His head was throbbing. His right eye was swollen in its socket, the eyelid so puffed up that he could barely see properly. His body ached all over and he was fairly certain that his wrist and maybe a couple of ribs were broken. Truth be told, he wasn't sure how he was still alive at all, but the pain throughout his body told him that he was.
It had been a minor miracle that he had managed to apparate without splinching himself. He had squeezed his eyes tightly shut and thought of the last place he had truly felt safe, which was how he came to be outside the gates of Hogwarts, slumped over on his side, breathing raggedly.
He knew, of course, that he couldn't apparate into the castle itself, but he was completely drained of energy and the thought of walking was too much at that moment. He awkwardly pushed himself into a sitting position, his back resting uncomfortably against the metal railings of the gate. It hurt to breathe and the sunlight sliced across his vision painfully.
He tried to take shallow breaths, tried to muster up the strength to stand, but his body wouldn't co-operate. At least the pain gave him something to focus on, something to distract himself with. He didn't want to think of how he had come to be in this state, how he had suffered at the hands of his own father. He had known that there would be repercussions, but he had never imagined that his father would go so far.
His head began to throb in earnest and he let out a low groan as pain exploded behind his eyes. He could feel unconsciousness pulling at him, trying to drag him under, but he couldn't let it until he was safe within the castle walls. Reality was becoming hazier and hazier around him and his head began to spin.
"Wha' the blazes? Grea' Godric's ghost! I've got ya, lad, don' you worry."
Draco felt himself lifted from the ground, although at that moment he couldn't say whether he was dreaming or not. Someone large and bulky was carrying him, someone wearing a hairy coat that smelt of smoke and moss. It wasn't quite the feeling of safety he had been expecting, but it was enough that his mind decided he could finally let go.
He drifted for several hours after. His mind woke him at intervals, usually when there were voices near him. He was dimly aware that he had ended up in the hospital, and it was such a relief to feel the warm, comfortable bed beneath him. The pain lessened each time he regained consciousness, and some dim part of his brain supposed Pomfrey must have healed him.
He still felt horribly weak and he was sure that if he tried to move he would regret it. He briefly considered opening his eyes but his head was thumping too much to truly credit the notion. He heard voices a few feet away, but his head was fuzzy and they sounded muffled. He tried to concentrate on them, to make them clearer, and eventually they swam a little closer to the surface of his mind.
"Did you have any notion this might happen, Severus?"
Dumbledore's voice was unmistakable and a moment later it was joined by Snape's, saying, "None whatsoever, Albus. Mr Malfoy stopped confiding in me a long time ago."
"I think it seems fairly obvious that he must have defied his father to have ended up in such a sorry state."
"Well in that case he can't stay here."
"Mr Potter, I thought you had more charity than that," Snape drawled, while Draco registered surprise that Potter was there.
"I didn't mean that, sir," Potter said quietly, his voice more respectful that Draco had ever heard it. "It's just that this is probably the first place that Lucius will come to look for him. He's his father, he'll have every right to take him away and if he's responsible for Malfoy's condition I don't much fancy the bloke's chances if Lucius does take him away."
"As much as it pains me to say it, Potter does have a point," Snape said, and Draco took a moment to consider the fact that Potter seemed to be concerned for his safety.
"Not that I have any suggestions as to where he can go," Potter continued. "I know it seems a tad dramatic to suggest, given the state he's in, but this could all be some elaborate trap. He could have been sent here to gather information."
"Heavens, Potter. Your mind seems to be working overtime today. Are you quite well?"
"We can question him under veritaserum when he is awake," Dumbledore interjected, jolting Draco. He was no spy for Voldemort, but the thought of a truth drug being poured down his throat was not one he relished.
"Albus, Mr Malfoy is a student at this school," Snape said, sounding scandalised.
"Mr Malfoy is an adult who has decided to seek sanctuary here. Harry is right; we cannot simply take his word that he is not in Voldemort's service. There is too much at stake to be complacent."
There was a note of steel in the old man's voice that Draco had never heard before. It was interesting to glimpse a hint of the real man that lay beneath the kindly old elf persona.
"How badly was he hurt?" Potter asked softly.
"He's suffered head trauma, internal bleeding, a few broken bones and exposure to several nasty curses, including the Cruciatus."
"Merlin," Potter breathed, and Draco winced at the horror in the boy's voice. He didn't want sympathy from Potter of all people. "How could a father do that to his own child?"
"All too easily in Lucius' case, I assure you," Snape said in a voice that was far gentler than Draco had ever heard it. Snape's sympathy was worse than Potter's.
"When will he wake up?" Potter asked.
"Poppy says any time now," Dumbledore replied. "No doubt his body needs the rest. We would do well to let him sleep and see where we stand when he wakes."
"Indeed," Snape said, returning to his usual business-like manner. "Mr Potter, I suggest you and I return to our training in the meantime."
"Such deference," said Snape, and Draco could picture the raised eyebrow that would have accompanied the statement.
The next thing he heard was the soft click of footsteps, and moments later he knew he was alone again in the hospital wing. He opened his eyes slowly, his vision blurry and unfocused. He gave his eyes time to adjust, taking a few deep breaths while he did so, doing a quick once-over of his body.
His wrist was bandaged and he had been stripped of his clothes, placed in striped hospital pyjamas instead. His head still felt thick and he had pins and needles all over, but the pain throughout his body had lessened considerably. He was lucky, he supposed. It could have been much worse.
Potter was right of course; he wouldn't be able to stay at Hogwarts. It was the first place his father would think to look and, although Dumbledore wielded considerable influence, he had no legal right to keep Draco there.
Draco had fled the manor with nothing more than his wand and the tattered clothes on his back. He had no access to money, no way to support himself. If Dumbledore and the rest of them turned him away he would have nowhere to go, no one to turn to. He had never felt so alone in all his life and all he wanted was to call for his mother.
His mother. That, ultimately, had been a far worse betrayal than his father. When the beating had started he had been so sure that his mother would stop it, but she had simply stood there, looking down at the floor and saying nothing. Nothing in his life had ever hurt as much as that had done, and part of him, somewhere deep and hidden, had broken beyond repair.
Tears stung his eyes but he refused to let them fall. He would not cry for her, not for a woman who had relinquished the right to call herself his mother. He truly was alone now, and it was high time he toughened up. Everything he had ever depended on, ever trusted, had been stripped away and he had only himself to rely on.
It was a terrifying notion, but he swore that this would not break him. He couldn't let it; he had come through too much to falter now. Still, he was cast adrift in a world he didn't understand with nothing to anchor him. He had decisions to make, even if they were uncomfortable ones.
He slept fitfully, waking every now and again when Pomfrey bustled in to check on him. He feigned wooziness so she wouldn't speak to him. He couldn't face talking to anyone, knowing he would have questions to answer. It was cowardly, he knew, but he would have to face Dumbledore sooner or later and he needed all his energy for that.
Night rolled around and he found himself wide awake. The pain was much more manageable now and had subsided to a dull ache throughout his body. His wrist tingled with the remnants of healing spells and his nerves still felt slightly raw from the exposure to the Cruciatus. It was a far better state than he had imagined himself ending the day in.
He sighed and threw the covers aside, knowing he wouldn't be able to fall back asleep for a while. He spent a moment or two gauging his strength, trying to determine what his body was capable of before he decided to try and stand. His legs were shaky, and he held onto the bedpost for a moment before he attempted to walk. He felt weak and frail, but he knew that it was only temporary. His strength would return soon enough.
He took a few unsteady steps, keeping close to the other beds in case he faltered. He was a little light-headed, and he realised that it had been a couple of days since he had eaten anything. He made his way to the far window and sank down gratefully on the window seat, taking a few deep breaths, the action hurting his ribs.
He rested his head against the cool of the glass and closed his eyes, knowing that if his father came for him now he would have no hope of defending himself. There was a noise on the stairs and Draco snapped his eyes open in time to see Potter pad softly into the hospital wing. Seeing that Draco was awake, he stopped in surprise, standing looking at him uncertainly.
"I…I thought you'd be asleep," Potter said eventually.
"Then why did you come?" Draco asked, his voice hoarse.
"Oh…I brought you some clothes," Potter said, and Draco noticed the bundle in his arms. "They're nothing fancy but the clothes you showed up in are in bits."
He put the bundle on the bed nearest to him and Draco eyed it with distaste. He was in no position to be choosy though, and he was aware of it.
"Thanks," he said gruffly, holding back a laugh at the look of surprise on Potter's face.
"How…um…how are you feeling?" Potter asked, shifting awkwardly from one foot to another.
"Like I was almost beaten to death by my own father," Draco replied and Potter winced.
"Sorry, stupid question," Potter sighed, taking a tentative seat on the bed he had placed the clothes on. "Professor Snape's working on a couple of potions for you."
"Including veritaserum?" Draco asked snidely, Potter's eyes widening comically.
"You were awake."
Draco nodded while Potter looked at him guiltily.
"Snape and I aren't thrilled about it but Dumbledore's insistent. Look, if it were up to me I'd take your present state as testament to the fact that you're not working for Voldemort, but we can't afford to take chances."
"I get it," Draco said. "I'm not thrilled about it, but I get it. It's not like I have anywhere else to go. I have to agree to your terms."
"Malfoy, we're not the enemy here. We'll be here if that's what you want but we're not keeping you against your will. You have to understand that you've spent your whole life being raised by one of Voldemort's most loyal servants. People are bound to have doubts."
"And won't that just be thrown back in my face at every turn?" Draco asked, unable to stop his sneer.
"What do you mean?" Potter asked.
"You think your little pals are going to welcome me with open arms? Or any of that clan for that matter?"
"Probably not at first, no," said Potter with a shrug. "It's going to take a little work on your part, Malfoy. I know you're used to things falling in your lap but – "
"Does this look things have fallen in my lap?" Draco said harshly, gesturing at his swollen and bruised face. "I defied my father and nearly lost my life because of it!"
"Ok, ok," Potter said, holding up his hands in defence. "I take your point, but mine is still valid. You can't expect us to accept you while you behave the same way to us that you've always done."
"We're going to play happy families, are we?"
Potter sighed and said, "You know what? Fine. Have it your way."
Potter got up and started to leave, and Draco found himself hopping off the window seat and saying, "Wait a minute."
Potter turned around, his expression questioning. Draco clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides, hating the feeling of leaving himself so bare before someone who he'd been at odds with for so long.
"I understand that things have to change," he said eventually, his voice low. "But I won't put up with being treated like a second-class citizen. I'm not going to be made to feel like muck."
"Do you really think we'd do that?"
"Oh I forgot – you're all so holier than thou, aren't you? The decent, fair-minded Gryffindors would never treat someone like scum, would they?" Draco asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
"We treat people like that when they deserve it," Potter said heatedly.
"It must be nice up there on that pedestal. You'd better hope no one knocks you off it."
"Don't make threats you can't pull off, Malfoy," Potter said, a slight growl to his voice. Draco had never really understood the whole 'Powerful Potter' thing; the boy had always seemed like kind of a drip to him, but in that moment he thought he saw a glimpse of it.
He sat back down on the window seat, feeling tiredness seep into his limbs. He didn't know why he was being so difficult, but part of him felt desperate to protect himself from vulnerability.
"I've screwed up, Potter. I know that," he said heavily. "I've made some bad choices in the past, but half the time they weren't even my choices to make."
"I understand that."
"I don't think you do," Draco said, shaking his head. "You've never had a family, and I'm not saying that to be cruel. You've never known what it's like to feel the pressure from your parents bearing down on you, feeling crushed by the weight of their expectations. They raised me, they brought me up with certain…beliefs…and I can't pretend that it'll be easy to turn my back on that."
"You have turned your back on it," Potter said, walking down the line of beds to stand in front of him. "I don't know what went on between you and your father, and I'm not going to ask, but it looks to me as though you've decided to pick your own path."
"Perhaps," Draco said quietly, "but I'm not sure what that means," he added, looking down at his hands.
Potter paused for a moment then took a seat beside Draco, his posture stiff and awkward. There was silence for a moment, then Potter took a deep breath and said, "It means accepting help from those willing to offer it."
Draco glanced sideways at Potter, the moonlight reflecting off the boy's ridiculous glasses. He seemed somehow older than the last time Draco had seen him, which was ridiculous as it had only been a few days.
"I'm not going to say this will be easy, because we both know that would be a lie," Potter said softly, "but you must have defied your father for a reason. I think you're going to need to hold on that reason in the coming weeks."
Draco stretched his legs out, pain shooting through his lower back as he did so. He winced and tried to get comfortable, which proved to be easier said than done.
"I don't want to be my father," he said quietly, looking down at his hands. "I don't want to serve a madman and I don't want someone like that in control of our world."
"And the whole bloody purity thing?"
Draco considered the question before he answered. He was going to lie, but he knew he had to tread carefully. "I believe we're better than muggles, I just do, I'm sorry. But…I don't think that purebloods are better than mud…than muggle-borns. Merlin, you just have to look at Granger to see that."
"I'll pass on your compliments," Potter said with a snort.
"Seriously though," Draco said, feeling the tiredness threaten to overwhelm him, "I think the magical world is safer when it has as little as possible to do with the muggle one, but muggle-borns have as much right to exist in the magical community as purebloods."
"And you truly believe that?" Potter asked, squinting at him closely.
"I'll be swearing it under veritaserum tomorrow," Draco said, rolling his eyes.
"Well, for what it's worth, I believe you, truth potion or not," Potter said, then did the unthinkable and extended his hand towards Draco.
Draco wasn't insensible to the irony the little tableau presented. He was reminded keenly of the time he had been the one to offer a handshake and how Potter had rejected him all those years ago. It would be so easy to do the same thing now and give Potter a taste of his own medicine, but it wouldn't have been the smartest thing.
Shaking his head in bewilderment, he took the proffered hand and gave it a firm shake. Potter gave him a lopsided smile and Draco fought hard not to return it. He needed Potter on his side, he knew that, but that didn't mean that he had to like the prat.