Chapter 4 : Making Choices
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Astoria tightened her scarf around her neck and cast one last warming charm on her feet before stepping across the invisible line where her right to do magic came to an end. She huffed quietly to herself, frustrated by how arbitrary it felt. Hogsmeade was a wizarding village, protected by the same types of enchantments that made it impossible for the muggles to see Hogwarts. Where was the harm in being able to keep herself warm? The sixth of June couldn’t come soon enough as far as she was concerned.
As she settled into the shivering procession of students trudging down the snowy path, a red-headed blur flew past her, kicking up snow in its wake. She rolled her eyes as the Weasley girl slipped and slid around a bend and then resumed her suicidal pace toward the village. Astoria could only imagine the things her father would say if he ever saw her abandon her dignity in such a reckless fashion. Scanning the edge of the village, she was able to pick out a lone figure standing at the end of the path. She saw a flash of dark crimson Auror robes when the wind caught the hem of the figure’s cloak, and a brief glint of sunlight reflecting off of a pair of spectacles settled any lingering doubts as to the wizard’s identity.
Astoria watched the gap between the two lovers close as the red-headed girl continued to barrel along the path. Potter spread his arms at the last moment and the Weasley girl launched herself into them, wrapping all four limbs around him as she slammed into his chest. He stumbled backward for a couple of steps before his feet flew out from under him and he landed on his backside in a pile of snow. Instead of rushing to recover from their humiliating position, they simply laid there, snogging as though nobody could see them. Even though her mother’s cries of mortification echoed through her mind, Astoria had to admit that she was a tiny bit jealous.
Her thoughts drifted to the man waiting for her in the village as she tried to avoid staring at the gaudy public display of affection going on in front of her. She felt a tingle in the bottom of her stomach as she pictured the slightly dreamy smile on his face when they stood toe to toe in Diagon Alley. The tingle spread when she thought about the feeling of his hand pressed against hers and her chest and neck started to feel warm as she dwelled on those hauntingly beautiful grey eyes. She stole another glance at the passionate couple lying in the snow and pondered what it would be like to lose herself so completely that the rest of the world ceased to exist.
Eventually, Potter and the Weasley girl scrambled to their feet and made their way into the Three Broomsticks, staring at one another with huge, dopey grins on their faces. It occurred to Astoria that she had been walking very slowly so as not to find herself standing next to them while they snogged on the ground. She glanced quickly at her watch and realized that she was running behind. In his owl, Draco had requested that she meet him in front of Scrivenshaft's at ten o’clock. While she was sure that he would understand if she was a few minutes delayed, Astoria really wanted to make the most of their time away from the castle. She hoped to be able to determine whether he was really the boy she thought she met in Diagon Alley or the nefarious man that her father believed him to be.
As she made her way down High Street, Astoria took care to pay attention to the cobblestones in front of her. The light dusting of snow concealed occasional icy patches, and the last thing she needed was to wind up lying on the ground, embarrassed and wet. She tried to think of something to say to Draco when she found him. Their meeting wasn’t a proper date, but he had invited her to join him and she decided that her greeting should reflect that. At the same time, she wasn’t sure where this relationship was heading -- or whether they even had a relationship, for that matter -- so she didn’t want to greet him too eagerly. She was weighing whether or not to offer her hand when a disturbance in front of the Post Office caught her attention.
“I asked you a question, you slimy little git. What are you doing sneaking around Hogsmeade?”
Draco sighed and rolled his eyes. He didn’t have time for this if he was going to make it to Scrivenshaft's by ten o’clock. For once in his life, he had gone out of his way to avoid a confrontation with Ron Weasley. Staring straight ahead and minding his own business, he was taken by surprise when the cocky Auror trainee stepped into his path and demanded to know where he was going and what he was doing. The audacity of the great, red-headed buffoon could barely be believed. No, Draco Malfoy hadn’t started this argument, but he bloody well intended to finish it. He tilted his head and let out a patronizing sigh.
“Listen, Weasley, I’m meeting somebody for tea. I’ve done nothing wrong and I’m running a little behind. So why don’t you take your shiny little Ministry badge and go bother somebody else?”
Draco stepped to the side, hoping that Weasley would simply insult his back and let him go on about his business. Instead, the taller man stepped right back into his path and jabbed a freckled finger into his face.
“I’m not finished with you yet, Malfoy. And this ‘shiny little badge’ means I can bother you as much as I want if I think you’re up to no good. You expect me to believe that you just happened to be meeting somebody in Hogsmeade on the same day the students were visiting the village? What are you really up to?”
Draco felt his blood pressure rising. The man’s arrogance was incredible. He struggled to reign in his temper, recalling McGonagall’s warnings about the consequences of any sort of incident. Even though Draco wasn’t visiting Hogsmeade as a student, he was sure that the old bat could come up with some tortured interpretation of the rules that allowed her to expel him. He took one more deep breath and spoke as calmly and evenly as he could.
“As I’ve already told you, I’m here to meet somebody for tea. Nothing more. Follow me and see for yourself if you like. But if you’d be so kind as to excuse me, I need to be on my way.”
Weasley just stared at him.
“Bollocks. You, being polite? No bloody way. Spill it, you little snake! Why are you here?”
Draco felt the last of his patience slipping away. He’d tried minding his own business. He’d tried being civil. It was getting him nowhere, and slowly at that. He decided to make one last attempt, but he couldn’t keep the sarcasm from slipping into his voice.
“Weasley, if I truly had some nefarious reason for visiting Hogsmeade, why on earth would I choose to carry out my fiendish plan on a day when there are twice as many people in the village as normal? What was Shacklebolt thinking when he dressed you up in Auror robes? If common sense were galleons, you couldn’t pay somebody a compliment!”
For a moment, Draco was exceedingly pleased with himself. He had made his point and done it without crossing any lines that he could think of. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. The smile quickly faded when he noticed the rage filling Weasley’s eyes.
“Was that some sort of crack about my family being poor?”
“What? No. I was talking about-”
A second later, Draco found himself lying on the snowy pavement with a splitting pain in the side of his head, wondering what had just happened. He opened his eyes a fraction and saw Weasley’s shins in front of him. It took several seconds for him to process the fact that he’d been struck by a fist, not a spell.
“Hex his arse, Ron!”
Draco groggily looked for the source of the angry shout and realized that a crowd had started to gather around them. He’d been so caught up in trying to reason with Weasley that he hadn’t noticed. There were probably two dozen people in the mob, including students and residents of the village. Some of them merely looked intrigued while others stared at him with blood in their eyes.
“Get up, Malfoy! If you’re any kind of man, get up and fight!”
Closing his eyes, Draco didn’t even bother to try to clear the fog from his head. The time it took to shrug off the confusion was rarely worth it if you were in danger. He had learned that lesson in spades after months of suffering through the great sport that Avery and Mulciber made out of hurling curses at his back when he wasn’t looking. Once again, he was put in a position where he had no choice but to fight his way out. Draco pulled himself to his knees and made a show of letting his left hand slide out from under him on the icy ground while he drew his wand with his right.
Flipendo. It was a weak jinx, one he had learned in his first year of school. But it was quick and easy to cast and Weasley never saw it coming. He stumbled back a couple of steps and Draco took the opportunity to pull his feet underneath him. Stupefy. Everte Statum. Impedimenta. Draco pelted his opponent with spells in rapid succession. Weasley was able to block them all, but they bought Draco valuable seconds to pull himself together and prepare to cast something stronger.
A jet of red light struck the front of the Post Office behind Draco’s left shoulder and he realized that the red-headed Auror wasn’t the only person in Hogsmeade intent on causing him harm. He whipped his wand downward and fired a Reductor Curse at the ground in front of him. Snow, dirt and pulverized stone erupted into the air, showering his attackers with debris. Most of the students and villagers in the crowd backed off, covering their heads with their arms, but Weasley only looked annoyed. He turned away the bits of shattered pavement with a sweep of his wand and began stalking toward Draco with blood in his eyes. Draco flung a Cutting Hex as he scrambled backward but Weasley easily parried it.
“Back off, Weaselbee! I’m warning you! Incendio!”
A jet of flame shot out from the tip of Draco’s wand and erupted against Weasley’s shield charm, making an awful sound and bathing both of them in suffocating waves of heat. Draco twisted and probed with his wand, searching for a weakness. Weasley’s face was screwed up in a mask of furious concentration. Neither wizard was willing to cede an inch as the battle of wills played out in front of the mesmerized crowd.
Draco knew that he wouldn’t be able to hold the spell for much longer. He was already feeling dizzy from the blow to his head and the heat from the flames made it nearly impossible to breathe. He pointed his wand at the center of his opponent’s chest and lunged forward, pouring the last of his energy into the spell. At the same instant, Weasley dropped to one knee and angled his shield upward. Draco’s arm flailed over his head as the flames were turned skyward and he lost his grip on his wand. Weasley caught him square in the chest with a Knockback Jinx and he stumbled backward into the wall of the Post Office, gasping for air. Weasley was on him in a second, and he felt the tip of a wand pressed against his throat.
“I could arrest you right now for a stunt like that, Malfoy. But I think I’d rather teach you a lesson about showing some respect.”
Weasley’s angry blue eyes were inches away from his own. Draco stared straight into them, unwilling to allow his old enemy the satisfaction of seeing him flinch. They both started as a shout broke the tense silence.
“What is going on here?”
In his wildest dreams, Draco never imagined that he would be happy to see Hermione Granger. He still wasn’t, although the timing of her arrival was fortunate. She stormed into the middle of the crowd, shooting reproachful glares at all of the Hogwarts students. Most of them developed a sudden interest in their shoes and started to amble away. Even the Hogsmeade villagers seemed hesitant to provoke her ire.
“I shouldn’t have to remind you all that Hogsmeade visits are a privilege. If you’ve nothing better to do than watch two grown men act like children, you can return to the castle. Now move along.”
Draco noticed the Head Girl badge pinned to the outside of her robes as she approached Weasley and fixed him with a withering stare.
“Ronald Weasley! You’re a Ministry official now! You can’t go around brawling in the streets like some bloody yob at a football match.”
Weasley looked momentarily uncertain, but he didn’t lower his wand.
“He attacked me, Hermione! Everybody saw it.”
Granger rolled her eyes and sighed.
“So then I assume you followed proper procedure and placed him under arrest for disorderly conduct?”
The wand point eased away from Draco’s neck as the angry glare gradually disappeared from Weasley’s face. The sadistic grin that replaced it was as frightening as it was infuriating.
“Not much use in hauling him to the patrol station just so they can serve him lunch and wait for Daddy to come bail him out. The little ferret wouldn’t learn a thing from that. Besides, it’s no fun. Levicorpus!”
Draco felt his feet torn from underneath his body and the world spun violently around him. He caught a brief glimpse of the disapproving frown on Granger’s face before his heavy winter cloak fell over his head and the world went dark. Anger filled his chest, fierce and uncontrollable. Through the thick, muffling layers of fabric, he could hear Weasley laughing while Granger berated him for his lack of maturity and tarnishing the dignity of the Ministry of Magic. The humiliation was more than he could handle. Something inside his head snapped and he could feel the cold, black hatred coursing through his veins.
He heard Granger crisply enunciate the counter-curse and threw his arms over his head, expecting to be unceremoniously dumped onto the pavement. Instead, he felt his body turn gracefully to an upright position. His cloak fell back into place and his feet settled onto the ground. Granger stood in front of him, offering the handle of his wand. He desperately tried to contain the explosive rage boiling inside of him as he reached for it. His subconscious was screaming at him not to attack her. She wasn’t the enemy. She had even tried to help. But he could barely hear it over the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. The expression on her face was apologetic and almost pitying. That was the final straw. The venom rose in the back of his throat as he snatched the wand out of her hand.
“Well? Don’t you and the Weasel King need to run off and find Potter so you can celebrate?”
Her brow furrowed and her nose scrunched up in confusion as she stared at him.
“There’s nothing to celebrate here, Draco. Ron was acting like an idiot. I would’ve done the same thing for any student!”
“I DON’T NEED YOUR HELP, MUDBLOOD!”
The words exploded out of Draco’s mouth with barely any conscious thought on his part. Even he was surprised at how bitter and spiteful they sounded. The furious anger that had burned inside of him was extinguished in an instant, replaced by a hollow feeling somewhere between shock and horror. It dawned on him that he had probably just thrown it all away -- everything he had done to try to reclaim his life destroyed in a single burst of rage. For a fraction of a second, it seemed as though the entire world had gone silent. The shock in her brown eyes rapidly twisted into fury, and he felt a reflexive apology forming in the back of his throat. But the words never made it to his lips.
The curse went off like a cannon blast, and the noise echoed off of the windows of the shops on High Street as Draco flew backward through the air. He was vaguely aware of the pain in his chest as his arms and legs flailed about and then the hard cobblestones of the street knocked the air out of his lungs. Sparks swam in front of his eyes. He tried to take a breath and felt the fiery pain in his ribs. The sound of footsteps joined the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears and he tried to roll onto his side, but moving hurt too much. Granger’s great mop of brown curls appeared above his face, looking blurry and distant.
“I should have had you expelled for that, Draco. Professor McGonagall probably would have just handed Gryffindor the House Cup for getting rid of you. But you do need to learn a lesson. And I have to admit, that was fun.”
Astoria watched the Head Girl storm off and tried to decide what to do. Draco deserved what had happened to him; there was no doubt about that. If you were going to hurl an epithet like that at somebody like Hermione Granger, there were going to be consequences. But it was the look in his eyes in that fraction of a second before he went flying through the air that kept her from walking away. He looked horrified, as though he couldn’t believe what he’d said. Astoria added one more piece to the puzzle she was trying to work out in her head.
She chewed on her lower lip, trying to make sense of the enigmatic young man lying in the ground in front of her. For the past two weeks, she’d been quietly studying him as he walked through the hallways of the castle. It felt a bit like she was stalking him, but he was nothing like any of her past crushes. The haughty, boisterous Draco Malfoy from before the war seemed like a distant memory. He’d become sullen and withdrawn, rarely speaking to anybody. Watching him made her sad at times. The Slytherins avoided him and most of the other students stared at him with thinly veiled contempt. If there was anyone who could use a friend, it was Draco.
He groaned loudly as he rolled onto his stomach and then struggled onto his hands and knees. Part of her wanted to walk over and help him, but she remembered the way he had rebuffed the Granger girl and decided to wait. Draco seemed to be clinging to what pride he had left, and she didn’t want to cause him any further embarrassment. If he had a chance to sort himself out and straighten his appearance then perhaps he wouldn’t feel so humiliated. Maybe she could still get him to talk to her and figure out once and for all whether she was mad for thinking that she might fancy him.
After a few abortive attempts, Draco managed to pull himself to his feet and started to walk unevenly toward Scrivenshaft's. Astoria slipped from her hiding place and followed, hoping that he wouldn’t notice her and become upset. She needed to pick the right time to approach him. Too soon and he’d probably snap when she asked why he’d gotten so angry. She decided to wait until they arrived at the stationery shop. It was located on the end of High Street, where the village was far less crowded. The only students who journeyed that far were the couples sneaking off to Madam Puddifoot’s.
Draco seemed determined not to look over his shoulder as he walked, as though whatever modicum of dignity that small act of defiance afforded him was worth risking his safety. Astoria was surprised by how frustrating she found his stubbornness. It seemed like such a poor strategy, although it did allow her to continue following him without being seen. She occupied herself by keeping an eye out for anyone who seemed intent on hurling a curse at his back. When they were nearly to Scrivenshaft's, she began to pick up her pace, aiming to overtake him just before he arrived in front of the stationer’s shop. She was starting to feel optimistic about Draco’s state of mind since nobody else had tried to assault him. Just as she was about to call his name, a shout rang out from the other direction.
“There the bastard is!”
Astoria’s attention was ripped away from the battered boy in front of her and toward a pair of surly looking wizards walking toward them from the edge of the village. The men wore tattered, threadbare overcoats that looked like they came from a muggle second-hand store. One of them was easily six feet tall with legs like tree trunks while the other clinched a cigar between his crooked, yellow teeth. They were followed by an older witch with scraggly, grey hair that framed the pock-marked skin of her face. Astoria could feel the tension in the air. The old witch screwed up her face in a twisted sort of admiration.
“We heard ya was here, Malfoy. I dunna where ya foun’ the nerve to show yer face in Hogsmeade, but we’re sure glad ya done it. We got unfinished business, you and us. Yer pet werewolf aren’t here to protect ya any more, is he?”
Draco stared uncertainly at the rough-looking trio as they approached, clutching his wand in a hand that hung limply by his side. Astoria thought that he still looked very shaky on his feet. In between shallow, gasping breaths, he forced out a few words.
“Dunno... what you’re... talking about.”
The wizard with the yellow teeth chuckled cruelly as he shifted the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
“What’s a matter, boy? Ya look plumb knackered. Don’ tell me someun’ else done beat us to ya?”
Astoria stared anxiously at Draco, willing him to find the energy to flee. Instead, he stumbled and almost fell as he moved toward the middle of the street. She turned toward Hogwarts and scanned the village for any sign of Hermione Granger or her Auror boyfriend, but they were nowhere to be seen. The only villagers who were close enough to have an idea what was going on seemed rather amused by Draco’s plight.
When the old witch spoke again, she sounded almost disappointed.
“Well, just ‘cause somebody else softened ‘im up don’ mean we can’t finish ‘im off. Yer scum, Malfoy. Ya act like that mark on yer arm gave ya the right to do whatever ya please. Well yer Dark Lord’s dead and all yer Death Eater buddies are either dead or in Azkaban. And it’s high time ya answered for the things ya done. Let ‘im have it, boys!”
The two wizards pointed their wands directly at Draco’s head. Astoria took one more desperate look toward the Three Broomsticks before drawing her wand and taking two steps closer to Draco’s side.
“Leave him alone!”
Once again, Draco nearly fell down as his head swiveled toward her. He looked alarmed to see her standing there. The two ragged wizards looked similarly surprised, but their expressions quickly gave way to amused leers. Astoria stood as tall as she could and leveled her wand at the old witch standing behind them. Her father had always taught her to negotiate only with the person in charge. The old woman shrank behind the larger wizard, who addressed her with mock formality.
“Well what have we here? Looks like little Malfoy done foun’ ‘isself a wee patch o’ sunshine to plant the family seed in. What’s yer name, sugar?”
“She’s nobody! I’ve never met her before. If you have a problem with me then let’s settle it.”
Astoria was amazed at the sudden strength in his voice. He still looked like he might collapse at any moment, but he managed to raise his wand arm toward the three aggressors. The two wizards snapped their attention back to him, clearly viewing him as the larger threat even in his weakened state. The old witch, however, fixed Astoria with a thoughtful stare. A malicious smile spread across her thin lips.
“Yer not much of a liar, Malfoy. Ya expect us to think that a girl ya just met would be pullin’ a wand on the likes o’ us? Codswallop.”
Astoria could barely believe her eyes as Draco took a shaky step closer to the two wizards whose wands were pointed at his chest. He seemed to be trying to draw their attention away from her. If not for the cold and the fact that she was terrified, she would have blushed.
“I told you, I don’t know her. She’s just some girl from the school, trying to earn brownie points toward a Prefect badge. You came here to curse me? Give it your best try. I’m getting bored of you.”
Astoria watched in horror as the wizard with the cigar whipped his wand toward Draco, who barely managed to block the jet of red light. The impact of the spell knocked him onto his heels and he stumbled backward as two more curses pummeled his rapidly weakening defenses. The loud cracks jarred her out of the daze she’d been in, and the vicious sneers on the faces of their adversaries left little doubt about their true intentions. She acted almost without thinking about it.
The tall wizard stumbled backward and fell, but she could still see him stirring. Defense had never been Astoria’s strongest subject and her Stunner wasn’t strong enough to incapacitate such a large opponent. She fired another spell at the old witch, who easily turned it aside. The edges of the old woman’s mouth twisted into a cruel smile.
“I knew it weren’t true! Drop yer wand, Malfoy, or I’m gonna blast yer little lovely ‘ere t’ London an’ back!”
Astoria didn’t know what else to do. She ran to Draco and stood behind him, seeking shelter behind his superior defenses and lending her support to keep him from falling down. His next words were so cold and furious that she nearly reconsidered.
“Leave her out of this. If you hurt her, you’ll beg me to end your life. I swear it.”
Astoria hardly dared to breathe. The only sound that was audible over the bitter January breeze was the tall wizard moaning as he tried to shake off the effects of her Stunning Spell.
“Bollocks! Kill ‘em both!”
The short wizard spat out his cigar as he shouted and Draco barely managed to shield them from two more lethal curses. Astoria could feel his labored breathing through the hand she had placed in the middle of his back. Time was running out. She desperately looked around and her eyes settled on a large stone troll that stood in front of Dervish and Banges. Taking a deep breath, Astoria recalled the non-verbal spell casting that Flitwick had been drilling the Sixth Years on and flicked her wand. The troll rose gracefully into the air. She turned toward their attackers and whipped her wand, sending the statue flying toward them. The short wizard and the old witch both cried out in alarm as they dived out of the way.
Just as the statue crashed into the ground, a shout caught Astoria’s attention. The tall wizard had managed to regain his footing and he was staring at them with murder in his eyes as he whipped his wand over his head. Instinct took over, and Astoria buried her face in Draco’s back as her arm wrapped around his shoulder.
An instant later, she felt the world collapse around her as Hogsmeade Village spun away.
So what do you think of the choices that Draco and Astoria made in this chapter? The review box eagerly awaits your thoughts and reactions.
A heart-felt thank you to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter, whose sage counsel always makes my writing better. And deepest gratitude to Jami, whose support, encouragement and thinly-veiled threats to hunt me down if I don't finish this story give me the inspiration to get through the difficult parts. :-P
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