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Falling into Darkness

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 PART ONE

-The Road Ahead-


 



CHAPTER ONE

 Obvious Insanity

 

July 3, 1997

Hermione was numb. She could feel the hard folding chair beneath her. She could feel the sun beating on her skin. She could feel the warm breeze of early July across her face, and she could feel Harry’s hand holding hers, but everything else, everything inside was numb. Dumbledore was dead, and she just couldn’t process that. Quite possibly the only man who Voldemort feared, the man she had trusted and looked up to, the man who kept Hogwarts safe, was gone.

As the service ended, she glanced over at Harry and gave his hand a squeeze before letting go. She felt another wave of grief seeing the tears on his face. Realizing that her own eyes were far from dry, she used her other arm to wipe away the wetness, before sniffling, and standing up.

Sighing, she looked back at her best friend. “I’ll be back in a bit Harry, I need some air,” She turned from him and walked towards the back of the field where the funeral was being held, glad they had chosen seats on the outside of the row so she didn’t have to cross in front of anyone, thus avoiding unwanted conversations.

Hermione continued walking until she could only hear a dull hum of the voices from the crowd. She glanced out over the Black Lake and took a deep breath. Exhaling felt like melting. Like her body was sinking, and she didn’t have the energy or the will to do anything but let it. Finding herself on her knees, she decided to just sit back, cross her legs, and take a moment. This was the first time that Hermione had been away from Harry or Ron since finding out Dumbledore was gone, and she desperately needed to decompress. She tried to stay strong for her friends, but inside, Hermione was falling to pieces.

The anxiety she felt was crippling. Between the fear and the immense grief she was drowning in, Hermione couldn’t formulate a plan that had any possibility of working. It was like her brain went on vacation, and all she could do was wait for it to come back.

Squaring her shoulders and standing up, Hermione found that she was giving herself a mental kick to the arse. Get up, Hermione. Get up. You cannot sit here, wallowing in grief. Get up, make a plan, and end this. With that steel resolve in mind, Hermione stood from her spot near the lake, and turned to rejoin Harry and Ron, as the school said goodbye to their beloved Headmaster.

xXxXxXx

Upon returning to her seat, Harry gave Hermione one of those looks, questioning her absence without actually using any words, like only best friends were able.

“I’m okay, I just needed a moment,” she whispered in response.

Harry nodded, understanding the need, and reached to her chair, picking up a piece of folded and sealed parchment, and handing it to her.

“Someone dropped this off for you. I’m actually not sure who it was, I wasn’t paying much attention…” He trailed off, looking towards the coffin in front of them.

Curiously, Hermione turned the parchment in her hands, recognizing Professor McGonagall’s seal on the back. Slowly taking her seat beside Harry, she ran her finger underneath the seal, breaking it and then opening the parchment.

Miss Granger,

    As you are aware, I am now acting Headmistress of Hogwarts, and as such, need to delegate some of my duties, especially those pertaining to Gryffindor House. I request your presence to discuss these matters this evening. Please join me after dinner - save room for a Lemondrop.

Minerva McGonagall,

Glancing over the parchment Hermione sighed. It was literally one of the last things she wanted to deal with. No way could she handle any more responsibilities right now.

“What did it say ‘Mione?” Ron was leaning forward looking between the parchment and Hermione’s now fraught face.

“Professor McGonagall wants to meet with me. Something about her needing to delegate some of her duties concerning Gryffindor House, since she is now Acting Headmistress.” She explained, passing the parchment to Ron. “After dinner tonight,” she added for Harry’s benefit, though she couldn’t tell if he was even listening. Her best friend had been a shell the last few days. Wandering around without actually knowing what was going on. She had to figure out a way to pull him out of this; they had to move on.

They had to continue with Dumbledore’s mission.

They had to continue.

They had to.

xXxXxXx

Hermione stared across the table at Harry. He hadn’t even touched his plate yet, even though she had fixed it up for him over ten minutes ago.

“Harry, you have to eat. You can’t continue on like this.” She murmured, reaching her hand across the table and placing it on his.

Harry looked up at her, and she softly smiled at him. Her best friend. The one person who always understood her. He was hurting so much that it physically pained Hermione. She could almost see the pieces of his broken heart, but she didn’t know what to do to help him heal it, if it even could be healed. She squeezed his hand reassuringly, earning her the briefest, smallest smile.

She brought her hand back, picking up her own fork, and pushing her food around her plate. They sat in silence, too numb for conversation. The whole room was eerily quiet, as the staff and students had no heart for discussions tonight. The sounds of silverware and an occasional hushed, hurried conversation were all that could be heard.

Hermione stood from the table, whispering to Ron that she would meet them in the common room when she had finished her meeting with Professor McGonagall, and requested he try and get Harry to at least take a few bites. She headed out of the Great Hall, and began the walk towards the Headmaster’s - no, Headmistress’ Office. She was still going over reasons she couldn’t take on any more responsibilities when she reached the stone gargoyle.

Hoping that had been a clue in the Headmistress's letter, Hermione tentatively called out, “Lemondrop”, and was relieved when the gargoyle moved aside to reveal the staircase. She reluctantly began climbing towards the office.

When she reached the end of the stairs, Hermione gave a light knock on the wall. She saw Professor McGonagall standing behind the desk, looking out the window down to the grounds, which were aglow with light from the waxing moon. The Professor turned around at the sound, and Hermione got a good look at her for the first time in several days. Her face was somber, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She was clearly under a lot of stress, and was trying not to show its burden on her.

“Miss Granger, I thank you for taking the time to meet with me tonight. I know it has been a very long few days for you, but unfortunately the matter which we must discuss is quite urgent. Please sit.”

Confused, Hermione headed towards the chair across from the Professors at the desk, and sat down.

“Urgent? Professor, I am sure the other Gryffindor students won’t mind a delay in certain tasks as you adjust to this new position.”

“I am sorry Miss Granger, but my letter was not entirely truthful. I do have some… duties … to pass on to you, but they have nothing to do with your house. They are of the utmost secrecy, which is why I could not explain them in a letter.”

“Professor, I don’t understand-“

Ignoring her, Professor McGonagall continued, “I am aware that you will be turning 18 shortly, Miss Granger.”

Puzzled, Hermione confirmed “Yes, that’s correct…”

“You are, in fact, two months shy of that. Though the Ministry deems you legal at 17, because most witches and wizards are still in school another year after that, the Order doesn't start recruiting until the age of 18.” Professor McGonagall had turned back to the window, and was again looking at the grounds below, as she continued. “However, considering the urgency of the situation, I have decided to overlook that technicality, and officially offer you an invitation to join The Order of the Phoenix.  The Order has never had a member who is still in school before.”

Hermione sat, stunned into silence, which honestly she could only remember happening once or twice before. One of those times was when she was 12 and facing a giant troll. It was that rare. Finally, she spoke,

“Professor, I’m not sure I understand… Why are you- Why am I- What is going on here?” She was stumbling over her words and beyond confused.

“Miss Granger, I find myself in a situation that requires delicacy, and secrecy. Albus’ death makes me not only the head of the Order of the Phoenix, but its public face, if you will. That means, undoubtedly, that I will become an even bigger target for you-know-who, and his followers. I have certain…information, that I am keeping, that I must pass on, so that in the event of my death, it is not lost. Does that make sense?” She turned back towards the witch as she posed the question.

“Yes, but why me professor?” Hermione was trying to wrap her head around this situation, but it was proving difficult.

“You are the brightest witch of your age Miss Granger,” she stated, as if it were obvious. “Before I tell you any more, however, I will need to know if you accept this invitation into the Order, and this task. As I said, it is a secret which cannot be lost, and I must have your full commitment before divulging it.” Her voice was stern, but unsure. Like she didn’t know how Hermione would respond.

“Of course Professor, of course. I will help in whatever way I can, obviously.”

“Good. Very good. Alright, Miss Granger, I will inform the other members of the Order of your decision, although no one else will know the details of your specific mission, only that you are an official member of the Order, and have been given a task from myself, which is quite important. You are to discuss this with no one. Do you understand? Not even Misters Potter and Weasley, which I know is asking a lot of you, and I am sorry for that.”

“It’s alright, Professor, I understand,” Hermione’s reply was quiet. She did not, in fact, understand at all. She was utterly confused, and baffled as to what exactly the Professor was getting at, and why she was even being asked to join the Order. What about Harry and Ron? Well, at least Harry… He was surely an asset to the Order… But her curiosity was beyond piqued, and she found that the need to know what was happening was overpowering all her other queries.  

The Acting Headmistress looked downright nervous. Like she wasn’t sure how to say the information she had, or, more so, not sure how to say it to Hermione . This was not a look that she could ever recall seeing on this particular witch, and it made Hermione nervous, too. She began fidgeting her hands, which had been resting in her lap.

“I understand this information is going to be hard to digest, but I implore you to listen, and accept it, Miss Granger. I will answer all of your questions, but please let me finish before you speak.” Her voice was stern, but also understanding. It made Hermione’s skin crawl, wondering what exactly she was about to hear.

“The Order has another spy, Miss Granger, and it is a student. Professor Dumbledore was approached by this student, several years ago, and trusted him explicitly. In the time this student has been helping the Order, we have completed several missions that may not have been possible, or successful, without his insider information. He is an invaluable asset to the cause, and thus, his safety is our number one concern. He cannot be found out. Professor Dumbledore informed me of his existence shortly after finding out himself, but didn’t tell me of his identity until just recently. I believe he divulged that information because he knew someone else in the Order had to know, in case the worst happened.”

The professor wrung her hands, and still looked nervous. She had spoken quite quickly, and Hermione was trying to digest this new information. The Order still has a spy, and it's a student! Her mind was whirling, wondering who it could be. How were they getting their information? It had to be someone whose family had ties to You-Know-Who, right? How else would they know anything. She was still mentally listing off possible students when McGonagall interrupted her thoughts.

“This is where you come in, Miss Granger. I need a liaison, if you will, between the student and the Order. For obvious reasons, he cannot be seen communicating with me regularly, even by Order members. No one can learn of his identity, or we risk losing our spy, and his life.” McGonagall’s voice was grave, and serious. She had given no hint as to who this student was yet, but Hermione was already fully invested in keeping his secret. He was obviously brave, and loyal to the Order, whoever he was, otherwise he wouldn’t be risking his life to get them such valuable information.

“I understand the secrecy, Professor. I am still not sure why you chose me to be this, liaison, though…” She trailed off, noticing the changing expression on the older witch's face. She had suddenly looked nervous again, and that made Hermione quite uneasy.

“There is no delicate way to say this, Miss Granger, so I will remind you one more time, that you have already agreed to this, and the importance of your task is exceptional.” The professor gave Hermione one last, stern look, before sitting in the chair at her desk, lacing her fingers in front of her and placing them on her desk.

“The spy is Draco Malfoy, Miss Granger.”

xXxXxXx

An hour later Hermione was walking up the staircase and towards the portrait hole to Gryffindor Tower. As she approached the Fat Lady, she stopped, nervously smoothing her jumper, and took a deep breath. Then another. After Professor McGonagall had given Hermione her… her mission , if you will, they had made a quick game plan as to what to tell those who would undoubtedly ask questions, namely Harry, Ron, and the Order members.

Stepping through the portrait hole, Hermione headed towards the two bodies she saw sitting on the couch, knowing Harry and Ron would be waiting for an explanation. At her approach, they turned to greet her, and of course hound her for details.

“So? What was that all about ‘Mione?” Ron was the one who spoke, but Harry looked equally interested. She was glad to see he appeared to be in slightly better spirits now, the red rims around his eyes finally gone.

“Well, it’s kind of a long story, actually,” Sighing, Hermione thought it best to just rip the bandage off. No matter how she said it, the boys would be jealous. “She asked me to join the Order of the Phoenix.”

“What? ‘Mione WHAT??! You aren’t even 18! That isn’t fair! Why would they want you to join, you’re still in school?! You-“ Ron’s outburst was as she had expected, and she cut him off before he said something he would regret.

“I am aware of all of that, Ronald. She said they were making an exception because I was nearly 18, and at least one of us should be an official Order member, when we continue on Dumbledore’s mission.” At their shocked expressions, she added “Yes, apparently Dumbledore gave her at least a little information on what he had been working on. She also said that as soon as you two are of age to join, they have positions waiting.” She finished, hoping that they wouldn’t ask too many questions. She really hated lying to them. Even though she wasn’t technically lying, just withholding information, it still felt wrong. Especially since the information she was withholding was so colossal.

“Alright… you’re an Order member, so… what, so we can complete Dumbledore’s  task with Order approval? Does that mean they will help us?” Harry was surprisingly sensible, actually asking her a question that wasn’t pertaining to his lack of an invitation, unlike their third counterpart.

“Yes, she said that when the time came, it would afford us the opportunity to use Order safe houses, and maybe even their Portkeys, if we need them.” The Professor actually had said this, and Hermione thought that the offer really could come in helpful, later on.

“Alright, then I suppose we just have to start to really plan our next move, yeah?” Harry looked determined, and Hermione smiled, finally seeing her best friend coming back to life.

“Yes, Harry. That is exactly our next move.” She took the seat in between her two best friends, pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill, and began to plan with them.

xXxXxXx

Hours later, as Hermione sat on her bed, she finally had a chance to think over the events of the day. It really had been the longest of days. Professor Dumbledore’s funeral seems like it had been ages ago, not merely hours. The meeting with Professor McGonagall had been entirely unexpected, and quite possibly life changing. It overshadowed most of the other events of the day. For Merlin’s sake! She was an official member of the Order of the Phoenix now! Then there was the extensive planning her, Harry, and Ron had begun for their inevitable departure. Overall, Hermione felt absolutely drained. She had nothing left to give.

Compartmentalizing the three main events of the day, she thought of just the meeting with Professor McGonagall, going over the details and trying to figure out how exactly she felt about this. She knew her initial reaction, her complete and utter horror at finding out she would be a liaison for Draco Malfoy , of all people, was going to be hard to get over. For Godric’s sake, she had to meet with him the following day. How she was going to do that without physically harming him, she had no idea.

Professor McGonagall had told Hermione of several instances that Draco’s information had supposedly saved Order member's lives, and helped missions succeed, but it was still hard to wrap her mind around the fact that it was Draco Malfoy. The boy who was mean as they come, and always seemed to have it out for Harry, Ron, and even herself. Obviously, Harry and Ron weren’t completely innocent either, they were just as often the instigators, but Malfoy was really awful. Somehow she had to reconcile her absolute dislike for him with the fact that he was really a good guy? No, no he couldn’t be good. Not really. You can’t be good if you treat everyone like crap. Just because he does some good, doesn’t make him good.

“And how does she even know for sure he is on our side?” She scoffed, to herself, since the room was otherwise empty. Maybe he is a spy for You-Know-Who, pretending to help the Order, when really he was passing information the other way!? If she did choose to believe that he was truly working with the Order, then she had to wonder what was in it for him. Malfoy didn’t do things out of the kindness his heart. He didn’t have a kind bone in his body, as far as she knew, so why would he be helping the Order? Fighting for the other side. His father were clearly a loyal Death Eater, why would Malfoy go against what he had been raised to do?

Hermione sighed loudly, and threw herself back on her bed, so that she was lying down facing the ceiling. She straightened her legs and flung her arms over her eyes, trying to block out the night, hoping to stop the thoughts that were overwhelming her, and just sleep. Godric she wanted to sleep. It had been a few nights since she had more than 6 hours, and even longer since she’d managed 8. Sleep seemed to have a way of evading you when you were constantly fighting the darkest wizard of all time. She rolled her eyes, under her closed lids, and sighed, straightening her thought line back to the meeting with Professor McGonagall.

Besides the obvious insanity of trying to accept Malfoy as an Order spy, there was the other headache that the Professor had thrown at her. Not only was she supposed to be some sort of go-between for him and the Order, but she also had to let him teach her Occlumency?! How was he even good enough at Occlumency or Legilimency to teach it? This was Draco Malfoy; he was a student, same as her, but he spent all his time tormenting other students. Hermione couldn’t wrap her mind around believing that he was that good at Occlumency. Maybe Professor McGonagall had just meant that we have to practice it together. Yes, that had to be it. No way was he that good at it. No way.

Hermione did at least understand the need for that specific skill set, for the both of them. If anyone on You-Know-Who’s side invaded their minds, and found out Malfoy’s secret, he would be killed. That’s why Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall had told no one of Malfoy’s supposed allegiance to the Order. It really was safer for him, if he really was what he said he was , if no one knew. The fewer people who knew about it, the fewer people who could accidentally slip that information.  So yes, it made perfect sense that she would need to become very, very good at occluding her mind.

At least there is a bit of a silver lining here, she thought. If she had to be in the same room as Malfoy, at least she would be learning something. And it was a skill she really did want to be good at. It would probably benefit her tremendously, especially in war times. It was invaluable. All she had to do was ignore the fact that she had to learn with Malfoy. That would be… difficult, but not impossible.

The worst thing about the whole situation was that she couldn’t even talk to Harry or Ron about any of it. She had to deal with Malfoy all on her own, and she couldn’t complain to anyone about it! Not that she condoned excessive complaining, especially when a situation couldn’t be changed, but seriously! This was most certainly something to complain about, and she hadn’t even had to meet with him yet. How she was going to keep this from her best friends, she had not the faintest idea. Professor McGonagall really had put her in an awful position. Obviously she would do anything she could to help the Order, and she was actually ecstatic that she had been asked to join, especially before she was even of joining age. But really, it was a lot to ask of her.

Hermione finally felt her eyelids begin to droop, and suddenly the events of the day seemed to hit her. She was terribly tired, and in a moment of carefree disregard for the rules, she crawled under her covers still fully clothed. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and prepared for sleep to take her.

Not even a minute later she shot out of bed, rolling her eyes at herself, and heading into the bathroom to change into pajamas and brush her teeth; how she let herself think she would be able to sleep in her clothes, she had no idea.  

xXxXxXx