Hermione Granger entered the dining hall at Hogwarts, a small smile crossing her face as she looked at her classmates. Gryffindors were dining with Ravenclaws, Slytherins were seated with Hufflepuffs, the rivalry between the four houses still present, but a general acceptance now amongst the students. They were all survivors, had banded together to fight Voldemort only a few months ago, and petty house differences no longer truly mattered. Many people had died, though luckily most of them had been bad guys, but there had been losses amongst all four houses. Parents and friends, dying either for fighting the good fight or for choosing the wrong side. Together, a majority of the students had chosen to fight Voldemort, and they had helped achieve his defeat. This was the first day back at school since the Final Battle, which had taken place only a few weeks following the end of sixth term. When they had gone to fight, they'd not been aware that it would be the Final Battle, but Hermione was greatly relieved that it had been so.
The brunette witch walked between two tables towards the front of the hall where her friends were waiting for her, Slytherin seated with Gryffindor. She smiled and waved at various people that she had not seen since they'd walked away from the fight with Voldemort, noticing the looks of admiration and respect that those that had fought were receiving from the other students. She had been earning her fare share of such looks in the nearly three months following the Final Battle, having played a very important part of the worst fighting that had occurred. She had been there, in the thick of it, with her friends, willing to die to destroy the wizard that had made their lives Hell for so many years. Hermione's eyes softened as she neared the three men in her life, her smile becoming affectionate as she looked at them.
Ron Weasley was telling a funny story, trying to make his two companions laugh. She could tell from the way he was leaning forward, his eyes shining with amusement as he spoke. Ron had recovered from the Battle faster than any of them, making a joke even as they had limped away from the remains of the Death Eaters. He was a fighter, willing to take whatever risks necessary to protect those he cared about, but he was also an optimist, always looking for the bright side, even when faced with bodies of people they had known. Hermione turned her attention to the dark haired wizard sitting opposite Ron.
Her heart jumped a little as it always did when she looked at Harry Potter or the Oblivious Boy Who Had Her Heart and Was Unaware of Her Love, as she sometimes liked to call him. Harry was her best friend and she loved him. They'd been friends since they were children, nearly seven years now, and her feelings of affection and friendship had grown over time to become something more than just the platonic affection she felt for her other male friends. He'd never noticed, too busy thinking about upcoming battles with Voldemort, not wanting any diversions, or so she told herself. A part of her wondered if he didn't see it because he was busy with other things or because he just didn't want to see it, content to have her as his best friend and nothing more. Harry had been injured during the Battle, but he'd recovered over the last months. She knew he was having problems adjusting to a life without the threat of Voldemort, of learning how to enjoy himself and not have such a huge responsibility on his broad shoulders. She watched him laugh at Ron's joke, pushing his glasses up as he leaned back in his chair, a smile on his handsome face. Harry was going to be okay, she decided, knowing that she no longer needed to worry about him. That brought her attention to the other occupant of their corner of the table, the one that worried her the most.
Draco Malfoy, a man that she sincerely could have called enemy only a year ago. The Slytherin Prince that had made their lives miserable since their first term at Hogwarts. The blond wizard that was arrogance personified. The man that had had become one of her dearest friends and single handedly united the Houses for the Final Battle. She watched Draco give the hint of a smile at Ron's joke before making a suitable insult that caused the redhead to stick his tongue out at the blond. Draco was good at pretending everything was okay, of sliding easily back into the role he'd occupied for his entire life, but she knew he wasn't recovering well. He'd spent the summer with the Weasleys and she knew that he'd rarely ventured out of his room. When he had, it was to walk alone or sit silently and read. He'd joined the three of them for dinner whenever they'd been able to schedule it, and he'd been the Malfoy they all knew with the rude words and witty stories, though now his sarcasm was not as severe, his tone sometimes affectionate. Hermione knew, though, that it was all an act, meant to appease them so they wouldn't push.
Things had changed during Christmas Break, only nine months ago, Hermione realized with surprise. Strange to think that so much could happen in such a short time. They'd remained at the school with Harry over the holidays, as they had done for several years. It had been a time for relaxing and acting childish with snowball fights. The day after Christmas, they'd been surprised when the door to the Gryffindor common room had opened and Draco Malfoy, the Boy They All Loved To Hate, had sauntered inside, giving every impression that he owned the place. His self-assurance and confidence were part of the reason he was so unlikable, everyone having insecurities at one time or another yet this blond wizard gave off the impression that he would never possess such self-doubt or uncertainty. His appearance had, of course, caused Ron to start threatening even as Harry joined in. Hermione had dared to look into Draco's eyes, accustomed to seeing the amusement at verbally torturing them or a cold indifference. She'd been shocked when she'd found herself seeing a vulnerability that Draco had never had before, a lost look that caused her to scold Ron and Harry for bullying him for no reason save his normal cocky arrogance.
They had all been struck speechless when Draco had thanked her, thanked *her*, the mudblood that he had delighted in tormenting for years, and taken a seat, his attention on the fire. They had sat down, exchanging curious looks, not understanding why Malfoy was at the school in the middle of the break and why he'd come to talk to them and definitely why he had thanked her for defending him. He'd told them that he wanted to join them in their fight against Voldemort, earning a gasp from Ron and a look of disbelief from Harry. Not only had Malfoy said the name, he'd asked to help them defeat him. Of course, Harry had not merely accepted that Malfoy had had a change of heart, still debating if Draco even possessed a heart, and had wanted a reason why, fearing that he'd been sent to them as a way of gathering information for Voldemort or something.
Hermione had listened in stunned silence and growing horror as Draco had faced them, his eyes now the familiar cold gray she was used to seeing, and told them of his Father's wish for him to become a Death Eater during his vacation, of his refusal (something that had shocked them yet again), of his Father's declaration that he would regret his choice, of Lucius' attempt to kill him, of his Mother's sudden decision to protect her son by stepping in front of the curse and dying for him (something that she knew Draco still found unbelievable judging by the way his voice had softened and the look of confusion that had flashed in his eyes), and his quick escape back to Hogwarts before Lucius could try again. When he'd returned to Hogwarts, he had gone to Dumbledore and told the Headmaster what had happened, swearing that he would see his Father and Voldemort pay for killing his Mum, even if that meant working with them to achieve his goal.
In the months following, Draco had single handedly broken the barriers between the houses. He'd sat with them, planning and researching and finding ways to defeat Voldemort when the situation arose. Others had joined him, choosing to fight, giving them the added force they needed to properly face Voldemort and the Death Eaters. During that time, Draco had been driven by his need to avenge his mother's death. He'd not changed, per see, but he'd finally allowed them inside the shell that he usually kept around himself, letting them see glimpses of the real Draco Malfoy, and they'd realized that they rather liked the smart and sarcastic wizard. During the Final Battle, Draco had faced his Father, protecting Hermione and Ron from a deadly curse and sending it back at his Father. She'd seen the look of in Draco's eyes following the Battle, knew that he had gotten his revenge and that it hadn't been what he'd expected. Since then, he'd been different, and she was worried. She wanted to see the smirk back on his face, the amused gleam in his eyes, the spark of life that had been missing for the last few months. Who would have ever imagined that she'd want the old Draco Malfoy back? It was true, though. She wanted to see the arrogant and cynical wizard that enjoyed his life and had fun being a haughty, egotistical prat.
During her thoughts, Hermione had taken the seat next to Harry, giving her friends a brief smile before she'd become lost in her worries about Draco. She didn't know what to do to help him, not having any idea what could be done to give him some kind of purpose again. His parents were dead, one from saving him, one from his own hand. She knew that it was foolish of her to expect him to recover so easily, but she couldn't help wishing she knew what to do to help him. She'd talk to Harry about it, she decided, knowing that her best friend might have some ideas on what it would take to get Draco living, if you will, again. Of course, selfishly, it would also give her some private time with Harry, something that she enjoyed far too much. She glanced at the man in question, listening to him discuss a Quidditch move with Ron, sighing as she was given further proof that he didn't think of her the same way at all. He wasn't even affected by how close she was sitting, not pausing in his silly sport story to even smile at her or greet her. Hermione knew she was one of the smartest people at Hogwarts, the other being the blond wizard that was still staring at his food rather than eating, and she knew that she had finally started to grow into her looks, glancing in the mirror and having to admit that she was cute. Why, then, couldn't Harry realize what a catch she was and proclaim his love and devotion? It was rather annoying, she decided as she glared at her food.
Draco Malfoy was relieved when Granger turned her attention to punishing her food for the fact that Potter was too stupid to realize she loved him. He didn't care what she was doing so long as she wasn't studying him with that speculative gleam in her eyes that reminded him of the way she approached her homework or a particularly baffling potion. Granger was the only one he couldn't fool with his pretense that the world was just a fantastic place and he had no problems at all. She could see what he was trying to hide, though she had no idea exactly what he was thinking or feeling, thank God. They might be friends, yes he could now acknowledge that he was friends with Potter and his two annoyingly perky sidekicks, but that didn't mean he wanted her to study him like some consuming homework assignment. She couldn't possibly understand what he was going through, and he wasn't desperate enough yet to even try to explain to anyone. He was content to deal with his problems himself, thinking that he was doing a fairly good job.
Hermione worried too much, he scowled at the table, wishing she'd just spend her time worrying about her feelings for Potter and maybe figuring out a way to get said foolish wizard to realize just how much she cared. He'd have recommended a visit to the Boy Who Still Annoyed The Shite Out Of Him wearing nothing but a big smile, but Potter was such a bloody fool that he'd probably take his glasses off and tell her to cover up before she caught a cold or something equally mundane. While the actions of his new friends amused him, Draco couldn't even manage a proper smirk or insult for any of them this evening. He was poking at his dinner when he noticed movement from the corner of his eyes. He looked over at the corner of the Professors' table, wondering who was coming to dinner so late, and found himself unable to look away.
She was beautiful. Red hair fell past her shoulders, but he knew she wasn't a Weasley. He'd met every single one of them, all five thousand or so it seemed, during his stay with Ron over the summer, and he'd have remembered seeing this woman. She was a little older than them, but not much, and she was staring at her food in much the same way that he had been. She was absolutely stunning and he found himself wanting to know everything about her. It was then that she looked up, just for a moment, green eyes looking around the dining hall quickly before she appeared to sigh and return to looking at her food. Without even realizing it, he was asking, "Who is she?"
Harry Potter paused his story when he heard Draco speak, a bit surprised by the excitement in the blond's voice. He had to admit he'd been concerned about Malfoy during the last few months, hating that he actually cared about the man that had made most of his time at Hogwarts a living Hell whenever possible. He looked at Draco, noticing that the blond's complete attention was on the Professors' table. He followed the line of vision, his green eyes widening slightly when he saw the object of Malfoy's concentration and enthusiasm. "I don't know, but she's very striking."
"Who?" Ron looked and whistled softly, "Wow, she's smashing, isn't she?"
Hermione rolled her eyes and looked up, wanting to see what student had caught the boys' attention, a bit interested despite herself because Malfoy had sounded positively smitten when he'd asked them who she was. She was amazed when she saw that their attention was not on another student but focused, instead, on the teachers' table. She moved forward a little, to see who they were gawking at and smiled slowly. She looked at Draco and noticed the spark in his eyes as he glared at Ron and Harry for ogling the redhead that had caught his attention first, wondering if maybe, just maybe, this was the answer to her question on how to help Malfoy. She whispered, "Her name is Willow Rosenberg. I met her this afternoon after I arrived. She's assisting with my Muggle Studies class this year. She's American and," Hermione's eyes widened slightly, "she's a wandless witch!"
"Really? Wandless?" Harry turned to look at Hermione, not realizing she'd moved so close. He moved his head back, his eyes skimming her face and resting on her lips before he looked away, not wanting to get caught staring at his best friend's lips.
"Yes," Hermione nodded, "she's lovely, isn't she? She's very sweet, kind of quiet but really smart. She'd been practicing for a few years, having taught herself, and she'd never had any kind of formal training. Let's see, she's from California and has been in England since June, staying with a friend who put her in touch with Dumbledore concerning a position at the school. That's basically what I found out during our brief conversation, but there was something in her eyes. I don't know. Sadness and regret and I'm probably reading way too much into a five minute conversation."
"You found all that out in five minutes?" Ron looked at Hermione and grinned, "I don't know how you do it, Mione."
"Willow?" Draco repeated as he looked back at the quiet redhead, "What a charming name."
"Malfoy, what are you doing?" Potter asked quietly, liking that his new friend seemed to have finally found something to make him smile again, but also knowing that the blond obviously wasn't thinking clearly.
"I don't know, Potter," Draco admitted softly, his eyes moving gently over the pretty redhead that looked so lost and sad. He said, "She should be smiling. I bet she has a dazzling smile."
"I got the feeling that she hasn't been smiling that much lately," Hermione said, shrugging as Harry glared at her, not entirely sure what his problem was.
"That's a shame," Draco replied, wondering what had caused the look in the redhead's eyes, wondering why she was so sad and alone, feeling as if he'd found someone that might understand what he was feeling. God, he was going crazy, he decided. She hadn't even looked directly at him.
"Get that look out of your eyes, Malfoy," Harry warned in a concerned tone, "she's a teacher! Okay, so she's assisting, but that's the same thing."
"What look would that be, Potter?" Draco asked snidely, arching a brow as he smirked at the dark haired wizard.
"You know what look, Malfoy," Harry rolled his eyes.
"I wouldn't have asked if I was aware of the particular look in which you were speaking," Draco said smoothly, unable to keep himself from looking back at the redhead.
"That look!" Harry said, smirking himself, "That besotted, attracted, longing look that has been in your eyes since you first noticed her."
"Harry, drop it," Hermione urged, wanting to throttle Harry for making such a big deal out of Draco's obvious infatuation with the new Muggle Studies assistant. She thought it was cute that Draco Malfoy had the beginnings of a crush on the redhead witch, liking the spark of life she saw in his eyes that had been missing not even ten minutes ago. So Willow was a teacher, in a way. She didn't see the harm in Draco being infatuated with the older woman, relieved to see that the blond was smirking and a bit of the old gleam was back in his eyes.
"Listen to your girlfriend, Potter," Draco said, stressing the girlfriend part and watching both Harry and Hermione blush as Ron laughed, covering it up quickly with a cough before elbowing his side in warning not to tease their friends over the obvious attraction between them.
"Fine, Malfoy. What is it you want?" Harry asked, annoyed at the blond for again needling him about his relationship, or lack thereof, with Hermione.
"I want," Draco paused a moment as he tried to figure out the best response to that question, his gray eyes again darting back to the Professors' table, this time catching green eyes that had looked up for another quick glance around the room. He kept her gaze, seeing something in her eyes that he couldn't explain, knowing somehow that she would understand what he was dealing with, a slow smile crossing his handsome face as she looked away finally, breaking their silent moment, knowing that he had just found himself a project for Seventh year. He finally answered Potter, his words soft but determined, "I want to make her smile."
Willow Rosenberg played with her food, not exactly sure what it was on her plate, but finding that it didn't look very appetizing even if she'd been hungry. As it was, she hadn't had much of an appetite in over three months. She'd lost ten pounds, just enough to cause Giles to worry even more about her mental health and recovery from everything that had happened. The normally slender redhead had lost the curve to her hips and looked thin, in a bad way, though Willow didn't care at all how she looked. She deserved to waste away, poking her fork into something that might have been a sausage. Maybe if she continued on her current diet of playing with food versus eating it, she'd just disappear. A forlorn sigh escaped her lips as she leaned over the table, knowing that she was thinking the bad thoughts again. She didn't want to disappear, didn't want to die or run away. That wasn't her style. She wasn't a coward, she could accept what she had done, could acknowledge that she'd become worse than anything they'd ever had to fight, and disappearing wouldn't make the hurt and pain go away. Giles told her she was brave for facing up to her actions, for surviving and attempting to make amends, but Willow didn't believe the word brave should be used to describe her at all.
She was a murderer. Plain and simple. No matter what she did, no matter how she struggled to control her intense power, no matter how many apologies she made, no matter the choices she now made, she would always be a murderer. Not only a murderer, but an evil person that had tortured and killed, enjoying the screams of her victim. She'd tried to kill her friends, tried to kill the people that she considered her family and that she loved, tried to end the fucking world! And he called her brave? No, she wasn't brave. Xander was brave. He was the one that had risked his life to save the world, to save her. At times, when her thoughts were the darkest and she felt so alone and lost, she wished he hadn't bothered saving her. She would never harm herself, having too much strength for suicide and believing that such actions were cowardly in a way that she couldn't explain, but if she had died from her own use of black magic, if that had somehow killed her, she didn't know if she would have minded. An eternity in Hell to pay for her sins might be better than dealing with the consequences of her actions, dealing with the loss of everyone she loved, dealing with night after night of being alone, dealing with the power that she now possessed. But, Willow had decided early on that this was her penance, her punishment, and she had readily accepted it as such.
There was nothing she could say to make up for what she had done. Even though Xander claimed he loved her, had withstood her power to save the world, she saw the look in his eyes that he tried to conceal. He knew what she was, remembering Warren's tortured body whenever he looked at her, remembered her attempts to kill Buffy and Giles and Anya and Dawn, and nothing would ever take that knowledge away from him. She had lost her best friend, her oldest, the one constant in her life for over 15 years. He said he understood, that it was the magic, that it wasn't her, but Willow knew that the words were empty and that he had no idea what it had been like, to taste the darkness, to have that power, to still possess that power even now. Buffy had echoed his words, telling her she'd be okay. Okay. Yes, Buffy, she'd be okay. She'd killed a man, attempted to kill dozens others, nearly destroyed the world, but she'd be okay. She didn't deserve to be okay, damn it. She didn't deserve redemption, didn't deserve Giles' fatherly concern, his worry and his affection. She was a monster, worse than a monster. She was a human that knew better, that was aware of the darkness, that fought evil for years, only to become what they had fought.
Revenge was a double-edged sword. Willow had heard that quote when she was younger, not fully understanding it until she'd been seated on the sofa in Buffy's living room, listening to her friends decide her future. When Tara had died, when she had lost the person she loved the most in the world, the beautiful witch that made her feel so special and loved, she'd snapped. It had been her choice. That's what her friends kept forgetting in their discussions. Her choice! She'd willingly attempted to bring Tara back, willingly gone to the Magic Box to absorb the darkest of magics, willingly saved Buffy's life yet again, and willingly hunted Warren down to make him pay for killing Tara and ruining the only happiness she'd really had in twenty-one years. Even with the power running through her, she had been in control. Everything she had done, everything she had said, it had been her. Giles argued that the power had overwhelmed her, that it had taken over and made her views skew towards its purpose, but he was wrong. She had been unable to deal with losing Tara, her thirst for revenge driving her to actions that would have, that did, horrify her, but she'd made her choices and had to accept responsibility for them. She'd gotten her revenge, but, along the way, she'd lost bits of herself that she feared she'd never again reclaim.
When it was decided that Giles would take her to England to recuperate, to learn the teachings of the local coven, to gain control of her gift, for that was what her natural ability and strength was considered, to take time to deal with what had happened, she'd been relieved. She hadn't want to stay with her friends, knowing that there was no going back. Dawn cringed in fear when she would actually look at her, Buffy's smiles were false and her words hopeful but not convincing, Xander's hugs were tentative and his dark eyes sad, only Anya had understood. The demon had given her a real hug, whispering to her that she was strong and that she'd survive this but that it wouldn't be easy, making her promise to keep in touch. This had surprised the redhead so much that she'd felt tears in her eyes as she'd clung to the honey blonde demon that had never really been a friend but was now giving her what no one else had. An acceptance that her actions were her own and that she had to fight for redemption, had to earn it, that it wouldn't be given to her, and that Anya had faith in her, believed that she could survive. Willow had gone with Giles, knowing that it would be a very long time before she would be returning to Sunnydale. Giles had been wonderful, seeming to know exactly how much space she needed, though he tended to worry in that parental way of his that made him adorable and made her appreciate having a surrogate parent that cared as much as he did. She'd stayed at his estate in the country, surprised that Giles had a family estate, but relishing the peace and quiet. She'd studied with the local coven, learning a lot from the witches but seeing the looks in their eyes, the distrust, the worry, the fear. She'd hated attending their meetings because of their fear of her, their suspicion that she was not strong enough to control her power, but she had loved learning from the older women. She'd spent three months studying with the coven, finally earning their respect even though they continued to watch her warily. She'd learned about the Earth and the magic in the air and all sorts of glorious things she'd wished she'd learned years before, when she'd first become interested in magic and realized that she had a natural talent. She'd also managed to get control of her power, no longer refusing to use it for fear of what might happen. She had finally begun to believe in herself, to realize that she was strong enough to control it.
She took walks along the river, long walks by herself, communing with nature and just thinking. She had been learning control, but that didn't make her any less of a murderer. She hadn't heard from Xander or Buffy or Dawn since she'd left, not very surprised that they had moved on with their lives. They'd done what they could and the rest was up to her. She had heard from Anya every week, surprisingly. The vengeance demon was still practicing her wicked ways, though she had reluctantly realized that time as a human had made her soft so she tended to fulfill happier wishes or small pranks that didn't involve death or maiming or torture. Willow was entertained by the letters that Anya wrote, though she rarely answered any of them. Anya didn't mind, seeming to realize that any contact with a friendly word was good for her, keeping the letters coming. They were a bright spot in Willow's life, letting her know that she wasn't completely alone. She didn't count Giles, horrible as it was to admit, because he was like her father and, because of that parental love between them, he would stand by her side no matter what she had done, even if that included torturing a man and nearly destroying the world.
She had been at the estate for eleven weeks, having exhausted the teachings of the coven, finally having a grasp on her power, not sure what was going to happen next, when Giles had invited a guest for dinner, an old friend from his early days at school. The man was Albus Dumbledore, shocking white hair and a ready smile and twinkling eyes full of mischief and happiness. She had been shocked to learn that he was a powerful wizard, the Headmaster of a school for wizards and witches. Willow had no idea such places existed, listening in fascination to the stories he told of Hogwarts. He told her that there had recently been a big fight in the wizarding community that had resulted in numerous deaths but triumph in the end for the good guys. The fight, it seemed, had left him short some teachers at his school. He'd asked her if she'd be interested into coming to Hogwarts and being an assistant for his Muggle Studies professor, explaining that muggles were non-magical people. Willow had declined, softly explaining to him that she was not the person to teach the youth of the wizarding community.
He had persisted, his eyes determined and resolved. She'd finally told him about what she had done, about trying to end the world, comparing herself to the evil that he had just fought. He'd surprised her when he confirmed that he was already aware of her past and believed that she would be perfect to assist in teaching at Hogwarts. He'd first suggested the idea to Giles of her helping in a class called Defense Against the Dark Arts before deciding that it might be too much too soon, deciding that Muggle Studies was a good place for her to begin her career at the school. Begin her career, as if he wanted her to remain on staff indefinitely. When she'd ventured a tentative look into his eyes, she'd not seen suspicion or fear, merely acceptance and a stubbornness that rivaled her own resolve face. She had finally accepted, not believing that she deserved such an opportunity, but knowing that she had nothing else to learn from the coven and wanting to give Giles the chance to live his life again without having to worry about her.
So, two weeks later, she found herself at Hogwarts, having spent two weeks studying books on the wizarding community and trying to learn how to use a wand, of all things. She'd finally given that up in disgust, knowing from her reading that there were not many wizards that could master wandless magic and finding it odd since the magic she'd always encountered had been wandless, figuring that the official wizarding community was just different from those like herself that learned from books and their own efforts. Giles had been proud of her decision to teach at Hogwarts, believing it was going to be good for her, trusting that she could perform the tasks required and that she would be able to, perhaps, make some friends and start enjoying life again. Willow knew he wanted what was best for her, hugging him tightly before she'd boarded the train to Hogwarts, swearing that she would make him proud, that she would justify his faith in her. A part of her was curious about this castle, about the school, about the students, and another part of her still didn't believe that she deserved to be here, didn't think that it was right for a murderer to be teaching. Unfortunately, that was the voice that she had been listening to for most of the day.
She was ashamed of what she had done, fully aware that there were many students in the dining hall that had fought in the War that Dumbledore had mentioned, that were heroes who had fought evil to preserve the light, that were good guys in a way that she had once been. She represented what they had fought against, the magic in her no longer dark because she had fought and struggled to turn it light, but she had used the darkness, knew that it had to linger around her like a dark cloud that would never lift. So far, she had only met one teacher, Professor Mary-Em Bowen, the new Muggle Studies professor with whom she would be working closely, liking the older woman immediately. She had also met one of the students, Hermione Granger, learning later from Dumbledore that the intelligent girl was at the head of her class, Head Girl, whatever that meant, an overachiever that was positively a pleasure to teach, and one of the greatest heroes of the Final Battle. It would appear that Hermione and her three friends had been in the thick of the fighting, seeing the worst and fighting the most. Willow had respect for the pretty girl, having an idea what she must have gone through, and realizing that this was just further proof that she didn't belong here.
Willow had unpacked, finding the school even more bizarre than she'd imagined. Portraits that spoke, mirrors that talked, hundreds of students with wands and broomsticks, yes they actually rode broomsticks!, that used magic all the time. The redhead was unsure how she was going to handle being surrounded by magic all the time, having learned control when she was isolated on Giles' estate, not sure if she could use her power frequently without risk or danger. The darkness was gone, but would it come back if she started using magic repeatedly for simple tasks the way these students and professors did? Willow couldn't take the chance, not yet, not so soon. Even the smallest spell hurt her, emotionally, reminding her of what she had done, what she had lost. So she had resolved to use magic only when necessary, not believing that it would be of frequent use in a class that taught students about normal humans and their culture and customs. Gradually, as she progressed, maybe she would feel more comfortable practicing, but, until then, she'd take it slow.
The redhead had arrived a little late for dinner, not wanting to risk some embarrassing introduction that she had a feeling Dumbledore enjoyed doing, hating the idea of all these students looking at her. She had made her mistakes and was trying to make up for what she had done, but she didn't want these strangers looking at her with suspicion or fear or the knowledge that she was a murderer that had tried to end the world, though she doubted her past would stay a secret for long. She had heard about boarding schools and the gossip, not sure if Dumbledore had told anyone what she had done, knowing it wasn't something she could keep hidden, if she had wanted to. She didn't volunteer her past to anyone, but, if asked, she would not lie. She had done what she had done and had to accept the consequences, that being the only way she'd ever be able to move on and continue living. She sighed as she poked at her food, knowing that she had promised Giles she'd start eating again and try to gain the weight she had lost, but not sure if she'd be able to keep that promise if the food was always like this. She looked up and shyly glanced around the dining hall, wondering which of these students would be in her class, envying them for their laughter and smiles and happiness, knowing that they had gone through a War that compared to anything she had faced in her time, nostalgia spreading over her as she remembered the many meals she'd shared with Buffy and Xander and the others after defeating some big evil, missing the laughter and friendship she used to have, knowing it was her own fault she had lost it.
As she was looking around the room, she suddenly caught eyes looking at her. Surprised, green eyes widened as she found herself looking into gray eyes that were curious and had an underlying grief that she recognized and could easily relate to. She didn't look beyond the eyes, save to notice that it was a boy with blond hair that was nearly white. Reluctantly, she looked away, staring at her food as she let out a breath that she hadn't realized she'd been holding. His eyes, they'd been so, she couldn't even put words to it. He'd seemed to know what she was feeling, the loneliness and sadness and grief, the beautiful gray, they'd really been gray, depths having a similar lost look that she had seen in her own eyes when she'd look in the mirror. She found herself wondering who he was, wanting to know why he had that sadness in his eyes, why he had been looking at her, why she felt as if he would understood what she was feeling in a way that no one else ever could. Shaking her head slightly, she realized that she was being silly. He was a student, had probably just been curious about an unfamiliar face, she'd probably mistaken the sadness in his eyes, feeling so lonely that she'd projected her own emotions into those pale gray eyes. With a soft sigh, she finally put her fork down, not bothering to pretend that she was actually going to eat, and quietly left the dining hall, wanting to get some sleep, hoping for at least an hour without nightmares, before classes started the next day.
Harry Potter studied the blond Slytherin for several moments, not sure how to respond to Draco's declaration, I want to make her smile. Harry liked to think he was smart, though not nearly as intelligent as Hermione or even Draco no matter how reluctant he was to admit the latter, but he had no idea what to say to Draco's sincere statement. He'd spent the summer with Ron and Malfoy, staying with the Weasleys' to recover from injuries he'd sustained during the Final Battle, nothing serious but a good excuse to avoid having to go stay with his Aunt and Uncle.
He'd noticed Malfoy's depression, if that was the right word, sometimes going several days without seeing the arrogant blond wizard. He knew that Hermione was worried, though she hadn't yet spoken to him of her concerns. She was his best friend and meant the world to him and he'd had a bit of a crush on her since they'd first met that seemed to get worse every term so those things gave him a good indication of what she was thinking a majority of the time. He had been relieved when Malfoy had made his first really snarky comment following the Final Battle, seeing glimpses of the Slytherin that had made his life miserable for years. That's all he saw, though. Brief glimpses before they'd fade and the blond would become quiet and his eyes would grow troubled.
This was the first time he'd seen excitement in Malfoy's eyes since the Battle, the first time there had been that spark of mischief and cunning and enjoyment of life in longer than Harry could even remember. When Draco had returned to Hogwarts during the Christmas break, Harry had been shocked to hear what had happened, surprised by the determined gleam in the Slytherin's eyes as he vowed to make his Father and Voldemort pay for all the death and destruction they had caused. Harry knew Malfoy's motive was selfish, not having cared all that much about the Fight until it directly affected him and he saw for himself what kind of monster his Father had become, joining the battle for revenge instead of a desire to see justice served and for good to triumph over evil.
Malfoy had made up for his selfish motives by involving others, training them and preparing them to face Voldemort, willingly risking his own life to save Ron and Hermione and countless others. He'd not given a darn about the muggles they were trying to protect, but he'd risen to the occasion and fought harder than even Harry himself. It didn't matter why he had joined the fight, all that mattered was his ability to somehow bring everyone together, which was still surprising because he *was* such an arrogant wanker, and, honestly, become the leader that they needed to guide them into battle. Not that Harry would ever admit any of these things to Malfoy, the blond being conceited enough without any help from him, but he did respect what Malfoy had done for their fight. They'd become friends, of sorts, and he honestly did care about Draco, in a way, so that was why he was now stuck with no idea what to say. Draco needed something to get him out of his melancholy mood, to get him enjoying his life again, and it seemed that he had finally found something to get that smirk back on his face and a hopeful look in his eyes. Harry didn't want to be responsible for taking away that hope by reminding Draco that he was talking about a teacher, even if she was just an assistant, and that she was very lovely and older than them. So, Harry decided to keep his doubts regarding this new goal of Malfoy's to himself, thinking that maybe a crush on the new Muggles Studies assistant was enough to get Draco back to being his old, snarky, arrogant prat of a self, rolling his eyes as he realized that he actually missed the smug Draco that had been missing the last few months. Harry decided he'd do what he could to help Draco in his latest plan with hopes that Malfoy would at least start enjoying life again while he was smitten with the mysterious and pale redhead. He leaned back in his chair, a skeptical look crossing his face as he asked the blond in a slightly sarcastic tone, "How do you plan on achieving that goal, Malfoy?"
Ron took his cue from Harry, knowing that he'd be talking to his best friend later to find out what had caused the dark haired wizard to grow silent and thoughtful following Malfoy's comments regarding the pretty redhead they were discussing. He asked, "Yeah, Malfoy. What are you planning to do? Tell her some jokes? That won't work. You're not all that funny."
"Why do I hang out with you two?" Draco muttered, rolling his eyes as he realized that he had no idea what he was going to do to get closer to Willow, his lips twisting into a soft smile just thinking her name. He didn't understand his reaction to her, but he couldn't ignore it. There was something about her that made him want to go to her and give her a hug and tell her that everything was going to be okay. He wanted to protect her and make her feel loved and cherished and appreciated, to see her lips curled into smiles of happiness and her green eyes dancing with joy and enjoyment of life. He'd never felt anything like this before, a bit frightened by the new emotions he'd never experienced, at the same time he wondered if he was crazy for feeling such a connection to someone he'd not yet met. What was he going to do? He needed to talk to her, needed to get to know her, needed to make her smile again.
"Because no one else will put up with your arrogant arse," Harry smirked, realizing that Draco had no idea how to answer his question, rather enjoying seeing the Slytherin Prince at a loss on what to do. Though, knowing Malfoy, it would be short lived. The cunning blond wizard would soon think of a way to get closer to the object of his current infatuation and would either end up making a complete fool of himself, which would be rather enjoyable to witness, or his feelings would fade once he actually met the woman that had struck his fancy.
"It isn't his arse that's arrogant," Ron smiled, "it's his personality."
"Ha ha," Draco said dryly, his mind already working through possible scenarios that could put him in contact with the beautiful Willow, finding that they were all rather immature and childish. He wondered if she had felt it, too, when their eyes had met. She'd looked away, leaving the dining hall soon after, his eyes having followed her out the door. She hadn't eaten at all that he'd noticed, which wasn't good. She was too skinny, circles under her eyes giving him an idea that she didn't sleep all that well. He understood that, lucky to get a few hours sleep a night himself before he started dreaming and having nightmares. He knew, just knew, that he could make her smile again, that he could chase the sadness away if given a chance. But, Harry was right. She was a teacher. He wasn't going to have much of an opportunity to become her friend and perhaps more. Being Head Boy, he did interact with the professors more than most students, but even that position could not give him the contact that he desired with the pretty redhead.
"Ignore them, Draco," Hermione spoke up, glaring at Harry and Ron before smiling at the blond wizard, "I don't think you're an arse."
"Notice that she didn't say that you weren't arrogant," Harry pointed out smugly.
"I *am* arrogant, Potter," Draco drawled with a smirk, a plan forming in his mind that might just enable him to get closer to Willow if it worked, "with just reason. After all, I am the most handsome, intelligent, skilled, athletic, wealthiest wizard at this school."
"And oh so modest," Ron snickered, nudging Malfoy with his elbow. He was rewarded with a sneer that had him flashing back to early Term 6 Malfoy, a large smile crossing his freckled face as he realized that Draco might have finally snapped out of his depression.
"Do not touch me, Weasel," Draco sneered, "I might catch something, like stupidity or those bloody awful freckles."
"Welcome back, Malfoy," Harry smiled as he winked at Hermione who was watching their antics with a pleased smile on her lovely face.
"Quit looking so damn smug, Potter," Draco muttered, rolling his eyes, "you act as if I've been gone somewhere."
"Well, you have been a little less rude and sarcastic and much quieter and sort of boring," Ron reminded with a laugh, "and I can't believe we missed that! What were we thinking? Geesh, we are pretty stupid, huh?"
"Would you really like me to answer that?" Draco asked with an arched brow, feeling more like his old self than he had since his mother had died. His eyes flashed suddenly at the memory, a vision of a sad redhead coming to his mind and causing him not to dwell on his mother's death, instead focusing on his idea on how to get closer to Willow. He stood, smoothing out his robes and he gave them a superior look, his eyes affectionate even as he smirked, "It's been enjoyable, but I must go now and take care of some very important matters. Try not to miss me too much."
"You've got a plan!" Harry realized, snapping his fingers as he recognized the look in Malfoy's eyes, wondering what on Earth the blond had come up with in an attempt to get himself in contact with the American witch.
"I hope it works," Hermione said with a smile at the smirking wizard.
"It's my plan, Granger. Of course it will work," Draco said before he turned and walked away from them, his robes billowing around him as he hurried from the dining hall, his eyes nervous as he walked down the hall. He had a plan, a pretty good plan considering he'd just come up with it, and he was confident that it would at least be somewhere to start. It would take some effort on his part, but it would be worth it if, no when he mentally corrected, it worked. A pleased smile crossed his handsome face as he walked, hope in his eyes as he thought about the details of his plan.
Draco Malfoy stood outside the door to the dungeon, not wanting to knock until he had every detail of his intended plan worked out in his head. He couldn't risk being confronted with a question that he was not prepared to answer, knowing that his future was riding on his upcoming performance. Funny how it seemed so right to think of his future in connection with Willow, the pretty redhead that he'd not even met. The handsome blond wizard took a moment to gather his thoughts, believing that he was now properly prepared to begin his plan. With a determined gleam in his pale gray eyes, he knocked on the door.
It soon swung open to reveal Professor Severus Snape, the Head of Slytherin as well as the Potions Professor. The dark haired wizard glared at Draco, who was now slightly taller than his favorite professor, though Snape would never dare look up to him, always finding a way to make it seem as though Draco were still the same insolent child he'd been when first arriving at Hogwarts all those years ago. Draco had always admired Snape, though he'd be reluctant to admit such a truth, and had spent the majority of his time at Hogwarts studying the Potions professor and attempting to earn praise from the curt and remote man. He knew that he had long ago begun to consider the dark professor a surrogate father of sorts, basking in the rare spoken praise of his abilities and enjoying the Professor's dislike of the other students, especially the Gryffindors. Draco knew that he was Snape's favorite student, again something that would never be verbally admitted, and that was why he was now at Snape's door. He did not feel at all guilty for involving Snape in his plan to get closer to Willow, knowing that cunning and intelligence were two of the more admirable Slytherin traits, though he was aware that his actions would require careful deliberation and timing. Snape was not a stupid man, far from it, and Draco had no intention of alerting the Professor to the true reasons behind his plan.
"Malfoy, what brings you here?" Snape asked sharply, his dark eyes narrowing as he took in the blond wizard standing in front of him, curious despite himself as to why Draco would be in the dungeons to see him at such a late hour.
"May I come in, Professor Snape? I have a favor to ask of you," Draco said smoothly, allowing his lips to twist into a grimace as he said the word favor, knowing that Snape was watching him suspiciously and that it would be expected for him to be displeased to have to ask for anything. He was a Malfoy, after all.
"A favor?" Snape repeated slowly, arching a brow as he finally nodded, his curiosity getting the best of him for once. He moved to the side, allowing Draco Malfoy entrance into his private rooms. Dark eyes watched the wizard enter the room and take a seat, noting the way the blond was twisting his hands together just enough to indicate that he was nervous about whatever this favor happened to be, the Potions professor shutting the door and taking his own seat. He waited a moment before finally demanding, "Malfoy, do not fidget like a child. What is this favor and how does it involve me?"
"Sorry, Professor," Draco sat up straighter, dropping his hands on to his lap, looking at Snape as he explained, "I need to change my course schedule this term, Professor. I would like your assistance."
"Course changes?" Snape frowned, resisting the urge to rub his temples. Of all the things he'd expected, this had not been it. He'd not seen Malfoy since the Final Battle, having heard from Albus that the boy was growing despondent and depressed during his time with the Weasleys. Snape, personally, did not blame the boy since staying with the Weasleys, of all people, would rank right up there with a trip to Hell on his list of unpleasant activities. Draco Malfoy had always been his favorite student, since first year Potions, and Snape had been concerned when he had heard reports that Draco was having problems with everything that had happened. He had not had an opportunity to study his favorite student personally until now, having only made the briefest of appearances at the welcome dinner before taking his food to his rooms. He did not see any particular cause for concern, seeing the familiar arrogance and intelligence in the wizard that had always been there. True, there were circles under his eyes, indicating that he had trouble sleeping, but that was to be expected. If anything, the boy seemed more alert and lively than he had since Christmas break.
"Yes, Sir. I have decided that I would like to take Muggle Studies this term," Draco said, allowing a grimace to cross his face as he spoke. He sighed softly, explaining, "As Head Boy, I believe that I should have an understanding of the Muggles and their customs so that I can fairly deal with all the students at Hogwarts."
"Mr. Malfoy, do you believe me to be a fool?" Snape asked as a scowl crossed his angular face.
"No, Sir," Draco replied immediately, resisting the urge to smile at the disbelieving look in Snape's eyes. It was working.
"Then please tell me the real reason behind your sudden interest in," Snape visibly shuddered as he spoke the last two words, "muggle studies."
"It's Granger," Draco rolled his eyes, "I made a wager with her and had the misfortune of promising to take Muggle Studies this term if she won."
"You lost a wager to Granger?" Snape arched a brow, watching with slight amusement as the blond stiffened, his eyes flashing as he spoke.
"I did not lose!" Draco said, "I merely underestimated my ability to successfully defeat her."
"And now you are forced to take that horrid class because of this silly wager?" Snape summed it up.
"Yes," Draco made a face, "she believes it will give me a better understanding of life and the people that occupy the world. For some foolish reason, the silly girl believes me to be arrogant and self-involved and not attune to the lives of those around me. She did babble on for a few minutes longer with justifications but I fear that I ignored her constant rambling and can offer no further explanations save for the fact that she wants me to suffer for some unknown reason."
"And you wish for me to request a transfer for you into that class this term?" Snape asked, not at all surprised that it was Granger's doing to force Malfoy into that insipid class.
"I promised, Sir, and I do not break my promises," Draco said simply, watching Snape carefully and seeing that the Professor was believing his story. First part of his plan accomplished, Draco thought smugly, hoping Hermione would forgive him for including her in his plan, though he honestly didn't care that much as long as his goal was accomplished. Besides, she wouldn't mind, probably enjoying the idea that he'd had her successfully win their fictitious wager. With a hesitant tone in his voice, he spoke, "Sir, there is something else."
"What is it?" Snape frowned, knowing there should be no problems with Malfoy's request and deciding that attending that horrible class would be punishment enough for the blond wizard for making foolish wagers.
"I have never taken that ridiculous class before, Professor Snape, and I fear that my marks might suffer. I am Head Boy this term, as you know, and I am first or second in all of my classes, as well as being Seeker for the Slytherin Quidditch team. I just do not want this silly class to affect my marks," Draco explained, letting the sentence linger, waiting for Snape to come up with the idea he desperately needed him to for the next phase of the plan to work.
"I am fully aware of your many responsibilities, Malfoy," Snape said dryly, thinking for a moment before saying, "I believe you will need a tutor for the Muggle Studies class to catch you up to the other students, covering the material you've missed. I sincerely doubt it will be all that difficult, considering it is such a foolish class."
"A tutor? Really, Sir, do you feel that is necessary?" Draco asked, "I do not relish the idea of some inferior student teaching *me*, probably be a cause for much amusement amongst the lower houses. And what if it is some silly girl that gets foolish notions that our sessions together mean something far more than they do?"
"Yes, well, you are correct in that assumption," Snape agreed, knowing that Draco was respected by the students and considered one of the brightest wizards at Hogwarts. To be tutored, even in a manner such as catching up to past years missed, was enough to cause some gossip, especially if the tutor turned out to be some silly female that wished to turn the study sessions into soap opera romance stories for their friends. Draco had enough to deal with currently, his position as seeker on the team, the responsibility of being Head Boy, his part he had played in the Final Battle, dealing with his parents' deaths, and several other things that Snape could think of that would affect him this term. Snape suggested, "What about Granger? She has taken the class every term, has she not? She is no threat for the gossips, and you are already well acquainted with her."
"Unfortunately, Sir, Granger is Head Girl this term and has already agreed to tutor First Years in Charms several evenings a week. Plus, she is already preparing for NEWTS and has every intention of being tops in every class," Draco replied, thankful that he'd thought of an honest reason why Hermione would have to be ruled out as a possible tutor. He made a face as he said, "I do not feel that she would be able to dedicate the time and energy needed to assist me in learning the material covered previously in Muggle Studies."
"I do believe you're right," Snape said as he began thinking again, suddenly remembering, "I've got it! There is a new assistant in Muggle Studies this term! I have not met her, but I recall Albus mentioning something during our faculty meeting yesterday. An American, I believe, with no knowledge or formal training, but she was raised by muggles and spent the majority of her life with them so I believe she would be adequate in tutoring you."
"An assistant professor?" Draco repeated slowly, acting as though he were considering Snape's suggestion even as he was concealing the large triumphant smile from crossing his handsome face. It had worked. Bloody hell, he couldn't believe he'd successfully pulled this off, having been worried that Snape would see through his act and demand the real reason behind his sudden interest and Muggle Studies and need for a private tutor in that particular class. He couldn't wait to inform Potter of his success, knowing that he would have just reason to be smug after managing to fool Snape without betraying his true intentions or his desire to spend time with the pretty redhead. He grimaced as he said, "An American?"
"Malfoy, that is the best solution that I know. I'd have expected you to be smart enough to make such silly wagers with those friends of yours, especially with such dire consequences for defeat," Snape said sharply, "I trust that you will make no future wagers unless you are confident of success."
"I have learned my lesson, Sir," Draco said smoothly, finally agreeing, "I believe that you are right, Professor Snape. The new assistant should make an excellent tutor, even if she is American and untrained. I do not believe that Muggle Studies will require much thought, but I wish to be prepared."
"You should be caught up in a few weeks," Snape agreed, still finding it difficult to believe that Malfoy would make a wager with such ridiculous consequences unless he were guaranteed a win. To lose a wager that resulted in taking a class that he despised as well as requiring many hours of study just to be in the same area of knowledge as his fellow classmates, well, he did believe that Draco had learned his lesson. "I will make the arrangements for your transfer to the class in the morning as well as speak to the new Professor about your need for her assistant to tutor you until you are confident of your knowledge. I will discuss the matter with you after Potions tomorrow. Is that all, Malfoy?"
"Yes, Sir," Draco said as he stood, "Thank you, Sir. I appreciate your assistance in this matter. I will suffer for my foolish wager by having to attend the silly class about muggles, but the tutoring idea of yours should prevent the class from affecting my standing or responsibilities."
"You say that as though you are surprised that I had a good idea," Snape sneered, his dark eyes flashing with amusement as he said, "Good night, Mr. Malfoy.
"Good night, Professor Snape," Draco said politely before leaving the dungeon. As he walked down the hall, he began to smile, his pale gray eyes shining with triumph. His plan had been a success. He'd been confident that it was a good plan, but Snape was unpredictable so there had been a small degree of concern. In the end, it had worked even better than he'd imagined. Snape had suggested the tutor, had been the one to think of Willow, and all Draco had had to do was exaggerate a wager and make a few leading comments. Now, he would be a part of the class where Willow was assisting, the thought of taking Muggle Studies being a cause for a sincere grimace to cross his face, and she was going to be his tutor until he was caught up. He'd have a chance to be close to her, to get to know her, to become her friend. He continued smiling as he went upstairs and entered his room, falling back on his bed as his eyes softened and he slowly smiled, wondering if he'd be able to sleep at all. He couldn't wait to meet Willow.
Severus Snape rubbed his temples after leaving the office of Mary-Em Bowen, the newly appointed Muggle Studies professor. She reminded him of Albus, only female and more talkative, which were not marks in her favor. It wasn't that Snape disliked women, believing that they had potential to be as intelligent and powerful as the next person, though the majority with which he came in contact rarely lived up to that potential. Of course, the same was true for most men that he met. He guessed it was safe to say that he just wasn't fond of people, in general. There were exceptions, rare few that he admired or respected, and even less that he called friend. He had spent such a large portion of his life unable to form relationships, not wanting to give Voldemort any leverage by caring about someone, and not wanting to endanger his cover by adding more risk to his already precarious situation. Listening to this Bowen woman chatter on for what had seemed like hours, though it had been only seven minutes, reminded him why he preferred being alone.
He had gone to her office first thing, telling her of Malfoy's sudden interest in Muggle Studies by using the initial excuse given to him, stating that the wizard wanted to improve his knowledge of muggles for his new responsibility of Head Boy. Fortunately, she'd not known Malfoy except by reputation as one of the heroes of the Final Battle and had no prior knowledge to question his motives. She'd signed the transfer scroll, told him the time of the class, and had been most eager to offer the help of her assistant in tutoring the blond wizard. Unfortunately, it had take her seven minutes of chattering to finally agree. Snape had been battling a headache from her shrill squawking after two minutes. At the end of seven, his head was pulsing and he was reminded why he hated socializing with his fellow professors.
Luckily, she'd been distracted and he'd made his getaway before she could start talking again. Malfoy owed him for this, he thought crossly as he stormed away from the Muggle Studies room, his black robes billowing around him. He didn't care what the boy had been through with having that bastard Lucius as a father, Snape hated having to play nice with some daft new Professor, even for his favorite student. He decided to tell Malfoy the good news, if you could call being forced to attend that horrid class with that annoying woman good news, before breakfast. He waited near the door, glowering at the students that were slowly coming in for their morning meal. It was the first day of classes, Snape preparing his scowls for the First Years that would be meeting him for the first time shortly. The older students were not as easily affected by the scowl, especially those that had fought by his side during the Final Battle, but Snape had perfected a glare and a certain way of arching his left brow that would leave even Potter quaking in his shoes.
A slight smirk crossed Snape's angular face as he imagined the enjoyment of demonstrating his latest technique on the Seventh Years later that morning. He had learned long ago that it was far better to be feared by the students than loved, the fear driving them to learn and try harder and thus allow him to perform his job of teaching the brainless little whelps something about Potions before they left Hogwarts. Even the worst students in his class would manage to learn because they were scared of detention or of him deciding to take a personal interest in their lack of skills. They believed him to just be a bastard and cold hearted, which was true in some degree, but the main reason for his snarly disposition was to make them be better students. His sneer never worked on Malfoy, the blond wizard never showing any true fear even during First Year or during the worst of Snape's tirades, that being the single most reason that the boy had become a favorite. Well, that, and his true Slytherin nature and the fact that he was the best potions student Snape had seen in years. His decision to turn against Voldemort and his subsequent leadership and strength had not been surprising to Snape, the professor having always had faith that Malfoy would show good judgment when the time came.
Snape finally saw Malfoy approaching, moving from his position beside the doors to the dining hall so that he could speak to the blond wizard in privacy. As he approached Draco, the boy looked up, his eyes flashing with melancholy before giving way to eagerness when he noticed Snape before quickly becoming reserved. Snape was curious about the panorama of emotions, knowing that the gray eyes were normally either aloof, amused, arrogant, or pleased when he received a compliment in class. Never had he seen Malfoy display sadness or regret, deciding that there might be more to Albus' theories than he'd originally believed, and never had he seen eagerness, especially considering that the topic he would logically be about to discuss would consist of the lost wager and forced attendance of that dreadful class.
"Good morning, Professor Snape," Draco said promptly, hoping that the Potions professor did not see the excitement in his expression that he'd been unable to hide at first sight of Snape, knowing that he was going to find out now if his plan had been a complete success and if he was going to have an opportunity to get to know the pretty redhead that had not strayed far from his thoughts since he'd first seen her.
"I've not seen anything particularly good about it," Snape remarked, "in fact, I'd say it shows signs to be a rather dreadful morning."
"Of course, Sir," Draco replied, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Snape sometimes overdid the rude, sneering, hated professor bit, in his opinion. Especially when it meant that he was not closer to learning if Willow would be his tutor for that silly class, thus giving him time alone with her in which he could become her friend and make her smile and cause the sadness to depart.
"I have spoken to Bowen and she has signed the necessary forms for your transfer," Snape said as he studied the wizard carefully, trying to find a reason for the enthusiasm that he'd witnessed. Perhaps he'd imagined it, he decided, Malfoy now grimacing properly at the idea of losing the wager.
"Thank you, Sir," Draco said politely, though he was sure to scowl at the idea of being forced to take the class.
"She has also agreed to allow her assistant to tutor you," Snape said, "she will discuss the matter with, I believe she said her name was Willow. Regardless of the American's name, Bowen will inform her of her new responsibility this morning. I assume you can meet with the woman after your class, which will be this afternoon following Charms, and make the arrangements for tutoring sessions and such."
"I appreciate your assistance in this matter, Professor Snape," Draco said sincerely, knowing that his plan would never have worked so well without Snape, relieved that the head of his house was also someone he admired knew quite well, able to anticipate questions and reactions in a way that had been considered during his planning process. He noticed a flash of red from the corner of his vision, behind Snape's head, seeing that it was *her*. She was wearing a simple black robe, the standard uniform for students and teachers at Hogwarts, but she made it unique and lovely. Her red hair shone brilliantly against the black material, the robe as ill fitting as normal but seeming to move over her slender body in such a way that it practically caressed the soft curves that he remembered seeing the previous evening when she'd been wearing muggle clothing. He'd never seen anything as beautiful as her, his eyes tenderly moving over her pretty face before she turned to speak to a portrait.
"Yes, well, just try not to make any more foolish wagers," Snape said disdainfully, noticing suddenly that Draco was no longer listening to him. He was stunned when he saw the look of affection in Malfoy's gray eyes, wondering what had caused such a poignant expression in the normally reserved and distant wizard. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes narrowing when he saw an unfamiliar redhead speaking to a portrait. He wondered for a moment if she was a student before he looked back at Malfoy with suspicion. He scowled as he sharply said, "Go to breakfast, Malfoy."
"Yes, sir," Draco glanced at Snape before quickly entering the dining hall after one last yearning look at the redhead that wouldn't leave his thoughts. He smiled smugly as he realized that soon, he would meet her, would spend time with her, could become a part of her life. The door shut behind him, leaving Snape looking after him suspiciously before turning his attention the mysterious redhead that had caused such a tender look from Malfoy.
Snape moved to the redhead, deciding that he would quell his doubts concerning Malfoy by seeing if she was, indeed, just a new student. He neared her, hearing a soft voice with a distinct American accent that only confirmed his sudden suspicions. Damn it, he'd been played! Draco Malfoy, cunning little Slytherin bastard, had played him. Snape wasn't sure whether to be proud of the conniving blond wizard or angry that he had been duped.
"I really am sorry, but I don't have any idea who these Weasley people are so I am most definitely not one of them," Willow was trying to explain to the talking portrait, having been explaining to the woman for the last few minutes that she was not some long lost Weasley relative. Today was not starting off extremely well, she sighed, listening as the woman ignored her and continued asking what branch of the family she belonged to. Suddenly, a soft but ominous voice spoke from behind her.
"What seems to be the problem?" Snape asked as he gave the portrait his recently perfectly glare and arch of the brow, watching with satisfaction as the woman squeaked and immediately went away. It was then he looked down into the face of the redhead that had driven Malfoy into his elaborate ruse, surprised when he found himself looking into sad green eyes. She gave him what he supposed might pass as a smile before speaking.
"Thank you," Willow said quietly as she studied the dark man beside her. He had black hair that fell to his shoulders, greasy and unkempt, and piercing brown eyes that were nearly as black as his hair, his face angular and his nose just a little crooked on the end. Not handsome, really, but attractive in his own way. She would guess him to be at least forty but younger than forty-five, maybe a few years younger than Giles. She wasn't very good at guessing height, knowing that he was taller than Xander, maybe the same height as Angel. He was wearing a black robe like her own so she had no idea what his body shape was like, though the material seemed to linger against his frame as hers did so she would assume he was on the thin side. He had his thin lips twisting into a glare that she supposed worked on most people, but had no affect whatsoever on her. She'd faced demons and Hellgods and vampires. It would take more than a nasty old scowl to scare her. There was magic around him, power, a little darkness that was all too familiar. She suddenly realized that this man had dabbled in the magics that had consumed her, but he had never lost control long enough for them to consume him in the same way. She strangely felt comforted by his presence, relieved that he was not perky and optimistic and happy like everyone else at this school seemed to be.
"I am Professor Severus Snape," Snape introduced himself after she had studied him thoroughly, slightly amused by her careful examination and studious expression on her face as she seemed to decide that he was not a threat. He was unaccustomed to people looking him directly in the eyes, of facing someone with his most evil scowl and having them show no signs of fear. He was intrigued.
"Willow Rosenberg," Willow replied, "You are the first unfriendly face that I have seen since arriving at the school yesterday. May I confide how welcome it is to see someone that isn't energetic and bubbling over with cheer?"
"Happiness displeases you, Miss. Rosenberg?" he arched a brow, seeing the sincerity in her eyes as she surprised him with her words. Make that fascinated.
"Not really. I just, it's difficult to explain. And please call me Willow," she sighed, not able to tell him her reasons for appreciating a good scowl versus constant perkiness. She'd gone for months seeing distrust and fear and knew that she'd see the same things on the faces of the people at Hogwarts if they knew what she was, if they knew the truth. It was easier to relax around someone that was already glaring at her than it was to be around people that would hate her if they knew what she'd done. Silly, she knew, and it was probably crazy and would never make sense to anyone but herself, but it was what she felt right now.
"Willow. I would assume that you are the American that will be assisting in Muggle Studies this term?" Snape said, seeing her nod and cursing Draco Malfoy. The damn foolish boy had deliberately fooled him in order to get put into that class and now Snape knew why. Willow. Draco's new tutor. Thinking back to the look in Malfoy's eyes, he could easily see that the blond wizard was smitten with this pretty redhead. Had he created the entire wager in an attempt to get closer to the American? Snape would have to have a little chat with Granger to confirm his suspicions, not at all surprised by this recent revelation. Draco had always been a devious little bastard that was used to getting what he wanted. This time, Snape had readily fallen for the ruse and provided him the perfect opportunity to get closer to Willow. What was it, Snape wondered, that Draco wanted this time?
"Yes, Headmaster Dumbledore asked and it seemed like a good idea at the time," she explained, wondering what was causing the professor to glower in such a manner. He was obviously thinking about something puzzling, judging from the perplexed gleam in his dark eyes.
"I'm sure you will do well," he said, deciding that he would not confront Malfoy on this matter. Draco had displayed rather marvelous Slytherin abilities, something that normally would be rewarded, and Snape knew that he would be able to get payback at a later date for his deception and lack of honesty. True, he would never have agreed to a transfer if Malfoy had merely told him he'd seen the new Muggle Studies assistant and was infatuated and sought the chance to spend time around the object of his fascination, but he'd have appreciated not being made part of Malfoy's sly plot. With his decision made, he took a moment to study said object of Malfoy's current obsession. She was a pretty girl, vibrant red hair and lovely green eyes. She had circles under her eyes, though, and her eyes held traces of grief and regret and despair, emotions that he knew well. Emotions that he had seen in gray eyes not long ago, wondering somehow if that was what had first attracted Draco to her. She seemed strong, even now with the melancholy lingering around her, but she also seemed so fragile, as if she needed someone to protect her, to rid her of the depression that caused her eyes to be unhappy instead of sparkling with life. Perhaps this pretty witch had been the end to Draco's depression that he had heard so much about but not witnessed himself except for the briefest glimpse this morning. This changed things, he decided, knowing that Dumbledore and others had been worried about Malfoy's mental and emotional well being. If the blond had somehow found a reason to live, to become the cunning Slytherin once again, if that reason happened to be a crush on the redhead standing next to him, he could not find it in himself to ruin the boy's hope. Damn, he was becoming soft.
"I hope so," Willow said softly, "I don't want to be a disappointment."
"Where were you going before the painting accosted you and insulted you by daring suggest you were a member of the Weasley brood?" Snape asked, his words laced with sarcasm.
"Breakfast," she replied, find his sarcasm comforting.
"Odd, that's where I was headed," Snape said with a smirk, watching her smile that briefest ghost of a smile again. He did not enjoy socializing, but he found himself drawn to the redhead. Not in the same way that he suspected Draco of being, though she was attractive and appeared witty and intelligent. He saw signs of himself in the American, not understanding how he could compare the evil that he had done for Voldemort years ago to this innocent young woman, but knowing that she looked like she needed a friend, someone to scowl at her and brood, which were two things that he excelled at. And, to be honest, he wouldn't mind having a friend himself, especially one that was pretty to look at and didn't constantly chatter about meaningless things. Plus, it would allow him to keep an eye on Malfoy, knowing that he would not forget anytime soon that the miserable prat had managed to trick him.
"Would you mind if I sat with you?" Willow asked hesitantly, "I'm sure the other professors are very nice and lovely people, but they constantly smile and talk and ask questions."
"They are annoying, aren't they?" Snape smiled a true smile, recognizing a bit of a kindred spirit in this American witch.
"Overwhelming," Willow suggested, knowing that it would be ungrateful of her to begin this new job and speak unkindly about the people that were being friendly and helpful to her.
"Ah, you're being polite," Snape smirked as he opened the door to lead her into the dining hall, "we shall soon rid you of that foolish habit. Shall we go glower at all the happy people now?"
"That sounds like a charming idea, Professor Snape," Willow said, a flash of amusement in her eyes before she reminded herself of everything she had done and it quickly faded, replaced by the usual look of remorse that rarely left her eyes anymore.
"Please, call me Severus," he said as they walked into the dining hall, his expression thoughtful as he saw the sadness enter her eyes again as she walked slightly ahead of him. He wondered what her story was, how she had come to Albus' attention, what caused such sorrow in someone so young, why she was now at Hogwarts, and what it was exactly that Draco Malfoy wanted from the delicate redhead.
Draco Malfoy entered the dining hall with a smug smile fixed on his full lips, his gray eyes shining with triumph and excitement as he lazily walked between two tables to the area where his friends were already seated. He had done it! He'd managed to come up with a plan that had been successful in allowing him private time with Willow. Not only had he come up with a winning plan, but he'd also managed to use his knowledge of Snape in such a way to benefit his plan. It was rather enjoyable out sneaking the Slytherin Head of House, Draco had to admit. For the first time since, his gray eyes clouded over slightly, well, in a long time, he felt hopeful. He knew that managing to get Willow as his tutor was no guarantee that she'd look at him and feel the same connection he'd felt during their brief eye contact, but he had to believe that he wasn't imagining what he'd felt. He thought she'd felt it, too, by the way her eyes had widened slightly and she'd quickly looked away.
He decided that it didn't matter. He was going to be in her class, was going to be spending time with her outside of class, would have the perfect opportunity to get to know her, to become her friend and, well, he wasn't sure beyond that. He didn't need to think that far into the future, having only just seen her the previous evening. He'd never even spoken to her so it seemed a bit foolish to dwell on things that weren't important yet. Right now, his goal was to get to know her and become her friend and try to make her less sad. He liked having a goal, liked being motivated. He felt alive again, felt as if the world was full of endless possibilities and it was all because of the pretty redhead that he'd never even met. Okay, so everything wasn't just perfect, the nightmares causing him to wake after only an hour of sleep the previous evening. He still felt the sense of loss and guilt and, he shook his head slightly, not wanting to dwell on memories. He had more important things to think about. He'd managed to outwit Snape, had managed to get Willow as his private tutor, and he was actually feeling happy.
"What happened to you?" Ron asked as Draco took a seat opposite him.
"Whatever do you mean, Weasel?" Draco asked loftily, giving Ron a smug smile.
"You're smiling and I wouldn't be surprised if you hadn't been whistling some triumphant and smug tune," Ron said with a thoughtful look before he suddenly smiled, "Your plan worked!"
"As if there was any doubt," Draco's smile became even more smug.
"I can't believe we missed this insufferable, arrogant, conceited, pompous git," Harry said with a pained expression crossing his handsome face. "We must all be daft."
"I believe we've previously established that you are all stupid," Draco sneered, his gray eyes amused as Potter stuck his tongue out at him.
"We'd have to be to actually like you!" Harry said as he glanced around to make sure no one had noticed his immature antics.
"Boys, enough," Hermione said before turning to Draco, who was seated beside her, "What is your plan, Malfoy?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Draco gloated, feeling proud and enjoying being able to torment his friends.
"Doesn't really matter," Harry said with a smile, "it's not like it could possibly be good enough to get you in close contact with the American."
"I'll have you know that Willow is going to become my personal tutor! I meet with her this afternoon to discuss the details," Draco said sharply, rolling his eyes suddenly as Harry smiled smugly.
"So that was your plan," Hermione said with a smile at Harry for again managing to lure Draco into admitting his plan by playing on his ego. Too easy! She looked at Draco with curiosity in her brown eyes, "Wait, why is she going to be your tutor? And since when did *you* need a tutor? You're an annoyingly arrogant prat but you're also one of the smartest students at this school."
"Granger, I am *the* smartest student at this school. You only wish you could be as intelligent and cunning as I," Draco said as he recovered from admitting his plan after rising to Harry's baiting blow at his planning skills.
"God, it's too early in the morning for Malfoy's arrogance," Harry moaned dramatically, though his green eyes were amused behind the rims of his glasses. He'd not seen Draco so cocky and infuriating since the first of Sixth Term, having rather missed arguing with and teasing the blond wizard.
"I'm just glad we've not begun to eat. I fear I'd lose my lunch listening to his bragging," Ron said with a loud sigh, a smile on his lips as he winked at Hermione.
"Oh, Ron, watch what you say!" Hermione warned with an amused smile, "You're talking about the pride of Slytherin and *the* smartest student at Hogwarts, after all."
The three looked at each other and noticed Draco's glare and started laughing. Draco said dryly, "Why am I friends with you lot again? Oh, right, my birthday is coming up and I do so love receiving gifts! That's the only explanation I can think of. Okay, if you're finished finding amusement at my expense, I might be willing to share my plan."
"But, Malfoy, it's so much fun laughing at you," Harry said as he tried to stop smiling.
"Hey, wait, I'm not buying you some expensive gift for your birthday!" Ron said.
"He was just teasing, Ron," Hermione told the redhead, seeing the smirk cross Draco's face at Ron's words.
"And further evidence in support of the stupid argument," Draco said smugly.
"Why is Willow going to be tutoring you, Draco? You know you're dying to tell us to brag about how smart you are so just get it over with," Hermione said.
"As of today, Granger, I am the newest student in Muggle Studies," Draco smiled.
"You? In Muggle Studies?" Harry repeated before he started to laugh. "That's rich, Malfoy! You can't stand muggles! You're going to hate that class! Oh, wait, I'm already enjoying this!"
"I do not hate muggles," Draco corrected, "I'm just not overly impressed with them. This class will give me the opportunity to learn about the insipid creatures and perhaps earn my respect."
"Draco, you're really serious, aren't you?" Hermione looked at him for a moment before smiling softly, "Do you suppose she's worth all this? Taking a class that you're going to hate just to be near her? You've never even met plus she's practically a teacher. Why?"
Draco looked at Hermione, seeing the sincerity in her eyes and sighed, shrugging as he admitted softly, "I don't know. There's just something about her. I can't explain it and it doesn't even make sense to me, but I want to know her, to become part of her life. She's given me hope. So, yes, I think it is definitely worth it, because I feel alive again and more like myself than I have in quite a while."
"You know, for a haughty, conceited prat, you're a pretty nice guy," Hermione said softly, a slight smile on her face as she realized that Draco had been honest with her, perhaps for the first time since they'd become friends.
"Shh, don't let that get out! It would ruin my reputation," Draco's lips twisted into a smirk as Hermione laughed.
"How did ya manage to get into the class? You've never taken it before and I'd say your opinion of muggles is pretty well known," Harry asked, no longer teasing the blond wizard about his big plans to get close to the pretty redhead they'd seen the previous evening.
"Sorry, Potter. I'm not sharing *all* my secrets," Draco smiled.
"Hey, Malfoy," Ron leaned forward and whispered, his eyes on the door to the dining hall.
"What?" Draco asked the freckled redhead.
"There's your girl," Ron smiled as he saw the pretty American witch walk inside.
"Where?" Draco turned around quickly, his gray eyes moving over Willow as she entered the dining hall, a soft smile crossing his face as he watched her walk, thinking that she was not only beautiful but graceful, as well. His eyes narrowed as he watched Professor Snape move beside her, leaning over and talking to her. What was Snape doing talking to Willow? Jealousy flashed in his gray eyes as he watched his favorite professor sit down beside the redhead, talking to her as if they were old chums.
"She's talking to Snape," Harry pointed out, "willingly! Why would anyone willingly talk to Snape?"
"Snape isn't that bad," Hermione said, "he's just rude and moody and doesn't really like people that much. He's an excellent Professor, though, and really very intelligent. It's rather surprising that he's being friendly, though. I don't recall ever seeing him so chatty before."
Draco glared at Snape, gray eyes narrowing even more when the greasy bastard leaned over and said something to Willow. Draco Malfoy had never been envious of anyone in his life but, at that moment, he would have gladly traded places with Severus Snape. He was relieved when the food arrived, watching as the two lapsed into silence as they ate. Well, Snape ate and Willow played with her food. She needed to eat, the blond wizard thought, knowing that she'd not eaten dinner the previous evening, thinking that it was not at all healthy for her to avoid food. She was already rather skinny, looking as if she needed at least fifteen pounds on her frame, and he was worried that she might get sick if she didn't eat properly. Once he began his tutoring sessions with her, he'd have to try to persuade her to eat, to gain weight. He finally looked away from the pretty redhead, eating his own food as he reminded himself that it wouldn't be very long before he could finally meet the beautiful redhead that had unknowingly caused him to feel again.
Breakfast had been more enjoyable than dinner the previous evening. She wasn't entirely sure what the meat had been on her plate so she'd not bothered eating it, but she had eaten some of the bread that had accompanied the meal. She'd not had to eat alone, Severus sitting next to her and occasionally leaning over and making some snide comment about one of the more cheery of their colleagues. For the first time in months, Willow had had the urge to giggle. She hadn't, but there had been the urge. It was rather nice, even though she felt guilty for even considering laughing, especially when his comments were rude along with being amusing. She didn't really deserve to laugh, to feel free of the burden of her past, to stop remembering what she had done.
She had left breakfast with what now passed as a smile to Severus before walking to the classroom where Muggle Studies was taught. Mary-Em wasn't in class yet, still eating breakfast, so it gave Willow a chance to look around her new workplace and familiarize herself with everything. It was a typical classroom, though the desks were small tables with two chairs at each, rather like her chemistry class without the lab equipment. The pale redhead moved to sit at her desk, which was in the back of the class, giving her a good view of all the students and access to any books or papers that might be needed by Mary-Em during her lectures.
Willow sat down and looked at the various files on her desk. It was strange to imagine that there was a class that taught things that she had always taken for granted. Culture and history and there was an entire section on movies and their place in Muggle society! It was fascinating at the same time it just reminded her how out of place she was at this school for wizards and witches. Her magic was not hereditary, not passed down from generations of pureblood wizards, not even passed down from one magically inclined parent. She'd taught herself, learned everything from books and practicing, and she'd not done a very good job at it. She'd never learned about control and natural gifts, never even imagined that she'd have a gift that would be so strong that it could one day consume her and turn her into something out of a nightmare.
No, that wasn't right. She couldn't blame the magic for anything she had done. It had all been her, her choices. She'd enjoyed the power, honestly, liked feeling so strong and being able to take care of herself. She'd spent so many years in the background, the shy brainy girl that never had confidence, that she'd grasped on to magic with both hands and felt herself finally becoming assertive and strong. She began to identify herself with magic. She was no longer Willow Rosenberg, best friend of the slayer, Valedictorian of her senior class, hacker extraordinaire, babbling sidekick, defender of Sunnydale and assistant in saving the world. She'd become Willow Rosenberg, witch. And no one had stopped her. Buffy had been grateful for her abilities, Giles nervous but always ready to use her whenever needed, Xander preoccupied with his own life and not even noticing her growing obsession with magic. Oz had left her, causing her to do that stupid will be done spell so that she could feel some kind of control again in her life, to help regain the confidence she had lost after he'd cheated on her and tried to kill her and then left. It had backfired horridly, and that should have been when she'd realized that she was growing dependent on magic. Looking back now, she could wish that Giles had been paying enough attention to help her, to give her some guidance, to teach her the rules and the true nature of magic. She could wish that she'd been smart enough, always priding herself on being intelligent to only fail to see her own decline, she could wish that someone, anyone would have noticed what was happening before it was too late. But they hadn't and she hadn't and then it was too late. She'd started playing with dark magic to battle Glory, to save Dawn, to help her friends. It had escalated from there, the power and strength she received from that magic so damn enticing that she'd not even bothered to fight it, to even see what she was becoming. She'd gotten further into it by bringing Buffy back, again her actions for the good of Sunnydale and the world, knowing that they needed Buffy. By then, she was so far gone that there was no turning back.
She could see that now, could look back on her life and see every single time that she should have stopped, should have realized that her choices were good for the group, maybe, but they were not good for her. She hadn't cared, loving the knowledge that she was finally helping by doing something more than just hacking in the coroner's database or working on a plan for the others to carry out. She'd been significant, she'd been the slayer's witch. Tara had started to grow concerned, trying to talk to her, trying to make her see what was happening, but it had been too late. Everything else that happened was entirely Willow's fault. She'd had a chance, one single moment when she'd stopped and thought about everything Tara had said and realized what she was doing and how dependent she'd become on her magic and how she was beginning to lose things that mattered to her, but the lure of the power had been too strong. When she'd lost Tara, had nearly lost Dawn, she'd had to face it, had to acknowledge her weakness and her inability to balance magic while keeping the goodness in her soul. She'd tried, cutting herself off from magic no matter how difficult it had been, and she'd finally gotten Tara back, needing the support of someone, even someone who judged her, because Tara did love her and had been worried about her. And then, just when things were finally starting to get under control, Warren had shot Tara and Willow had watched her lover die.
Everything that had happened following that event was not driven by the control or power of her magic. It was driven by her need for revenge and, once she'd killed Warren, there had been no turning back. She'd not bothered to fight it anymore, a part of her hoping that she would be destroyed, not wanting to face a life without Tara and a life where she knew she'd willingly killed someone, tortured them and killed them. In the end, she'd survived and lost everything. She was a murderer, a betrayer of people who had once loved her, had become the worst kind of evil, driven by power and strength and despair, nearly ending the world before regaining control. And now she was in this school, surrounded by magic, knowing that she did not deserve to have this opportunity for a second chance.
She had her power under control, having spent weeks fighting the darkness and learning self-control. She was not scared of a repeat of what had happened in Sunnydale, knowing that such a mistake would never reoccur. She had restraint, had learned about the origins of her gift and how to meditate to keep her life and her magic balanced. She was not yet ready to use her talents as freely as the people at Hogwarts, confident that she had control but not wishing to test her limitations by becoming too dependent so soon. She had done many bad things, killed a man, threatened to kill others, and she was struggling for redemption. A wry smile crossed her face as she wondered if Angel would be surprised that she'd surpassed him in the brooding category, knowing that she needed to move on with her life, no matter how difficult. She had made the first steps, accepting accountability for her actions, taking responsibility for her choices and the mistakes she had made, learning from the coven and finding a balance to help her get through the days. It hurt, though, which was only fair considering what she had done. Nightmares plagued her dreams when she was able to sleep, she had lost her appetite months ago, she was no longer the optimistic, friendly, babbling redhead. She was flawed, guilty of murder and of misusing her natural gift of magic, and a part of her still wasn't sure she deserved salvation or recovery. But, she was trying. To make up for the harm she had caused those she loved, for nearly killing Buffy and disappointing Xander and hurting Dawn, she had to try. She knew they could never forgive her for what she had done, how could they, hating herself for losing the people that meant the most to her in the world, but she had to learn how to forgive herself. So, she was trying. For Giles and Anya, she was trying. The two people that had still had faith in her, that made her believe she did merit another chance. For them, she was at this school, battling her inner demons and the notion that she did not belong here, vowing to do her best to justify their belief in her.
Willow was pulled from her thoughts when the door opened. She saw Mary-Em come inside, a large smile on the woman's face. She sighed softly, almost wishing she was working as an assistant to Severus, knowing it would be much easier to face the days if she was greeted by his brooding sneer and displeasure with the world in comparison to Mary-Em's constant perky smile and cheerfulness.
"Willow, did you enjoy breakfast? Isn't it a lovely day today?" Mary-Em asked as she came inside. She didn't wait for a response as she continued, "Today is the first day of classes. I am so excited! I've never taught Muggle Studies before, but I am confident that we will make it an enjoyable class for the students. Oh, and there is a matter I need to discuss with you. A student is transferring into the Seventh Year class and I have agreed for you to become his tutor. Is that a problem?"
"No, of course not," Willow said quietly, thankful that the woman stopped her chattering long enough for her to speak.
"Good! I was confident that you would agree so I already confirmed to his Head of House that you would discuss the arrangements with the student after class this afternoon," Mary-Em smiled, "He is taking the class to allow him a better knowledge of Muggle culture so that he can assist the students with any needs they may have. Professor Snape assures me that he is sincere in his wish to learn the material covered in previous terms and will be an eager student. Mr. Malfoy is Head Boy, you know, along with being a seeker for the Slytherin Quidditch team and one of the true heroes of the Final Battle. I have not yet met him, but I have heard that he is highly intelligent so there should be no problems with tutoring him."
"I look forward to meeting him," Willow said softly as she looked down at her desk. She didn't even know this subject, wondering how she was expected to tutor someone on material that had been covered before she'd even found out Hogwarts existed. She wouldn't be able to help him at all, probably do more harm than good. This wasn't a good idea at all, the redhead frowning as she wondered if she should refuse the task. She didn't want to hinder any student, especially one that seemed to willing to study and learn, and she assumed her lack of knowledge would hold him back. Stop it, Willow, she scolded herself. She had promised to try, to do her best to fit in at this school. She had looked over previous term's curriculum the previous evening and was familiar with everything that had been covered. It was almost silly, some of the things that had been discussed. All she'd really have to do was talk to him about books and movies and history that she had known for her entire life. She could do that, surely, and she could use some of the course lecture plans from other years as a guide. She would make sure he knew everything needed to excel in this class, Willow decided with a determined gleam in her eyes.
Snape knew something, Draco decided as he left the Potions classroom. During class, the dark haired professor had glared at him several times, making a rather deliberate comment about plans and sneaky Slytherins which had surprised many students and left the blond wizard with little doubt that Snape had figured out there was more to his plan than he had said. Draco didn't really care that Snape had guessed that he had been duped, rather enjoying the knowledge that his favorite Professor would have to admit he'd been outsmarted, but he did not linger in class for fear of what sort of retribution the Potions professor might have dreamed up for him. He'd been anticipating his Muggle Studies class all day, eager to get to the blasted class so that he could finally meet Willow and hear her voice, and he wasn't about to let Snape's glaring ruin his euphoric mood.
It was finally lunchtime, the day half over, so he would not have much longer to wait before he could meet his redhead. Draco walked with Granger, Potter, and Weasley who had would not shut up about Snape's snide comment towards his own fellow Slytherin or the ten points that said professor had taken from his own house when he declared that Malfoy was daydreaming instead of paying attention. Stupid Gryffindors didn't bother to talk about the thirty points their house had lost during the class, instead thrilled that Slytherin and, more specifically, Draco had lost points. Draco was about ready to hex them with a silencing spell, wanting a little peace and quiet in which to reflect on what Snape might know and what the professor might do to him for being devious and sneakier than himself.
He was about to enter the dining hall when he noticed Willow walking out the front door. She wasn't having lunch, it would seem. His gray eyes narrowed with concern, knowing she'd not eaten a good meal since before he'd met her, having witnessed her last two meals and knowing that playing with her food and nibbling on a muffin were not enough nourishment to keep her healthy. He looked at his friends and said, "I don't think I'm very hungry this afternoon. In fact, I think I feel a slight headache coming on. Maybe some fresh air will help. Enjoy lunch. I'm going for a walk."
Hermione watched Draco smirk before he headed outside. She looked at Harry and Ron and asked, "Did he really think we didn't notice her going outside when we walked by?"
"I don't care what he's doing. I'm hungry," Ron said as he entered the dining hall, leaving his two friends standing by the door.
"Mione, do you understand what Malfoy's doing?" Harry asked his best friend, wondering if she knew how pretty she looked when her hair was down and framing her face with soft brown curls.
"I don't know, Harry," Hermione said with a soft smile, "I know that he hasn't been like this since Christmas, and I was a little worried that he wouldn't be again. We've been teasing him about it, but I did miss the smirking Malfoy that was full of life and mischief and sneaky Slytherin tendencies. After everything that happened to him, I didn't know if he'd find anything to make him smile again."
"And now he has," Harry nodded, "I know what you mean. I rather missed the conceited prat, not that I'd ever admit it. It was just, I don't know, wrong to see Malfoy silent and depressed and unhappy. He's smiling again and seems motivated, and I really don't know what to think about the reason being a teacher, but I guess it doesn't really hurt anything for Malfoy to have a crush on a teacher. After all, you've had one on Snape for years."
"Harry Potter!" Hermione felt her cheeks blushing at Harry's teasing, "I think you've been hanging around Draco too much! I do not have a crush on Professor Snape. I merely think he's brave and intelligent and could be rather attractive in a striking way if his hair wasn't so greasy. The subject we're discussing is Draco and his crush on the new Muggle Studies assistant, not my schoolgirl crush on Snape."
"So you do have a crush on Snape! Guess that means that you like greasy hair and scowling and rudeness," Harry said, his green eyes twinkling with amusement behind the frames of his glasses even as he wondered why he'd have ever thought Hermione might return his feelings for her. He was nothing like Snape, thank God. It was pointless to even think about having a relationship with her, he decided, knowing that he should think himself lucky to have her as is his best friend.
"Not really. I prefer soft hair and laughing green eyes and glasses," Hermione said haughtily as she gave him an unmistakable look of appreciation before she turned and headed in to join Ron for lunch, leaving a stunned and disbelieving Harry Potter gaping before he slowly smiled and hurried after her.
Draco walked outside, his gray eyes finding Willow walking towards the pond. It was a beautiful day, the sun shining and the air warm, a peaceful day. The blond wizard left the school and headed towards the pond, not able to resist the opportunity to speak to Willow, to meet her, before he officially became she became his tutor. He also wasn't the most patient person in the world and had been wanting to meet her since seeing her at dinner the previous evening. He caught up to her near the edge of the pond, his gray eyes moving over as the sun brought out the vibrant color of her red hair. He decided to play it cool, moving towards the edge of the pond and saying softly, "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
Willow hadn't felt like facing lunch, not at all sure what would turn up on her plate and wanting a bit of a break from chatty people. She'd had three classes before lunch, finding it much easier than she'd originally assumed. Mary-Em was a friendly teacher, and all she really had to do was sit in the back and take notes. The students had looked at her with interest when she'd been introduced but had quickly looked back at the front of the room. She was glad, not really fond of introductions and having people staring at her. She'd spoken to a few students, nothing major, just reiterating the assignment when asked. Now, though, she was ready to get away for a bit. She'd decided to walk down to the pond she'd noticed when arriving the previous day, thinking the fresh air might do her some good. The school was lovely but it was full of magic and history and could be a bit overwhelming. She'd been staring at the water, watching some birds, when she heard the soft voice beside her. Looking to her side, she saw a man standing there looking at the water, a serene look on his handsome face. She looked back at the water, not wanting to stare at the stranger, instead agreeing, "It is a lovely afternoon."
"You're American," Draco said, acting as if he hadn't known this before she'd spoken. Her voice was soft and sweet, exactly how he'd imagined it. He could have listened to her for hours, he decided.
"Yes, from California," Willow responded softly, curiosity getting the better of her as she asked, "Why aren't you eating lunch with the other students?"
"I felt like taking a walk instead," Draco said smoothly, looking away from the water to look at her.
Willow's eyes widened when she found herself looking into familiar gray eyes, knowing suddenly that this was the boy that she had noticed the previous evening at dinner. She looked away, now knowing that the gray eyes belonged to a man with pale blond hair that was nearly white and a face that was one of the more handsome she had seen, his features beautiful. Her cheeks flushed slightly as she realized she should not be thinking about his face being beautiful or the fact that his gray eyes were so mesmerizing or the fact that she felt content, somehow, standing here with him. She noticed the aura of power around him, knew that he was one of the strongest wizards she'd met since arriving at Hogwarts, could see a look of intelligence and curiosity in his gray eyes but also noticing the grief and regret, realizing that he may be only seventeen or perhaps eighteen, but that he had lived a life much like her own, growing up far too fast, his eyes those of someone far older and broken, in a way, much like her own. She sighed softly, "Me too. Not very hungry."
"Our food is a bit different than what you find in California, isn't it?" he asked curiously, wondering if that was why she wasn't eating. She was even more beautiful in person, when he could clearly see her lovely green eyes and hear her sweet voice.
"Slightly," a ghost of a smile crossed her face as she looked at him, confessing quietly, "I'm not quite sure what most of it is, honestly. Everything looks a bit like sausage or something that I can't quite figure out."
"So you haven't tried anything?" he asked as he resisted the urge to do a strange version of Weasley's victory dance because she was talking to him, actually talking to him, and she'd given him that faint smile that she'd given Snape, and she was talking to him far more than she'd spoken to his Potions professor. Take that Snape, he thought smugly.
"Not really," she looked at the water again, torn by her desire to just be alone and the curiosity she was beginning to feel concerning this blond wizard whose presence alone was causing her to relax and feel safe, in a way.
"Most of it isn't *all* that bad," Draco responded with a slight smirk, "You might be surprised if you try it."
"I really haven't been all that hungry," Willow confessed softly, wondering why she felt so comfortable talking to this man. Not man, student she corrected mentally.
"Me either," he said as he looked at the pond, his words truthful. He sighed as he ran a hand through his loose blond hair, feeling for some reason as if he could tell her anything and she'd understand. He glanced at her, continuing, "I'm trying to eat more, though. Have to keep up my strength."
"Have you been at Hogwarts long?" Willow asked as she moved to sit on the ground beside the pond. She'd expected to enjoy solitude at the water, to just get lost in her thoughts as she seemed to do a lot lately, but found herself thankful for the distraction. She'd not realized just how lonely she'd been these last months until she'd spent breakfast with Severus. She'd not spoken a lot, but she'd had someone sharing the meal with her and it had forced her into acknowledging that she did miss quiet conversation just a little.
"Since I was eleven," Draco said as he looked down and saw her sitting on the ground. A grimace crossed his face as he imagined sitting on the dirt. He grabbed his wand and said a few words, conjuring a blanket that was plenty big for the two of them. He saw Willow's surprised expression and smirked, "I didn't think we should risk damaging our robes. Please, share the blanket with me?"
"I'm not really used to all that yet," she said quietly as she moved to sit on the edge of the blanket he'd magically produced. "The wands and all the frequency of magic use. It's something I'm not accustomed to."
"You do not have a wand?" Draco asked as he sat down, making himself comfortable on the blanket, ready to spend the remainder of his lunch conversing with the beautiful redhead that was even more perfect than he'd imagined.
"No," Willow said simply, changing the topic, not wanting to discuss magic. "What year are you in now?"
"Seventh term," Draco replied, having to add, "I recently turned eighteen."
"Seventh term is like a senior, isn't it?" she asked, seeing the look of confusion on his face and adding, "Final term? Graduating this year?"
"Ah, yes, it is my final year," he said, a bit annoyed that he'd not understood what she meant by senior, not wanting to appear stupid to her.
They drifted into a comfortable silence as Willow looked at the birds and Draco looked at her, speaking occasionally as lunch passed by. Finally, it was time to return to the school and begin the afternoon sessions. Willow stood up, giving the handsome blond a grateful look as she said softly, "Thank you for spending lunch with me."
"It is I that should be thankful," Draco said quietly after he put his wand away following his disposal of the blanket.
Willow smiled slightly as they silently walked back towards the school. When they reached the door to Hogwarts, she faced him and said, "My name is Willow, by the way. I apologize for not introducing myself earlier. I didn't even realize that we'd not exchanged names until now."
"I am Draco," he smiled, "I enjoyed spending lunch with you, Willow from California. Promise me that you'll try to eat your dinner tonight."
"I promise to try, Draco from Hogwarts," she said with a brief flash of amusement in her eyes before it was replaced by the sadness that had been there for months.
"I need to go to class now," Draco said reluctantly, "I'll see you later, I'm sure."
"I should go, too," Willow said as she turned and walked back towards the Muggle Studies classroom. She hadn't been lying to the blond wizard. She had enjoyed sitting with him at the pond during lunch, his presence calming, the redhead feeling more relaxed than she had in a while. She had enjoyed spending breakfast with Severus, finding his sarcasm and biting commentary refreshing and comforting, but she'd also found herself relaxing more around Draco than she had since Tara had died. He'd been rather sarcastic, making several random comments during their time by the lake that reminded her of Snape, but he'd also been quiet, thoughtful, seeming to realize when she wanted to just sit in silence, giving an impression that he, too, was finding pleasure in just listening to the natural sounds of the afternoon. Today hadn't turned out to be nearly as bad a day as she'd imagined, finding not one but two wizards that had not allowed her to dwell in loneliness and solitude, yet neither one asking curious questions or wanting to know details of her life that she was not yet prepared to share. For that lack of nosiness and chattering, she was extremely grateful. She entered the classroom, greeting Mary-Em with a small smile before sitting at her desk and working on her plans for her tutoring assignment.
"Did you talk to her?" Hermione asked Draco as she took the seat next to him in their shared Arithmancy class.
"Yes," he didn't even have to ask whom she was talking about. Draco wasn't very surprised that Hermione had figured out why he'd decided to take a walk instead of having lunch. He saw the curiosity in her brown eyes, a soft smile crossing his handsome face as he said, "Her name's Willow and she's from California and she doesn't have a wand."
"I already knew that," Hermione said as she smiled at the clearly besotted blond wizard. She found it cute, if she were honest, seeing Draco Malfoy so smitten. He wasn't the most emotional person she knew, okay so he'd probably rank down in the bottom five out of every single person she'd ever met when it came to verbalizing what he was feeling. He was remote and distant, even to her and the boys whom he considered friends, and rarely allowed himself to display much more than a sneer or smirk or amusement, the latter usually at another's expense. She knew that he could care, perhaps even love, he just didn't really know how. He wasn't good at physical interaction, unless it was fighting or playing sport, having frozen completely when she'd hugged him for saving her and Ron's lives. He'd clearly not had any idea what to do with such a gesture of affection, his eyes had been more scared than she'd seen them during the Final Battle, and he'd quickly moved away from her.
She had browsed through her cousin's muggle psychology book during a previous summer so she had a pretty idea that Malfoy had intimacy issues. The most likely cause was his bastard of a father, Hermione frowned slightly as she thought of Lucius and the harm he had done to the handsome blond wizard that she considered one of her best friends. Seeing him smile now, so pleased that he'd spoken to the redheaded witch from America and looking so obviously infatuated, well, she had hopes that perhaps he was ready to learn how to care and love. Oh, she wasn't foolish enough to believe that anything would necessarily come from his fondness for the new Muggle Studies assistant, but she was very pleased to see that Draco was ready to start living again. And, who knew? Maybe he'd be the one to make Willow smile again, the redhead definitely needing someone to make her happy. Her sadness had been evident when Hermione had met her, though she had done her best to cover it with a faint smile that hadn't even come close to reaching her green eyes. Hermione was a hopeless romantic, something that she did not admit to anyone, and she liked to believe that such things as fate and destiny and soulmates existed, often having the feeling when she was around Harry that he was her soulmate. Perhaps Draco Malfoy had been lucky enough to find his own soulmate in the pretty American witch.
"Why do you begin discussions only to fade away into your daydreams about Potter?" Draco asked smugly, watching Hermione turn to glare at him as her face flushed.
"For your information, Malfoy, I was thinking about you, not Harry," Hermione said loftily.
Draco arched a brow and smirked, "I know I'm devastatingly attractive, sexy beyond belief, the smartest and most skilled wizard this silly school has seen in years, and all around perfect specimen of manhood, hmm, never mind. I can see why you'd rather think of me and have pleasant thoughts than think about Potter."
"Cute, Draco," Hermione rolled her eyes, wishing she'd never confirmed his suspicions the previous term regarding her growing feelings for Harry. The Slytherin bastard adored teasing her about her crush, always pushing her to confess her feelings and growing annoyed with her procrastination. A part of her believed that Draco might also be a hopeless romantic, though he'd never dare admit such a thing.
"Yes, I am," he winked at her and heard her giggle.
"God, you're such an arrogant prat," she said, not able to stop herself from smiling at his carefree antics.
"You really must think of another insult," Draco decided, "I hear that one dozens of times during the day. Perhaps conceited wanker? That one hasn't been used an overabundance of times, though it is Weasel's favorite. Maybe vain narcissist? That's rather new and interesting."
"I rather like that one, Malfoy. I may use it," Hermione snickered, "and now may we get back to our previous conversation? You and Willow? Talking? First meeting?"
"You're like the proverbial dog with a bone," Draco muttered, wishing the professor would arrive before he was forced to do something horrid and torturous such as share his feelings with Hermione. He actually considered her his best friend, though he'd rather face Voldemort again rather than admit that Hermione Granger was his best friend. It wasn't very surprising, really. He had become friendly with her first, Potter and Weasley distrusting him for weeks after he'd announced he wished to be on their side. Granger, though, had seemed to believe his sincerity and taken it upon herself to insure that he was welcomed. They had spent a lot of time together, taking a lot of the same extra classes, pairing up on projects in these shared classes, and now sharing quarters this term based on their roles as head boy and head girl. She knew him in ways that no one else did, and vice versa, but he did not know the words to convey what he was feeling for Willow, not understanding himself and knowing it would be nearly impossible to explain it to another. Hermione, though, would not be diverted, probably wanting something to use against him when he teased her about her feelings for Potter.
"I like to think of it as stubborn determination," she smiled, her brown eyes shining with amusement at his reluctance to talk about his meeting with Willow. Oh yeah, he had it bad. It was like something from the muggle romance novels she was so fond of. Love at first sight. Okay, so one-sided love at first sight, but it was still so unbelievably sweet.
"Where is the professor?" Draco asked as he glared at the front of the class, relief flashing in his gray eyes when the door opened and the professor came in.
"We're not finished with this, Draco," Hermione whispered to him, having seen the smug smile on his face as he was prevented from responding to her question. With a teasing glint in her eyes she added, "If you don't share with me, I won't share what happened between me and Harry during lunch with you!"
"Not fair, Granger," he hissed back, knowing full well that she knew such a statement would send his curiosity into overdrive. Damn annoying muggle-born!
"All's fair in friendship, Malfoy," she whispered back, her lips twisting into a smug smile.
The class passed quickly. Once it was over, Draco walked beside her on the way to the last class of the day, one that they would now share, Muggle Studies. She had wanted to know details of his meeting with the new assistant before the class started, having used the tidbit concerning Harry to persuade Draco into telling her what, if anything, had happened between him and Willow. She turned to him, asking, "So, you tell me yours and I'll tell you mine?"
"There are times that I greatly dislike you, Granger," Draco glared at her before his lips curved into a smile, "and I am sure that the feeling is mutual. You win. I'll tell you what happened before class starts. It's not a fair trade, actually, because I am sure that your information concerning Potter and hopefully his realization that you worship him will be much more interesting."
"I do not worship him!" Hermione denied though her cheeks were blushing from his knowing smirk.
"Of course you don't, Granger," Draco smirked before sighing and saying, "Regarding my lunch with Willow, all we did was sit and look at the lake. It was pleasant, just sitting by her. She's so sad, Hermione, I can see it in her eyes. Grief and regret and loss. She's forgotten how to live, how to smile. She doesn't eat properly at all and looks as if she needs to gain a good fifteen pounds to round out her figure. Her voice is so lovely, soft and sweet and she's bloody brilliant. We didn't speak a lot, but I can tell she's real smart. And she's so beautiful. Her eyes are gorgeous and seem to look deep into your soul when she's concentrating on you fully. And her hair is such a vibrant shade of red, falling down her back in waves of red fire and framing her pretty face so perfectly. Oh, good God, I sound like such a wanker."
"I promise I won't tell the others," Hermione smiled softly, watching his eyes narrow as they looked at her.
"Tell them what?" he asked, dreading the idea of Potter and Weasley hearing that he'd rambled on waxing poetic about Willow, knowing that they'd get a good laugh at his expense.
"That you're a romantic," Hermione winked at the stunned Slytherin before walking into the Muggle Studies class, eager to see for herself what exactly was happening between Willow and Draco.
Draco entered the classroom, his gray eyes immediately seeking out Willow. A soft smile crossed his handsome face as he noticed her seated at a desk in the back of the room. She was reading through a book and appeared to be making notes on a parchment beside her. He walked towards the back of the room, doing his best to look surprised as he quietly said, "We meet again, Willow from California."
Willow was not fond of writing with quills. In fact, she would go as far as saying that they were the most annoying thing, so far, about her new job. Why couldn't they use a nice pen? Colored ink maybe? No, they had to use quills and ink that wanted to get all over her hands and spill on to the parchments and blot her words until they were barely recognizable as real words, looking a bit like something from an old cave drawing. She was about to just give up attempting to write notes when she heard a soft voice that was all too familiar. Her eyes widened as she looked up, seeing the blond wizard that she had spent lunch talking to. Oh God, he was a student! Well, she'd known he was a student, but she'd not expected him to be one of the students in her class. She suddenly felt confused, not sure what to do in this situation. She'd found a friend over lunch, someone that seemed to understand far more than he should, drawn to him because of the similar look of sadness in his pretty gray eyes. Now, she had to find out that her new friend was taking the class she was assisting with. She wasn't teaching the class, though, so maybe it wouldn't be an issue if she was somewhat friendly with him. She gave him a delicate smile, "Hello Draco from Hogwarts."
"Are you Professor Bowen's assistant?" he asked, pretending as if he didn't already know her response.
"Yes, I am. Class will be starting soon so you should probably find a seat," she said softly, feeling slightly awkward though she wasn't sure why. Great, now she was lying to herself. She knew exactly why. She'd felt something during her brief time with Draco. It wasn't an attraction, though he was a very good-looking young man, but it had been a connection. She couldn't even explain it, knowing she was probably just suffering from lack of food or any number of other valid reasons to explain why she'd felt as if she'd finally found peace whenever she looked into his pale eyes.
"Of course," Draco smiled gently as he saw the emotions flashing in her eyes. She'd felt it too! Great, he wasn't going crazy or imagining things. Something was happening between them, something that seemed to confuse Willow, and he was suddenly thankful that he'd thought of this plan, knowing that spending time with her might give them a chance to figure out what was happening. "I'll talk to you later."
He walked to the table near the front where Hermione had saved him a seat. He sat down, a pleased smile on his face as he made himself comfortable. He felt her eyes on him and looked at her, arching a brow as he asked, "What?"
"You really like her," Hermione said, "I mean, I thought you must because you're going to such drastic lengths to be around her, but I wasn't entirely certain if it was merely physical attraction or something more until I saw your face when you saw her and watched you as you spoke to her. It's not just a diversion for you, and I'm rather pleased about that."
"You think too much, Granger," Draco muttered, hating that the witch beside him could see so much with her brown eyes. It was true, he did like Willow. At first, he'd found her very attractive and there had been an awareness, a bond of some sort, when they'd briefly caught each other's eyes the previous evening. Then he'd spent lunch with her, not speaking that often but feeling as if he had found the place he was meant to be, as sappy and dreadfully silly as that was. He wanted to know everything about her, wanted to make her smile, wanted to make her happy again, wanted her to feel the same things regarding him.
Hermione didn't bother replying to his comment, smiling happily as she prepared her materials for the class. She'd seen enough to know that Draco was not the only one feeling whatever it was, having seen Willow's eyes soften when she'd first seen Draco at her desk and the redhead had given the handsome wizard beside her a tentative smile before he'd walked away. Hermione now believed that Draco might actually have a chance with the redhead witch, if he took things slowly and let a relationship develop, having an idea that the American would resist forming attachments to a student and that it would require a lot of patience to convince her that some things were meant to be. Luckily, Draco Malfoy was determined and stubborn and wouldn't be likely to give up until he had what he wanted. Hermione decided then and there, the romantic in her completely melting just from seeing that very brief contact between Willow and Draco, that she would assist Draco in his endeavor to win Willow's heart and cause her to smile again. She smiled excitedly as she began to think of ways in which she could help Draco woo Willow.
Willow watched Draco walk to a table and sit beside the girl she'd met the previous day. Hermione, she recalled. Friendly girl with a nice smile that seemed to be very smart. Her attention was pulled away when Professor Bowen came up to her desk. She gave the woman a faint smile and said, "I believe the class is ready."
"Yes, yes, it does seem as if they are all here," Mary-Em smiled, "Seventh years! This should be an enjoyable class. Do not forget, Willow, that you will be meeting with Mr. Malfoy after class to discuss your tutoring sessions. I will let him know that you have agreed."
"Certainly," Willow responded, not entirely eager to begin these tutoring sessions with the student she had heard about, still not feeling as if she were in any position to teach one of the brave heroes of the Final Battle. She would do her best not to dwell on the fact that he had been a champion while she had been the enemy.
"Good. I am very pleased that you will be assisting Mr. Malfoy. Now, it is time for class to begin," Mary-Em said as she turned to walk towards the front of the class. She paused at one of the tables, leaning over and telling Draco, "Willow, my assistant, has agreed to tutor you, Mr. Malfoy. She expects to meet with you following class to discuss the arrangements. Welcome to the class."
Willow slowly sat back in her chair as realization dawned on her. Bowen had spoken to Draco on her way to the front of the class. Whatever she had said had caused the blond to look back at Willow and flash her a grateful smile before turning back around. The redhead suddenly reached for the parchments listing the names and houses of the students, finding the proper one for this class. She skimmed the list, sighing softly when she saw what was she seeking. Draco Malfoy, Slytherin. Draco was the boy she was going to be tutoring.
Willow sat through class in a bit of a daze. It was obvious that the seventh years were more advanced than the other classes that had been in the room throughout the day. They were bright and seemed thoroughly interested in the topic of muggles. She had noticed how quiet Draco was, seeing the focused look in his gray eyes when he'd turn to listen to a student's response to a question, and the way he'd whisper to that Hermione girl if he didn't seem to understand something. Willow was still reeling from the knowledge that he was the student she was going to be tutoring. Out of the many hundreds of students at this school, she had to find herself letting her guard down around the very one that she was going to be helping after school.
She knew she was being silly, turning their quiet lunch into something far more important than it had been, but she couldn't help feeling disappointed, in a way. She had felt comfortable around the blond wizard, relaxing in a way that she had not in such a long time. Looking into his eyes, she had felt as if he somehow could understand what she was feeling, even if she had not spoken of her past and the mistakes she had made. His gray eyes had looked at her in such an understanding way, had made her feel comforted without words or touch. It was foolish to even think it, but it had almost been like there was a connection between them, which made absolutely no sense. She had just learned that he was one of the heroes of the Final Battle. He was the Head Boy, which was a big deal around this school apparently, and he was an important member of the sport team. Though she wasn't entirely sure what Quidditch was, she knew Bowen had mentioned him as being a seeker or something like that and had spoken of him as if he were very important and very respected by his fellow students and teachers alike.
That changed everything. He was a good guy, and she was a murderer who was struggling daily with her actions. She'd been consumed with dark magics, and he had fought against a wizard who practiced similar magics. It didn't matter that she'd seen an understanding, a sadness, in his gray eyes. He would hate her if he knew what she had done, would not want to be friendly with her, would never wish to spend another lunch hour silently watching the birds in the lake, and there was no way that he would want her to tutor him. Not after what she'd done. She had to fulfill her obligation, though, and she had no idea what to do.
She was so busy worrying about how to handle being Draco's tutor that she didn't realize that class was over. She was pulled from her thoughts by a friendly voice speaking to her, the redhead looking up and seeing that Draco was standing at her desk with his friend. She caught his gray eyes watching her thoughtfully, his lips curved into a soft smile and she turned away, not wanting him to smile at her. She was evil, a horrible person, and didn't deserve to be here at this school, assisting wizards and witches that had risked their lives for the greater good. She looked at Hermione, wondering if they could somehow see her past when they looked at her. Did they know what she had done? Did they see the pain that she had caused to those she loved? Did they see how weak she had been to forget everything in her life except the need for revenge? Did they know that she had murdered, tortured a killer and then tried to end the world? All at the same time they were willing to die to save it?
"How are you liking Hogwarts?" Hermione asked again when it was obvious that Willow had not heard her the first time. She studied the pale redhead, seeing the flash of remorse and guilt in her green eyes before the concentrated on her face. She hated to say it, but she had a feeling it was going to take Draco a lot of time to ever get Willow to smile. She seemed so sad, so lost, and Hermione was reluctant to admit that she had no idea what to do to help him ease the redhead's sadness.
"I'm adjusting," Willow replied quietly, "thank you for asking."
"Well, I'm Head Girl so if you need anything at all, please don't hesitate to let me know," Hermione offered sincerely.
"That's very kind of you," Willow said, thinking that this girl reminded her of herself, in a way, before the darkness had consumed her. Smart and thoughtful and friendly, though she had never had the same confidence that Hermione seemed to possess, it only being recently that she'd begun to be outspoken and verbal in her opinions. Under different circumstances, she could have seen the two of them becoming friends, her green eyes moving to the stack of books that the young witch carried. As it was, she was rather ashamed to even be talking to someone so pure and good, a reminder of what she, herself, had once been like. God, she was starting to sound like a discussion group in her freshmen Psych class with the way she was wanting to analyze every single thing in her life.
"Actually, it's rather selfish," Hermione smiled, "I don't have any female friends and, while I know you're sort of like a teacher, I can't help thinking that you'd be someone I'd like to know." Before Willow could respond, Hermione told Draco, "I'll see you later, Malfoy."
"Don't forget, you owe me a story regarding you and Potter at lunch," Draco reminded, watching as Hermione's cheeks flushed before she glared at him.
"Oh, quit teasing!" Hermione muttered before she looked at Willow, "I'll see you later, Willow."
Draco turned his attention to Willow, thankful that Hermione had at least distracted the redhead from whatever dire thoughts had caused her to frown and look so unhappy when they'd first approached her desk. He smiled, "Bowen said that you're going to be my tutor. I really appreciate it, Willow. I am tops in all my classes, but I am completely lost in here. I didn't realize it was quite so complicated."
"I'm sure you'll catch on very quickly," Willow said softly, "I've heard you are a very bright student."
"Yes, well, I'm the smartest one at the school, though Granger is close in a few classes," Draco smiled.
"I'll do my best to teach you everything you need to know about Muggle Studies so that you can maintain your average," Willow told him as she looked away from his soul searching gray eyes. He was acting like he had at the lake, friendly but not overly chatty, arrogant but approachable. Maybe it wouldn't be so difficult to tutor him after all. She could use something to take up time, to leave her less time to dwell on the past and her thoughts. Tutoring Draco would be a pleasant diversion, she decided finally. She could teach him what he needed to know to do well in the class, keeping herself occupied for a few hours a week. She looked back at him, her eyes looking into his as she again felt a sense of recognition, as if he knew and understood everything about her, as if she was deserving of his friendship and this second chance that Hogwarts had provided for her. She asked, "When would you like to schedule our sessions?"
"I have Quidditch practice after class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but otherwise I'm pretty free. I can let you know when we have a meeting scheduled that requires my presence, though they are usually the first week of each month. What is convenient for you?" Draco asked, his gray eyes moving over her face before looking into her eyes. This wasn't as awkward as he'd imagined. A part of him had sat through class expecting her to dismiss their tentative friendship that had begun at lunch and treat him like an annoyance for requiring tutoring. He'd been even more worried when he'd first looked into her eyes after class, seeing the same emotions he'd seen at dinner, wishing he knew what to do to ease her pain and make her smile.
"What do you think you require to get caught up with the other students in class?" Willow asked, "How many hours a week?"
"I have no idea," Draco confessed, "as I said, I didn't expect to be this confused. I never gave much through to Muggle Studies, having no real interest in the subject and dismissing it as an easy class with no real depth. Obviously, I was wrong in that assumption. Who would have believed that muggle culture would be so bloody complicated?"
"Why don't we start with two hours after class on Monday and Wednesday?" Willow suggested, "After that, we can evaluate your progress and decide from there. I am new to this class, too, but I've reviewed notes from previous years and I honestly don't think it will take you very long to catch on."
"That sounds fine," Draco agreed, though he was a bit disappointed that it would only be four hours a week. He was torn, knowing that he wanted to learn the material to excel in the class, it being his nature to do the best at whatever his chosen task, but he was reluctant to learn too quickly because his sessions with Willow would end once he was at the other student's level. He would not lie about his progress, sincerely hoping that he could at least become friends with the redhead if not more and not wanting their relationship to be built on lies and falsehoods. Okay, so his true reason for taking the class and his sneaky way at insuring she became his tutor would remain his secret, but he did not include anything that took place prior to his first meeting with Willow as being included in his decision to be completely honest with her.
"If you don't mind, maybe we should meet Fridays, too, at least for the first couple of weeks," Willow decided as she thought over the list of everything that had been covered in this class over the last seven years. Draco was obviously very intelligent, having no qualms stating that as fact, so she didn't think it would be very difficult for him to get caught up.
"That's even better," Draco smiled, "do we start today?"
"How about Wednesday?" Willow said, thankful to see that he was so excited to learn but not wanting to start their tutoring until she'd had time to get everything prepared.
"I'll be looking forward to it," Draco said sincerely as he gathered his books and headed to the door. He looked at Professor Bowen and smiled charmingly, winking at the older woman, "Have a good evening, Professor Bowen," looking back at Willow as his smile softened and he said, "I'll talk to you later, Willow."
"I look forward to it, Draco," Willow confessed very softly, watching him smile with pleasure at her words before nodding and headed towards the door, her green eyes watching him leave before she went back to her book and notes.
Strangely enough, the afternoon passed quickly for Willow. Following the final class of seventh years, she had remained at the desk, reading through the rest of the lesson plans and taking notes. By early evening, it was official. She hated quills and parchment. The paper kept rolling up on her and the ink from the quills covered her hands more than it covered the paper. She had done her best with the notes, knowing that she would be rewriting them when she went to her room and was able to locate her notebook and ink pens. For now, though, she could successfully read her notes and was growing accustomed to the messy scrawl. It was rather amusing, in a way, to be planning lessons involving so many things she took for granted. She knew there were differences in the wizarding community versus her own, but she had never expected to find units on appliances and television programs. She might not know a lot about wands and the spells the wizards used, but she did know everything needed to successfully help teach this class.
She was starting feel more confident about her role at Hogwarts. A part of her had wondered if she had only been offered the position because of what she had done, either as a means for her to be evaluated or because her progress was too slow. Now, though, she had to believe that Dumbledore had been honest when he told her that she was qualified for the job and that he believed it would be beneficial to use her knowledge as a way to help the students learn. She had an idea where to start with Draco's tutoring, having promised herself that she would do her best to teach him what he needed to know without dwelling on her misgivings or belief that she did not deserve such a position of trust and responsibility. She had spent months living in the past, feeling guilty for everything she had done, knowing that nothing she said or did could change what she had done, and she found it very difficult to feel as though she deserved another chance. Giles kept telling her that people make mistakes, that it was only human nature to fuck things up once in a while, and that what really mattered was the path that she had chosen following her terrible acts. Giles understood what she had gone through, having had a similar experience with the dark arts when he was her age. He had not given up, not allowed guilt to consume him, and he'd turned out fairly well. If she were only lucky enough to find the strength that he seemed to believe she possessed, maybe she could use the past as he had done, as a way to keep control and to never repeat the same mistake.
It was funny how a few short hours could change one's outlook on life. It had only taken a few hours following Tara's death for her to lose control, to give herself to the darkness, to use her power in a way that it was not meant to be used. It had taken only moments for Xander to face her, to remind her that she was still loved, for her to let the darkness go and embrace the light once again. And now, only a few hours from this morning when she'd been lost in thoughts of guilt and self-loathing and a conviction that she did not belong on this school, that she had no purpose to be there, that she was a murderer who nearly ended the world to now when she was feeling excited about her tutoring project and the new friends she had made that day. She still believed that, in a way, because it was true. She was a killer, a witch that used her gift for evil, to torture and kill, to nearly destroy the world and everyone living in it. No amount of apologies or successful lessons with the coven could change her past. She had made her choices and had to live with them, much like Giles and Anya and even Angel and Spike. When she gave it serious thought, looking at the world around her instead of just concentrating on herself, well, she was surrounded by others that had done things far worse than what she had done, though ending the world rather overshadows even Angelus' reign of terror during his most blood thirsty years. She did not think any less of her friends because of their past, knowing that it was part of who they were and had helped make them the person that had become her friend. She was a firm believer in unconditional love, accepting the good and the bad when loving someone. Why, then, did she hold herself above them? Why could she forgive them and not herself?
She knew it was different, it always was when dealing with one's self, but it was enough to cause her to start thinking. Maybe she was ready to forgive herself, that being the first step to start living again. She sighed as Warren's face came to mind, her stomach nauseous as she remembered every detail of his torture, the enjoyment she had felt at watching him die, of avenging Tara's death. It was the enjoyment that prevented her from moving on. If she hadn't found such pleasure in watching him suffer for taking away Tara's life, maybe she could forgive herself. That wasn't the magic, it wasn't an affect of the darkness, it had been her, her heart, her soul. She had laughed as he had died, feeling such a disappointment when he was gone that it was over, that she could not make him die repeatedly for the pain and loss he had caused. She would never apologize for killing Warren, not at all sorry that the bastard had died. She was sorry that she had allowed herself to lose control, she was sorry that she had hurt her friends, she was sorry that she nearly allowed her grief to end the world, but she was not sorry that she had killed Warren. How could she forgive herself when she couldn't apologize for taking life?
Giles kept telling her that it would take time, that he was speaking from experience. He told her that he had drifted aimlessly for months after being responsible for someone's death, that he had taken to drink and considered suicide before finding his purpose, his life's goal, his calling. He had become a watcher, finding the strength to move on, to live again, though he still had nightmares even all these decades later. It had been months, though, and she was so tired of the mental arguments with herself, so tired of the thoughts that never went away. She couldn't remember the last time she'd really enjoyed herself, when she had relaxed completely and smiled, laughed, had fun. The memories would always come back, Warren's face as he died, Tara's body in her arms, Xander's look of love as he'd stood up to her, Buffy's face when she'd fought her old friend, Dawn's look of fear. She couldn't forget, couldn't move on, and it didn't matter how desperately she ached for redemption, she wasn't ready yet. She knew that Giles hoped Hogwarts would be her calling, like becoming a watcher had been for him, and maybe it would be. The redhead leaned back and closed her eyes, wondering if there would ever be a day when she'd be happy again. Did she deserve to be happy? If she said no, it would mean that none of her friends who had similar pasts deserved such redemption and forgiveness. That meant she had to say yes, had to admit that she did deserve a second chance, that she did deserve an opportunity to make atonement, that she did deserve to be loved.
That acknowledgement was a very small step in the road to recovery, but it was the first time she'd dared even think that she might be deserving of redemption for her acts. True, by the time she was laying in her bed unable to sleep, she would probably become lost in memories and thoughts and again find herself believing that she was a monster, but for now, at this very moment, she felt a prickling of hope flare in her heart for the first time since Tara had died. It wasn't anything big, but it was huge for the redhead. She didn't quite understand what had brought her mind to such a topic when she was making notes for Draco's tutoring, but she couldn't help being grateful that she'd had yet another lengthy mental discussion with such a vastly different outcome than the others. Draco had a similar look in his eyes that she'd see in her own, a sense of loss and grief and sadness, yet he had smiled at her, he'd been friendly, he'd sat silently and allowed her to think. That short time at the lake had been almost pleasant, comforting, his presence calming her. His gray eyes held secrets, an understanding, and she found herself wanting to know more about the handsome blond wizard. He was a hero, yet he did not seem to embrace that title. Perhaps she would be able to learn more during their study sessions, the redhead finding herself intrigued by the quite yet friendly wizard that had such a strange affect on her. She couldn't explain it, had no idea why, but looking into his eyes, she felt hope.
"You're crazy, Willow," she muttered out loud, shaking her head at the direction of her thoughts. She had spent so many months thinking, too much thinking, that she knew she must be going crazy. Imagining connections with an attractive and popular student, pretending that they had shared something during their quiet lunch by the lake, honestly believing that he might have felt something, too. He was a hero, popular and respected by his professors and fellow students, sarcastic and charming, and he had merely been friendly when their paths had crossed at the lake. She was putting way too much emphasis on his appearance in her life during a time when she was suddenly finding herself ready to admit that she might deserve to be forgiven. It was just coincidence that she'd met Draco and become his tutor and found herself wanting to move on from the past. She was excited about teaching, finding herself with the familiar thrill as she looked at notes and prepared lessons, her time teaching the computer class in high school such a wonderful experience that she felt enthusiastic about being able to help a student learn again. She had also made two friends, in a way, her breakfast with Snape enjoyable and Draco making lunch relaxing and calm, her thoughts on the beauty of the lake and his companionship instead of her guilt over her past.
She opened her eyes and noticed that the room was darker. Her watch did not work at Hogwarts, wards and spells causing the battery to die as soon as she arrived. She looked at the strange clock that was set up in the class, seeing that it said, nearly time for dinner. She believed that dinner was seven in the evening, so she at least knew it was getting close to that hour. She put down the quill and gathered her notes, careful not to smear her ink any worse than it was already. After dinner, she would finish preparing her notes on the Muggle Studies lessons and try to get an outline together so she'd know roughly what to expect for the tutoring. Draco seemed very intelligent so she didn't think it would take him a long time to catch up with the material that needed discussed during their sessions. She had just finished putting away her book when the door opened. She looked up, her green eyes softening when she saw the familiar scowl.
"Hello, Severus," Willow gave the dark haired Potions professor a hint of a smile as she stood from the desk, putting her notes in her bag. "How was your first day of classes?"
"Horrid as usual," Severus said dryly, grimacing as he said, "the first years are worse than ever. Stupid, foolish children that would not know the difference between a lethal potion and butterbeer until they were already dead."
"It is fortunate, then, that they have a talented professor such as yourself to teach them everything they need to know about potions before they make such a deadly mistake," Willow said with a slight smug tone in her voice, earning her an amused glare from Snape.
"They are very fortunate, of course, though the majority of the wretched creatures would be too dense to learn anything no matter whom they have teaching them," Severus replied, arching a brow as he waited for her response. He was curious, despite himself, what had happened between this morning until now. Her eyes were still sad and full of despair and guilt, but she was being rather snarky and seemed to be less tense.
"You should go to a muggle high school sometime and spend one day amongst the students," Willow informed him, "then you would come back here and be extremely thankful for your students, no matter how dense and unskilled at Potions."
"Such an idea may very well cause me nightmares, my dear," Severus grimaced, "What a dreadful thought! Even so, I believe that it would merely confirm my belief that the majority of people, muggle or wizard, are brainless and lacking in knowledge and talent."
"Yes, well, it does make you more appreciative of the chosen few that are intelligent and knowledgeable," Willow remarked, rather enjoying her conversation with Severus as she walked out the door he was holding.
"I suppose so," Severus grudgingly admitted, amused by their conversation. He had enjoyed spending breakfast with the redhead American, finding her quiet and thoughtful but also witty and intelligent when she did speak. Had she not been so sad and remorseful for whatever reason, he had little doubt that she would be a charming companion and friend. Severus Snape did not have friends, finding them a threat during his years as a spy, able to carry out the risks and dangers of such a trusted position by not caring about others. Now that the War was over, he was finding himself a bit lonely since his evenings were empty and he had only his classes to keep him occupied. It was very fortunate that he had allowed himself to befriend Willow, even if his initial intentions had been to annoy Draco Malfoy and to discover what was going on between his prized student and the new American witch. He smirked at her, "Though there are such a very few that appreciating the small number does not require much effort."
"I am pleased that you consider me one of the very few," Willow remarked softly, green eyes looking ahead of them as they walked towards the dining hall.
"You should be," Severus smirked, "you are in the company of perhaps a dozen other wizards and witches."
"Well, I will do my best to continue being intelligent and knowledgeable so that you do not replace me in the group of chosen," Willow said, "shall we go in for dinner?"
"Of course," he said arrogantly as he held the dining hall door open for her, following her inside, his dark eyes moving over the tables to insure that everyone was behaving properly. He saw Malfoy sitting on the Gryffindor side again, annoyed that the Slytherin was not sitting at the appropriate table, though many of the students now mingled with other houses, as Albus liked to phrase it.
Malfoy was Head Boy, though, and it was only proper that he showed some respect for his own house occasionally. He watched covertly as Draco became aware of Willow's presence, gray eyes finding her, a smile crossing his face as he watched her walk towards the Head Table. The boy looked far happier than he'd been since Narcissa's death, something of which Severus was grateful because Draco was not only his Godson but also a favorite student. It would seem that there was definitely something happening between his favorite student and the pretty redhead he now called friend. His curiosity was piqued, he hated to admit, and he would enjoy the opportunity to study the two so that he could form a theory that was more in depth than simply Draco being smitten with the lovely American witch. That evaluation could wait, he decided as he had an idea during their walk to the front of the dining hall. He had not forgotten the elaborate trick that had resulted in Draco's transfer to Muggle Studies and the procurement of Willow as his tutor. Severus slowly smiled as he deliberately led Willow to the far side of the table that was closest to Slytherin, which also happened to be farthest from Gryffindor's table.
"How was your first day of classes, Malfoy?" Harry asked as he sat beside Hermione, giving his best friend a shy smile before turning his attention to the blond that had just sat down opposite him.
"What a ridiculous question, Potter," Draco mocked, his gray eyes noticing the shy smiles and the blush that crossed Hermione's cheeks as Harry sat down beside her. He leaned forward, a sly smile crossing his face as he looked pointedly at Hermione and said, "I'm far more interested in what happened at lunch today."
"Malfoy!" Hermione glared at Draco, knowing her face was now as red as Ron's hair. She kicked the smirking blond wizard under the table, and hissed, "We will discuss that later."
"Granger, you must have me confused with someone that has patience," Draco arched a golden brow, an amused smile crossing his handsome face as he remarked, "that shade of red looks lovely on you, my dear."
"Okay, I think I must have missed something," Ron said slowly, noticing the confusion in Harry's eyes and realizing he wasn't the only one left out. He asked Hermione, "What's he talking about, Mione?"
"Nothing!" Hermione told Ron, giving Draco a warning glare, hoping he kept his mouth shut before she had to hide under the table in embarrassment. True, she couldn't blame him completely because she was the one that had offered the hint of a juicy tidbit in exchange for details of his lunch with Willow. She hadn't told him anything after class because it was just some silly thing that she knew he'd use to tease her. Now, it appeared that he was far more successful at humiliating her without even knowing that she'd openly flirted with Harry.
"Yes, it was nothing," Draco agreed readily, deciding that he should change the subject. Hermione had been nice to Willow that afternoon and he owed her, reluctantly, for making his redhead witch feel welcome. He smiled innocently, "A private joke from Muggle Studies."
"Private joke?" Harry repeated with a frown, not liking the idea of his Hermione having private jokes with Malfoy. The brunette witch had hinted that afternoon that she might be interested in being more than just friends with him, something that caused him more happiness than he'd felt since finally defeating Voldemort. But she'd been the same old Hermione by the time he'd caught up with her at the table, acting as if the moment in the hallway had never happened.
"Don't get your knickers in a twist, Potter," Draco smirked, "I have no designs on your girl. I prefer beautiful redheads from California."
"It's really nothing, Harry. Just Draco being an annoying git," Hermione told Harry, rolling her eyes at Draco's smug smile.
"Speaking of Willow, how did your meeting with her go, Malfoy?" Ron asked eagerly. He was rather enjoying Draco's infatuation with the new Muggle Studies assistant, finding that the blond wizard was slowly getting back to his usual snarky self since he'd seen the pretty redhead. Ron wasn't a romantic at all and he didn't put a lot of faith in such fanciful notions as love at first sight and that stuff, but he'd been a witness to Draco's reaction to that Willow woman. It didn't make a believer out of him, but it definitely intrigued the redhead wizard.
He'd never been a Malfoy fan, not trusting the Slytherin wizard even after Harry and Hermione had begun to. It had taken Draco saving him to cause Ron to realize that he was telling the truth, that he really was on their side, and they'd become friends after that. Of course, by that time, Draco was dealing with everything that had happened during the Final Battle and just sat around depressed and quiet, not even the constant activity of the Burrow pulling the blond from his thoughts. Now, though, Draco was back to the arrogant prat he'd been before the Final Battle and Ron had a chance to become friends with the true Malfoy, good and bad all mixed up into one conceited but intelligent wizard. And Ron owed this opportunity to Willow, the cute witch from America that had somehow given Draco a reason to live again. God, it sounded like one of those silly romance novels Ginny was so fond of, the redhead looking down the table and smiling fondly at his little sister before looking back at Draco, anxious to hear the latest regarding the blond's pursuit of Willow.
"It went well," Draco smiled softly, not offering any more information.
"That's it?" Ron frowned, "You're smiling like a besotted suitor and all you tell us is that it went well?"
"Yes, it would appear that way," Draco smirked, "Okay, Weasel, you're worn down my resistance. It went very well."
"You're such a prat, Malfoy," Ron muttered, rolling his eyes as his lips curved into a slight smile. "Will you at least tell us if she's as pretty up close as she is from a distance?"
"Pretty doesn't begin to describe her," Draco said, thinking to himself that she was absolutely beautiful. Her eyes were the loveliest shade of green and seemed as if they could look directly into his soul. Her voice was like music and she had the most delightful accent. She was witty and intelligent and there was something about her that was calming. He did not say these things out loud, knowing the teasing he would receive for admitting such thoughts about a girl he'd only just met. He glanced at his friends and remarked, "She's too thin and there are dark circles under her eyes that indicate she does not sleep as well as she should and she doesn't talk that much and there is a sadness in her eyes, but she's still stunning."
"Is that all?" Harry smiled slightly, having noticed Draco's silence and the many emotions flashing in those usually cold gray eyes. He wasn't fooled by the description of her faults, knowing that Draco was definitely infatuated with the redhead, saying far more by remaining quiet and thinking than the blond wizard would ever imagine possible. He was rather pleased by how observant he was becoming, making a note to brag to Hermione when the opportunity arose. Instead of gloating, he simply asked, "When do you begin your tutoring sessions start Malfoy?"
"Wednesday afternoon," Draco replied, "we're going to meet three days a week to go over the material that was discussed in the previous terms of Muggle Studies. It is slightly more difficult than I imagined, but I am confident that I will soon be caught up. I think she will be a wonderful tutor, and, no, that is not my infatuation speaking. She is very knowledgeable and has a gentle patience that I feel will make her a marvelous teacher."
"She is obviously very kind," Ron decided as he noticed Willow enter the dining hall, "she's being friendly to Snape again."
"Doesn't she look smashing?" Draco smiled when he saw her, not caring at that particular moment what his friends though of his behavior, unable to conceal the happiness at seeing Willow. His gray eyes moved over her robe-clothed form before settling on her face, thinking her the most lovely creature he'd ever seen. He'd met more beautiful women in his life, certainly, but there was something about Willow that caused all others to pale in comparison.
"I guess," Harry shrugged. He found the redhead to be very pretty, but he preferred brunettes with brown eyes and a know-it-all attitude who confused him by apparently flirting one moment only to then smile platonically and act as though she'd not said a word. Would he ever understand Hermione Granger?
"That greasy bastard is taking her to the other end of the table," Draco frowned as he watched Willow sit beside Snape far enough away that he could barely see her. When Snape moved forward, he was unable to see her at all. He had hoped she would sit in the same seat as the previous evening, right by his table where he would have a clear view of her.
Ron studied the situation for a moment before slowly smiling. He stood up and said, "Come on, guys. Let's move."
"What?" Hermione looked at Ron with curiosity in her brown eyes. "Move where?"
"To the Slytherin table," Ron smirked at Draco, "you'll be able to see her from there."
"You're crazy, Weasel," Draco muttered, though he was tempted.
"No, I just don't wish to sit through my dinner listening to you sigh and watching you pout because you're unable to see your girl," Ron replied, "Besides, it will annoy the shite out of Snape to have Gryffindors sitting at the Slytherin table, especially us."
"Very sneaky, Weasley," Draco smiled slowly, "I'm right proud of you. But I do not pout."
"Of course you don't, Malfoy. Just don't tell my Mum and Dad that it was my idea to sit at the Slytherin table," Ron said as he started to walk across the dining hall.
"We can blame Granger," Draco decided, winking at Hermione as he added, "one of her projects to unite the houses or some such nonsense like that."
"Actually, it is only fair," Harry decided as he followed his friends, aware that there were eyes on them as they walked to the table that still represented the enemy despite the unification of students against Voldemort, old habits seemingly difficult to break in some respects. "You've sat with us at Gryffindor for months so we should spend some time at the dreaded Slytherin table."
"As long as we still get our food, I don't care if we sit on the floor," Ron declared as he reached the table and sat down.
"I don't know," Hermione regarded the table skeptically, "do you suppose we'll suddenly find ourselves becoming arrogant prats by sitting here?"
"Very cute, Granger," Draco smirked as he sat down, choosing a chair that gave him a rather nice view of the Head Table.
"I try," Hermione grinned as she took the seat next to Ron.
Harry sat down beside Draco and gasped, grabbing the table as he said, "Oh no! I feel it. The arrogance and conceit and sneaky Slytherin qualities are starting to take me over! I can't fight it anymore!"
"Harry, talk to us," Ron asked worriedly, his eyes lit with amusement as Draco continued to glare them.
"I am the most handsome, powerful wizard in the entire universe," Harry said loftily, his green eyes twinkling as he tried not to laugh.
"'tis a sad, sad day," Hermione shook her head and sighed, "it's taken him over, Ron."
"Do you really find yourselves amusing or is this merely for my benefit?" Draco asked dryly, trying to keep the smile off his face as his friends acted even sillier than normal. He'd seen the scowl cross Snape's face when they sat down, the Potions Professor practically glaring them to death when he saw Harry Potter sitting at the head of the Slytherin table. Oh well, he shouldn't have dragged Willow so far away from him, Draco decided.
"It's all for you, Malfoy," Ron smiled affectionately, his eyes glancing at the Head Table towards the redhead witch and back to Draco, letting the blond wizard know what exactly he was talking about.
"Well, then, I guess it would be rude of me to not say thank you," Draco declared, seeing them look at him with surprise, his lips curving into a smug smile as he said, "Luckily, I don't mind being rude."
Hermione snorted, "You're such an arse, Malfoy."
Harry smiled, "You know, this table isn't so bad. And Snape definitely isn't pleased with us sitting here, which makes it even more enjoyable. Brilliant idea, Ron."
"Thank you, thank you," Ron smiled, "Sometimes I even surprise myself with how darn clever I can be."
"It is very fortunate then that it happens so rarely," Draco added, listening to his friends laugh as he leaned back in his chair. His gray eyes moved to the Head Table, ignoring Snape's glaring and focusing on Willow.
She was looking at him! He smiled softly, nodding at her in greeting. He was rewarded by a very small smile from the redhead that caused her lips to actually curve upwards into a real smile of sorts, though it did not reach her eyes completely. Draco watched her look away, wondering if he had imagined it, the smile fading as she looked at the table in front of her. No, he had not imagined it. She'd smiled. True, it was a very, very small smile, but it was far better than the hints of a smile he'd seen on her face since he'd first noticed her. This had been a real smile, just for him. His lips curved into a tender smile as he looked at the food that had just appeared on the table, his gray eyes flashing with happiness as he began to eat. She'd smiled for him.
End of Part 18
Lost Until I Found You
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