Disclaimer: This work of fiction is based on the Harry Potter series created by J.K. Rowling and owned by various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
At the Start of Whatever
"Mummy, Hugo's exploded his toy chest again." Rose stood in the doorway of the bathroom, where Hermione was putting the finishing touches on her lips. She'd never made time to learn any cosmetic charms; she hardly wore make-up outside of special occasions, anyway.
"Is he okay?" Hermione asked as she dabbed two spots of gloss onto her lower lip. Her younger child's bursts of uncontrolled magic were a routine occurrence ever since Ron had moved out eight months earlier.
"I guess so. He's hiding in the closet."
Hermione took one last look at her reflection. Her curly hair was much more manageable since she'd cut it short following Rose's birth five-and-a-half years ago: she simply didn't have time to fuss with it. Tonight, she'd pinned the ends up at the back and left several corkscrews hanging over her forehead and at her temples. A smidge of mascara and silvery eyeshadow made her eyes pop and sparkle a bit. She was no fashion plate, but at least she could pass for not being an overworked single mother of two pre-school-aged children, in the right light. And anyway, she didn't need to impress anyone. It would just be a few old friends, Viktor had said. Cocktails at One Hyde Park called for evening wear, though, and it was fun to dress up once in a while. She could certainly use a bit of fun.
She took Rose's hand and walked down the hall to the children's room. "You look like a mermaid, Mummy," Rose said, tentatively reaching out to feel Hermione's shimmery blue gown.
"I feel like one, too, all trussed up," Hermione grumbled. She'd found the dress in a consignment shop and bought it on a crazy whim; it wasn't her at all, with the plunging neckline and bare shoulders. She felt like she was going to fall out of it at any moment, and had to walk stiffly to make sure that everything stayed in place. Still, it was glamorous and fun and she wouldn't have many chances to wear it. It wasn't really appropriate for a wedding, which was about the only occasion she had to wear formal wear any more. The last one had been Neville and Hannah's, two years ago. It seemed like everyone she knew was finally married off now. Just in time for her own marriage to fall apart.
"Hugo, sweetie, it's all right," Hermione said soothingly when she entered the disaster area. Building blocks, vehicles, dinosaurs, books, and train tracks covered the bed and half the floor. "Come help Mummy clean up a bit before Daddy gets here." She flicked her wand here and there, sending the spilled toys back to their proper places. "I'm not angry; I just haven't time right now."
Rose pointed a finger at a wooden train engine. "Leviosa!"
Hermione snuck a look at her out of the corner of her eye. The train didn't budge.
"It works sometimes," Rose said with a shrug.
"Five years old and doing wandless magic already," Hermione sighed. "I don't know what they're going to do with you at Hogwarts."
She directed one last roaring brontosaurus back into the toy chest at the foot of Hugo's bed, then went over and opened the closet. Putting her hands on her hips, she squinted down at the little boy in mock strictness. "And you, my little warlock."
"Sorry, Mummy," Hugo piped up.
"Never mind, it happens to all of us," Hermione said, and knelt down to take his hand. "Kisses, gently now, I have on all this silly make-up." She put her cheek against his.
"You smell 'ummy," he said.
Hermione smiled. "I hope that's good. Come on out, Daddy will have to help you clean up the rest before bed. I was supposed to be at Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny's about five minutes ago."
"But Daddy isn't here yet!" Rose protested anxiously. "You said you wouldn't go until he got here."
"I won't, don't worry. Let's get your pyjamas on."
By the time both children were dressed for bed and had their teeth brushed, Hermione was fifteen minutes late and trying to keep her temper in check. She had to remind herself not to take out her frustration at Ron on the children. She was just about to Floo Ginny that they would have to go ahead without her when a muffled WHOOSH from the fireplace downstairs announced someone's arrival, followed by Ron's voice calling out, "Hey, where is everyone?"
"Daddy!" Rose and Hugo squealed and rushed out.
When Hermione got to the living room, she found Ron lying on the floor trying to fend off the tackles from his two overexcited children.
"Thank you for coming, Ron," Hermione said stiffly, trying to remain polite. "I really have to get-"
Ron looked up at her, his big grin freezing as he took in what she was wearing. "Wait- Wait, Rosey, hold on."
He gently placed his daughter on the floor and slid out from underneath Hugo.
"What in Merlin's name..." He gawked as he stood up and fully took in Hermione's outfit. "You can't - I mean- Blimey, you said it was just you and Harry and Ginny popping by old Krum's housewarming. You didn't mention it was going to be you popping out of the cake!"
"Ron!" Hermione glanced down at two sets of big eyes and ears and reminded herself to remain calm. "That's completely uncalled for," she said in a steadily modulated tone. "This is a classic couture creation and entirely appropriate for the evening. I consulted with both Fleur and Ginny, and they said it was perfect. You wouldn't be reacting this way if it were Fleur wearing it, I'm sure."
"Fleur's not my-" Ron stopped and swallowed. Hermione silently dared him to continue. "What I mean is, Fleur's Fleur and you're..." He gestured up and down, then gave it up, realizing he was only digging himself in deeper. "Never mind. Well, have a ball," he said, avoiding her eye. "I know we will. Right, troops?" He scooped up both children, one in each arm.
"Don't get them wound up, Ron, I've already got them ready for bed. Just read them a story and -"
"Bed?" Ron looked at Rose and Hugo, pretending to be shocked. "Who said anything about bed? We're going to have a party of our own, aren't we?"
"Yay!" both children cheered.
"Ron, they need to go to bed. It's already eight-fifteen." Hermione tried to keep the edge out of her voice.
"I've got Animal Crackers, Canary Creams, and Peppermint Pops," he went on, talking only to the children.
"I want a lion!" Hugo cried, and then let out a high-pitched roar that sounded more like a hyena.
Rose sat up straighter in Ron's arm and chattered on, "Ooh, I know, Daddy, do like you did that time and eat half a Canary Cream and an elephant at the same time!"
"No sweets! Ron, you're here to babysit, not to -" Hermione felt the familiar wave of numb frustration that she always got when Ron ignored her.
"Say bye-bye to Mummy," Ron said with mixed measures of forcefulness and cheer, already heading upstairs.
"Bye, Mummy! Good night!" the children chorused.
"Ron, I swear, if they're not in bed and sleeping when I get back-"
"Give my regards to Krum..." Ron said over his shoulder, adding in a low voice that Hermione just barely caught, "...the stinking old vulture."
Hermione was left standing alone in the living room, fighting the urge to run back up the stairs, snatch the squealing, giggling children away from Ron, and send a Bat-Bogey Hex and maybe a few canaries after him to chase him back out the Floo. She wouldn't actually do it, of course. She'd hate herself afterwards, and she'd be the one left to deal with the wailing children and the ruined evening. As usual.
The only choice left was to let go of her need to control and just pretend everything would be fine when she returned: the children sound asleep in their own beds, the house no less tidy than it was now, and no cranky sugar hangovers to deal with tomorrow.
Hermione took a deep breath and checked that everything was still in place, including her wand tucked inside her waistband. Poking her in the ribs, it was an extra reminder to stand straight and not move too quickly. She composed a mental apology to Harry and Ginny that wouldn't make her sound like an overbearing shrew, while still placing the blame firmly on Ron for her tardiness, then took a pinch of Floo powder and threw it into the grate. "The Thicket!"
Hermione tripped out of the Potters' fireplace, just managing to catch herself on her three-inch heels before she lost her balance over a stuffed hippogriff lying before the hearth.
"Whoops!" Ginny dashed over and Vanished the toy with a swirl of her wand. "Sorry, Hermione. Gosh, you look divine!" she gushed, kissing Hermione warmly on both cheeks. "That blue is perfect for you. Sorry Ron was late. We lost track of time over the new Flyte and Barker catalogue."
"That's all right," Hermione replied automatically, her excuses evaporating along with her anger at being held up. So it hadn't been entirely Ron's fault. She felt contrite and petty now. On the other hand, Ron could have said something. Looking back at the scene now, she guessed he had simply been trying to get through the encounter with a minimum of exchange between the two of them. Which had probably been the wisest course, all things considered, given their history.
"You... look amazing, too," she told Ginny. And she did. It was hard to believe she'd had three children: her waist in her skin-tight red robes was still as trim as it had been when she was seventeen, her breasts if anything bigger and firmer. Her long hair, twisted up in a complicated coif, was as smooth and shiny as if it had never been yanked and tangled by sticky, snotty fingers. Next to her, Hermione felt old and dumpy, and just a bit ridiculous.
"You clean up all right," Harry said to Hermione as he came in. He also looked impossibly dashing and well put-together, his endearingly contagious grin wiping away some of Hermione's insecurity. "Ron get there all right?"
"I told her, Harry," Ginny said, slipping in under his arm for a cuddle. "They sent me the catalogue early to review for Quidditch Illustrated," she explained to Hermione. "There's this brilliant-"
"I don't think Hermione's interested in the newest racing brooms," Harry said with a chuckle. "Maybe we should get going, as long as Molly's got the rascals quiet. She's reading them from Beedle."
"Ugh, we should hide that book the next time she comes over. I swear it gives them nightmares!" Ginny rolled her eyes.
"Unless you wanted to pop up and say hello?" Harry offered Hermione.
She shook her head. Her former mother-in-law couldn't leave the topic of her and Ron alone. "I don't want to bother them, if they're already settled. Bedtime is sacred."
Ginny laughed. "It's when the fun begins!" She giggled up at Harry, who gave her a squeeze and a quick kiss.
Looking over at Hermione from under his fringe, Harry cleared his throat. "Erm, right... let's just be on our way, then, shall we? Still all right to Apparate to the upside-down tree?"
"Yes, please," Hermione said. She loved Harry, and by extension Ginny, but being around so much happiness and domestic bliss was hard to take sometimes. A moment later, Hermione blinked out.
The upside-down tree wasn't the most auspicious location to begin what was supposed to be an evening surrounded by glamour and opulence. A huge, weeping beech tree whose hanging branches formed a nearly perfect private cupola, it hid from view anything beneath it. It also smelled more than faintly of piss, and despite the Muggle-repelling charms, Hermione had heard of wizards and witches startling half-drunk bums and strung-out junkies out of their stupor when they arrived at the secluded Apparition point. For the most part, no Obliviations or interventions by the Office of Misinformation were necessary, however; the sudden appearances, when reported to Muggle authorities, were generally put down to imagination or flat-out hallucination.
Tonight, the three friends were luckily not confronted by any such scene, and they slipped out into the park proper without anyone noticing them.
It was a short walk to the brand-new luxury development next to the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge. The evening was cool, and Hermione pulled her wrap closer around her shoulders, shivering more due to nervousness than the actual temperature.
She hadn't seen Viktor since Bill and Fleur's wedding. After Harry defeated Voldemort, Krum landed on a list of undesirables and was denied re-entry to the country, due to his association as a student at Durmstrang with the convicted Death Eater, Igor Karkaroff. There was also the unfortunate incident during the Triwizard Tournament when he had cast the Cruciatus Curse on Cedric Diggory. Never mind that Karkaroff had disassociated himself from the Death Eaters before becoming Headmaster of Durmstrang, and then been killed by them as a traitor during the second war. Nor that Viktor had been under the Imperius when he attacked Diggory. The backlash and suspicion against anyone who had even the most tenuous ties to Lord Voldemort, the Death Eaters, or Pius Thicknesse's administration was hard to overcome; even now, thirteen years later.
Still, Hermione had kept occasional tabs on Viktor through the press and word of mouth. She knew that he hadn't let the British prejudice put a crimp in his style or his career, and continued to play professional Quidditch for the Bulgarian National team as well as the Vratsa Vultures. Wise investments, well-placed endorsements, and savvy betting had increased his fortune to rival that of the Malfoys, and apparently the British Ministry saw that as reason enough to relax their visa requirements in Viktor's favor now.
She wasn't expecting anything particular to come of seeing him tonight; he probably had a gorgeous girlfriend, and flew in circles Hermione was neither interested in, nor could ever be a part of. Still, he had been her first real, serious crush (Lockhart didn't count; she had only been twelve, and she had never entertained any thoughts of actually dating him), her first kiss that went farther than a peck on the lips, and the first time she'd been confronted with the possibility of losing her virginity. Nothing happened in the end, but Hermione wasn't so naive as to think that his suggestion that she visit him in Bulgaria the summer following the Triwizard Tournament, when she was fifteen, was merely an invitation to see the Varna Necropolis and learn how to make yogurt. In the end, she was too scared to go through with it, and their owl correspondence died off quickly. Viktor was not a man of the written word. Still, she often looked back fondly on her brief flirt with him, and was curious and excited to see what he was like now.
As they approached South Carriage Drive, the distinctively elegant, warm orange facade of the Oriental dominated the streetscape across from the park. Next to it, the boxy glass-and-girder modern construction of One Hyde Park appeared comparatively mundane. It was difficult to believe that the relatively unassuming row of four low-rise buildings comprised 'the most desirable address on the planet' for the super-rich (if a certain Muggle publication were to be believed).
Hermione was also interested to find out why Viktor had chosen such a pretentious - and Muggle - location to be his British base of operations. Due to the concentrated electromagnetic fields running through the building, it was impossible to connect to the Floo network; thus the need to arrive in the manner they had. That was the reason most wizards chose to live in their own enclaves, away from the electro-smog that permeated most Muggle settlements.
The lobby was flashy and overstated - garish, really - and the so-called security measures nothing that any average wizard couldn't easily have bypassed. Hermione was going to mention it to Harry, until the lift stopped and they stepped out directly into Viktor's entry hall. The decor screamed Muggle opulence, with mirrors, dark wood, marble, and brocaded fabrics everywhere. What caught Hermione's attention first, however, was the slight buzz of the Dark detection field as they passed over the threshhold, along with a subtle whiff of sulphur and anise, the telltale traces of protection warding.
There was no time to analyze Viktor's security measures further, however, as a tall, strikingly beautiful blonde with high cheekbones and a Slavic slant to her eyes approached them. Hermione felt inexplicably drawn to her. There was something fascinating about her that Hermione couldn't quite put her finger on.
"Mr Potter," she greeted Harry in lightly accented English, and then turned to Ginny. "And this must be your wife. It's a pleasure. My name is Vesna. Viktor has asked me to help play hostess for him this evening. And you are?" She turned her perfectly straight white teeth toward Hermione.
"Hermione Granger," Hermione answered, at the same time as Harry said, "This is Hermione Weasley."
There was an awkward moment, during which Harry mumbled an apology and Hermione felt her cheeks go red.
"Hermione Granger," she said firmly, accepting Vesna's outstretched hand.
Vesna's perfectly shaped eyebrows went up slightly. "Oh, you are the Hermione."
She flicked her gaze up and down once, then smiled graciously and asked if any of them had a cloak or wrap she could take care of for them. Demurring, the three of them were expertly shuffled into the adjacent reception room so that Vesna could greet the next arrivals. Hermione wondered what she had meant by the remark. Had Viktor mentioned her? She shook off the thought. Vesna had probably just seen her name on a guest list, and found it unusual.
Ginny grabbed Hermione's elbow and hissed, "I think she's part Veela or something. Did you feel that? Weird. Fleur never had that effect on me. Wonder if she's Viktor's thing."
"Lucky bloke, if so," Harry said. Ginny slapped him lightly on the arm. "I'm only saying, Gin," he protested with a laugh.
Hermione thought it was fairly clear that Vesna was, indeed, Viktor's 'thing'. That was one box ticked off, anyway.
She was expecting an intimate gathering of perhaps a dozen close acquaintances, but what they now walked into looked more like a Ministry Christmas party, albeit one in much more well-heeled surroundings than the level three staff room. The panoramic, floor-to-ceiling windows gave a truly spectacular view of the glittering London lights, and the chandeliers would have been at home in any ballroom. There was a low drone of important conversation, punctuated by well-modulated chuckles and the clinking of expensive crystal champagne glasses.
Hermione didn't recognize anyone right off the bat, but Ginny started pointing out various movers and shakers from the world of Quidditch. "Maybe I can corner Fidelovich and see what he has to say about those rumours he's going to buy the Goblins."
"No, you're not," Harry said, pulling her closer. "No work tonight. Viktor didn't invite these people here to have their lives investigated." He did a double-take as a tall, thin wizard disappeared behind a planter. "Although... Did that look anything like Magruder Tuttleswitch to you? We've been wanting to ask him some questions about a suspicious shop in one of his buildings..."
"No work tonight, Harry," Ginny teased.
"And speaking of Veela..." Hermione muttered as a familiar blonde head emerged from the crowd, followed by an equally familiar red one.
"'Arry! Geeny!" Fleur effused, kissing her sister- and brother-in-law on the cheek. "'Ow wonderful to see you! And you as well, 'Ermione." Hermione wanted to ask whether Fleur could tell if Vesna was part-Veela, but dismissed it as rude. And anyway, it was none of her business what the background of Viktor's girlfriend was.
While Harry and Bill slapped each other on the back and exchanged news, Fleur rounded on Hermione and Ginny. "Thees..." She gestured at Ginny's red robes with her half-full champagne glass. "Did we not agree you would wear ze cream?"
"You suggested it, but I felt like more pizzazz tonight," Ginny replied, flipping the skirt back and forth. The two sisters-in-law had come to an understanding of sorts: Fleur continued to tell Ginny what to do, and Ginny cheerfully ignored her.
Fleur turned to Hermione. "And zis blue... did I not tell you it would be perfect?"
"It looks fantastic," Ginny agreed. "Very sexy. I like what you've done with your hair, too."
"Next time, let me come over an hour early and help you with your make-up," Fleur said, brushing lightly at Hermione's cheek. "Rougeis so difficult to apply correctly."
"I haven't used any," Hermione said, exchanging a look with Ginny. It was best just to let Fleur have her say and get it over with.
"I 'ave some poudre, if you want..." Fleur suggested.
Hermione was saved from having to answer by the arrival of their host. For some reason, Hermione's stomach clenched nervously at the sight. Viktor was a commanding presence in his Muggle black-tie tuxedo coupled with fur-lined outer robes. Everyone else seemed small and pale in comparison, even the lanky Bill and his stunning wife. Viktor had let his hair grow out a bit, and it jutted out rough and thick over his forehead. Hermione wondered in a random flash what it felt like.
"Hello," he said. It was clear even through that one word that his English had improved drastically since his visit to Hogwarts so long ago, although he still spoke with a distinctly foreign rhythm. "I am pleased you could all come tonight," he said, rather stiffly. "Hermione..." He addressed her first, pronouncing her name perfectly as he took her hand and locked eyes with her, then whispered a kiss across the back of her hand. It could have been mere politeness, or a flirt, and the ambiguity confused and excited Hermione. But Viktor greeted Fleur and Ginny in the same manner, and Hermione was embarrassed at thinking he might have meant something by it. He had Vesna, after all!
Viktor made some brief small talk with Bill and Harry, and then turned to Hermione. "You and I. We will dance later. Like the Yule Ball." He then nodded once and excused himself to move on to the next group of guests.
Everyone looked at her once Viktor left. "What was that about?" Ginny asked, while Harry commented, "That was strange."
"I have no idea," Hermione said. She hoped there was no dancing. It was all she could do to stand and walk straight in the unfamiliar heels. She vowed to make herself scarce if they started setting up a dance floor.
"Ooh, yes, later we will dance," Fleur said, shimmying up suggestively against her husband. "You are a much better danseur than that boy... What was 'is name?" She looked at Hermione, wrinkling up her perfect little nose in question.
"You know, ze boy 'oo I was made to dance with at ze Yule Ball! I suppose he had a good fashion sense, but he was un danseur terrible. He did not know what to do wiz 'is hands."
Hermione couldn't for the life of her recall the name of Fleur's date.
"Roger Davies," Harry supplied, to Hermione's surprise.
Fleur gave him a grateful smile. "Yes, Roger. He had nice 'air, as well, but a very plain face." She caressed Bill's rugged cheek.
Bill laughed, a throaty sound, and nipped playfully at Fleur's neck.
Hermione squirmed inside. "I think I'll just go see about some champagne," she said brightly.
"I'll come with you," Ginny volunteered. "Ugh, awkward," she said, once they were out of earshot. "Bill's forty, for Merlin's sake."
"I guess it's nice they're still in love," Hermione said, trying to be generous.
"Yes, but there's a time and a place. I'm just afraid they're still going to be at it like rabbits when they're eighty." She gave an exaggerated shudder.
It didn't take them long to find the bar, which was being worked by a dark, stocky wizard who didn't speak any English.
"Viktor's really gone all out with this do," Ginny said, once they had secured three flutes of bubbly. "He seems to have become quite the entrepreneur. Lots of pies he's got his fingers in. I think he's trying to impress someone. Or a lot of someones."
Hermione made a noncommital sound. "All the more strange he invited us. Well, me, anyway," she amended. "You and Harry are important enough, with your Quidditch connections and Harry being Harry."
"You're important," Ginny insisted. "You were part of Harry's team, after all. And Viktor can always use a friend like you in the Ministry."
Hermione chuckled wryly. "I hardly think Viktor will need any favors from the MuLO." Hermione had been offered the directorship of the Muggle Liaison Office right out of school. She knew she owed the appointment to Arthur and Kingsley, but she was good at her job, and it helped that she was fluent in both wizard and Muggle culture.
"Well, there may be another reason as well," Ginny suggested slyly. "I don't know, but that was quite a look he gave you back there. And the invitation to dance. I'd say it was more like a command. He's a man who knows what he wants, Hermione. You might have a bit of a situation on your hands." She grinned.
Hermione shook her head, slightly annoyed that Ginny was even bringing it up. "We haven't seen each other in over ten years. I hardly think he's been carrying a torch for me in secret all this time. Even so, he's got some image of me as a fifteen-year-old in his head. I'm a thirty-one-year-old single mother with a nine-to-five job and saggy tits. He has Veela and professional athletes to choose from."
Ginny broke out laughing. "You're selling yourself short, Hermione. You've still got a good set there."
Hermione gave Ginny a withering look.
"Anyway, maybe he doesn't care about looks. Not that you don't look good," Ginny hastened to point out, "but maybe he's been pining for your brains all these years."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Ginny, but I only came here to relax and have a night to myself. I'm not in the market for a man. I've got my kids, and my career, and that's all I need or want."
"We'll see," Ginny said with a mischievous grin. She took a sip from her glass and made an appreciative sound. "This stuff is good. Viktor is definitely out to impress. I'd better get this to Harry before it warms up."
"You go ahead," Hermione said, noting that Fleur and Bill were still with Harry. She was feeling a bit of a fifth wheel. "I'm going to slip out onto the balcony for some air."
Ginny looked sympathetic. "Harry and I will join you, as soon as we can get away from the lovebirds."
It was dark now, and the night air drifting over from the park was damp and chilly. Hermione cast a warming charm on her wrap and pulled it closer about her shoulders. It really was a good view, if you liked cities. There were tiny white fairy lights in the trees lining the paths of the park across the street, and she could even see the fountain in the lake lit up with its nightly display of colored lights, shifting from turquoise to pink to sunset orange. To the left, down the street past the Mandarin Oriental, the dome on Harrod's roof was outlined in yellow lights against the dark blue sky.
She meant what she'd told Ginny: she didn't need - or want - a man in her life. The break from Ron had been horrible, but not because she missed having him around. It was the admission of her failure, of the emotional damage her children might suffer, that pained her. All in all, though, she was personally more at ease with herself, and was more loving and generous toward Rose and Hugo without the stress of having to deal with Ron, or suppress her knee-jerk reactions to many of his behaviours. She knew the blame lay mostly with her that things had got so bad between them. She'd tried, for the sake of the children, but things were truly healthier for everyone this way. She nipped at her champagne and watched the traffic creeping along beneath her.
After quite a while, the door open behind her, briefly allowing the dull buzz of party sounds to override the traffic noise. She turned around with a half-smile on her face, expecting Ginny and Harry.
"Viktor!" she exclaimed, momentarily flustered. She touched her hair self-consciously.
Viktor's angular features broke into a warm smile. "I have been looking for you. You are not having a good time?"
"Oh, no, it's not that!" Hermione assured him. "I'm just enjoying the view. A bit selfish of me, I know. I so seldom have time to myself."
"Yes, you are Mama Bear," Viktor said as he slid into place against the railing next to her. "You must take care of your cubs." His eyes held hers.
Hermione smiled, trying to suppress the way her heart rate was increasing. She was really on the best way to embarrassing herself royally! "Yes, I suppose I must. So... you know I have two children?"
"Yes. Rose and Hugo. You and Ronald Weasley were married, soon after the war ended."
Hermione wasn't sure what to make of the fact that he had obviously kept tabs on her, just as she had on him. Well, her name still made the Prophet from time to time. He wouldn't necessarily have had to go to any special lengths. "We're divorced now," she blurted out.
"I heard. I'm sorry."
Hermione nodded and looked out over the park. "Me too. I wish it had worked out. But it didn't." She smiled suddenly then, and turned halfway around to gesture toward the building. Better move on to a more impersonal topic. "You have a lovely flat here. Lovely- what am I saying? It's fantastic! The location, the decor... everything." She cringed at herself. She sounded like she was gushing.
"It is adequate," Viktor said with a modest shrug. "It is important for business."
"It's interesting that you chose such a ... well, a Muggle location," Hermione said. "Do you do much business with Muggles, then?"
"Nye. Not yet."
"But you want to?"
"Hermione-" Hermione's stomach clenched again at the way her name now rolled smoothly off his tongue. He made it sound like the wind rumbling over the ocean. "What is the British wizarding population?"
"I'm sorry?" Hermione didn't understand the question.
"Numbers. You are good at numbers."
"Oh, erm..." She thought quickly. She should know this. "About thirteen thousand, by most recent estimates."
Viktor nodded in appreciation. "Da. Now, tell me where the money is. Who has the money?"
"Well, the Malfoys are still very well off, even if they've been less showy since the war. The Parkinsons. Hortensia Klump. Erm..." She tried to recall more names from the society pages.
"Da. You are correct. Some more, too. We can name them. It will not take long. Also the goblins. Very rich, but difficult to do business with. Very difficult, especially for outsiders. But think. You are a smart woman. I can buy the Daily Prophet from Parkinson." Viktor snapped his fingers. "Like that. It does not gain me much money. Influence, maybe. Okay. Now Parkinson has cash. Needs to invest. Where does he go? He can buy property from Malfoy, if he will sell. He sold much, in the last ten years. Now, he has not much to sell. But maybe Parkinson can buy something because he is an old friend. Now what? Malfoy has cash. Needs to invest. He comes to me, wants to buy the Prophet. You see the problem?"
"Yes," Hermione said, nodding eagerly. "It's all the same money. There are so few wizards with good, solid holdings, there's no room for expansion. You're all just cycling the money amongst yourselves."
Viktor winked and pointed at her. "Da. Unless we find new resources, new technology, new markets. No new influx of capital is possible. Wizards are not much interested in technology, inventions. Can you get rich making a new spell? Nye. George does well for himself. He is an exception. Maybe I do business with him. New broom? Better sport, more fun, no money. The market is too small."
"But the Muggles," Hermione jumped in. "They're discovering lots of new resources, inventing new technologies every day. And there are many more of them."
"See? I said you are a smart woman. I will do business with Muggles. I have many friends already in Russia, Ukraine. They told me to buy property here. They have flats here too. We are neighbors, we do business. I am one of them. I am still a wizard, too. I play Quidditch, is fun. But I get older." He tapped his shoulder. "Maybe in ten years I will be too old, too slow. The wizard population does not grow. Sometimes, it shrinks. I am a Seeker. You understand? I seek. I look. I see opportunity. It is there, at the corner of my eye. I grab it, even if it is out of bounds. You understand?"
"Absolutely. It's very forward-looking, very well thought out."
Viktor shrugged, but it there was pride shining through the apparent modesty. "But this is enough with business. All my life is business. You came for fun. Me too. In there it is business." Viktor indicated the room where all the guests were. "Out here it is fun. I am happy you are here."
"Me too," Hermione said, having lost some of her nervousness in the course of their conversation. "I was interested to see how you'd done for yourself. I must say I'm impressed. I'm happy for you. And Vesna is lovely," she forced herself to say.
"You did well, too. Good children. Good work. Good ..." He made a vague gesture that encompassed her from head to toe. "You grew up well. Good." He nodded.
Hermione looked down, trying to hide an embarrassed smile. The nervousness was returning. Viktor was difficult for her to read. "Thank you. Um... you too. And your English," she went on, seizing on another impersonal topic. "Your English has improved so much."
"I practiced. Especially your name, I practiced."
"I said it wrong before, when we were young. I apologize. It is an unusual name for my tongue. But a beautiful name. I wanted to say it properly. I listened to radio announcements from the British Wizarding Wireless. I repeated your name until I said it correctly. Vesna helped me. She is very good at English. But I will be better. You will teach me."
Well, that explained Vesna's comment about her name. Still, Hermione was taken aback, and a bit affronted. It was one thing to 'demand' a dance, quite another to assume she would teach him English. "Viktor, I have a full-time job..." she began, trying to be polite.
"I do not mean to hire you. You see, I am not good at explaining my meaning." He shook his head, frustrated at himself. "We will talk. We will be friends. In this way, I will learn. You understand?"
"Yes," Hermione agreed, relaxing. "That would be nice. Whenever you're in town. We could have lunch."
"Da, lunch," he muttered. Now it was Viktor's turn to look down.
Hermione was startled at the apparently sudden change in his demeanour. "Viktor? Is something wrong?" She laid her fingertips lightly on his forearm.
He shook his head. "No. You are right. When I make business in England, we will have lunch." Viktor pushed himself away from the railing and snapped his fingers, then held out his hand. "Now, Hermione Granger. I am asking you. Will you do me the honour of one dance?"
From somewhere indeterminate, the faint strains of a song began to play, a waltz that Hermione didn't recognize. She squirmed. She didn't want to dance, especially not in front of all those strangers and VIPs. She looked through the window.
"But no one's dancing," Hermione said. "Anyway, I'm not really-"
"Please. One time. You do not recognize the song? It is the one they played to open the Yule Ball. It is sentimental of me, I know. Maybe we will not have the chance again. The first time I came to England, it made my horizons broad. I started seeing things in a new way. I did not know there was another way, other than the Durmstrang way. Now, I am coming back. It is another new start. Both times, I dance with you. It is a good-luck charm, a superstition." He dropped his hand. "It is foolish, I am sorry."
"No!" Hermione protested, touched. "No, not at all. It's..." She wanted to say 'romantic', but that would be reading too much into it. "...poetic," she decided. "And I would be honoured to dance with you. But only out here, please, where no one is watching. I've forgotten how it goes." She took a step closer to Viktor and smiled up at him shyly.
Viktor snapped his fingers to Vanish her champagne glass, then very formally took one of her hands in his and bowed to her, as he had when they opened the Yule Ball as one of the four champion couples. Hermione flashed back to that moment of herself as a fifteen-year-old, her heart fluttering at the honour of being Viktor's date and a bit awestruck at his foreignness and celebrity. The hand on her waist now was certain, though, the face looking down at her that of a man who had seen the world.
Up close, Hermione could see that he had fine lines around his eyes, and his hawk-like nose was maybe a bit more crooked than she remembered. He smelled like forests, hearthfire, and amber. And dammit, she couldn't deny that she was reacting to him. It was probably partially the memories, but part of it was new. She was flattered by the attentions from this powerful, virile wizard. And, it must be said, it had been a very long time since she'd been held in a man's arms like this.
"You remember, Hermione," Viktor said in his deep voice.
She felt the blood rush to her head, caught in her thoughts. "Remember? Oh, the dance. Not really. Physical memory, I suppose." She had to remind herself that he was taken, not get carried away. "You're still a good dancer," she said as he dipped her over the edge of the balcony. She tipped her face up and laughed, hoping to chase away the butterflies in her stomach, and felt a cool mist touch her skin. "Oh, it's raining."
Viktor pulled her back under the overhang, where it was dry. She stopped moving her feet, but Viktor wouldn't end the dance yet and pulled her closer. "The music is not over," he said. "I will cast a drying charm if you wish. It is very beautiful, though. It is like diamonds in your hair."
Hermione looked up at Viktor and saw that his fringe, too, was dusted with tiny sparkling droplets. Their eyes met, and Hermione could tell that he was about to kiss her. She had a moment of panic as a myriad thoughts shot through her mind. She wasn't prepared for this, but it seemed so right.
Before anything more could happen, though, the door opened. Hermione, startled, turned around. Her heart dropped to see Vesna staring at them, and she jumped away from Viktor.
"Viktor, there you are," Vesna said, rather coolly, it seemed to Hermione. "You are neglecting your guests."
"I will be there soon. Please." His voice sounded rough.
Vesna nodded and went back inside, but not without giving Hermione a glance that was more curious than offended.
Hermione was mortified. "Oh no, Viktor. I'm sorry. I'll go explain to her."
"About this. About us, dancing. She shouldn't get the wrong idea. I mean- I don't want you to have any trouble with her, because she saw us together. I'll tell her it was completely innocent."
Viktor frowned and clenched his fist. "I do not understand why it matters what Vesna thinks."
Now it was Hermione's turn to be confused. "Isn't she your girlfriend?"
Viktor's face took on an incredulous expression, and then he burst out in a full-throated laugh. "No," he said. "Vesna is my assistant. She works for me."
"Very beautiful, yes. Like Fleur, she is part Veela. She is very useful in negotiations. But you do not need to worry. She does not like men. You understand? She prefers other females. Or maybe you do need to worry." Viktor's eyes crinkled with mirth.
Hermione laughed now as well. That explained why she and Ginny had felt the slight attraction of the Veela charm. "And all this time, I thought... Oh, Viktor, I'm sorry."
"No, Hermione, I am sorry. I should have explained." He moved closer again, but was careful not to touch her. "Is this why you are so ... formal?"
Hermione sighed. "In part." She looked up at him again, searching in his dark eyes for understanding. "Viktor, I didn't come here tonight to rekindle anything. I don't even really know you, to be honest. We were kids when we met. At least I was. I had fun with you, but it was all too much for me then, and I don't know, it might be now, too. You're rich, and famous, and have a high-powered lifestyle with the crème de la crème in sports and business. I don't fit into that. And, as you said, my children have to come first."
"I did not know what will happen when you came here tonight either," Viktor said. "I invited everyone I know in England. Maybe too many." He shrugged and smiled. "But then I saw you, and I thought, here is a woman I want to know. Maybe you do not make money for me or make me important contacts. This is not important. When we met, you were the only person who did not care how well I play Quidditch, or whether I win the Tournament. Maybe, you are the only person now who does not care how much money I have. Maybe I am thinking too much about money. Always business, always seeking. You understand? Maybe I saw you and remembered what it is like to just talk. Hold hands."
He delicately picked up one of Hermione's hands in his and rubbed his thumb across the back. A thrill zinged through her body. She looked up at him, and this time she didn't back away when he leaned down to touch his lips to hers. They kissed each other tentatively, then tenderly. Hermione's head swirled, her emotions in turmoil. She couldn't get involved - she hardly knew him - she wasn't doing anything wrong - it was just a kiss - and it felt so good. When it ended, she pressed her cheek against his.
"You have guests," she whispered.
A chuckle rumbled through his chest. "I should not have invited so many."
"They are rather a lot." Hermione pulled back to look up at him, fretting. "Viktor, I don't know. What is this? What are we doing?"
"I think we are kissing."
Hermione laughed. "Yes, that's right. And it was a very good kiss."
Hermione's stomach tingled and her heart beat even faster at the look he gave her.
"And now?" she asked.
"Now we will go inside, and I will make all the right people feel important. You will go talk to Ginny. She is watching us." He cocked his head toward the window, where Hermione caught Ginny turning away, pretending to laugh at something Harry was saying.
Hermione shook her head at her friend. "And then?"
"I will be here all week. Maybe tomorrow, we will have lunch." He raised his eyebrows, questioning.
Hermione smiled. "Yes, I'd like that. And then, maybe, some day, we can finish our dance."
"Da," agreed Viktor. "You and I, we will dance again."
Author's notes: This was written for hp_spring_fling 2011. The title is from The Flood by Take That. The requester's prompts were: Happy ends, new love, not yet established relationships, fluff, humor, bantering, well written smut, One Hyde Park, a diamond tiara, and the lyrics from The Flood by Take That. I didn't get any smut in, and I took a bit of liberty with the diamond tiara. ;) Beta reader: En En Chan from PI.
I don't know anything about London other than what I read in the internet, so I hope the details I've described are physically possible. The French is my own, but I'm not a native speaker, so I hope I got that right too. The Bulgarian is from Google translate, which is like asking a three-year-old to proofread your term paper, but I don't know any Bulgarians. Still, how wrong can you go with 'yes' and 'no'? I got my figures for the wizarding population from a post by inverarity on Mugglenet and an essay at Red Hen Publications (sorry, ffnet won't allow links so I can't put the full citations).
Additional note: On the first day this was posted, several reviewers said there were words missing or it seemed like this hadn't been beta read. Unfortunately, all of those reviewers were either anons or do not have PMs enabled so I can't ask what they mean. I honestly don't see any problems, and this has been beta read by a very good beta reader. So, if you still think something is wrong or missing, please be specific and I will fix it. Thank you!