The next morning, Severus was being rudely awakened by snickering. He'd curse the moron that thought he'd get away with it. It was probably Draco, now that he thought about it. He had been way too lenient on the boy because of his friendship with Lucius and now the dunderhead thought he could laugh at him and not deal with any unpleasant consequences. Well, we'll see about that. However, he would check it wasn't Hermione, just in case, since she had the annoying habit of lurking in his bedroom at Hogwarts, but he usually caught her peculiar scent which was enough to identify her by, but there was definitely a whiff of cologne permeating the air right now.
He cracked open an eyelid and immediately glimpsed a mocking pale face. No, it was definitely Draco, pointy face and all.
Severus closed his eyes and silently sent a wandless stinging hex in his general direction.
"Ow! What the hell!" the blond wizard yelped a few octaves higher than any self-respecting man should.
Severus frowned when it was followed by more snickering. What was this? An impromptu meet-up in his bedroom? He gave up on trying to catch any more sleep, although he doubted it was later than six o'clock in the bloody morning judging by the chilly air and overabundance of enthusiastic bird chirping, so he reluctantly opened his eyes, sitting up.
"Hello, Severus!" Potter said in a chipper voice, no doubt enjoying seeing his old school rival getting cursed first thing in the morning, and by his former Head of House, no less.
"I take it you slept well," Draco added more sullenly, rubbing his left shoulder where the hex had clipped him. It appeared Severus had almost been off target, he would have to resume his training of spell-casting blindfolded. It appeared he was becoming soft in these times of peace.
"Explain." Krum then demanded, pointing a calloused finger at his bed.
The accusing man was glowering so fiercely, his eyebrows knit together over his hooked nose, and he looked very much like a giant bird of prey sizing up his next meal. Severus scowled back, two could play at this game and he was usually the winner.
However, his curiosity won out when the meaning of Krum's words caught up with his sleep-addled brain: Explain what, exactly? He doubted his host was getting all high and mighty because he was having a lie in, if you could call it that this early in the morning. A cursory glance at his side confirmed the reason of his ire: yes, Hermione was sleeping rolled up in a ball as she usually did, and she had somehow managed to avoid the trip-alarm he had set up between their doors. He guessed he was to blame for having underestimated her once more.
The witch was just waking up herself, what with the trio of dunderheads mistaking his bedroom for a tea-shop parlour, and she graced each of them with her disturbingly dazzling smile before her little nose crinkled as she sniffed the air and rose to find out the source of the breakfast smells that were just now reaching him. She seemed to have developed a better sense of smell than even a potions master with an overly large nose. Interesting.
"Krum, if you have house-elves preparing breakfast, you had better stop Miss Granger from reaching the kitchen. She tends to be a bit grumpy if they don't let her in," he said offhandedly, completely ignoring the man's demand and why the tiring trio had come here in the first place.
Krum cast him an evil look but eventually ran out after the witch.
"Out with you," he ordered the other two with a dismissive gesture of his hand. "I'd like a modicum of privacy to get dressed if that's not too much to ask."
"Oh, sure! Now he wants privacy," Draco grumbled, to which Potter chuckled.
Merlin! Give those two another week and they'd be best-mates. It was probably a sign of impending doom.
That day, in accordance to the teams they had decided on at breakfast, Krum was to show the closest vampire haunts to Severus. The Bulgarian was practically certain they had all been abandoned for decades and had remained that way ever since, but he thought they might at least help in giving a feel of the kind of places they preferred to hide in.
On the second team, Draco was to diagnose Hermione as best he could with Potter overlooking the procedure because he didn't trust the Slytherin entirely yet. Severus was torn between the hope that Draco would find something that would help Hermione and the fear that he had missed something important when he had used legilimency on the witch. Fortunately, he would not have time to dwell on it as he hunted for mythical vampires with his surly companion.
They visited the first place by foot. It was surprisingly close and he wondered if any of his mother's family had been attacked by the blood or mind-sucking monsters before they had been chased off or burnt to a crisp, as seemed to be the custom here when dealing with the creatures. All that was left of the lair were large slabs of blackened stones scattered over a large surface making it impossible to actually know what the place had looked like before.
The two men had barely started scouting the area when a naked man jumped out of a bush and sprinted off in the opposite direction without a backwards glance.
"Werewolf?" Severus asked, not hiding his disgust.
"Probably. That, or absynth."
Severus held back a chuckle. He didn't know the surly Bulgarian had a sense of humour. Or was it?
In the end, the spells Severus used to scout out the place revealed absolutely nothing, it was a lost cause.
"My mother told me this vos a chapel. The first to be built on these lands." Krum explained as he kicked aside a moss-covered rock that tumbled slowly down the hill before gathering speed and disappearing in a bush. "A very long time ago, you vouldn't know seeing these rubbles. Funny, a vampire hiding in a chapel, no?"
Despite his words, Krum really didn't seem to find it any more humorous than Severus did.
"As funny as finding Hermy-own-ninny in your bed this morning," Krum added, his fists balled at his side.
Severus sighed and sat on a boulder, indicating for the younger man to take a seat for himself on the closest of the rocks dotting the small clearing. He knew this confrontation would take place eventually so he might as well get it over with so they could get on with their mission.
"Hermione… She's not the witch you used to know," he said as diplomatically as he could muster. "Right now, she's barely a witch at all. You can't be angry at her, and even less so at me, for actions she doesn't understand."
Krum was still glowering, his arms crossed on his chest.
"For her, joining me in my bed...on my bed," he amended quickly. "Is as innocent as sitting next to someone on the couch, she means nothing by it."
"For her, yes," Krum accused.
"You're sorely mistaken, Mister Krum, if you think I would take advantage of her in any way. I am not that kind of man," Severus articulated so sourly, Dumbledore's blasted lemon drops would taste sweet in comparison.
But the Bulgarian merely raised an eyebrow and looked pointedly at his left forearm where everybody knew lay the faded outline of a dark mark.
"I am not that kind of man," the former Death-Eater repeated with conviction, and it was true. Sure he had done some despicable things, you literally had to when you were in service to a Dark Lord, but he had never defiled a woman. He would have rather been punished by his 'master' than force himself on someone and everyone knew that. The Death-Eaters, his supposedly brethren, mocked him for it, but if he had one positive thing to say about old Voldemort, it's that he never held it against him or took it as a sign of weakness, but then again, Severus suspected it was because the bastard had become some kind of eunuch in his search for immortality.
"Besides, you needn't worry," Severus added with a bitter smile. "I fully suspect Miss Granger, when her memories are returned to her, will be her old self again and see you as the... friend you are, and me, nothing more than an eyesore. As it should. All will be as it was before, I'm sure."
Severus chuckled darkly, laughing at himself for the glimmer of hope he had been unconsciously nourishing that the witch would be even remotely as close to him when they healed her as she was right now. He'd gotten used to having someone seeking out his company and who didn't cringe whenever he opened his mouth. He'd enjoyed it even. It made him feel more human, like he belonged somewhere. He crushed that thought with all his might. Krum narrowed his eyes at him but had no more to say. Severus wondered if he had finally managed to get through that thick-headed Quidditch-player's skull of his.
"Next place is underground, maybe less damaged," Krum told him, offering his arm. "I vill apparate the both of us."
Taking this as a truce offering, Severus reluctantly grabbed the younger man's arm and soon found himself staring cross-eyed at an enormous rock, that looked disturbingly like an Egyptian Sphinx.
"The Bucegi Sphinx," Krum said with a touch of reverence colouring his voice.
Severus could now see the resemblance to a sphinx, minus the nose, but those were always the first thing to fall off with the ravages of time. It was in fact very similar in size and looks to the famous Sphinx of Gizeh.
"I take it there's a story?" he asked, genuinely curious.
Krum nodded, looking up at the rock.
"Indeed, Professor. You British have your famous Merlin vizard, Romania has its Ruxandra vitch," he told him proudly but only received a blank look in exchange. "Ah, you British people are so insular, no curiosity at all for other cultures."
Severus couldn't really argue with that so he said nothing.
"In the dark ages, the Carpathian mountains vere rife vith dark vitches and vizards, necromancers and invocators too. Ruxandra created a spell to summon all their dark knowledge into a book, plucking their spells straight out of their minds and leaving them powerless, at the mercy of the people they had abused."
Severus doubted anyone could have that much power, but then again, Merlin too had supposedly done impossible deeds.
"But Ruxandra had to spend the rest of her life protecting the dangerous book from those who sought more power, and so, she created this," Krum finished pointing at the Sphinx.
"A pretty rock?" Severus drawled.
"That is vhat muggles see, yes," the Bulgarian smirked. "But the sphinx used to be living rock, the first guardian. It vould smash your limbs into a bloody pulp. Come, it is sleeping now. Ve vill enter Ruxandra's Refuge."
They apparated to the top of the Sphinx's head and Severus followed the younger man down a side slope that lead to a hidden alcove. Pulling on a small, golden chain that protruded from the rock, Krum disappeared suddenly and, disliking not knowing where he was heading, Severus closed his eyes and pulled the same chain… and reopened them when he felt the air change.
They were now in a cave. The inside of the Sphinx's skull, he imagined and followed his guide across the cave, slowing to a halt when he saw skeletons lying against the tall vaulted walls.
"Are those… Were those giants?" He asked in disbelief.
"Yes." Krum said unconcernedly. "Second guardians. They must have been locked in vhen the living rock fell asleep. Come."
The took a tunnel winding down and down and down until he was sure they must be beneath ground but finally came out into… nothing much, a smaller cave but nothing of interest really. He looked at Krum.
"Is this all?" he asked.
"No. But this is vhere you help. It is said Ruxandra hid the book in a chamber of secrets."
"And it's guarded by a giant basilisk, I suppose?"
"Who knows? Maybe that, maybe fangators, maybe bone dragons..."
"I don't even know what those are. No, I don't even want to know," Severus grumbled. "Why would you think I can find this chamber? I presume it has never been found before."
"It hasn't." Krum chuckled. "Ruxandra better than Merlin, no?"
Severus glowered at the other man.
"Vhite vampires have not found the chamber, or ve vould know. But they have tried, I have no doubt about that. Many must have come here, still do maybe, looking for the book. Good hideout for them, too."
Severus pondered this. It was possible. Anyone would be interested in such a source of power and knowledge…
"Krum?" he mused. "Do the Deleo vampires think they can find a counter-curse to their… affliction in Ruxandra's book?"
"Ten points to Slytherin." Krum replied with a grin.
Severus snorted and began pacing around the cave which was, thankfully, much smaller than the one above, but stopped to cast a Lumos Maxima to hover above them. He resumed his pacing, chanting spells under his breath in the hopes of discovering any trails, magical or physical, as well as detections spells, just in case he did discover the chamber of secrets.
Halfway around the cave, he stopped again. Slumped against the wall were two human remains, mummified because of the excellent conditions the cave offered for preservation. They were wearing the kind of clothes that were undoubtedly muggle and they seemed to be embracing each other. Poor sods must have wandered into this place, never finding the way out.
Severus returned to Krum's side when he had finished his rounds.
"There have been vampires here, although I cannot tell if they were the kind we're looking for, but it was too long ago. We won't find our vampire this way."
"Worth the shot," Krum replied and started his way back up.
Severus grunted his agreement and followed suit, wondering what were really their chances of stumbling across their target. One in a million, his pessimistic inner voice told him.
"Where to now?" Severus asked his guide once they were back in the sun.
Krum offered his arm for the side along apparition and grinned toothily again. He seemed to be having way too much fun trying to impress the usually stoic Head of Slytherin.
"The Cave of Bones."
Severus didn't like the sound of that but gripped his companion's arm and gritted his teeth as he was squeezed through a tube, soon reappearing with a loud crack still echoing around them.
"Goddamn caves," Severus muttered as he took in the gaping black hole in front of him.
Losing no time, the two men walked right in while casting Lumos. It wasn't so much a cave as several connecting alcoves that created a winding tunnel but after the first three caves, the name of the place became pretty self-explanatory with the many skeletons they came across, some of them seeming so old he half-expected the glare of his light to turn them to dust. Eventually, they both came to the conclusion that this place had not been visited recently. Krum looked about ready to pout.
"Night is coming soon. Ve should return."
They apparated right where the pumpkin-coach had left them the previous day and immediately spotted Harry Potter pacing back and forth on the front steps. Severus' guts turned to lead at the sight. His fear that he had missed something vital for Hermione's health resurfacing with a vengeance.
Then, Potter grinned, the idiot, and ran to meet them, almost tripping in his haste.
"Severus! Viktor! You're not going to believe this!" And he stopped there, panting to catch his breath. Severus had never felt like hexing a Potter more than now, which was saying a lot. "Malfoy, he did something to Hermione."
The two men who had just arrived made to bolt passed Potter with murder written all over their faces.
"Wait! No! I meant something good!" Potter exclaimed, catching both their arms.
He was dragged for a couple of steps before the two men stopped to scowl at him.
Severus was about to berate Potter for his lack of wits, but thought better of it. He needed answers.
"Explain." Krum ordered sternly, just like he had that morning to Severus.
"Erm... Well, I don't rightly know... Malfoy kicked me out."
"Let me guess," Severys drawled. "You couldn't keep your mouth shut while Draco was trying to concentrate on his work."
Potter at least had the decency to blush, although he didn't acknowledge his mistake. Typical.
"Well, anyway, Malfoy did something and Hermione spoke! A real word by herself, not just repeating after us. She can talk!" Potter said triumphantly, his grin plastered on his face.
But he was then assaulted by several questions from both men, which he should have expected given his piss-poor explanation.
"Wait, wait, wait!" Potter exclaimed waving both his hands in an attempt to stop the flow of questions. "I don't know if that means she's cured. Like I said, Malfoy threw me out of the room when I tried asking him."
"But she said... She just said-"
The two men were getting impatient judging by their nervous twitches.
"Severus..." Potter said, grimacing a bit.
"What?" The Slytherin bit out. "Would you get on with it, Potter? What did she say?"
"That is what she said: your name. I think she was asking for you."
Severus' breath hitched and he could feel a blush burning his cheeks as he was submerged by different emotions: surprise, embarrassment, fear too, but above all, hope.
Had Draco cured her? Had this whole mission been a fool's errand from the start? Did she really want to see him of all people? Even if she was cured? Maybe she wanted to berate him for his inappropriate behaviour towards a former female student... After all, he had combed her hair, carried her in his arms and worse of all, let her sleep in his bed. On his bed, he mentally corrected, as if that made a whole world of difference.
Severus felt his mouth had become too dry to retort with a scathing comment, although he had one ready on the tip of his tongue, so he brushed passed Potter instead and hurried up the steps, hurrying towards Hermione's bedroom where he supposed Draco had chosen to auscult her.
He knocked sharply twice so Draco would know it wasn't the dunderhead come to bother him again and the door swung open. Draco was still hovering over Hermione and he pointed with his off hand towards a chair without bothering to look back. Severus sat quietly and observed the young Malfoy. He had never seen him so focused before, even in Potions which had been his favourite class. Maybe he had really found his calling.
"Alright, you can come now. I think I've done all I can anyway," Draco said, sitting heavily on the end of the bed and wiping the fine sheet of sweat that had formed on his forehead with a delicate handkerchief.
Hermione was rubbing her eyes as if she had just woken up from a nap but shot him her damnable smile as soon as their eyes locked.
"Severus!" she exclaimed, pointing at him.
He didn't recognize her voice, or at least, he didn't associate it to the shrill voice of the annoying know-it-all she had been at school. Her voice was now husky, probably from disuse, or maybe even injury, and her high-pitched tones that had once annoyed him so much had given way to a throaty resonance that was most seductive. It complimented her wild appearance too.
He knew he had been gaping for quite a while when Draco thought it necessary to clear his throat to gain his attention, just in time too, since the two other wizards had caught up to him and were standing right behind him.
"So… She's healed?" Potter asked, almost jumping up and down in excitement.
"Hardly," Draco scoffed, as if the very notion was ridiculous, but judging by the twin sighs of his companions, they had hoped just for that as much as he did himself. "I only noticed that the bastard who tore through her mind had physically damaged her inferior frontal operculum, maybe by applying too much pressure through some kind of Legilimency. That's a possibility, Severus, isn't it?"
Severus, who had finished Draco's Occlumency training that her dear Aunt Bella had begun, nodded once.
"Yes, but it usually only results in long-term migraines in the worse case," he answered, trying not to look too smug while Potter was probably glaring at him. The same Occlumency lessons he had given the Boy-Who-Lived seemed to be the only thing he could not forgive the ex-Death-Eater. Gryffindor logic was as good as no logic at all. "For the migraines to become a permanent brain injury such as you describe, the strain applied by the legilimens would have to be painfully long."
"I imagine Hermy-own-ninny fought back to protect her mind," Krum said. "She vould, but it vould only make the attack last longer, and the pain vorse."
"She would at that," Potter agreed.
"Stubborn Gryffindors," Severus muttered. "Never know when to give in."
Draco coughed and he looked like he was trying to hide a smile, but he became all business-like once more as he waved a hand around a part of Hermione's head.
"I healed what I could of the area here, repairing connections, creating bypasses, but it's still a bit bruised so she'll probably be a bit dazed for a few days. She might be subject to headaches too. Do you have ample stock of pain-relievers, Krum?"
"Of course. I stock up on potions for your arrival. Vampire-hunting through Romania is no picnic. Do you take me for a dunderhead?"
"Wouldn't dream of it," Draco muttered while he helped Hermione lie down on her bed.
She did look a bit dizzy and she was rarely so obedient, but she didn't look in pain, which was a relief. She'd had enough pain to last her a life-time. Hermione stroked Draco's long hair affectionately.
"Pretty," she said, which made all but a blushing Draco snicker. "Thanks pretty."
Draco smiled warmly at Hermione before turning back towards the others as if daring them to comment and by the time they looked at Hermione again, she was snoring lightly so Draco corralled her visitors out of her room, closing the door behind him with a soft click.
"Supper," Draco sighed. "I'm exhausted."
"Sure, Pretty. Whatever you want," Potter chuckled, leading the way towards the dining-room.
"I'm never going to live that down, am I?" Draco groused tiredly.
"Nope," Potter laughed. "But come on, even you have to admit it's better than ferret."
The two former rivals bantered back and forth for the rest of the evening. Even the toast Potter insisted on giving in honour of Draco was full of friendly quips and light teasing. Severus found it amazing that two men who had such a profound distaste for one another during their childhood could get on so well now and he wondered idly if he himself could have become friendly with either James Potter or Sirius Black, but it just didn't seem possible. He was glad for Draco, however. Being friends with the famous Harry Potter would help him in the future, make it easier to bear the name of Malfoy. Had Lucius planned all this? Severus would have to visit his friend again and pry the answers out of him one way or another, if only to make sure he wasn't trying to take over the world again, one small step at a time.