Disclaimer: This still doesn't belong to me. I'm only playing. Hermione and Severus are welcome to stay; the rest will be returned.

Thank you, Melusin, as always.

A/N: I was considering changing Chapter 25 after I got a lot of criticism about it, but I then decided to keep the original. Maybe I've ruined the story for some of you, and for a while I felt really bad about it, but on rereading it, I find that I still like it as it is. In any case, for those of you who are interested, it had to be done that way because there was a pre-sequel written shortly after DH was published which refers to these books. You can read it here: s/3684399/1/Reality-Check

There are no excuses for the delay other than that my workload has grown tremendously. I need peace and a relaxed state of mind for writing and editing. That's hard to find these days.

Chapter 26 - Rescue from Without

The hero may need to be rescued by forces from the ordinary world. This may be because the hero has refused to return or because he is successfully blocked from returning with the boon. The hero loses his ego.

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

Several hours later, the magical inhabitants of 'Paulie's Manor' were gathered in a cave at the beach around a Portkey which would take them to the Robin Hood Cavern in the Creswell Crags area. Although the Underground had kept most of its secrets, a part of the security measures had been lifted, and the Anti-Apparition circles were smaller than they had been under Voldemort's reign. The Underground leaders felt that there was no need to hide among Muggles any longer, or to crawl and walk all the way to the actual refuges. Instead, people could Apparate or Portkey into one of the hidden passageways and then follow the paths, tunnels and passages until they reached their destination. The method of hiding the caves with the Fidelius Charm and identification through familiars was still in effect, though, and the watch caves were manned again. The newcomers––members of the Order of the Phoenix and outsiders like Paulie, Sabrina and Dudley––had all signed the same magical contract as the Underground members. No one felt that keeping up the safety measures was over the top, which was a bad sign in Severus' opinion. The threat from the Ministry was very real, and that threat was felt sharply by everyone, not only by the inner circle surrounding the Underground leaders and by Potter and his friends.

Severus breathed in deeply, relishing the fragrance of the fresh sea air. This was the first time since his recovery that he'd been able to leave Paulie's house. Once they arrived at the Crags, he enjoyed the walk through the tunnels and passages and past the hidden lakes. Glad that the Underground was still well and functional, he returned the enthusiastic greeting from the guard at the watch cave when they reached it. Inside, they walked towards the general assembly cave where a large group of people, mostly the leaders of the Underground groups and members of the Order of the Phoenix, were already waiting.

"Nundu!" Almost all of them jumped up and rushed towards him when they became aware of his presence. He had to shake hands and pat shoulders. Despite his ever-present anger and self-doubt, he was close to tears. These people, his people, seemed to be just as glad to see him as he was them. The pride he felt for them almost overwhelmed him.

While these thoughts raced through Severus' mind and confused him even more, Minerva McGonagall went to the head of the table and tapped a spoon against her glass of water.

"I am very happy to finally see Severus amongst us again," she said with a smile. "Welcome back, Nundu!"

The whole cave echoed with the sound of applause. Severus looked around, a small smile on his lips and a warm feeling in his heart, despite his confusion. He nodded a thank you and sat down. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Hermione staring at him. She had gone to sit with the Weasleys and hadn't talked to him on their way to the caves. When he turned his head to look at her, however, she nodded and smiled reluctantly. He sighed, twisted his face into something resembling a confident expression, and turned his attention back to Minerva.

"Since we now have Nundu back, we can start making plans on how to proceed in getting the current administration to see reason again, or how to get Arthur to resign. Harry is safe here, and we're going to do everything in our power to wake him up. I'm confident that we'll succeed. With Harry's help, Arthur surely will see reason. But while we are looking for a cure for Harry, we should think about our strategy. Before we proceed, however, Albus wants to have a word."

Minerva nodded at Dumbledore and stepped to the side.

Dumbledore smiled and twinkled at the assembly.

"Over the last three months, I've spoken to all of you, and you all are aware that the life that was given back to me is precious and fragile. I need to live it out in peace and quiet. My time of meddling in other people's affairs is over; now it's time for Nundu and all the rest of you to lead the way."

He nonchalantly ignored the snorts and giggles and continued, "I'm absolutely certain that you'll manage to get things resolved to everyone's satisfaction without splitting our society even further. But this isn't something I can do. I just want to say good-bye to all of you. I'm going to Crete to live with Perry Price who, as you may remember, is my great-grand nephew. Perry and Parvati have owled me that everything is ready for my arrival, and so I'll be off now. I shall miss you, but I hope to see you all in Greece sometime, visiting. Not all at the same time, though."

The assembled group laughed.

Dumbledore's gaze swept over each and every wizard and witch in the room. He blinked a few times and, for once, his twinkle wasn't merry, but rather sad.

"It's been an honour to call you friends. Goodbye."

With a red flash, Dumbledore's Phoenix familiar appeared and trilled a few happy notes. Dumbledore held on to Fawkes' tail, and bird and wizard Disapparated together, in defiance of any and all Anti-Apparition spells, as usual.

Severus couldn't believe his eyes and ears. Dumbledore had really meant it. He had been serious when he said he'd give up manipulating everyone and everything. What would be next, hell freezing over?

"We shall miss him, but it is a happy thought to know that he's alive and well, isn't it?"

Minerva had stepped back to the head of the table and wiped her eyes. "Now. We'd better get down to business. What can we do to help wake Harry up? Did you find anything in the old chronicles, Severus? Hermione?"

Severus saw Hermione shake her head. He did likewise and stood up.

"Not much," he said. "The only thing I've found quoted regularly in connection with the unity of matter, soul and spirit is the symbol for the Three Primes. Paracelsus' Tria Prima…"

"Paracelsus? The one from the Chocolate Frog Card?" Ronald Weasley asked.

"Oh, shut up, Ron," Hermione hissed as Severus frowned at the young man.

"The famous wizard and alchemical genius, Paracelsus," Severus continued, "hypothesised that the spirit, the body and the soul are represented by the principles sulphuric, salty and mercurial. The mercury, representing the soul, binds the spirit, represented by the sulphur, to the body, represented by the salt. Likewise, we constantly get hints about the Lapis Philosophorum, the Philosopher's Stone, which contains the Tria Prima and is essential for making the elixir of life. The quintessence, if you will, seems to be that the elixir of life would restore the unity between body, spirit and soul. Alas, we don't have any elixir of life, nor a Philosopher's stone. And I don't think anyone living today could make one reasonably fast, not even Albus."

"And Nicolas Flamel didn't leave any elixir behind?" Ron asked.

"No. According to Albus, he and Perenelle used it all up to set their affairs in order after the stone was destroyed."

"And then they died."

"Yes," Severus acknowledged and continued, "Less frequent than the symbol for the Three Primes is the occurence of the symbol for cinnabar, but that leads us in the same direction as the Philosopher's Stone and doesn't really help us."

"Cinnabar?" Lovegood asked. "Isn't that a dye?"

"Yes. It's a mineral, a metallic salt. Red mercuric sulphide. We have the mercury, sulphur and salt theme again."

"Mercury and sulphur? Aren't the symbols for that Hg and S?"

When Severus nodded, puzzled, Lovegood laughed out loud, full of delight. "Hermione Granger and Snape. The two people who are trying to figure out how to solve the problem are what's needed for Harry's elixir of life. Now here's a couple with true chemistry. Or should that be alchemistry?"

A part of the crowd tittered, but Severus blinked in surprise. Only Luna Lovegood could come up with such a connection. HgS indeed. He raised an eyebrow and smirked slightly, glancing sideways at Hermione. She stared at her hands, her expression frozen. The smirk vanished from Severus' lips, and he forced his features into an emotionless mask. Seeing Hermione so clearly unhappy made his chest hurt sharply. Bloody hell! He'd have to talk to her, and fast.

Severus swallowed a few times and pressed on, "So, as you see, we don't have anything practical yet and need to do more research, but before we close this meeting, I would like to say a few words concerning a possible strategy."

"By all means," Minerva said, and sat down.

"It is imperative that we resolve the Ministry problem without waiting for Potter to wake up." He glared at the assembly until the murmurs and gasps had died down. "What if we don't find a

cure? What if it takes years to cure Potter? Do you really want to wait that long and stay in hiding? I think we need to separate the two problems from each other. We can't just load all our problems onto Potter's shoulders; he's done more than his fair share for the wizarding world already. We need to learn to solve our own problems without relying on a Chosen One."

"What would you have us do?" Kingsley Shacklebolt asked.

"Find out what's making Arthur act the way he's acting and remove that influence. We need all the information we can get from inside the Ministry."

"Another spy!" Ron quipped.

Severus nodded in acknowledgement.

"I can't help; I was fired," Tonks said. She sat at the far end of the table, hand-in-hand with Remus Lupin, who was looking surprisingly well, given the serious injuries he had suffered during the final battle.

"With both of us not being exactly low profile, we considered moving to France like Bill and Fleur did. When Arthur gave me the boot, things really got difficult for us here."

"That's unfortunate." Severus flinched. "How many members of our group have been outed? Can you help us, Shacklebolt?"

"Easier said than done," Kingsley said and shook his head. "But I shall keep my eyes open," he promised. "Arthur still trusts me."

"Good." Severus nodded. "At the same time, we need to get public opinion on our side. The ban on Muggleborns must be revoked." He stopped when he saw Hermione wave her hand in the air. "Yes?"

"I just wanted to remind everyone that the promises given to our fellow magical brethren weren't kept, either. There's no new contract with the house-elves nor has the Goblin problem been addressed. Centaurs and merpeople are as isolated as they've always been, and the giants haven't won any more friends, either. There's more going wrong here than just the ban on Muggleborns."

"Quite right. All of them were essential to our victory. Without them, we wouldn't have succeeded," Severus agreed.

"So, what do you want us to do first? Do you want us to attack Arthur? Can we risk another civil war?" Alastor Moody asked.

"No more violence!" Severus shouted above the commotion raised by the Weasleys, who had jumped up from their seats and started to yell at Moody. "We've had more than enough fighting. The war is over, and the rest of our problems should be resolved as peacefully as possible. We need to change things from the inside, and for that we need information about how things could have gone so horribly wrong. You can help with that."

"I'll keep my eyes open, too," Moody promised. "Some of the old-timers in the Auror department aren't opposed to sharing a beer or two. I think I feel like a bit of socialising all of a sudden."

Severus nodded. "What else can we do?"

"We need a constitution, a magical parliament with representatives of all magical beings and free elections. No more Ministry appointments by peers, lobbyists and jingling coins." That was Hermione.

"Right, and maybe we should threaten to form unions." That unexpected suggestion came from Ronald Weasley.

"That would be a bit harsh." Hermione winced.

"But efficient," Ron countered.

"What's a union?" Luna Lovegood asked, and several people tried to explain it to her, all at once.

"Silence," Severus said softly and waited until the bustle had died down. "These are long-term goals. It will take time to convince people that they actually want this. For now, the passive resistance of all beings involved, together with truthful accounts of what made the victory possible, should be the way to slowly change opinions. We'll proceed as usual. Spread the word, and let's get going. The different groups will come up with their own ideas. I suggest that Mr. Weasley is consulted whenever strategic planning is needed. He's proven himself capable."

Ron blushed in surprise and grinned. His brothers gave him a slap on the back.

"Right," Minerva agreed and promptly closed the meeting.

Severus rubbed his neck, grabbed his crutches and got up. He would talk to Hermione and explain what he had really meant earlier. Hopefully, she'd forgive him for his idiocy. The current situation was unbearable; he couldn't stand to see her so unhappy. And he desperately wanted her back. Maybe he could persuade her to go slowly, but still be with him. Maybe that wouldn't be too restrictive, for either of them. Time would tell where they could go from there. And after all, there was alchemistry between them, wasn't there?

Before Severus could follow Hermione out of the room, however, Luna Lovegood approached him.

"Sir, do you have a moment?"

"What is it, Miss Lovegood?"

"Sabrina, the Muggle woman who's just moved into your cousin's house…"

"I know who she is," Severus interrupted impatiently. "Get to the point."

"She didn't want to interrupt your work and approach you herself, you know, but she wants you to have this." Luna handed him a small translucent stone.

"It's rose quarz," she explained, while he eyed the pink gem dubiously. "Sabrina said that you needed it. It soothes the heart, brightens the mood and lifts the burden from the soul."

"What?" He stared at her incredulously and sat down on the nearest chair.

"I'm sorry. I should have seen that you still don't have your full strength back," the infuriating girl said with a benevolent smile. She sat down on the chair next to his and laid her hand on his arm.

"Sabrina thinks that the stone will help you feel better, Professor Snape. But she didn't want to disturb you, so she asked me to..., you know? There is a black cloud hanging over you. Something that helps in driving the darkness away can only be good, isn't that right?" She stared at him earnestly.

Severus rolled the small stone between his fingers. It was pleasant to look at—he had to give her that— but still…

"This is ridiculous," he growled, feeling unsettled by how easily Lovegood had spotted his problem.

"It really isn't," she protested. "Sabrina may be a Muggle, but I suspect that there's a latent talent for magic in her. She knows when people are troubled, and she saw the darkness that is hanging over you, as do I, incidentally. I know what it's like to feel like you've been kissed by a Dementor. It's not easy to get out of that state, and if the stone can help you…"

Severus felt his ire rise again. The nerve of the girl.

"How would you know anything about what ails me? That something ails me at all?"

Luna completely ignored his anger and continued amiably, "You had a lot of time to think about things while you were recovering, didn't you? An intelligent man like you would have had an epiphany or two during that time. You would struggle to find a place where you could fit in. You have a future now, and I think you feel guilty that you've survived. It's not a secret that you were a Death Eater; naturally, you're bound to feel remorse for the things you've done in the past."

"You don't know anything about remorse, you meddlesome girl," Severus snarled. His anger had come to the surface with a vengeance, and he was struggling hard to keep it down.

"There's no need to be so nasty, sir. I know what remorse and self-doubt feel like."

Severus growled, unbelieving.

"Really, I do. For the longest time, I believed that it was my fault that my mother died. I was a child when it happened, and no one explained to me that I shouldn't blame myself for having distracted her from her experiments. It took time to let go of the imagined guilt and to accept myself after that."

"Ridiculous," Severus muttered, moved despite his anger.

Unfazed, Lovegood kept confabulating. "It wasn't easy, and I was all alone. My father had to deal with his own grief; he really didn't give much thought to how I was feeling. You have it easier; you aren't alone. You have Hermione and the Underground, and they love you. They'll be there for you whenever you need them. That's good, isn't it?" She beamed.

Severus rolled his eyes and barked out a harsh laugh, wondering where his anger had disappeared to. It would be so much easier to dismiss the girl's words in anger. But instead, he felt intrigued.

"That's completely different, and besides, they have better things to do…"

"They are your friends!"

"They have work to do…"

"They do, but that doesn't change the fact that they, that we, are here for you when you need us. It is good to talk things over with a friend, you know."

"And you think you are the right person for the job, do you?" Severus sneered half-heartedly.

Lovegood smiled. "Yes. Because I understand you. We've both been outcasts, unsure of who we really are. I never found Professor Dumbledore's speech about our choices showing us who we are very helpful, did you?"

"What?" What was she getting at now?

"I like to think that our choices make us who we are, which gives us control over our lives whereas being shown who we are…"

"…implies predestined fate, and you reject predetermination," Severus finished her sentence. He had no idea where she was heading, but he was interested despite himself.

"Yes, don't you? I think we owe it to ourselves to constantly work on becoming the person we want to be. I think we ought to have the freedom to do that and not be tied down by the things we have no control over—like being Muggleborn, rich or poor, or having been lonely, bullied children. Like I was. And I suppose, you were, too."

That gave Severus pause. The girl had always been odd. It was to be expected that there'd be friction between her and her peers. But had she really been isolated?

"Weren't you friends with Miss Weasley and Nightshade?"

"Now I am, yes. But most people in my house thought I was weird. They called me Loony Luna to my face, stole my clothes, hid my stuff. Only when Dumbledore's Army was founded in my fourth year did I make any friends."

"I see," Severus said thoughtfully. His anger had subsided. He felt an odd kind of sympathy for the young woman.

"You probably think I'm too young to be your sounding board," Luna continued. "I don't feel too young, but it's up to you, really. I'm here, and if you want to talk, I'll listen. Sometimes, it's better to talk to someone a bit distant, you know?"

She seemed to look straight into his soul with those unsettling, slightly bulging eyes; at least that was how it felt. He couldn't do anything but sit and listen to her.

"Hermione is too close to you," she continued. "The love between you will cloud her judgement. And yours. That's why you sometimes misunderstand each other. Like now. It happens to Ron and me, too. I think it happens to everyone."

Severus sighed. Was he that obvious? "So now you're into relationship counseling, as well as survivors' guilt therapy, are you? My, my, aren't you versatile?"

"There's no need to make fun of me, sir, although I'm quite used to it. I'm just trying to help. The two of you aren't exactly hiding your emotions, you know? Hermione looks very unhappy, and you look confused."

He let out a harsh laugh.

"Confused? Yes, you could call it that."

Could anyone figure him out just by looking at him these days? Severus shook his head.

"However, I'm not going to discuss my personal affairs with you, Miss Lovegood."

"That's fine." The insufferable girl smiled. "Just don't forget to tell Hemione that you love her, then things will turn out as they should. Did you notice that interesting pattern in the wood of this table? It looks like the tree was infested by the yellow-bellied bark-smidgeon. All these whirls…"

"What?" Severus rubbed his temples, a headache was forming behind his eyes. "I'm too old for her," he said tentatively. "I come with too much baggage."

Luna looked up from the wood pattern she was studying and stared at him.

"You sound exactly like Professor Lupin before he got married to Tonks, you know. Hermione loves you deeply; everyone can see that. She can deal with it."

"She doesn't understand…"

"No, of course she doesn't. She's always known where she fits in, at least in Hogwarts. She made friends with Harry and Ron in her first year and has never been isolated since. She's always had someone at her side, not like you. That's why you must explain to her how it is, how you feel, to give her a chance to understand."

"How can she…?"

"She will. But you need to tell her how you feel. Don't leave her guessing."

"I don't want to burden her with…"

"But you must!" Luna exclaimed. "Believe me, she wants to be burdened with your problems. She loves you and wants to help you feel whole again. All you need to do is accept her love and let your fears go!"

"That easy, Dr. Freud?"

"What?" Luna laughed. "Yes, it's that easy once you get to the bottom of it all. At least, it's been that way for me. As soon as I accepted who I was, I could let others get close to me and accept their friendship, even though they still tease me often. I'm not perfect and neither are they. And neither are you, nor is Hermione."

Severus narrowed his eyes and stared at her. "You are making a lot of rather daring comparisons here. We're not all the same."

Luna shrugged and stood up. "True. But we're all human, and we can't let the Spirkles eat up our passions. Best of luck, sir. If you want to talk some more, you know where to find me." She nodded and left the room.

Severus blinked. Spirkles eat up our passions, indeed. If he ever had to spend any length of time alone with that young woman, he'd go crazy. Her flightiness was driving him up the wall as it was. But she was observant and well-meaning; he had to give her that. She had offered her help without any hidden agenda or malice. To his surprise, he found that he quite liked her. Maybe he should think some more about what she had told him. He stood up, grabbed his crutches and left the room.

Now, where was Hermione? He was going to tell her how he felt and apologize for the misunderstanding. That was the least he could do. What a fool he'd been. He couldn't bear the idea that the two of them weren't together any longer and yet, he had pushed her away all the time. It hurt him to see her so unhappy. But was he the right man to make her happy? She seemed to think so, and yet he was thinking in circles again. Where was she?

"Weasley!" Severus called to the young man who had just emerged from the room where they had placed Potter. "Have you seen Nightshade?"

"Hermione?" George Weasley scratched his head. "I saw her leave a while ago. She was in a foul mood."

"Where did she go?"

"No idea. All I know is that she was looking for you earlier, and then she stormed out of the assembly cave in a right snit."

"Thank you," Severus grumbled and went on his way to the watch cave. He'd have to wait for her to come back to Paulie's house, then. He hoped she'd be less angry by that time.

Back at Paulie's, no one had seen Hermione, either. After Dumbledore's departure, George and Percy Weasley were the only other wizards who were staying there apart from Severus and, occasionally, Hermione.

"She wanted to check out some ancient libraries as soon as you were back on your feet, Professor," Percy Weasley explained. "Maybe she went right away? I'm sure she'll be back in a few days. That Google Charm of hers really is something. She's already covered most of the magical libraries in Europe: the Vatican only took her one day."

Severus frowned. He didn't want to postpone their talk. He hated the idea that she'd gone away doubting his feelings for her. She shouldn't be going out on her own, anyway, Underground training or not. They had worked so well together in the past; he wanted to go with her. He was so tired of sitting around. Bloody weakness… He hammered his fists on his thighs, but that didn't improve his strength and only earned him a funny look from Percy Weasley. Mumbling something incomprehensible, Severus went to his room.

Maybe he should write to her? Yes, that wasn't a bad idea. In writing, he could communicate thoughts he had trouble expressing verbally. He went to the window and opened it, letting out a low whistle. He waited for his owl, but Lady Mouse didn't come.

After calling her in vain for the third time, Severus started to worry. That owl had been with him for a long time; she was family, his familiar in the truest sense. He hated the idea that something could have happened to the bird. She'd never ventured far away from him, and always knew when he called her. She'd even visited once or twice while he was still recovering in bed, demanding to be talked to and have her feathers smoothed.

Severus paced up and down until he couldn't bear it any longer. He'd have to go up to the attic where a makeshift owlery had been set up. Maybe there he'd find out what had happened to her. Throwing the door open forcefully, he was ready to storm out of the room – as much as he could storm with those bloody crutches – when he stumbled and nearly fell over something orange and furry.

"Mroar," Crookshanks said and regally marched into Severus' room, tail held stiff and upright in that proud, self-assured cat manner.

"Crookshanks?" Severus hissed, surprised, trying to regain his balance. He got along reasonably well with Hermione's familiar, but hadn't been visited by the half-Kneazle before. However, he'd met him often when he had been with Hermione in the past. Maybe Crookshanks was looking for his mistress?

"Hermione isn't here," Severus said and bent down to scratch the cat behind his ears.

"I know," he heard a voice in his mind. No, not exactly a voice, more like the idea, the concept of a voice, but clearly understandable nonetheless. In fact, it felt just as if he were communicating with his own familiar.

"My human takes Mouse-Hunter-Bird with her. I look after you," was the next thought that manifested in Severus' mind.

"You?" Severus said flabbergasted. "You can talk to me?"

If cats could snort, Crookshanks would have. "You're mates. Mouse-Hunter-Bird talks to her, I talk to you. All is well."

Severus sat down heavily. Crookshanks jumped up on his lap, treaded with his paws and purred. He projected perfect contentment, just as Mouse did when he stroked her feathers.

Severus sighed. Even their familiars knew that they belonged together. Everybody seemed to know this except him. What a fool he was. He leaned back and closed his eyes. He briefly considered sending a letter with a borrowed owl, but decided against it. He'd wait for Hermione to return, and then they'd talk.

But what could he say to her? He'd have to open up, let her in and offer himself, flaws and all. He'd have to warn her about the darkness inside him, though, but maybe she would want to help him find out who he was. Lovegood might have had a point there.

He realized that the guilty part of him was an important part of what defined him, and he understood that the guilt would remain a part of him forever. But there weren't only bad things in his past, were there? His good deeds had shaped him, too. And did it really make a difference to weigh these things against each other? Shouldn't he just accept them as defining moments of his past and rather explore who he was now and where he could go from here?

He was well aware that he would never be popular or appear likeable to most people, but that wasn't what he wanted to be, was it? What and who did he want to be, anyway? He was certain about one thing, though. He didn't want to be like his father. And yet, he recognized so much of his father in himself, especially in his anger and his flights of temper. His father had always been angry, volatile and often violent. Severus wasn't certain if he could successfully suppress that part of himself, that part that made him so much like his father. He knew that losing control would mean losing everything he had worked for, every person who had befriended him, the respect of the Underground – and the love of Hermione. She had to know about his struggle. He would have to tell her, to make her understand why she had to have a choice: why being with him would never be easy, why it would be better for her if she gave up on him.

He could almost hear her reply: You are not your father. You don't give in to your anger… And maybe knowing what was possible and fighting against it did make him a different person after all, a person who could learn to accept love…

One of the things that constantly amazed him was that the people in the Underground seemed to really respect him, despite his temper, and not only because of his role as spy and leader. Was it true? Did he have friends who accepted him for who he was, without wanting to use him for some selfish scheme? Wasn't this too good to be true? Maybe he was lucky for once, or was he? He would only find that out for good when their world was truly free and at peace.

But then, that wasn't something other people could be certain about either, was it? Maybe he wasn't so different from other people, then? They all struggled for the same things, in the long run. Could he accept this for himself? Did this absolve him from his dark past? Could this compensate for the monster inside? Should he risk Hermione for a maybe? He sighed. Lovegood was right. Hermione should be the one to make that choice, and it should be an informed choice. He had hurt her already by assuming he was acting in her best interest. He'd have to accept her verdict, whatever it was. He surprised himself by feeling elated by that thought. Maybe there was a chance after all. But first, he needed to talk to her and try to make things right.

Six days later, Severus got an owl from Minerva announcing a meeting for the next day. He knew that the Underground would be meeting again at the Robin Hood caverns; they had agreed on that in their last gathering, and so there was no need for Minerva to have put the location in writing. What Severus didn't know was that the Muggles were coming, too.

"Hermione has found a ritual which might require the participation of a blood relative," Minerva explained while she slowly walked with him through the hidden passageways in the concealed part of the cave. The Muggles had been picked up by Lola and were walking ahead.

"Where is she? Is she here, too?" Severus asked. He was slightly out of breath, whether it was from the anticipation of seeing Hermione again or from the exercise, he didn't quite know. He could walk without crutches now, but still felt as weak as a kitten.

"She's in the cave, waiting. She's only just come back and asked me to call a meeting straight away." Minerva gave Severus a curious look.

Severus avoided her gaze and swore under his breath.

In the office cave, a small group of people was already sitting around a table. Severus saw Lovegood and the Weasleys, the two Muggles, Moody and Tonks and Lupin, who had decided to stay with the Underground rather than move to France. Hermione stood at one end with a notebook and several unrolled scrolls in front of her. She looked up when he entered the room and frowned.

Severus nodded a greeting at everyone and tried to keep down the anger that had flared up with renewed vigour. Why was she frowning? He really didn't understand her. He had been so happy to see her, and she'd greeted him with a frown. He desperately wanted to apologize and set things right between them, if that was what she wanted, but did she even want it? By the looks of it, she wasn't very glad to see him. Would he ever understand her? He had his doubts.

"Thanks for coming at such short notice," Minerva said. "Hermione's just come back from the secret library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. She's found some clues that might help us revive Mr. Potter. All of us here know Harry well, which is why this group was chosen. Hermione, please begin."

"Thank you Minerva. Didn't Kingsley…?"

"He's been notified, but I didn't get a reply. In fact, I didn't hear from him all of last week, did you?" She looked at Moody, who shook his head.

Severus narrowed his eyes. He would have liked to have had a word with Kingsley, but before he could say anything, Minerva continued, "I suppose he's tied up in the Ministry. We'll have to clue him in later. Hermione?"

"Yes," Hermione said. "As you know, the magical section of the library in Nineveh didn't suffer from the same amount of destruction as the Muggle part. Many of the ancient texts are still undamaged. Thanks to the flame-repelling spells, we still have the wax tablets, leather scrolls and papyri, not only fragments of burnt clay tablets. I got the idea of going there while I was in the Vatican archive. I found a footnote linking to a comparison of the description of hell in the Bible with that in the Sha naqba imuru: He who Saw the Deep. You know, the Gilgamesh epic. There's a theory that the Judeo-Christian god is actually the Sumerian god Ilu or Enlil, who is known for his violent and unforgiving temper. Whereas his brother Enki or Ea…"

"What does this have to do with Potter?" interrupted Severus, which won him a glare from Hermione. He stared back, stone-faced.

"Sorry, I got distracted," she snapped. "The parallels are fascinating, and it's worth studying thoroughly. All these ancient stories are full of little gems that should be of interest to any witch or wizard. Even Muggles know about the epic; several copies of the tablets were spread around in the non-magical libraries of the area, and they have managed to decipher a small part, together with a few other stories. There's a creation myth that's at the same time similar and yet quite different from…"

"Potter. What does it have to do with Potter?" Severus thundered, feeling how his impatience caused his misgivings about himself and a possible commitment to return full force.

Hermione lifted her head and looked down her nose at him. She sniffed. "Maybe all of you are familiar with the full epic, but I doubt it, and so I was trying to summarize."

"I only have a vague recollection of the epic, Hermione. Please continue," Minerva said amiably.

"Very well... There are several versions of the stories about King Gilgamesh of Uruk and his friend and companion Enkidu, and in each version, Enkidu dies in the end, and Gilgamesh is heartbroken and tries to bring him back to life. Gilgamesh eventually learns that mortality is something that every human must face and that his being partly a god doesn't make him immortal. There is a well-known version with Enkidu dying from a disease and another one where he goes to the Underworld instead of his friend and cannot return because he didn't listen to Gilgamesh's advice and angered everyone he met there:

'And for this quest his friend alone did pledge.
So Gilgamesh said this to Enkidu:
'Descend, descend to Hell where life does end
but listen now to words you need to know.
Go slow to where death rules, my brother dear,
and then arise again above and over fear.' (1)

"That's how it starts," she quoted. "Enkidu doesn't listen to Gilgamesh's advice and angers everybody he encounters in the Underworld and thus can't return. Gilgamesh is heartbroken and goes to the gods to plea for his friend's return. But Enlil, or Illu, the vengeful Lord of the Wind, wasn't interested; he won't help. The moon god doesn't help, either. So Gilgamesh goes to the Lord of Earth and Sweet Water, Enki or Ea:

"'My god,' he cried, 'when death
called for me, my best friend went
in my place and he is now no longer living.' (1)

"Enki had Mercy and sent someone who showed him the way, and so Gilgamesh went half-way through the earth and was able to speak to Enkidu,

"'Tell me of death and where you are.'
'Not willingly do I speak of death,'
said Enkidu in slow reply.
'But if you wish to sit for a brief
time, I will describe where I do stay.'
'Yes,' his brother said in early grief.
'All my skin and all my bones are dead now.
All my skin and all my bones are now dead.'
'Oh no,' cried Gilgamesh without relief.
'Oh no,' sobbed one enclosed by grief." (1)

"You see, he is really dead. His skin, his flesh, his bones are dead, but Gilgamesh managed to bring him back by performing a ritual that brings the spirit back by binding the soul to the dead body. If that ritual worked in that case then why shouldn't it work for Harry, whose body is still alive? We wouldn't even have to find a substitute to leave for Harry, which is another kind of ritual described in later, related myths. For instance, where Inanna, who also is Ishtar, and later Isis, was captured and…"

"Back to Potter,"Severus reminded her.

Hermione nodded, grinned sheepishly, took a deep breath and looked around. Her eyes were shining, and her cheeks were flushed. Severus couldn't take his eyes off her, but he also listened raptly because he was intrigued. He had never read the Gilgamesh epic and wanted to know more. By the looks of it, even the Muggles were interested.

"Most of this is known to Muggles as well," Hermione continued, nodding to Sabrina, who looked all excited, obviously bursting to say something. "But there is more. There's another part that's hidden from Muggles. The Song of Enkidu is a long recollection of the different ways Gilgamesh tried to bring Enkidu back to life. He didn't succeed at first, and only when he accepted his own mortality and was living a full and joyful life, did Enki grant him his wish. Unfortunately, that part of the ritual hasn't been completely preserved, and I haven't found it in Nineveh or elsewhere. The older Sumerian version doesn't contain it, either.

"What we have is this:

"'And Enki saw that Gilgamesh had learned
that fighting the fate of humans is futile and ruins the joy in life.
So he sent his son to teach the ritual
of freeing kin from death to live a life of love,
a life worthy of the brother of a king.
And Gilgamesh went through darkness to win the water of life.
And he gathered the stone things.
And he gathered the essence.
So Gilgamesh made the water of life.
For Enkidu was knowingly given the soul of his mother,
willingly given the love of his brother,
joyfully offered forgiveness of his foe.
The king took the essence of each and watched it flow.
Blood, flesh and bone are as mud, stick and stone,
they must be together, and not alone.
Being born from the sea set Enkidu free.' (2)

"That's it," Hermione said and looked around with a radiant smile. She seemed to have forgotten that she was mad at Severus, at least for the moment, since she included him when she beamed at the group. No one spoke. They all needed to make sense of what they'd just heard.

Severus closed his eyes in concentration. That last part rang a bell. He had heard something similar before, but where?

"And what does this all mean?" Ron Weasley finally broke the silence.

"I'm not sure," Hermione replied, "but I think that last part sounds promising."

"How accurate is the translation?" Minerva asked. "It all sounds rather cryptic."

"I translated it myself," Hermione stated proudly. "Cuneiform is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it, and I had both the Akkadian and the Sumerian texts to make comparisons. You know that I was always good at Ancient Runes– We need to figure out what it all means, though, of course."

George Weasley was whispering something into Ronald's ear that caused them both to giggle under their breath. Percy looked very impressed and was about to say something when suddenly Severus remembered why that last verse had sounded so familar.

"'Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son!
Flesh of the servant willingly given you will revive your master.
Blood of the enemy forcibly taken you will resurrect your foe
.'" (3)

As he quoted, a shudder went down his spine.

"What?" Hermione stared at him wide-eyed. So did everybody else.

"It was the ritual the Dark… Voldemort used to get his body back the night of the last task of the Tri Wizard Tournament when Cedric Diggory was killed. I wasn't there, but I saw Lucius' memories in a Pensieve."

"Harry told us, too," Hermione whispered, and Ron nodded. Both looked pale.

"So what is this?" Minerva asked. "Do we have to resort to Dark Magic to revive Mr. Potter? I am afraid the result will not be what we want to achieve if that is the case."

"It's not necessarily Dark Magic," Severus said thoughtfully. "Albus holds the theory that many Dark spells are aberrations of benevolent magic. I tend to agree. The phoenix protection that saved Albus' life is the benevolent version of Horcrux creation. I find it quite likely that the Blood, Flesh and Bone spell was such a perversion of a benevolent ritual, too. Could you repeat that last part of the verse, please?"

"'Blood, flesh and bone are as mud, stick and stone,
they must be together, and not alone.
Being born from the sea shall set Enkidu free.'

"Is that what you mean?" Hermione asked after she had read the last part again.

"Yes, it directly quotes blood, flesh and bone. But there is no reference to it in the earlier part, the lines just before that, the ones that mostly resemble the Dark ritual."

"'For Enkidu was knowingly given the soul of his mother,
willingly given the love of his brother,
joyfully offered forgiveness of his foe.
The king took the essence of each and watched it flow.'

"You're right. That sounds similar," Hermione said and smiled. "I think we're onto something here."

"Voldemort's ritual required a potion with those three ingredients. His, er, body, for lack of a better word, was placed into that potion, and he arose renewed."

"Being born from the sea!" Luna exclaimed.

"Yes, I suppose it can be interpreted that way," Severus agreed. "The potion would likely be the water of life of that earlier verse."

"So it's not the same as the elixir of life?" Ron asked, looking confused.

"I don't know," Severus admitted. "There are stone things mentioned in that verse, but I don't know what they are. They may or may not be related to the Philosopher's Stone."

"There is another reference to the stone things in the creation myth," Hermione threw in. "The stone things seem to be magical; they were propelling a boat. There must have been charms on them, or maybe they contained elemental magic. They belonged to the Sumerian and Babylonian equivalent of the Biblical Noah, but if I recall correctly, Gilgamesh destroyed them in his pledge for immortality. There wasn't much more than that…"

"We need to know more details about the stone things, but perhaps we don't really need them. Voldemort's potion didn't contain a stone, and maybe we don't need one, either.

"Maybe," Hermione said, but she looked doubtful. Severus had to admit that she looked how he felt. He had a hunch that they would need those stone things after all. He sighed and forced his mind back to the immediate conversation.

"Anyway," he continued, "none of the ingredients for Voldemort were really willingly given, although Wormtail's contribution is debatable. I think that Wormtail was intimidated, and that might be one of the reasons why that ritual didn't quite produce the handsome face and body that had once belonged to Tom Riddle. The contrast with the requirements in the epic are striking, if you think about it. In the epic, it's all about love, forgiveness and kinship of souls. Soul of the mother. Just like Lily's sacrifice. She gave a part of her soul to her son, out of love, and this protected his own soul when it was threatened to be ripped out of him by the Killing Curse. The ingredients in the epic are described as loving gifts while Voldemort's ritual was all about forceful taking, about stealing, really. That's typical for predatory Dark Magic."

"That means we'd better be careful with this potion. We wouldn't want Harry to look like Voldemort," Ron Weasley quipped and, judging by the guffaws, everybody seemed to be glad for the relief of tension. After the laughter had died down, Weasley continued, "So these three things would have to be ingredients in a potion for Harry? But how can he get the soul from his mother if his mother is dead?"

"Maybe the soul fragment from the protection spell is sufficient?" Percy speculated.

"He lost that when he came of age. That particular spell only works for children. This one here is different, and it needs a mother who is willing to do what's necessary to give a part of her soul," Severus explained.

He looked thoughtfully at Dudley, but given the attitude Petunia Dursley had always displayed towards everybody with magical talent, he didn't have much hope. However, he had to ask. "I don't suppose your mother…?"

Dudley swallowed and shook his head. "Mum never saw Harry as her son. She wouldn't start now."

"How do you get the soul from someone, anyway?" Sabrina asked.

Hermione and Severus looked at each other. They had unthinkingly fallen back into the easy rapport they had shared when they had worked together during the war. This was how they had solved many a problem, and if Hermione was willing to set their differences aside while they worked together, so was he.

"This is one of the big questions," Hermione replied. "We only know that a blood sacrifice can make the gift of a soul fragment possible, as was the case with Harry's mother. It's described in 'Magicks and Legends: Forgotten Spells Most Eville and Benevolente.' Harry, too, wanted to sacrifice a piece of his soul to make Tom Riddle human again, but something must have gone wrong when Wormtail killed Riddle so shortly after the transfer. We think that Harry's soul got so frightened by the violent loss of that fragment that it got confused and lost and now can't find the way back into his body."

Hermione paused and looked at Severus. "Come to think of it, the ritual we used to lend our love to Harry's to make a living sacrifice possible has a few elements these ancient rituals have as well. You know, love of the brother, forgiveness of foe. It's all based on the same principle, apparently."

Severus nodded. "Yes. And the principle is love, the greatest power of all. Love transcends death, and without love, life loses its meaning."

Hermione stared at him for a long moment, then she seemed to shake herself out of her thoughts. "Anyway, another way to lose one's soul while still being alive is the Dementors' Kiss. They can suck a soul out of a person. They find their nourishment in souls."

"They eat them?" Sabrina asked.

"In a sense…"

"How horrible," Sabrina whispered. "I thought souls were indestructable?"

"We don't really know what happens to the souls when they are separated from the body. I mean, we don't know a lot about souls at all. We know that they exist, that they bind the spirit to the material world, that they can be ripped when someone commits murder, that fragments can be passed on to loved ones through sacrifice––but we don't really know where they go. All we know is what a living person looks like who's had their soul sucked out. It's a terrifying sight."

Sabrina shuddered and swallowed, wide-eyed. "I bet the Aliens would know."

"The Aliens?" Hermione's eyes went round, and Severus' eyebrows shot up. What was the woman babbling about?

"I thought you were reading the chronicles of the Aliens. Weren't you? They came to Earth from the planet Nibiru 100,000 years ago to mine for gold. They needed slaves, and so they genetically altered the DNA of Homo erectus, and the result was us. Enlil and Enki were great lords among them. They'll come back as soon as Nibiru's orbit comes close to the sun again. There's also a connection with reptiles."

The whole group, except Luna, stared at her in bewilderment.

"Really?" Luna asked fascinated. "Tell me more."

(1) Tablet XII from the Gilgamesh epic (Sumerian Liturgies and Psalms by Stephen Langdon, Oxford University, 1919)

(2)I made that up. There are a few snippets from tablet XII in there, too.

(3)JKR: Goblet of Fire.