Prologue

He sat quietly in the chair as the three examiners filed into the room. His demeanor was neither arrogant nor subservient; he simply waited, dark eyes luminous in his pale face.

At one end of the table, a red-plumed quill hovered over a parchment scroll; it commenced scribbling furiously the instant the tall black man began to speak.

"Date, time, location, Know all who come by these presents, etc.

"This is the conditional release hearing for Severus Snape, sentenced on the twelfth of August, nineteen hundred and ninety-eight, to a term of twenty years for the killing of a reasonable creature in rerum natura, to wit, one Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore."

He paused and looked at the prisoner, who gazed back unblinking, still as granite.

"Present are Kingsley Shacklebolt, Minister for Magic; Lydia Fangevogter, Governor of Azkaban; and Harry Potter, Warlock in Ordinary of the Wizengamot."

At the mention of this final name, the prisoner turned his head fractionally to look at the young wizard seated to Shacklebolt's left. The green eyes met his for the briefest of seconds, then slid away to focus on the only other object on the scarred tabletop: an ebony wand laid so that its tip pointed towards the prisoner's chair.

"Madam Fangevogter." Shacklebolt nodded to the grey-haired witch, who settled a pair of steel-rimmed glasses on her nose, unrolled a parchment, and began to read.

"In light of the gravity of the crime, and of the dearth of evidence of any mitigating circumstance, and also"—here she raised her eyes to look at Snape over her glasses—"in view of his unregenerate refusal to show any sign of remorse, it is the judgment of this panel that the prisoner Severus Snape be denied parole at this time, and be returned to custody to serve out the remainder of his sentence."

A moment passed in which the only sound in the room was the scratching of the red quill, and then Shacklebolt said, "Mr. Snape, have you anything you wish to say?"

A long pause. Then, in a low, even voice: "I rather think not."

"Very well, then. These proceedings are adjourned; Madam Fangevogter, you are excused, with the Ministry's thanks."

The quill ceased its scribbling, the parchment furled itself, and a red ribbon appeared and tied around it in a neat bow.

"Shall I send the Aurors in?" asked the witch, with a nod in Snape's direction.

"No, I'd like to have a private word with him before we send him back, if you don't mind."

"Very well." She looked pointedly at the wand on the table. "Don't underestimate him, Minister. He's a very dangerous person."

"Indeed."

Shacklebolt waited until the witch had left the room, then turned his gaze on Snape again.

"Disappointed?" he said.

The faintest twitch pulled at one corner of Snape's mouth. "You can't think that I expected any other decision."

Shacklebolt considered him. "You're not looking particularly well."

The twitch deepened. "Really? I can't imagine why. Ten years in the company of Dementors is ordinarily so salubrious and invigorating."

"Only eight years with the Dementors, Severus."

"Ah, yes, I stand corrected." His voice was icy with contempt. "That little reform didn't last long, did it?"

Shacklebolt heaved a sigh. "It couldn't be helped, I'm afraid. Public safety must remain paramount."

"Is there some reason you're keeping me here, Kingsley? Other than to gloat, in the company of your tame little celebrity, over my continued imprisonment?"

"There is."

When he did not elaborate, Snape settled back in his chair, crossing his legs at the ankle. "I've got nothing but time," he said, with a thin smile.

Shacklebolt made a little grimace of irritation and cleared his throat.

"I can arrange for your immediate release."

Snape's expression did not change, but the black eyes flattened to a sudden opacity.

"In exchange for?"

"There is some . . . work . . . the Ministry would like you to do."

"'Work.' Let me guess. Would that be some sort of dark, wet work, Kingsley? The kind the Ministry have always contracted out, because they can't afford to be seen to undertake it?"

"I'm sure I've no idea what you're talking about."

Snape leapt to his feet. "Of course you haven't. Well, you can stick it up your arse, Shacklebolt—and you, too, Mr Ordinary Fucking Warlock Potter." He turned a venomous gaze on Harry. "Sleeping well at night, are you? Happy now that all's right with the world and all the bad, bad wizards are safely locked up in Azkaban?"

Harry's face went ashen.

Shacklebolt leaned forward. "Sit down, Severus, and don't get your bowels in an uproar. It's nothing like that. We just need you to do some research for us."

Snape remained standing and regarded Shacklebolt warily.

"In the last six months, there have been disturbing reports of new hexes, many with dreadful effects and no known countercurse."

"Such as?"

"Spells that cause bizarre dementias, paralyses, degenerating and irreversible conditions. As well as some virulent potions that we've never seen before."

"And what is it precisely that you wish me to do about it?"

"Develop antidotes and countercurses, of course, but mainly find out where it's all coming from. There hasn't been an influx of new magical formulae like this since the Middle Ages. It is . . . worrisome."

"Would you mind explaining exactly why I would be your choice of operative for this job?"

"You're a brilliant wizard, Snape; no one has ever disputed that. I might even say peerless, now that Dumbledore's gone, although believe me when I tell you that the irony of that accession does not escape my notice."

"The world is full of brilliant wizards capable of doing honest research for the Ministry."

Shacklebolt chuckled mirthlessly. "The simple truth, Severus, is that you'll be released from Azkaban eventually, and when that happens, we'd rather have you inside the tent pissing out."

For the first time Snape let his glance flicker towards the wand lying on the table, and his right hand gave a barely perceptible twitch.

He sat down slowly and heavily in the chair.

"Go on," he said.

Chapter 1 Another Thing To Like About Spain

Sunlight, soaking into the skin of his face and forearms and prisming golden through the half-finished glass of beer on the table. A small plate of glossy, paper-thin slices of the dark, nutty ham that he had never tasted before this visit but could quickly grow addicted to. The delicious languor that came from a night of profound, untroubled sleep on a soft hotel bed. The forbidden luxury of a cigarette, because this was Spain, where not only did they let you smoke, but no one even threw you a reproachful glance as they strolled past on the cobbled pavement.

All this would have been more than enough. He could have shuffled off his mortal coil right now in complete contentment. But the cherry on top of this intoxicating sundae of sensory delights was the sight of the perfect, round bottom of the Muggle girl who was at this moment bending over to set her things down at the next table.

Snape gazed upon it with lust, affection, admiration, nostalgia. It had been a long time since he'd had nothing in the world to occupy him except the unimpeded view of a woman's beautiful arse. And this was a lovely arse indeed—a perfect inverted heart shape, clad in a pair of khaki shorts, above smooth, tanned legs. In the few seconds it had taken her to set her books down on the table and place a small empty basket on the floor next to her chair, his imagination had already slid his hand up inside the shorts, fingers exploring the humid darkness there, slipping beneath the knickers—were there knickers? Yes, he could see the faint line of the elastic waistband through the twill of the shorts, drawn tight across her buttocks as she bent forward.

He shifted in his seat.

Ten years in Azkaban without so much as a furtive wank. Not because it was proscribed or somehow prevented, but because Azkaban sucked the very life-force out of you; permeated everything with a damp, grey despair that made the pleasures of the flesh—even the crude, self-induced sort—fade to an irrelevant memory. During the days, all his energy had gone toward maintaining the mental shields that were the desperate safeguard of his sanity; at night, when he would finally fall into a weary sleep, they would falter and he would be tormented by relentless night terrors, only to wake the next morning drained and exhausted, struggling to begin the cycle of self-protection all over again.

Small wonder that his cock had lain dormant, shriveled and forgotten.

But it twitched now into life, a sensation almost like pain after such a lengthy hibernation.

Across the plaza, a middle-aged woman was watching him watch with wry amusement. She caught his eye and gave a complicit smile, lifting her wineglass—one of those odd stubby tumblers they served wine in down here—in a little salute.

He nodded in acknowledgement, and returned his attention to the lovely arse. Another thing to like about Spain—even the women expected you to look at women.

At what age, he wondered, did Spanish women abruptly metamorphose from the sultry, forbidding, whip-thin sex goddesses striding down every street in pointy-toed stiletto heels into stocky matrons in boxy tweed suits and sensible shoes like the one now observing him over her wineglass? There didn't seem to be an intermediate stage, only the two radically disparate forms. In another ten years, would the owner of this ravishing arse forego her morning run for an extra churro or two and a visit to a purveyor of dowdy woolens?

He sincerely hoped not. She was sitting now with her back to him, giving him a clear view of a slender neck, left bare by a chic crop of very short brown curls. The haircut might even have seemed a boy's, had Snape not already been treated to the prospect of that delicious arse.

She ordered in a no-nonsense voice, speaking perhaps a bit more slowly than most of her compatriots. It was difficult for Snape to gauge; he was aware only that he could actually understand much of what she was saying, whereas the Spanish spoken to him under most circumstances seemed to flash by at more or less the speed of light.

His Spanish was rudimentary at best: he could order a meal and secure a night's lodging, and that was about it. He would need to learn more, he thought, if his physical recovery continued apace; he could just imagine himself, at his current level of fluency, approaching some woman in an alley and asking, "Mi chorizo en tu boca, ¿cuánto dinero?"

The object of his present observation had withdrawn a pen and a small notepad from her handbag, and from time to time peered down into the basket and wrote something on the pad. This was odd, as the basket was clearly quite empty, and Snape began to wonder if perhaps she was not in complete possession of her faculties. That would account for the slow speech as well, he admitted to himself reluctantly, and it would be a damned shame. Fine arse or no, he could hardly lust after a woman who was obviously not in her right mind.

That might be the only kind likely to lust after you, said a voice in his head, before he could stifle it.

Just then a football came bouncing in off the plaza, followed immediately by a small boy, who tripped over the basket and sent it skittering across the cobbles.

"¡Malcriado!" the girl cried after him, and was out of her chair in pursuit of the basket in an instant.

As she was returning with it, her face turned briefly in Snape's direction, and he saw with a frisson of shock that she was disfigured: a scar ran from one corner of her mouth outwards along the jawline, the silvery puckered skin pulling slightly at the right side of her mouth.

One forgot, living in the Wizarding world, that such disfigurements were common among Muggles. A competent magical Healer could repair any ordinary wound so as to leave no visible trace; only the most devastating of hex-caused injuries was likely to leave a permanent mark in its wake.

He wondered how this woman had been injured. Perhaps the scar was the result of the same accident that had robbed her of her reason, he mused. Her behavior now had become downright bizarre. Dragging the basket after her, she was crawling about under the tables on all fours, patting the ground repeatedly with one hand and making an odd little chirping noise. At one point, preoccupied with this strange groping, she banged her head smartly against a table leg and, to Snape's astonishment, said in a loud voice, "Damn it to bloody fucking hell!"

Feeling vaguely guilty about his earlier lechery, he rose from his chair and made his way towards her.

"Miss?" he said, leaning down. "Can I perhaps be of assistance?"

"Stop!" she barked. "Don't move!"

And then she looked up at him, and her brow furrowed, and she said, in a much softer, more tentative voice:

"Professor?"