VIII


"Sadness was so claustrophobic."
― Kiran Desai


It had been twenty-nine days since Hermione was attacked.

696 hours.

41,760 minutes.

2,505,600 seconds.

If Viktor were to be even more precise: it had been exactly twenty-nine days, fourteen hours, seventeen minutes and six seconds since he had first heard of Hermione's attack.

Some might ask why he had the time down to the exact second. Viktor would simply frown and reply that the idea of not having it had never crossed his mind. Friday 29th July 2005 at 8:51 p.m. had turned out to be one of the definitive moments of his life.

For the third time that day, Viktor paused outside the bedroom door. As had been his habit for the last fortnight, he instinctively took a step towards it. This time, though, he went a little further, his hand reaching out to grab the crystal knob.

Only to fall away just before it touched the cold, transparent surface.

Grumbling to himself in disappointment, Viktor clenched his hands into tight fists and glared at the door. It continued to stare back, silent, recriminatory. And he couldn't blame it. After all, if he couldn't even do this – if he couldn't even bring himself to enter that room – how would he manage to sit across from her at lunch today?

"Po dyavolite!" Viktor cursed, disgusted. He had decided earlier that morning that this was to be the test. If he could just open the door, if he could just walk into that room, it'd be progress. He'd be in a much better position to face her without cracking, without pushing her even further away than he and Draco already had.

The bedroom was the last down the corridor and the largest of the townhouse's five. He and Draco had taken to sleeping in the two at the other end of the plush carpeted corridor, and neither had stepped foot in it since that day almost four weeks ago when, in the middle of a Puddlemere practice, Viktor had gotten the news that Hermione was in a coma at St. Mungo's.

It had taken all of Viktor's not inconsiderable skill to land his Firebolt GT on the turf; he'd sprinted out of the stadium and halfway down the street, before he'd remembered to Apparate.

It had been raining in London when he'd arrived a split-second later. Appropriate, he thought now. At the time, he hadn't been able to focus on anything other than getting to Hermione's side.

Neither he nor Draco had been prepared for the sight of Hermione lying comatose on that hospital bed. Having the doctors tell them that they weren't sure if she'd ever wake up, that they'd tried everything to no avail – it had topped everything he had suffered during the war.

Draco had said the same and he'd had an even worse time during that year.

They had been sure then that that was the worst moment of their lives. At least that's what they had thought until she'd woken up, recognising them but not recognising them.

Until she'd forced them to leave her room.

Until she'd refused to see them for weeks on end.

Defeated, Viktor turned away from the door and trudged back down the corridor to his room. Draco had gone out earlier, claiming that he wanted to have a word with Pansy. Viktor had refused the offer to go with him, wanting to use the time to engage in this fruitless endeavour.

Feeling drained, Viktor collapsed heavily onto his bed. To be honest, he didn't know which was worse: Hermione refusing to see them or Hermione treating them as if the last year had never happened. It had only been three days since Hermione and Draco had started working together again, but Viktor could already see the toll it was taking on his best friend, his brother-in-arms. He understood completely. One lunch with her had had him curled up in misery on the floor of the locker room showers.

Every day after he left the Ministry, Draco would lock himself in his room for an hour. Viktor never heard a sound, but when the blond emerged, the first thing he did was recount his day with Hermione word for word.

Having been friends with Hermione for over a decade, Viktor knew how stubborn she could be. The woman was like a mule when pushed and showed no signs of wanting to move back in. Of wanting anything more from them than what they'd had before last September.

Over the last year, he, Draco and Hermione had overcome every obstacle, handled everything that had come their way. Viktor had grown used to dealing with bludgers, annoying press and interfering friends. But a curse known by only the dead; how was he supposed to deal with that?

How could he protect the person he loved the most from something he couldn't fight?

Three hours later, Viktor's mood hadn't improved. Around him, the relentless hubbub of the Burrow failed to provide a distraction; various Weasleys raced around, setting up for Sunday lunch.

In the aftermath of the war, Molly – reeling from almost losing Fred - had insisted that her family (adopted and all) meet up every Sunday for lunch. With the exception of only one lunch (the Sunday of Victoire's birth), the arrangement had been stuck to.

Despite the dreary day signalling the coming of autumn, today was no different. Fred and George were off in a corner with Teddy Lupin, talking in voices so quiet as to be suspicious; Molly, if she were paying attention, would undoubtedly put a stop to it. Angelina and Katie Bell, Fred's fiancée, were helping Molly finish up the roast and vegetables, as Bill, Charlie and Percy levitated plates from the kitchen to the dining room. Fleur and Hannah Abott, Charlie's girlfriend, chatted about Fred's upcoming nuptials, as Victoire played at her mother's feet.

Viktor's attention, however, was on the surprising chess match taking place in the midst of all the chaos. Surprising because, despite Ron and Draco being the best chess players Viktor had ever encountered, neither man had ever faced each other before, choosing to demonstrate their skill against other, lesser, opponents. Viktor had always thought that their reluctance to face one another stemmed from an unsurety as to who would win. When he'd asked Draco about it a few months ago, however, the blond had merely said that he hadn't wanted 'to break the Weasel's heart' after having just been invited to his home. Apparently, it was too cruel - even for Draco.

Viktor walked over to the corner where Ron, Draco and Harry sat. He grabbed a chair and turned it around, sitting down and folding his arms over its back, legs swung over either side. Before him on the coffee table was an old chess set, passed down from generation to generation of Weasleys.

So far, only pawns and a couple of knights had been moved, but Ron bore a look of intense concentration, eyes on the board. Harry, too, was watching the progress of the match. Draco was a different story. His steely gaze was fixed on the other side of the room and, when Viktor followed it, it was obvious why.

Hermione had just entered the dining room and was chatting away with Molly, who was clearly overjoyed at seeing her. As the older woman drew her in for one of her famous hugs, Viktor drank in the sight of her. With her hair tussled by the wind and clad in a green wrap-dress, Hermione looked radiant. At least, she would have to the outside world.

Viktor quickly glanced over at Draco to see if he'd noticed it as well. The blond's grey eyes were already fixed on him, his mouth thinned into a line of displeasure. Together, the two men looked back over at their girlfriend – former girlfriend, Viktor corrected himself, mouth twisting ruefully. Molly, Katie, Angelina and Pansy (who had just entered the room, having arrived just after Hermione) didn't seem to have noticed, all three chattering away happily as Hermione gave one-word answers, but he and Draco had seen this sight many times, usually before an argument started up. The petite brunette's face was wan beneath her makeup, mouth downturned, eyes dim and shoulders slightly stooped. Hermione was exhausted.

Impotent anger swept over Viktor. This is what happened when Hermione didn't have him and Draco to take care of her, to ensure that she ate and slept well. And then he couldn't help but be annoyed at feeling angry, because none of this was her fault. It was that idiot Yaxley's fault for doing this to her – to them. Using a curse that he had no knowledge of and, in the process, inflicting something even worse than what was intended. Wiping clean all her memories of Viktor and Draco from the last year; if Viktor hadn't known that the kreten was just an incompetent fool, he would have thought it was intentional.

It was his and Draco's fault for not being there to protect her, as they should have been. Because that was what Viktor hated most about this; the sour taste of self-recrimination hadn't left his mouth since that late evening in July. None of this would have happened if he and Draco hadn't-

'But it's pointless dwelling on that, now,' Viktor thought. None of that would help them or Hermione. He and Draco's main priority would continue to be getting their Hermione back in Chelsea where she belonged. Then they could focus on avenging her.

Bitter but resolute, Viktor turned back to the match to find that it had progressed considerably.

"My pawn for your bishop, Weasley," Draco drawled with a smirk, taking the desired piece. "Not a bad trade."

Ron didn't say anything, choosing instead to glare balefully at his opponent. Harry leaned back in his chair, seeming about to say something, but was cut off by Pansy sweeping in and plonking herself on the sofa behind the dark-haired man.

"Gentlemen. Well, gentlemen and Potter," Pansy corrected herself in cut-glass tones. The three men greeted her as Harry scowled in her general direction.

"What are you doing here, Parkinson?" he asked.

"I'm here every Sunday, Potter. You know, I'm really quite worried for your sanity," she answered conversationally.

Harry turned around to scowl at her directly this time. "I meant sitting behind me. What are you doing sitting behind me?"

"Well, you should be more specific next time." As Harry growled, Pansy blithely continued, "And I'm here to talk to Viktor and Draco, so don't flatter yourself."

"What's the plan, Pans?" Draco asked, focus still on the chess board. Thanks to Draco's recount of Friday's lunch with her and Hermione, Viktor knew what they were talking about. He glanced over at Pansy, who was somehow managing to appear more smug than sympathetic. How, he didn't know. It must've been one of those skills taught to all Slytherin students.

"We're going to question her."

A pause.

"Question her?" Viktor was glad Draco had asked because he too was confused. If Pansy's plan was anything like that Muggle television show Hermione had made him watch a few times, things were going to go south fast.

"Yep. Question her," Pansy answered, eyes bright. When Pansy caught Viktor and Draco exchanging unconvinced glances, she explained, "Find out where her head is at; sow the seeds for your reunion."

Viktor was now quite sure that Pansy had finally cracked - not that he was too surprised. There had been signs of encroaching insanity for years now.

"Pansy, ve have already tried this," Viktor pointed out, eyebrows drawing together in a frown. Draco nodded his agreement and moved his queen three steps forward. Pansy brushed them off, waving a hand nonchalantly.

"Not like this you haven't. It's a public setting, one she can't escape from. Plus, she's tired," Pansy added brightly. "She won't have the energy to run."

Viktor stared at her in disbelief. Harry's mouth had dropped open, and rightfully so. Ron's focus was still on the chess board. Somewhat unsurprisingly, however, the Slytherin in Draco had the blond visibly considering it.

"Draco," Viktor snapped. "Ve are not going to do this. She vould never forgive us." A flicker of doubt crossed Draco's face before he turned to Viktor.

"We've tried everything else, Vik," Draco said tiredly. His tone matched his eyes, so oddly bleak that even Ron looked up from the board. "At this point, we have nothing to lose." At his words, Viktor's heart gave a hard pound against his chest. Draco was right. Sure, it was a desperate move, but anything was better than the stalemate they currently had going. Their romantic relationship aside, Viktor missed the friend he had had in her before they had even gotten together.

They had to do something, even if Hermione hated them for it.

Sighing heavily, knowing that this could be their last chance at getting Hermione to treat them with anything other than the heart-breaking detachment she currently was, Viktor gave a reluctant nod.

"Great!" Pansy rose from her seat. "And, before you say anything, Potter-" she cut off the dark-haired man who looked about to argue against it – "at least I came up with something. You and Weasley have been nothing but useless. You could have convinced her to move back home weeks ago."

Ron snorted as Harry bluntly replied, "Fuck you, Parkinson."

"Yeah," Ron spoke for the first time in over twenty minutes. "Funny how you've forgotten all about you trying that and failing miserably." The red-head then proceeded to snigger nastily, even as Draco took one of his knights. The board now looked like a war zone with half the pieces having fallen victim.

Pansy rolled her eyes and airily waved both Harry and Ron off. "Excuses, excuses, boys. I'm still the only one who's trying something new." She stalked off, pert nose in the air.

"Lunch is ready!" Molly called from the dining room, banging pans together to attract the room's attention. The match unfinished, the four men rose from their seats. Ron hurried out as if wild dogs were chasing after him, Harry in his stead. Draco's gaze was fixed on the board, eyes darting from piece to piece, but Viktor knew he was thinking about what they were about to do.

"I hope this works," Viktor finally voiced both their thoughts. Draco glanced up and the two men shared a bleak smile. They knew Hermione better than almost anyone. It went without saying that neither held out much hope.

Incessant chatter and the scrape of metal against china grated heavily on Viktor's nerves. They were already halfway through the meal and Pansy had yet to ask Hermione a single question. While he and Draco sat like prisoners awaiting execution, the remainder of the table's many occupants ate Molly's exquisite roast heartily, all the while talking over one another in voices trained to carry. Boisterous laughter echoed around the room, seeming to mock the two men seated silently at the far end of the table.

They only thing they could be grateful for, Viktor thought, was that (thanks to some careful manoeuvring on Pansy's part – the one thing she had done so far) Hermione had been forced to sit directly opposite them. After having gone over a fortnight without seeing her (and only having had one lunch together since), such an act was like giving water to a man dying of thirst. With the exception of a quick hello and polite chat, however, Hermione had barely said two words to them.

At this point, Viktor was desperate. If Pansy didn't do something soon, he'd have to take matters into his own hands.

'And do what, Viktor?' he thought. Fact remained that Hermione still couldn't remember being with him and Draco, and the only suggestion St. Mungo's had given so far was for her to return to the life she'd lived before the attack. Something she steadfastly refused to do.

Not for the first time, Viktor cursed their witch's stubbornness. 'Though, it's part of the reason we love her so much,' Viktor thought ruefully, looking up at her. Hermione was picking listlessly at her carrots and peas, avoiding the succulent roast chicken completely. Once the initial hubbub over her return to the Burrow was over, both he and Draco had silently noted that she had barely said a word to anyone else at the table, appearing lost in thought.

"Viktor," a voice called from the other end of the table, interrupting his musings. Viktor reluctantly looked away from the captivating woman across from him, meeting George's dancing eyes.

"Yes?"

"You have a match next Sunday, right?" When Viktor nodded, George continued, "Me and Fred were wondering if we could cadge some tickets." Confused, Viktor frowned. He'd gone into Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes on Friday to buy a gift for Teddy (the child had learned to expect presents every Sunday lunch. Viktor didn't know if it had been his best idea) and the twins had asked him for tickets then. Tickets he'd already given them.

He was about to remind George of that when he was kicked sharply in the shin. Flinching, he turned to the direction of the kicker to find Pansy discreetly shaking her head, eyes wide.

Oh…

"Sure. Come round later. I vill have them," he answered. As George's gaze turned to the silent woman opposite Viktor, Viktor kicked himself for not realising what the Weasley twin was up to. Of course Pansy would have recruited minions to do her dirty work. As Draco always said, it was the Slytherin way.

"Hermione!" George's excitement was palpable, making it only the more confusing for those at the table who had no idea what was going on. George's exclamation drew everyone's attention to Hermione. She looked over, eyebrows furrowed.

"Yes, George?"

"Will your lovely self be joining us?" George's eyes were brighter than the lanterns lighting the darkened dining room.

"What, at the match?" Hermione asked.

"Yes, at the match. Will you accompany Fred -" he pointed to his twin who raised a hand– "and myself?"

"Well, I hadn't planned on it-"

"But Hermione, sweets, how will Viktor feel if you don't turn up? You always go to his matches. It would be rude!"

George and Fred sat there, wearing disturbingly evil grins. Hermione glanced around the table for help, clearly wondering what was going on. As Viktor exchanged glances with a gleeful Pansy, Draco watched the brunette steadily.

"I hadn't really thought about it," Hermione replied at length, eyes hesitant.

As George sat back, apparently satisfied, Fred took up, "So, it's settled then. We'll pick you up at one."

"But I-"

"No need to thank us, Hermione." Fred waved off Hermione's interruption as if it were nothing more than a fly. "You know we'd do anything for you." Out of the corner of his eye, Viktor saw Draco's lips stretch into a sly grin. He didn't need to have the blond's skill at Legilimency to know that he was pleasantly surprised at how easily the twins had managed to manipulate their witch. If either he or Draco had attempted it, they would have gotten a definitive no.

They had the empty fifth bedroom to show for that.

Before Viktor could dwell on that room once again, though, Pansy perked up. Clearly taking advantage of her rapt audience, she turned to the petite woman beside her.

"Speaking of things you're obligated to do - have you given any more thought to what Dr. Besette said?" At Pansy's words, Hermione glared at her with the hatred of a thousand burning suns. It seemed to have no effect on the former Slytherin, however, for she continued, "It's for your own good, you know."

"Shut up, Pansy," Hermione hissed, sparks flying from her eyes.

"What are you talking about, Pansy, dear?" Molly asked, peering down from the head of the table. The table shook and Viktor knew that, under it, a certain loud-mouthed woman was being viciously kicked.

Far be it from Pansy to let mere physical violence stop her, though.

"She didn't tell you?" The table shook again. "Hermione is supposed to move back in with Viktor and Draco – doctor's orders." Viktor's eyebrows shot up as a low growl was emitted from the other side of the table. Beside him, a chuckle was unsuccessfully disguised as a heavy cough.

A low buzz of conversation started up as Molly gazed at Hermione in disappointment. "Hermione, why haven't you?"

Hermione shuffled uncomfortably as Pansy answered, "Dr Besette said it was the best chance at her getting her memories back." Here, she sighed as if tired and continued, "But Hermione doesn't seem interested."

As Molly expressed her disappointment in the former Gryffindor Princess, instructing her to follow the doctor's orders immediately, Viktor and Draco watched enthralled as Pansy and Hermione had a silent conversation. With pokes, widened eyes and intermittent head nods in the two men's direction, Viktor didn't think that he had ever witnessed more said with less.

"Merlin only knows what could happen, dear," Molly's sombre tone brought all attention back to the Weasley matriarch. Her eyes were solemn, her love for Hermione plainly written in every wrinkle around them. "Harry just told me that you might even start losing the memories that you do still have. We can't afford to take any risks."

At Molly's worry, Hermione lost all steam, face fallen. For the first time in a while, she glanced over at Viktor and Draco. At her despair, Viktor's heart gave another hard thud. A disheartened Hermione always made him want to give her anything she wanted, anything she asked for, just so she wouldn't look at him like that again.

He could withstand just about anything else.

"That dreadful Yaxley took something so precious away from you and you must do everything you can to get it back," Molly said seriously, eyes shining with barely withheld tears. She and Hermione shared a look of a thousand words, born of shared suffering and loss. Silence reigned supreme, the room turning unusually sombre.

"I'll think about it," Hermione said at last. As Viktor's heart rose into the rafters, she glanced over at him and Draco. Regret and sorrow shone in them for a moment before she looked away, but it was enough. Hope, long forgotten and much-missed, swelled within his chest, making Viktor feel lighter than he had in almost a month.

Looking over at Draco, it was clear that he felt the same, his grey eyes alight with a fervency and determination that had been absent for too long. The two men shared a look of understanding, one that could only be borne from mutual love and a bond of brotherhood forged in the fiercest fire.

As conversation gradually resumed, Viktor glanced at Molly, who was still sitting silently. The older woman's blue eyes met his and they smiled faintly at one another, before she nodded and turned to Teddy, who was asking for more parsnips.

In that moment, Viktor knew that Molly understood exactly what he and Draco were going through. He knew what she had just done for Hermione, for them.

Blagodarya, Molly. Blagodarya.

"I beat you, Malfoy! Ha! Ha!" Ron danced out of the sitting room, his Firebolt GT clutched firmly to his chest. The weather had finally cleared up, the sun come out to play, and almost everyone had already gone out to engage in a game of Quidditch.

Not Viktor, Draco, Harry and Ron, though. The four men had stayed behind after dinner to bring an end to the question of just who between Draco and Ron was the better chess player. After a heated twenty minute battle, Ron had taken Draco's king in a move that even Viktor could see was a beginner's mistake. But as Ron had taken great pains to point out over the last five minutes, even great players made mistakes when confronted by 'the best'.

Ron had never believed in false modesty.

After Harry had exited behind his crowing best friend, Draco turned to Viktor.

"It's a start."

"Yes."

"Pansy actually came through."

"Even blind squirrel find nut once in a vhile," Viktor pointed out. Draco's laughter boomed out of his chest, eyes dancing. Viktor joined in and the two men laughed with the relief of death row inmates granted a last-hour reprieve.

Their laughter died away and a comfortable silence took its place. Draco's eyes returned to the board.

"Ve must be very persuasive."

"Isn't that our speciality?"

Viktor had always liked that they could communicate so effectively with so few words.

"She is softening. Ve must not waste this opportunity." As Viktor spoke fervently, Draco placed two pieces back in their original places on the board– his king and Ron's queen.

"We've always played the long game, Vik." With the deftness of the truly skilled, he moved his knight just one step forward at the far end of the board. Ron's king was now surrounded by Draco's pieces. A triumphant smirk twisted Draco's lips.

"Checkmate."


Well, the longest chapter yet and we have progress on some fronts!

Thank you for all your reviews. You wouldn't believe how much they inspire me and how much I appreciate them. :)

I apologise once again for the two-week wait. With uni and various other commitments, VIII took a little longer than I wanted. I also wanted to make sure it was a solid chapter as it is Viktor's first.

Anyway, for all those who want to know when I plan to update, make sure to check my profile on a weekly basis. I will try to stick to uploading chapters once a week, but they might also come every fortnight, so make sure to check there.

Expect IX sometime next week – either Wednesday or Sunday. If not, the Wednesday after.


Translations:

Po dyavolite – Damn it.

Kreten – Retard

Blagodarya – Thank you.