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Title: The Lovers' Circle (1/5)
Author: iulia_linnea
Pairings: Snarry, Severus/Hermione, Severus/Ron, Harry/Ron, others implied
Rating: NC-17
Warning (highlight to view): For non-con.
Word Count: 4884 (23,550 total)
Summary: A trap is sprung, and Severus and Harry are forever changed by it.
Disclaimer: This piece is based on characters and situations created and owned by J.K. Rowling; various publishers, including, but not limited to: Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books, Raincoast Books; and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Notes: Thank you, lynntownsend, for beta'ing. You may find all parts of this story by clicking the The Lovers' Circle tag.

The Lovers' Circle, Part One

"I'm sorry it has to be this way, dear boy, but I see no other choice. Harry is more terrified than I have ever seen him. Watching Lupin be torn apart seems to have shattered his last nerve."

"I doubt that. Potter is . . . understandably upset, but he will rally."

"Not before he must, I fear. Not before tonight. If he is to be of . . . any use to us, he must have his friends about him."

"Granger is here, well, and ready to get back to it. Let her go with him."

"I shall, but Harry requires Ron's presence more than he does hers. That is why I would not permit anyone to tell him about the extent of the boy's injuries."

On an Auror mission the previous week, the three Gryffindors had been separated in a skirmish that had broken out between the Dark Lord's loyalists—not Death Eaters, but citizens who supported him—and Ron Weasley had almost been killed. Potter and Granger had been told that Ron was needed at the Ministry for Magic to assist the induction of new trainees, something they both easily believed, given the casualties the Auror Corps had suffered. In actuality, the young man was convalescing in a hidden hospital ward at Hogwarts. The war was everywhere in the Wizarding World, and the Order held its own, just, with Potter being sent to any place intelligence reported that its enemy was hiding. It was on one such mission, three days previously, that Remus Lupin had been destroyed, and Harry, who had seen more death than any twenty-year-old should ever have had to, had taken it very badly indeed.

"Lord Voldemort may not come. The report of his sighting in the Forbidden Forest is most likely another diversion—you should not send the boy out at all, Albus. . . . Let him rest."

The Headmaster, laying propped upon a great many pillows, sighed disconsolately. Only Snape knew how much pain the wizard was in, and that much of it was engendered by the man's feelings of futility and uselessness. It was difficult for Snape to see the wizard who had been his confessor, father, and friend wasting.

"You know that—"

"Yes, yes, I do," the Potions master interrupted the other man gently, moving to hand him a glass of Easing Elixir. Not that it will provide him any comfort.

"You will go?"

"Take the potion."

Albus drank, his lips shaking a bit, and Severus hastily wiped away all traces of the rivulets of it that ran down his chin.

"That was careless of me. I apologize," he said, hoping to give the man his dignity.

"You are never careless. I am weak. I am dying. I would like to see an end to matters before I do."

"I will go, if only to keep the brat alive," Severus said, harshly, though he felt no true hatred for Harry Potter any longer.

Such passion was best spent on the battle field or in dreams.

"You will be Ron for him?"

The wizard sighed. "Do you really believe that is necessary?"

"You know that I do."

"Very well."

"Good. Thank you, Severus. I . . . feel it is time to speak to you about—"

"No. Do not, Albus. You will not die tonight."

"I will attempt to li—"

The Potions master stood abruptly and moved to the door, unwilling to hear his friend's last words. He could not do it, not and leave. "I shall prepare. Rest, Albus. I will see you in the morning."

At midnight, Severus, charmed to appear as Ron Weasley, shook Harry's hand and accepted a hug from Hermione. He found that he was discomfitted by being on the receiving end of so much affection.

"Ron! We missed you. We thought—"

"Yeah, I know. Not in front of Po—Harry," he murmured into her ear.

"Oh, you're right," Hermione replied, casting a worried glance at Harry and stepping back.

"I'm right here, you two," the wizard snapped, but then remembered himself. "Sorry, it's—"

"Not necessary to apologize . . . mate. We'll talk later. Are you ready?"

"I've got the portkey."

"Well then, I suppose we should go. Do you want any Fire Bright Elixir, either of you?" Hermione asked. "I've brought some just in case."

Snape, knowing that the potion might interfere with the charm he had cast upon himself, declined. Harry looked at the proffered bottle and considered.

"No, best not—you know what Professor Snape's always saying about that stuff."

"Since when do you give a toss about what he thinks?"

"Ron," Hermione warned.

"What?"

Harry snorted. "Right then, let's go."

They appeared in a clearing in the Forbidden Forest, an empty clearing.

"Great. Another diversion," Harry spat. "Damn it!"

"What's that?" "Ron" asked, pointing his wand at a pattern of sticks on the ground in the center of the clearing.

"Runes," the witch said, creeping closer to them.

"They're just sticks."

"Harry, be careful. They aren't just sticks. Look, that one's Kenaz."

"Kenaz?"

"You never studied," Ron said, shaking his head.

"And you did?"

"Shut it, both of you. I'm trying to think."

Hermione walked clockwise around the outer perimeter, muttering to herself. "And that one's Wunjo. Hmm. Kenaz is the torch, fire—sometimes controlled, sometimes sexual and erratic, if Roald Rorchester's Runic Configurations is to be believed—but that one's . . . . This is just odd," she said, completing her circuit and placing her hands on her hips.

"What's odd about it? It's a Lovers' Circle."

"Maybe you did study, Ron," Harry said. "What the hell's a Lovers' Circle?"

"'M'not really sure."

"Oh, honestly! A Lovers' Circle is made by two people who want to shag—or one person, to lure another one into a shag. Ron knows what one is because—"

"Hermione!"

"Well, you brought it up, 'Mister-Don't-Say-Anything-About-This-To-Harry'."

Snape, unable to formulate a response, said nothing. At least the blush will look like Weasley's.

Harry grimaced at Ron and said to him, "Thanks for sharing. Right. Hermione said that the first rune's Kenaz, and the second, Wunjo, but what's the third one?"

"Odin's rune," his friends replied as one.

"But it's just four sticks forming a rectangle," Potter said. "What's it mean? And what's that smell?"

"I don't know," Hermione said before her boyfriend could answer. "It's sort of sweet."

Snape thought he recognized the smell as an aphrodisiac, but he knew that he could hardly admit this, no matter what Ron might know about Lovers' Circles.

"Yeah, sickly sweet," Harry agreed. "Why'd someone put it here?"

"Perhaps Hagrid's been entertaining a friend out here."

"That was rude, Ron," Hermione chastised. "He and Maxime are quite serious about one another, and well you know it. Besides, it's too far into the woods. I think it's a trap."

"Right. A trap. A sex trap in the Forbidden Forest. Hardly," Snape said, hoping that he had adequately approximated Weasley's youthful scorn.

"Maybe I should give you two some time alone," Harry offered.

"No!"

"Well, thank you, Ron."

"This is a mission. There . . . there must be a reason that it's here. Albus said—I mean, the Headmaster—"

"Getting inside information while at the Ministry, were you?"

"Hermione, Dad does talk to me about things, and the information was from a reliable source. Vol—he—was supposed to be here," Snape said, unsure if the wizard whom he was pretending to be would still be using the Dark Lord's name after all that had transpired.

Harry looked at him, a quizzical expression on his features.

"What?"

"Oh, I missed these before. I'm not sure . . . oh, no. This isn't a Lovers' Circle," Hermione said, sounding concerned.

"Why? What is it?" Harry asked.

"These little ones, they're—"

"Sowelus, aren't they?"

"Well, that's one interpretation, Ron, but they're also the Germanic sign for victory and death, among other things. They don't really belong in a Lovers' Circle—and these are yew sticks."

"So they are," Snape said, beginning to understand the source of Hermione's concern. "Don't touch that, Po—"

Harry had been kneeling down and reaching for one of the glistening, disturbingly pungent yew sticks. Snape snatched the boy's hand away, but lost his balance and fell into the circle. He knew at once that it was a trap.

"Fuck!"

"Ron!" Hermione yelled, as a metaphysical barrier sprung up around the wizard.

Potter, Snape saw, rash idiot that he was, flung himself at it and was thrown across the clearing into a tree.

"What's happening?" Ron Weasley's frightened voice rolled thickly up out of his throat. "Oh."

Every fiber of his being was reverberating with an inexorable lust. He was burning. He needed. He looked up and saw Hermione's pained face staring at him through the ward, but he did not want her. Suddenly, Potter appeared, rubbing the back of his head with one hand and holding his wand with the other.

"YES!" he screamed. "YOU!" as he threw himself at the barrier and went through it.

The light of the magical field flickered out at once, and Snape picked himself up and flung himself at Harry, screaming inchoately. The witch cast "Stupefy!" repeatedly as "Ron" wrestled with her friend, but it had no effect on him. It did, however, annoy him, and he turned on the Auror with a growl. But a pair of hands grabbed his shoulders before he could attack her.

"It's me you want. Me! Hermione, run!"

"I'm not leaving you!" she yelled, trying other incantations.

Snape grinned ferally at the other wizard and was about to try for Hermione again when he saw the witch drop to the earth.

"Huh," he grunted, turning back to see Harry pointing his wand at him.

"Me, right? You want me, don't you, Ron?" the Auror asked, his expression resolved. "Right then, come and get me."

With that, the boy was off and running through the trees. Snape roared and went after him, the only thought in his mind being, Take! He had to have the boy, and he would. He ran, his wand and own mind forgotten, focused as he was on his purpose. Take!

Harry ran. He was horrified by the chaotic desire he had seen in his best friend's eyes for him, by the misplaced rage he had seen the wizard direct at Hermione, and knew that he had to get Ron as far away from the witch as possible. He hoped to lose him, to exhaust him, so that Ron would be easier to subdue. But as he kept running, and Ron kept chasing him, he began to think that he would have to let the other boy catch him. And God, I don't want her to see whatever happens then, he thought, pulling in increasingly ragged and unproductive breaths into his abraded lungs.

Leaping over a felled tree, Harry came down too hard on his left ankle, rather than his foot, and howled in pain as he crashed down a small decline.

Ron was on him almost at once.

The taller, broader boy rolled Harry onto his back and covered him, kicking his legs apart and thrusting his erection into the captured boy's pelvis.

"Ron! Stop this! Sto—"

Harry's plea was stopped by Snape's mouth. He kissed the boy roughly, cutting Harry's gums with his teeth in his need.

Take! Severus thought, pulling at Harry's clothing and howling when he could not unfasten the buttons of the boy's trousers.

Harry was shaken. It should not have excited him, the feeling of Ron hard and hot against him, but it did. His mouth hurt, and he was being bruised, crushed, even, by the weight of the larger boy. Twin sensations of lust and fear warred within him as he struggled.

"Take," Ron said, breaking the kiss before biting Harry's throat.

Blood trickling down his neck, the smaller wizard yelped. "Ow! Ron, please. Ron please stop!"

"Take," Snape growled again, jerking Harry's head up by the hair and pushing himself up into a kneeling stance. When Harry began to struggle again, he knocked the boy on the head with his fist and thundered, "TAKE!"

Harry was dazed by the punch to his head, and could do nothing to prevent Ron from throwing him over his shoulder and carry him back the way they had come. This isn't happening. Ron wouldn't do this. This isn't happening, he told himself, trying to shake off the sensation of stupefaction.

But it was happening, and quickly, too, as Ron threw him down inside of the quiescent "Lovers' Circle" and then moved away. Harry got up and tried to leave, but the ward rose again to trap him. It allowed Ron to enter, however, and the boy pointed his wand and uttered a spell that caused his prey's clothing to unfasten itself and fall away.

"Take," the wizard murmured, seemingly calmer now that his mate was better prepared to receive him. "Take," he said again, shucking his kit and reaching for Harry, who pressed his back into the stinging magic of the barrier and tried not to cower.

"Ron, it's me. It's Harry. You don't want to do this. You—you're in love with Hermione!"In response, Ron leaned into Harry and bent his head down to inhale the scent of fear rising off of his skin. "Take," he said, and then he licked the trembling boy's neck.

"Oh . . . oh, don't."

But his friend did not heed his entreaty and continued to tongue the boy's trembling flesh.

"No, I won't let you do this!" Harry cried, shoving Ron roughly away.

Snape growled again and rushed Potter, grabbing the Auror's neck in his hands and squeezing until Harry thought he would lose consciousness. Slowly, he slid to his knees, only then realizing that Ron, too, was nude as the wizard's purpling erection knocked against his face.

He'll hurt me, Harry thought, eyes widening as they fell on Ron's cock. He had seen his friend naked on many occasions, but never like this, and the thought of the prodigious organ being shoved inside of him made him quail. So he did the only thing he could think of: he opened his mouth and took the demanding prick into his mouth, into his throat, and worked it with his frantic tongue, sucking hard.

Snape groaned and thrust, making mewling noises of appreciation.

Take, Harry thought, clamping down on the desire that was coiling in his belly. That he should find pleasuring Ron, who had no idea what he was doing, erotic disgusted him. I'll take it this way and he won't

With a grunt, Snape pulled his cock out of Harry's mouth and turned the boy toward the ground, placing his hands on his slender hips and pulling him toward himself. "Take."

"Ungh, no—Ron, no!" Harry begged, as he felt a burning pressure against the pucker of his ass. He clenched his internal muscles in an attempt to repel the invasion, and heard Ron groan in frustration. "Ron, please, please, plea—ease, don't do this," he said, as tears formed in his eyes.

Then, a thick, dry finger push itself inside of the tight ring of muscle guarding his entrance and thrust itself in and out of his hole.

"Take," Ron said almost gently, laying himself over Harry's back and rubbing his cheeks over the boy's back and neck and hair as if to mark him while his relentless digit gradually widened Harry's passage.

Another finger entered him, and Harry shrieked in panic, hating himself for it. Ron is going to rape me. Ron is raping me, he thought, shaking his head to keep his tears, for he was sobbing now, from sliding into his nose. "No, no, no," he pleaded, knowing that it was futile to beg, but unable to stop himself.

"Take," Severus answered, adding a third finger, and then a fourth, and reveling in the heat he felt inside of the subdued boy's body.

Harry barked out a sharp cry of unwelcome excitement when he felt Ron's fourth finger enter him, for it rubbed over the spot, the spot he could never reach himself, and the other boy uttered a lascivious laugh, forcing each thrust of his fingers to slide over the same rough patch of hidden skin.

But Harry did not wish to feel anything good from Ron's assault, so he bucked and struggled and kicked. Ron's response was to withdraw his fingers and seize Harry by the hair, pulling the boy up onto his knees, his back against his chest.

"You're hurting me!"

Ron laughed. "Take . . . take . . . take," he said, in between administering bites to Harry's neck. Then, pushing Harry's thighs apart with one knee and releasing his hair in favor of grabbing his hips, the stronger boy pressed his erection to Harry's entrance and breached it with a single rough thrust. "Ungh!" he grunted, pushing in again, pulling back almost all the way out, and slamming back inside, digging his fingers deeply into the boy's flesh in an effort to keep him still.

Harry could not draw breath. He stopped struggling and took it, his mind screaming in pain and mortification and terror. This is Ron, he thought. Ron, my best friend. Oh, God. Not like this. I never wanted him like this. Oh, he'll . . . hate . . . himself. Oh, God. Oh, no. Oh— "Fuck!" he screamed, as Ron's cock hit that spot again. "No! I won't," he cried, "I won't enj—OH!"

It was good. That was the most devastating thing about being fucked—raped—by his best friend. It was good, and Harry could not prevent himself from responding to the increasingly slick thrusts of Ron's prick in and out of his body. He was moaning—with desire as well as fear—and he could not stop it. He was not sure, as his balls began to tighten, that he wanted Ron to stop. Another hard thrust, and he knew.

"God! Please! Ron, please. More. PleaseGodRondon'tstopgivememoremoremore—MORE!" he roared, when Ron pushed him down onto all fours and rammed into him so deeply that Harry almost blacked out.

And then he was howling through the shame of his orgasm as Ron's relentless thrusts, spurred on by the tightening of his muscles around the boy's prick, sped up and became erratic before Harry felt a hot slickness spurt inside of him.

"TaketaketaketaketakeTAKE!" Ron screamed, coming and then collapsing.

He laid there, chest heaving out hot breaths onto Harry's neck, as the magic of the circle sputtered and dispersed.

The first thing Severus heard when he came back to himself was Potter's quiet sobbing, through which he could discern some sort of broken litany: "It . . . wasn't you, it wasn't . . . you . . . wasn't you . . . ."

"Oh. My. God. . . . What did I—Harry—what did I do?" he asked, though it was perfectly clear to him what he had done.

His eyes burning, he carefully pulled himself out of Potter and gathered the boy up into his arms to cradle him against his chest. To his great shame, Harry clung to him as if to a rescuer.

"Ron, it wasn't you. You didn't mean to. It wasn't—"

"Shh," Snape soothed. "I'm sorry. I—shh—it will be all right. It's over. God, I didn't mean to do it, Harry. I'm sorry," the wizard said, stroking the boy's sweat-dampened hair and feeling filthier than he had ever felt before, even as the afterglow of his orgasm infused him with the sensation of sated languor. What have I done? How will I explain—oh, God! He thinks Weasley did this to him!

The fact that all Potter seemed to care about was soothing him—Ron—made the situation that much more terrible for Severus, who had never taken someone as roughly, never raped, anyone before.

Harry untangled himself from Ron's body and looked up into his pain-filled eyes. "Ron, I . . . I know you are. I know," he said, fiercely. "I don't blame you, but—oh," he groaned.

"What? What is it? Christ, I hurt you!"

"Wasn't you," Harry repeated, gingerly attempting to stand.

Severus rose quickly and helped the Auror to his feet. He could see the blood trickling down his thighs, and the sight made bile rise in his throat. "Here, let me get my wand—I'll heal you."

"No, find mine—please," the boy almost pleaded.

"Yes. Anything. Wait, I'll find—here! Here it is," Severus said, handing the wand to the battered boy and opening his mouth to speak again.

But Harry pointed his wand at him before he could utter a sound. "Obliviate!" Harry cast, his eyes bright and calm. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his arm. Hermione, he thought, shuddering with an emotion he could not name. I'll have to

"I know what you're thinking, Harry James Potter, and you will not do it," the witch said as he turned, reaching out to take his wand from his suddenly nerveless fingers. "You don't know any healing charms," she continued gently, moving to support him as he slid bonelessly to the ground. "Let me help you."

When he made no protest, Hermione went away for a moment to collect his clothing, and returned to lay his robe over him.

"It wasn't a Lo—a Lovers' Circle."

"No," she replied, her face grim, as she carefully examined his wounds. "It wasn't."

"I had to, Hermione. I couldn't let Ron know—"

"I know that, Harry. It's all right. Let me see to Ron, so that I can help you without his being aware of it, all right? Is that okay?"

Harry nodded.

When the witch came back, the first thing she did was to cast a series of healing charms, but not before she had asked Harry for his permission to perform each one. In fact, nothing she did to help him she did without first asking if it was acceptable to him.

"Why are you asking me about everything?"

"Because you've been attacked, Harry," she said, keeping her voice neutral. "You need to know that you have control, now. Does it bother you? I won't ask if—"

"No, go ahead," he replied tonelessly. "Why can't I . . . feel anything?"

Blinking rapidly, Hermione took a moment to collect herself before she responded. "You've had a shock, Harry. It makes it hard to feel."

"A shock."

"Yes, a shock. Are you in any pain now?"

He shook his head.

"Good. All right, would you like me to help you dress?"

"Sure."

After dressing Harry, Hermione went to Ron and examined him for any sign of injury. Finding none, she returned to her stunned friend's side, and sat with him silently.

"I'm cold."

Hermione cast a warming charm.

"What are we going to tell Ron?"

"I told him that the circle exploded and knocked him out. You didn't hear—oh, well, he's sleeping now. I told him he had to rest. He never has to know, Harry. I swear I'll never tell him, all right?"

"All . . . all right."

"Shall we get you home, then?"

It occurred to the young man then that his friend seemed to know exactly what to do, but not in a way that indicated she had studied about it. "Hermione, wh—when?" he asked, his voice breaking in sadness. "Not you. Not you, too."

"Yes, me," she whispered. "You don't need to worry about it, Har—"

"I want to know. If . . . if you can," he said, his eyes clearing a little as he turned to look at her for the first time since she had relieved him of his wand.

"I love you, Harry," Hermione said then, drawing the wizard to her and hugging him. "You don't have to think of me right now, really, you don't."

"Don't want to think about me," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "Can't."

"All right. But I . . . don't want to tell you who it was. I don't think that would be a good idea. Promise me you won't ask," she said, pulling away.

"I'll kill him. That's what I'll promise you," Harry replied, with a ghost of vehemence.

"That's exactly why I'm not going to tell you his name," she said, in a patient tone. "It was a long time ago, and I've . . . made peace with it."

"I won't kill him tonight."

Hermione sighed. "Maybe this isn't a such a good idea."

"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"Everything. You. Me. Ron. . . . Who was it?"

"Harry."

"Did you tell anyone?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I did what you did, so there wasn't a point to telling anyone."

Harry closed his eyes. "Fuck."

"I didn't want anyone . . . I didn't want him to look at me and know what he'd done."

"Fuck," Harry said, again. "Malfoy."

Hermione said nothing, but Harry felt her body, which was leaning into his, stiffen. He uttered an ugly laugh. "That's all right then."

"What?"

"I get to kill him, anyway."

"Make it hurt."

"Promise."

They sat there for awhile, both of them lost in thought, and neither of them feeling prepared to face Ron.

"Ron," meanwhile, was laying a short distance away, eyes closed, listening to the silence of the two Gryffindors. The Obliviatus Charm was a spell that required careful application; without specific instruction as to what to forget—or to remember, as the case sometimes was, for memories could be inserted into one's mind if necessary—the subject could be left, as Gilderoy Lockhart had been, with no knowledge of who he or she was. In the case of Snape, who was enchanted to appear as Ron Weasley, when Hermione had explained to her boyfriend that he had suffered an explosion, the charm went awry. Snape was not Ron, and, therefore, the spell did not work upon him. Severus had permitted himself to appear to accept the witch's instruction to sleep, for he could not yet face what he had done.

I raped Harry Potter, he thought, remembering every moment of the attack—the attack that he had enjoyed committing—and wishing he were dead. There was no way he could ever forgive himself for what he had done, no way he could explain himself, and he felt as though his heart, though he loathed to think along such lines, was breaking. I'm not a wizard, not a man, not a head of house. How could I have been so careless? If Albus thought Harry was going to be useless after seeing Lupin die . . . .

He hoped he would have the opportunity to murder Draco Malfoy before Potter did. The boy should not have that killing on his conscience, or any other, he knew. He wished he understood why Granger's kindness to him in treating his injuries—even though he knew that she believed he was her boyfriend—had hurt so much to accept. He bit back a sigh as the memory of the pleasure he had taken in violating Harry's body rose in his mind. He regretted that he had not been successfully Obliviated.

At last, Hermione turned to Harry and said, "I think we'd best get back, now. They'll be wondering . . . ."

"I'm afraid."

Severus thought he might be physically sick as he heard the bereft quality of the boy's voice.

"Of what?"

"That he'll find out. That . . . that he'll try ag—"

"It was the spell, Harry. Ron won't hurt you again. It was a trap, and it caught you—both of you—but it's been sprung. It will never happen again."

"And he won't know?"

"Won't know what?" Severus asked, unable to lie still a moment longer.

He wanted his wand. The Obliviatus Charm seemed like a good idea.

If only I could cast it upon myself . . . .

"Well, it's about time, you sleepyhead," Hermione replied, her voice a strained sound of forced cheerfulness. "That was quite a knock you took, Ron. Are you all right?" she asked, moving to stand between Harry and the other wizard.

Giving him time to collect himself, Severus thought, feeling a swell of gratitude for the witch. "Was it?" he replied, rubbing the back of his head. "Guess so. Feel kind of . . . hey, Harry?" he made himself ask. "You all right, mate?"

"Yeah, Ron. All right. Just a bit . . . ."

"Sure. Well, should we get back to Headquarters and make our report? If . . . if you're still a bit, I mean, Hermione and I could do it—I could do it."

"That's . . . a good idea, Ron. Harry got . . . he took more of the—"

"Blast," the wizard finished for her. "Sure, and I slept. You didn't, did you?" he asked, directing the question at Harry without looking at him.

"No, he didn't," Hermione answered. "Are you up to Apparation? You could go straight there if you are."

Thank you, Severus thought. "Yeah, I'll do that. Um," he said, hesitating. Would he kiss her goodnight?

The witch solved this problem by closing the distance between them and laying her warm lips against his cold cheek, and then saying to him as she pressed his wand into one hand, "Good night. See you tomorrow?"

"Uh, no, actually. I've got to go back to the Ministry tomorrow. More recruiting stuff."

He decided not to Obliviate anyone. He did not feel up to doing so.

"Oh, well, I'll fire-call you tomorrow night, then."

"Um . . . ."

"Right. You send word when you can. I'll just get Harry back to Hogwarts before I return to the novitiate. Love you."

Snape shivered with guilt. "Lo—ve you," he lied, Disapparating at once. After making his report to Kingsley Shacklebolt, he went directly to Hogwarts. Alone in his chambers, his first act was to take a near-scalding shower; his second, to imbibe an irresponsible dose of Dreamless Sleep Potion.

He forgot completely about the need to check in on Albus.