A/N: This story follows canon through sixth year. (Things go slightly differently during the Astronomy Tower incident, then go very differently afterwards.)
Had the ground not been freshly covered in snow, the sparks of red that accompanied Draco's arrival would not have been visible.
But when he collapsed on that frozen winter night, the glistening white that spread through the forest was clean and unsullied by footprints; and the light reflected off the snow and gave the curious illusion of fiery stars twinkling as they danced across its surface.
Draco looked up to find a tiny house standing alone in the depths of the forest, concealed as much by its distance from everything nearby as it was by the tall trees that surrounded it. He could not see inside—though the lights were on, the windows were heavily frosted over.
He tried to lift himself to his feet but stopped quickly, groaning from the pain. He clutched his side, where his cloak was wet from blood seeping through his robes, and tried to breathe. The house was close—so close—and yet he could not imagine making it all the way there. The hand at his side, in which he was still holding a small black box, came away bloody and red. Gritting his teeth, he first carefully tucked the box in his pocket, then gathered all his strength in order to push himself up off the ground.
He stumbled towards the beckoning house, dragging a broken leg and wincing with every step. His wounds stung, and his face felt too hot, but he bit his lip and pressed onward, desperate to make it to the front door.
When he was only a few yards away, he suddenly felt a burning sensation erupting in his side, reverberating through his body like a thousand knives. The searing pain knocked him to his knees, and he keeled forward onto the snow. It was cold and numbing against his cheek, but he could barely register the sensation through the fog in his mind. All he could do was force himself to stay awake, trying to imagine the warmth inside the house that lay almost within reach, its frosted windows glowing with promise. He coughed and was surprised to see specks of blood stain the snow that lay before him.
Choking back the fluids in his throat, he reached out with a clenched fist and crawled the rest of the way to the door. With the last spurt of energy he could muster, he tapped weakly at the base of the door before fading into unconsciousness.
the summer before seventh year
"You can't be serious."
"Believe me, Ron, I wish I weren't."
"Malfoy? As in, Draco sodding Malfoy?"
"You mean the evil git who got Dumbledore killed—"
"Ron, for Merlin's sake, let him finish!" interrupted Hermione.
"I'm only telling you what I've heard," Harry continued. "Snape swore that before Carrow lost his patience and stepped in to finish the job, Malfoy wasn't going to do it. That he'd already lowered his wand."
"Oh, well, if Snape says so, it must be—"
"Will you shut up, Ron? Harry, go on."
"That's it," said Harry, looking as though he were about to be sick. "Snape trusted his instincts and took a huge risk in approaching him. I don't know what he was planning on doing if Malfoy refused; he would have had to kill him or Obliviate him or—"
"And how do we know Malfoy's not just pretending to play along?" cried Ron.
"We don't!" replied Harry, who was growing increasingly agitated. "And more importantly, we don't even know if we can trust Snape! After all, he just stepped aside and let Dumbledore die, didn't he?"
"He said he had to, Harry," Hermione said reprovingly, though her voice was laced with doubt. "He showed the Order his memory of Dumbledore saying he only had months to live and asking him to—"
"I bet Snape's skilled enough to fake a memory," said Harry, his voice fierce. "If anyone knew how to do something like that, it'd be him. No matter what, he shouldn't have just stood there and watched as Amycus Carrow, of all people—"
"Wait," Ron interrupted, "hold on just a second. So are they actually letting Malfoy into the Order? Is he going to know all our secrets and"—a look of horror suddenly appeared on his face as something terrible occurred to him—"is he going to know where headquarters are? Merlin, we'll be dead faster than you can say 'The Death Eaters are coming!'"
"He'll be a spy, like Snape, during seventh year, and then when we graduate he'll come out in the open as an Order member. They're talking to him about training right now."
"Isn't that dangerous?" asked Hermione. "Voldemort could use Legilimency on him—"
"He's a skilled Occlumens, remember?" Harry replied bitterly. "And he's got no real Death Eater duties for now—after the way he failed in his last mission, it's doubtful that Voldemort would give him any new important tasks while he's still in school. They said it's easier this way to keep him and Narcissa safe."
"Yeah, that ought to be our first priority," scoffed Ron. "And after that, why don't we dispatch a team of Aurors to guard Lucius Malfoy's cell in Azkaban? You know, just in case he's in any danger?"
Even Hermione could not manage to admonish Ron for this last complaint. They sat in stunned silence, each lost in their own thoughts as they contemplated the news. A light summer breeze whistled through the open windows of the Burrow's kitchen, whispering the night's secrets as it passed.
"He did lower his wand," she finally said. "You said so yourself, Harry."
Ron gave a dark laugh. "Oh, well, in that case, someone give him a bloody medal!"
"I still don't trust Snape," murmured Harry. "Everyone in the Order has doubts about him except Dumbledore, and—" His voice broke. Swallowing hard, he finished, "And look where that got him."
"I want to believe that the Order knows what it's doing," said Hermione, "but this just doesn't seem safe. Although, if Malfoy really wants to defect from the Death Eaters, then that's—"
"He took the Dark Mark," spat Harry.
"So has Snape," she protested.
"Exactly—" Harry started to say, but suddenly stopped. He was staring, frozen, at the entrance to the kitchen. Ron and Hermione whirled their heads around to see what he was looking at and found Malfoy standing in the doorway, seeming unsure as to whether it would be prudent for him to enter.
As soon as all eyes were on him, his uncertain expression immediately morphed into a more condescending one. "Don't let me interrupt," he sneered, walking past them to fetch a glass of water.
For a moment, no one spoke. Their eyes followed him as he went about finding a glass, boring holes in his back while he feigned obliviousness. Then, as Malfoy began to pour water into his glass, Harry called out, loudly and deliberately, "So where's Voldemort think you are?"
Malfoy's aim faltered for a second, and water splashed out of his glass. Without turning around, he snarled, "I'd be careful what I said if I were you, Potter."
Harry gave a mocking laugh. "Why? Don't like hearing people take your precious Dark Lord's name in vain?"
"Harry!" whispered Hermione in a reprimanding tone, but Harry was undeterred.
"Going to defend his honor, are you?" he went on.
Malfoy whipped around to face them, his eyes blazing. "Shut your—"
"By the way, Malfoy," Ron interjected, "I don't recall giving you permission to use my kitchen."
Malfoy's face was now contorted with anger. His hand flew to his wand, and both Harry and Ron jumped up from their seats.
Keeping his eyes locked on Ron's, Malfoy reached into his pocket and tossed a few Sickles onto the counter. "There, Weasley. Since your family clearly needs the money, I'll pay to use the facilities. That's probably more than the whole kitchen's worth."
Hermione had to physically restrain Ron to keep him from starting a brawl.
"You provoked him," she whispered, trying to repress her own thoughts of hexing Malfoy as he sauntered nonchalantly out of the room, never once looking back.
Hermione's eyes were wide with disbelief as she stared down at the figure slumped on her doorstep. She was standing with her wand out and ready, and after looking wildly around for any unseen threats lurking in the darkness, she finally lowered it and dropped to her knees to examine him.
"Draco," she said again, shaking him gently, but he did not move.
He was unconscious, though warm and breathing, and the corner of his mouth was stained with blood. His hair, normally so immaculately groomed, was unkempt and matted with sweat; and the pale, ungloved fingers of his right hand were wrapped tightly around something. She tried to roll him over to get a better look at him, only to gasp as she found his clothing completely soaked with blood. When she attempted to remove his cloak in order to inspect his wounds, his limbs were too heavy for her to easily manage.
She rose to her feet and hesitated for a moment, looking down at him and considering something. Then, with a deep breath, she carefully levitated him into the house.