A/N: There are a few things I must make clear before you proceed, dear readers.
1) This is a Viktor/Hermione story, going firmly with the idea that there was a real romance between those two during Goblet of Fire, and continuing that romance. While I am normally a Ron/Hermione shipper, I am deviating from my usual fare with this tale. Be warned if you're a shipping hardliner.
2) The Viktor in this story, for those who like to visualize, is the Viktor portrayed by Stanislav Ianevski in the Goblet of Fire movie, not the thin, sallow-skinned, hook-nosed, thick-eyebrowed Viktor of the book. Why? Simple: I FANGIRL Stanislav Ianevski—got a problem with that? So while I adoooored his appearance in the movies, I had a couple of objections to the way he was portrayed in the flick. This little tale aims to give my favorite magical jock his due—and Hermione the first lad who really appreciated her.
3) This story uses a combination of book and movie canon, basically blending the aspects of each that I liked best.
4) I originally said this would be three chapters, max. Okay, I lied. Come on, when have you ever known me to be succinct. This IS a short story, currently holding steady at four chapters.
5) I am following the theory that Durmstrang is either located in Germany or founded by German wizards (based on an excellent essay analyzing its name and likely languages that can be found on the Harry Potter Lexicon), and by extension, although Viktor Krum is (and normally speaks) Bulgarian, the standard language spoken at Durmstrang would be German.

Special Thanks: To Mum, always my fabulous beta-reader, idea-bouncer-offer, and Mum extraordinaire!

International Magical Co-operation

Chapter One: Flying

Honestly, revising Cross-Species Transfiguration essays was difficult enough without Viktor Krum and his ruddy entourage stampeding through the library every five minutes. Hermione scowled at her book as the horde of sixth-year girls giggled their way past her table, jostling her chair and disordering her neatly-arranged notes and carefully-marked pages with the breeze of their passage.

"Don't worry, everyone, it's not as if people use the library to study or anything," she growled, grabbing a stack of notes before they could float off the table. The girls either didn't hear her or ignored her, too set on their pursuit of Krum.

And why on earth couldn't Krum sit down for five minutes? Honestly, there were plenty of available tables; why did he have to keep moving around all the time? As if answering Hermione's thoughts, the brawny Durmstrang boy walked very quickly past her table—with the consideration not to bump it, but still creating enough motion in the air to send half her notes flying again.

Hermione almost screamed in aggravation, diving after them, but was brought up short by seeing Krum half-turn back, looking apologetic as if he were about to help her retrieve the papers. But then the Quidditch player's dark eyes flicked toward something beyond Hermione, and he scowled, beating a hasty retreat around the stacks. A chorus of whispers and giggles warned Hermione that her papers were unlikely to stay safe for long.

With a furious huff, she snatched her materials up, slapped her books closed as hard as she could to relieve her frustration—she normally would never abuse books, but it was either that or use the books to bludgeon Krum and his fan club to death, and she suspected the latter would damage the books more—and stalked out of the library. Maybe there wouldn't be anyone in the common room this early in the afternoon.

As it happened, Harry and Ron were the only ones there, playing Exploding Snap on the couch—loudly—with Harry's golden egg sitting against his hip.

"Oh, for goodness sake!" Hermione burst out. "Don't you two have anything better to do?"

The boys blinked at her. "We wanted a little piece and quiet, Hermione, what's your problem?" Ron demanded.

Hermione threw her book bag to the floor, hard. "Maybe I want a little peace and quiet to work on some things that are actually important, like studying, and you and every other rotten excuse for a student in this ruddy school are making it IMPOSSIBLE!" She kicked the bag furiously and threw herself into a chair, feeling frustrated tears prickling in her eyes.

Ron looked appalled and Harry more flustered, and she immediately felt bad. Harry at least had enough on his mind already without her storming in and yelling at them for what really wasn't either of their faults.

"Sorry," she muttered, conjuring a handkerchief and wiping her face. "I can't get anything done in the library because of Krum and his fans; it's driving me mad." Predictably, Ron still looked baffled, but Harry looked sympathetic. She smiled wryly at him. "I guess you're hiding out from the same thing."

"Yeah, we got away from Harry's fans all right, but not your barking mad temper," Ron pointed out, but he was grinning.

Hermione sighed. "Yes, I know. I'm sorry." She pointed at Harry's egg. "Any luck?"

Harry shook his head. "Not yet."

"He's got something more important on his mind!" Ron protested.

"What could possibly be more important—"

"Professor McGonagall told me after class that I have to have a dance partner for the ball," muttered Harry, turning slightly green. "The champions have to open the ball."

He looked so alternately terrified and dejected that Hermione found herself dying to laugh at him. Instead, she forced herself to be sympathetic. Boys didn't cope well with this sort of thing, after all, and Harry was almost a year younger than her. Ron—well, Ron was Ron.

"It won't be that bad," she told Harry. "You've not only got every girl at Hogwarts to choose from, and the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang girls too. There'll be someone you can go with."

Harry still looked less than confident—but rather comically so, Hermione privately thought. This from the boy who divebombed a Hungarian Horntail. What was it that terrified boys so much about girls?

She was in better spirits upon her return to the library the next day—Arithmancy wasn't exactly an easier subject than Transfiguration, but it wasn't a vital part of the curriculum, so she could relax a little while puzzling it out. But there was still the problem of finding a quiet part of the library not frequented by Viktor Krum and his fawning fangirls.

Because the study table areas were the easiest to traverse, those were the places Krum and the girls most often went scampering through. But the stacks were too narrow for Hermione to set up a table, and even if they hadn't been, she wouldn't be inconsiderate of other people trying to get to books.

Finally, while perusing the darkest, most-unused portion of the library, she came across a window alcove of decent size, quite possibly an old study nook, and Transfigured herself a work table and chair out of a broken stepladder. Krum and his entourage could still be heard occasionally—the girls were more determined than ever with the prospect of the approaching Yule Ball, and Krum seemed to be all-out running to get away from them.

At one point when Hermione heard him stamping around somewhere, she gritted her teeth in annoyance, but then stopped to consider: Harry absolutely hated the fawning of strangers…perhaps Krum was the same.

But Krum was a celebrity by choice, wasn't he? Surely one knew what one was getting into when one took up professional Quidditch!

Then again…I wonder if any of those silly creatures know anything about Quidditch at all. After all, nobody really knew what Harry's experience at Voldemort's hands had been like—including, Hermione had to admit, she herself. Many people just followed Harry around because he was famous, not caring what he was famous for.

That, Hermione supposed, was what made Ron and Harry and other Quidditch fans different from those flocking pigeons out there; they appreciated Krum for his talent, not just because he was a celebrity. Ron's soliloquizing about Krum's Seeker moves is proof enough of that, she thought wryly, but it made her smile. If Ron and Harry could suppress their awe, they could probably have a fairly intelligent conversation with Krum about his profession. What would a famous person find to talk about to someone who just stared at them and giggled and didn't know anything about them?

Then she nearly jumped out of her skin when the object of her musings suddenly burst into her little nook, skidding through the small entrance clumsily, dropping the Potions textbook he was carrying, and nearly crashing onto her table. Hermione rocked back in her chair, saved from toppling over only by the wall behind her, and Krum caught himself on the table's edge. For once, there was an expression on his face other than his trademark glower—he looked mortified.

Struggling for words, he began, "I…ah, I am…" and then they both heard the patter of mincing feet approaching. Hermione watched, dumbfounded, as Krum glanced around with a frantic expression and finally stepped from the doorway fully into the nook and pressed himself against the narrow wall opposite her.

Moments later, the girls came scurrying through the stacks like a pack of bloodhounds and discovered Hermione in the little stone niche, but when Hermione just stared blankly at them, they moved on without bothering to investigate further.

As their footsteps, whispers, and detested giggling died away, Krum slouched in relief and closed his eyes. Then he opened them, met Hermione's gaze, and blushed. "I am…" he looked down, then back at her, "I am sorry to haff disturbed you. I vill go if you vish…" he glanced at the entry back into the library, visibly steeling himself to continue fleeing his admirers, and picked up the Potions book.

"Oh…" Hermione said hastily. "It's all right, no harm done. Er…if you…" There was no mistaking his hopeful expression, and she felt blood rushing to her own face. She'd met his eyes before, when he passed her in the Great Hall or in the library, but…this was the first time she'd really noticed how very, very dark they were. She told herself to stop staring at him like one of his fans and said, "If you want to study in here, I don't mind."

She was pleased with how level her voice sounded, but then he actually smiled…a sheepish, shy sort of smile, not those big goofy grins like most boys she knew. Her hands felt uncoordinated as she tried to rearrange her books and notes to give him half of the table, and moved her chair so he could sit where no one who passed by the alcove would see him.

Perhaps it was just the turmoil of being hunted by a horde of Yule Ball-minded females, but Krum seemed strangely clumsy for someone who was reputed as the world's best player of the most precise position in Quidditch. His motions were rather fumbling as he retrieved his Potions book and the notes that had fallen out of it, and trimmed a new quill nib. He seemed to be concentrating very hard on what he was doing, and Hermione found herself staring at his hands. They were very big—like him—but not too long or too thick, just large and perfectly in proportion with his sturdy build and broad shoulders, and…

He glanced up and froze under her scrutiny. Hermione felt herself going red again, and Krum too blushed. Then he gave her another of those awkward smiles…ooh. Why the hell didn't anyone warn me Viktor Krum was handsome?

So that was how Hermione found herself the unlikely study partner of Viktor Krum. Well, at first, they were more like study companions, seldom saying more than "Hello," or inquiring as to how classes were going or remarking on the weather before delving into their respective revision. But Viktor was pleasantly quiet while studying, not fidgety like Harry or grumbling like Ron. He was also, Hermione had to admit, very easy to look at, when she stole a quick glance while turning pages.

It was strange, but Hermione almost didn't connect the quiet, undeniably handsome boy who sat across her table with the hulking, glowering figure who seemed rather out of place among the other three Triwizard champions. Of all the champions, Viktor had been interviewed the least. Poor Harry couldn't seem to get away from Rita Skeeter even with his Invisibility Cloak, Fleur was perfectly willing to chat with reporters—although she too avoided Rita due to the woman's penchant for misquoting, and Cedric was too obliging to refuse interviews (and he was a reporter favorite, being almost as photogenic as Fleur.)

Viktor Krum, Harry had once remarked, kept his distance from the other champions, often thwarting Harry's search for dark corners to hide in by getting to them first, and tended to slouch against the wall and scowl at the floor. "I mean, he's not rude," Harry had said. "Not really rude, anyway. Cedric always says hello, and he says hello back, and sometimes people talk to him, but he just doesn't say much. Moody says his head's full of sawdust. They say he never talks in classes."

Hermione hadn't thought anything of it at the time, but now, watching Viktor at his work, she knew that couldn't be true. His notes were in a combination of English, German, and Bulgarian, and he seemed very good at the chemistry elements of Potions and the physics involved in Complex Transfiguration. (She'd peeked at his notes a few times when he left the alcove to retrieve more books. Sometimes she couldn't figure out what subject he was working on but for the equations in the notes—which fortunately were a universal language.)

About a week after Hermione and Viktor started studying together, the champions were dragged into yet another rules-lecture-cum-photo-shoot by the Ministry and the Daily Prophet. Hermione and Ron sat with Harry while a few Durmstrangs and Beauxbatons hovered around Viktor and Fleur, and the Hufflepuffs with Cedric. It had been a grueling day for the whole school—and the guest schools—between the increasingly-heavy load of schoolwork, Yule Ball anxieties, and (horror of horrors) dancing lessons from the teachers, so none of the champions were very enthusiastic about thinking about "the tremendous challenges that await you," as Ludo Bagman and Mr. Crouch put it.

Harry'd been having nightmares again and was practically asleep on Hermione's shoulder five minutes into the presentation. She and Ron glared as hard as they could at Rita Skeeter, knowing this would spawn another chapter in the "Harry and Hermione Love Story of the Century," as the twins put it. Good lord, Bagman and Crouch could prattle on! By the end of the nearly two-hour-long lecture (or press conference, really), Harry had been sound asleep on Hermione, Ron was sound asleep on Harry, Fleur had fallen asleep with her head in Madame Maxime's lap, Cedric and the Hufflepuffs were starting to form a domino effect on their bench, and Viktor had been valiantly trying (with increasing lack of success) to keep his eyes open.

At one point, Viktor blinked himself awake and met Hermione's gaze, startled to see Harry so comfortably snoozing on her, but she grinned, nodding to the rest of the room. Viktor took in the rather sorry state of everyone else and bit his lip, clearly containing laughter. Even Rita Skeeter had fallen asleep.

That evening, refreshed by their unplanned nap, they wound up back in the library and laughingly recounted the smashing success of Bartemious Crouch and Ludo Bagman at curing the entire school's collective insomnia in one afternoon. It was the longest conversation they'd had so far—well, the first real conversation they'd had, to be honest—and Hermione discovered a surprisingly keen sense of humor in the Bulgarian boy. Although Viktor was enthusiastic about the competition and the Tasks themselves, he found the Ministry and the press portrayal of the champions ridiculous. Hermione was gratified, albeit surprised, to learn that Viktor was well aware of the Daily Prophet's deceptive and downright-exploitative treatment of Harry, and unlike the majority of the people at Hogwarts, he did not blame Harry.

"I am not thinking he put his name in the Goblet," Viktor told her. "I did not know at first, but I see he is not happy to be in the Tournament."

"I think most people realize that now," Hermione grumbled. "Harry's never wanted to be famous, but other people assume that because they do, he must. It's very unfair."

"That reporter, Skeeter, is irritating all of us. She is alvays asking Fleur and Cedric about boyfriends and girlfriends. I vill not speak to her at all." But then Viktor smiled. "Fleur is to go to the Ball vith a Roger Davies of Hogwarts. Skeeter was chasing them over the grounds after the conference."

"Oh no," Hermione laughed. "Poor Fleur and Roger—though they should have had the good sense not to tell everyone ahead of time."

A few days later, Hermione noticed Viktor being uncharacteristically restless in his seat as he worked. More than once, she caught him looking at her, and finally asked, "Is something wrong?"

Viktor blushed. He did that a lot, not the glowing red to the ears like Ron—Viktor's skin was too dark—but when she was near him, she could see the faint reddening of his cheeks when he got embarrassed. Then he rubbed his forehead and looked down at his book. "I do not know if…this part of the book…"

Hermione got up and came around the table to read over his shoulder. Partial Transfigurations…ooh. She'd heard that was one of the hardest aspects of Transfiguration to grasp. Viktor was only in the chapter introduction, but seemed to already be having trouble following the concept. "They say Partial Transfiguration is the hardest," she said reassuringly. "It may not make sense right away."

"It is not that," Viktor muttered, not looking at her. At the moment, he seemed more like his sullen public persona. "It is…my English is not…ven ve move into the equations, it is easy to understand, but…"

"Oh." Hermione summoned her chair and sat down beside him. "Well, maybe I can help with that." Viktor shot her a grateful glance, and it dawned on her then that he was embarrassed. She wondered if that was the reason he hardly spoke to anyone outside of Durmstrang. He obviously understood the subject matter; he just had trouble explaining it due to his lack of command of English.

And if there was one thing that magical and Muggle textbook writers had in common, it was that they tended to make basic explanations twice as complicated as they needed to be. (Hermione'd been told on more than one occasion that she herself had that problem.)

So she spent the next two hours—right up until curfew—trying to decipher the chapter introduction on Partial Transfiguration so that she could put it in English that was basic enough for Viktor to understand. They laughed a lot during those two hours; the subject matter was three years ahead of anything Hermione had studied, and her attempts at explaining something she herself couldn't quite understand left Viktor almost cross-eyed.

He tried to keep his good humor, but it was obvious that he was frustrated and self-conscious, and she put a hand on his arm. "English is the hardest language in the world to learn, and you speak it very well already. Stuff like this," she indicated the book, "is hard even for us to understand. And I'm not just saying that to make you feel better," she added, almost reading what he was thinking.

Viktor blushed again, but his smile met his eyes this time, and Hermione was suddenly very aware of how very close together they were sitting. Not that there was much choice in the small space, but…her heart sped up. It didn't help that when he wasn't staring at the floor or his book but actually looking at her with his guard down, he had the nicest eyes she had ever seen. Not "pretty" eyes, exactly—Cedric Diggory and even Harry had "prettier" eyes than Viktor—but something about Viktor's seemed more attractive. They were dark, but not like Karkaroff's empty, cold black eyes or Snape's hard, bitter gaze. Viktor's eyes were warm and soft, conveying easily as much feeling as Harry's—without the drama, she thought ironically.

Hermione was very distracted for the rest of the night, all through dinner, all the way up the stairs back to Gryffindor Tower, while she sat in the common room, and then in the dormitory. She talked to Harry and Ron about…something, but whatever it was, it didn't stick in her mind. She was too busy contemplating Viktor's eyes.

Tensions over the Yule Ball were reaching fever pitch, those last few weeks of the term, and Harry and Ron were growing increasingly frantic about the prospect of finding dates. Hermione was much more sympathetic to Harry's situation than Ron's, since Professor McGonagall had made it clear that Harry would be dancing in front of everyone at the start of the ball whether he liked it or not. And Harry's hesitation to ask someone to go with him was at least an honest reason—his fixation on Cho Chang—unlike Ron, who didn't care what his date was like as long as she was pretty.

"They're my best friends, but they are maddening sometimes," she told Viktor one day, after a morning of trying to gently chivvy Harry into asking Cho out and arguing with Ron about what qualities were more important in a date. "I can usually put up with Harry's…quirks; he's been through a lot, and his heart's usually in the right place even if his brains usually aren't, but Ron…he is so shallow sometimes!"

Viktor was startled by her vehemence, but took it in stride. "They vill learn vhen they are older, Hermy-own. I vas…" He broke off and blushed, and Hermione grinned at him.

"You were like them at that age, you were going to say?"

Viktor shrugged. "It is a part of growing older, I think. And girls…vell…I am thinking you are alvays ready for such things sooner than boys. Ve are all afraid of girls vhen ve are children, and still it is hard to talk to you. I came to the library for days vanting to talk vith you, but I did not have the courage—er…"

This time he went so red that it was reminiscent of Ron, and Hermione stared at him in astonishment. "You…you mean…"

"I…ah…vell…" He was so flustered that he didn't even look away from her; he just stared back, wide-eyed. "Alvays I saw you studying, and you are not like the other girls here, you are…different," he finished weakly. "You like to vork; you do not come here because you are forced by school or to…chase boys," he grimaced, no doubt thinking of his fan club.

From his fumbling attempt to explain, Hermione realized what it was he was saying, and felt herself blushing, but from flattery rather than embarrassment. "Thank you," she murmured. "No one's ever said that to me before."

"You are not offended?" he asked anxiously.

"Of course not!" she exclaimed. "Most people say my studying makes me boring!" The look of outrage on Viktor's face was further proof that he was not offering empty compliments. Suddenly, she felt like she ought to return the favor. There were plenty of nice things she could honestly say to him…if she could do it without turning scarlet or stammering, that is. "I like…the same sort of things about you," she said awkwardly. "That you like to read and think, and...being challenged. Most people don't. They're afraid of anything that's 'hard.'"

"I haff noticed that too," Viktor agreed. He swallowed convulsively and went on, "I have vished to…ask you…but I do not know…are you to go to the Ball vith someone?"

Hermione's heart dropped out of her chest and landed with a splash somewhere in her stomach. It was a moment before she could open her mouth with certainty that her voice would work. "Uhhh…no. I mean, I don't have a…I mean, no one's…asked me…er…"

Looking more nervous than he had in the Quidditch World Cup or the First Task, Viktor said slowly, as though only the strongest determination was making him force the words out, "Then…vould you please…I mean to say…vould you go to the Ball vith me?"

She felt herself gulp, and to her horror, there was a lump in her throat. Heaven knew what Viktor would think if she started to cry—that was even worse than giggling! It wasn't as if he'd asked her to marry him, for goodness sake…get a grip on yourself, girl! So she forced a sheepish smile and nodded vigorously at him, whispering so her voice wouldn't break, "Yes. Yes, I would love to go with you."

Viktor broke into a smile then too, letting his breath out with such relief that the funny side of it all hit them both at once, and they both started to laugh. When they resumed studying with much lighter hearts, Viktor shyly reached across the table and covered her hand with his.

After that rather nerve-wracking experience, she promised herself she wouldn't nag or scold Harry and Ron about dates anymore. After all, every boy was different, and even Viktor, who was four years older than they were, had apparently had to work up the courage…to talk to me. ME! The idea was too bizarre to wrap her mind around.

But Harry and Ron were truly testing her patience. Well, Harry she felt badly for when it came to light that Cho Chang was going to the ball with Cedric Diggory. Ron, on the other hand, she sympathized with very little, especially when, after carrying on for days about not wanting to end up with any of the "trolls," (of whom Eloise Midgeon, a perfectly sweet girl with the misfortune of an acne problem, had become representative), he actually had the nerve to try and use Hermione as a last resort. Adding insult to injury, he prefaced his oh-so-charming request for a date with the brilliant observation of "you're a girl!"

Well, that certainly took care of any guilt she might have felt about refusing to go with Ron or help them more with finding dates. After she stomped up to her dormitory to fume, Harry evidently secured Parvati Patil and fixed up Ron with Parvati's twin sister Padma. Better than Ron deserved, in Hermione's opinion, for him to wind up not having to ask someone at all. Still, she thought later while in a more charitable mood, at least Ron couldn't complain now, since Padma was a nice, intelligent girl, and reasonably pretty, so there was no reason for them both to not have a wonderful time.



Well, her time at the ball was wonderful, even if the boys were determined to sulk through it all. Parvati and Padma were livid; both came complaining to Hermione at different points in the evening, and Hermione agreed Harry and Ron were being childish.

Viktor, by contrast, was the soul of decorum. She had wondered—with some apprehension—if the very public nature of the Yule Ball would push him back into his standoffish public face, which might have made for an awkward evening. She needn't have worried. He met her at the entrance with that hesitant, shy smile she liked so much…and a kiss on the hand before offering his arm.

The expressions of complete disbelief on her classmates' faces should have bothered her a little—honestly, she didn't think she looked that different!—but with those big, dark eyes so close by whenever she looked at him, she couldn't be bothered to worry about anything else. Ron was still sulking and pointedly ignored her, but Harry was making a valiant effort not to stare at Cho Chang and so stared at Hermione instead.

As they made their way to the champions' table, Viktor stiffened, and his grip on her arm tightened ever so slightly. Hermione glanced at him, thinking maybe it was Harry's attention that was bothering him, but Viktor was looking up at the top table—at Karkaroff. Hermione followed his gaze and was startled to see the Durmstrang Headmaster looking quite displeased, his eyes darting from Viktor to her. Hm. Did he disapprove of Viktor attending the ball with a date from Hogwarts, she wondered…or was it because Hermione was the rumored girlfriend of Harry Potter?

Or maybe it wasn't Hermione that Karkaroff was put out with. It surprised her still more when Viktor actually attempted to steer them both away from his own headmaster—and he scowled when Karkaroff got up and left his seat to graciously lead them to the seats beside his. Viktor looked so irritated that Hermione hurried to distract him by commenting on the decorations.

"The Great Hall is always very pretty at Christmas, but they've done a beautiful job this year."

Her effort met with success, and Viktor was soon questioning her at length about the rest of the wonders Hogwarts had to offer. She told him about the moving staircases—which he'd already discovered the hard way—the known secret passages, the decorations at holidays past, and wished she could tell him about the Chamber of Secrets. She did, however, tell him about Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, which made him laugh.

"Vell," Viktor said, looking around the Great Hall again. "Ve have a castle also, not as big as this, nor as comfortable, I am thinking. Ve have just four floors, and the fires are lit only for magical purposes. But ve have grounds larger even than these—though in vinter, ve have very little daylight, so ve are not enjoying them. But in summer we are flying every day, over the lakes and the mountains—"

"Now, now, Viktor," Karkaroff interrupted, with a laugh Hermione knew to be feigned without even having to look at him. "Don't go giving away anything else, now, or your charming friend will know exactly where to find us!"

Hermione was not the only one who saw the dark look in Viktor's eyes, and Dumbledore diverted Karkaroff's attention to himself. "Do you practice Quidditch at school?" she asked Viktor. "Or is your flying there just for fun?"

"Both," Viktor said immediately. "I vould fly all the time if I could. I practice for the Vorld Cup season with the professional team, but at school I have drills for flying, to keep speed and…" he frowned, moving his hand in quick motions to try to demonstrate the word he was looking for.

"Agility?" Hermione suggested. "Reflexes?"

"I think that is right," he said, blushing again, but he grinned. "I teach many friends at school the drills, and ve do them together."

Hermione pulled a face. "I'm surprised some of them don't fall off their broomsticks, trying to do your drills."

"Vell…sometimes they do." Hermione nearly laughed out loud and covered her mouth with her hand. "I do varn them that the drills are not easy, but still they vant to try them. The school Quidditch teams use them. Many days ve just fly, very far. Ve always go in a different direction."

There was no mistaking the delight Viktor took in flying. It surprised Hermione now that he hadn't thought of using a broomstick to match his agility against the dragons in the First Task. But as they talked, she mused that perhaps that wasn't the way Viktor viewed flying. Harry was a very talented, skilled flier, and he and Ron adored Quidditch, but neither of their obsessions approached the rapt expression on Viktor's face when he talked of flying. To Harry and Ron, flying was a means to an end: Quidditch or to steal an egg from a dragon. To Viktor, Quidditch was more of a means to spend all his time in flight.

For the first time, she found herself reluctant to admit that she hated flying.

Viktor, fortunately, was distracted from asking her about her taste in flying by Fleur Delacour's criticism of the decorations. He sat with his head half-tilted toward Fleur and Roger Davies, still facing Hermione as he listened in, then rolled his eyes. Hermione grinned, but then Karkaroff looked about to return his attention to Viktor, so she leaned toward him. "Would a poltergeist be expelled from Durmstrang?"

"I do not know," Viktor replied cheerfully. "I have not seen a poltergeist there. Perhaps ve vould practice spells on him first."

Hermione laughed. "I wish we could do that with Peeves!" Viktor sensed someone watching him—Karkaroff—and started to look around, but Hermione dared to nudge him with her knee and give a warning shake of her head. He got the message all right, his scowl was proof of that.

"Do you like to fly, Hermy-own?" he asked, with forced cheer.

"Er…it's Her-my-oh-nee," she said.

"Herm-own-ee…" Viktor trailed off and pulled a face.

"Her-my-oh-nee," she repeated, grinning.

"Herm-own-ninny," he tried again, then frowned, certain he still hadn't got it right.

"Close enough," she said, and grinned past him at Harry, who was watching with a quizzical expression. To her (and Viktor's) intense relief, Karkaroff was distracted again by the dancing about to start.

She was a little nervous when they paraded out onto the dance floor, but Viktor seemed fairly confident—in contrast to Harry, who looked about to be sick. Parvati was practically dragging him. She almost whispered at him to relax, but decided that wouldn't really help in front of all these people.

And Viktor was a more than competent dancer. She barely noticed those first few moments of the Weird Sisters' first song when they were among only four couples on the dance floor…she knew enough dancing to carry herself through, but she'd never realized what a delight it could be to have a partner who led well enough for her to just follow without having to think too much. When the floor filled up, Viktor became a little more daring, smiling openly at her as they went round and round, occasionally lifting her above his head.

Maybe there are some kinds of flying I like after all.

She saw Harry fleeing the dance floor as soon as the song ended, and considered going to tell him to buck up, but three of Viktor's Durmstrang classmates rushed up to them, dates in tow, and began urging them closer to the stage. Hermione got a rushed introduction to Sven Poliakoff and his date, Yvette Thibault of Beauxbatons, Alexiev Chekov, who was partnered with Alicia Spinnet of Gryffindor, and Katya Turischeva and her date, Marcel deSchetliar of Beauxbatons. She and Viktor found themselves in a tight mass of students, whooping and singing along to the Weird Sisters' latest big hit, dodging elbows and arms and feet as they danced.

Sven, Alexiev, and Marcel formed a tight knot and started head-banging, dragging Viktor in to join them (whether his red face was due to exertion or embarrassment was anyone's guess), and Hermione and the other three girls shrieked with laughter. Finally, Viktor extracted himself from the wizards gone wild in favor of spinning Hermione around and around while she tried to imitate the more popular dance moves some of the other girls were doing. She had no idea how successful she was, but Viktor didn't seem to care. (She had no way herself of knowing whether he was actually dancing or just pretending to know what he was doing either, so it didn't really matter.) Viktor's friends and their dates danced in a circle around them at one point, and everyone changed places so a different couple wound up in the middle to be cheered on and ribbed every few minutes. It was marvelous.

When the song was over, they staggered out of the mass of bodies, laughing and gasping for breath. Sven, Alexiev, and Katya tried to drag them back as the next song started, but Viktor laughingly waved them off, to Hermione's relief (she didn't think she'd survive another dance like that without passing out.) "Vould you like a drink?" he asked her.

"Yes, please," Hermione said, fanning her face. She glanced around for a free table and spotted Harry and Ron sitting with Padma, and gestured toward them. "Can we sit over there?"

"Of course. I vill bring the drinks." Viktor headed toward the refreshment table, and Hermione went happily to join the boys—who, she quickly discovered, were not in the best of moods.

By the time Ron had finished insulting Viktor, insulting the whole spirit of the Triwizard Tournament—so dancing to "Do the Hippogriff" with Beauxbatons and Durmstrangs is fraternizing with the enemy, is it?—insulting Hermione's intelligence, questioning Viktor's motives, questioning Hermione's loyalty and friendship…she was ready to spit, she was so angry. Harry mumbled something about not having a problem with Krum, but Ron ignored him, and Hermione bitterly thought that Harry was so busy trying to avoid a fight with Ron that he didn't have the courage to stand up for the one person who HAD stood by him before the First Task!

In the end, she simply stalked away from them, across the dance floor until she spotted Alicia and Alexiev, and joined them with the rest of Viktor's friends and their dates. She couldn't stand to even look at Ron and Harry for another second, the immature, thick-witted little gits, and she figured Viktor would head in this direction when he saw that she wasn't at the table.

Apparently, her pique was obvious, because the boys looked at her and muttered amongst themselves, and Alicia and Katya drew her aside to where they didn't have to shout over the noise on the dance floor. "What's the matter?" Alicia asked. "Did you and Viktor have an argument?"

"No!" Hermione exclaimed, dismayed. "No, Viktor was getting drinks—oh, I should have waited for him—it's Ron and Harry, they're being such prats about it!"

"They do not like Viktor?" Katya asked.

Hermione felt tears prickle her eyes and growled under her breath. Damn those boys for sullying all this! "No, they like him all right, when he's playing in the Quidditch World Cup. They just seem to have a problem with me liking him for…other reasons. And they don't think he…I mean, they think I'm being stupid and that…"

Alicia's eyes widened with comprehension. "They don't think Viktor really likes you."

Katya laughed aloud, as if Alicia had said something absurd, then saw Hermione's expression and stopped. "They do believe this? They think Viktor vill not be honorable to you?"

Hermione sighed. "Yes, basically, that's it."

Katya flipped her long, curled blonde hair with a huff of disgust that made her look like Fleur, and Hermione had to smile. "I vill go to find Viktor and bring him here. He vill not like his intentions insulted—"

"No!" Hermione exclaimed, grabbing her arm. "No, don't tell him that! I mean—they're just being stupid. Just tell him I had a fight with them and leave it at that, please? I don't want to spoil the ball for anyone else!"

"If you vish," Katya said with a shrug. "I vill be back."

She was good to her word, and came back only a few moments later with Viktor at her heels. He handed Hermione a butterbeer and looked at her with concern as Alicia and Katya beat a hasty retreat. "Your friends are angry?"

"It's nothing," she told him. "They've been out of sorts for days about the ball, and they act like it's all my fault they didn't get the dates they wanted." That was probably the real truth, she thought suddenly, and felt better. It wouldn't be the first time Ron had assumed something so utterly stupid that he should definitely know better, when underneath he was just jealous.

Jealous of Viktor or jealous of me? she suddenly wondered, and had to quash a hysterical giggle. The twins did say he was in love with Krum…

That gave her enough humor to shake the last of her mood off, and she and Viktor rejoined the others at an empty table with another round of butterbeers before they all returned to the dance floor. She saw both Parvati and Padma on the dance floor with other boys, but Ron and Harry were, to her relief, nowhere in sight.

At one point, when they sat down again, Hermione noticed Viktor glancing about apprehensively. At first, she wondered if he was looking for Harry and Ron, but when she asked, he replied, "No. I am seeing vhere Karkaroff is."

"I think he left," she said, and Viktor looked relieved. "You don't like your headmaster?"

"He is my headmaster, but he thinks he is my owner," Viktor grumbled sourly. At her startled face, he explained, "He is not kind, not to any of the other students. Often he is cruel. To me, he is not, because I am celebrity. He cares nothing for me or others, only him. If ever I am not a Quidditch player, he vill be as cruel to me as my friends."

That was the harshest thing Hermione had ever heard from Viktor, but she could well believe that what he said was true. She recalled Durmstrang's first night as Hogwarts's guests, and the way Karkaroff had fussed over Viktor while insulting and belittling another boy…that had been Sven Poliakoff, hadn't it? She put a sympathetic hand on Viktor's arm, and he sighed and smiled.

"Sven spills a drop of soup and he is disgusting; I sneeze once on the ship and I haff a head cold." He shook his head and laughed ironically. "I vill miss Durmstrang, I think, but I am glad to be leaving Karkaroff."

"I know how people are treated when they're celebrities," Hermione told him. "Well, not myself, of course, but I've seen it. With Harry. He's got that from teachers before, and all these wizards from the Ministry."

"I see it," Viktor agreed. "Ludo Bagman vill not go away from him." They both laughed. "And that boy from Mr. Crouch—he is Ron Veasley's brother, I know, but he is the same to me. They do not understand. They do not vant to. They vant only fame." He gave her a dry, cynical smile. "I am hoping sometimes they vill get it in a future day. Then perhaps they vill see."

The Second Task started out well—Hermione was asleep through that part. But it was all downhill from the moment she woke up. It was a bit unpleasant to wake up immersed in a very cold lake, but finding Viktor's arms around her as he swam her easily to shore made up for it. Once they arrived, they were bundled into warm, charmed blankets and fed Pepper-Up Potion, followed by hot chocolate while they sat to wait for the others. Cedric was already there, curled up under blankets with Cho, so Hermione and Viktor saw no reason not to do the same.

"I didn't see," she said through chattering teeth to Viktor. "How did you do it?"

"Partial Transfiguration," he said proudly, and Hermione clapped her hands. "I vas half of a shark."

"I knew you'd figure that subject out," she laughed, and they curled up against each other again.

Viktor was rubbing her hands to warm them up (unseen under their blankets), then said quietly, "I have never met anyone like you before, Herm-own-ninny." Hermione looked at him in surprise.


"I mean…I have not…felt this vay…for anyone. Any other girl." Hermione felt blood rushing into her chilled face. Viktor dropped his eyes, then visibly forced himself to look at her again and went on, "I vished to ask you, vould you visit me this summer? In Bulgaria? I have some time myself before Quidditch season begins, and—"

A commotion caught their attention, they scrambled up to see several wizards dragging Fleur bodily out of the water. She was bleeding—they could see it from there—and fighting them, hysterically babbling something in French. "What happened?" Cho cried.

Cedric narrowed his eyes as he listened, then hissed in alarm. "Grindylows. She couldn't get to the bottom—lord, it's her sister. Her hostage."

"Ohh," Hermione covered her mouth. She looked from Cedric to Viktor. "Did either of you see Harry?"

"He vos there already when I arrived," Viktor assured her. "He helped me free you." He looked puzzled. "His hostage vas Ron Veasley, but he vas trying to get you up also."

"He is my friend," she pointed out, and Viktor nodded, shrugging.

"He vill be coming, then, now that you haff gone." The cold wasn't bothering him as much as the others, though he didn't seem to enjoy being wet. They hunkered down under the blankets again and watched sympathetically as Madame Maxime tried to calm Fleur down. Hermione knew some French, but Fleur was talking too fast. Cedric apparently spoke it well enough and muttered translations to them, which was mostly Fleur's pleading and demanding to return to the water.

"The time's already up," said Cho.

Hermione glanced at the clock and felt the first twinges of alarm running through her. "Why wasn't Harry right behind you?" she whispered to Viktor, and he pulled her closer.

"He had made gills. He vill be safe."

"Gills…" she frowned. "I'm glad he figured something out, but how—oh! Gillyweed!" Her delight in knowing that Harry had come up with something began to diminish when he and Ron still didn't appear. She got up and started pacing, looking at Dumbledore and the other judges. "I wish they'd bloody do something! They're almost a half-hour late! Gillyweed's effects don't last that long, and what about Ron and Fleur's sister?"

"Being under there asleep didn't bother us," said Cho. "They must have used a spell to keep us safe."

"Yes, but how long does it last?" Hermione wondered, furiously rubbing her cold hands. "I just want to know where they all are!"

Viktor got up and caught her arm. "They vill be fine, Herm-own-ninny—"

Just then, there was a terrific splash in the water, the crowd went wild, and Cedric and Cho jumped up again. Hermione whirled around, her heart in her throat, to see no less than three heads at the surface of the lake, paddling awkwardly to shore. "Harry! Ron, Harry!"

She'd have charged right back into the water, but Percy ran right past her to meet them with Madam Pomfrey at his heels, and the two boys were helping the little girl in between them along, so they seemed all right. Fleur started fighting Madame Maxime again, shrieking for her sister.

Harry looked completely exhausted, and a little chagrinned as Madam Pomfrey bustled him over to the other champions. Hermione ran up to him, aware she was babbling like an idiot and unable to stop herself. Ron was laughing, teasing Harry about hauling up Fleur's little sister as well, and Hermione finally got it from them that Harry had actually been the first one there. Harry mumbled something about not wanting to leave anyone behind, and Hermione and Ron shook their heads at each other.

As it was, Harry wound up with second place, because the mer-chieftainess told Dumbledore what he'd done for Gabrielle Delacour. (Harry also got a kiss fromFleur for his trouble, and Hermione suspected that helped his bruised ego a bit. Ron got one as well, but still ribbed Harry for taking the song too seriously.)

"Honestly," she told Viktor later, when they were walking down by the lake. "Harry's too ruddy heroic for his own good sometimes. As if Dumbledore would have let anything happen to the hostages. We're his students!"

Viktor frowned at her. "Harry Potter is his student too, but he vas forced to be in the Tournament vhen Dumbledore knew he did not vish to enter. Perhaps he was right to vorry for you. Fleur was afraid also."

Startled, Hermione said, "But…Dumbledore would never…"

"It is true you know him more than I," said Viktor. "But I see Harry Potter is the famous student at Hogvarts, as I am at Durmstrang. I am not thinking Dumbledore is very like Karkaroff, but…I vonder if he vas not thinking of Harry Potter's safety vhen he let the Tournament go on."

"But the only way to protect Harry from competing would have been to cancel the whole thing," Hermione protested. "Then no one could compete; that wouldn't have been fair."

Viktor raised his eyebrows. "He could have forfeit. Not compete in the Tasks—lose each one for that. Ve thought this morning he had decided that, vhen he vas late arriving. Vhy did Dumbledore not do that? I am thinking Harry vould be glad not to compete."

Hermione had been slowing her steps, but now stopped altogether as the ugly implications of what Viktor was saying sank in. "I…" she stared at the dark water, remembering how exhausted and shaken Harry had seemed after the Task. "I can't believe…"

Viktor's eyes were dark and hard in the fading sunlight, with the look of someone very aware of what it meant to be exploited and used without concern. "Vere you not afraid, before each Task, for his safety? I am eighteen, Herm-own-ninny; I entered the Tournament of my free vill, and still I vas afraid. Students have died before; that is vhy it vas stopped. Vhy did Dumbledore not forfeit Hogvarts' other champion?"

"Maybe he didn't think of it!" Hermione said desperately. Viktor raised his eyebrows at her, and her heart sank; they both knew how unlikely that was.

Viktor spoke gently, knowing what Hermione was feeling, but he made her face the crux of it all. "Even if Harry Potter vas hurt or vorse, it vould look better for Hogvarts than if he forfeited. Because he is celebrity. I am not thinking Dumbledore is bad as Karkaroff; I see he cares for his students. But I am thinking he cares for Hogvarts more."

To be continued…

Coming Soon: The attraction between Hermione and Viktor continues to develop, but there are other, less pleasant things developing at Hogwarts, from schoolboy jealousies to dark conspiracies and murder plots. The Triwizard Tournament ends in tragedy and horror in Chapter Two: Falling!

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