been part of his ambition.

"Of course," he replied placatingly. "But you could, potentially, accomplish the very same at some little boutique," he continued with a wave of his hand. "Gladrags is reserved for the crème de la crème. It is the very best; the elite. You obviously know nothing about fashion, and without an instinct, the learning curve leaves quite a bit to be desired. Why should I give you — a girl who admittedly has had no experience with fashion — a job that thousands of other girls of your age and status are willing to murder to get?"

Privately Hermione thought that he was overestimating the value of a retail position, but obviously she could not voice that particular view. She smiled at him. She could see that she was going to have to sell her best points, since even Ginny's help had done nothing to boost Grindelwald's view of her.

"Because I'm smarter than all of them?" she held up her resume and pointed to her rather impressive degree. True, it had gotten her little in the way of what she viewed to be valuable success, but it could potentially get her something here... Grindelwald leaned forward and snatched it out of her hand, looking at it with a skeptical expression.

"Ah good. A philosophy/pre-law degree from Hogwarts. Just like Albus," he murmured as he scanned the resume. "No previous work experience except for volunteer efforts — good god, you're literally the polar opposite of what I typically see. Hm."

He rubbed his beard thoughtfully before tossing the resume back at her. Hermione ungracefully scrambled to grab it; her pants again made that awkward noise against the leather of the chair. "Why do I feel like I recognize your name other than from your involvement with Viktor Krum?" he wondered aloud as he gazed at her with that overly intense gaze.

Hermione flushed.

"Well, I wrote a play recently that got panned..." she paused, debating over whether to drop Tom Riddle's name. If there were some truth, how would Grindelwald react? She was curious. "The critic Voldemort panned it, actually," she added carefully. There was a flicker of something unreadable in Grindelwald's eyes.

"Haven't heard of him," he said casually. "But you've got the job, Ms. Gordon."


"Right," he said absently. "You start tomorrow. In the meantime, I suggest you beg, borrow, or steal your way to an acceptable wardrobe. At Gladrags, we look down on common people."

Hermione swallowed her disgust at his phrasing and pasted on a brilliant smile.

"Thank you; you won't be disappointed!" she promised as she rose. She noticed that they had not even discussed salary or the terms of her employment, but she was too hesitant to push for that. Better to take what she could get for now, after all. Grindelwald smirked at her.

"I know I won't be; we fire anyone before they can disappoint us," he replied smoothly. With that last disturbing phrase, he dismissed Hermione from his office.

Hermione had a bad feeling that day as she returned to her flat, laden with bags of clothes that were apparently fashionable. Why on earth had Grindelwald suddenly decided to give her the job? If Gladrags were really so exclusive, it seemed odd to her that she had been awarded a job there — particularly since she really, truly did not belong there. She had been ignoring it all day, because she thought it unwise to look a gift horse in the mouth, but her natural tendency for overanalyzing things was rising up and she couldn't fight the urge to overthink everything.

But she spent all afternoon puzzling out the possible reasons for it and yet came no closer to any feasible conclusion. Grindelwald didn't strike her as someone to just randomly make decisions, so she knew there had to be some ulterior motive. But what could it be?

And then there was the thing Luna had told her about Tom Riddle and his involvement in Dumbledore's murder...these things were all connected, but where did she fit into the story?

Annoyed that she couldn't solve this problem, Hermione spent a good long while organizing her new wardrobe to keep herself busy. With every item that she put away, she felt like she was dropping a fistful of money in the toilet and watching it circle the drain. It's for a good cause, she told herself repeatedly, though she couldn't shake the sickly feeling. She hated wasting money, and these silky shirts in odd, asymmetrical cuts seemed like the biggest waste of money of all.

When she checked her email, however, her disgust was abruptly pushed to the side.

Miss Troll —

You can't afford me.

— Voldemort

Hermione nearly threw her laptop at the wall. He really wasn't going to make this easy on her, was he?