Draco Malfoy did not subscribe to The Quibbler. In fact, if you had caught him purchasing it – which he did from a different vendor every week in a random pattern that only a truly obsessive man would have been able to maintain – he would have smiled winningly and said that it was for the comedy, or the crossword, or the cartoon.
This last was not wholly untrue. Though the official line at the Ministry was that The Quibbler was mostly twaddle, under Luna Lovegood's surprisingly astute editorship, it had become a journal of incisive political comment … and paranormal zoology. Nowhere was this trend more obvious than on the editorial page, with its large cartoon by Padfoot every week.
Draco remembered the first one he'd seen, surreptitiously passed across a lunchtime table by a Ministry colleague. The war had been over for long enough that lower-level losers – like himself, Draco noted with more shame than bitterness – had been grudgingly welcomed back into the fold.
Some, who had no reason to expect forgiveness, had tried to sneak in under the ersatz amnesty. Some others, who had no reason to hold to their Brown Shirt bigotry, had argued that there was nothing to forgive and that their crimes had been blown out of all proportion. Draco had found himself flinging a copy of the Daily Prophet across his tiny office, appalled beyond manners by an editorial that suggested Dolores Umbridge was a blameless functionary, unfairly kept from returning to a suitable position.
It had been two days later that Smythe had slipped the Padfoot cartoon across the flimsy pine table, with a copy of the Specifications for Loose Salad Greens concealing it from prying eyes. Draco had lifted the pamphlet carefully to peer at the magazine beneath. There, in beautifully drawn inks, was Dolores Umbridge. Behind her, scores of ghostly figures: sad, lost, accusing. Beneath the illustration, there was a simple quote from the Prophet's editorial. 'Dolores Umbridge should be judged solely on her extensive record of public actions.'
It was devastating.
Three days later, surviving family members of witches and wizards who had disappeared through the Muggle-born Registration Commission's offices, and those who had lived but never recovered, brought a private action against Umbridge that eventually saw her bankrupted.
The Prophet's circulation decreased by ten per cent. The Quibbler's increased by at least one.
Now it was a highlight of Draco's Wednesdays, and quite worth the pre-breakfast walk. Toast buttered and tea poured, he turned to the centre pages and, glancing past the 'Erumpents in Wales!' editorial, feasted his eyes on the cartoon. It was Minister Shacklebolt this week, looking noble and harried. His desk groaned beneath a tower of papers swamping his in tray, and a look of forbearance and preternatural patience had been drawn on his face. Beneath it, the caption read: 'Some days, Kingsley almost missed the war.'
Draco smiled slightly; he knew the feeling. Of course, he was partially responsible for the dark circles beneath the Minister's eyes these days. His last report, all four-hundred-and-twelve pages of it, had been a detailed summary of the desirable diameters of lettuce varieties, from hearting to non-hearting. Shacklebolt had read it, too, as the three red circles around mis-spelled words proved.
Folding the paper and popping the dishes in the sink for the agency house-elf who would pop by later to clean, Draco looked down to check that his front was clean of crumbs, then shrugged his Ministry robes on over his suit, picked up his satchel and headed off for work.
Unsurprisingly, it was Smythe who announced the disaster just before lunch. His lugubrious jowls quivered under the tension of his jaw as he nipped into Draco's office and pulled the door to behind himself.
'We're doomed,' he announced.
Draco was oddly fond of his beige and bothered co-worker, and offered him a seat as he enquired how and why they were doomed this time. Working in the Office for the Volumetric Standardisation of Edible Wizarding Greengrocery Produce saw regular dooms declared, as everything from drought to hail, blight to scale insects, destroyed crops or rendered them unable to meet the exacting Standards and Specifications of the European Wizarding Union.
'It's the purple courgettes,' Smythe declared, pulling a slightly worse-for-wear one from a pocket.
Draco looked at the offending item. He looked again. 'It seems a bit …'
'Anoretic?' Smythe suggested. 'Thin? Skinny? Lacking in girth?'
'You're sure it's not a baby aubergine?'
'How can you tell?'
'Aside from the myriad physical differences, one's a Cucurbit and the other's from the Solanaceae family.'
Draco gave Smythe a long look. Smythe feigned innocence; at least, Draco assumed it was feigning. 'All right,' said Draco. 'Approve them as salad mix and for delicatessen sale, then. No one will know once they're all chopped.'
'Ah,' said Smythe, ominously.
'Ah, it appears there has been a minor cock-up and they've been approved for general sale.'
Draco looked down at the courgette. 'That's not possible, this has a twenty-five millimetre diameter, the minimum acceptable is thirty.'
'Twenty-four point five,' Smythe corrected him. 'And yes, it was a mistake. Mine, actually. I thought it was the third page of a form, but in fact it was a new form altogether that had snuck in under the paperclip.'
'Can happen to the best of us,' Draco reassured him. 'Chin up, we'll recall them, or come up with a cover story. Outrageous metrification defeats good traditional British Wizarding Measurement Traditions, damn the French. We'll blame the instruments. The world will not end for the sake of a courgette! No matter how much it might disappoint the good witches of Upper Ottery.'
'They'll have to turn to their husbands,' said Smythe wickedly.
Draco refused to raise an eyebrow, and replied in a perfectly even voice: 'Which may be a disappointment.'
'Though they could be pleasantly surprised, your best courgettes are only four inches long, you know,' Smythe said, thoughtfully.
'Glad to see you two are taking it all so lightly,' said a voice from the door, which had been pushed wider in the last few minutes. Leaning against the jamb, and looking none too pleased, was a familiar form in the red robes of an Auror.
'Potter,' said Draco. Of course it was.
Potter did not acknowledge the greeting, but continued talking instead. 'Unfortunately, the European Minister for Standards was on Diagon Alley this morning and her husband suggested they do a quick grocery shop so that he could cook something up in their rooms, and Malfoy I know for a fact you're bright enough to have worked out where this is going.'
'Mislabelling,' said Draco immediately. 'They were meant to be Baby Gourmet Courgettes at thirteen sickles per kilogram. Instead, due to a printer's error, people are buying them for six. Huge benefit to the consumer.'
'The Minister says they were too long to be baby courgettes.'
Smythe's jaw moved as though he had a rebuttal, but years of nervousness around the young Head Auror kept his voice choked in his throat. Draco stepped in for him. 'It's mid-season, they reach near adult length before they start their maturation into width. Well known fact.'
Potter pressed his lips together with the corners turning up, and for a second Draco hoped he had found a sense of humour in the man, but reality reasserted itself swiftly and he decided it was the first sign of anger.
'Look,' Potter said, his voice even 'I'd be happy to believe you, but the European Minister has decided that it's yet another example of recalcitrant British wizarding obstinacy.'
Smythe found his voice at last. 'That's a bit tautologous.' It was not helpful.
Potter ignored him. 'She's demanding an inquiry,' he said tiredly. 'I have neither the time nor patience for one. You're in charge of approvals, Malfoy, just throw me the underling who cocked up, we'll have him or her demoted for a few weeks until she goes home and this will all go away, all right? I'll even throw a few Galleons in to help cover the difference in salary.'
Draco looked at Smythe. Smythe shrugged, and made a small nodding motion. It was an easy way out, after all. It would be the sensible thing to do.
'I'll thank the European Minister not to cast aspersions on the agricultural traditions of the United Kingdom,' Draco said instead. 'If she chooses to look beyond her narrow focus and embrace the delicious diversity of British vegetable types, she could well find her gastronomic horizons broadened.'
He was rewarded by Potter's baffled expression. 'Malfoy, she's Italian. Didn't they invent the courgette?'
Draco waved away the comment. 'The zucchino: often over-large and water-padded, a bumptious beast of a vegetable, a Mediterranean marrow, not to be compared with our delightful, playful baby courgettes.'
And then, a miracle. Potter did smile. He turned his head away quickly to hide it, but it was definitely there.
Draco sensed a small victory. He was not wrong.
'You say a labelling error that has worked in the consumers' favour?' Potter asked, face straight again.
Draco took his chance. 'I do. Considerably in the consumers' favour.'
Potter sighed. 'I know I'm going to regret this, but I'll see what I can do.'
'Thank you, Auror Potter. I see that your reputation for public mindedness is not misplaced.'
'Don't make me sorry for helping you, Malfoy,' Potter said, his voice weary.
Draco was surprised. He didn't think Potter was ever weary. Wrongfooted, he spoke without thinking: 'I appreciate it, though. We're the whipping boys down here, no one ever considers that the problem is actually the eighteen thousand feet of regulatory legislation governing fruit and veg in this country.'
'I feel your pain,' Potter replied. And then his brain caught up with his mouth and his mouth turned down. 'I'll get back to you. Meanwhile, see if you can get out there and fix it.'
Draco's brain was working again, too. 'Why are you here giving us a bollocking rather than a missive from the Secretary?'
'Why do you think?'
'Oh bloody hell … it's a political statement, isn't it? The whole department is not to be trusted, let's send in the Aurors.'
There was a look on Potter's face that might have been sympathy. 'I'm satisfied no laws have been broken. But I'm afraid the politics are up to you.' He turned to leave, then turned back. 'One thing, she had a flunky from the Prophet with her when she came to see me.'
'Thanks for the heads-up.'
'Yeah, well. Not even you deserve the Prophet.'
Smythe waited until the sound of Potter's boots clicking down the hall had disappeared before he spoke. 'That was Harry Potter!'
'Yes, it was,' Draco agreed.
'I thought he hated you!'
Draco looked at him sharply. 'Where did you hear that?'
'It's a major theme in Harry Potter: the almost authorised biography and most of Harry at Hogwarts is about the two of you loathing each other. Though the Rainbow Wizard Harry Potter Turns Twenty-five Special the other year did suggest that it was all just an elaborate case of suppressed homoerotic desire.'
'You're a strange man, Smythe,' said Draco, after a moment's horrified stare. 'Now go and make me a cup of tea for saving your sorry arse while I come up with a plan that will stop the Secretary from killing the pair of us and keep the European Minister from scoring any substantive points against our Ministry.'
'Half a sugar and lemon?'
'And a biscuit.'
By the time Draco returned home that afternoon, the terrace was clean and tidy, his washing done and ironed, and a small pile of lost change and pieces of paper assembled on his kitchen table. Beside it was the invoice from Every House Elves, and a note that he was now eligible for their loyalty customer discount.
Draco assembled the requisite number of coins and left them in a pile on the invoice, adding a note of willingness to take up the offer and his approval of the standard of service. He would be staying in London for at least the next few years, and it wasn't as though Mother could spare any elves, so this was the best option.
He hoped that his other notes of the afternoon would be half so successful: two to the Daily Prophet, one to Malfoy Manor, and one to the Secretary, which, with any luck, would not reach him at his spiritual retreat (for which read girlfriend's house, Draco thought with half a smile) until the following morning.
For now, all he could do was wait. He flicked open The Quibbler again, and looked down at the image of tiny, harried Kingsley. 'Apologies in advance,' he muttered.
Draco actually paid good money to buy a copy of the Prophet the next morning. He reassured himself it was a needs-must situation. And, indeed, there on page four was the European Minister expressing her outrage that vegetable standards were so shoddily maintained in a country Europe had believed was finally bringing itself into line with modern wizardry.
His own note was also quoted in the story, apologising for the fact that a mislabelling incident had occurred, but pointing out that it had worked vastly in the consumers' favour and that baby vegetables were in again, The Big Thing this season.
It was an even-handed piece of journalism, but, best of all, it was a mere three inches across four columns, one of which was taken up by the Minister's photograph, accompanied by offending courgette. Underneath it some enterprising subeditor had seen fit to caption the image: 'Under-girthed courgettes stick in the craw.'
Even better than that was the page three story. In breathless tones, the journalist described how Narcissa Malfoy yesterday announced that Malfoy Manor would be thrown open for a ball and charity auction to raise much-needed funds for the proposed St Mungo's Children's Ward. Bravely managing the estates on her own since her husband's untimely demise, the still-attractive wealthy widow wanted to do her part in this vital cause.
Draco had no idea what his mother had given the journalist to drink, but suspected it had been heavily laced with something expensive, as the copy included four paragraphs on hors d'oeuvres that would be served, including: 'And some of those delightful courgettes, only as thick as your finger, served beside their flowers. I can't decide between stuffed or in an airy light batter, but they'll be local, of course.'
He would pay on the weekend, he knew. Mother would have a tedious friend who needed to be visited, and he would be dragged along to brighten the conversation. Or perhaps it would just be a few hours of moving rose bushes to more aesthetically pleasing positions.
There was no Owl from the Secretary; Draco hoped this meant his 'spiritual retreat' had run overtime. The man usually meant well, but for someone who did no work at all, had an annoying tendency to ask for endless reports and meetings. It had dawned on Draco some years ago that seniority within the Ministry came in inverse proportion to amount and quality of work produced in many cases.
There was no mention of the European Minister reporting her concerns to the Aurors in the paper, either. Draco wondered if Potter had put in a word. The man had a reputation for incorruptible fairness, perhaps it had worked in Draco's favour this time.
On balance, he was feeling remarkably cheery when he arrived at his office: a state of affairs that lasted until he spotted Smythe waiting outside his door.
'What is it?' Draco asked, pre-empting the lengthy apology that always preceded Smythe's early-morning problems. 'Messages from the European Minister?'
'Well, yes, you have a meeting at two, but it's about the Prophet, it's been a bit of a sensation I'm afraid.'
'It's only been out for three hours.'
Smythe looked harried. 'The letters began two hours and forty-five minutes ago.'
'What were you doing at the office at six fifteen? Never mind, I'm sure the answer will just upset me. All right, so, pro-British independence, or horror at our anti-European perfidy?''
'Oh, pro-British, was there ever any doubt? But that's not the problem.'
'Break it to me.'
'We're up to our ears in requests for suppliers of baby veg,' said Smythe.
Draco sighed. 'No good deed goes unpunished.'
'On the upside,' said Smythe, with a happy waggle of his bifocals, 'I'm eighty-four pages into the new specifications for what constitutes a baby veg and how to tell it from merely undersized. Do you think I should include microherbs?'
'Micro what?' Draco ushered Smythe into his office, already aware that it was going to be a long morning.
He was not wrong. Before he and Smythe had even had a chance for a cup of tea, Draco's assistant popped his head around the door to inform him that a senior delegate from the Wizarding Farmers' Federation would be by to see him at ten. Moreover, Bruce Pickett, for such was the delegate's name, was not happy, not impressed, and not intending to stand for it.
Draco dispatched his assistant to obtain sweet biscuits and more milk, clearly there would be quite a bit of tea consumed before the morning was out.
As it happened, Bruce Pickett, though a dyed-in-the-wool warrior for the working wizard, was a pleasant enough chap. He entered Draco's office with an air of sorrow and regret, rather than the belligerent bluster that other Farmers' Federation spokespeople had employed in the past. Draco was so relieved that he immediately decided to open the good packet of biscuits.
'It's not that we want to be at war with the Ministry, Mr Malfoy, but your lot makes it so difficult for us. Can you imagine our surprise to open up the paper today and realise that there's a whole vegetable category that none of you have seen fit to convey to any of us? A value-added, high-demand line that uses up veg we thought we had to remove from general trading? You're a reasonable man, you can see how we might be upset to learn all this.'
Draco agreed that he was a reasonable man, and that he could see why the farmers would be upset. 'But, and I am trusting to your discretion here, the fact of the matter is that baby veg are a new category and we only came up with them on the fly yesterday in response to a complaint from the European Minister.'
Bruce sighed and went on: 'And we've been flogging them all off for deli mix all this time and now we find there's a secret pricing strategy and we could have been selling them at a premium.'
'Yes, but we only invented that yesterday,' Draco explained patiently. 'In fact, we're still inventing the prices now.'
'It's just another case of the Ministry not helping the working man. I don't expect a toff like you to understand, Mr Malfoy, but those few sickles a pound make all the difference to the working man.'
'A kilogram,' said Draco automatically. 'Look, I do understand, what I am trying to tell you is that there was no such thing as a baby vegetable market until we made it up yesterday, Smythe is out there drafting regulations and pricing guides even as we speak.'
His rehearsed speech at its end, Pickett seemed to hear Draco for the first time. 'What do you mean you made it up?'
'I mean we made it up.'
Bruce Pickett was not a stupid man. In addition to reading the papers, he had thirty years on the land, watching the changes that had been wrought. A slow smile spread across his face. 'Is this some sort of anti-European protest?'
Draco schooled his features to appear as wholly innocent as was possible. 'No, of course not. That would be inappropriate on the part of the Ministry.'
The farmer gave him a long, calculating look. A wicked grin flicked across his features. A biscuit was taken from the plate and eaten slowly. When he spoke again, his accent was self-consciously agricultural. 'Obviously the Farmer's Federation is extremely pleased that the Ministry has finally seen fit to formally recognise the longstanding British tradition of baby vegetables. Although it's shamefully late in coming. It's indicative of how top-heavy and out of touch with the working farmer this Ministry is that it's taken culturally insensitive intervention from Europe to finally bring this issue to the fore.'
'The wheels of government must move slowly to ensure that every need is catered for,' Draco demurred.
'Yes, well, in this one case it's finally a good result from the Ministry in recognising a gap in the legislation that has been unfairly disadvantaging both farmers and consumers for many years now.'
'And that's the message you'll be taking back to your members?'
Bruce munched thoughtfully on his fourth biscuit. 'I thought I'd start with the Prophet.'
'Good man,' Draco said quietly, topping up Bruce's tea and thinking he would lay on cake the next time Pickett made an appointment.
'Well, that's the official stuff done,' Bruce said cheerfully. 'So, tiny veg for posh witches. I have to say I'm impressed. Wish I'd thought it up. Have you thought about other specialist fields?'
'I have this line of ribbed cucumbers, foot-and-a-half-long minimum, I think they'd do very well in some circles.'
Draco blinked at him for a moment until he could come up with something politic to say. 'I can't imagine how we'd ever secure approval for the advertising.'
'Good point. Shame, though.'
At half-past-eleven, Bruce Pickett's French counterpart, Daniel Massol, appeared. He brought with him a hamper, which he plonked down on Draco's desk with a muttered stream of French invective.
'I do speak French,' Draco told him, in English.
'I know you do,' he replied flawlessly in the same language. 'And now you know that I am not prepared to consume tea that tastes as though it has passed through an erumpent. Here, I packed some cheese my wife made, and the wine is my father's. Now, I have come to let you know that Fédération magique nationale des syndicats d'exploitants agricoles support the British agricultural sector in their battle against the tyrannical European Ministry and their refusal to acknowledge many farming traditions from your tiny vegetables to a rigorous system of appellations. Until we can bring them to understand that thousands of years of culture outweigh their paltry rules, we will need courageous stands such as the one made by your office. Although your counterpart in the French Ministry was not able to publicly join me in my support, he sent this box of macarons for you and your charming mother.'
Draco took the proffered sweet treats, and stammered, 'But it's not a battle, it's … it's just a difference of views. I'm sure it will all be cleared up by the weekend.'
'Nonsense, it is an heroic stand and one of which you should be proud.'
'It's really not!' Draco insisted. 'It's a bureaucratic reorganisation of the smallest level to allow a tiny bit more freedom in line with established cultural practices.'
'Vive la revolution!'
'I do wish you'd stop saying that,' said Draco. 'Someone will hear and then we'll all be in trouble.'
'Ah!' Daniel nodded knowingly. 'It is a covert operation, I see. Well, in that case, my visit here was completely adversarial.'
He stood up and went to the door, which he flung open. 'Enough of your British recalcitrance!' he shouted loudly enough to be heard throughout the department. 'When will you rosbif realise that you cannot hold out against the superior ways of Europe? Your pathetic attempts at isolationism fool nobody, and I am only glad to hear you speak of the European Minister in such complimentary terms!'
Daniel closed the door and whispered so only Draco could hear him. 'There you are, no one will suspect a thing! Keep the cheese and wine, and do keep us informed, we are more than happy to strike in support of your artisinal traditions!'
'You're happy to strike in support of Tuesday,' Draco muttered, but there was no point, Daniel was kissing him amicably on both cheeks and taking his leave.
He had a little time after Daniel departed to sit and think. And eat most of the cheese and drink a glass of wine. Things had moved with a little more speed, and scope, than he had intended, but they were still under his control. He would be conciliatory and generous with the European Minister and accept the blame for not having previously established a standard for baby courgettes in Great Britain, and would introduce her to Smythe and what would doubtless be his four-hundred pages of suggested specifications by then. He would offer her tea and most of his share of the macarons, and by the time the Secretary returned from 'retreat', the entire crisis would have blown over and an even deeper friendship between the British and European Ministries would have been forged.
At twelve, an Owl arrived to inform him that his meeting with the European Minister had been moved to Minister Shacklebolt's office. Draco decided against taking the macarons, and also against drinking the remainder of Daniel's wine.
He downgraded the likelihood of success to Possibly.
At one-forty-five, Draco set out, armed with Smythe's draft specifications, photographic evidence of baby courgettes culled from sixty years of Witch Weekly cooking specials and a positive attitude. He had been faking the last for a decade, and was quite convincing by now.
At one-fifty, he was in the lift, making his way to the Minister's floor, when Harry Potter joined him.
'Potter,' Draco nodded.
'Malfoy,' Potter returned the salute. 'I assume you're off to the same meeting I am.'
Draco mentally downgraded the likelihood of success to Pitiful and sighed. 'So she's pursuing the legal front, I take it.'
Potter sniffed dismissively. 'Merlin, no. She tried, I've had four Owls already today. But to prove that there has been any infringement of the law, she has to prove that your office knowingly sold undersized courgettes for undeserved profit, and I am satisfied that it was a labelling error that worked in the consumer's favour.'
His lips twitched upwards as he parroted the phrase. Draco was unable to resist a smile of his own. 'Very decent, Potter. I appreciate it.'
'Yes, well. If it's us against them, this time you're firmly us.'
'It's been a dozen years, let it go,' Draco said with the smallest of eye rolls.
'A bit over eleven, actually. And I was referring to Quidditch.'
Draco knew he should shut up, but: 'I never could work you out, Potter. You look simple, but you're not, are you?'
'Not at all,' Potter replied as the lift's doors opened. 'This way.'
Shacklebolt welcomed the two of them graciously. He had set up the meeting in one of his office's anterooms and a table of tea and other refreshments was in place. Draco managed not to laugh when he saw that the cucumber sandwiches had been made using slices from the tiniest cucumbers imaginable.
Shacklebolt insisted they both sit down before he began to speak. 'I expect the European Minister in a few minutes, but asked the two of you here in advance so that I could reassure you that this is a small matter over which I expect her to make an enormous fuss. We will all listen with good grace and assure her that her concerns have been taken seriously, and then she will go away in a week convinced that she has done great work promoting her chances for Chancellor of Europe.'
Draco raised his chances for success back up to Possibly again. Potter, on the other hand, looked less than impressed.
'Why don't we just tell her to piss off? It's domestic market only, there have been no local complaints, and it's an incredible waste of our time and resources having to not only police this sort of rubbish but devote a whole section of the Ministry to it. No offence, Malfoy.'
'None taken. Though I would point out that my office is the only one that seems to be the least bit concerned with the working wizard on the land.' Draco could imagine Bruce Pickett's hand patting his shoulder and had to stop himself from laughing.
Potter frowned at him, but the Minister looked thoughtful. 'That's an excellent point, it wouldn't hurt us to have a Secretary for Agriculture.'
Before they could begin to discuss the issue, the Minister's PA knocked at the door and announced the European Minister and her husband. The three British wizards stood up for the introductions and Draco took it upon himself to offer tea.
'Is it black tea?' Signora Gambara asked. 'We are only just becoming used to its taste.'
'It is,' said Shacklebolt. 'We have milk, sugar and lemon. Or I'm sure we could organise coffee, butterbeer, mineral water, whatever you would prefer.'
'No, no, we are here to experience British traditions,' she smiled. 'I would like mine with lemon, and Gianni will have his with milk.'
Cups were poured, sips were taken, plates of small sandwiches and cakes were handed around, and each of the meeting's attendees eased themselves back in their seats a little.
'Now,' Signora Gambara began, 'I am sure that we can come to an agreement that will see both parties satisfied here. But I would like it acknowledged to begin with that the size of the zucchini being sold on Diagon Alley yesterday was not up to standard.'
'Not up to current standard, no,' Draco agreed.
'Which is against the law,' Signora Gambara reminded him, though her tone was mild.
Potter drew in a breath to speak. Draco hurriedly spoke over him. 'Not quite, in Britain it's seen as a legal infringement only if items are mislabelled in an attempt to profit. However, because the undersized courgettes would normally have sold at a higher sum, there was clearly no such intent. What is obviously the case is that we have been lax in putting forward standards to govern the British tradition of baby vegetables. You'll be happy to know that my colleagues have been developing such a standard and I have copies of the first draft here if you and the Minister would like to examine them.'
Signora Gambara nodded and held out her hand for a copy. Alas, before Draco could hand it to her, the door opened, and the Secretary appeared, hair oiled and high-necked robe closed to the top button.
'Minister, Ministera Gambara, Head Auror Potter, sorry I'm late. Thank you, Malfoy, you can return to your duties now.'
'Certainly Secretary, I just have this …'
'Yes, discuss it with me later, there's a good chap. Now, about this whole sorry business …'
Draco left. There was no point arguing, even though both the Minister and Potter looked at him with surprise, and the European Minister and her husband muttered in confusion. He waited on the bench by the lift, conscious of the fact that he should have handed over the draft standards before he left. Still, he couldn't hear any shouting, and that had to be a good sign. Probably. Possibly.
The door slam roused Draco from his musings, and the spat word woke him right up. It was Potter, storming towards the lift in a manner that 'fury' did not begin to encompass. Draco leaned back, hoping that the shadow would hide him.
The lift doors pinged open, and Potter stomped in, robes swirling as he spun about and punched the button for his floor. He looked up, and saw Draco in the darkness. He glared for a moment, then opened his mouth to say something, just as the lift doors slammed shut.
Draco let out the breath he had been holding. One bullet dodged.
The next stomping feet came a few minutes later, in a set of four, and – following the obligatory door slam – punctuated their steps with 'Arrogante! Presuntuoso! Egocentrico!'
The European Minister's husband spotted Draco, and muttered a quiet, 'Elena …'
Draco could not read the expression on the minister's face, amid the anger he thought he saw a moment of sympathy, but it was quickly replaced by embarrassment that she had been overheard. 'Signore Malfoy,' she said, nodding slightly as she called the lift.
'Arrivederla, Ministera,' he said, politely. 'Arrivederla Signore Gambara.'
'Chin up, Mr Malfoy,' said the minister's husband. 'You have acquitted yourself well, it's a shame that probably won't be taken into account in this matter, but it has been noted.'
Draco gaped. Aside from everything else, he had assumed Signore Gambara couldn't speak English. The pair of Italians smiled indulgently at his expression, and Signore Gambara even winked at him as the lift doors shut on them.
Well, Draco thought, he could always try a year or two in Rome. Though it would mean an end to his determination to build a career based on merit rather than purchased patronage.
He heard the Minister's door open again, and abandoned his pride altogether, hiding behind the bench this time.
'You can't let them walk all over us,' the Secretary's voice declared loudly. 'Give an inch on this and the next thing you know they'll be declaring that the kilometre must become the sole unit of measurement observed. I know it seems undiplomatic, Kingsley, but you have to trust me that we cannot be seen to bend over for these people.'
Shacklebolt's voice was clipped. 'I can't help thinking it might have been wiser to see what young Malfoy had to say. His part of your department had been dealing with the matter quite well, in my opinion.'
'Malfoy tries hard, but he's not really to be trusted, is he?' the Secretary asked.
'Not when you consider his parentage …' the Secretary finished, in a confidential tone. He shook the Minister's hand, stepped into the waiting lift, and left.
Shacklebolt waited until the doors were shut before he muttered, 'At least he's not a complete bastard, unlike some.' He stepped over to where Draco was hiding and offered a hand.
Draco took it and allowed himself to be lifted up. 'I take it that did not go well, sir.'
'Not in the least,' Shacklebolt replied. 'Tell me, Mr Malfoy, do you make a habit of hiding behind furniture?'
'Not for years, sir.'
'Ah.' Shacklebolt nodded sympathetically. 'Hungry? I still have most of a decent spread in there.'
'You're very kind, sir.'
'Not at all, you're the only person who's spoken any sense around me all day. Do you have those draft standards with you still? Excellent. I'll take a look while we eat. Probably best if you're out of your office for a little while yet.'
Draco resolved that his next report to Minister Shacklebolt would come with a short précis and be written in plain English.
Smythe was hovering outside Draco's office. When he saw Draco walk down the hall, he sighed in relief.
'Steady on,' Draco said. 'I was just at the Minister's.'
'The Secretary has announced that the Europeans cannot tell a standard-sized purple courgette from their collective elbows,' Smythe replied.
'Oh good lord …' moaned Draco.
'Indeed. When you did not return, it was feared you had found a convenient library and done the decent thing.'
Draco snorted as he opened his door and ushered Smythe in.
'Not by me, of course,' Smythe went on. 'I insisted that you were far more likely to commit homicide than suicide.'
'You know me well.' Draco flopped into his chair, Smythe did the same in the guest chair that may as well have been his. 'Oh well. The damage is done. On the other side of the ledger, the Minister has a copy of your report and the Europeans seem to be focussing their hatred on the Secretary. I think we were well along the way to a mutually satisfying compromise before he barged in.'
'And nary a cucurbit in sight,' Smythe voce-ed in an utterly unsotto fashion.
'Why do I talk to you?'
'People were worried when you used to talk to yourself. I'm your veneer of respectability.'
'Good man. Right. So. What we need is a plan.'
Smythe nodded eagerly. 'Do you have one?'
'So. Failing a plan, I suppose we could do with a drink.'
Smythe smiled at Draco with genuine affection. 'I like you far more than I used to like the Junior Under-Secretary.'
'Don't speak ill of the demented, Smythe,' Draco admonished, pouring a stiff firewhisky into each of two glasses. 'Which reminds me, whose turn is it to visit him this week?'
'Relax. Abbortsford of Accounts was there yesterday. He saw the former Under-Secretary there, too. Apparently he's decided to take up a career in Divination and has taken to calling himself Norman the Paranormal.'
Draco nodded. Working under the Secretary, he had often wondered if it would be easier to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and superiors and simply descend into the madness that beckoned. Certainly he had never seen the Under-Secretary so happy as the day he decided to resign by stripping and throwing his robes over the Secretary to the tune of 'What a Wicked Witch Am I'. Though where he found frilly French knickers in that size was a mystery Draco did not want solved.
The Junior Under-Secretary was a less happy case, probably because he had persisted in his belief that the Secretary could be reasoned with. Ultimately, they had found him hiding under his desk with a box of digestives. Draco had instituted a collection fund so that he could be kept in the chocolate-covered variety while he recovered.
'Cheers, Smythe. Here's hoping we come up with something good, and quickly.'
'Mr Malfoy,' Smythe clicked his glass against Draco's. 'I am sure that we will.'
A persistent thumping began against the door. With a resigned sigh, Draco stood up and answered it. A memo flew in and buried itself in his hair. He pulled it out, read it, and crumpled it into the bin.
'From the Secretary?' Smythe asked.
'Naturally. We're to have a meeting, about job descriptions.'
Draco lifted his glass and drained it in two swallows. 'Now.' He turned the tip of his wand towards his mouth and sprayed a minty burst to cover up the whisky. 'And Smythe?'
'If you hear screams, see if you can hold people out long enough for me to finish killing the bastard, would you?'
'Assuming you'll have no time for a Muffliato charm before you snap?'
As it happened, Draco may as well have cast a Muffliato on himself.
'I know that you meant well,' said the Secretary. 'But really, Draco, there's no call to overstep your bounds in your eagerness to pal up to the Europeans. They don't respect it, you know. It makes them think we're easy. You should have owled me the moment things erupted.'
'I did, sir.'
'If you had, we'd have been able to avoid things progressing to the stage where I needed to intervene. I know you had the best of intentions, but I am the Secretary and it just doesn't do for someone who is not even officially the Junior Under-Secretary to go off without consulting me.'
'I did send several owls, sir.'
'There are fine lines to Ministry politics which must be learned, Draco. I know that your family has traditionally bought its way through life, but not everything can be paid for. Experience is one thing that must be earned …'
It is possible that the Secretary went on to explain how, but Draco had focussed on his left ear by then and heard none of it.
After a while, he became aware that the sounds issuing from the Secretary had taken on a repetitive note.
'Sorry, sir, I was just reflecting on how I could have handled the whole situation better,' Draco lied.
'Good man. That's what I like about you, Malfoy: you're not one to dwell on failure. Head home, I'll see you tomorrow.'
Draco took his advice and left, but was unable to decide if the best handling of the situation would have involved blackmailing or murdering the Secretary.
Every House Elves had been and gone, as was usual, by the time he returned. Draco found he did not mind having to pay for house-elves; it took all of the guilt and grovelling out of the situation, and meant one did not have to listen to their mangled syntax, unless one paid extra for the Full Elf Experience. Draco was not wholly sure what this entailed, and did not plan to ask.
Still, it meant the laundry was done, and that meant his favourite blue shirt was clean and freshly ironed. He slipped out of his robes, threw himself through the shower and popped it on, along with a pair of trousers that were Mugglish enough to pass. It was Thursday, which meant that he would need to Apparate, as walking could put him in the way of people who would Ask Questions, but that would be fine. His current fave bar had a delightful assortment of dark alleys nearby, thanks to having been founded in the less-enlightened 60s.
A quick wand-assisted hair foof later and he was ready. Almost. He remembered in time that accessories made the man-seeking-man social shorthand and buckled on a watch that Justin Finch-Fletchley had assured him was both fashionable enough and expensive enough to attract the sort of man that meant one would not have to Obliviate oneself afterwards.
Or, as his mother had put it, 'Darling, if you must be an invert who prefers slumming it with Muggles, at least try to maintain some standards when it comes to aesthetics and hygiene.'
Draco smiled a little at the thought. He would take her something nice with the macarons tomorrow. Tonight … well, tonight was for himself.
As he expected, Apparating to the bar caused no problems. What he did not expect was that Harry Potter would walk in immediately after him. Draco had barely had time to pick up his drink and pocket the change when he saw the slightly scruffy speccy wonder walk in. Of course, given this, he was unsurprised to see Potter make a beeline straight for him.
'Can I finish my drink before you arrest me?' he asked quietly, draining the glass.
The surprised look on Potter's face modified itself into perplexed. 'I'm not here to arrest you. Why? What have you done?'
'Lately?' Draco held up his hands in mock surrender. 'Nothing. Written some tedious standards and legislation. Donated to good causes. Paid sodding house-elves.'
Potter frowned at him. 'What are you doing here? This is a Muggle bar!'
Draco held his temper. 'Yes, I know. What are you doing here? This is a gay bar.'
Potter looked away.
'Oh,' said Draco. 'Oh.' He tried again, with a little tact this time. 'Sorry, it was just the surprise. I've not seen you here before. It's a perfectly fine bar, if filled tonight with people who seem to be all of thirteen.'
Potter looked back with a faint smile. 'So, why are you slumming it, then?'
'Please, I'm hardly likely to pull with anyone in wizarding Britain. At least here I'm a bit of posh blond, and that's usually all anyone cares about.'
It was good that Potter had not had time to order a drink yet, because he would have sprayed it over Draco with the force of his laugh. Before Draco even had time to work up a good case of personal offence, Potter was apologising. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it was just the way you said it. I can see that. Makes perfect sense. No, not like that. I mean, obviously you're posh and blond in our world, too, I'm just going to shut up.'
Draco tried to look cross, but failed miserably. He was well aware of the absurdity inherent in the situation. And, it suddenly occurred to him, the symmetry.
'Witch Weekly still runs its When Will Harry Get Back With Ginny poll, you know.'
'That you're probably the only wizard in Britain who is more circumspect about these things than I am.' Draco watched Potter's shoulders fall in resignation for a full ten seconds before he registered why.
'Oh as if I'd tell anyone,' he scoffed. 'Quite aside from the impossibility of doing so without implicating myself, it's simply not done.'
Potter looked at him. This was a bad time to realise that Potter had been hiding eloquent eyebrows behind those glasses for all these years. Draco could not let the eyebrows pass. 'Oh shut up. I've been a decent and law-abiding citizen for eleven years. Surely that should count for something.'
'I was trying to convey appreciation and mutual respect,' Potter protested.
'That is an appalling lie.' Draco tried to maintain a straight face, but it proved impossible in the face of Potter's renewed laughter. 'All right, shut up and buy me a drink after making me scoff the last one.'
'People will talk,' Potter joked, waving to catch the attention of the bar artiste.
'Let them,' Draco shrugged. 'None of this lot knows anything about us.'
Potter ordered two bespoke vodkas, then turned his attention back to Draco. 'I thought you came here to pick up.'
'Well, perhaps a few of them know me a bit in the biblical sense, but that doesn't compel me to care about their feelings.'
'You're a hard man, Malfoy.'
'Someone's been talking.'
Potter ignored the weak comedy. 'Listen, I'm glad I've run into you, actually. I wanted to tell you that I was outraged by the Secretary's behaviour this afternoon. It's one thing having foreign dignitaries waste my time on matters of politics, but when I have to listen to one of our own spout rubbish like that and I'm expected to nod and agree … He should never have pushed you out of there. You had the situation under control.'
Draco sipped at his fresh drink, trying to contain his exact level of pleasedness. 'It is possible that I still have it under control, if less neatly so than I had planned,' he confided.
'I hope you do. Kingsley seemed convinced you could handle it, and the European Minister thought you were doing a good job. I thought she was going to throttle the Secretary when he sent you out.'
Draco allowed himself a moment's fantasy. 'No, no, I am sure that she was just annoyed that negotiations were cut off midway, as it were.'
'You were just imagining her killing him there when your eyes went all glazed for a moment, weren't you?'
'Absolutely. And you and Kingsley standing back and trying to decide if it was more politic to enforce the law or maintain diplomatic protocol.'
'I won't lie to you, it would have been a very hard decision and could have taken several minutes.'
Draco and Potter both stopped laughing at the same time, which was ironic, since it was the realisation they were both laughing that called a halt to it. Still, Draco reminded himself, Potter had been kind yesterday. So he smiled. And Potter smiled back.
'Thank you,' Draco said. 'It has not been the best of days, so that … helps.'
'Well, that's a first. It's been minutes now and I'm still feeling quite cheerful in your company.'
'Don't panic. No one here knows us, and neither of us will be mentioning this to anyone.'
'Potter? Shut up. You were actually being unobjectionable and I am trying to get used to it.'
'I appreciate you remaining a supercilious twat for my comfort.'
'You're more than welcome.'
They finished their drinks in silence, then Draco looked around the room. 'Right. No one here worth undoing my belt for. You staying?'
Potter looked up at him in surprise.
'Keep your hair on' said Draco. 'My intentions are pure. I was just about to say that if you don't have a plan, now might be a good time to leave as the drag show's about to start, while the quiet pub up the road will be hitting its mellow phase and we can have a quiet chat and drink like two civilised adults.'
'Show's that bad?'
'Lulu impersonator with a blow-up sex doll.'
'Merlin.' Potter picked up his jacket and followed Draco out the door.
The pub up the road was indeed quiet, and mellow, and did a surprisingly good supper.
Which was a relief, because Draco was able to occupy himself with eating while Potter ranted.
'The thing is that I am really just a figurehead. I mean, I have control of my department from an operational perspective, but the expectations of the public govern everything I do. So all of the sweeping changes I want to bring in are watered down for political expediency.
'And it's my own fault! Well, mine and Kingsley's. We were so obsessed with making everything democratic and removing the autocratic control of the Minister that we emasculated our own power and gave the Secretaries free rein.
'So we spend our days trying to curb their most ridiculous excesses and never able to manage the reforms we really need! You have no idea of the frustration!'
Draco couldn't let that pass without comment. 'I think I might.'
'Of course you would … I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking,' Potter's apology was unforced, which flustered Draco.
'No, what I mean is, I know how you feel, and I know that you can turn things around. My Secretary is a raving idiot, but the rest of us can usually manage him, unless he puts his mind to something.'
'His alleged mind,' corrected Potter.
'You were not amusing at school, I am certain of this.'
'I was, you were too busy plotting my downfall to notice.'
'You make an excellent point.' Draco pushed his plate into the centre of the table so that Potter could help himself to the remainder of his chips. 'But it reminds me that not only did you manage to survive my plotting, you coped against my father and the vilest wizard of our times, so what the hell are you doing bowing beneath the weight of these geese? You're Harry bloody Potter. Stand up to the bastards.'
Potter toyed with the chips. 'I'm tired of standing up, I'd rather just walk away.'
'Well then, walk! Take a holiday. Go to Zanzibar, or Penzance if you think a weekend will do. Just, be you! It's disconcerting watching you be all mopey. It's not what you do. It's as if Goyle was suddenly bright.'
'I've moped!' Potter insisted. 'Anyway, how is Goyle?'
'Reassuringly stupid. He married a German girl, they have fat children. He seems happy enough.'
'Fat German girl, you say? Happy, eh?'
'Ginny Weasley would never forgive you. I'm guessing men she could understand, but a hefty fräulein named Helga?'
Potter laughed again, and when they had stopped laughing, they turned to chatting, the conversation running through the recent activities of all Weasleys as the last of the chips were eaten and pints consumed. It was still comparatively early when they left the pub, and there were a fair few people on the street.
'I'm glad I ran into you, Malfoy,' Potter announced.
'Yeah, it was surprisingly unawful.'
'No one is more shocked than I.'
'Well, good night, then,' Draco said, and was startled to find himself making a move to shake Potter's hand. At the same time Potter moved for a manly hug. Both of them stopped mid-gesture and attempted to adapt to the other's intent before giving it up for lost and feigning hair smoothing.
'Yeah, see you,' Potter replied, before walking away quickly.
Draco watched Potter walk quickly off to an alley, and duck down it, presumably to Apparate. That was doubtless one of the odder evenings he'd had in some time. As he strolled down the road, it occurred to him that he was, unusually, going home alone after a night out. That said, he wasn't sure he was capable of any conversation beyond 'I worry Harry Potter's going a bit Trelawney, which can't bode well all things considered', and it was unlikely that would work with his target audience, so there was no point going back to the bar.
In the end, he walked the whole way home. And at the end of his walk, he was no closer to knowing what he planned to do about things than he had been at the beginning of it.