Hermione gasped beside her father as the attendant took their cloaks. Not even Hogwarts had looked so wonderful during festivities. There was this warm sparkle of candlelight thrown around every reflective surface in the large hall—which meant every bejeweled lady and sparkling mask, every piece of silver and glass, every polished floor and window to the starry night.

Hermione fell in love with the old carved wood detailing around every door and every wall panel, and especially loved the intricate banisters as they walked down to the ballroom.

"I think I have the most beautiful maiden in the room," her father leaned down to whisper, his toothy dragon mask chosen as a salute for his practice.

Hermione startled and looked around, she blushed under her ornate mask of a golden lioness when she noticed the almost silent room and stilled audience. She turned up to her father rather guiltily, "I was just admiring the wood carvings."

He threw back his head and roared with laughter. Patting her hand where it rested on his arm, he smiled and shook his head. "Only my daughter," he said with exasperated pride.

Hermione verily beamed up at him. There was no describing the absolute joy that sprang up from her soul when he expressed his pride in her. She'd gone so long without any verbal confirmation as she jumped between the two worlds pulling at her that having any connection to him, causing joy in him, made her glad on such a basic overwhelming level.

She ducked her head and bit her lip, marveling at such a wonderful start to the night.

"I think the swan is getting a rubber neck," her father whispered.

Hermione snapped open her fan and discreetly checked the direction of his gaze. She tittered and turned to her father—"I think she's rather taken with you, watch how she tries to get the other ladies' attention away from you, especially the poodle."

Her father snorted and shook his head. Hermione raised a hidden eyebrow but didn't comment. He still hadn't internalized the need to nod for no and shake for yes. She half thought he'd lead on some poor woman who mistook his 'yes' from across the room as a come-hither gesture.

She snickered at the thought.

"This Mrs. Markovski, she is here?"

"She wouldn't miss it."

"Then I would like to meet the woman who wrote me that letter and befriended you so thoroughly."

Hermione bit her lip and grinned up at her father, leaning into his arm and whispering. "I have it on good authority that she is dressed as the phoenix, something about renewable youth and retainable wisdom."

Her father grinned and pulled up her hand to kiss the back of it. Hermione smiled wider and whispered, "I am glad you decided to come with me," before quickly turning her attention to the crowd of elaborate costumes and fancy masks.

Her father squeezed her hand but otherwise didn't try to draw her attention back to him. Hermione was glad, sure that he could see the way she was heating up her mask with a blush.

They found Ms. Markovski not too soon after that, her jaunty wave and unmistakable grin hard to miss—especially with her sparklingly elaborate mask.

It would have done Fawkes proud.

She hugged and bussed the older woman, grinning as she introduced the matron to her father for the first time. After exchanging pleasantries and commenting generally on the décor and attendees her father took in a slow breath.

Hermione's attention was immediately on him—that was the breath he took before he, her shy and thoughtful father, revealed something personal.

Ms. Markovski appeared only politely interested.

"I wanted to thank you," her father started, looking truly humbled and gratified even with the fierce mask obscuring most of his face. Both women drew closer to create a greater air of privacy—Hermione with an openly curious expression and Ms. Markovski with a matronly foreknowledge. "I had never realized I could have been a part of this world that had taken my daughter," Hermione's breath caught, "and I had never thought she'd want me to be part of it."

Ms. Markovski smiled grimly.

Hermione blinked her wide eyes, her fan slowly stopping its waving.

Her father licked his lips. "I forgot that she was my daughter, my little princess, and I should have tried harder to stay by her side. But coming here tonight and seeing how happy she was just to be with me, to introduce me to what this world was…" He smiled; it crinkled up his dark eyes behind the mask. "I have to thank you for telling me how lonely my child was, and for encouraging me to do something about it."

Hermione blinked rapidly in the hope that her tears wouldn't ruin her elaborate makeup. She'd spent so much time on it so she'd be her Dad's perfect lioness.

Ms. Markovski finally spoke, a pleased note to her voice, "You are very welcome. It is hard for fathers to remember that they are always the king of their daughter's world. It is good that you listened, Hermione was anxious to show you that world and afraid that you didn't want to be part of it."

Hermione choked on a watery smile and hugged her father.

A gurgling laugh bubbled up in her throat—because her father's reasons were easily understandable. That was how Hermione had felt in this new Bulgaria; she hadn't wanted to be in the way or make someone uncomfortable so she'd been reserved and painfully polite.

Mrs. Markovski had called her on that too.


Viktor's breath caught in his chest as he spotted her walking through the crowd—he was sure of it. He would recognize her anywhere, despite the years between their last true meetings. He'd escorted her to a ball much like this one, but he'd had a much better time despite his surly awkwardness.

He liked to think he'd grown into himself.

He didn't count that broken wedding as a true meeting between them—they'd never gotten beyond distant greetings before she was whisked away. And then there had been Death Eaters and he had realized his surliness was inexcusable; Hermione had been planning.

She'd been like that when she was younger too. As soon as an idea was in her head her focus was on that until it consumed her whole world. Her mind was so busy drawing connections and contingency plans she forgot to connect with the people around her. Her body and mind simply shut down as if it was a matter of survival, and, being friends with Potter, it usually was.

After the wedding her letters had cut off as well, and Viktor had been at once hurt that it had happened but understanding. He'd finally been close enough to see what was happening in England. Bulgaria was so far removed from the fighting he'd never quite understood.

And Fleur kept in contact with him—they'd become friends over the triwizard competition. Their shared language barriers and fame cemented a bond that tied over his apology over being unable to resist the imperious curse. (An apology he'd also offered to Cedric at his funeral.)

The growth of his knowledge regarding the happenings in England, aided by the exploding attention of the international media, had only cemented his opinion of the brainy witch he'd been smitten with. When Fleur snuck a letter to him during the redhead's sabbatical Viktor had needed to sit down. Her husband, the brother to the redhead, had been a prominent curse breaker and had been able to put two and two together—the result had been a chilling letter where Fleur passed on the information.

He'd never realized, never even imagined or guessed that something so serious would rely on the strength and knowledge of a group of teenagers. It had been sobering to him, a man almost twenty, to think of horcruxes and being hunted.

And Hermione was out there facing it all by choice, refusing to abandon her friend.

—The loyal lioness trying to hunt faster before becoming the prey.

His breath caught as his ruminations culminated in a very mature love erupting in his breast, an affection that had been aching and docile for years but steadily growing and longing.

He understood Hermione.

And as soon as he saw her he understood this love he had for her—yes, it was all consuming and terrifying in its enormity…but it was love. Love like his majka and papa had—a love for the ages.

He started to grin behind his damnable mask as he put down his drink and moved through the crowds.

He caught glimpses of her between the milling people—an elaborate red, gold and black gown resting off her shoulders, revealing the graceful curve of her neck; her curls not tamed or controlled but upswept and encouraged to be wayward; a fantastical lioness mask covering her features but highlighting her brown eyes, emphasizing that knowing sly glint she always had in her large eyes, that mischievous impishness he'd seen so rarely.

Viktor swallowed and cut around a group of people, craning his neck as he lost sight of the English woman. His heart was beating fast and the mask on his face felt constricting but he welcomed the anonymity it gave him—he could push through the crowds of fans and detractors unhindered.

His throat hurt as he swallowed, but it hurt worse when the crowd parted and Hermione was not where he had last seen her. He positively ached at spotting her far across the dance floor, exchanging greetings with old Ms. Markovski.

He saw her hug the old woman and then the swirling dancers swallowed them up.

He closed his eyes and took in a deep sighing breath, telling himself to be patient. If she was here it was his chance, his redemption. Who cared for Bisera and the mess she'd caused, Hermione had never paid any attention to those matters, as she'd simply seen the extent of him without any other opinions clouding her perception.

He grinned and chuckled under his breath. Straightening his spine he kept his chin up and his stride confident—when he finally caught up with her he'd be ready. He'd show her he'd taken her words to heart—he had listened to her.

He hoped she understood that.

Hermione looked around, blinking her eyes rapidly to clear them of those fading tears. She'd had no idea that Ms. Markovski had understood her to that depth—but the contents of her letter to Mr. Granger had revealed her sure knowledge of Hermione's insecurities and she'd tried to help the best way she knew how.

Ms. Markovski had a writer's soul after all.

Hermione sniffed and smiled out at the dancing couples.

Ms. Markovski introduced them to her son, the one who talked English, and Hermione recovered herself enough to greet him but didn't have to worry. As soon as he understood that her father was muggle they were talking like they were old friends.

Ms. Markovski listened to them with a sly smile—her English improved enough that she heard her son's accent.

The kind lady caught her eye and gave her a wink—"Go out and dance deary, or at least get some punch before someone tampers with it."

Hermione laughed and nodded her head, bowing to the trio before taking her first steps unescorted. As much as she loved her father, loved being with him here, she wanted to dance. He was distracted anyway, and there was no point waiting around for him to offer—she'd spoken the truth when she said he didn't like to dance, he actually abhorred it grossly.

He'd told her once that he'd danced at his wedding, and he didn't need to break another woman's toes.

Hermione grinned at the recollection of her mother's silly yet grateful face at this—it was getting easier to remember her in the good times. She didn't know what she would have done if every piece of her mother was broken and shattered.

A sigh escaped her throat—she was hopeless, she still wanted that fairytale. She found it rather pathetic that some part of her still insisted on finding the fanciful in the tragedy that had become of her family. Whereas other children only thought so, her mother had outright told her she was the cause of the fall out.

Really, there should be no room for wistful romanticizing. And yet she still persisted.

She swallowed and straightened, veering off to head to the refreshment table instead of getting mired in her thoughts.

Holding her flute in her hand she watched the dancers spin around the polished marble floor. She was entranced with the way the colors reflected and spun together.

She smiled and sipped as she recalled her first waltz, an elaborate wizard version of it that had made butterflies swarm in her stomach and her heart swell with affection and hope.

Ms. Markovski's warning proved wise, as she watched form the corner of her eye as some men laughed and discreetly charmed the reservoirs. She grinned, but could not stay to watch long as she was escorted onto the floor.

She laughed and spun; she became one of those colorful dancers she had admired in the fairytale that had bloomed around her.

Viktor's breath caught as he heard her laughter, looking up from where he was watching Mr. Markosvski entertain a gentleman and his mother.

He'd spotted Bisera in the crowd—if only because her flashy mask ostentatiously enhanced her brilliant white-blonde hair. He hadn't thought the woman vain enough to don the mask of a veela as a magical creature.

Not only was it considerably vain, but also insulting to any veela who might be present. They were not to be considered creatures, nor were they to be imitated in such a manner.

Bisera's glowing mask did both.

It had been easy to draw his attention away with the distraction of looking for Hermione. He didn't have to worry about Bisera. He didn't want to worry about the witch anyway—she'd ruined him, but Hermione had seen a man in him when even he had thought he was a beast.

It was time to live up to her view of him.

There was no need to expose Bisera, because Viktor knew the truth. And Hermione knew the truth…his hopes rested on her understanding.

He looked through the dancers as he caught flashing gold and heard another tinkling laugh, but Hermione still eluded him. Maybe this specter of Hermione was a creation of his desperate imagination—encouraged by the fanciful Ball so like the one he'd enjoyed.

He firmly pushed this thought aside. This was Hermione, he knew she was here. She had to be.

He sighed and ran a heavy hand through his stiff hair, peering through his mask and making his way to the refreshment table. He'd find her soon enough—he needed to show her he had trusted her word, had grown into himself and come to believe everything she'd told him.

And a little part of him wanted to confirm that she still saw that man, still wanted that man.

And this time, he would not be jealous—he would be honest and he would listen.

She deserved nothing less.

Amidst a few dances Hermione had spotted the waiters changing the punch, and she'd hurried to quake her thirst. The wizard dances were elaborately more involved, and left her throat dry from exertion and exhilaration.

Still, these dances didn't feel as wonderful as her first. She wondered if it was because that one had really felt like a fairytale come to life just for her, or if it was because her partner had been Viktor. She'd been entirely enamored with him after all—a prince brought into her life. She'd been like some Cinderella character…

This ball wasn't for her, wasn't really her story. Despite its brilliance it wasn't quite as magical.

Or maybe that was just her being fanciful again.

A sigh escaped her as she stared into the remains of her drink, contemplating the last bubbles. She took the final sip with a sort of despair, feeling the ambiance fade around her until she felt jaded and bare.

These were just masks she was seeing.

She shook her head and glanced up.

A sharp breath was drawn in and she quickly averted her eyes. That boy had been eyeing her earlier, and was doing so again. She crossed her arms as she looked for a waiter to leave her glass with.

Any distraction from those eyes she'd started to see since she'd come to Bulgaria.

The village girls had said she'd get used to it, but Hermione didn't want to get used to those crude eyes telling her things and wanting her attention.

She'd stick with her books if every man did so—thank you very much.

Books loved her simply for opening them, for being interested in discovering their secrets. They didn't judge her or examine her appearance—they simply trusted that she was as lovely as her interest in them.

Hermione blushed and averted her eyes as she saw another man glance her way. It was disconcerting to be considered beautiful—she was so sure she wasn't, so sure she didn't want to be anything beautiful.

A bitter sigh escaped her and she spun to glance back at the kaleidoscope of costumes and jewels. She lost herself in the colors and masks, once again watching a fairytale scene spin to life in front of her—a wistful expression took her, and she couldn't help it.

It was all so fanciful.

She wished it were true.

She smiled and tucked her chin in shyly as a couple—so obviously in love—laughed and dipped, their grins and sparkling eyes unmistakable even under the masks. Hermione's soft eyes turned down to watch as she spread her fan, displaying an equally fanciful scene.

Another sigh escaped her, a softer one of gentler emotions. Her tender reflection was interrupted as a man took up residence near her side. Hermione startled away from this intrusion, her wide eyes darting to him as she took a step back and brought up her fan in front of her—immediately establishing a distance.

The brazen man simply smiled at her, uncaring for how he'd frightened her with his sideways approach.

"My lady," he bowed deeply as he spoke from behind his mask and grin.

She swallowed and curtsied as quickly as she could. He had those eyes, and Hermione felt the disgust rise up in her throat. This man was the wolf, the predator uncaring of his victim.

Hermione would not play that role in his little fairytale.

"If I may have your name?" he inquired as he leaned forward slightly.

Hermione tilted her chin down and raised her fan, blinking her eyes slowly as she replied, "Lady Lioness, of course."

He barked out a laugh, his mask of a faun contrasting greatly with his forward behavior.

She swallowed and tilted her chin up—"Should I call you Lord Faun?"

The man startled and straightened. Hermione smiled cattily behind her fan and mask, watching him as he cleared his throat before he gathered himself. She had certainly reminded him that he wasn't the predator in this instance.

She could practically feel his irritation as it grew—a darkening in his expression that translated to a more menacing cant to his mask. Hermione stiffened—she'd never thought the offspring of 'the kindly one' could appear so dour. But this masked man certainly managed it.

It brought forth that old feeling from the war, where everything meant something more, and Hermione hated it.

Just as she was set to excuse herself her grasped her free hand and smiled forcibly. "Come now, I only request one dance."

"I must decline," she said softly but firmly, her eyes remaining fixed on him while she cursed herself for modestly hiding her wand in the folds of her skirt (as much as it would have embarrassed her, the better hiding place did appear to be down the cleavage). "I was taking a breath from dancing, and certainly desire another drink before I go again."

He leered at her obviously, even as hidden as he was for the masquerade, and Hermione shuddered while taking a little step away.

He kept his grip on her hand though, tightening it painfully on her gloved fingers.

Hermione hissed at the pain, trying to discreetly yank her fingers away only to give up on decorum and pull her whole weight from him in the hopes that would work. She raised horrified eyes to him when his grip only tightened and he grinned at her.

Viktor had finally spotted her in all her costumed finery. He rather thought the gold of her mask and the detailing on her dress like the snitch he always caught in his games. He grinned—hopefully he could finally catch Hermione.

She had taken a break for a drink—and now that she stood idle it was easier for him to keep his eyes on her and weave through the crowd.

He did so swiftly, but carefully. It wouldn't do to draw attention—not when he wasn't sure he was unrecognizable, despite growing into himself he still had a distinct walk and carriage.

As he dodged around a group of woman—one tittering in the mask of a Niffler—he spotted the man startling Hermione.

A glower set on his face behind his mask.

This was the Hermione he'd seen in the library when the other students made her uncomfortable—where she brought up her books as a shield from them much like she was doing with her fan now.

Viktor quickened his step, his long stride carrying him through many people as he kept his eagle eyes on the encounter by the lounging chairs.

He came up close enough to hear her finish "…before I go again."

The man in the mask of the Faun leered, pulled at her arm with the hand he still held.

Viktor snarled and practically flew the last paces, catching the man's hand in a grip he wouldn't have used on a woman. The pressure forced the man to loosen his fingers and Hermione stumbled into him, as she had been putting all her weight behind trying to remove herself from the stranger.

His free arm easily came around to steady her, absently noting how small she felt now that he'd grown.

With her weight held gently against his chest he glowered at the man who was shaking out his hand. "You will not treat the lady so crassly," he spoke brusquely.

The Faun straightened his spine and adjusted his collar—"I simply wanted a dance with the delightful lioness."

Viktor stiffened and wrapped his arm more fully around Hermione as her whole body cringed. "She declines," he said evenly as he carefully watched the wizard.

"Surely as her escort you wouldn't mind letting her waltz?" the man wheedled, his torso leaning forward in entreaty and his whole body seeming to sway.

"I would mind!" Hermione sputtered out.

Viktor's eyes darted around the crowd that was slowly displaying more interest and tried to figure out if the Faun would do anything untoward with so many watchers. He hoped the man hadn't gotten into the cups—or worse, the spiked punch. He was certain that had been a stronger brew than anticipated.

"I declined your request to dance; I see no reason for you to continue bothering me!"

Viktor blinked down at the angry woman in his arms, not used to her being so forceful. He remembered Hermione being painfully diplomatic whenever she was uncomfortable or uncertain—it was only when someone else was hurt that she rose in her ire.

The man must have made her more uncomfortable than he'd realized.

While paying attention to her he ignored the spluttering man and milling crowd.

That was his mistake—he ignored his surroundings and listened as she whispered furiously to herself, complaining and cursing the man before them—the man that snarled and lunged for Hermione.

She squeaked and fumbled in the folds of her skirt, her form cringing into his even as she braced her shoulders and attempted to pull out her wand.

Viktor scowled and rushed to shield her, taking a hit to the chin that only knocked his mask askew where it would have knocked Hermione down.

The man fumbled as he lost his balance, clearly inebriated now that he had to do more than stand in one spot and offend a woman.

That didn't forgive him for his actions, and Viktor raged inside that the man had dared to grab and hurt the precious English woman behind him. He finished removing his mask, holding it in his left hand as he glared at the smaller male.

The crowd let out a collective gasp as Viktor's clenched right fist impacted with the side of the Faun mask, knocking it off to clatter to the floor as some men stepped forward to hold the pig up by his arms.

Viktor curled his fingers around the numbing sensation that came from punching someone so hard—he hoped he broke the man's jaw.

"Viktor?" Hermione said as she looked up at him with those wide-familiar eyes.

He smiled and moved to reply but was quickly stopped.

"You absolute beast!" he heard a familiar screech.

Bisera struggled her way to the front of the crowd, crowing triumphantly as she pointed a finger at him. "You see! This is the man I had to put up with in my relationship! You can all see his true colors now!"

Viktor closed his eyes and wished that he'd had the chance to talk to Hermione before she heard what they all thought of him.

Hermione stiffened in his arms and he looked down at her hair as it seemed to grow around her like bristled fur. He tentatively let go—but she didn't spin to him to vilify him. No, she took an angry step forward and pointed her finger straight into Bisera's masked face.

"You watch your tongue! Viktor is nothing but a gentleman—he would never harm a woman. He just rescued me!"

"Ha!" Bisera crowed again, her eyes aflame. "I put up with him enough to know the truth! You're just some backwater hussy who doesn't understand—hero worship most likely." She snorted.

Hermione swelled up, her eyes flashing as she growled, "I know enough to tell you that Viktor is everything one could want in a man—he's sweet and gentle and so cautious about harming you that I can't believe you'd even think to say he's such a beast."

Viktor turned at a pressure of a hand on his shoulder to find his parents behind him—his father supporting him and his mother grimly nodding her head.

Bisera huffed and sneered down at Hermione from her greater height, making the veela mask turn ugly despite its reference. "Everyone here knows it, Viktor abused me. He's angry and surly and despicable."

The little English witch stiffened. "Everyone knows?"

"It's been in all the papers, Viktor was abusive."

"That's a lie!"

Bisera spluttered, "I would never!"

Hermione's canny eyes blinked and then she was all sharp angles and cutting wit—"This must be why he hasn't played the end of his season, and if that's the case then you started this mess more than a month ago."

"I finally got brave enough to get away and tell the world a month and eight days ago," Bisera retorted angrily.

Her answer was a huff, "If this has been going on so long have there been no formal charges pressed? Why hasn't the truth come out with a legal investigation—if such dastardly things have been done as you claimed, the Aurors would certainly use Verisaterum. No abuse case would go untreated for so long.

"In fact, you look rather eager to vilify Viktor rather than stay away from your tormentor."

His majka chuckled and nodded approvingly. Viktor swallowed a hard lump in his throat as his father patted his shoulder.

Bisera gaped at the brilliant young witch that had caught his attention.

This more than anything confirmed how different the two women were—Hermione thought on her feet, a genius at piecing things together and finding her own way. Bisera, much as she tried and worked in the information industry, relied on other people as stepping stones to get her way, and had no true skills on her own. She'd been jumping names to get prestige, and had no true tact or cunning.

And the milling crowd was murmuring.

Hermione could not believe the nerve of this woman! Viktor had rescued her from that absolute pig of a man and here she was trying to convince her and everyone that her gentle hero could harm a woman.

Even when she was fifteen she hadn't feared that!

She huffed and turned steely eyes on the crowd, glaring at them until they shifted before she returned her attention to the confrontational witch.

"I don't care who you are or what you do, but I can't believe a single word you say. And if anyone else has I'd like to know why they believed a little witch like you. Are you so important they don't even investigate?"

The witch shifted her weight but her mask hid any other expression of discomfort.

"And who are you?" she replied cattily, "This English woman who intrudes on our life and makes such big claims. I am Bisera Yakovich; a prominent journalist."

Hermione stiffened; all her fears about being unaccepted in Bulgaria coming back after Ms. Markovski had done so much to sooth them. This was almost exactly like home…except it was Viktor that was harmed.

She was saved by her father—he stepped forth from the crowd in his brilliant metallic mask and his glare was fierce. "My daughter is a good judge of character, and she knew Mr. Krum before. I trust her judgment."

The crowd murmured and shifted their attention to her.

Hermione laughed bitterly—the masks had truly come off, despite the physical masks remaining on their faces. This ball was no fairytale, but an excuse for reality. A painted face so no one would feel the bite of the truth.

It was only fitting she unmask herself—though this was what she'd been trying to escape. Recognition and questions were what she had wanted to avoid—but she had to accept that was part of her reality just as the fairytale of her family wasn't.

Her hands rose to undo the ribbons that kept her mask in place, and she gently cradled her lioness as it fell. She knew that her makeup made her look feral and predatory, emphasizing the gold of her eyes and their knowing, cat-like slant. Even her face looked more angular and strict.

"I am Hermione Granger," she intoned gravely with the lioness mask hanging from her fingers.

Bisera suddenly laughed a cackling haughty sound that reminded Hermione strongly of Bellatrix's more sane moments. Hermione shivered.

"Oh, I know you," Bisera purred mockingly. "You're the little English trollop that caused so many problems for Viktor. Everyone believed the papers, and told him how stupid he was to continue the relationship with you."

Hermione stiffened.

"They were suspicious, and were always questioning him and doubting him—maybe that was the plan all along? To make Viktor so harried he couldn't possibly win that tournament?"

Hermione watched the crowd around them stiffen and quiet.

"The media doesn't always tell the truth," she said simply and pointedly. "Back then Viktor was a gentleman who guarded my honor and escorted me to a ball, now he is all the more the gentleman because he hasn't hurt you for your gross lies."

Bisera sneered.

"Why did you say he abused you?" Hermione asked quietly.

Viktor swallowed hard and quickly glanced up—this was the question that burned at him. The one he'd never been able to ask—but Hermione, immediately trusting in his innocence and faithful to his character had risen to his defense and asked.

Bisera could have let everything go; she could have broken up with him. Instead she'd made him the beast and he'd fallen under a curse that he believed.

Bisera scoffed and shook her head—"Because it was true—he hurt me but I was strong enough to talk about it."

His majka growled and took steps forward but before Viktor or his papa could stop her Hermione had already spoken. "Honestly, if that's the only thing you can repeat then you might as well let me tell the truth." Her clever eyes took in the highly crafted veela-mask and heavily jeweled limbs before she continued, "He was going to break up with you, wasn't he?"

Bisera sputtered and her posture shifted.

Viktor swallowed.

"But that wouldn't be good—for a woman of your means and vanity that would be the end of your way of living. No, you had to be the victim and not the cause. Then your reputation would be safe and you could continue living as you did. But I can see why he was going to call it off—you're clearly not what you pretend to be, and Viktor has such a sensitive soul he'd see through any of your machinations."

Bisera screeched and huffed, her arms tensing and her hands stiff. The overall slightly jerky movements of her body rather made her look like she was having a temper-tantrum. Viktor's wide eyes blinked and he shook his head.

For one who'd fooled him so long her act was quickly falling apart around her.

And he wasn't the only one to see it. He could see the journalists and photographers, spotted the prominent bureaucrats and their wives, even the well-off fans that had previously vilified him were now looking on with calculating interest.

He sighed.

"That's really rather sad," Hermione said quietly.

Viktor's heart lurched in his chest, beating against his ribs and flesh as he recognized that uncertain tone of voice. This was how she talked about the people who never treated him like a person. When everyone saw the celebrity, or the Beast, she simply saw a man.

This was her voice when she couldn't understand, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to.

For someone like Hermione, who wanted better treatment for House Elves and Werewolves and Giants, that lacking desire to understand a fellow human being hurt.

Viktor reached out and tugged her back to him, turning her so that she no longer faced the woman. "It is fine," he said heavily, tucking a curl behind her ear and taking her mask from her slack grip.

She shuddered in a shaky breath and nodded against his shoulder.

Bisera's eyes flashed from behind her mask, but, as if finally taking into account just how large their audience was, she stonily marched her way through the crowd.

Maybe now she understood that less attention would have been better for her.

Viktor sighed heavily and looked down at Hermione, with both their masks in his hand he was startled to find her warm whiskey eyes staring into his from so close a distance. His skin became ruddier with a blush, and Hermione's eyes crinkled slightly at the corners.

"Zdravei, Viktor," she said softly.

"Hello, Hermione," he returned, managing to show off his English even though he was startled at her use of his native tongue. She grinned up at him, her hands coming up to touch his cheeks as her eyes darted over his face.

"You've grown."

He smiled. Viktor was still the same height he'd been in his youth, still burly and scruffy and all angles. But he walked proud, he stood tall, and he was happier with himself. And leave it to Hermione to understand all this when they'd barely spoken ten words to each other.

"I have," he said to her.

She bit one side of her bottom lip and ducked her head a little. A happy releasing sigh escaped her as she looked around at the milling crowd, some going back to dancing but others standing in groups while in furious conversation.

"Well, this was a little exciting."

He snorted, "You lie."

She grinned toothily up at him. He shook his head and released her, his touches lingering (to the point that he thought she'd notice and draw away quicker). She tilted her head at her father, who approached the two of them with his parents and Mr. Markovski.

"Little Lioness," he said slowly, a grin stretching his features. Hermione grinned at her father in response. The two Grangers shared a brief hug, the metallic dragon mask a strange sight against her soft features and curling hair.

His parents introduced themselves, and Mr. Granger did likewise. It was after their conversation had slipped into polite pleasantries that a huffing matron Markovski joined them.

"The sheer nerve of these folk!" she proclaimed in exasperation. "I don't know how many people have tried to justify their belief to me—guilty, the whole lot of them. I'm not fool enough to listen." She straightened her mask with a sniff, "Hermione, dear one, you always find the best conversationalists. I hope you don't mind me joining you."

Viktor grinned and Hermione smiled and blushed.

"I hadn't planned to dance again, Ma'am. And I'm sure you don't need my permission to join your friends."

The two grinned at each other.

Viktor and his parents exchanged looks, but smiled and didn't bother inquiring. Ms. Markovski had always been an odd one, but they welcomed her company all the same. It was always fun to see her and her son banter.

Even though Viktor stood in this small intimidating group (his father was considered a giant, his mother had his prominent glower, Mr. Granger still had his furious dragon mask, his daughter had just publicly attacked Miss Yakovich, and both Markovski's were well known) he couldn't count how many people had come up and interrupted: some apologized, but more had come to him and doubtfully inquired about the truth—as if they believed Viktor had Hermione tell them more lies. Both were not as bad as the few people who approached him as if nothing had ever happened.

He and Hermione joined their relatives, Coach, and the Markovskis in a tasteful retreat. Mr. Granger proved to be a soft spoken man, and offered his condolences while clasping his daughter to him in another brief hug during their walk. His unmistakable pride in the little lioness warmed Viktor, and he gave the gentleman a cordial nod and a smile.

The group made their way to one of the sitting rooms in the historical castle the Ball was being held in—and as the doors were closed and tea prepared they idly chatted.

It was only when Mr. Granger shifted and looked at him with heavy eyes that the tone shifted. "I see you are a strong man, exactly as my daughter described you." Viktor shifted slightly in his chair, unsure of where this was going and wary of being under the father's eyes while Hermione sat so close.

Perhaps he could see how much he loved his daughter and wanted to scare him away?

"I had heard so much about you when my daughter was in her fourth year, and during the summer afterward we talked more on the tournament. I was very grateful that you'd asked her to the Yule Ball."

Viktor swallowed and ducked his head slightly, but straightened it right after with a glance at Hermione. She was giving him and her father a warm smile, and reached over to squeeze Viktor's hand.

"I was much honored she accepted," he spoke thickly, his nerves making his tongue heavy with his accent.

Her father nodded strongly, his mouth smiling and eyes sparkling as Viktor reinterpreted the gesture (Hermione's father seemed to forget to shake for nod and nod for a shake, and a little part of Viktor grinned because he recalled a very confused young man mistaking those gestures). "Good. But I need to know if this media circus will hurt her again."

Viktor furrowed his brow and floundered, trying to figure out why the man had worded it like so.

When brown eyes darted approvingly to Hermione, and his English love blushed, Viktor straightened even further and smiled. This man had approved of him, and now was worried about Hermione catching the fall out if she started a relationship with him.

Which meant Hermione might still feel for him.

He grinned and shook his head—"I will make certain that Hermione never is ill-treated or defamed. She is much safe with me."

Mr. Granger nodded and sat back slightly, but his majka leaned forward eagerly, her eyes darting about knowingly, and opened, "Viktor was introduced to that woman at one of the meets, and she fooled him. She even fooled me for a while."

"Da," said his father with a thick accent that reminded Viktor of his old deplorable English (Hermione grinned beside him and squeezed his palm as they listened), "Bisera vaz not introduced to us until after three veeks of courting—zat time she very quiet and shy."

Viktor smiled happily as his parents rushed to explain how their son got into this mess—hopefully to protect his chances with this English witch who had stood up for him.

He caught his father's eyes when the dark orbs rested on him after looking at Hermione. His papa winked and Viktor grinned.

They approved, and it seemed so did Mr. Granger. In all this happy mess he had finally recovered the love of his life.

All the native Bulgarians took turns in fully explaining what had been going on in the media and her father only looked thoughtful while Hermione puffed out her cheeks in irritation. It was just like journalists to make a mess of things. She smiled when they talked of their plans to reveal Bisera during the ball, which was fabricated to draw her out, but then thanked her for making it all easier. They'd follow through with a few of the more legally based contingencies, but Hermione had provided a nice base for them.

She was glad; Viktor deserved to hold his head up high.

Mr. and Ms. Markovski were occupying her father and Coach Zukanov in conversation about these plans, so she turned her attention to Viktor. "There is going to be another article about you tomorrow," Hermione murmured with her head leaning against his shoulder.

He chuckled and it shook his chest under her weight. "It does not matter," he said softly, barely any of the accent there that had marked his younger speech.

She looked up at him with wide eyes. He had been so hurt by the rumors and the accusations: tomorrow would be another wave of media attention. Hermione just knew it would be bad, the media rats never ran with a gentle truth and now they had another angle. "But Viktor..."

He smiled, "They do not matter. I have a strong beauty in my arms and I know that she will never see a beast. Therefore I am not the beast, because she is very smart woman who knows what she sees."

Hermione laughed lightly and kissed his cheek.

Well, it turned out like a fairytale after all, Hermione thought. She smiled and looked up at Viktor, only to find him already softly staring at her. A blush rose to her cheeks and she tucked her forehead into his neck—perfect.

Hermione had come to Bulgaria to escape fairytales; instead she had found her Happily Ever After.

____THE END_____

First Complete Edit: September 17, 2009.