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: In chapter 26 I mentioned criticism. That was not meant in a negative way. The criticism I referred to was made by people who have followed this story from the beginning and who gave me a lot of good and constructive ideas. I value their input. That's why it threw me.

Chapter 27 - The Crossing of the Return Threshold

The hero returns to the world of common day and must accept it as real.

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

"Perhaps you can continue this conversation after we've concluded our meeting?" Minerva interrupted Luna. Severus felt thankful; he didn't think he could have endured much more of this without blowing a fuse. Hermione seemed to be engaging similar thoughts. Her face was red, and she seemed to be making an effort not to comment.

"Sure," Luna said with a cordial smile. "Go ahead."

"Thank you, Luna," Hermione ground out, but the sarcasm seemed to be wasted on the other girl. Hermione looked as if she had swallowed a toad, and Severus couldn't blame her. His reply to Luna's and Sabrina's theorizing about reptile aliens would not have been as calm as Hermione's had been.

Hermione took a deep breath and looked around. "Now, where were we?"

"The fact that Potter doesn't have a living mother," Severus provided.

"Right. And we wouldn't know how we could get a part of her soul, anyway."

"It seems that we need to do more research before we can solve this problem," Minerva said. "I suppose the love of the brother is why Mr. Dursley is here?"

"Yes, I thought that maybe a cousin would be good enough if the person in question doesn't have a brother. Would you do that, Dudley?" Hermione asked.

"Do what?" The young Muggle man looked scared and confused.

"I don't know the details yet. But you feel friendly towards Harry, don't you?"


"That has to be good enough."

"Forgiveness of foe would be the easiest part, I assume," Severus threw in. "That can be me or Draco."

"That's what I thought, yes, if you'll agree?" She looked at him sharply.

He sighed, gave her a tiny smirk and nodded, "I will."

Her eyes flashed, and she quickly looked away. "Very well, then. So, how do we get love, soul and forgiveness into a potion, given that we can manage to get them?"

"Maybe the potion has to be brewed by these three people, putting their soul, love and forgiveness into the brewing?" Ronald suggested and Severus blinked. That wasn't a bad idea at all.

"That's a possibility. It hadn't occurred to me…" Hermione looked thoughtful.

"The king took the essence of each. It says so in the text," she suddenly burst out. "The essence of a soul, of love and of forgiveness, what would that be?"

"I'm not sure," Severus murmured. "Voldemort's potion literally contained blood, flesh and bone."

"Blood, flesh and bone is mud, stick and stone. What does that mean?" Ronald asked. He had written down the verses and was staring at his notes, frowning.

"The essence of life is…" Percy started, but was interrupted when Luna began to sing.

"Sticks and stones will break your bones

And leave them lying in the mud.

But you'll be scared when we're alone

Like I might suck your blood.

And I could tell you a witch's spell…," (4)

All eyes were on her again.

"What was that?" Minerva asked mildly. Severus admired her for her self-discipline. He knew that she didn't normally tolerate nonsense, but with Luna Lovegood, exceptions had to be made. At the root of all that oddness lay a sharp and observant mind.

"That's a song my mother sang to me the day she died, but I forget the rest."

Severus felt goose pimples rise on his skin. He had a feeling that they were on to something important. "What exactly was she working on when she died?" he asked.

"I'm not sure. I think she was trying to make a potion against the Imperius Curse and other kinds of mind control. Do you want me to look it up for you in her journals?"

"Yes! Where are they?"

"They're at home, in my room. She left them to me, and I treasure them. I haven't had the courage to look at her last entries, yet, though..." Luna gazed at her hands and swallowed.

"We understand, Luna. But this could be so important..." Minerva said.

"I can look through the entries with you if you like," Ronald offered, which earned him a grateful nod from the young woman.

"Then we should perhaps conclude this meeting," Minerva suggested. "We need to think about what we've learned and try to get as much more information as we can before we meet again. Everyone should take a copy of the verses and study them. Let's meet again the day after tomorrow, shall we?"

They all nodded their agreement and stood up.

"Moody, a word please!" Severus hurried after the old Auror. From the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione leave the cave with the Weasleys. Damn, he wanted to talk to her, but he had to talk to Moody first…

"What is it, Snape?"

"It's about Kingsley. Have you seen him?"

"As I said before, no!" Moody said, his artificial eye spinning wildly.

"Bloody Hell, where is the man?" Severus swore. "We need information about Arthur: who is working with him, to whom he talks regularly, who might have an interest in manipulating him…"

"I told you I'd contact some of my old mates," Moody said impatiently. "I'll be meeting a few of them tonight at the Leaky Cauldron. I'll let you know as soon as I find out anything."

"Very well, then," Severus said. "And keep an eye out for Shacklebolt."

"Who else but me?" Moody grumbled and stomped out of the cave.

It wasn't easy to get hold of Hermione. Over the next few days, she flittered in and out of Paulie's house, talked to people––never to Severus––and was gone before he could even call her name.

Shortly before they were all going to meet to be Portkeyed to the Robin Hood cave, though, the opportunity for talking arose. Severus walked into the kitchen, and there she sat, alone, just pouring herself a glass of orange juice.

"There you are!" he blurted out. "I need to talk to you."

She looked up at him and frowned. "Do you, really?"

"Yes, please. You misunderstood me. Let me explain…" He put his arms around her, but she got up and evaded him quickly.

"I don't think I misunderstood," she said, her angry frown slowly shifting into a sad expression. "And in any case, now is not the time. I need to think a bit more about all we said. We need to focus on other things, too, right now." She put the glass down on the worktop and moved to the door.

Severus felt like a deflated balloon. His heart hurt, and his thoughts went fuzzy.

"I…, please…"

No, what was he doing? Even to his own ears he sounded like one of those overemotional, clingy people. He hated this. He swallowed, schooled his features into stony indifference and stated, "You don't love me anymore."

Surprise, sadness and something else was flickering over Hermione's face while she stared at him. That last emotion might have been pity, or perhaps compassion. Severus couldn't say.

"I don't stop loving people so quickly," she said gently. "But that doesn't change the fact that I need time to think. And besides," she continued, her tone suddenly changing from gentle to waspish, "if you need someone to talk to, there's always Luna." Without giving him a chance to reply, she turned and left the kitchen.

Severus stood speechless. He didn't quite know whether he should laugh or cry. Did she mean that she still loved him? Could he hope? And that last part? Suddenly hope sprang up in his heart and made him smile. Could it be that she was jealous? Of Luna Lovegood? Apparently she had seen them talking. That wasn't all that bad, then, was it?

Severus' heart felt lighter than it had for days. The mild guilt about causing her suffering and jealousy was quickly pushed aside. The jealousy was ridiculous, and if Hermione would only think about it with a cool head, she'd come to the same conclusion. They would find a time to talk about Severus' problems and fears. Yes, they were fears; he had to admit that to himself. He only wished that they could talk right now and not have to wait. He didn't want to be without her if there was a chance at reconciliation. Bloody emotioal fool that he had become, but he missed her more than he had ever missed anyone. Which just showed that she was really more mature than him, despite her youth––there were more important things he should be focusing on right now rather than his love-life.

"Where is Moody?"

Neither Kingsley Shacklebolt nor Mad-Eye had shown up for the meeting and concern was showing on the faces of those who were attending.

"This can't be a coincidence," Ronald said. "Something must have happened to them."

"We'll have to go to the Ministry, as a group," Severus said. "We don't have anyone else who could spy, and if those two have been found out, there's too much risk for one person going in alone."

"How do you plan to go in?" Hermione asked. "We can't conjure Inferi as substitutes as we used to do."

"I don't think we need substitutes. We can use Polyjuice Potion. And I shall send an owl to Lucius. He can tell me who can be bribed and who can move around without raising suspicion."

"Uhm," Percy Weasley said. "Maybe I can help."

"How? You don't work at the Ministry any longer. Besides, everybody knows that you're not on your father's side," Severus stated, looking puzzled.

"That's just it, my advantage, isn't it?" Percy said and blushed. "I can go in and pretend to seek reconciliation. They wouldn't believe it from any of my brothers, but they would believe it of me." The last words came out in a whisper. He looked down at his hands; the blush had intensified and now reached his ears.

"You know," George said and patted Percy's shoulders, "that could work."

"Yeah," Ronald agreed. "It's brilliant, Percy."

Percy looked up, a small, sad smile on his face. He shrugged. "Worth a try."

Severus frowned and looked at Hermione. She raised an eyebrow and nodded. "It sounds feasible," she said.

Minerva nodded vigorously. "You need to be very careful, Percy. If someone has suspected that Kingsley and Alastor are working against Arthur, wouldn't that someone be suspicious if you showed up all of a sudden? Your association with the Underground is known, after all."

"You mean they'd reckon that this is our third attempt at spying, with the first two having failed?" Ron caught on immediately.

"That's a good point," Hermione said. "Maybe we could use a decoy, someone who is even more suspicious and can draw the attention away from Percy?"

"Who?" That question was uttered with more than one voice.

"I don't like it," Severus finally felt compelled to step in. "I can't think of anyone who could serve as a decoy. We need to go in as a group."

"Let me try it first, please." Percy sounded almost desperate. "I can approach Dad in private. He will believe me when I tell him that I feel guilty about Mum's death." He swallowed, tears were glittering in his eyes: in the eyes of most people present, in fact.

"If I come to the Ministry with Dad, no one will dare to stop me," he continued. "Believe me, I know the average Ministry employee's ways. They'll believe me. If anyone knows how to suck up to authority, it's me."

"Don't sell yourself short, Percy," Minerva said reassuringly. "We all make mistakes, and you are still young enough to be entitled to some foolishness. I still think that your idea is good, but it is also dangerous. We need a backup plan, in case you are found out as well. We don't want anything to happen to you."

"Well, three vanished spies won't be much help to the Underground, either," Percy said.

"It would be better if we could watch what's happening." Hermione asserted. "But the two-way mirrors would be too suspicious."

"Too bad that we don't have one of those Muggle contraptions. Harry took me to a moving picture once. James Wong or something. He had all these things…"

"You mean James Bond," Hermione said with a grin. "Yeah, some of his gadgets would come in handy. A video cam…" Her eyes widened. "Portraits!" she stated proudly.

"Portraits," Severus agreed.

"What?" Percy asked, confused.

"Very good!" Minerva's eyes sparkled. "We used portraits for communication during the war. They were linked to each other, but not to a building. People would wear lockets, and the people in the portraits could move from one to the other and give us reports and quick warnings. We couldn't have operated, otherwise. Perfect timing always was essential."

"Ah, and you think they'd do that for me as well?"

"I'm sure of it. They've been reconnected to their old homes, but we kept them linked to each other. We can hide one of the lockets under your clothes in a way that the person in it can look out, perhaps through a concealed button hole. If something should happen, we will be warned and can come to the rescue." Hermione was all enthusiasm again. She seemed to boil over with eagerness.

Severus tried to think of something that would speak against the plan, but couldn't find anything. The plan seemed sound.

"Let's do it that way, then," he agreed. "How quickly can we have the portraits ready?"

"It won't take longer than a day," Minerva assured him. "Please don't do anything before that, Percy. When you have your locket, you can start. Your wish to rush to your father's aid is understandable. We all feel the need to rush in and help Kingsley and Moody, too, but keeping a cool head will help them more."

Percy nodded and looked relieved.

"Now," Minerva said, "with that plan in motion, we can go back to Harry's problem. Has anyone had any new ideas about the meaning of those ancient verses? Did you get any clues from your mother's journals, Miss Lovegood?"

Lovegood looked very pale. For once, her eyes had lost their dreaminess, and all Severus could see in them was pain and grief.

"Yes, I think so," she said. "My mother was working on a modified blasting spell. It was the spell that killed her. She wanted to open the Locked Room in the Department of Mysteries. According to her notes, it contains the mother's bones, but I don't really believe that the bones of my grandmother are kept there."

"The mother's bones? That's yet another puzzle. The other rituals called for bones of the father or the soul of the mother and the essence of each. And Stone Things. Those would be our ingredients, but what are they, really?" Hermione looked how Severus felt, competely clueless.

"Stones are the bones of Mother Earth," Sabrina suddenly said. She and Dudley had been sitting at one end of the table, quietly listening to all the discussions. "Maybe what you need is a precious stone, a crystal. You'd need a stone linked to the soul."

Everyone was staring at her. Severus felt how his own jaw fell slack. Precious stones had been used in potions and alchemical concoctions throughout the ages.

"Gosh," Hermione cried. "You're a genius, Sabrina. Leave it to a Muggle to get our heads out of the clouds and back to solid reality. So we'll find a stone, or several stones in the Locked Room. We need to go to the Ministry in any case, then."

"We need to wait until we have the intelligence from Mr. Weasley," Severus said.

"So we don't need anything from Harry's mother, then?" Ronald asked.

"Let's hope not," Hermione replied.

"The Dark spell was quite literal, though," Severus thought out loud. "Riddle went to his father's grave and exhumed the bones."

"But didn't you say it was a perversion, a corruption of the original?"

"Yes. Still, your verses ask for soul of the mother, not bones."

"Take the essence of each. What's the essence of all these things?"

"Blood." Percy said. "That's what I tried to say last time. The essence of life is blood, isn't it? A drop of blood from mother, brother, foe would be the essence of each, wouldn't it?"

"But blood, flesh and bones are mud, stick and stones. Bones - stones, get it?" Ronald threw in.

"Yes. That means we need the mud, stick and stones. What's the mud and the stick?"

"Good question," Severus said with a snarl. "And there remains the small fact that we can't have blood from Potter's mother."

"One thing after the other," Minerva said. "We just need more time to think, and in the meantime we have to find out what's happened to Alastor and Kingsley––and Arthur since I'm quite convinced now that he is under undue influence. We have many more clues than we had a few days ago, and I feel quite optimistic that we'll succeed in waking up Harry soon."

"Erm, about the mother… I had a few ideas, based on things I read in the Sumerian documents," Hermione interrupted.

"Yes?" Severus looked at her questioningly. It wasn't like Hermione to hold back with her findings for so long.

"I'm not certain. That's why I didn't say anything earlier, but I think that we can solve the problem by having someone adopt Harry. The Gilgamesh epic mentions that Gilgamesh's mother adopts Enkidu so they can be true brothers. Enkidu didn't have a mother. The two heroes wanted to go on a very dangerous adventure that was likely to kill them, and Ninsun––that's Gilgamesh's mother––thought that they could look out for each other better when they were real brothers, or so I understood it." She shuffled through her scrolls. "Here it is:

"She banked up the incense and uttered the ritual words.

She called to Enkidu and would give him instructions:

'Enkidu the Mighty, you are not of my womb,

but now I speak to you along with the sacred votaries of Gilgamesh,

the high priestesses, the holy women, the temple servers.'

She laid a pendant on Enkidu's neck,

the high-priestesses took his hand and led him in the bath

and the 'daughters-of-the-gods' washed him with the purity plant.

'I have taken as my son Enkidu the Mighty.

Enkidu to my son as the brother of Gilgamesh I have taken.' (5)

"And so Enkidu had a mother, and later they are always described as brothers. When Gilgamesh revived Enkidu, Ninsun could help. "Hermione looked determined. "I'll adopt Harry myself if needed." She smiled at the surprised faces turned towards her. "After I found that passage, I did a bit more reading."

That got a giggle from Ronald and Lovegood. Someone mumbled, "Light reading."

Hermione chuckled. "Yes, you know me. And I've found a ritual where an adoption mimics pregnancy and birth. The potential mother takes the child under her clothes and walks around with it, as if she were pregnant. She then pushes the child out of the clothes, as if she were giving birth. And that counts as a birth; there is no difference before gods and men between a child born of the body and of one adopted that way. So I thought if we don't find anyone more suitable, I could do that; I'd become Harry's mother."

"That won't be necessary," Minerva said. "I shall gladly adopt him if that helps him. I'd be proud…" She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

"That would be even better," Hermione agreed. "Harry looks to you as a kind of mother substitute. Of course, he viewed Mrs. Weasley as a substitute mother as well, but…"

"So that's settled, then," Severus cut in quickly, seeing the downcast expressions on

the Weasleys' faces. "Minerva adopts Potter, and we need to work out the recipe and the missing ingredients. It's a start."

The next day, Percy Weasley approached his father in a pretended effort at reconciliation while a selected group of people gathered around a miniature portrait contained in a locket and waited. One of the painted people in the portrait relay reported back at regular intervals, and from the looks of it, Arthur had listened to Percy's explanation and accepted him back into the fold. They arranged to go to the Ministry together the next day where Percy would start working for Arthur and spying for the Underground.

Severus had been talking with Minerva and was now approaching the group watching the portrait.


"Who is in Mr. Weasley's portrait?" Severus asked after the last witch who had just reported back to the group had disappeared again. "I trust it's someone believable for him to carry around?"

"It's the portrait of Justus Pilliwickle," Hermione said. "He was the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and quite famous."

"1862 to 1953," Ronald Weasley added proudly.

Severus stared in surprise at the young man and Hermione grinned.

"It's Ron who made the suggestion," she said. "If someone asks, Percy can say that Mr. Pilliwickle is his role model and that he aspires to become just as efficient at being a civil servant as him. No one who knows Percy will doubt this claim."

The next morning, they watched the portrait again, but when several hours had passed without any dangerous or suspicious activities, they decided to take turns. Thus, it was George Weasley who called the group together urgently after Justus Pilliwickle had returned from Percy's locket to his other portrait in the Underground (his portrait at the Ministry of Magic had been disconnected) and raised the alarm. Someone had tried to extract information about the Underground, and Percy had been hit by the Full Body-Bind of his magical contract.

"Percy was just about to go for lunch when he was called to the second floor by an aeroplane memo," Justus began his story. "The Head of Magical Law Enforcement wanted to see him. So Percy went down to his office and was offered tea. Then, Thicknesse opened a door to a side chamber, and in came Dolores Umbridge and Mrs. Edgecombe."

"Umbridge!" Hermione cried. "Gosh, Harry should have insisted that she was fired. And Mrs. Edgecombe?" All of a sudden, Hermione paled and clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh no… Oh no… This is all my fault…"

"Let Mr. Pilliwickle continue," Severus said.

He knew why Hermione was so shocked. If she hadn't learned that sins from the past always came back to bite your ankles, she'd have to learn it now.

Justus glanced from Hermione to Severus and then continued, "All three cast a simultaneous Imperio on Percy and then started to ask questions about his motivations and if he worked for the Underground. Percy immediately became as stiff as a log and fell off the chair."

"Oh," Hermione whispered. "That's clause 2 of our contract. Full Body-Bind if someone tries to extract information by force. It actually works…"

"Of course it does," Severus hissed. "Go on, Mr. Pilliwickle!"

"They were swearing like mad, and Thicknesse kept yelling, 'I told you so,' at the other two. None of the spells they tried on Percy could wake him up, naturally. They were yelling at each other, and then they shoved him into a broom cupboard in that side room. I haven't been able to see a thing since; it's been so dark. That's when I left. If you go in, you should find him there."

"Does anyone know what happens to a person who's been hit with three Imperius Curses?" Ronald asked in a whisper. He was very pale, as was George, who seemed to have lost his ability to joke.

"Most people can't even resist one Imperius Curse. How could anyone resist three?" Hermione's face had lost all colour. "Do you think they cast it on Arthur, too?"

"It would explain a lot." Severus nodded. "Three spells… It would take a lot more than a simple Finite Incantatem to release someone from that."

"What do we do?" Ronald asked urgently. "We can't leave Percy there."

"We won't," Severus said. "We'll go in and get him out. One group gets Percy, the other looks for Kingsley and Mad Eye, who will be under the Full Body-Bind as well, I'm sure, and after we've found them, Nightshade and I will try to open the Locked Room and get those stones for Potter. We won't have many more opportunities for going into the Ministry after we've retrieved your brother."

"Can't we get Dad, too?" George asked. "Kidnap him or something? If he really is under three Imperios by that trio, no one knows what he'll come up with next."

"That's very risky," Severus said, pondering. "If Arthur is not under a curse, he has a legitimate reason to send us to Azkaban."

"He'll have to find us first," Hermione said. "I think this is a risk we must take. Who'll be looking after Ministry affairs when the Minister isn't there. Is there a second-in-command?"

"I bet it's Thicknesse," Ronald replied. "The Head of the Aurors is too new in office to be considered, so Thicknesse'll be the next logical choice."

"Right," Severus said. "Which makes me inclined to agree with the kidnapping plan. If Thicknesse wants the Ministry, Arthur is in danger. As soon as he becomes too bothersome for that trio, they'll want to be rid of him."

"Do you think this is an organized group? Do they have connections to Death Eaters, or do the three of them operate independently?" Hermione asked, still very pale.

"I have no idea," Severus conceded. "But as far as I know, Thicknesse wasn't among the Death Eater supporters in the Ministry."

"It's all my fault," Hermione whispered and hid her face in her hands.

"Bollocks!" Ronald exclaimed. "Umbridge and Edgecombe were in cahoots with each other long before you hexed Marietta and sent Umbridge to the centaurs. I wonder if Firenze would like to make a trip to the Ministry?" Ronald had a dreamy smile on his face.

"That's not funny, Ron," Hermione reprimanded. "But at least we can guess at their motives. But what about Thicknesse? I can't say I've ever consciously noticed him before."

"He'll want the power, I suppose," Severus said. "Incidentally, he's one of the names Lucius sent me of people who'd be susceptible to bribes. If Umbridge has promised him support, he'd easily side with her."

"We could simply kidnap Dad at home. If we tell Fred and Charlie about this, they'll help us. There's no need to risk getting caught at the Ministry," Ronald said.

"It's not that simple."

"That won't be easy."

Hermione and Severus had spoken at the same time. They looked at each other sheepishly.

"Go ahead," Hermione nodded politely, and Severus cursed the frostiness between them.

"If we take Arthur from his home, we will have to do that at the same time as going into the Ministry. This needs careful timing. Anything else will raise suspicion and increase the risk of being found out and stopped."

"After the disaster with Percy, don't you think that they'll be expecting another attack on Arthur and keep him under surveillance?" Hermione asked.

"Possibly," Ronald conceded. "So how will we do it?"

"As I said earlier," Severus said, "we'll use Polyjuice. We'll move in tonight. In the meantime, we get organized."

"Please, we want to be there..." Ronald said. "And we should first talk to Charlie and Fred. They'll have to help us get into the Ministry."

"Yes, talk to them. That will also decide where we'll best get hold of Arthur. And your brothers should keep themselves available as backups. You can go in the group that retrieves Arthur. Nightshade and I shall look for Percy, and the other two together with group two. When the task is finished, Arthur will be brought to Paulie's house, and our three spies will be cared for by the Underground. We'll meet again here in one hour. Weasleys and Nightshade, you come with me."

Two hours later, Reg Cattermole and Stan Rastrick were walking down the hallway of the first level towards the Minister's office. They carried tool bags and had plumbing equipment floating behind them. "Toilets and sinks've been stuffed everywhere," Cattermole said loudly. "We'd better get to work."

"Right," Rastrick said.

Chatting all the way, the two men walked up to the office where they stopped and knocked. Apparently, they were granted automatic access since they opened the door and went inside.

Severus watched Ronald Weasley, who was posing as Cattermole, and Greyhound––Jeremiah Cadwallader from the Underground––who looked like the Ministry's janitor, Stan Rastrick, walk into the office. He turned back, rounding the corner and bumping into Hermione, who had cast a Disillusionment spell over herself.

"Quickly, under the cloak," he whispered and pulled Potter's invisibility cloak over Hermione, who cancelled her charm. Together, they walked down the corridor to the lift.

When it stopped, no one exited and no one entered. A woman, an employee in the Magical Beings department called Arabella Mockridge, stood in the lift and pushed the button to the second level. She had a small smile on her face and seemed to be talking to herself when she said, "Here we are." Carefully, and slowly, she got out of the lift, making certain that she didn't lose any of the files she was holding under her arm.

Susan Bones, for she was the woman in disguise, walked straight towards Pius Thicknesse's office and knocked. No one answered. Carefully, she opened the door, slipped inside and put the files on the desk that was in one corner of the room. In the meantime, Severus and Hermione had walked into the side chamber and opened the door to the broom cupboard. Percy wasn't there.

"Dammit," Hermione swore under her breath. "We'll have to search the whole Ministry now…"

"I cast a trace on Weasley's shoes," Severus whispered. "If they left him his clothes, and he's within range, we can find him. With any luck, Moody and Shacklebolt will be at the same location."

"Devious," Hermione said with an admiring grin. "Why didn't you tell anyone?"

"No time," he whispered while he carefully shut the door. Susan was still standing in the office, holding the door to the corridor open and looking outside.

"We're finished here," Severus whispered. "Meet us at point B in thirty minutes sharp."

Susan nodded slightly and walked away from them.

Hermione and Severus went back to the lift and pushed the button. That late in the evening, barely anyone was still working. The two groups were wandering around freely. No one gave them a second glance, or more than a casual greeting. Hermione and Severus, however, were still using Harry's invisibility cloak. They didn't know how long it would take them to access the Locked Room, and although they didn't have to worry about drinking the potion every hour, they didn't want to risk an encounter with the original versions of their polyjuiced selves if they couldn't get out before morning.

Hermione pushed the button for the first level, and when they arrived there, Severus cast his charm. Hermione pushed the button to the ninth level, and on their way down, they watched Severus' wand, which would indicate when they got closer to their target. Apparating inside the Ministry would have been possible, but they didn't know where they would reappear; the danger of being caught was too great.

The wand showed no reaction while the lift smoothly moved downwards. Only when they reached level nine did it shake wildly, almost pulling Severus from under the cloak and towards the door.

"The Department of Mysteries!" Hermione whispered. "Why would they have brought Percy here?"

"Him or his shoes," Severus ground out while wrestling with his wand. "Let's find out."

The wand led them right to the door of the circular room.

"Leave the door open," Severus whispered. "It will keep the other doors in the same place."

Hermione looked puzzled, but noticed that indeed, as long as the door was open, the twelve doors leading out of the room didn't revolve.

She conjured a door stopper, and together they opened one door after the other, discovering that the fifth door from the right was locked and couldn't be opened. Hermione marked it with a fiery cross.

The seventh door from the right led into the Death Chamber. When they opened it, they heard a voice swearing. At the bottom of the sunken stone pit, they saw a figure moving. The room was only dimly lit, and they couldn't see very clearly. Severus' wand, however, insisted that Percy was somewhere in the pit.

"Careful now," Severus whispered as they tiptoed down the steep steps towards the raised stone dais in the centre of the pit. When they were halfway down, they saw that a bearded man was dragging and pushing a floating body towards the crumbling stone archway on the dais.

"Bloody Hell," Hermione exclaimed, but Severus had already thrown the invisibility cloak off and cast a Full Body-Bind at the man. Luckily, the man had been too occupied with his task to notice them in time. For good measure, Severus bound the man with silvery ropes from his wand while Hermione bent over the body.

"It's Moody," she cried. "Help me, quickly!"

Severus spun around and noticed that Moody's wooden leg was already half-way covered by the tattered curtain on the stone archway. The good leg had bent at an awkward angle and was pinned under Moody's body. The shoe had been caught on one of the protruding stones of the archway, which had likely saved Moody's life.

"Where are the others?" Hermione whispered and put a hand on her heart. "Oh Merlin, please don't let them…"

"Here's young Mr. Weasley," Severus said. His wand had led him to the young man, who had been dumped behind the lowest row of stone benches, head and upper body covered with a sack. "And Kingsley is here, too," he added after he had spotted the Auror half-concealed by Percy's robes. By the looks of it, they had been dumped on top of each other.

"Go on, free them," Hermione urged.

"Not sure if I can. I'm not one of their oath binders," Severus murmured, concentrating hard. "Finite Incantatem!"

"Bollocks," Severus swore. He had released Kingsley, but as soon as the Auror had opened his eyes, he had started to speak. "The group that calls itself The Underground is…" and he was Petrified again.

"All those Imperius Curses," Hermione said. "They must be a strong compulsion to reveal the secret of the Underground, and of course Clause two takes hold again as soon as they start to betray it, as long as the Underground isn't disbanded."

"Thank Merlin for Albus' foresight," Severus mumbled. "We'll have to levitate them to the meeting place. Let's get going."

"What do we do with this one?" Hermione inclined her head towards the Petrified and bound wizard.

"We'll take him along. The Underground can take care of him until things here are resolved."

Hermione levitated the three bodies and tied them together with ropes from her wand. She threw the invisibility cloak over them and Disillusioned both herself and Severus. Severus touched one corner of the cloak and took Hermione's hand––Merlin that felt good––but there was no time to enjoy the touch. As Hermione directed the invisible stack of bodies, he led them up the stairs and back to the circular room.

"Careful now," Severus murmered as they left the Department of Mysteries and turned to the left towards the stairs. Reluctantly, he let go of Hermione's hand, and they both took hold of the feet and shoulders of the wizard who was the lowest in the stack. As if moving a stretcher, they carefully navigated downstairs, walked down the corridor and entered Courtroom Ten where they would meet the other group.

The others were already waiting.

"Oh, thank Merlin," Susan exclaimed when she saw Hermione end the Disillusionment Charm and take the cloak off the four immobilized men.

"How did it go?" Severus asked, his eyes darting around the room, registering that Ronald Weasley was holding his unconscious father in his arms and that Greyhound had a Petrified Marietta Edgecombe floating in front of him.

"We had to take her prisoner," Susan explained. "She was guarding Mr. Weasley like a watchdog." Susan paused and looked at the fourth man in the stack of bodies. 'Who's that?"

"No idea, but he tried to kill Moody and would probably have killed the other two as well if we hadn't shown up in time."

"I've seen him before," Ronald Weasley interrupted. "His name's Runcorn. Albert Runcorn, I believe. Dad used to despise him because he was one of the worst anti-Muggle and anti-Muggleborn campaigners of the Ministry. Looks like he's associated himself with Umbridge and her lot."

"I could have done without making his acquaintance," Severus said, sneering horribly at the unconscious Runcorn. "Take both of them to Paulie's house and lock them in the basement. Make certain that one of ours keeps watch at all times. Never leave Paulie or one of the other Muggles alone with them. We'll figure out what to do when we know what's the matter with Arthur."

"Right," Susan said. "Do you have the Portkey, Jeremiah?"

"Here it is." Greyhound produced a thin rope from the depth of his robes, arranged it in a way that it touched each of the unconscious people and waited until Susan and Ron touched it, too.

"Good luck," Ronald whispered while Susan counted down, three, two, one... and Severus and Hermione were alone in Courtroom Ten.

"Do you have a plan how we can get into the Locked Room?" Hermione asked.

"Not really," Severus admitted. "We'll have to rely on intuition and need to look for traces and clues. Moody and Kingsley surmised that there would likely be a password."

"Well, we'll have to try if we want to get the stone things," Hermione stated resolutely. "Let's go." She stepped up to Severus and threw the cloak over both of them.

As soundlessly as possible, they made their way up the stairs and went back into the Department of Mysteries. They had just secured the door to the circular room again when a simpering, shrill voice shrieked, "Expelliarmus, Homeno Revelio." Both of them stared in shock as their wands flew out of their hands towards their attacker, dragging the Invisibility Cloak along.

"Quickly," Hermione hissed and dragged Severus to the door of the Locked Room.

"Dammit," she swore as she pushed and pulled with all her might. The door remained unimpressed.

That was a mistake. We should hide in the Time Room, Severus thought wildly while Umbridge—that voice could only be that of Umbridge—gleefully mocked them as she came closer.

"My, my, what a catch. The two most undesirable individuals breaking into the Ministry, abducting the Minister and trying to murder me. What else can I do other than kill you in self-defence?" She looked around. "Where is the Minister? Where did you hide him?"

"He isn't here," Hermione said defiantly.

"Be quiet," Severus hissed, cursing Hermione's Gryffindor rashness that couldn't be suppressed by the best Underground training. From the corner of his eye, he could see her blushing.

"You will tell me where he is immediately," Umbridge said, gloating. "It won't do to leave the Minister without my counsel for too long."

Hermione raised her chin and kept her mouth shut, still looking defiant. Severus would have opened a Legillimency connection between them, to discuss their options, but they couldn't make eye contact for very long. He looked down his nose at Umbridge and waited.

"Your lack of cooperation is unwise," Umbridge said. "Don't you know that you are required to work with Ministry personnel? Your defiance shows just how misguided you are. It is your own doing. You force me to take more efficient measures. Crucio." She simpered and pointed her wand at Severus.

Severus fell to his knees, looking at Hermione and thinking, Don't tell, before the searing, burning pain of the spell dislocated his joints and made his bones feel brittle.

It went on endlessly, but it wasn't the first Cruciatus Curse Severus had experienced, and his mind automatically moved to its hiding place; a place that lay more deeply hidden than even the mind vault he used for Occlumency. He had built this hiding place during the long torture sessions inflicted by his former master. Come to think of it, the first thin walls had been erected while he was still a child. He had only reinforced the structure later. It was a place that kept him sane even if his body was broken and cast away like an old toy. If what he did could be called sane. He thought that by now his mind must resemble a dungeon with different levels and different rooms: a room for the pain, one for the secrets, a third for the monster inside, a fourth for his shame and guilt… Couldn't there be a room for happiness for a change?

When the pain finally stopped, Severus found himself lying on the ground, bleeding from his nose and mouth, and shivering. He heard sobs and saw through a reddish haze that Hermione was kneeling by his side and crying.

"How very odd," Umbridge said. "All these misguided heroics won't get you anywhere. But if you insist..." She pointed her wand at Hermione.

No, not her, Severus thought and shifted his body in front of Hermione. It was probably a futile attempt to protect her, but he'd die before he had to watch her being tortured.

"Get away from her, you silly man," Umbridge shrieked. "If only you'd cooperate, I could help you, you know. We used to work so well together."

Severus meanwhile had succeeded in pushing Hermione to the ground, and now he was trying to cover her body with his as best as he could. Hermione held perfectly still. Maybe she thought he had a plan?

"Oh, very well," Umbridge cooed when Severus didn't reply. "You leave me no choice. I don't really care which one of you helps me get Arthur back under my protection." She raised her wand. "Avada... "

Several things happened at once. Severus spread his arms and legs to make certain that the spell wouldn't hit Hermione and cast all the nonverbal protection spells he could think of for good measure. Not that any of them would have any effect against the Killing Curse…

At the same time, Hermione tried to push him out of the way.

"Not Severus," she pleaded desperately.

But instead of completing the Killing Curse, Umbridge let out an angry shriek, dropped all the wands she'd been holding and tumbled towards them.

Severus felt a strange sensation from behind, some kind of suction. He felt how he was irresistibly pulled towards the source of that sensation. The door to the Locked Room had opened and sucked them all in.

It closed behind them with a loud bang, and then everything went black.

When Severus regained consciousness again, he felt all afloat, warm, comfortable and unexplainably happy. He couldn't see nor hear anything; there was no light, no noise. The room seemed devoid of sensation.

He had no idea where Hermione was, but somehow he knew that he needn't worry about her. Nor was he worried about Umbridge and her threats any longer. How odd.

Severus felt at peace and one with the world. Floating in the dark, he felt an overwhelming love for everything alive, from the smallest Billywig to the largest dragon. And not only living things were there to be loved. Severus felt the desire to worship the earth, to disperse himself in the air, to let himself be consumed by fire and his ashes washed ashore by water.

He looked around. The grey mist had risen, or maybe his view had become clear again, but the darkness had given way to a multi-coloured glitter, just as if the place were lit by a multitude of coloured fairy lights.

Severus blinked. The light originated from the walls. It shone from all sides, the air around him seeming to vibrate from all the colours. Looking closer, he realized that the walls were covered with crystals, precious and semi-precious stones that seemed to glow from within. It was almost as if the room was one big geode.

The light and the vibrations were comforting and calming, and Severus felt drunk from well-being and relaxation. Hence, it took a while before he remembered what had brought him here.

Hermione! He jumped up from the comfortable divan that somehow had stretched out under him and seemed to be cradling his long frame. What had happened to Hermione, and where was Umbridge, for that matter? Worry crept into his relaxed mind. Where was he? Was Hermione safe? Did she need his help? He had to find her.

He jumped up and impatiently started to touch the walls, trying to feel for a door even if he couldn't see one.

Wand! Where was his wand? He was a wizard. He should be able to find a way out of this, shouldn't he? Frantic searching of his pockets produced nothing, and then he remembered that Umbridge had disarmed both him and Hermione just before he got sucked into this place. Was this the Locked Room? Was this the room Dumbledore had suspected of containing the greatest power of all? How disappointed the old man would be if he told him that this was merely a fancy kind of crystal cave, containing nothing more than precious stones. And before he could tell Dumbledore anything, anyway, he'd have to find a way out of here.

Wandless magic it would have to be, a wizard's inborn ability to sense and assess his environment, that sixth sense he had explained to Hermione so many weeks ago.

Hermione! Again, he had almost forgotten about her. How could he? Where was she? He had to know if she was safe. He summoned all his concentration and focussed on his mental image of her. On her brilliant mind. Her lovely brown eyes. Those kissable lips. The compassionate, stubborn, clever, practical, brave and passionate package that was Hermione Granger, the love of his life. He could see her clearly with his mind's eye.

Point me, he thought and opened his eyes when the crystals under his outstretched fingers seemed to melt away.

What the...? Instead of the door he had expected, two man-sized mirrors had appeared. Puzzled, Severus stared into the first one. It showed his own reflection, looking as he really did, ugly mug and all. Did that mean that it couldn't show desires or the like? Was this not a magical mirror, then?

While Severus was still wondering, a milky haze formed around his reflection, and instead of his face, a tiny room with two tiny people appeared, playing out a scene almost like on the telly.

Severus stared. The people in the scene were him and Hermione. He watched attentively. Maybe there would be clues for how to get out of the room and find Hermione.

Their tiny counterparts were kissing. Mirror Severus held Hermione tightly, possessively, whispering, "I am yours, forever if you'll have me."

She smiled and kissed him again, and then the scene changed. They were running away from something, both with their wands drawn, dodging spells and casting their own until they reached a gate and disappeared through it.

The scene changed again: they were fighting with each other this time, both were red-faced and snarling.

Yet another change––the changes seemed to be coming more quickly now––and they were making love on a bed. Hermione was screaming in ecstasy, repeating, "You are mine," over and over.

"I am yours," Mirror Severus was grunting as he came.

Another change, now they were travelling.

Now they were fighting again.

Now––what was this? She had collapsed, hit by a spell. He knelt beside her and chanted a healing spell.

In the next scene, she seemed to painfully regain the use of her wand arm.

Then they were running again. They were constantly running towards somewhere or from something, Severus couldn't tell which it was. Change after change showed him a life with Hermione as it could be if they were together.

He couldn't tear his eyes away from her laughing, radiant face. Was she happy? The mirror didn't give an answer. It showed a few more scenes, and then it went hazy again, only showing his own puzzled reflection when it cleared. What was that all about? Severus didn't have a clue.

He scratched his head and turned to the mirror to the right. Again, there was his reflection, then the haze, and then another scene started to play.

He saw Hermione standing at a window and looking outside. He could see what she saw: two children were playing in a garden, and a red-haired man was with them. Hermione smiled at them. She looked content and at peace.

In the next scene, the man––he was Charlie Weasley––held Hermione in his arms while their two children were opening presents under a Christmas tree. A puppy was frolicking about.

Severus felt sick. So this was Hermione's alternative when he wasn't in the picture?

A happy family and a safe, peaceful life? He shuddered and suppressed the sudden urge to smash the mirror.

In the meantime, the scenes played on, showing Hermione's calm, smiling face in one peaceful scene after another. Visiting friends. Playing with the children. Talking to her husband. Visiting a grave and leaving a red rose. Which grave? The mirror seemed to zoom in on the headstone. The inscription read: Here rests Severus Snape. He died as he lived, a hero and alone.

Severus gasped and took a step backwards. The haze covered the image, and then his reflection appeared again.

Puzzled, he stared from one mirror to the other when they changed again. Instead of the mirrors, there were two doors.

Severus didn' t need to be told that only one of the doors would lead him to freedom. Obviously, he had to choose a future for himself and Hermione. He sighed, his heart felt very heavy. He felt so full of love at that moment that he would have given anything to be with her, but would she be happy and safe? No, being with him could cause her harm. She'd be constantly in danger, and their life together that had been shown to him as a likely possibility wasn't a peaceful one. His choice was clear. If she could live in peace, he'd gladly give his life.

Steeling himself for what was to come, he opened the door to the right and went through.

The door closed behind him. He found himself in another, pitch-dark room, then suddenly, the floor vanished from under his feet, and he fell down with a yelp.

A ramp-like structure broke his fall, and on this ramp he slid further down, with increasing speed, until he landed on the floor, the wind knocked out of him.

What the—? He was back in the circular room, alone, and none the wiser than before.

It didn't stay that way. A few minutes after he arrived, he heard a noise from above, saw an opening form in the ceiling and then something was hurled through, landing on his stomach.

It was Hermione, and she was crying.

"I've made the wrong choice. I know it," she wailed. "I was too selfish. Oh, Severus..."

"No, you didn't," he said and hugged her. "You're here, and alive. And you'll be happy and have a family, and a calm life without danger. Without me." He tried to smile, but was sure that what he showed her was a grimace.

"But that's not what I chose," Hermione said, raising her head and wiping her nose. "I was selfish. I wanted to be with you…"

Tears were running down her cheeks again. "I chose the happy, dangerous life with you, even though I saw you injured. I should have let you lead the quiet, safe life without me…"

"That's what you saw?"

"Yes. Wasn't it what you saw?"

"Not quite. But in any case, we're both here. Both doors seemed to be the right doors. But we don't have the stone-things." He sighed.

Hermione looked surprised. He noticed with satisfaction that she hadn't moved away from him yet. "What the…?" she said. "Something's in my pocket." She rummaged through the pocket of her robes.

"Where did they come from?" She showed him her hand, holding two large, sparkling gem stones that reflected the dim light so brightly that he had to squint. The stones looked like clear quartz crystals, but Severus had never seen crystals that glowed from within.

"Do you think these are the Stone Things?" Hermione asked, awed.

"We'll soon find out, I suppose," Severus said softly. "What else would they be?"

(4) The Pierces, Sticks and Stones ( the-pierces-lyrics-sticks-and-stones-5r62lt7#axzz2NRFVCGBC) - Yes, The Pierces only recorded that in 2007, but Luna's mum learned it from her grandmother who was infamous for her love spells. What do Muggles know anyway?

(5) Tablet III of the Gilgamesh epic.