Through the magical confetti and swags of mauve ribbon, the patrons of Madam Puddifoot's gawked. The more astute among them knew that this confrontation—Weasley and Malfoy over Granger—was years in the making. Alone at a table close to the door, young Astoria Greengrass watched, her still childish, round face red with humiliation and anger.
Hermione stared at Ron, her chest heaving with short, shallow breaths. His look in return was disappointment, shock and, overall, a big "Why?" Draco reacted possessively, increasing his hold on her.
"Perhaps you didn't read the rules on your way in, Weasley. You don't approach another table."
Ron gave him a narrow-eyed, stony-faced scowl that had Draco instinctively reaching for his wand.
He asked, "What are you doing, Hermione? After everything he's done, how..."
"Ron, I..." she said, scooting away from Draco, so she was equidistant between them.
Draco glared at Ron while addressing himself to Hermione. "He won't remember," he assured her. "When he leaves here, he'll forget what he's seen."
She looked between them. What could she say...to either of them? But there was no way that it could be resolved with them staring daggers at each other, and if the insults, at which they were both so good, started... "I'm sorry," she said to both of them, then Disapparated.
Her disappearance allowed for a relief of tension in the rest of the room, if not in the booth from which she'd vanished.
Ron's anger was fiery, his ears turning red and his breath puffing hotly. Draco, on the other hand, was cold, with frosted eyes and precisely controlled movements, breathing smoothly and evenly through his nose.
"Outside," Ron growled, and turned to stomp out the door.
Draco pushed the table away from him with a loud scrape and leapt up to follow the broad-shouldered redhead. Too bad he won't remember seeing us when he gets outside, Draco said to himself. I'd love to fight him.
Ron stepped out to the middle of a frozen pond across the lane and, turning around, burned the back of the section on which he was standing, leaving about ten metres of ice behind him.
Draco stood in front of him. "Not that I don't relish the idea of kicking your ass on general principles, Weasley," he said with a smirk, "but what's brought on this particular temper tantrum?"
Ron's laugh was derisive. "Do you think I don't remember what I saw in there? What you were doing to her?"
Draco stared, surprised that Ron had retained the memory—surprised and delighted. "Alright, Weasley, we'll do this," he said, etching his own contest area.
"Ron!" shouted Harry Potter, having noticed the beginnings of a Wizards' Duel as he and Ron's sister Ginny prepared to enter Madam Puddifoot's. He ran to the edge of the pond.
"Stay out of this, Harry," Ron yelled from the ice floe.
"Ron, you'll be suspended," Harry reminded him. In their first day of auror training, they'd learned that duels for personal issues were strictly forbidden.
"Does that mean you won't be my second?" Ron asked, undaunted.
Harry stood quietly, then shook his head no.
"I will," declared Neville, stepping forward. He and most of the people in Madam Puddifoot's had left when the combatants did. After exiting the tearoom, they had no idea what had prompted this fight, but recognized its inevitability.
Draco looked toward the observers. "And who will act as my second?"
Millicent Bulstrode stepped forward. She was physically as powerful and imposing as most of the young men and, after her first embarrassing duel with Hermione, she'd dedicated herself to learning control and technique, and was grudgingly acknowledged as the best duelist in Slytherin. Draco was next.
He smirked with confidence as the seconds made their way across the pond to the newly-created ice arena.
The four donned traditional robes and exchanged the formal bows.
"To the death, Weasley?" Draco challenged.
So tempting. "No, that would hurt her. We fight until one of us is in the water."
Draco bristled that Ron had been more considerate of Hermione than he. "So it's an endurance fight," he sneered. "You don't stand a chance."
"You forget," Ron said with a tight smile, "I'm a Keeper, always protecting the hoops. You're a Seeker. You fly around wherever you want until you spot the snitch, kick into action for a short period and take most of the glory."
Draco was quiet, gauging the intensity and purpose of the man in front of him.
"I'm all about endurance," Ron continued, "like the way I feel about her. You're a flash in the pan and that's all she is to you."
His body tightening with anger, Draco adopted a fighting stance. "Don't assume anything about my feelings for her, Weasley." Expelliarmus, he said silently.
Ron felt a twitch in his hand but managed to hold on to his wand. "Oh, yeah, when did they begin?" Ron provoked him, sending an unspoken stunning spell. Draco stumbled backwards. "Not when you called her Mudblood, I assume," he said with scorn. "Was it when we were older? And she got prettier?" he added harshly, casting another Stupefy as he advanced.
Draco backed up almost to the edge. "Protego," he shouted with a sweep of his wand. Ron deflected the green light aimed toward him from Draco's wand, but he felt a throbbing pain in his wand hand, as a result.
"That's right. I became attracted when she became attractive. That must mean it isn't real. Expelliarmus," he commanded loudly, anxious to get that wand away from Ron, who was turning out to be more of an adversary than he would have imagined.
Again Ron held onto his wand, though this time he visibly winced with the effort.
Draco sneered at the obvious show of pain in his opponent. "What about you?" he panted. "How long did you want her before you got the guts to do anything about it?"
Ron threw a jelly-leg jinx that barely missed Draco. The frigid, watery chasm between the slab of ice and the rest of the pond grew, as their fighting area shrank.
Their visible breaths in the frosty air were denser and more frequent and still they magically and verbally sparred. The crowd watching them doubled, placing bets on the winner and arguing amongst themselves. The fighters were oblivious to everything but each other and a long-simmering animosity, now given new urgency with their mutual desire for Hermione.
"Oh, come on, Malfoy, you can do better than that," Ron sneered as one of Draco's spells whizzed harmlessly past him. Or are you really that lost without your Unforgivable curses, you white-haired bastard."
"Don't get so morally superior, Weasel. You left her. She could've been captured by Snatchers or You-Know-Who, himself, and you didn't care. Your feelings were hurt," Draco threw out as he and Ron circled each other, looking for weaknesses.
The freckles on Ron's face came into sharp relief, as he went white with shock. He'd never forgiven himself for his abandonment of Hermione when they were on the lam with Harry. There was only one way that Malfoy would have known about it. "Yeah, well, I came back for her then, didn't I? And I'm not giving her up now," he shouted, followed by another command to disarm.
Draco's wand fell to his feet. He quickly summoned it back before Ron could throw another spell. "She's not yours to give up. She dropped you at Christmas...for me," he taunted.
Newly enraged, Ron ran forward. "Stupefy, Stupefy, Stupefy," he howled, slashing the air between them.
Draco lost control under the onslaught and fell backward into the water. He came to the surface, spluttering and shivering. Ron stood over him.
"You were with her?" he asked in a low, tense voice, not yet allowing the blond to crawl back onto the ice.
"That's right," Draco said through chattering teeth. "She was in my arms while she wrote the rejection to you."
Ron shook his head in disbelief, turned and took in the audience who had heard Draco's boast, then, with a deep frown, Disapparated.
Draco pulled himself out of the water and onto the even smaller ice circle. He found his wand and stood. The onlookers had all dispersed or Disapparated. He was cold and alone on the tiny island.