February 20, 2001
As the sun rose, golden light trickled through the clouds like an incandescent blade cutting through the gloom. Although it seemed like a cool sunny day, the wind blew harshly, slapping against one's flesh and rattling their bones.
"Have you seen Harry?" Hermione wasn't able to conceal her panic and restlessness.
"He hasn't been back since last night."
Ron waved his hand; Harry'd always had big nerves, so the fussy Gryffindor didn't think too much about it. "Hey, Hermione, Harry's not a kid anymore; he has a sense of measure. He probably went out for a walk or something, nothing to worry about."
Neville, who was eating breakfast, stopped with an expression of ignorance. "Oh, I saw him last night. He was walking into the Forbidden Forest."
Hermione pursed her lips, suppressing the anxiety that almost overflowed her throat.
Was she thinking too much?
12:00, 15:00, 18:00, 21:00, 23:00.
She was panicking as she worked hard in preparation for pre-deployment.
"Is Harry not back yet?" She couldn't help but ask her partner again.
"No." The same answer.
Ron finally felt something was wrong.
"He went out last night?!" Ron paced anxiously around the Gryffindor common room before suddenly stopping to look at Hermione, his pupils reflecting the fire burning in the fireplace. "He went down to find Snape last night!"
"Let's go find Snape!" Hermione stood up decisively from her seat and walked to the Headmaster's office with Ron.
Severus Snape's mind was completely blank at this time.
He was, indeed, one of the very few wizards familiar with Occlumency, but this was the first time he'd experienced a mind blank without using Occlumency.
"What did you say?" He lowered his voice, almost repeating the Gryffindor's statement word-by-word. "He still isn't back?"
He was shocked for a moment before he curled his lips in a mocking smile. "Maybe that Potter boy got scared and ran away; why are you here asking me?"
Ron was about to refute, but Hermione grabbed his wrist.
"You know that's not possible, Professor Snape," the woman said calmly, her wise eyes fixedly staring at the Potions Master sitting behind his desk.
Snape knew his guess was, indeed, impossible. 'Reckless', 'impulsive', 'foolish' and even the term 'empty-headed' could be used to describe the Potter boy, but never 'cowardly' or 'run away'. Even the past Potter, his father, shouldn't be framed as being 'timid'.
He was silent for a while.
The emerald-eyed Potter told him to "please don't tell Hermione and the others." That "to be informed that your friend is a Horcrux isn't very pleasant".
So he sneered again. "I don't know where he is."
"Bloody hell, Snape, tell us what you did with Harry!" The tall Gryffindor furiously shouted, a pair of burning eyes staring fiercely at the Professor; he wanted to hold him by the collar and lift him, his fear no longer dominating him as it did when he was still a student.
Snape could still remember what Weasley was like when he was still a student. For his friend, he'd actually dare to challenge the Slytherin old bat?
"Shut up, Weasley." Snape's voice had lowered to a dangerous point, bringing with it a suffocating sense of oppression. "Leave! Potter will definitely come back!"
It was just a slightly more dangerous task!
Snape thought this way, tried his hardest to think this way, in an attempt to comfort himself.
He will come back, this was just a slightly more dangerous task.
"He'll be in danger, Professor." But there'd always be someone with an unaccepting heart, who'd speak up about the most unfortunate possibilities.
Hermione held back the restless Ron; the always-calm woman couldn't help but raise her voice. "Professor, we need to know the inside story! Harry is very important to us, important to this war, so we can't afford to take any risks!"
"...He went off to face the Dark Lord." Perhaps it was the Potter boy's disappearance that caused the Potions Master to lose his sense of reasoning. Snape was silent for a moment before he confided the details blankly.
"Dammit!" Ron quickly drew his wand from his pocket, eyes narrowing. "You really are a fucking Death Eater! Harry, he-"
Before he could finish speaking, Snape interrupted with a taunt. "Dumbledore's orders."
"You slaughtered Dumbledore!" The Gryffindor cursed, the whites of his eyes beginning to bloodshot; his wand motionlessly pointed at the black-cladded figure, his mind in a state of chaos.
That was also Dumbledore's order, Snape sneered to himself.
"Ron, calm down."
Ron stood in the Headmaster's office, blue veins protruding from his neck, beating with his pulse. "How do you expect me to calm down?! He asked Harry to find the Dark Lord!"
Hermione also took a deep breath to calm herself down before looking at Snape.
"He's the eighth Horcrux. He needs to be personally killed by Voldemort," Snape said, taking sick pleasure from the surprise on the two Gryffindor's faces.
"Will he really be okay?" Listening to Snape's brief explanation, Hermione's anxiety didn't diminish in the slightest.
Snape glanced at the portrait behind his seat mockingly; the smiling Dumbledore was long gone from his frame. "Your most admired Headmaster said that only the Horcrux would die."
Hermione chewed through Snape's words over and over, trying to find anything out of place; but everything seemed normal.
There must be something wrong!
She struggled to search through her memories, wishing that she could turn herself into a machine that'd never lose its memories. But by the time she remembered, it was already too late.
It was late; the moon hung from the sky and the entirety of Hogwarts was in complete silence.
Hermione suddenly sat up from her bed in a cold sweat.
A month ago, when Harry jumped through space and came back, he told her the Horcrux in the locket had disappeared… Fate wouldn't allow identical parts of the soul to exist, so it erased the Horcrux in the locket. At the same time, it would've erased the Horcrux in Harry…
Therefore, it wasn't the so-called Horcrux that had to suffer under Voldemort's Killing Curse, but…
Harry Potter's soul!
Tears instantly stung her eyes, dripping down onto her bedding.
Hermione couldn't bear it anymore; the fear brought by the darkness suffocated her, and the silence of the night made her organs cramp. She cried loudly, tears and snot sloppily running down her face, but she couldn't even think to wipe it away.
The night was deathly still, so her cries were not only abrupt but exceptionally sorrowful.
She originally believed that Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and Harry Potter would forever remain the Golden Trio in everyone's eyes; their bond as stable and unshakable as a triangle. She thought they'd grow together, graduate together, then work together and grow old together. She'd never thought that one day the name Harry Potter would be swept away, leaving an empty position between them.
The reason why she and Ron, and many of their friends championed around Harry, were willing to face death, darkness and terror weren't because of how noble they were; they were only 20 years old, an age where most people would be enjoying their days with fun and laughter. If the Saviour was a stranger who had nothing to do with her, she wouldn't be so far away from her family, eating wind and sleeping outdoors.
She didn't care who ruled the Wizarding World, she only cared whether Harry would live!
This time, Ron really did haul Snape by the collar.
The boy, who'd always claimed himself to be a 'man who never cries', had reddened eyes, tears flowing into his mouth, and gritted teeth that were still trembling. "What was the reason, Snape? What exactly was the reason he had to face the Dark Lord?!"
Yes, he was jealous of the Harry Potter and the prestige that came with that name; he was jealous of the vaults filled with Galleons; he was jealous of the chance of becoming the champion of the Triwizard Tournament; he was jealous of the Quidditch captain position; of the screaming fans, the women, the life.
But at some unknown point, Ron had reconciled that there was "the Harry Potter", and then, there was just… Harry. His best mate. The first person to really see Ron and delight in who he was presently, not what he could be, or what he should have been.
The speckled nearsighted unkempt git who snuggled when he was dozing, who gave up his treacle tart (even though everyone knew how he favored the treat over everything), just so Ron could have a bite. That Harry was his brother; someone he'd die for because Ron knew Harry would do the same.
Snape, who'd always been arrogant and proud, was also ashamed, his grey eyes blank. "I don't know… Dumbledore said…"
Ron released him fiercely and rushed to the portrait of Dumbledore behind Snape's seat; through his tears, he shouted at the silent former Headmaster. "Return Harry to us!"
"Child… I'm sorry." The man in the portrait was no longer as cheerful as before.
Albus Dumbledore, no matter how almighty and wise, wasn't an almighty God. He could (1) predict the future, but he couldn't foresee the future. Moreover, he'd already given up his life for peace and Harry; now he was just a portrait.
Who's fault was it?
"Maybe there's hope!" Hermione wiped away her tears. "Maybe Harry didn't go to You-Know-Who after all…"
Ron lowered his head, Ginny covered her eyes, and even Fred and George didn't speak.
Everyone knew Hermione's so-called hope only had a small probability of occurrence.
"We have to bring Harry back," Ron looked up suddenly, his eyes as swollen as walnuts, "even if he's dead, he'd rather be put to rest on our land."
The cheerful and impulsive Gryffindor boy seemed to grow up in one instant. "Without Harry, many people would withdraw from this war. But not me. I'm going to fucking kill them!"
Ron stood up, looking over the core personnel of Dumbledore's Army sitting in the room. "Those who want to leave, leave! Those who want to stay, come bring Harry back!"
His voice fell, and the room was silent.
Everyone looked at him, including Seamus, who always liked to change his mind; including Percy, who loved his position as an official; including Cho Chang, who liked to stay out of things, away from the battlefield…
They were all afraid of death, of failure, what they were more afraid of Harry not coming back.
They wavered, hesitated, considered.
In the end, they chose to stay.
(1) Predictions are based on facts or evidence. To 'foresee' something is when you know something is definitely going to happen, based off on instincts and experience rather than evidence.