Chapter 1: Draco's Decision

"For a star to be born, there is one thing that must happen; a gaseous nebula must collapse. So Collapse. Crumble. This is not your destruction. This is your birth." - Zoe Skylar

Draco lay collapsed in a heap. That session had lasted longer than the others. Temporarily freed from the agony, he rapidly drew in gulps of air, each wheezy breath feeling like fire to his damaged throat and lungs. As he lay there gasping, he noticed a part of him felt free from the effects of the torture. He didn't know the detached lack of alertness he was experiencing was an indicator of shock. Nor would it have made much difference if he had. Draco blinked, trying to clear his eyes of the tears and blood. His gaze went upward toward the ceiling. He noticed red splotches along the wall. It didn't occur to him that it was his own blood he was viewing. Blood that had spurted out in violent red arcs from his arm when Voldemort ordered his mark to be cut off in punishment for aiding and abetting the Golden Trio when they had been captured and brought to his home.

Bellatrix had been eager and ready to call the Dark Lord once Potter's disfigured face reverted back to normal. Seeing his cover gone, Harry had given Draco a look of desperate appeal. Surprising himself, Draco had responded. His soul had been long sickened by the depravity around him; Draco concentrated his loathing of it in the Avada he aimed toward his despicable aunt before she could summon her master. It had given Harry, Ron and Hermione the chance they'd needed to apparate out of his home. Unfortunately, Draco had not taken into account it would also leave him alone to deal with the repercussions of his treachery. And dealt with it, he had. Once he'd arrived at the Manor, Voldemort ordered Draco's legs to be broken; his former lord making sure there would be no chance of the young Malfoy running away. Draco's vocal cords were raw, the result of too much screaming from the Crucios coming at him from the sea of Death Eaters surrounding him. And his arm. Did he even have an arm left? He tried to turn his head to see, but the pain and dizziness kept him from inspecting the evidence of his expulsion from Voldemort's band of followers. Still, in spite of the torture and agony, Draco's mind was clear. He didn't regret the choice he had made.

"Enough!" he heard the Dark Lord say. Then Draco heard a scrape near his head and a soft voice whispered in his ear. "You surprise me, Young One. No begging for mercy?" Draco heard a soft hiss. "That will change."

Draco phased in and out of consciousness while Voldemort did his worst. He vaguely registered a pitiful wailing going on the background. He had no idea it was coming from him. How long had it been since the trio had escaped? Time had ceased to have meaning. He thought it ironic that torture made time seem endless; a parting compensation, he supposed, for the one soon doomed to be without it. He looked at the faces leering at him. Hate and disgust filled the faces of all but two. Draco watched as his mother openly cried. He'd never seen her do that before, even when she'd been on the receiving end of one of the Dark Lord's corrections. And his father. The proud, stoic face of Lucius Malfoy was broken, his bottom lip trembling with poorly suppressed anguish and grief.

So….this must be it, thought Draco. His time must be up for his parents to toss all care to the wind. Their open display of love touched Draco. It felt good to know they'd loved him; that someone would miss him after he was gone. While his vision was still on his parents, a swift knife of fire cut through his being. A surge of unspeakable pain flooded his body, knocking him out cold.

When he came to again, he was shivering. Was death cold? Draco thought Heaven must be real, for in place of the parlor ceiling he now saw stars. He heard voices. Angel voices.

"Draco? Can you hear me?" said one in a tender tone. The caring quality of it inexplicably made him think of Granger. Of all his sins, the ones against her haunted him the most at that moment.

"So sorry," he tried to tell the angel. "I was…wrong."

Then everything was swallowed up in a cloak of black.

When Draco woke up, all he could remember was thinking he'd died. If so, he thought to himself, Heaven looked a lot like a wizard's home. He winced as he tried to sit up.

"Here…let me help you."

Draco thought it was the voice of the same angel who had been the one to carry him to Heaven. Confused, he turned his head only to have his face blocked by a waterfall of soft curls.

"Gran...ger?" he whispered, his voice barely able to make a sound. The pride of Gryffindor before she went on the run with Potter, Hermione Granger was the last person he thought he'd see. Had she been keeping vigil beside his bed all night? Currently she was leaning over him with something in her hand. He watched in exhausted bemusement as she gently covered his face with a moist warm cloth.

"Breathe in…..that should make you feel better," she soothed. Draco took a deep breath, closed his eyes and relished the heat from the rag. The fragrance clinging to it filled him with a curious strength. It was an intoxicating blend of peppermint, lavender and chamomile.

"Whas tha'?" he tried to ask.

Hermione smiled at him as she removed the cloth. "Molly's homemade medicine. It's actually quite an effective healing potion. Only difference this time is that Molly spelled the healing properties to be contained in the aroma, in case swallowing was not an option."

That gave Draco pause. Could he not swallow? He tried, but the pain left him coughing which led to more….pain.

Hermione shook her head as she settled him back down on his pillow. "I should have known you would try to do that once I said what I did. Boys," she muttered, shaking her head.

Draco hoped she could give him answers. Where was he and what had happened after he'd passed out at the Manor? Were his parents still alive? He feebly reached out and grabbed Hermione's sleeve. She must have seen the questions in his eyes, or maybe she was just a good judge of what went on in a young man's mind, for she quietly said as she lifted the covers back over his chest, "Mal….um…Draco…." she fumbled, obviously uncomfortable. "You realize what you did, don't you? You saved us. Did you think we would be ungrateful? That we would leave you there to die?"

Had he thought that? Draco supposed he had.

She went on. "Once we were out of there, Ron went back to the Burrow and got reinforcements. Then we all went back to rescue you."

Draco closed his eyes. He couldn't remember any of it. Only the pain. Hermione was speaking again, this time as she softly fluffed pieces of his hair from his forehead after wiping his face with the cloth. "I….I can never thank you enough for what you did. Being a muggleborn, I was sure I was going to die last night. The snatchers who caught us were quite descriptive as to what my fate was going to be. If it hadn't been for you…," she trailed off, then surprised Draco by giving him a timid peck on his cheek. "Thank you. Thank you so much." Hermione was so close Draco could feel the soft puffs of her breath as they caressed his skin.

"Her..mi..," Draco did his best to croak out Hermione's name, still needing answers, but she put her fingertips to his lips. It was not lost on her that it was the first time he'd ever tried to use her given name.

"Shh, you won't heal if you keep trying to talk," she said. Sympathetic to his need for information, she went on. "We were able to get you and your parents out of there. Your father turned himself over to the Order. He's with Alastor now; they're debriefing him. You're at the Burrow, in Bill's room, actually; your mother is with Molly. They've been in the kitchen, busy making healing potions for you. You've already been given Skele-Gro. Your legs were broken, but not crushed. They should be fine by this evening. As to your other injuries…..," and here she broke off. That concerned Draco. How bad was he? He was afraid it must be bad, judging by the way Hermione was avoiding eye contact.

"Draco…..we almost got there too late. I'm afraid your organs took a brutal beating. It will be a month at least before they mend. As to your arm…."

Oh cripes. Draco had forgotten about that. He quickly looked down at his left arm, not knowing what to expect. Well, at least he still had one, was his first thought. But as he studied his arm, even with layers of gauze and poultices covering it, he realized something wasn't right.

"Why….is it …?" he managed to rasp out before he grimaced with the pain.

Hermione bit her bottom lip. "Um….they cut more than the mark off your arm." Draco watched as Hermione's eyes became glassy with unshed tears. "I'm so sorry, Draco. They damaged most of the major muscles and tendons in your forearm."

Draco closed his eyes. So that's why his arm from his elbow to wrist looked so swollen. He wondered if he could use it. He tried to lift his arm, but grunted when the pain forced him to stop. He looked up at Hermione. The compassion on her face was understandable, but why did she also look so…..guilty?

"Not…your…fault," he whispered.

Hearing that was the last straw in Hermione's determination not to cry. "Yes, it is!" She argued as fat tears dropped from her eyes. "If we had only been able to get back sooner, this might have been prevented!"

Draco was spared having to respond to Hermione's remorse by the door opening. Two figures stood just outside his room. It was Potter and Weasley. Draco watched as they came in. Ron's face looked solemn, an unusual departure from his normally daft expression, he thought. Harry looked….disturbed. The same guilt that was on Hermione's face was twofold on Potter's. Draco didn't understand. Why did they care?

"Alright then, Mate?" Ron asked. Draco would have raised his eyebrows at that if it hadn't hurt to move. Weasley was calling him Mate? Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that in spite of her sorrow Hermione rolled her eyes at the question. It was the first thing that had tempted a smirk from Draco.

Too right, Granger, he thought. Even Weaselbee should have been able to see he wasn't alright.

Draco closed his eyes. Maybe if they thought he was going to sleep they would leave. He was tired of looking at their mopey faces, anyway. Saps. Did the Dunderheaded Duo assume his actions at the Manor were for them? Deciding you were against someone didn't necessarily mean you were for someone else. Is that what they thought? That he was suddenly a cheerleader for Team Gryffindor? Draco forgot about his throat being wounded and snorted, then gasped from the pain. Unknown to Draco while he'd been pretending to sleep, he'd been granted his wish; the trio had silently telegraphed each other to leave the room to give Draco time to rest. Ron was the last one leaving the room when he heard Draco's moan. Coming back over to the bed, he leaned down and offered, "Do you need anything? Want me to go fetch Harry? We can come back and sit with you."

Draco grimaced and shook his head. Apparently his torture was not yet over.