“As I have already told you, the item in question is purple.”
Draco responds through gritted teeth. “Madam, this is purple.”
“No, that is lavender. Mine is purple.”
“There aren’t any other items that meet the specifications you’ve given.”
His client’s face is beginning to resemble the shade Draco thinks she’s looking for. “Perhaps,” she punctuates each syllable with flecks of spittle that come dangerously close to Draco’s face, “you need to look again. Nine inches, glass, ridged, with built in heating and cooling charms, and it’s purple.”
“Are you certain that you Vanished it? From time to time we do find that people have accidentally Banished an item rather than Vanishing it, in which case it is irretrievab—”
“Quite sure, thank you very much. I do know my first year charms. And my…personal effects.”
Personal effects. Draco has to suppress a snort. He is the consummate professional and this woman’s mishaps will not sway him from that path.
“And I’ll have you know, this particular item is rather rare. I’m quite set on retrieving it.”
“Yes, Madam, I understand that. However, the Vanishing Department has only received one nine inch, glass, ridged, purple dildo with built in heating and cooling charms, Vanished in the last two weeks. This is it.” He pushes the item towards her with the tip of an extended index finger. “Perhaps the colouring will match your recollections in a more familiar environment. The lighting in this office is rather harsh.”
“Perhaps,” she spits, “this office is mishandling the personal property of British witches and wizards. Perhaps an investigation is in order.”
“Perhaps,” Draco retorts, his patience evaporating alongside the specks of saliva now dotting his counter, “you should file a complaint with the Office of Boring Paperwork. Surely they’re better suited to investigating mislaid sex toys. Perhaps you should store your rare and valuable personal effect properly instead of Vanishing it out of someone’s orifice. Perhaps the colour seems a bit lighter because it was rather desperately in need of the rigorous Scourgification we give every Vanished object. Perhaps you should –”
“I never,” the woman screeches. “To be treated with such disrespect in a Ministry office!”
She pulls a hand back and looks as though she might be winding up for a slap. Draco refuses to flinch. But instead of landing a blow she grabs the item in question and shoves it into her robes. “You haven’t heard the last from me, I assure you!”
The door slams behind her and Draco takes a deep breath. He doesn’t get many visitors, but the ones who find him are reliably awful.
He looks up at the clock and rolls his eyes. It’s only 10:15. It’s only Tuesday. It’s only community service hour 6,410 out of 10,000. Another seventy-five minutes of sorting and cleaning and labeling and storing to do before lunch. And on Tuesdays he has to water all the plants and dispose of whatever’s rotted, and then there’s logging items and addressing requests.
He smooths his robes and takes a deep breath. The public may, at times, be unpleasant, but on the whole he is quite confident in the work he’s done with the department. Letting the occasional angry witch derail his progress is wholly counterproductive. His week had been going well until she arrived, and it can again.
Sorting the rest of the new arrivals is sure to help. For whatever reasons – Draco strongly suspects alcohol and the pressures of family togetherness – people Vanish more, and stranger things at the weekend than the rest of the week combined. He’s become an expert, three years in, at dispatching the pile quickly and, wherever possible, without close examination. There are only forty or so items left on the arrivals platform; he can do them in the hour before lunch, which will surely improve his current mood. Few things are as reliably soothing as order.
Draco pushes through the doors to the warehouse, unbuttoning his robes as he goes. The Ministry’s required uniforms are stuffy even for someone with a pureblood upbringing, all starched collars and thick wool and rows of double-breasted buttons that must be polished to a shine. They’re appropriate enough for the increasingly chilly weather, but too heavy to really permit free movement. Most Ministry workers resolve the issue by wearing them improperly, a shortcut that sets Draco’s teeth on edge. When his work requires a greater range of movement – which, happily, only occurs when he is out of the public eye – he prefers to remove them altogether, lest they become wrinkled or stained. He has therefore made a habit of doffing his robes on his way in to the warehouse, hanging them near the massive dais where Vanished items come to rest.
He’s so preoccupied with the damnably stubborn buttons that he doesn’t glance up until he’s almost in front of the dais. When he looks up, he looks up. And up. And up, his jaw falling open as he takes in the sight before him.
His formerly reasonable pile has grown. Multiplied. Expanded. The knickknacks have started mating, or the chairs have recruited an army, or there’s been some sort of appliance-related coup, or the dais has developed a growth or something, because this is not the pile he left.
This is massive. Colossal. The biggest pile he’s seen since the Cresswell’s youngest accidentally Vanished their entire cottage in a fit of wild magic. But that arrived altogether, one cottage, a bit jostled but easy enough to label and return. This, well. This.
Draco’s not sure how long he stands there before one lone expletive falls from his lips.
V V V V V
Draco is certain this is the single largest pile of near-rubbish he’s ever had to confront. He’s also fairly sure it’s the ugliest. He’d once arrived in to find a petrified elf set rather obscenely astride a taxidermed Hippogriff, and he’s still more appalled by this particular haul.
In the last two weeks he’s sorted through furniture so dusty he can barely levitate it without inciting a sneezing fit, house elf heads, suspiciously stiff Gryffindor-red sheets, a revolting nest-pile of filthy linens, pots with Merlin-knows-what caked to the bottom, and a hollowed-out troll’s leg that serves no discernible purpose whatsoever. This morning he caught a glimpse of a semi-pornographic Muggle poster, and the further in he gets the more certain he is that the polite coughing from within the pile belongs to a portrait or two. Though with his luck and this pile it could be mould gone sentient.
He is exhausted, dirty, and regularly perplexed by the strange assortment. He’s also quickly losing track of which items belong to the new bane of his existence and which have come in since this mass of glorified Crup turds fell into his life. Draco’s always glad that few people know about the Vanishing Department and even fewer care enough to seek it out, but the few that have made the trek in the last few weeks have been faced with a level of bureaucratic resentment that is, for a change, not even nominally concealed behind Draco’s professional façade.
He is, at least, convinced that the 162nd week will have to be better than the last two.
V V V V V
His 162nd Monday in the Vanishing Department starts out promisingly enough. He has time to enjoy a proper breakfast before he leaves the Manor. There are no angry clients waiting outside the front office. There are a reasonable, but not unmanageable, number of additions waiting for him on the dais. The pile is becoming wieldy. He might even, if he skips a dusting or two, have the whole mess conquered by the end of the week.
The first ding is faint. Draco puts it down to the clinking of glass. He’s in the midst of Scourgifying and logging a few dozen empty bottles of butterbeer; there’s bound to be some rolling around. But then it comes again. And again, in close succession.
Monday morning’s clients are usually repeat offenders. The Vanishing Department’s only been around since the war and, to his great relief, was not well-advertised in the midst of post-war reforms and reorganisations. Those who care enough to retrieve their Vanished items have to do a fair bit of research to figure out whether it’s possible, and how, and where to go, and how to access the Ministry’s Level D, which is so deeply buried and poorly connected that it rarely shows up on the maps in the atrium.
Sadly, the repeat offenders tend to be the worst. Lotharios who have figured out that they can retrieve clothes and other ephemera they’ve Vanished in the heat of the moment; perpetually flustered parents retrieving beloved toys, usually of the noise-making variety; and, Draco’s personal favourite since they’re most likely to be polite, a few wide-eyed house elves (or, he has to remind himself, “magical home service staff”) in search of items that have fallen victim to fits of boredom, anger, or some combination thereof.
None of these prospects are enough to inspire a sense of urgency, but the dinging’s escalated to a few hollered calls of “Hello? Anyone there?” and once clients start yelling they rarely stop. Draco hauls on his robes and buttons as he walks.
Nothing on Merlin’s green earth could have prepared him for the sight that greets him in the front office.
This client has given up on the bell and turned to study the wall, so it’s his back Draco sees first. His back and his hair, shaggy shocks of black stuck up every which way on top of a compact frame. All of it is dreadfully familiar. He’s only got a split second to gather his wits before the man turns to reveal green eyes and wire-rim spectacles and a stupid, shocked expression that rekindles every ounce of loathing Draco has ever harboured for him.
Recovering himself, Draco comes to stand behind the counter, knitting his fingers together and looking his client – which, Draco reminds himself, is all he is – straight in the eye. “Welcome to the Vanishing Department. How may we help you?”
Potter has the good sense to snap his jaw shut. His good sense has never been extensive enough to get him any further.
Draco tries again. “As the official repository for all items Vanished within the British Isles, we are able to return anything Vanished since the end of the Second Wizarding War. Are you searching for a particular item?”
Potter cards his fingers through his hair and opens and closes his mouth again. Has he Vanished his tongue? That would be novel.
Draco retrieves a stack of forms and pushes them across the counter. “If you would like us to recover a particular item or set of items, please fill out pages A3 through B17. In some cases there may be a brief waiting period. However, we do endeavour to return items as quickly as possible.”
Potter’s still just standing there, looking at the stack of parchment and back to Draco.
Neither subtlety nor professionalism has ever been Potter’s modus operandi. Draco sighs and throws his hands up. “For fuck’s sake, Potter. Do you want something?”
The profanity jars him from his trance; Potter clears his throat and steps forward. “I, er – I may have, uh. Lost a few things.”
“Thank Merlin, the Chosen One can speak. What things?”
“Um. Well, see, that’s the – that may be a bit of a problem.”
Draco raises an eyebrow and is rather pleased to see that it has the intended effect. Potter looks sheepish and flustered and it’s just a bit delightful. “Oh?”
“Well, it was kind of a lot of things.”
Draco’s face and stomach fall in unison. The ice in his voice is entirely genuine. “How many things?”
Oh, Salazar. “How. Many?”
“Um,” Potter mumbles, “about, you know, a houseful.”
Draco’s eyes flutter shut. “It’s you.” He adds, silently to himself, Who else could it be?
“It’s – what?”
Draco takes a deep breath and counts backwards from five before snapping his eyes open and staring at Potter with all the bile he can muster. “Are you, by any chance, the proud owner of nine decapitated, stuffed, and mounted house elf heads?”
Potter stops chewing on his bottom lip. “Proud might be a bit strong, but, uh, yeah. Those are mine.”
“And the rest of it?”
Potter nods, and manages enough decency to at least look properly embarrassed.
Draco reaches beneath the counter for another sheaf of parchment. “I suspect you’re going to need a bit more room to write.”
V V V V V
He stops abruptly. He’s got a client here. He’s got Potter here. The Minster’s favourite. The public’s favourite. He can’t be anything less than professional. Perfectly professional. Which is perfectly fine. Draco is good at professional.
Right, then. He straightens his robes and turns towards the dais. He’ll sort some items. It’s his job. He’ll do his job. That’s perfectly reasonable.
Half a dozen bottles of butterbeer are still perched on the edge of the platform. Perfect. They’re small enough to handle without disturbing his uniform. He lifts the next one and Scourgifies it, then pulls out a quill.
Butterbeer, bottle 27 of 36.
Standard. Empty on arrival.
Area F, Aisle 3, Shelf 12.
Bottles 28 through 34 have already been labelled and Draco is about to start on 35 when he is startled from his routine by the sound of a cough behind him. With nerves as frayed as his, he can’t help but jump. The last few bottles almost meet a messy end. He is still composing himself when a voice – that voice – pipes up again.
“Yes?” Draco turns towards him, trying to hide the shortness of breath that comes with being startled half out of one’s skin. No one ever comes back here. It’s against every one of Draco’s regulations. But then, for Potter, that’s probably all the more reason to do it.
“I, well, two things.”
“Of course,” Draco snaps, “let me guess. First, you continue to feel completely entitled to walk into restricted, employees-only areas of the Ministry regardless of the fact that you are not, in fact, in the Ministry’s employ. Second, you’ve got to the bit about missing items and have conveniently forgotten how to spell ‘pile of rubbish.’” Potter opens his mouth to speak; Draco ploughs ahead. “It’s P-I-L-E, space, O-F – another space here, Potter, since it’s three words, you see – R-U-B-B-I-S-H. Now if that’s all, you can leave your forms on the counter. You will receive an owl when your items have been retrieved.”
There’s a woefully familiar look of stubbornness on Potter’s face. “No.”
“One, I can spell perfectly well, thank you. Two, I’ve been yelling for you from outside for ages. Three, it’s not a pile of rubbish.”
“That’s three things, not two.”
“I only had two before I walked back here!”
“Before you walked back here uninvited and in violation of Ministry regulations,” Draco corrects.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
Draco plasters on his sweetest smile. “Oh, of course. Pray tell, Potter, what are your problems, exactly? I shall endeavour to do my very best to solve them all.”
“I –” Potter scowls. “Whatever. Whatever. Right. Two things. One, I ran out of room on the form. Two, I’m not sure what exactly I Vanished.”
“For Salazar’s sake, Potter. How is that even possible?”
“How is that – it must happen sometimes!"
“Likely, but who on earth comes looking for items they can’t remember?”
“It wasn’t exactly intentional, alright?”
“What, you came across an abandoned mansion and thought you’d get rid of the contents for a bit of fun? So powerful you accidentally Vanished half a vault? Decided to wreak bloody vengeance on evil skips across London?”
“Oh, for – it was a house. Alright? My house.”
Draco is actually a bit agape at that one. “I’m sorry? A house?”
Potter folds his arms. “Look, okay? I was cleaning it out. I’ve been cleaning it out for years and it’s just endless. Every time I think I’ve got one room straightened out there’s a new artefact or portrait or Disillusioned settee or flock of angry Doxies and I didn’t mean to Vanish everything in the house, it just sort of – I might’ve been a bit pissed off and the spell might’ve gone a bit…wide.”
“A bit wide?”
There’s a flush coming in on Potter’s cheeks. “Just a bit. A room or two. Or twenty.”
“Is there anything left in the damn house?”
Potter shakes his head. “Not really.” He pauses. “Well, a portrait. And an elf, but I think that’s just because he was able to pop himself back in. Otherwise…nothing. And I wasn’t all the way through, and I wasn’t exactly keeping track –”
“Of course not.”
Potter shoots him a look. “—since an entire house worth of stuff doesn’t usually Vanish, in my experience. So I don’t really know what was in there.”
“Let me get this straight. You were trying to clean out your house. You’ve spent a substantial amount of time doing that. Now, having succeeded at it, you would like to undo it?”
“I didn’t want to get rid of everything! Just the cursed stuff. And the broken stuff. And the ugly stuff.”
“Are you suggesting there was anything in that pile that didn’t fall into one of those categories?”
“Yes! God, Malfoy. Do you have to be such an arse about everything?”
Draco purses his lips. “Just leave me your list.”
“But it’s not—” Potter sighs. “I’ve put everything on the list that I can remember, but I can’t remember everything. If I just leave you a list I’ll never get stuff back, and it might be important, and I’ll never even know it was missing.”
“Well then, what exactly do you propose?”
Potter nods at the labelled bottles. “You have some method of sorting things, right? Couldn’t you just give me back the stuff that arrived when mine did?”
“You are not the only person who Vanishes things. Other items could have arrived in that window, not to mention several dozen items that were already on the platform when yours arrived and those that have arrived while your things have been undergoing the sorting and storage process. We are not at liberty to give away people’s things, nor can we assume that everyone will be perfectly happy to have us hand over everything that has arrived in the last two weeks. Even if it is to you.”
Potter narrows his eyes at that last. “Fine. Maybe I could look around a bit. See what I recognise.”
Draco scoffs. “And have you disturbing the entire department’s organisational system? Keep you around for weeks on end? I think not.”
“It won’t take that long. You can supervise. And I can bring friends, speed it along.”
“Friends? Merlin’s tits, Potter, that’s hardly an incentive. Having you on the premises is problematic enough.”
“But if you want it to go quickly –”
“Quickly, yes. Disastrously, no.”
“It would not be a disaster.”
“Please. Granger would try to reorganise the place, nosy witch. Lovegood would spend the whole time trying to talk to the glassware.” Draco has hit his stride; the tips of Potter’s ears are getting red. It feels good, feels familiar, and the words keep tumbling out. “Longbottom would trip into a shelf and send the whole room crashing to the ground, at which point Finnigan would blow it up. The various Weasleys would confuse it with a charity shop –”
“Stop it.” Potter clenches his fists. His cheeks are colouring nicely. “You don’t know them at all.”
Draco sneers. “Well enough not to let them in here.” It’s all coming back like second nature. “Well enough to be perfectly aware of what happened to the last Ministry department they tried to search.”
Potter’s practically steaming now. He steps forward threateningly, perilously close to an explosion. His voice is low, dangerous, half hissing. “And whose fault was that, hmm? Your fucking arrogant prick of a father –”
“Don’t you dare talk about my father.”
“I’ll talk about your father if I want to.”
“I’ll talk about your friends if I want to.”
They’re barely a foot apart now and Draco can feel heat and magic rolling off Potter’s body. That alone should be enough to ban him from the department. It could go wild at any moment and then where would they be? Buried alive in an avalanche of mislaid cloaks, that’s where. Potter is a hazard.
But they’ll never let him ban Potter, and death by knickknack is no way to go. Not least of all because, even in his rage, he knows exactly where the blame would fall, and it’s not on Potter. He takes half a step back and steadies his voice. “Outside personnel are not permitted in the department.
“Hermione and Ron work for the Ministry.”
“Personnel who do not work for the Vanishing Department are not permitted in the department.”
“What do you propose, then?”
“Give me your list. I will retrieve whatever is retrievable.”
Potter’s flush has filled in nicely, but the look on his face has segued from rage to something else. He almost looks distressed. “And the stuff that isn’t on the list?”
“If you never knew about it, you can hardly miss it.”
“Damnit, Malfoy!” Potter takes a step forward. His magic is crackling around him again, and Draco fights the urge to step back. “I’m sure it’s hard for you to understand this, spoilt rotten as you were, but not all of us had families, okay? And everything I have left of mine was in that fucking house. If you think I wouldn’t miss that, you’re even more heartless than your reputation suggests.”
They stand, staring at each other in silence, for a moment that seems to drag on endlessly. Draco’s stomach feels tight and sour and, worst of all, he’s not exactly sure why. He’s called far worse on a fairly regular basis. Potter’s outburst is pure sentimentality, mawkish and simple, the sort of thing he can barely tolerate at the best of times. It’s all the more reason to get Potter out of here as quickly as possible.
Draco snaps first. “Fine. Fine, Potter. Anything the Saviour wants. That’s how this works, isn’t it? Give me your damn list. We’ll retrieve what we can and then you can poke through the rest.”
Potter’s shoulders drop and Draco hates the look of relief that comes across his face. “Really?”
“Oh, of course,” Draco gushes, “it’s my mission in life to please the Boy Who Lived. Didn’t you know? I’ll have everything sorted and repaired and goodness, if there’s time I’ll wrap each item up with its very own bow.”
Potter snorts. “Yeah, a bow is just the thing for a troll-leg umbrella stand.”
“That’s what that is?” Draco can’t help the exclamation or, unfortunately, stuff it back into his mouth.
“Are you sure you want that thing back?”
Potter laughs, just once, low and tired. “Now that you mention it, what happens if I don’t?”
Draco frowns and crosses his arms. There’s a hefty amount of paperwork involved in sending non-perishables to Rubbish Incineration and Permanent Banishment, and the only other option is the guaranteed nightmare of running into that thing on a regular basis. “Just come back in a week, Potter.”