DISCLAIMER applicable to all chapters:

The world of Harry Potter was created by the glorious J.K. Rowling, long may she flourish (preferably without the Blotts).

Only the suits at Warner, Bloomsbury and Scholastic would assume fans play in Ms Rowling's universe with profit in mind. They're wrong, it's for pleasure - and surely that's enough for anyone.

I began writing-plotting FFI in December 2001, so obviously all the discoveries made while reading 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' have no place in this universe.

I'm thrilled to bits that FFI has been translated: my heartfelt thanks - not to mention respect - to those responsible.

The German translation of FFI is at -
The Russian translation of FFI is at -

http: I know I had requests for it to be translated into Portuguese and Spanish - I've no idea if that's happening, or where the result will be posted.


Meal times during the summer holidays were an elastic affair for the staff and the table was almost empty by the time Dumbledore came into the Great Hall for breakfast. He smiled as he passed Professors Sprout and Flitwick on their way out of the room; deep in animated conversation, Sprout's gurgling laugh was punctuated by squeaks of pleasure from Flitwick. The only person left at the High Table was Snape, who was staring blankly at the bowl of steaming porridge in front of him. His skin tone was an almost perfect match to the grey-beige hue of the oatmeal and he looked as if sleep had become a luxury he hadn't enjoyed for some time. It was a look common to many this year.

"Good morning," said Dumbledore, taking the chair to Snape's right. While his voice had been gentle of intent, Snape still flinched, then scowled to cover his moment of weakness.

"H-headmaster." The cream jug shaking as he picked it up, he set it down again unused, all his usual grace of movement lost. A muscle high in his jaw was jumping.

Dumbledore served him with cream, topped with a generous serving of fragrant, dark brown sugar. "Eat. You look even worse than last night."

"Always such a way with words." Shifting on his chair, Snape grimaced and fell silent.

"We need to rethink our strategy. This can't go on, Severus."

"Spare us both any inane insincerities. We both know it has to go on while there's a chance we can continue to feed Voldemort misinformation - no matter how trivial it might be."

"You're missing the point. I'm concerned about what will become of you."

"Me, too. It's all taken care of," added Snape, exhaustion slurring his voice and dragging at the muscles of his face. "Since I rejoined the Dark Lord I've been working intensively on honing - developing, would be more accurate - Lupin's skills as a potions-maker, and teacher. As he was a virtual tabula rasa, despite seven years of Potions classes, my task was made easier. Since having a decent teacher he's displayed a certain talent for potion-making. When Voldemort kills me Remus will make a competent Potions master, although he will never attain my level of skill as a potions-maker." The statement sounded arrogant but was no more than the truth. "I've given him access to my suppliers, formulae and notes for the works in progress, although those are beyond him at present."

Chilled by this thorough preparation for death, Dumbledore gained unwanted insight into what Snape's last two years must have been like.

"It hasn't occurred to you that some of us might miss you for more than your undoubted skills as a Potions master?"

Snape's head turned fast as a striking snake but he made no response beyond a snort of sardonic amusement. "Given that I have excellent hearing and sight, no, it hasn't." He drew his shaking hands onto his lap, yet to accustom himself to the betrayal of a body he had always taken for granted.

"Then I've failed you even more than I knew," murmured Dumbledore.

"Don't be ridiculous," dismissed Snape irritably, unable to meet the sadness in those vivid eyes. "I'm the one prone to self-pity if I remember my last assessment correctly."

Discarding all the things he would rather have said, Dumbledore picked up his knife and fork. "I had no idea I was being so maudlin," he said in his mildest voice.

"Which is why I dropped you a hint," murmured Snape, bland as milk. He absently took a mouthful of the still hot porridge.

Dumbledore gave a faint smile and patted him on the arm but he continued to study the other man as Snape applied himself to eating his first meal in twenty four hours.

Severus' reports had always been meticulous in every detail, except with regard to the punishments he routinely suffered as Voldemort toyed with his renegade Death Eater. Dumbledore was aware that the only reason he knew of them now was because after two years of enduring regular bursts of Cruciatus, Severus' fortitude had been tested to its limits. Each time he returned from Voldemort it took him longer to make a physical recovery - long beyond the point where he could continue to hide it. As yet his will was unbroken but one day it would shatter like glass put under too much stress. And when that happened...

Dumbledore sighed, his eyes darkening. It was up to him to see that it didn't.

As he noted the deep lines embedded between Snape's eyebrows and engraved from nose to mouth, Dumbledore wondered if Severus had ever known what it was to be happy. Perhaps occasionally, as a teenager, with one of his girlfriends, before bitterness and a sense of alienation had made him join Voldemort. Voldemort had known what lures to cast to snare an emotionally vulnerable eighteen-year-old boy. Severus would never have been tempted by the opportunities for rape and torture, or for the acquisition of wealth. It was the vanity of youth and the arrogance which came from being so much more intelligent than most of those around him - combined with a hunger for knowledge - that had been Severus' downfall. Only he would be arrogant enough to have believed he could topple Voldemort - who he had described as rather stupid, if a powerfully compelling wizard - and return to the Light for the glittering prizes that would await him. As for what else Severus might truly have wanted, it was difficult to say. He had been a complex and difficult boy - the man was little changed, except that he was even more bitter and less inclined to hope. He had always actively thwarted those who tried to interact with him - as if he required them to prove themselves over and over again. Unsurprisingly, few people passed his tests. Capable of great cruelty, particularly to those less able than himself, he had a strong sense of duty and a rigid code of honour. He also had a fiercely protective streak for those in his care, even if young Longbottom would find that difficult to believe, mused Dumbledore with a faint smile. If Severus was hard on others, he was harder still on himself. Perhaps one day he might be able to find contentment but it was hard to believe. He was not a comfortable companion.

So many wounded children... Sirius, trying to patch together the life the Dementors had tried to suck from him for over twelve years; memories blighted, happiness drained away. And after twelve years those feelings were hard to recapture; small wonder his eyes were still so haunted. Then there was Remus, whose life was lived at the rhythm dictated by the moon. Lily, James and Cedric murdered. Muggle families persecuted, as were some of the oldest wizard dynasties. Every day brought new horrors. In the last two years eighteen of their current pupils had found themselves orphaned, courtesy of Voldemort. Eighteen of the brightest and best weakened by their devastating losses.

Now, as they approached Harry's final year at Hogwarts, the only question was how and when Voldemort would strike next.

"Have you prepared that potion we discussed yet?" Dumbledore asked, dunking a piece of fried bread into an egg yolk.

"No, Headmaster. I'm not making it," said Snape flatly.

"We need something which will redeem you in Voldemort's eyes."

"Potter's head on a plate should do the trick - with or without an apple in his mouth."

"Perhaps you could concoct something with which to dispose of me," Dumbledore mused.

"The obvious disadvantage being that I would have to produce the relevant potion. Given how long it took me to convince him that you've inflicted a charm which tells you every time I brew any potion not on the curriculum, do you really think that would be wise? Besides, I'm not going to poison you in the dubious hope of convincing the Dark Lord of my renewed loyalty. Apart from the odd scraps of information we feed him, he keeps me alive only because it amuses him to do so. I can set Lucius Malfoy gibbering with rage in a couple of sentences. Who would think it, Severus Snape, court jester." While his mouth twisted into a smile, the bleakness in his eyes was shocking.

"How long have I known you, Severus? Let me see, I returned to Hogwarts to take over the position of Headmaster when you were what, fourteen, fifteen?"

"Fourteen," said Snape. He looked wary, as if trying to brace himself against attack.

"Twenty four years... During those years it's been apparent to me that you excel in everything to which you put your mind."

Having finished his porridge without seeming to be aware of what he was doing, Snape ignored the fried breakfast which had appeared in front of him to give Dumbledore a look in which comprehension and suspicion were mixed in equal measure.

"Whatever it is you want, the answer is no," he said, but some warmth had returned to his voice.

One of his saving graces had always been an unpredictable and sometimes inconvenient sense of humour - yet another reason why Voldemort had not been able to hold him. Strange that evil and a lack of a sense of humour should so often go in tandem, mused Dumbledore, before he concentrated on the issue at hand.

"I'm worried about Miss Granger's state of mind," he said.

"Speak to Minerva."

"She has tried everything."

A fork full of bacon poised, Snape raised his eyebrows. "Obviously not 'everything' or we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Minerva is an excellent woman and the perfect head of house for Gryffindor. But she excels at a more - er - straightforward approach."

"Thank you," said Snape, reading between the lines without difficulty.

"Also," continued Dumbledore, ignoring the interruption, "as she would be the first to admit, she has a better rapport with the boys in her house - just as you do with the girls in Slytherin. Miss Granger's intellect can make her seem a daunting - "

"Intellect isn't the issue here. It's her emotions that are causing the problem." Snape crunched a crisp bacon rind with a relish he hadn't displayed for some time.

Dumbledore took some care in loading a piece of mushroom with some fried tomato. "I've often thought the two of you have a lot in common in some respects."

"Minerva and me?" Incredulity coloured Snape's voice.

"I was talking about Miss Granger and yourself. As you well know," said Dumbledore placidly.

"Oh, I know exactly what you want of me and the answer is no. I have my own house and - "

" - an excellent job you make of it."

As usual, any compliment from Dumbledore left Snape floundering. He made a typical comeback. "Compared to the appalling sentimentality of the other heads of house anyone would look efficient. If you're hoping I'll start knitting my Slytherins bedsocks, you'll be disappointed."

"I could teach you," offered Dumbledore, before his smile faded. "You were Hogwarts' youngest ever head of house by over two decades. You still are the youngest," he added, after some complicated counting process which made sense only to him.

"Something which might appear a compliment but for the fact that I was the only Slytherin on staff at the time," dismissed Snape, a brittle note in his voice.

"Merlin's bones! There are times I think you weren't slapped enough as a child," snapped Dumbledore with asperity.

Snape blinked and watched him warily. "Headmaster?"

Dumbledore made a concerted effort to control his anger, knowing that much of it was misdirected. "Sometimes your wilful arrogance still astounds me. Do you seriously imagine you were my only choice as Potions master? My name is enough to ensure I have the pick of the wizarding community. Even in these dangerous times I could fill posts at Hogwarts twenty times over. There are a number of Slytherin professors, learned wizards and witches in their fields, but few of them make good teachers, let alone... You were appointed head of Slytherin because you could provide your house with the leadership it requires in these troubled times. Given that you do so while balancing the necessity of exaggerating your less endearing traits..."

A sardonic snort escaped Snape.

"You're doing a fine job, Severus," continued Dumbledore, as if there had been no interruption.

"Except..." drawled Snape, an unpleasant, knowing sparkle in his black eyes.


"There was a qualification hovering behind the praise."

"Well, yes, there was,"snapped Dumbledore, irritated as so often by the doors Snape slammed shut. "You've been doing some excellent work but when are you going to get over your ridiculous prejudice against Black, Lupin - and the Potters, father and son?"

Snape's heavy chair scraped back over the stone flags as he got to his feet. "At your request I've shaken hands with B-Black. Every month I make one of the most complex potions in existence for Lupin. Meanwhile I'm helping to keep Potter and his undistinguished friends alive. What else do you require of me, h-headmaster?" Aware of the ignominious shake in his voice, his emotional controls in tatters in the aftermath of three bursts of Cruciatus in one night, he turned away but was forced to grasp the chair back for support as various muscles cramped at the same time. After several minutes he was able to straighten again, sweat clammy on his skin.

Having learnt that offers of help would be rejected out of hand, Dumbledore forced himself to stay seated. Staring up at Snape's painfully straight back and shaking right arm, he grimaced. "Please stay, Severus. I expressed myself poorly. I know there were - and are - faults on both sides. Something I failed to take into account all those years ago."

While it was obvious he would have preferred to be anywhere else, Snape gave a jerky nod and returned to his seat, although he pushed away his unfinished meal.

His own appetite gone, Dumbledore poured himself some rosehip tea and added a drizzle of the honey supplied by the castle's bees.

Snape fidgeted with the delicate glass stopper to the honey jar, before slowly licking sweetness from the tips of his fingers. "The apple blossom was good this year," he noted.

"Hagrid swears by dried Hippogriff manure."

"Ah, that would have been the smell last spring. We thought it must be the drains again. Miss Granger's parents were murdered only three months ago. Given the - um - spectacular nature of their demise it's only to be expected that she's less forthcoming than usual. Not that she ever has been, except in the classroom," Snape added slowly. "She has no other friends."

"I knew I could rely on you to see the problem. Harry and Ron are admirable boys - "

Snape gave a derisive snort.

" - but not people to whom she's likely to open her heart. Every day Hermione's defences grow stronger. You'll have noticed the change in her for yourself, you don't miss much that goes on around you. We've all tried to get through to her but she's locked her emotions behind walls so high and so thick... It's time to be cruel to be kind."

"Ah. Your confidence in me is explained." On this occasion Snape sounded more amused than bitter.

"She needs help, Severus. And Harry needs all the support he can get."

"I thought it wouldn't be long before we got back to the wonder that is Potter." Snape refilled his cup with the black tea he favoured and which he preferred once it had been left to stew until it was half-cold and strong enough to make even hardened tea drinkers wince.

Dumbledore employed his most effective weapon against Snape. "Please, Severus."

Snape's narrow-eyed glare was its own answer.

Dumbledore patted him on the shoulder. "I knew I could rely on you."

Muttering something under his breath, Snape took a fortifying sip of tea. "You can stop twinkling at me in that nauseating way. I've said I'll do it. But I'll do it in my own way. And without any interference from Black." He turned the name into an obscenity.

"Here, have some more toast," he added, irritable because he could see he had disappointed Dumbledore - again.

Listening to the sound of laughter coming from the grounds outside the open window, Hermione stepped back in case anyone should look up and start plaguing her to go outside. Though to be fair, no one would order her to do so - that was the best thing about being at Hogwarts during the summer holidays, none of the professors, not even Snape, made her do anything. While students weren't usually allowed to spend the summer break at school, to her relief Professor Dumbledore had given her special permission; she was on her honour not to abuse the trust placed in her.

"A promise I feel sure Miss Granger will have a better chance of keeping without Potter and Weasley around to lead her astray," Snape had said, an unpleasant twist to his mouth. "Make sure you don't make a nuisance of yourself," he had added to her. "It won't, of course, have occurred to you that your insistence on remaining here has put all of us to considerable inconvenience. Just because you refuse to face up to the fact that your - "

"Severus, a word. Now!" Professor McGonagall had snapped, virtually yanking him to one side.

Relieved to have escaped, Hermione hadn't understood what had happened next. After a while Professor McGonagall had stopped shouting at Snape in a whisper. Dreading what retort Snape might make Hermione had been amazed to see him murmur something which looked like a reassurance before smiling. True it had only been faint but she had never seen him smile with anything approaching warmth before. It made quite a difference to his face. Too weird to think of Snape reassuring Professor McGonagall - or wanting to. Though it made a change from him winding her up about Gryffindor's chances in Quidditch - as if he cared about anything except making her lose her temper. But the change in him was as great as if night had become day and she hated the unpredictability of it. Especially now that...

Must get on instead of day-dreaming, she reminded herself, feverishly rootling through the summer work she had already finished, despite the fact the holidays were less than a week old.

Mrs Weasley had been very sweet when she'd told her to make her home at the Burrow but there was no need for that. Besides, it was better to keep busy. There was so much to learn and she still hadn't decided what her speciality should be. At least she had plenty of opportunities to use the library without interruption from anyone - not least from one of Madam Pince's disapproving sniffs. The worst she could expect was to meet Snape on his way to the Restricted Section and undergo one of his infamous interrogations. In a funny kind of way they were oddly comforting - as if nothing had changed. Besides, a couple of times he'd been helpful about recommending books for her to read, then displayed an unexpected willingness to discuss them afterwards.

It hadn't really occurred to her before but when he forgot to be a bastard he was interesting to talk to - and a good, if demanding, teacher. She'd soon learnt to marshal her arguments during those one-to-one sessions. Sloppy research wasn't an option and wooly-minded thinking did nothing but earn her one of those caustic comments which most people took hours to think up but which came naturally to him. He had a way of picking through your brain, turning it inside out and then sitting back and waiting for you to work through the problem for yourself. It was an effective teaching method - one she would never have expected of him. She had been so caught up in the argument they'd had yesterday that she'd heard herself flat-out contradicting him, offering in support an article she had just read in Herbology Today. It had taken her a while to recognise the expression in his eyes as pleasure. Not an emotion you expected when you had just told the classroom bully he was wrong. It had taken her twenty four hours to realise he'd read the article and had just been testing her. She thought she must have passed but you could never be sure with a tricky bastard like Snape. Trust was hardly his middle name.

But it was a relief to be on better terms with him after a disastrous six years of being ignored or slighted. She could still see his scornful expression when he'd eyed those enormous teeth Malfoy had given her in his duel with Harry, could still hear the sneer in his voice as he'd said he saw no difference in her appearance. She'd cried in the Ladies for half an hour before Moaning Myrtle had reminded her to go to the hospital wing. Malfoy had done her a favour really. Her new front teeth were wonderful, thanks to Madam Pomfrey, although when mum and dad had seen them they'd -

Taking out the essay she had completed for Snape earlier in the week, she debated rewriting the introduction, sighed and set the parchment to one side, frustrated by the knowledge that her best was rarely good enough for the most exacting of professors. Still, while Snape's teaching style left a lot to be desired, he was never dull and no one, not even Neville, who really was hopeless when it came to Potions, had ever failed their Potions exams. Of course, being a Slytherin, Snape might cheat on the marking - it was difficult to believe Crabbe and Goyle had mastered joined up writing, let alone increasingly complex potion-making.

Feeling stiff and awkward, Hermione got up to look out the window overlooking the sunny lawn; a number of the daisies winked up at her before one squeaked and dodged the croquet ball heading towards it. Smiling, Hermione watched as Professors Sprout, McGonagall and Flitwick played wizards' croquet, while a sleepy Professor Lupin, with Sirius Black at his side, lounged on the grass a safe distance away, Lupin applauding shots. Instead of their usual crow-black robes all the professors wore only summer attire. Professor McGonagall looked hot in her red tartan robe, her hair in a wonderfully intricate style, while Professor Sprout looked like an animated puff-ball in her tulle and lace dress. It was odd, without those robes the personalities of the various staff seemed to become more apparent - or maybe it was just because they weren't on duty and so were more relaxed.

She'd been dreading the holidays, the first since... But it had been easier than she had expected so long as she avoided Professors Sprout and Flitwick - even McGonagall. They, like everyone else, had been so kind she'd thought they'd drive her mad with their incessant understanding when there was nothing to understand. Voldemort had tortured and killed her parents for no better reason than that he could; she had been so busy worrying about Harry she had never given her parents' safety a thought. Still, at least she and he had something in common now.

At first she had thought everyone's sympathy would smother her; she knew she was under constant surveillance while they waited for her to fall apart. Well, she had proved them all wrong, throwing herself back into schoolwork until all she could see at night were Arithmancy charts, all she could hear were the voices of her professors in the classroom and where she didn't dream at all, except about writing essay after essay where the ink vanished as fast as she completed a line.

Fighting her sense of panic, Hermione raised her chin and swept down the library.

Three days later, with every holiday task completed and up-to-date with her reading,

Hermione ignored her headache and went back to the library. The stacks held tens of thousands of books - together with parchments and periodicals. And she couldn't think what to read. Couldn't think, couldn't think.

In desperation she went to find the one professor who could be relied upon to give her work without needing to know why she wanted it, or anything else about her.

Having no success in locating Snape in his classroom or office, and with no idea where his quarters might be, she headed for the staff room, took a deep breath and knocked on the door. There was a short delay before it swung open to reveal a tall figure, still dressed in black with only a flash of white at throat and wrist to relieve the severity of the high-necked jacket he wore, in place of his usual robes; she had found Snape.

"Miss Granger." He eyed her with no detectable enthusiasm.

"I wondered if I might speak with you."

"I've yet to find a way of stopping you," he replied, looking bored.

A muscle in her jaw began to jump.

"You'd better come in," Snape added.

She stepped forward only to find herself bumping into him when he didn't give ground as she had expected. For a moment she felt his hand brushing her side and the hard warmth of his body against her own.

"S-sorry," she stammered, intimidated despite herself. She automatically took a step back "It can wait. I wouldn't want to bother anyone else."

"I'm expected to feel honoured at being singled out?"

This was Snape at his worst. Feeling herself flush, Hermione forced herself not to look away.

"I - " But the words refused to come.

"Oh, come in, girl," he said irritably, stepping aside. "Do you see anyone else here? Now, what's so important that you feel you should interrupt my free time?"

"I know it's your holiday but I hoped... That is to say... "

"If you have a point, make it and go away. Just because you no longer have a family on whom to inflict yourself - "

It took a second or so for the cruelty of what he had said to sink in. Colour draining from her face, she stared up at him.

"You don't know anything about it." If he said anything about mum and dad she would kill him.

"Your parents were Muggles," he said with disdain. "That's all I need to know. I don't understand what all the fuss is about. It wasn't as if you saw much of them in recent years. Magic and Muggles rarely mix well. You would have drifted further and further apart until the time you spent with them became some dreary duty you couldn't avoid. One might almost say that whoever disposed of them did you a favour."

"Oh, Severus," breathed Dumbledore from where he, Lupin and Black stood concealed behind a Screening Charm. His fingers tightened around the muzzle of the dog, who was growling deep in his throat, making his body vibrate.

"The bastard," said Lupin in his hoarse voice. "What does he think he's doing?"

"What none of us were willing to," said Dumbledore sadly, taking hold of Lupin's arm.

His eyes narrowed with pain, he watched as, his face pitiless, Snape mercilessly sliced through every decency, in the process destroying all the devices Hermione had used to avoid dealing with the death of her parents. Within a couple of minutes she was close to hyperventilating, animal sounds of pain escaping her even though she tried to stifle them with her fists. Her grief had been denied for too long; she had never been in the habit of displays of public emotion, easy or otherwise.

"...dead, Miss Granger. Dead and quite rotted away by now. You won't be rushing into your mother's arms for comfort any time soon. Not that she had any arms by the time she died."

The sound which escaped Hermione made even Snape, who had been hoping for it, flinch. Then she went for him.

Grateful that he had managed to remove her wand from her sleeve before she entered the staff room, he weathered the storm as best he could. He acquired a number of minor injuries before finally she collapsed against him, dry sobs racking her body. Feeling inadequate in the face of all this raw, needy emotion, he cast a helpless look to where he knew Dumbledore, Lupin and Black stood but when no help was forthcoming he was forced to offer what clumsy comfort was in his power. She was still hitting him occasionally; self-defence made him wrap her in her arms and hold her close before it could occur to her to geld him. While slight, she was fighting him all the way and eventually he settled them both on the floor in an indecorous knot of legs and let her wear herself out against him, while trying not to notice that the bane of his Potions class had developed breasts.

As the appalling noise tailed away, Hermione's face came into view through the wild abandon of her hair, which had escaped confinement. As he glimpsed her lost, grief-ravaged face there was a moment when Snape's own expression was nakedly revealing.

"Oh, child." Drawing her back into his arms, he settled her face against his shoulder. Rocking her as she quietly began to cry cleansing tears, he murmured comforting nonsense over and over in the flexible voice which was his trade mark and which he had learnt over the years to use to great effect.

"At last," breathed Dumbledore, his relief obvious. "Oh, well done, Severus. Remus, would you fetch Madam Pomfrey. I fear Miss Granger will need a day or so in the hospital wing to recover from this."

As Lupin left the room, Black transfigured beside Dumbledore.

"If this hasn't been enough I'm sure Snape will be delighted to do it all again," he snarled. "That bastard has gone too far this time and I'm going to put a stop to it."

"Let them be," commanded Dumbledore, in the tone no one ever argued with. "Do you think this was easy for Severus?"

"Of course it was," said Black, turning his back on the pair on the floor to scowl out the window.

Dumbledore eyed him thoughtfully. One day he would find out the root cause of the enmity between Black and Snape, which he suspected had begun long before the events in the Whomping Willow. Sirius could so easily have become another Severus, but for his good fortune in having friends like James and Lily.

Severus had always been an outsider. Tall for his age and skinny, it had taken him some years to grow into his face. His manner had never done anything to endear him to his peers. He lived on his emotions, nervily reacting to every stimulus and given to brooding over slights, real and imagined. Sulky, stubborn, prone to holding grudges, and disdainful of the normal social graces he possessed a tongue that could wound like a knife. He had rarely applied his fierce intelligence to anything constructive and had reduced a couple of his professors to nervous wrecks - although in fairness perhaps the calibre of staff hadn't been all it should have been in those days. But then Hogwarts had never been intended as a centre of academic excellence. Indeed, if Severus was to believed, it was rare for the school to approach anything resembling that, even now.

The fifth year had wrought its usual changes in the boys, who were always later to bloom than the girls. James had never been more than pleasant looking but Sirius had possessed stunning good looks, even as a small boy. That fifth year some of his admirers had changed allegiance, more following in the sixth and seventh years. It wasn't that Severus had ever approached anything resembling handsome, just that he had returned to Hogwarts in the fifth year still scrawny, arrogant and unpleasant, but with a sex-appeal strong enough to fluster some of the staff old enough to know better. Not to mention the affect on some of his classmates. Hormones rampaging, it was small wonder the antagonism between Sirius and Severus had only deepened. Black had been late to accept his own sexuality and if he had been drawn to Severus... It would explain a lot, although Dumbledore knew he was unlikely to find out the truth.

It had been a pleasure to watch Severus blossom under the attention from some of the girls - and not just those in his own year. He was one of those rare boys who enjoyed the company of woman for more than sex. When Severus had thought himself unobserved he had been a different person with his girlfriends, displaying a capacity for tenderness rare in a sixteen-year-old wizard. It was good to see the years hadn't entirely eradicated that emotion.

"What was that you said, Sirius?" Dumbledore asked vaguely. The Marauders had caused him plenty of trouble but he had always known how to deal with their more straightforward needs; all too often the workings of a Slytherin mind were a mystery to him.

"I said the only thing Snape needs is my boot up his backside," growled Black. He fidgeted under the steady look he received. "What?" he mumbled, reduced to a delinquent thirteen year old by the expression in those bright blue eyes.

"Do you honestly think Severus enjoyed doing that?"

"It's right up his street."

"I said 'honestly', Sirius," said Dumbledore sharply.

Black looked down. "Maybe not," he muttered. The sounds Hermione had been making were uncomfortably reminiscent of the noises heard from new arrivals at Azkaban.

Sighing, Dumbledore's shoulders slumped. "I understand," he said, as if Black had spoken aloud. "What you need to remember is, so does Severus. Although don't ever expect him to admit as much," he added wryly.

They both turned with relief as Madam Pomfrey entered the staff room.

"Oh, at last," she breathed as she took in the sight of Hermione, slumped in Snape's enfolding embrace. Hermione juddered and shook in the aftermath of grief, one hand clawed in Snape's hair, the other in his frock coat, one of the pockets of which had been ripped open. "We'll take her straight up to bed. She'll sleep after this. I'll just - " She produced her wand.

"No need for a stretcher, I have her," Snape murmured, continuing to rub Hermione's narrow back. The livid scratches down his cheek were still bleeding, his bottom lip had been split open and there was a bite mark on his left hand, although it hadn't drawn blood.

"Good," said Madam Pomfrey, standing by, should she be needed.

Easing to his feet, Hermione still in his arms, Snape walked over to the fireplace, waiting for Madam Pomfrey to take out a pinch of Floo powder.

Black exhaled noisily after they had vanished from sight. "I need a drink," he said with feeling.

"Hot chocolate all round, I think," said Dumbledore.

"I was thinking of alcohol."

"Were you? Never mind. Have that instead."

"Just because you were right in this instance doesn't mean Snape's changed," said Black, clinging to his prejudice.

"You've both changed," said Dumbledore, with a trace of exasperation. "Merlin's beard, you're men full grown, not scrubby schoolboys. It would be such a relief if one of you could remember it now and then!"

"No good expecting maturity from Snape," said Black, managing to sneer every time he said the name.

"Or anyone else, it would seem," said Dumbledore tartly.


The title was inspired by the song 'Falling Farther In' by October Project.
Lyrics to 'Falling Farther In' by Julie Flanders

'Take me past this lonely truth/And let me go beyond my skin/The walls that held me here before/Have no purpose anymore/Let me enter inBreak me from my injured past/And make me over in your arms/The pain that guided me before/Has no comfort anymore/Let me enter inFrom far away/I hear my mother crying/The sky is gray/They say the earth is dying/I hear her voice/And still I make the choice to stayI leave a life behind me/I feel myself begin/I'm reaching out to keep you/Falling farther inI feel the light inside me/You go beyond my skin/I'm reaching out to keep you/Falling farther inWake me with you dark embrace/And make me open in your arms/I want to lose myself within/Leave the person I have been/Let me enter -From far away/I hear my mother crying/I hear her voice/And still I make a choice to stay/I leave a life behind me.'