Chapter 73

The end of the school year was fast approaching and though the return of the Dark Lord had dampened the general mood in the castle, there was still a respectable degree of excitement as the holidays approached nonetheless. The majority of people were determined to enjoy their last few days at the castle without any mishaps. With Umbridge still in the hospital wing, students and teachers alike were much more carefree than they had been during the days of the High Inquisitor's tyranny.

I had sat for my History of Magic exam without too much trouble. I didn't believe that I would have earned an Outstanding, but I was hopeful that I might have scraped an Exceeds Expectations. When I had voiced this thought to my brother after the exam, he had merely sneered and stated that he hoped I would not be continuing the subject at NEWT level anyway. Personally, I believed he had had enough of tutoring me in the subject. He much preferred to focus on Defence against the Dark Arts and Potions.

The album that Mother had left for Snape and I had not been placed on a bookshelf or put away for safekeeping. It still remained on our coffee table, next to the latest Potions journals and the day's newspaper. We hadn't opened it again since the day we had received it, but both of us seemed content to just leave it there. Perhaps the knowledge that there were photos of Mother inside was enough to leave it where we could see it. It was kind of comforting to have an object in our quarters that signified Mother. The ring, of course, had done that before, but now I could only associate emptiness with the ring.

I didn't believe that Snape or I were quite accepting of the fact that Mother had left us for good. It had become habit for us to go and visit her in Dumbledore's office quite regularly. We could no longer plan our day with Mother in mind, finishing it with "and then we'll go and visit Mother," just like we were used to.

Our acquaintance with her spirit had been for less than a year, yet it had felt like longer, for Snape especially I believed. It was strange how you could think of so many questions you wanted to ask after the person had left you. I had felt the same way after Merle had died.

I supposed going home to the Merrigan Estate would make things easier for us. We hadn't removed Mother's ring from Hogwarts and so we didn't associate her spirit with the house. Being in a different environment, though it was one Snape had inherited from Mother, might make the reality of the situation a little easier to deal with. As it was, Snape made regular trips to Dumbledore's office for meetings with the Headmaster. His mood often seemed darker upon his return and I was sure it didn't have everything to do with Dumbledore. I wouldn't have liked spending so much time in the Dumbledore's office; it was a constant reminder of where Mother's ring was.

I wasn't completely over having anxiety whenever I wasn't near Snape. I was doing my best to go places by myself or with my friends, and as my brother had said, it was getting easier. I had to get used to it anyway; being so near the end of the year meant that Snape had plenty of curriculum planning and staff administration meetings to go to. I had the choice of being alone in the dungeons or out with my friends.

At Lisa and Terry's urging, I had spent the last couple of nights in Ravenclaw Tower. I had initially been against it, as I now preferred to stay in the dungeons, but they had insisted because I wouldn't see a great deal of them over the holidays. Snape had encouraged it as well, pointing out that I was missing out on "whatever ridiculous post-exam games Ravenclaws engage in" in the common room. He also said that being unnecessarily secluded was not good for me. I had given in, after much internal anxiety, and I had found that I had enjoyed being back in Ravenclaw Tower with the other students. I hadn't realised how isolated I had been down in the dungeons. Snape had been right…as he always was.

On the afternoon the day before the Leaving Feast, I left Ravenclaw Tower by myself and headed down to the library. I was supposed to meet Snape down in the dungeons so I could help him with some Potion brewing for the hospital wing. He had sent me a message via my chocolate frog card saying that he needed to go to the library to talk with Madam Pince about updating the Potions texts. Apparently he was tired of reading the same outdated references in students' essays. He told me to meet him there instead and we would walk down to the dungeons together. He knew that I was still not comfortable with walking around the dungeons. It was enough that I was moving alone around the rest of the castle.

The walk down to the library was not the easiest walk I had ever endured, dungeons or not. Most of the corridors were deserted. Students were either outside in the sun or playing games in their House common room. Unfortunately for me, I ran into Draco Malfoy in the corridor leading to the library. Of all the people I could run into, it had to be the blond git king.

He didn't look anywhere near as smug as I had gotten used to seeing him. Having his father in Azkaban seemed to be dealing constant blows to his swollen ego.

"Armilla," he said, nodding at me, his face impassive.

"Draco," I said coolly, nodding back. I intended to keep walking, but Malfoy had stopped, clearly meaning to talk. I remembered Snape's orders to be civil, so I stopped and made eye contact with him, waiting for whatever it was he had to waste my time with. I made sure I kept at least two metres away from him. It had crossed my mind that he could be carrying a portkey. Maybe I was being paranoid.

"How are you?" he asked quietly.

Now he was back to the polite small talk? The idiot certainly baffled me. He went from chatty to pompous-potential-husband to rejected dolt to smug I-know-something-you-don't-know to irritable prat. He was now back to chatty. Maybe it was some sort of cycle.

"Fine," I replied, "and you?" I wasn't up to swooning all over him with my greatest sympathies that his father was in prison. The truth was, I was thrilled. Actually, the darker side of me wished that Lucius Malfoy had been finished off.

He shrugged. "Considering my current situation…things are alright."

I nodded. "That's good."

He looked at me for a moment, seeming to struggle to come up with something to say. It was unlike Malfoy to be short of conversation. I wasn't about to start being chatty myself. I wanted to leave him standing there in the corridor, but my obedience to Snape made me stay.

"Got much planned for the holidays?" he asked, looking closely at me.

I shrugged. "Not much planned at the moment."

"What about your father?" he asked, his pointed face sneering slightly.

I stared back at him. I didn't know what the families of the Death Eaters knew about my father's disappearance. For all I knew, Narcissa Malfoy could have been trying to contact him. Being unsuccessful, she may have put her son up to finding out where he was from me. Perhaps Malfoy was under orders from someone else to find out information from me. It wasn't widely known yet that I was no longer in Father's custody.

"What about him?" I asked, doing my best to be nonchalant.

"Aren't you staying with him over the holidays?" His cold eyes were fixed intently on mine.

"Like I said, I don't know what's happening over the holidays," I replied, giving him an annoyed look. "Why are you so interested anyway?"

He sneered. "Just making conversation. It was a simple question."

"And I answered it," I said lightly. "If you require more information then I suggest you visit your Head of House. He may be able to fill you in on what he thinks is your business to know."

He frowned at me. "You've gone back to being rude to me again," he said bluntly.

I shook my head. "I'm not being rude to you." I gave him a mocking smile. "How could I be rude to Draco Malfoy?"

His knowing look seemed to take my mocking smile as a shared joke between us that we were the most prestigious witch and wizard in the castle, which was my intention. Flattery could often get you where you wanted.

"I'm not sure if you're being sarcastic," he said quietly.

I laughed. "I wasn't, I promise." I wondered if I should improve my fake laugh…perhaps I should develop an evil cackle…hmm thought for another day…

"Well…enjoy your holidays," he said finally, starting to walk away, his face impassive once more.

"You too," I replied, walking in the direction of the library. I couldn't wait to get away from him.

I entered the library and saw Snape near the main desk conversing with Madam Pince, a thin, cross-looking woman who always seemed to have a displeased look on her face. Before I had gotten to know Snape, my friends and I had used to joke that the two were in competition for the most ill-tempered staff member award.

Moving further into the library, I caught Snape's eye and he inclined his head to tell me that he had noticed my presence. I wasn't keen to wait by his side while he talked to the tetchy librarian, so I decided to roam the various aisles of books.

Being so near the end of term, borrowing wasn't permitted, but students were allowed to come by to look up some references to use in holiday homework. Fifth years didn't have holiday homework; I supposed I was the only fifth year who would do homework over the holidays. I should have anticipated that Snape would give me homework to do. I couldn't be too annoyed about it considering that he was going to give up a lot of time to practise more duelling with me.

There weren't many students around. Most had chosen to abandon the library in celebration of the end of exams. I was convinced that Madam Pince preferred it that way. Students hated the way she prowled the aisles, pouncing on students who looked like they might be mistreating her precious books.

I was about to pass the aisle that contained books on Defensive spells when I saw someone who I had been hoping to run into before the end of term. Snape didn't like me talking with her where other students, namely Slytherins, could see us. It didn't help that Snape disliked her intensely too.

"Hi, Hermione," I said, walking down the aisle.

Hermione jumped when she heard her name. Her shocked expression turned to a wide smile when she saw me.

"Hi, Armilla," she said. "You startled me."

"What on earth are you doing in the library?" I asked mockingly.

She laughed. "I'm not studying," she replied. "Well, not really. I'm thinking of ordering some books to read from Flourish and Blotts over the holidays and I was having a look at the newer books here to see what's worth purchasing."

I nodded. I supposed I was lucky to have Snape as my reference point all year round for learning new things. Hermione, on the other hand, was muggle born and had very limited access to the magical world during the holidays, unless she was with the Weasleys.

"I've been meaning to talk to you before the end of term," I said. "I haven't seen you around much. Have you been in the hospital wing?"

She nodded. "I was only recently released. To be honest I couldn't wait to get out. Madam Pomfrey…," she sighed and rolled her eyes. "I was so bored in there."

I smiled. "You'd much rather the hospital wing and the library to be merged?"

She laughed. "Well, there's a thought," she said, her eyes shining.

"I heard that you went to the Department of Mysteries," I said quietly, as she closed her book and put it back on the shelf. "Has everything healed now?"

"I'm a little sore," she admitted, "but I'm much better than I was, thanks to all the potions I had to take. I daresay your brother will have to replenish a great deal of Madam Pomfrey's Potions cabinet thanks to me."

"That's his job," I said simply. "Are you okay though?"

She didn't answer at first. She seemed to be thinking very hard. "Well…" she said finally. "I'm not entirely sure."

I nodded. "You couldn't go through something like that and not be feeling a little strange afterwards."

She nodded. "Yeah, you're right. I mean, there were others with me, and we can talk about it together now and stuff, but…" she trailed off, looking a little discomforted.

"You'll have to go home to a muggle household," I finished for her.

"Exactly," she said quietly. "Mum and Dad work fulltime, so a lot of the time it's just me and my own thoughts. My parents are as encouraging as they can be, but explaining the whole You-Know-Who stuff to them is not the best idea. They probably wouldn't let me come back to school."

I understood. All the muggle-borns at the school were probably having similar thoughts. They wouldn't be able to make their parents understand the crisis the magical world was in without being pulled out of school. But on the other hand, that meant that there was no one in the house to talk to about it, unless there were magical siblings.

"Are you going to the Weasleys' then?" I asked. Hermione had told me before that she generally spent a fair amount of the holidays at The Burrow, the Weasley residence.

"I think I might," she replied. "We haven't worked everything out yet. I don't know what's happening with Harry."

I glanced behind me to make sure Snape wasn't nearby. I couldn't see him from where I was and the muffled voices off in the distance assured me that he was still talking to Madam Pince.

"How is he?" I whispered. I knew Snape wouldn't appreciate me inquiring after the health of Harry Potter.

Hermione sighed. "Reluctant to talk about anything," she answered, "which I suppose is understandable. I think he wants to grieve for Sirius without talking about him to anyone."

"He's been through a rough time," I said thoughtfully.

She nodded. "I'm sure you would understand the feeling more than I would. Were you like that when Merle died?"

I had only told Hermione a few details about Merle. We had gotten to know each other in all the classes we sat together in.

"I didn't really talk about her to my friends, if that's what you mean," I answered quietly, picturing Merle's face in my mind. "It's an awful time to go through. I wouldn't try to bring Sirius up all the time with Harry. He'll talk when he's ready. Just let him know that you are there for support."

She smiled. "Are you trying to tell me not to nag him?"

I shrugged, smiling too. "Maybe."

"So when are you going home?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Probably a couple of days after the students have left."

Hermione looked like she was bursting to ask questions. It probably really irked most of the students that my holidays would be spent with the irritable Potions Master.

"I'm looking forward to the holidays," I said, giving her a knowing look that told her that I was not worried at all.

"Well, I'm sure you'll learn a lot," she pointed out. "Living with a teacher would have to bring a lot of benefits."

"Of course," I said, "though I'll have to spend some time replying to your letters."

"Oh, I had planned on writing to you," she said brightly. Her face suddenly darkened. "Are you sure Professor Snape wouldn't object? I am an insufferable know-it-all after all."

I laughed. "You can write to me, I promise. Hopefully you won't be too busy. Are your parents taking any time off?"

"I'm not sure," she said, frowning slightly. "Dad did mention something about wanting to go grass tobogganing."

"What's that?"

She giggled. "Oh well, you sit on a sled and you go really fast down a grass hill. It's loads of fun."

"I'll take your word for it," I said, trying to hide my disbelieving look. Really, muggles did like to participate in some strange activities. Sliding down a hill on a sled?

"I know it sounds strange," she admitted. "But it's a lot of fun, as long as you don't crash into trees or spiky bushes."

"Has that happened to you?"

"Yeah," she said, nodding, "I lost control of the sled once and ended up in a bush."

"Perhaps you should be more careful in future, Miss Granger," said a deep voice from behind me. Snape had obviously finished his discussion with Madam Pince. He looked down his hooked nose at Hermione with an expression of dislike.

Hermione looked a little flushed as she stared back at Snape. Once, she might have stumbled over her words in an attempt to explain herself, but she seemed to have learned to say as little as possible in front of Snape.

"The school year is nearly over, Miss Granger," said Snape coolly, regarding her through narrowed eyes. "What could you possibly have to do in the library?"

"Not a great deal, sir," she answered quietly, meeting his eye. "I'm just looking."

"Indeed?" He glanced briefly at the rows of books surrounding us. "Browsing through books on Defensive spells?" He looked back at Hermione. "Interesting subject matter, Miss Granger. Being apart of Potter's Dream Team comes at a price, does it?"

She didn't reply. She merely met his gaze unflinchingly. I just wished Snape would stop goading her so we could just leave. However, Snape didn't seem to want an answer.

"I would like four roles of parchment each on three Defensive spells of your choosing, Miss Granger," he said smoothly. "To be completed over the holidays."

Hermione looked stricken. "But I didn't do anything wrong, sir!" she exclaimed. "I'm allowed to be in the library."

Snape merely raised an eyebrow. '"Did I say that you were at fault, Miss Granger?" He sneered down at her. "Make that four Defensive spells."

Hermione opened her mouth and then closed it again, looking bemused. I could tell that she would approach the work in high spirits, as she loved to research, but she was still indignant at the situation in which the work was being assigned to her.

I felt horrible that if I hadn't approached her to talk, Snape wouldn't have given her homework. Maybe it was my punishment for talking to Hermione.

"Come, Armilla," said Snape abruptly. He turned and swept off down the aisle.

I mouthed my goodbye to Hermione. She gave a little wave, a high degree of bewilderment still on her face.

I turned and followed after Snape. When he was nearly at the end of the aisle he suddenly turned back. "And Miss Granger, five points from Gryffindor for presuming that you know the library rules better than a teacher."

Hermione's face turned from bewildered to annoyed.

Snape smirked, his job done, and he gave a curt gesture for me to follow him.

I followed behind him, trying to push away my fury at his treatment of her. I hated the way he treated Hermione, but if I made a big deal about it, he would just get angrier. I didn't want him to forbid my friendship with her. All the same, I wanted to clear up a few things with him without testing his patience. Snape didn't have a lot of patience when it came to talking about the Golden Trio.

I followed Snape out of the library and along the corridor in silence. He slowed his pace slightly when he realised that I was still trailing behind. We didn't speak until we were safely in our quarters.

"Was that really necessary?" I asked, as soon as Snape had closed the door.

He shot me a dark look. "Are you criticising the way I treat my students?" he asked curtly.

"No, but I was wondering if you gave Hermione homework just because I was talking to her."

He cast me a puzzled look as walked towards the lab. "That was not the case at all."

I followed him into the lab. "Then why the homework?" The man was so annoyingly hard to understand sometimes.

"Think about it, Armilla," he said shortly. "What are her essays to be based on?"

"Defensive spells."

"Do you think they might be useful essays?"

"Perhaps." Hermione could learn a few things that she might pass on to Harry. Harry had a flair for defensive magic.

"Perhaps?" he scoffed, opening the cupboard that held most of the ingredients. "Miss Granger will need things to keep her occupied over the summer," he said shortly. "I was merely providing it."

"How do you know she'll need things to do?" I asked.

Snape gave me an exasperated look. "I once overheard Molly Weasley after an Order meeting telling Minerva McGonagall that she invites Miss Granger to stay early in the holidays because her muggle parents are too busy," he said. "If she is to spend some time alone at home in the muggle world, her time would be better spent engaged in magical study. Not-" he paused and looked curiously at me, "What was she talking about when I found you? Bush sledding or some ridiculous thing?"

"Grass tobogganing," I said, trying not to smile. After all, only a few minutes ago I had never heard of it either.

"You think she'll learn something and pass it onto her friends?" I avoided mentioning the Harry's name.

Snape nodded. "I wouldn't have bothered otherwise. I couldn't care less how students waste their holidays. In the case of Miss Granger, though she memorises every detail without critical analysis, she might pick up something useful to pass on to the dunderheads she calls friends. I have learnt that sometimes the little things count." He gave me a significant look and I knew he was referring to helping out Fred and George Weasley. That had been a small gesture at the time, but it had ended up freeing me from Rougier in the long run.

"I've never heard you be so critical of how I treat other students before," he went on, looking sternly at me, "not even your own friends." He placed a bunch of ginger roots on the bench in front of me. "Tell me, what makes Miss Granger so special?"

"Nothing," I murmured, reaching for a scalpel so I could chop the roots. Snape caught my hand abruptly before I had reached it.

"I expect a better answer than that," he said sharply.

"I don't know what to say," I said, feeling a little unsettled under his sharp gaze. "You're not so against me being friends with Lisa and Terry. Hermione can't help being a Gryffindor."

He pursed his lips as he released my hand. "I know you're friends with Miss Granger," he said shortly. "That does not mean I like it."

"Harry Potter aside, does she really have that many flaws?" I insisted.

"I can provide a list of her flaws if you like," he said disdainfully. "They're extensive."

I frowned. "You mean I'd be better of talking to people like Pansy Parkinson or Millicent Bulstrode or,"

"I do not wish you to associate with those particular young ladies," he said abruptly.

"Or Lavender Brown or Hannah Abbott or,"

"Alright," he snapped, holding a hand up. "You have made your point. All those students have flaws like any other student."

"Why can't I talk to Hermione then?"

He sighed as he sat down at the bench. "I did not say that you couldn't talk to her, Armilla. It just worries me that a friendship with her, no matter how well concealed, might become exposed. It also worries me that if the threat of the Dark Lord was here or not, a friendship with Miss Granger could lead to friendships with more Gryffindors."

I contemplated this strange comment as I picked up the scalpel. "I'm not looking for more friendships with Gryffindors."

"You might agree that friendships grow unexpectedly," he said curtly. "I assume that you did not seek out Miss Granger?"

I shook my head. "That was an unexpected friendship," I admitted. "We don't socialise outside of classes."

Snape nodded, grinding scarab beetles. "I would prefer it if it remained that way."

"It doesn't help that you're awful to her every time you see us talking," I stated.

He sneered. "She needs to learn to take it. You may have noticed that she's a lot more thick-skinned than she used to be. I rather enjoy testing her out. As a friend of Potter's, she'll be targeted. Personal remarks cannot get in her way if she is to be of any use."

This seemed rather harsh to me, but I supposed Snape had a point. I wasn't about to question his methods.

"Just promise me that you won't encourage becoming friends with Miss Granger's friends," he said, his black eyes meeting mine.

I nodded. "I won't." It seemed to really mean a lot to him. I felt strange promising not to make friends with people.

"I know it seems an odd request," he said finally, looking a little uncomfortable. "It's just that I don't want you anywhere near Potter."

I nodded. The Snape-Harry-animosity subject was one I preferred to leave alone, as Snape liked it.

We were silent for a moment, both of us concentrating on what we were doing. I felt a little happier that Snape and I had managed to get through a conversation about Gryffindors without him getting too angry.

"You know, Fred and George Weasley said that they thought Hermione has Slytherin in her," I said conversationally.

He rolled his eyes. "Gryffindors would tell you anything."

o o o o o o o o o o o

Saying my final goodbyes to Lisa and Terry came a lot sooner than I was ready for. I had just been getting accustomed to spending more time in Ravenclaw Tower and now it was time to go.

One highlight the evening before was watching Umbridge's exit from the castle. She had tried to sneak out during dinner, only to have her presence made known by Peeves. She had a rather undignified exit, and the staff and students were very glad to see her go. I had heard my own Head of House call good "Good riddance!" and the little Ravenclaw first years had chanted it over and over. Many Slytherins who had not been apart of Umbridge's Inquisitorial Squad had called out some rude things as she left, and I hadn't heard Snape deduct any points from Slytherin or use any sharp words.

I left Ravenclaw Tower with my friends, intending to walk with them as far as the front doors of the school. I wasn't allowed to walk down to the station with them. I was supposed to go down to the dungeons as soon as the other students were gone. I had finished all my packing in the fifth year girls' dorm the night before and so there was no need to go back to Ravenclaw. That was the wonderful thing about magically linked closets – I only had to pack all my things into my dorm closet and I knew I would be able to access them in my bedroom in the dungeons.

I had told my friends that there was a possibility of seeing them over the holidays; it just depended on Snape's plans. They had looked a little stricken at the thought of coming to our home; they saw enough of Snape during the school year.

"But it will be worth it to see you, Mill," said Lisa.

"I'm sure Snape would keep right away from us anyway," Terry added, looking hopeful.

"Oh, he would," I assured him.

"Are you nervous?" Terry asked.

"About what?"

"Spending a whole summer with him?" He looked a little nauseous at the thought.

"It's certainly different to a day or two here and there," said Lisa. "I mean, it will just be you and him, for weeks and weeks and weeks."

"I know," I said lightly. "I really don't see the problem."

Lisa and Terry exchanged an amused look.

"If you say so," said Terry.

"Who would have thought," Lisa murmured, "at the beginning of fifth year, Mill, you were still with Merle and you had no idea who you really were…"

"And then your whole world turned upside-down when you found out that the snarky git was your brother," said Terry. "I mean, none of us would have bet on that in a million years."

"No," I admitted. "It's certainly been a year full of surprises…and challenges."

"But no regrets?" asked Lisa, looking closely at me.

I smiled at her. "No. No regrets at all."

We reached the Entrance Hall where a large crowd of students were mingling, exchanging goodbyes, swapping addresses and running off for forgotten items.

I saw Malfoy standing with a group of Slytherins near the front doors. Pansy Parkinson was standing at his side, doing everything in her power for some attention from him. Malfoy would say something to her every now and then, but he seemed more content to talk to Theodore Nott and Blaise Zabini. Our eyes met at the same time and for a moment we just stared at each other. In the end he nodded his goodbye, and I nodded back. So long, twitchy ferret.

I saw Hermione surrounded by a group of Gryffindors standing near the Great Hall. Ron Weasley was making a face about something and Neville, Dean and Seamus were laughing hard. Hermione was talking to Harry, her face serious. Harry didn't look interested in talking at all; his attention seemed split between what Hermione was saying, and whatever ridiculous tale Seamus was now telling the group.

Hermione caught my eye and I gave her a little wave. She smiled and waved back. Harry turned to see who she was waving to and we stared at each other for a moment. Harry's face was blank as he looked back at me. I broke eye contact first, and when I looked back a few seconds later, he had turned back to Hermione again. I hoped she wasn't talking too much about Sirius Black to him.

The time came for the students to leave the castle and my friends and I watched for a moment as the students started filing out of the hall. It felt a little strange that I was not going with them.

"Bye, Milly," said Terry, pulling me into a hug. "Make sure you write. I'm going to be bored for the first week, helping to clean out Gran's attic. I'm going to need amusing letters."

"You never know," I said, when he released me. "You might find a surprise or two in the attic."

"Long lost relatives?" he said, grinning.

"Maybe," I replied, as I hugged Lisa. "Have fun in New Zealand."

"Oh, I will," she said. "Hopefully I'll see you when I get back."

I walked to the front doors with them and watched them until they were nearly out of sight. I could see a few teachers in the distance, my brother not among them, saying goodbye to the passing students. Lisa and Terry turned back to wave to me, and I waved back, wondering when I would be seeing them next.

Finally, I was the only person left in the Entrance Hall. It was a little strange not to hear the sounds of so many feet and chattering people. I turned and walked towards the dungeon stairs, hearing nothing but the sound of my footsteps echoing throughout the hall.

I had nearly reached the dungeon stairs when I heard a voice coming from above.

"No students, just the way I like it."

I turned and smiled up at Snape, watching him come down the marble staircase.

"One would think you don't like teaching," I said, as he came over to join me.

"Who me?" he said dryly.

"Can you hear that?" said another voice.

We turned to see Professor Sprout coming through the front doors, followed closely by Professor Flitwick and Professor Sinistra.

"Hear what?" said Professor McGonagall, who was coming down the stairs followed by Dumbledore.

"Exactly!" squeaked Flitwick. "Silence! Peace and quiet!"

"I love to see the students come," said Sinistra, "but I do love to see them go."

I was standing slightly behind Snape and it seemed that the other teachers across the hall hadn't noticed my presence. Except Dumbledore.

"I am sure Armilla feels assured of her teachers' dedication by hearing such sentiments," he said cheerfully.

Suddenly all eyes were upon me.

"Oh, I am sorry," said Sinistra, going red. "I didn't see you there."

"When I said peace and quiet, I didn't mean Ravenclaws, Miss Snape," added Flitwick, looking a little guilty.

Snape snorted. "There's no need for excuses. Armilla knows I've been looking forward to the last day, so it would come as no surprise that the rest of the staff have been too."

"Except you look forward to the last day on the first of September, Severus," said McGonagall snidely, a smile playing about her lips.

Snape gave her a thin smile. "Not at all, I assure you."

"And what exciting things have you got planned for Armilla over the summer, Severus?" asked Sprout, beaming as she rocked back and forth on her feet.

Snape sneered slightly at her. "No fixed plans yet," he said shortly.

McGonagall smiled. "Don't try and pry into his life, Pomona."

"You know Severus enjoys his enigmatic life," said Sinistra.

Snape narrowed his eyes, but said nothing. He merely folded his arms and stared back at them, looking rather bored.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Ladies, do not torment him. You know he does not appreciate it."

I hid my amusement rather well. It was funny see these women, who were all a fair bit older than Snape, trying to delve into his private life. It reminded me of Mother's persistent goading about his lack of a wife.

"Well, I'm off to give my classroom some heavy duty cleaning," said Flitwick, brandishing his wand. "It will help out the House Elves in any case."

This immediately prompted the rest of them to move on to whatever they had planned, with the assurance that they would meet up for dinner and end of term drinks that evening.

I walked down to our quarters with Snape, kind of glad for it just to be the two of us. I felt awkward being the only student amongst the staff.

"Hopefully we'll only be here two or three days and then we can leave," said Snape as soon as we had gotten inside. He walked over to the dining table. "I hate having to socialise every night with the rest of the staff."

"They seem to enjoy goading you," I said, joining him at the table, where House Elves had sent up a tea tray.

He grimaced. "That's the worst part of being amongst the youngest on staff," he said, sneering, "and being single. All the older women are obsessed with making pointed comments about my private life. I received enough of that from Mother."

"Are many teachers married then?" I asked. I had never thought much about it before.

Snape nodded, pouring the tea. "A number of teachers are married actually."

"But how can they see their husbands or wives when they're here?"

"They manage it," he said dismissively, passing me my tea. "Constant correspondence and regular trips home if they can manage it. It was harder for them this year with Umbridge in charge."

We talked for awhile longer before Snape left to go and organise the desk in his office. I didn't join him. The floating things in jars that lined his office still kind of turned me off. Instead, I decided to clean Morag's cage. Morag was extremely grateful to be allowed to fly around the sitting room in Snape's absence while I cleaned her cage.

"He'll be annoyed at us both, you know, if he was to walk in here right now," I said, watching her soar around the room.

She hooted in reply and turned bright yellow.

"Stunning," I muttered, as I turned back to her cage.

o o o o o o o o o o

We ended up only having to stay two more days. I helped Snape a fair bit, so the pressing things that had to be done were completed much earlier. While he was at more planning meetings or out ordering more Potions ingredients, I was using magic to clean the Potions classroom, stacking old cauldrons and doing general tidying up which Snape would have normally done himself. I was very keen to go home as soon as possible and I was doing all I could to speed things up.

I had attended a couple of meals in the Great Hall, where there was one table in the middle for the staff. Though the teachers were all very friendly to me and ready to make conversation, I couldn't help feeling out of place the whole time.

On the night before Snape and I were due to go home, Snape went up to Dumbledore's office for a small Order meeting. I had no idea who was going to it, but Snape had said that it wasn't a full Order meeting.

I had just gotten ready for bed when I heard the front door open. It was only nine o'clock; I hadn't expected Snape to be back for at least another hour. He had only been gone for about half an hour. I had thought it odd that a meeting was being held so late.

"Armilla," Snape called.

I went out to the sitting room to find not only Snape standing near the door, but Tonks as well! Her hair was bubblegum pink and she was wearing jeans the same colour as her hair. Her black T-shirt said Handle with Care in sparkling silver letters.

"Wotcha, Armilla!" she said merrily.

"Hi, Tonks," I said, smiling back at her. I was actually trying not to laugh at her ridiculous T-shirt.

"You like it?" said Tonks, laughing at my amused expression. "The Weasley twins gave it to me because I had to spend time in St Mungo's. I thought it was hilarious."

"Oh, very witty," said Snape sarcastically, folding his arms.

"I'll tell them to get you one, Armilla," said Tonks.

Snape glared at her. "You will do no such thing, Nymphadora. I will not have Armilla walking around wearing something like that."

Tonks laughed. "As you wish." She turned back to me. "I just wanted to say hi, Armilla. Severus very politely invited me to come and visit you for a few minutes-"

Snape sneered. '"Actually, you invited yourself down here. I do not seem to recall extending an invitation you."

Tonks opened her mouth to retort, but stopped as Snape suddenly grabbed his left forearm in the place where his Dark Mark was.

I hated watching the strained look on his face when it happened. I couldn't stand it when he got called. I always had the worry that he might not come back after a meeting.

"Go, Severus," said Tonks. "I'll stay with Armilla."

Snape looked at me and then back at Tonks, his expression blank. "Armilla is capable of staying by herself," he said quietly, "but if you don't have anything else to do…"

"Of course she's capable," Tonks scoffed. "I don't intend on babysitting, not unless you offer good rates. This way I can stay with her and have a chat like I wanted to." She suddenly turned to me, looking a little guilty. "Not that you need babysitting, of course."

I smiled. I knew I didn't need a babysitter, but I was thrilled at the idea of having Tonks stay. I adored Tonks, and having someone stay while Snape was at a Death Eater gathering was comforting. I wouldn't be left alone with my own thoughts that way.

"Is that alright with you, Armilla?" Snape asked, opening the door.

"Yes," I answered.

He nodded. "Hopefully I won't be gone long." He turned to Tonks. "Do your best not to talk Armilla's ear off, Nymphadora. I don't want her up all hours of the night; I want to head off home early in the morning."

Tonks grinned. "Yes, sir."

Snape scowled. "Goodnight, ladies," he said, closing the door behind him.

"Such fun, isn't he?" said Tonks cheerfully.

"He'd burn the T-shirt if you got it for me, you know," I said, sitting down on the sofa.

She laughed as she sat down at the other end of the sofa. "You wouldn't wear it anyway, would you?"

"No way."

"Severus did tell me that you won't be going back to Aurelius Snape's," said Tonks. "He and Dumbledore told me about what happened. They thought I had a right to know since I was so wonderful at playing Rougier's friend last December."

I smiled. "Mary Donahey was a great comfort."

Tonks wrinkled her nose. "I wasn't when Marcus Flint made a pass at you."

I shrugged. "I haven't lost sleep over it. He's not worth the worry."

"But you must be ecstatic at the thought of not having to go to your father's house this summer."

"Oh, I am," I assured her, "and Severus is just as pleased."

Tonks smiled. "I know. He wasn't sneering when he told me. That must mean he's thrilled."

I laughed. "So you're much better now? I heard you were injured in the Department of Mysteries."

Tonks waved a hand aside. "I'm right as rain," she said airily. "I was more annoyed than anything that I had to endure the inconvenience of staying at St Mungo's. There's nothing wrong with me now."

I nodded. "That's good then." We were both silent for a moment.

"I hate it when Severus gets called," I said quietly. "I never know if he's going to come back."

Tonks nodded. "We're living through hard times," she said quietly. "I suppose we're all worried about the danger our loved ones are in. Severus has a dangerous position, but he knows what he's doing."

I nodded. "I can't help worrying though."

"I suppose he tells you not to worry about it?" she asked, looking thoughtful.

"Yeah," I said softly. "He doesn't like me knowing anything about that part of his life."

"Order members have had discussions about such things before," she said. "Everyone has differing views about what the children of Order members have a right to know. Molly Weasley was adamant that her children know very little, but they insisted on knowing more than she wanted them to. Sirius Black on the other hand was keen for Harry to know what was happening."

"What do you think?" I asked.

Tonks considered me for a moment, running her fingers through her pink hair.

"There are different ways of handling it," she said finally. "On the one hand, you can completely shield someone from it, like Molly wanted to, but I believe that can be detrimental. On the other hand, throwing a young inexperienced person into the midst of it can also be disastrous. We've all spoken about it at meetings more than once. Everyone has different ideas as to what extent Harry especially is informed. Severus has expressed his views more than once about how Harry should be handled, but of course Sirius would have none of it."

"Do you think Sirius would still be here if Harry had been treated differently?" I asked.

She looked pensive. "Perhaps," she admitted. "One could never say. Sirius was at fault for running off to the Ministry after Severus had told him to stay where he was." She gave me a small smile. "Severus found Sirius irritating to the last, and Harry isn't much better as far as he is concerned. Severus believes Harry is either coddled too much or given free reign when he shouldn't be. He is adamant that more control should be exercised over Harry."

"I bet Sirius didn't like being told that," I said quietly.

"Oh, Severus expressed himself more firmly about it after Sirius had died. He was furious that Harry had taken off to London with a bunch of students. He's convinced that Harry is just a foolhardy brat who always needs to play the hero."

Now I could see why Snape was so against me socialising with Hermione. He was worried that I would end up with the crowd that engaged in such reckless deeds.

"Will anyone take Severus' advice now that Sirius is no longer here?" I asked. "Does everyone think Harry needs more control?"

"Harry has a lot of pressure to meet with people's expectations of him," she said. "I think Severus is right in a way. Harry cannot move forward effectively if he only relies solely on his own judgement. He needs to learn from the experience of those around him. Remus can provide that, as can many Aurors in the Order." She suddenly laughed. "Lord knows I'd be dead by now if I hadn't listened to the Aurors I work with." She looked serious again. "Actually," she said thoughtfully, "I believe Severus can teach him many things, but the two can't stand to be in the same room as each other."

"I suppose the war calls for sacrifices," I said, "though I really can't see the two of them working side by side."

"Nor can I," she agreed. She grinned. "Before I could never see you living so happily with Severus, but here you are."

I smiled. "I couldn't see it either…and I'm not sure he could."

"Severus is one of the most complicated people I have ever met," she said, "and one of the most ill-tempered. You're probably the best thing that has ever happened to him."

o o o o o o o o o o o

Tonks and I talked for ages about everything from school to friends to the Weasley twins' business to the latest Weird Sisters scandal. It was after ten-thirty when I realised that I was starting to fall asleep. I hadn't realised that I had gradually curled up on the sofa, leaning back on the dark green pillow.

Tonks also had her head resting on her hand, her eyes half closed. More than once I said that I was going to go to bed, and then we would launch into another conversation. Eventually, we stopped and I found myself drifting off on the sofa instead.

I was brought back to semi-consciousness by the sound of the door opening and closing. I heard Tonks get up move over to the direction of the door, where Snape asked her if everything had been alright.

"Fine," I heard Tonks say sleepily. "What time is it?"

"Just after midnight," he answered.

"Is it really? I could have sworn it was just after eleven."

They were quiet for a moment before Snape spoke again, his voice a little stern.

"She wouldn't go to bed?"

There was a silence, during which I supposed both adults were looking over at me.

"It's my fault," Tonks whispered back. "We were talking before she went to bed, and in the end, she fell asleep here. I don't think she's keen on being left alone at the moment."

"I know," he answered, his voice barely audible.

"You couldn't possibly doubt the distress she would feel every time you are called away," Tonks murmured.

There was a pause, and then…

"I have no doubt," he whispered.

This was followed by yet another silence, and sleep was about to override my semi-conscious state when it was interrupted by Tonks' voice again.

"I can stay here with her if you need to see-"

"No," he said shortly. "I have done everything else I need to do tonight…" His voice softened slightly. "But again, thankyou for staying with her. I greatly appreciate it, and you know she does too."

"I'll see myself out then," she whispered. "I suppose I'll see you at the Order meeting?"

"Of course."

I heard footsteps, which I supposed meant that Tonks was leaving the room. I didn't bother to open my eyes to check. The overwhelming sense of relief I had felt upon hearing my brother's voice seemed to renew the exhaustion I felt.

Footsteps, this time heavier than those of Tonks, came closer to me. I felt two arms reaching under me, and as I was lifted, I blearily opened my eyes to see the dark eyes of my brother looking back at me. They were not the empty tunnels that I had once thought they were. They were filled with only love and warmth, not unlike the expression I had seen so many times in Merle's eyes.

"I'm here," he whispered. I had the impression that he was reassuring himself as well as me.

I closed my eyes again and in silence he moved into my bedroom and deposited me on my bed. He pulled my covers up, and then kissed me goodnight.

I opened my eyes again and reached out for his hand as he went to move away. He looked slightly surprised as he looked back at me.

"What's the matter?" he whispered.

"You don't have to go back for awhile, do you?" I asked quietly.

"I don't think so," he answered.

I sat up slowly and met his gaze. "I always worry you won't come back."

He sighed and sat down on the bed.

"It's the life I lead," he said. "We have to endure it as best we can. I never planned on having you feel the burden of it."

"I can't help it," I murmured.

"You're going to have to," he said shortly, pulling me into his arms. "You can't waste time worrying about me."

"Why not?"

"Because I said so," he said, stroking my hair.

I smiled, wanting to imitate my brother and declare that it was a far from satisfactory answer.

"Severus?"

"Mm?"

"One day you won't need to go back." I yawned. "One day you'll come home to stay."

He moved his hand up and down my back for a moment. "I look forward to it, I assure you."

I nodded. "So do I. I don't want you to leave me."

"As long as I can help it, I am not going anywhere," he said quietly, "especially not when I have someone to live for."

o o o o o o o o o o

A/N That's all folks!

I want to thank the many people who have stuck by this story, whether they found it when I first started it almost three years ago, or those who just came on board in the last couple of months. I know a lot of people cannot be bothered to leave comments, but let me say that this story only kept going because of those who did. There was a time in the beginning when I abandoned the story for about three months due to a lack of reviews, but I'm certainly glad that my urge to get the story written regardless won through. I particularly want to thank the wonderful people who faithfully reviewed nearly every chapter – I appreciate it more than you know and I hope you'll come back and read Armilla again and again. I plan to revise a few chapters in the future to fix typos here and there, as well as little things that I don't like.

In regards to the sequel, at the moment it is likely to take place. However, the issue is when. It could be within the next month or within the next few months. I have ideas, but I won't start writing until I sit down and draft the whole thing out. I hate stories that are never finished due to writer's block, so I promise that I'll never do that to you – I plan just about everything. Anyway, I hope that you'll all come on board again to read about Armilla's sixth year. It will definitely be Armilla narrating again, and no one else's POV, though I've been tempted at times to do spin-off chapters from Snape's view, looking at events from Armilla.

Thanks for reading!

Coral Grace.