Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros. Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
A/N:. Thank you all so much for your support. I enjoyed reading your reviews to an almost unhealthy level and I'm incredibly glad you decided to give this story a chance despite its AU-ness. Seriously, each comment you've left me makes me ridiculously happy, inspires me to write more and – most importantly – I believe it helps me write a better story. Thanks soooooooooo much!
The Importance of inter-House Unity
Part 06 – A Light in the Dark
Hermione barely brought up her arms in time to keep the branch from smashing into her face. Instead she received a painful slap over the palm of her hands that left an angry red line behind. Still, she did not slow down.
"Over there!" Hermione pointed into the darkness and kept running, ignoring the way the muscles in her legs protested. It felt like they'd been running for hours though it couldn't have been much more than a few minutes. However, even with the adrenaline rushing through her body Hermione could feel her sides starting to ache from the exercise and her lungs burn with fatigue. This wasn't what she was made for, she thought angrily. She was the thinker of the group. She planned things and thought them over. She definitely wasn't an athlete and this was far too athletic for her tastes.
"Look out!" Nott's voice forced Hermione's mind back to the nightmarish present as his hand closed around her arm and kept her from falling. Swearing, the Gryffindor stumbled and hit her knee hard on a stone, rock – whatever – she had no chance to identify it as Theo dragged her forward relentlessly.
She looked back and saw the mist following them, an icy messenger of the horror that was hunting them. Hermione winced involuntarily and tried to push her legs to go faster. To push her body forward. To…
Suddenly there was something holding her back, grabbing her ankle in the darkness. Before she had a chance to gasp in surprise there was a horrible snapping sound and she fell. A sharp jolt of pain shot up her leg and she momentarily found herself misty-eyed from the pain. "The-!"
The name died on Hermione's lips as her body was launched forward roughly and she let out a startled cry as her journey was halted by some undergrowth that got tangled up in her hair and scratched her face.
"What the..?" Nott's voice was a mixture of fear and anger. "Granger? Why did you stop? Why…oh, bloody hell!"
"Theo?" Hermione looked backward nervously. The fog was advancing and though it may have been the fear speaking, she was sure she felt the air grow colder with each passing second. "It's…" she groaned in pain as she tried to push herself into a sitting position. "It's the Binding-Charm. It's keeping us from moving too far away from each other," Hermione gasped with clenched teeth.
She heard Nott swear under his breath and a moment later he was by her side, looking pale but determined.
"Come on, Granger," he said, pulling her back on her feet. "We haven't got all night."
However, the moment he released her shoulders, Hermione's foot gave in and she found that her injured ankle couldn't support her weight. Instinctively, she clung to the closest thing she could get her hands on, which – incidentally – happened to be Theo's torso. Luckily his instincts seemed to tell him to hold on and automatically his arms tightened around Hermione's waist, keeping her from falling a second time.
"Don't tell me you're hurt," he whispered, his voice shaking ever so slightly.
He gave her a dubious look. "Can you stand?"
"Yes," Hermione nodded and the arms around her waist loosened their grip. Immediately, she faltered and Theo caught her again, swearing with a bit more gusto than before.
"Hold on," he ordered and somehow managed to push her on his back. "I'll carry you."
"Theo," Hermione sighed and shook her head. "You can't carry me. I'll slow you down."
"Do tell," came the sarcastic reply as he made a few tentative steps forward.
"Not now," he gasped, finding that Hermione sure wasn't as lithe as she looked. However, the Slytherin continued on, ignoring the beads of sweat that slowly made their way down his forehead.
"Damn it, Theodore!" Hermione snapped and he groaned in annoyance.
"Can't you ever shut up, Granger? I'm trying to save our behinds here."
"I'm too heavy. You've got to leave me behind," she said, her voice almost pleading. Hermione knew full well that their chances of evading the Dementors had been slim in the first place but with her holding him back there really was no way to escape. "Maybe I can hold them back for a moment and you can…"
Theo stumbled and growled. "No."
"This is not the time to be noble!" Why didn't he understand? Stupid, stubborn Slytherin.
"I'm far from noble, Granger. Have you forgotten the Binding-Charm?" he snorted and Hermione felt the blood rush to her cheeks. In her mortification she had, indeed, forgotten about it. This wasn't like her. Swallowing the lump in her throat that rise up at the knowledge of what lay ahead for them; she found herself at a loss of words and closed her eyes for a moment. There had to be a way out of this. There always was and it was her job to find it. It was –
"I wouldn't have left you," he finally whispered, his soft voice sending a pleasant chill down Hermione's spine despite the circumstances. Ginny would be proud, she thought with a sad smile.
"Stop, Theo." Hermione whispered back. "There's no point in running."
"We're not running. We're stumbling."
"We're wasting energy," she reminded him gently and curiously enough she felt his shoulders shake with suppressed laughter.
"You got a better idea? A cunning plan, perhaps?"
Hermione smiled into his hair, her lips close to his ear. "Isn't that your area of expertise, Mr. Slytherin?"
Theo stopped, breathing heavily from the exertion. Slowly, he slid Hermione off his back and helped her sit down on the mossy ground. "Actually," he said as he, too, sat down. "Actually, I believe it is."
Hermione smiled sadly, her eyes flickering toward the fog. It had almost reached them. She sighed and took his hand. "And?"
"And what?" Theo asked distractedly, looking around for something.
"Your plan, Mr. Nott."
"My plan…" He kept looking and Hermione frowned. The fog had reached their feet now and once again she felt herself chilled to the very core as a sheet of ice crept closer.
"Theo…" she started but he waved her off.
"Hermione, when I tell you to close your eyes, you do it, ok?"
She blinked. "Why?"
"Just do it," Theo replied, sounding annoyed and apprehensive. "That's my cunning plan at work."
The ice crept closer and Hermione could hear the faint sound of battle. It was beginning. "And what if it doesn't work?" she asked, her voice sounding far too thin to her own ears.
"Then we kiss our souls good-bye," Theo grinned, though the fear was evident in his eyes. "Literally."
The fog was all around them now, wavering around their bodies, trapping them in a nightmare. Hermione drew in a shaky breath as the soles of her shoes were suddenly covered in ice. 'I'll never get to tell Harry and Ron how much they mean to me,' she thought as the sound of battle got closer. She raised her chin defiantly, determined not to go down whimpering when Theo's hand suddenly slid out of hers.
Dimly, she noticed that the Slytherin placed himself in front of her, holding up a random branch he'd picked up.
"Hermione," he said in a shaky voice. "Close your eyes. Now!"
Minerva McGonagall's eyes flickered to Slughorn's concerned face. Facing the Forbidden Forest the small congregation of teachers that had been chosen to search for the missing students found itself surrounded by an almost unearthly thick fog, their faces illuminated merely by the pale flittering light their Patroni provided.
She straightened her back and pushed her square spectacles up her nose before addressing her colleagues. "We'll go into the forest in pairs of two. Simultaneously, each of you will send out their Patronus, so we can cover more ground."
Minerva caught Nymphadora Tonks' eye and the other woman nodded. She was the newest addition to the staff of Hogwarts having joined them as the new DADA-teacher and right now their best hope of finding the children.
"If you run into problems – send up red sparks with your wands," the Headmistress continued tensely. "If you find them, you send up green sparks and the rest of us will be with you in a matter of moments."
Serious faces nodded in approval and Hagrid let out a strangled whimper. Ever since Hermione had helped him with the defence of Buckbeak the girl held a special place in the half-giants' heart. Minerva took a deep, steadying breath. With her intelligence and social conscience it was hard not to like Hermione Granger and for a fraction of a moment an icy fear gripped McGonagall's soul. What if they were too late? To lose such a bright and promising soul to the Dementors was…it was out of the question. The Headmistress pressed her lips together and drew herself up, presenting a perfect picture of authority. "Let's go!"
Eyes glittering with determination, she stepped toward the mass of dark trees that signalled the entrance of the Forbidden Forest when Slughorn's voice called her back.
"Minerva? What if we don't find them? You know as well as I do that this forest can go on endlessly."
Minerva's eyebrows drew together in a frown. "Then we search endlessly, Horace."
The small man wiped his forehead with a dotted handkerchief, then sighed. "You know as well as I do that we're looking for the needle in the haystack."
"All we need is a little luck," Tonks interrupted angrily, marching up to Minerva.
Horace sighed again. "What we need, is a bloody miracle."
It was exactly that moment when a sudden light broke from the middle of the forest, brightly illuminating the dark evening for a moment before fading back into nothingness. However, it had been enough. Minerva smiled.
"Looks like we've got our miracle, Horace. Let's get moving."
The silvery cat ran through the darkness, a mere blur to the human eye. It was determined to reach its destination as quickly as possible – no matter what. It crossed a startled fox that quickly retreated into the darkness, not being used to such behaviour. It ran through the undergrowth, past lively murmuring streams, over fallen tree trunks and moss covered-ground where it met the wolf and the opossum.
Never lessening their speed the animals shot forward past Aragog and his progeny, cutting off a surprised centaur in mid-stride until they came to an area where there was no more animal life and they knew they were close.
The ground was covered in a thin layer of ice and quite suddenly it saw them.
They had come by the dozen and were circling their victims, gliding closer and closer until the first one reached the young man's limp body. It bent down and cradled the boy in its scaly, rotting arms like a lover's embrace. The hood fell from its head and it leaned in, intent on delivering its deadly kiss.
The cat hissed and jumped and the Dementors scattered immediately. For moments all was a blur of black and silver until the Dementors finally retreated into the darkness, taking with them the cold and the fog and before the first quiet sounds announced the return of the forest's inhabitants to the place the cat's wielder arrived.
"Chocolate!" Hagrid's voice boomed as the gigantic man broke through the undergrowth and kneeled by Hermione's side. "She needs chocolate."
Minerva sighed, oddly touched by the gesture. "She's unconscious, Hagrid. She needs to get back to Hogwarts." Her eyes went to Nott who lay face down on the ground. In contrast to Hermione, who was slowly coming around, mumbling incoherently about homework and assignments the Slytherin didn't even seem to breathe but lay perfectly still. A chill went down the Headmistress' spine and she shuddered. Could it be that they were too late? Had she lost the boy? Could she..?
"Theodore! No!" With a surprising agility for a man his size, Slughorn moved forward, as soon as his eyes settled on the Slytherin. He picked Nott up with unusual tenderness and turned him around, patting the boy on the too-pale cheek. "Come on, kid, wake up!" He whispered, shaking Theo's limp body. "Wake up, Theodore. I promised…" Horace drew in a shuddering breath, then his shoulders started shaking in quiet sobs. "I promised," he whispered. "I promised your father…"
But Theodore did not respond.
Preview: We find out what really happened between the time the Dementors found Theo and Hermione and their rescue. Hermione says something wrong and makes Ginny suspicious. Horace Slughorn fights the ghosts of his past and Theo? We'll see about him… ;)
A/N: Feedback would be lovely! It really helps me to know what you want to see, what grips your attention or what leaves you unmoved. Thanks again for all your support :)