At nine p.m. on a Tuesday, the floo at Grimmauld opens with an irritable whuf and vomits Draco Malfoy onto the hearthrug. His robes are torn and grey with ash. He looks like a cobweb someone scrapped out of the corner of a disused room.
Harry flings his teacup into the air to get to him before his head cracks on the stone hearth.
Malfoy looks up and focuses on Harry with difficulty. "Sanctuary," he rasps.
"Yes," says Harry right away, banking on instinct, but the despair leaves Malfoy's face only when he passes out.
He has been cursed, but nobody can label it. Moody checks and rechecks him for triggers and contagions until Harry shoves him out into the hall and barks at him, at which point he reluctantly admits that Draco is not a threat to the house or its inhabitants. The boy is barely conscious when he arrives; food improves him, but it's clearly all he can do to eat without assistance.
Downstairs, the rest of the household argues about ways he could have foiled the Fidelius, what, precisely, "sanctuary" means under these circumstances, and what they should do with him even if they do decide to trust him on a very limited and strictly trial basis.
Harry sits on the stairs and thinks of a dark and stormy night in June and an old man who always put his trust in the strangest places.
"Let's trust him," says Harry to the Order.
"Why should we?" the Order choruses.
"For the novelty?" Harry suggests dryly.
The war has not been going well. It had been, up until the point when Voldemort noticed that he had one horcrux left, and started bombing things.
It's Hermione who figures it out. Or rather, Crookshanks, with Hermione working out the details. On day eight, Hermione enters Malfoy's room with a lunch tray and finds her cat standing on Malfoy's bed, staring at the convalescent, who stares back. To Hermione's eye, Malfoy's expression reads, "I cannot believe it has come to this," while Crookshanks' is a very clear, "Suck it up, buttercup." Sparing his mistress only a brief glance, the cat moves in—and on—ignoring Malfoy's stifled winces as he steps balletically onto Malfoy's stomach and thighs, turns thrice, and plops down with a gentle fart. Malfoy stares at his lapful of cat. He looks smaller than she knows he is under blankets and Crookshanks' imposing bulk, and she is startled to see nervousness supersede the bitter lines around his mouth. She hasn't got any words; she shrugs her incomprehension and sets down her tray. After a second, Malfoy shrugs back.
Six hours later, Crookshanks reappears in the drawing room, where people are in the habit of congregating after supper. He stops in front of Hermione and enquires, with mute, catty eloquence, "Well?"
"Oh hello, Crookshanks," Hermione offers. "Did you, um, have a nice cuddle with Malfoy?"
Crookshanks rolls his eyes, butts his soft head very deliberately against Hermione's right wrist, where she has been having trouble with tendonitis, and begins purring like a lorry engine.
Harry, watching from his favourite couch (transfigured by Sirius from hard-backed Victoriana to squashy), imagines he can see his friend's synapses lighting up like a string of firecrackers, one after the other, inevitable. Hermione in problem-solving mode.
"Oh! Oh, wow," she exclaims after no more than a minute, and springs up, library bound.
It's a wasting curse. It affects bone and muscle first, causing atrophy, fatigue, and brittleness. It's slow, but unforgiving. Pomfrey gives him six months before he'll be little better than a ghost, and then he will simply fall apart and vanish.
The sole cure, as Crookshanks has deduced, is touch. Touch, to be precise, that is freely offered, with care and affection. And Malfoy, as his tormenter anticipated very well, is surrounded by people to whom he has never been anything but loathsome.
The various ironies are lost on nobody.
Malfoy is installed in the drawing room, which has a steady trickle of people passing through on most days.
"Malfoy," acknowledges Granger, meticulously polite, and jerks down to touch his knee on her way to the map trolley.
"Mr. Malfoy," says Lupin with distant kindness, and holds his wrist steady as he hands him his tea.
"Oh, hi," says Harry, on his way out the door, trailing Weasleys. His hand flutters, but all that's visible is one gaunt, eyelash-swept cheek and a fall of soft hair glinting reddish in the firelight. The Weasleys each swat Malfoy upside the head as they go past. Harry swats George upside the head.
On the thirteenth day, Harry finds Malfoy bunched up under blankets in the library. They stare at each other for a minute, frowning: two not-quite-adults, one all whipcord brawn and too-bright eyes, the other pained and pinched and pale.
Then: "Harry Potter," says Harry Potter. "Pleased to meet you." He sticks out his hand.
"Oh, for God's sake," Malfoy replies. But he's already pushing the blankets aside, and reaching back.