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Little Red Courgette

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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?'

'Quite sure.'

'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?'

'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?'

'No, why?'

'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.'

'Yes, quite.'

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.

Probably.

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.

'Pathetic!'

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.

'Isn't he?'

'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?'

'No.'

'Ah.'

'You?'

'No.'

'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.'

'When?'

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?'

'Yes?'

'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?'

'Quite.'

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.

'Draco? Draco?'

'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.'

'Your point?'

'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.'

'You're welcome.'

'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.

Chapter Text

The Secretary had an appointment with his communication staff from nine till two on Friday. As Smythe wasted no time in telling Draco, Jenkins, a sensible, competent witch who had managed to make the Secretary look functional for over four years now through her genius management as his communications manager, had handed in her resignation last night and been promptly replaced by a woman named Dianna.

Draco stopped in the act of opening his door. 'Not girlfriend Dianna?'

'One and the same,' Smythe grinned.

'Surely his wife will notice!'

'That would be the wife who has just set off on a three-week study tour of magical herb signatures in Snowdonia.'

Draco shook his head. 'So I suppose we won't be seeing him until this afternoon.'

'If then. Bruce Pickett sent an owl, it's on your desk. It says that if the Secretary's taking over then all bets are off, but if you're going to smooth the whole thing over, then his members are right behind you.'

'Fabulous, that's not the least bit inflammatory. And why are you reading my mail?'

'I didn't read it!' Smythe protested. 'I invented a charm whereby owls tell you what's written on them.'

'That's so much better. Are you coming in?'

'In a minute, I've a pot of tea on the brew for us.'

'You're a treasure, Smythe.'

When Draco's colleague returned, he was carrying a tray with a teapot, two cups, sundries including biscuits and a very large vegetable.

'You're not going to convince me that's better than lemon,' Draco said.

'Ha. No, Pickett left it for you, said he thought it would give you a laugh.' Smythe handed over an enormous carrot that had two round protuberances bulging from its leafy end.

Potter appeared in the office doorway at that precise moment and stared at the vegetable in Draco's hands.

'Don't say a word,' Draco warned.

'I wouldn't dream of it,' Potter promised.

Smythe was all but overcome with excitement. 'You're back, Auror Potter! Is there a problem?'

'No, no problem. I just wanted to pop by and thank Mr Malfoy for his help last night.'

Smythe looked as though his days had reached a glorious conclusion.

'We chatted at the pub, where we ran into each other by chance,' Draco exposited before Smythe could expire from glee. 'And I don't remember being very helpful,' he added, to Potter this time.

'No, you were!' Potter insisted. 'I can't tell you why till after I've spoken with Kingsley, but trust me, it made an enormous difference.'

'Er, well, congratulations, I suppose.'

'Cheers, thanks. I'll see you, yeah? Catch up for a drink where we ended up last night?'

'Drinks?' Draco was caught off guard. 'I can't tonight, I'm off home.'

'Oh, no, of course. Next week?'

'I'm back Sunday afternoon,' Draco found himself saying.

'Sounds great. Four?'

'Yeah, that will be fine. Do you want to eat, too?'

'Good idea. Drinks and dinner it is.'

Draco was left blinking, while Potter smiled brightly and turned to leave.

'Mr Potter?'

Potter turned back. 'Yes, er, Smythe, isn't it? What can I do for you?'

'Would you mind if I asked a personal question?'

Draco held his breath, but Potter was all affability. 'Go ahead, I don't guarantee I'll answer.'

'Did you really have a brief affair with Rita Skeeter as she alleges in The Boy Who Lived Large?'

Draco had to stop holding his breath as he was now occupied trying not to laugh.

'No,' said Potter. 'Though she did turn up at my house a few months after the war ended wearing nothing but a light formal robe and a ribbon with a tag that said "Untie me".'

'Oooh, that would put you off your dinner,' Smythe sympathised.

'You have no idea,' Potter agreed. 'Right, need to go, see you Sunday, Malfoy.'

'Yeah, cheers, see you,' Draco replied.

Smythe waited till Potter was gone before he turned back to face Draco. 'I can't believe Rainbow Wizard was right all along!'

'Don't be ridiculous, Smythe. Pour the tea.'

'Certainly. And you needn't worry, of course I will keep news of your liaison with Auror Potter entirely confidential.'

'It was a drink, well, a few drinks and some pub food, but hardly a liaison!'

'No, of course not,' Smythe winked.

Draco glared at him for a long moment. When he spoke, it was with cool deliberation. 'I am willing to bet several Galleons that you have the full set of Potter posable action figures at home, don't you, Smythe?'

His workmate paled. 'Of course not. Those are children's toys. That would be ridiculous.'

'If I report suspiciously pornographic marrows in your back garden to the Aurors, he may be forced to investigate.'

Smythe looked at Draco narrowly. 'I suspect you wouldn't, and that you are bluffing in a bid to have me drop the topic and go back to my work, but then I didn't think you would hide the authorisation for extra administrative staff in the midst of the Secretary's travel allowance claim forms, so on the basis that safe is better than sorry, I am returning to my desk.'

'Thank you. Here, have some chocolate biscuits.'

'You cannot buy me,' Smythe declared, taking several. 'I must say that I am sorely disappointed in you.'

'You're only disappointed that I haven't been having a torrid affair with the Chief Auror and been dying for the opportunity to share all the juicy details with you.'

'Yes. You're astonishingly inconsiderate.' On that note, Smythe took his tea and biscuits and stood to leave.

Draco made it all the way to four o'clock in the afternoon before anything else tremendously odd happened. At a minute past, an interdepartmental memo on the thick creamy parchment of the Minister made its way to his office and darted merrily in front of him until he caught and read it.

A surprise meeting was not unprecedented, and it did say that it was more of an informal chat, best of all, it was signed 'Kingsley' … Draco decided that it was unlikely to be a trap and was more probably a continuation of the Minister's kindness of yesterday.

'Smythe, I'm off to see the Minister!' he sang out as he went past the other's office.

'Can I have your things if you're sacked?' Smythe called back.

'The stapler goes to my mother, the rest is yours. See you Monday if I'm not back by five.'

The Minister's assistant smiled when she saw Draco. 'In this way, sir, you're expected.'

That had to be a good sign, he thought. And the Minister himself smiled and indicated the seat opposite him. There was even an offer of tea. It all looked very promising.

'I'm afraid I have a tiny piece of bad news,' the Minister began.

'Ah,' said Draco. 'How tiny and how bad?'

'Nothing dire. It's just that, remember that draft policy you left with me yesterday?'

'On the baby vegetables?'

'Yes. I had a moment of madness this afternoon and accidentally signed off on it. And then there was a reporter from the Prophet here wondering what I had been up to, and I happened to mention it. She replied that she was under the impression the Secretary had come out strongly against amended standards, at which point I am afraid to say your name came up.'

'Oh Merlin …'

'Don't fret, Mr Malfoy, I spoke highly of your work in this field and of the fact that I wish to see more Under-Secretaries running their own sections of the Ministry rather than being continually micromanaged by Secretaries who have more essential roles elsewhere in their departments. You're not a lackey, my good fellow, you're a vital part of the functioning Ministry.'

'Actually, Minister, I'm an Assistant Junior Under-Secretary.'

'Yes, Draco, I realised that this morning when I was reading over your files. Stupid title, I saw no reason not to promote you.'

'What did the Secretary have to say about that?'

'Not sure, but when he gets back from his "meeting", which I assume is still going on, he will probably be more interested in my owl asking him to explain why Mavis Jenkins, the only Communications Director I have ever liked, has gone to work for The Quibbler, leaving me with a two-foot-long resignation scroll detailing why she will never work for that man again.'

'Minister …'

'Do call me Kingsley.' The man was smiling. Draco even suspected him of twinkling.

'Kingsley, why the sudden shake up? I don't mind being used as a pawn in it, especially since you seem to well and truly have my back, as it were, but the Secretary's been useless for years and it never roused you to action before.'

'I had the most illuminating discussion with Harry earlier today.'

'Potter?'

'He advised me to stand up to the bastards, said he planned to do the same.'

'Of course he did. Right, well, happy to stand alongside and be counted as a fellow rejector of bastardry, sir.'

'Good man. So, I apologise for what will doubtless be inflammatory headlines and the dreadful Monday you are likely to have thanks to me. However, I'll do what I can to keep the Secretary more concerned for his own future than yours.'

'Thank you, sir.'

'And the promotion was deserved and overdue, the fact that I can use it to make a salient point is by the by; you earned it.'

'Thank you, Kingsley.'

'Finished your tea? May as well make an early start on the weekend, I'd say.'

'Thanks, I will. What about you?'

'I'm torn between heading off early and wanting to be here when the Secretary finally receives that owl. I'm half hoping he comes storming in to confront me violently.'

'What will you do if he does?'

'I'm torn between Stunning him and knocking his legs out from under him and sitting on him,' Kingsley mused.

'You really do miss being an Auror, don't you?'

'There was a certain simplicity to it that I enjoyed immensely.'

'Stunning and sitting on people.'

'So much more fun than politics for the most part.'

'Have a good weekend, Kingsley.'

'You too, Draco. And sorry about the media barrage, but you're tough, and I made them promise to use a flattering photograph.'

'Cheers.'

Draco laughed as he walked back to the lift, but it was a wary laughter. So far his success in the Ministry had come thanks to an incredible amount of hard work and the ability to survive crises while handing the credit for such survival off to whoever would most benefit from it.

Apparently, he was not the only one who knew how to play that game. Whether it was more reassuring to know the Minister was on his side, or disconcerting to find himself a part of the Minister's game, he was yet to decide.

One decision was easy to make: he needed to see just how bad the situation was. Instead of heading home, he went straight to Diagon Alley. The familiar paperboy was standing outside Flourish and Botts, surrounded by piles of newsprint. Draco picked up the first copy of the Evening Prophet he saw. Sure enough, beside an image of Kingsley smiling and holding both a tiny cucumber and the new standards legislation, was a subhead describing the Malfoy Standard and an inset photo of Draco at the last Ministry dinner.

'Bugger,' he mutttered.

'You want a copy of the Special with that?' the paperboy asked.

'What?' Draco was confused. He looked down at the paper in his hands, the time on the masthead was only an hour ago. 'Isn't this it?'

'Nah, that's just the Prophet, innit? Comes out every evening. It's The Quibbler that's got the big news tonight. Special edition, see?'

Draco finally managed to focus on the tabloid-sized publication that was being held up for his perusal. POTTER QUITS AURORS! the headline blared.

It took a moment before he could do more than blink. 'I'll take them both. Keep the change.'

'Cheers, guv!' the boy sang out behind him, and Draco would have suspected him of Mockney sarcasm if it weren't for the fact he suspected himself of having just pressed a Galleon into the lad's palm. It seemed a small price to pay.

 

****************

 

Mavis Jenkins had written the lead story in The Quibbler's special edition, but Draco found it easy to see that it had been written with Potter's full cooperation.

Potter says 'I was tired of reforms being watered down in the name of political expediency …' said the second paragraph. The third went on to talk about how Minister Shacklebolt had waged an honourable and decent battle against the forces of mediocrity, and how Potter planned to support him as a political activist working from outside the Ministry.

'Oh good grief!' Draco muttered. 'You weren't supposed to take me that seriously!'

A witch walking past glared at him crossly, and he bundled up the paper and kept walking in silence. Potter out of the Aurors. It was like Goyle on the Wizengamot, or a Malfoy with a proper job. Draco took a moment to be grateful that Goyle at least continued predictably.

A couple of wizards waved at him as he walked past, and from the cheer on their faces, he could only assume they were two of Pickett's associates. He waved back, suddenly aware that, while he was now second-rate news, he was still news, and his mother subscribed to the evening edition.

Narcissa was clipping the story from the paper when Draco arrived home. 'Hello dear,' she greeted him. 'Congratulations. You look lovely, in person and in portrait.'

'And I come bearing bigger news,' Draco said, kissing his mother's cheek and handing over his copy of The Quibbler.

'Ooh!' she exclaimed, and settled down for a thorough read. After a few minutes she tutted, then hmmmed, then said: 'Oh goodness, Draco, you could have told me rather than waiting till I read it in the paper!'

'What?'

'You've been promoted!'

'Oh, yes. What's that got to do with Potter?'

'You're the subject of one of the editorials. They didn't mention that in the Prophet.'

'Oh for Merlin's sake … what does it say about Potter? I haven't read past the front page.'

'Only that he plans to take some time off for life drawing classes. Is that a euphemism? You young people and your terms. You'll have to explain the cartoon, too.'

Draco looked over her shoulder. In Padfoot's inky lines, a version of Potter solemnly hung up his Auror robes, then took down another cloak and wrapped it around himself, disappearing as he did so. The text below read: Mr Potter is resigned.

'He had that Invisibility Cloak when we were at school,' Draco reminded his mother. 'I think he's meant to be putting it on here.'

'Oh, that's terribly sad,' she murmured.

'Or a warning. He used it for all sorts of nefarious purposes back then.'

'I remember,' she said. 'Good for him. I hope it brings him more joy than this job has.'

'He was good at it,' Draco reminded her. 'Things have been safer and saner since he took over.'

'Do you think perhaps that means he might have done enough?' Narcissa asked.

Draco did not answer.

'You realise this means that Ronald Weasley will be the new Head Auror. I must send him a note of congratulations, and invite him and his beautiful wife to the ball.'

That caught his attention. 'Weasley?'

'He's practically family, Draco, we've neglected him shamefully for far too long.'

'Anyway, I think they have two young kids. They won't want to come.'

'Don't be silly, dear, I've set aside your old nursery as a creche and the playroom as a place for the older children. They'll have a lovely time! And I will invite his mother and her extraordinary husband. Such a character!'

'You're plotting, aren't you.'

'Of course, I need a hobby.'

'You know, in all the to-do, I forgot to ask when you're planning to hold this ball.'

'Next weekend, darling, no time like the present.'

'Of course.'

'And what about you, dear? Will you be bringing anyone?'

'Very funny, mother.'

'You could always ask young Mr Potter, now that he has more time in his days.'

Draco was completely still. He breathed in slowly. 'Why Potter, Mother?'

Narcissa had turned her attention back to the paper. 'What's that?' She looked up, all innocence. 'Oh, just me being whimsical, Draco. He seems so lonely these days, and I understand from this editorial that he thinks quite highly of you.'

'What?' Draco abandoned manners and snatched his paper back.

Sure enough, the second editorial on the centre pages of The Quibbler began 'Draco Malfoy, the man behind the new standards for produce that have been welcomed with wide acclaim, has long been the quiet achiever in the comparatively new Department of Standardised Measures' and continued with a brief summation of his career up to and including today's promotion before turning to an extensive quote from Potter.

'Malfoy represents the best potential of the Ministry. Despite beginning at the Ministry in a difficult time, he has relied on the twin virtues of hard work and intelligence to carve out a career that should have been stratospheric. Instead, he has time and again found himself shunted aside in favour of the political machine that attempts to control the Ministry.

'While protocol prohibited me from complaining at the time, now that I have left my career as an Auror, I am free to say that an incredible amount of Ministry time and resources, including those of the Auror department, are consumed in maintaining the status quo.

'The fault here lies not with the Minister, nor with many of the hardworking members of the Ministry, such as Draco Malfoy. Rather, it lies with a small coterie of senior Ministry members who resist all efforts to modernise, and in fact actively work against the Ministry shifting to meet the needs of the modern wizarding community.'

Draco scanned the remainder of the editorial, which painted him as the face of the future Ministry: incorruptible and forward thinking.

His mother stood beside him. 'I think it's quite nice, Draco,' she said.

He looked at her. 'Do you read it more as a resounding vote of confidence from the Minister and Potter with the tacit promise that they will have my back? Or as the positioning of me to take a fall that will be described using terms such as almighty, epic and long overdue?'

Narcissa kissed his forehead. 'The former. You're far more useful to them as an agent for the sort of change they want to bring about.'

'I note that you don't for a moment pretend they aren't operative here.'

'Goodness no, they're acting exactly as I would. Save with less sophistication. You're far too valuable to waste.' She kissed his forehead again. 'Now stop worrying and change for dinner.'

'I will, in a minute. You go ahead.'

Draco took a last look at the Padfoot cartoon. It was, in some ways, not up to Padfoot's usual standard. Potter was better looking than he was drawn. But the deliberate movements, they were spot-on. And there, as he wrapped the Invisibility Cloak about his shoulders, Draco spotted the smallest of smiles.

Given Potter's closeness to Lovegood and The Quibbler, Draco guessed that Padfoot, whoever he was, had not needed to imagine that touch. He noticed something else, too, there in small type on the masthead was a note: Now Daily.

 

****************

 

Draco never slept so well in town as at home, so it was well into the morning when he woke on Saturday. He came downstairs and found that his mother was not alone. 'Ministera, Signore Gambara …' he stuttered. 'I apologise for my informal appearance, I did not know we had guests.'

Signore Gambara stood up and offered a hand in greeting. 'Think nothing of it, Mr Malfoy. It is not as though you are dressed in pyjamas.'

'It is entirely my fault,' added the European Minister. I insisted that on such a lovely day as this we should begin our visiting early in the morning so as to make the most of it. I apologise for intruding in your lovely home.'

'No, not at all,' Draco insisted.

'Oh how silly of me,' Narcissa declaimed with a hand artfully posed against her silk-sundress covered décolletage, 'I completely forgot to mention that the Gambaras will be staying with me for a few days next week and had wanted to pop by and see if there was anything they could bring. But that's all right, isn't it darling? We're absolutely informal here on the weekends, you know.' This last was addressed to the Gambaras, with a smile that was positively girlish.

'Quite all right,' Draco confirmed. 'Am I right in guessing the days you will be visiting coincide with the ball?'

'But of course! We were thrilled to be invited.'

'No, Ministera, the thrill is all mine!' Narcissa insisted. 'Draco, I have some breakfast put aside for you in the small breakfast room. Do join us in the garden when you are finished.'

No one could dismiss quite like his mother, Draco thought, as he padded off to eat. If only he had thought to pull on a pair of shoes. Still, at least he had donned trousers and a shirt. The two papers were displayed beside his plate. How his mother had managed to obtain a copy of The Quibbler, Draco was not sure, but it was tucked beneath the Prophet.

The top paper had the expected Harry Potter Leaves Aurors coverline, and the audacity to stamp Exclusive across a story that was largely lifted from The Quibbler. The latter paper carried a banner stating Potter Set to Form Alternative Rock Group and a story that had clearly provided Luna Lovegood with a month's worth of giggles.

On the third page of The Quibbler, though, was an interview with Minestera Gambara, in which she was quoted as saying that she was still undecided but willing to be persuaded on the possibility of changing European legislation in line with the new English produce standards. It ended with 'The Quibbler hopes that the European Minister has a chance for a quiet word with Under-Secretary Malfoy in the next few days.'

Draco sat there quietly for a moment, with the awful realisation that his mother might be conspiring with Luna Lovegood washing over him.

Rationality soon intruded. After all, where would they have met? Both were natural blondes, so even the hairdressers weren't an option, given that his mother had trained house-elves to style hers and Lovegood had … youth. It was a coincidence. Nothing more.

He flicked the pages to the Padfoot cartoon. It showed Ron Weasley and Harry Potter in Harry's former office. Unusually, this one had dialogue. Weasley was offering Potter one of his children if Potter changed his mind. Potter was guiding Weasley around the files on his former desk: the smallest one was 'Serious crimes', the middle one was 'Concerning incidents', while the towering pile of paper was 'Absolute crap some gibbon is trying to score political points from.'

It was not Padfoot's most incisive comment, but Draco could not help smiling at the look of panic on Weasley's face and of cheery relief on Potter's. Still … 'What were you thinking?' he asked the Potter in the cartoon.

He made it all the way to the end of his breakfast before he looked down at the image again. Ink Weasley was still remonstrating with Potter. Draco knew how he felt.

The Gambaras and his mother were in the walled herb garden when he found them. Narcissa was clipping sprigs of rosemary. 'They go so well with roast vegetables, I find,' she was saying,

'Roast baby vegetables?' Elena Gambara asked with a smile.

'Oh all sorts, my dear,' Narcissa replied. 'But at this time of year it would be foolish not to take advantage of the delicious young things.'

'Quite wise. Ah, here is the young Under-Secretary,' the European Minister said, waving at Draco. 'How was your breakfast?'

'Delicious, thank you,' he replied.

'Excellent. I am pleased to see you, there are matters I would like to discuss. Narcissa, can I trust you with my husband?'

'I am a genteel old widowed lady, it will be as though you have left him with a nun,' Narcissa promised.

'In that case I will be very quick. A word, Draco.'

As it transpired, there were many words. Though Signore Gambara was still in an appropriate state when his wife and Draco returned from their walk and talk. The two Italians took their leave, with declarations that they were counting the hours until the ball.

'Good chat?' asked Narcissa as she walked Draco back inside.

'Confidential information, Mother,' he replied. 'Though reasonably satisfying confidential information I will grant you.'

'Well done, dear!'

The rest of Saturday and Sunday morning passed much as any other visit home did, discussing the topics they always discussed and avoiding the few that were always avoided. Draco took the opportunity to actually relax. Here he had no need to prove himself anymore. Here he was simply his mother's son. It was astonishing how enjoyable he found such a simple fact.

The Sunday Quibbler broke the story of Ministera Gambara's decision, along with a three-page special canvassing British and European farmers, who were overwhelmingly in favour of the new regs. The Sunday Prophet led with 'Standards Secretary Warns Against European Flirtation: says he can see no possible benefits'.

Draco handed the Prophet across the breakfast table to his mother, who tossed it over her shoulder and asked what the Padfoot cartoon was today. Draco turned to the centre pages, and was not entirely surprised to find that it was him – and Elena Gambara, accompanied by Bruce Pickett and Daniel Massol, all dining on a medley of tiny veg. Underneath, the title was Malfoy's Marrow Victory.

'It's not his best work,' he warned his mother, handing the paper across.

'Nonsense, it's delightful,' she replied. 'You look very handsome.'

Draco left her with the main section and set about eating his toast while reading the lift-out, the Squibbler. Padfoot had a new children's comic here: Milly and Molly the Amazing Andrews Sisters. Milly was a witch, who looked and acted a startling amount like Granger, while Molly was a Squib who invented brilliant objects using Muggle technology and rescued Milly whenever her under-aged use of magic got the two of them into trouble. Draco was surprised to find himself laughing, and wondered if Padfoot had spoken with Granger about her childhood for some of the ideas.

Thinking about it, Draco realised it was extremely likely that Padfoot was one of the DA set – they seemed to dominate the Quibbler's editorial board, after all. In fact, he wouldn't put it past Justin. Or, given the political nous displayed, possibly even Granger herself. That would explain the excellent grasp on a number of characters who had appeared in the cartoons over the years, and even today's reasonably accurate illustration of him.

'Draco?' His train of thought was shunted awry.

'Yes Mother?'

'Is a courgette a marrow?' Narcissa asked, looking at the editorial cartoon.

'Smythe assures me it is.'

'And why are these two gentlemen holding them in such a lewd fashion?'

'Mother!'

'Oh darling, it can't possibly come as a surprise that I …'

Draco could barely speak fast enough. 'No, no, no, it doesn't and I am not that naïve but for the love of Merlin please never ever tell me about it!' He refused to lift his eyes from the comics page, but he could feel his mother concealing her giggles. He appreciated her effort.

'What time will I be losing you today?' she asked after a few minutes.

'Earlyish, I have an appointment at four.'

'Oh? For work?'

Draco had always found it hard to lie to his mother. 'Sort of.'

'With someone from the Ministry, then?'

'Sort of.'

'Someone sort of from the Ministry. So does that mean someone who used to be from the Ministry?'

'Mother!'

'I only ask because I am interested, darling. It's not young Mr Potter is it?'

Draco knew his glance upwards betrayed the answer, but he could not help himself. At least his mother's face showed that he had managed to surprise her. She rallied quickly.

'That's delightful, dear. You will thank him for his kind words, won't you? And see if he is really feeling himself or if he needs cheering up in this time of great change.'

'Mother, do you realise what you sound like?'

'Well I have had to give up all hope of pairing you off with a nice girl, I might as well start with the nice boys.'

Draco dropped his head onto the table, grateful that a house-elf had removed the remains of his breakfast moments before. He suspected he would be aged well into his seventies before his mother stopped being able to have this effect on him. Still, at least the disclosure had one positive effect, Narcissa spent the morning running him ragged moving plants in the garden, but immediately after lunch she sent him straight home.

'You'll need to shower and perhaps even have a short nap before you head out to dinner. You want to look your best.'

'Mother, it's a quiet drink and a meal with Potter. He did me a favour and apparently thinks I did him one, too. That's it. You can still your wild fantasies and remember that we've spent years hating each other, so it's hardly likely to develop into an evening of high romance.'

'No, of course not. But there's no harm in making a good impression, is there?'

Draco was laughing as he kissed his mother goodbye. 'I'll be here early next Saturday. Is there anything you need me to do?'

'No, just plan to enjoy yourself. And do feel free to invite Mr Potter, as an acquaintance with whom you are apparently comfortable.'

'You're incorrigible.'

'Yes. Now go home.'

Home was spotlessly clean again when he reached it. Draco was impressed. Then he went to his underpants drawer and flung a few about the flat just so it looked as though someone actually lived there. He made a cup of tea and left it, unwashed, on the table.

It was quite satisfying.

He had been planning what he would say to Potter for hours. He would be kind, of course, Potter had been polite and considerate to him. In fact, Merlin forbid, he'd been actually friendly. So Draco would assume that Potter and Kingsley meant well and were trying to help him in some strange and misguided way. He would simply explain that he did not need the kind of help they were offering, no offence, he'd rather sink or swim by himself.

Choosing what to wear was easy. He only had a few Muggle-ish articles of clothing, so he wore the trousers he hadn't been wearing last time, and a green shirt that looked good with them. It was three o'clock by the time he finished dressing. To kill time, he played aerial underpants wars for half an hour, at the end of which he had determined that linen was more aerodynamic than cotton, and that a pair of emerald silk pants was possibly the most ridiculous thing in his wardrobe and would necessitate a chat with Pansy on the difference between gay and transvestite.

In the end, he walked to the pub to kill the last half hour.

Potter was already there, with a bowl of chips steaming gently in the middle of the table. He stood up as Draco walked in, and circumvented the uncomfortable dance they had played out here last time by reaching out and giving Draco's hand a quick, firm shake.

'Good to see you,' he said. 'I was going to order you in a drink, but I could only remember you liked chips.'

It was such an affable greeting that Draco decided he should at least wait till dinner before broaching the subject of leaving his career alone. 'Good to see you, too, you madman. Can I get you anything?'

'Pint of bitter.'

Draco made a quick trip to the bar and returned with two pints, which he put down carefully. 'Now,' he said. 'What on earth are you thinking leaving the Aurors?'

Potter burst out laughing. 'I'm thinking I've done my part. I'm no earthly use to them at the moment, other than as a figurehead. Ron can do most of the things I can do with a fraction of the political baggage, so I've left to let him do it.'

'Potter, he's a Weasley. I will grant you that he is very good at chess and being butch, but what about the PR component of the role? He won't have the faintest idea how to deal with the press.'

'I know,' Potter said, grinning.

It took Draco a moment. 'Oh Merlin, he is going to eat them.'

Potter grinned, and took a swig of bitter to wash down a handful of chips. There was something different about him. It took Draco a minute to work it out. 'You're happy!' he accused.

'I've been happy before,' Potter replied calmly.

'Not that I've seen.' Draco looked at him a bit more. 'It's odd. You're all relaxed and cheery. I don't like it, it's not natural.'

'I am a man of leisure spending an entertaining Sunday afternoon with a former schoolmate who recently gave me the best advice I've had in years.'

'You know I meant you to take that as grounds for fighting the good fight and, with luck, coincidentally destroying all my enemies in the process, don't you? Not this Lovegood-like rebellion. You're meant to be a role model, here you are unemployed and drinking with disreputable company.'

'You flatter yourself, Malfoy.'

'I think not, I was described as a person of dubious motivation in the newspaper only this morning.'

'Wouldn't know, I only read The Quibbler. They were quite complimentary on the topic of you, if I'm remembering correctly.'

Draco rolled his eyes.

'The flaxen-haired wunderkind who has pulled off the diplomatic coup of the season, I believe they called you,' Potter teased.

'Voldemort held a mostly blameless Luna Lovegood prisoner in my house for months, you will recall. As far as I am concerned, this actually does give her leave to mock me as much as she likes for as long as she likes.'

Potter laughed again. 'Luna's just the editor, she doesn't write or vet everything, it's not the Prophet. I think they just like you down there.'

'Yes, well, it might be better if they liked me a bit less. It's all well and good for you to hand in your robes and embark on a life of gallivanting, but I have a reputation to create and uphold, and it's going to require at least another ten years of spotless record.'

Potter had stopped laughing while Draco spoke. 'Taking yourself a bit seriously, aren't you?' he asked, without malice.

'Potter,' Draco reminded him, 'members of my family killed people you loved.'

He waited till Potter had looked down at his drink before he went on. 'Don't misunderstand me, I think it's remarkable that you can look past that. I admire you, and Kingsley, and Granger, and even the Weasleys, because you've all been able to just get on with things. But you need to understand that I find it very difficult to know every day that the only member of my family who exhibited any actual courage whatsoever during the war is currently back at the Manor having her feet massaged.'

Potter looked back up. 'That's not wholly true.' He held Draco's eye for several seconds before he went on. 'You refused to admit you knew it was me when I was dragged into the Manor. You even tried to protect Ron and Hermione. Luna says you were decent to her, and you tried to stop Crabbe and Goyle killing me.'

'Because they were fucking morons who were just as likely to kill me as you. And at the Manor I was scared out of my mind in case my psychotic aunt called for fucking you-know-who. You could have been Blaise for all I knew.'

'Anyway,' Potter continued. 'Tonks was your cousin. She was filled with courage.'

That took the words from Draco. 'Yes,' he said at last. 'Yes she was.'

Potter left it for a moment. 'So is that the dramatic bit of the day done with? Can we get back to the tentative enjoyment of each other's company and extensive jokes about the establishment?'

'Yes,' said Draco. 'Sounds fine.'

'Mother sends her regards,' he added, moving the conversation back to safer territory. 'She wants you to come to the ball on Saturday. I think she's hoping that you'll be both a media draw and suitably enigmatic, so all the young witches will be charmed.'

'Much good it'll do them.'

'She's only interested in prising donations from them, so hot young heroes and copious amounts of alcohol it is.'

'Formal dress?'

'Yes, thanks. Though it doesn't have to be wizarding, she's embraced the Mugglish vogue.'

'The age of wonders is upon us.'

Draco couldn't hold back his smile. 'You've been taking your sarcasm potions since you left the Ministry, haven't you?'

Potter laughed, and they both relaxed into the promised extensive jokes about the establishment. Over the course of a few drinks Draco confessed that his department had well-grounded suspicions when it came to the Secretary's new communications manager.

'You know why Mavis Jenkins quit, don't you?' Potter asked.

'Tired of trying to make a hippogriff out of a flobberworm?'

'That too. But no, he actually hit on her.'

Draco choked on his beer. 'You're joking!'

'She told me herself.'

'She is so far above him. I know the man fancies himself senseless, but he usually has enough brains to try it on with thickies, Mavis is one of the cleverest witches I have ever met.'

Potter leaned across the table to speak confidentially. 'He tried it on with Hermione at the Ministry Christmas Party a few years back.'

'What happened?'

'She hexed him.'

'Was that when he couldn't sit down for a week? I thought he had piles!'

They were still laughing when they wandered off for dinner. Potter had booked a restaurant near the pub, on the basis that after three hours they would want a change of scenery.

Draco was impressed to see that it was the exactly right balance of interesting and flash. 'Muggle again, I notice,' he said as Potter held the door open for him. 'Is this you reverting to your roots?'

'I thought you wanted some privacy. I know I prefer it, and I doubt the two of us going out for dinner anywhere wizarding this weekend would manage to find any.'

'Well, this is true. Good thinking.' Draco mentally kicked himself. Potter was actually famous for thinking these days – at least he'd managed not to sound patronising.

The meal was very good, though both of them focussed on eating, as if they were worried about what might be said once they had run out of obvious topics.

'So, life drawing classes? My mother thought that was a euphemism,' Draco said as they finished off their meals.

'I'm expanding my horizons! It's not all beer and Quidditch, you know.'

'You still play?'

'You don't?'

Draco shrugged. 'It's not a major thing, I just never found the time to go back to it after … everything. Besides, I don't have enough friends for a scratch team.'

Potter frowned. 'But you loved it. You were insanely competitive. Come and play with us if you don't have anyone else, it's just Ron and a gang from the Ministry. Ginny and Oliver pop by every now and then.'

'No thanks, I'm not sure I could even fly well enough to play anymore, it's been years since I was on a broom.'

Potter stared at him. 'I knew you'd changed,' he said after a while, 'but this is ridiculous. You barely even use your wand these days from what I hear.'

'Just because I left the bar with you the other night doesn't mean I usually go home with childhood nemeses, I'm perfectly capable of attracting and shagging random strangers,' Draco wilfully misunderstood.

'Hilarious. When was the last time you did any magic.'

'This afternoon,' Draco replied truthfully.

'And it consisted of?'

'Aerodynamic experimentation,' Draco said quickly.

Potter kept looking at him. And looking.

'Making my underpants fly around the flat,' Draco confessed.

The laughter bubbled out of Potter, and Draco couldn't help joining in. 'I was bored!' he said in his defence, though it only made Potter laugh harder.

'You see,' said Potter, waving his finger. 'If I hadn't convinced you to get out of the house this afternoon, it would have been another tragic evening in with the underthings.'

'I have other priorities! Most nights I'm catching up on legislation, or drafting policy. I know it doesn't sound exciting, but I actually like it. I like being good at something and knowing that it was me who learned how to do it and who succeeded without any help.'

'That's why you want me to call off The Quibbler,' Potter realised.

'Or just ask your friends there if they could rein it in. I believe you when you say Luna runs a free ship, but she's one of your best mates, it can't hurt to ask. And …'

'Yeah, go on.'

'I appreciate it, but you and Kingsley are not at all subtle in showing support.'

'Ah.'

'I'm sure you meant well, I just don't want to be managed. I had enough of that during the war.'

Potter nodded. 'That makes sense. I didn't even think of that. Only that it would be an amusing change to work on the same side as you for once.'

'Technically we've been on the same side for the last decade, though I will grant you that my contribution has consisted of bureaucratic excellence, which may have escaped your notice.'

'Not at all, I have a private collection of your finest memos.'

'You are still a complete prat.'

'It's the only reason you talk to me, like recognises like.'

'That's a fair point.'

The waiter came over at that point and left a small black folder containing their bill discreetly on the table after ascertaining that everything had been to their satisfaction. They both reached for it at the same time.

'It's mine,' Potter insisted. 'I asked you out.'

'You're unemployed, and it was more of an agreement to meet up made by colleagues.'

'I'm independently wealthy, and no, I really was asking you out.'

Draco was so stunned that Potter had finished slipping money in with the bill before he could reply. 'Are you on illegal potions?' he spluttered at last.

'No.'

'There are other gay wizards in England. Justin Finch-Fletchley thinks you're gorgeous, and he's a lovely chap.'

'Yes, I know.'

'So what on earth are you thinking?'

'I'm thinking that I'm going to do things I want to do from now on. And after the other day, I wanted to catch up with you again and see if you really had improved this much. And you have.'

Draco shook his head. 'I hate to be the one who breaks this to you, but you're Harry Potter, hero of Hogwarts, Boy Who Lived on multiple occasions, Witch Weekly's perennial favourite and all-round good egg. You don't ask Malfoys out. At best, you form a slightly formal friendship with them out of appreciation for the fact my mother is remarkable and I am capable of change for the better.'

'Shut up, Malfoy. I'm just as resistant to being managed as you are.'

'Perhaps, but you're acting like a complete lunatic.'

'Not a complete lunatic. I haven't tried to take you home for the night yet.'

Draco stared at him. 'All right, one, what possesses you to say such things? And two, since when is taking me home a sign of madness?'

'You were the one calling me a hot young hero.'

'It was a figure of speech! I work with Smythe, he encourages inappropriate comments when it comes to you! I think he has action figures!'

Potter had been about to say something, but that stopped him. 'Not the fully posable ones?'

'I can't prove anything, but I have deep and dark suspicions.'

'That's horrifying.'

'Imagine how I feel, the man has access to my tea.'

'Yet you protected him.'

'Well, insanity aside, he's an excellent worker.'

Potter smiled, and Draco had a sudden and appalling insight into Smythe's obsession. Because when you looked past the surface prattiness, Potter was nice. And good looking. And decent. Draco stopped himself before he stepped over into the action-figure-buying abyss, aware that he was being spoken to.

'So, can I lure you out of the office again sometime through the week?' Potter was asking.

'Just for drinks and chatting, no unsettling commentary?'

'I was thinking we could talk Quidditch and I could try and convince you to at least practice with us, if not play in a game one weekend.'

'At the pub?'

'Sure.'

'Yeah, all right. Tuesday?' Draco's mouth answered without engaging his brain.

'Tuesday would be great. I'll meet you there. Seven?'

'Sure.'

When Draco arrived home, there was an owl waiting with a message from his mother. How was your evening? it asked.

He wrote back immediately. Very pleasant conversation. Mr Potter seemed interested in attending your ball. Am now back at home, alone, reading up on European vegetable standards.

Narcissa's reply was dashed off so quickly, her handwriting was sloppy. You are no fun. Much love, Mumsy

Draco debated writing back to let her know about Tuesday, but decided he needed to keep the upper hand on something. After forty minutes of trying to read the volume on standards, he decided to race it against the aerial underpants.

 

****************

 

One of the virtues of early rising was making it into the office well before the Secretary. Or at least, so Smythe had regularly assured Draco. As a result, this was the least relaxing Monday morning Draco had spent in many years. He did not even pick up his Quibbler (and now it was daily, he had no idea how he was going to keep his regular purchase a secret) until he was on his way in to work.

Thus it was that the banner for the Prophet caught his eye, too. Standards are Slipping! it blared, and showed a photograph of the shirtless Secretary welcoming Dianna into what appeared to be a Muggle hotel room.

The paperboy was thoroughly impressed by the bad words Draco knew.

Smythe was already there when Draco arrived. 'Have you heard?' Draco barked at him as he walked up from the lift.

'I was just about to owl you,' Smythe replied.

'It's a disaster!'

'Potter didn't show?'

'What? No, this!' Draco thrust the paper into his hands.

'Oh,' said Smythe, looking at the headline. 'Oh!' he said again, looking more closely. 'Oh dear, that's unfortunate given the state of his belly,' he finished.

'I've long assumed he must Imperius these women,' Draco agreed. 'Come on, this requires a strategy meeting.'

Smythe followed Draco into the latter's office, without even offering to brew a pot of tea. This was too serious a matter to allow for a beverage delay.

'One of three things will come of this,' Draco announced as the two men took their seats. 'The Secretary will resign for personal reasons, the Secretary will declare it was all a fit-up, or the establishment will close ranks around him and seek to bluff the whole thing out.'

'What's your money on?'

'Two or three, probably three. Biscuit?'

'There's no tea.'

'Sorry, allow me.' Draco sent a spell to produce a pot down towards the kitchen, and hoped that he had been specific enough to produce black, not that hippy herbal muck that had made its way to his office the last time he tried remote brewing.

'Where do you think the Prophet got the tip-off?'

Draco thought for a moment. 'Quite a few options there, but my money would be on the Secretary's wife. He thinks she's a ninny, but I've met her, and I think she's sharp as a tack. Certainly sharp enough to make sure she's safe many miles away when he's rumbled.'

'Ooh, sneaky, I like it. What does The Quibbler have to say on the matter?'

'You know, I haven't even looked at it yet.'

Draco hastily flicked open the paper, since the front page was taken up with a gorgeous illustration of the erumpent Luna Lovegood had allegedly been studying in Cornwall over the weekend. 'Nothing, nothing, nothing, oh, page nine: Standards Secretary Scandal: In what The Quibbler hopes is not a new trend, the Secretary for Standardised Measures was found semi-naked in a popular London Hotel this morning by members of the press. When questioned, the Secretary declared he was changing his shirt after an accident with coffee and had scheduled the meeting he was attending at a hotel as there were no secure locations within the Ministry to discuss high-security matters touching on his department. Regular readers will recall that the Secretary has recently been involved in a contretemps with the European Ministry and his own department over baby vegetables. The Quibbler believes the Secretary's shirt was ultimately unstained by the incident.'

Smythe was giggling well before Draco reached the end. 'What's the cartoon?'

Draco turned the page. There was the Secretary, holding a very large pumpkin in front of his ample torso. Around him, giant pumpkins, marrows and squashes grew, some with nubile young women peering out from behind them and waving in a friendly fashion. Beneath it was the legend: 'Standards Secretary seeks to squash rumours.'

'I think his breasts are bigger than that girl's,' opined Smythe, who was looking at the image upside-down. Draco turned it round the right way for him. 'Yes, definitely.'

'I am never going to be able to look at him seriously again,' Draco sighed.

'As if you ever have. Buck up, at this rate you'll be in charge of the department by the end of the week, Mr Under-Secretary.'

Draco paled. 'That would not be a good thing.' Under-Secretary was an appropriate level for him to be holding at this time. It was superior enough that it recognised his skills and abilities, without smacking of the patronage one must have attracted to gain a Secretary's position at his tender age. In five years, even two or three if he distinguished himself, it would be seen as something he had earned, but now …

He had an idea. 'Potter could do it!'

Smythe's eyes opened as widely as Draco had ever seen a human's.

'I don't want to know what you're thinking,' Draco told him. 'What I am thinking is that Potter has experience as the head of a department and although he lacks expertise in Standards, he is by all reports an excellent and incorruptible manager, so he would be able to do a very good job here. And no one would question his appointment, and he would be receptive to sensible ideas, so we'd all win.'

Smythe's expression was transported, and he was actually holding his hands to his heart.

Draco clicked his fingers in front of his colleagues face. 'Smythe? Smythe?'

'Working with Harry Potter!'

'Don't get too excited, the idea hasn't even been put to him yet, and then we have to both get rid of the current Secretary and convince Potter to take it on.'

'Working with Harry Potter!'

'Oh Merlin …' Draco left Smythe sitting in his chair and went off to pick up the tea and grab the sugar bowl. A few cups of sweet bevvy were what was needed to pull the man from his Pottershock. Draco wondered if it was entirely fair to entertain the idea of Potter in the department, it might actually kill Smythe, albeit happily.

Still, it was far and away the best of the solutions that had crossed his mind. He wondered if he ought to write to Potter today or wait until they met up again tomorrow.

When he returned, there was a memo floating above his desk, which Smythe was staring at it with religious devotion. With what he considered to be admirable presence of mind, Draco poured Smythe a cup of dark black with six and pressed it into his unresisting hands before bothering to catch the memo.

It was a summons to level seven and a meeting with Rupert 'Rupes the Hoops' Teddington, Secretary for Magical Games and Sports. Draco had met the man exactly three times and exchanged about the same number of words with him. According to the memo, there were 'urgent matters to discuss', which could mean that he was planning to tear Draco to pieces for the Secretary's downfall, confess to a secret desire to run the standards department and seek to enlist Draco's assistance, or, and the possibility could not be discounted given Potter's connections, offer some Quidditch tips as a way of getting back into the game.

Draco managed to pour another two cups of sugary tea into Smythe, and send the man back in the direction of his own office before he sent back a memo, stating that he would be up directly. For added measure, he grabbed a quill, a clipboard and a copy of the Baby Veg Regs, which he alone was not calling the Malfoy Standards.

The Sports Secretary met Draco at the lift. 'Lovely to see you, Malfoy,' he boomed. 'It's been ages. I've been dying to know how you're getting on and do you think I can convince my colleague to fill me in? Not a sausage. Come on in, I've taken the liberty of laying on a tea with a rather fine cake. Piers, hold any callers who aren't the Minister. Can't keep him waiting, can we? This way!'

Draco found himself swept along by Cyclone Teddington, aware that the hand positioned genially on his shoulders was packed with muscles from the man's long career as a beater and, in all likelihood, capable of crushing his clavicle against his scapula. He smiled brightly and made vague agreeing noises.

'Now, young Malfoy, take a seat, no, the leather one, it's comfier. Good lad. What was I saying? Oh yes. Malfoy, we find ourselves in a pretty pickle today, don't we?'

Draco struck the optimistic option from his list of possibilities.

'Now I don't for a moment blame you for all this mess. Don't think that I do. Have some tea. Cake? Cut a big slice. There's a lad. In fact, I was talking with a number of the other Secretaries at our breakfast meeting – strictly an informal do, all old friends dating back to Hogwarts days, like to get together every now and then, you know how it is – and they were saying that on the whole you've handled the whole disaster extremely well and it's certainly not your fault that things have come to this pass, is it?'

'I'd like to think not,' said Draco, with what he hoped was affable neutrality.

'Of course not. You can't trust the Italians further than you can throw them – just look at their dithering during the War. Then you've got Kingsley playing his own game, and goodness knows what he's up to, he's a deep and silent one he is. And then, just as all of the excrement is incoming fanwards, there's your Secretary buggerising around when he's needed back at the office and instead he's got his shirt off and willy out and is rogering some poor girl who'll doubtless end up going to the gutter press to see what she can get for the story.'

Draco managed not to laugh by sheer effort of will.

'Meanwhile, you've got the bloody unions banging down your door, and I am willing to bet my favourite broom you were sending the man owl after owl and he was off banging some bint the whole time.'

When Draco did not change his expression, the Sports Secretary went on. 'I mean, we've all seen the work that you and the rest of his department are putting out and it's simply top-notch. To be honest, I'd be thrilled if I could convince my lads to pull together something similar. But there's only so much you can do down there with a chap like yours.'

'He's a popular leader in the department,' Draco said without a word of a lie, any boss who was never around was bound to be popular.

'But he's missed the Snitch badly here, hasn't he?' asked Teddington in his friendliest manner.

His nod was infectious, and Draco was horrified to find himself nodding along. He tried to soften his agreement with words. 'Yes, but for entirely understandable reasons. The Secretary's a man in a high-stress position and I think we can all agree that it's important he have some personal pursuits.'

Teddington clapped Draco on the shoulder so resoundingly that what was left of the tea described a neat parabola out of its cup and into its saucer. 'Exactly, m'boy, I agree with you completely. The man's a blithering idiot who thinks with his penis.'

Teddington leaned forward with a smile that showed just a few too many teeth, and Draco became aware that in addition to his being several inches shorter than the Sports Secretary, he was more than a few stone lighter. Teddington went on: 'But he's one of us, isn't he? And it just won't do to allow the fourth estate to bring him down, can't let them think they have power. So we've talked among ourselves and decided that the best thing to do is to hose all these rumours down, bring him back, and then encourage him to step aside in his own time, so long as it's a reasonably short time.' He sat back in his chair and looked at Draco with an expression of infinite reasonableness.

Draco nodded, relieved. 'If that's what the senior Ministry officials have decided, it sounds doable. It gives him a chance to redeem himself in the public arena, and if there ultimately needs to be a succession we'll have time to bring someone in.'

'Excellent. I thought we'd look at you for the post,' Teddington said with a wink.

'No, thank you,' Draco replied quickly.

The Sports Secretary's face betrayed no change in expression. 'That's a surprise,' he said evenly. 'I'd have thought you'd have been quite interested in the position.'

'Not at all, I'm thrilled with my recent promotion to Under-Secretary and would like a few years to see what I can do in the role and hopefully be able to make a difference there.' Draco was not prepared to let the lead in the Impassivity Competition they appeared to be running slip from his grasp.

'I knew your father back in the day, you know. Yours is a very interesting philosophy for a Malfoy to espouse,' said Teddington, going for gold.

'Isn't it?' replied Draco, snatching victory at the line.

'So,' said Teddington, conceding the point and beginning a new game. 'Ethelred has asked me to ask you what it's going to take?'

'Ethelred?'

'The Secretary.'

Draco had forgotten that the Secretary had an actual name, and now he remembered why he and everyone else in the Ministry had been so keen to turn to the honorific.

'Of course. Well, as far as I'm concerned, there are no issues. The current media coverage is, of course, regrettable, but I feel certain that it will all die down quickly.'

'Really? Because I had assumed that there were internal sources directing some of the coverage.'

'Not that I am aware of.'

'Fascinating. It may be the case that some of our local vultures have actually discovered investigative journalism.'

'Stranger things have happened.'

'And yet, I believe you have recently begun to associate with our dear Harry.'

Draco had rarely heard as much innuendo packed into such a simple sentence, and a small part of his brain wanted to shout that there had been nothing in anyone's end, thank you very much, but years of maintaining a cool facade prevailed. 'We recently caught up for drinks and have had a few chats around the Ministry, if that's what you mean, but it's hardly an association.'

'Ah. It's just that I understand he's very tight with the people at the Quibbler.'

'Old school friends, known each other since Hogwarts days,' Draco informed him. 'They like to get together now and then, strictly informal, you know how it is.'

A minuscule flash of anger crossed the Sports Secretary's face as he realised he would have to play for best out of five. 'So you don't think he has anything to do with The Quibbler's harsh stand against poor old Ethers?'

'If anything, The Quibbler has been more supportive than the Prophet,' Draco reminded him. 'It's made a little mock of him, but then, it makes mock of everyone. It's harmless, it's not as though a paper that talks about cryptozoology can be seen as a credible political organ.'

Astonishingly, this blatant lie appeared to work. Teddington leaned back in his seat, steepled his fingers and looked at Draco over them.

'Either,' he announced,' you are a far smoother manipulator than your father ever dreamed of being, or you are telling me the unvarnished truth.'

Draco couldn't testify to unvarnished, but he'd managed not to lie. He called up his most earnest and thoroughly reformed expression. 'I have spent the last ten years working harder than anyone in my family has worked for generations in a bid to build and maintain my credibility. There is no short-term gain worth sacrificing that,' he said.

'If you want it bluntly,' he went on, 'the Secretary is older than you. He is not the least bit fit, and yet he enjoys very energetic recreational pursuits. He lives on firewhiskey, pies and cream cakes. If I wanted his job, all I would have to do is encourage him to run for a Portkey, as he's one fifty-yard sprint away from an extended stay in St Mungo's. This tawdriness is beneath me.'

Teddington's expression smoothed out into something that was almost approval. 'Now you're sounding more like a Malfoy,' he said. 'If you grow tired of Standards, you will let me know, won't you?'

'You'll be my first call. I hate to be rude, but I am afraid that I have meetings coming up all through the rest of the morning, so is there anything else?'

'Nothing I can think of. So pleased to hear that you're on board. Lovely to have had a proper chat at last.' Teddington stood with Draco and reached out to shake his hand.

'Absolutely. Highly enjoyable.' Draco gathered his papers and quills and then did not turn around until he had the door open and a clear line of sight to the open lift that was waiting only a dozen feet away. 'You'll clear everything with Kingsley, won't you?' he asked.

Teddington didn't have time to engage his brain before he replied, 'Yes, of course, no problems with that.'

'Excellent, thank you, Secretary, must dash,' said Draco, before taking himself literally and slipping into the lift just in time to avoid the closing doors.

As he rode the lift back to his floor, Draco consoled himself with the fact that he was not actually relying on Kingsley to save him from this mess. It was pure, happy chance that Teddington would be delivering himself up as a willing victim who would be happy to help the Minister keep his Stunning arm in.

 

****************

 

On Tuesday morning the Standards Secretary was taking another personal day for reasons of ill health, the Sports Secretary was still in good health – which led Draco to believe that he had not yet spoken to the Minister – and The Quibbler's cartoon consisted of Elena Gambara reading a copy of the previous day's Prophet and declaring 'These English are so charming, they've done everything possible to make me feel completely at home.'

Smythe, Draco was pleased to see, had pulled himself together after a Monday spent mostly under his desk reading the Big Boy's Bumper Guide to Harry Potter. There was a pot of tea brewed, and cups, milk and sugar waiting on Draco's desk when he arrived, along with a jam slice cut into neat squares.

'You needn't have, but thank you,' Draco said as he surveyed the spread.

'After yesterday …'

'Don't mention it.'

'Did I miss anything?'

'The Sports Secretary may or may not have tried to recruit me to a conspiracy to protect our Secretary.'

'Excellent! Does he think you're in or out?'

'I think he may think I am in, but is shortly to learn I'm out. Or at least, out-ish.'

'Any further developments in replacing our chap?'

'Not as yet. I'm beginning to think that Teddington has the appropriate level of smooth nastiness to manage it brilliantly.'

'He is a man who likes cake, things could be much worse.'

'How go the new standards?'

'Regulations signed off on, legislation drafted and awaiting only the Minister's signature, union members thrilled, fashionable housewives ecstatic, though not as ecstatic as they would be if you let Pickett sell his Knobbly Pokers …'

Draco spluttered. 'His what?'

'His new cucumber cultivar. He thinks the name's a winner.'

'I fear he may be right, and shudder at the thought.'

'What about you?' Smythe inquired, nibbling on jam slice.

'Quite well, actually. I dropped by the Departmental Library yesterday afternoon and found a startling number of ancient cookbooks with recipes for baby veg, so I've sent them up to our beloved Secretary in a bid to remind him he can win our point without leaving the Europeans petitioning for a broadening of the Channel.'

'Oh good work. How many did you have to forge?'

'Only three. There were seven actual ones, but I thought it best to go for a round ten.'

'I quite agree. What do you have on today?' Smythe asked, pouring fresh cups for each of them.

'Chat with the Prophet about the new standards, then catching up with a friend for drinks this evening.'

'You have friends? Sorry! That sounded far worse than I intended it to.'

'That's all right,' Draco allowed. 'It's not as though I talk about my private life much.'

'I like to pretend you're an Auror spy. Or an agent for a foreign power. Or working your way towards taking holy orders.'

Smythe thought for a moment. 'Actually, the foreign agent thing would explain a lot.'

Draco sighed.

There was a jaunty knock at the door and Potter walked in. 'Morning, Malfoy, about …'

'Wait!' Draco interrupted.

Potter looked startled, but closed his mouth.

'Smythe, take your tea and the rest of the slice, and pop back to your office, would you, there's a good chap.'

Smythe looked from Draco to Potter, and back to Draco. The effect was of a small dog caught between a steak and a tennis ball, but after a moment, he took his tea and left. 'Good to see you, Mr Potter,' he said as he walked past.

'Good to see you, too, Smythe,' Potter replied, closing the door after him.

'Don't encourage him,' Draco complained.

'What was that all about?'

'Smythe has an over-developed fantasy life where you're concerned,' Draco explained.

'He what? That's disgusting. What does his wife think?'

'Not like that,' Draco sighed. 'He has it in his head that you and I are about to embark on a torrid affair.'

'Tell me more.'

'Ha ha. Anyway, I didn't want you mentioning that we were going out for drinks in front of him in case he developed more wild theories.'

'Yes, much better that you make a fuss so the two of us are locked in your private office.'

'I think I might start hating you again.'

'Anyway, I wanted to let you know I'm going to be late tonight.'

'How late?'

'Not sure, I have a meeting I can't get out of. You live near the pub, don't you?'

'Not far.'

'So I can owl you when I'm about to leave and we'll probably get there about the same time.'

'Sure. I was going to head straight from work, but I can go home first.'

'Cheers. What's your address?'

'Thirteen Above Wilfred Street.'

'Good-oh. Listen, rather than owling you, why don't I just pick you up there, that way you can kick back until then and neither of us is left sitting at the pub like a Nigel no friends.'

'Yeah, all right.' Draco listened to his mouth say the words, and wondered when it had made its bold bit for autonomy.

'Terrific! Right, well, I'll see you a bit after seven, but should be well before nine.'

'Excellent.'

Potter left the office, and Draco's brain began to work again. He rushed to his door and flung it open, Potter was stepping into the lift at the end of the corridor. 'Who has immovable meetings when they're unemployed?!' Draco shouted.

Potter turned around and put a hand to his ear. He mimed an inability to make out what Draco was saying, and made no move to hold the door as Draco jogged down the corridor repeating himself.

With all the fuss, Smythe opened his door to see what was happening, just in time to hear Draco complain: 'I've just been had.'

He didn't even bother waiting to look at Smythe's face before he added, 'Your mind is an appalling place.'

'I like it,' Smythe replied, and went back in to work.

The Prophet's journalist was exactly on time, though Draco chose to meet with her in the department's conference room rather than his office. Aside from not wanting to tidy the latter, there was the constant risk of sudden visits form Potter, or Smythe, or Smythe's Potter action figures, which Draco was beginning to suspect had come to work with him this morning.

Arabella Fritillary was a pleasant enough witch, but asked her questions in a rapid-fire fashion that reminded Draco unpleasantly of playing Quidditch with Marcus Flint.

'When did you become aware of the urgent need for a baby vegetable market? Is it true that Ministera Gambara dropped her antipathy to the idea after receiving several pots of your mother's private face cream? Are you in the pay of sundry farmers' unions? When did you hatch your nefarious plan to take over the Department of Standards? What was it like living with You-Know-Who? Are finger-sized courgettes really this year's "it" vegetable?'

Draco made and poured them both cups of tea, and sipped his while he answered at leisure. 'If you'd read the briefing notes that were distributed in the press pack that accompanied the new regulations, you'd have seen that the Ministry has long been concerned that some of Britain's traditional vegetable markets were not being adequately supported by the regulations that have been in place both domestically and in our agreements with other European agricultural nations. There has been input from several unions representing farmers and smallholders who have repeatedly asked that we investigate this area, and the new regulations are the natural result of our extensive, timely and thorough investigations, all undertaken, I might add, by impartial bodies.

'While it is a delightful side-effect that the farmers' unions are excited with these developments, of course, the department works solely for the good of the consumer. Making sure that one gets what one pays for is our primary motivation. I would remind you, Miss Fritillary, that complaints regarding poor produce, and cases of food poisoning, have steadily decreased since the department was formed in 2000.

'I do so love your sense of humour regarding the European Minister, who is one of the finest bureaucrats in the world and who has a thirty-year career promoting the cause of women at the top levels of the political sphere, as well as being an outstanding leader in the area of Standards. I am sure that both she and my Mother will find your comment charming and amusing, and would not be surprised if you heard from them.

'As to the fashionability of baby courgettes and other small vegetables, I would assure your readers that not only have I recently been seeing them on all the best tables, both domestic and restaurant, but they are uniformly bursting with delicate delightful flavours. As well as a broad range of essential vitamins and minerals, all so necessary for a healthy diet.

'Don't think I missed your sly reference to the outrageous canards the Prophet has levelled against our Secretary, a man who is so hard working that he often schedules meetings over breakfast, and who among us has not had the occasional ill-timed collusion of gravity and coffee? We in the office look forward to his return.

'And, strictly off the record and entirely between you and me, while living with Voldemort meant constant fear in the presence of a psychotic killer, there was a certain fascination to learning that men could be erotically excited by peacocks. Up until then I had never imagined such a thing possible. Anything else?'

Fritillary was busy stuffing her quills and scrolls back into her large purse as Draco finished speaking. 'No, thanks, that should be great. Lovely. Wouldn't be surprised if we make the cover.'

'Oh I am SO pleased. You wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find someone willing to cover the vital work we do on regularity of vegetables down here. And the public has a right to know!'

'Absolutely. Charmed. Delightful to meet you, very sorry if I sounded out of place about your mother, wonderful woman, one of the great beauties of our age, must dash!'

'You know the way out?' Draco called after her as she ran for the lift.

'No problems, completely fine!' she shouted without turning.

It did not in the least surprise Draco when Bruce Pickett dropped by just before five.

'Have you seen the Evening Prophet?' he asked.

Draco could see it tucked under Pickett's arm, with an artist's impression of Voldemort pursuing an extremely worried-looking peacock and the headline: Fowl Behaviour. 'No,' he answered. 'Anything good?'

Pickett dropped into the chair opposite Draco's desk and opened the paper to page fourteen. 'My members have asked that I pass on our thanks,' he said, turning the paper around so that Draco could see the story.

'Baby Veg Best Buys, apparently,' Draco read. 'Oh, and look, The Department of Standards representative said that he was grateful for the calm and rational arguments in favour of the new regulations put forward by the Wizarding Farmers' Federation. In what has been described as a new age of cooperation between government and agriculture, even the French Wizarding Farmers' Union has expressed tacit support, saying that the reforms came "not before time" and would "finally bring Britain into line with civilised nations".'

Draco looked up at Pickett. 'She's missed a trick there. We signed off on our new regulations at least thirty-six hours before they did. Still, you come out looking good and competent, well done!'

'I won't be forgetting who thought to mention me, Malfoy.'

'Don't mention it, Bruce. It was simply acknowledgement of a job well done. Do call me Draco.'

'You're not half bad for a complete bastard, Draco.'

'A finer compliment I could not ask for.'

By the time Pickett left, there was nothing left to do for the day. Even Smythe had excused himself, stating that his wife had called to let him know she had a treat waiting. Draco only prayed that it was not kinky and did not involve Gryffindor Quidditch robes. Locking his door behind him, Draco headed home, walking to enjoy the mid-July warmth.

Chapter Text

Home was, as usual, spotless. Draco wondered if he oughtn't ask the elves to leave some part of it uncleaned so that he would have proof of his own existence at the end of each day. One thing was different, though. The white linen boxers that he had managed to hook over the pendant light in the sitting room had been removed from their ungraceful dangle and were now stretched over the light fitting in the form of a soft fabric, two-legged shade.

Draco smiled at the sight, then burst into laughter as he imagined the thought processes of the elf who had decided this was his desire.

He picked up a copy of Our Top Crops: Trends in 21st century agriculture and sat down to read. Despite the title, it was actually an engrossing little tome and it took a serious dimming of the light for Draco to notice how much time had passed. Nine o'clock, he realised. Either Potter's meeting had gone significantly over time, or he simply wasn't coming.

Surprised, Draco found that the latter option depressed him. He hadn't thought a great deal about Potter in the past decade, beyond 'Good thing he won', 'Does the Prophet have no one else to write about' and 'No, that's a perfectly natural reaction, all dark-haired types look good in Auror robes'.

But now that their old antipathy was long forgotten, he had quite enjoyed the camaraderie of the last week. Shared secrets aside, Potter was good company. Well, Draco consoled himself, perhaps he had been kidnapped by the staff of Witch Weekly and was even now being subjected to bodily indignities.

He had just begun to get up to see what was available for supper when there was a knock at the door. Potter was standing on his doorstep, with a bottle in one hand and two brooms in the other.

'Sorry I'm late,' he said with a smile. 'I've been plotting the overthrow of the government.'

'Wouldn't surprise me,' Draco replied, moving aside to let Potter in. 'I take it the bottle is an apology, but what are the brooms for?'

'Thought we'd go flying.'

'I thought we were going to the pub, for a sensible sit-down drink with a spot of supper.'

'Yeah, but it's getting late now and it'll be filled with the drunk and the desperate. Whereas this is a quite good bottle of wine and I have both Galleons and pounds, so if you want, we can order in food.'

Draco's rebellious power of speech again set off with no input from his brain. 'Sounds good, though I was just about to put together some smoked trout and scrambled eggs if you want any. There's glasses and a bottle opener in the kitchen.'

Potter smiled brightly. 'I'll help if you like, I can do the veg if you have any.'

'Bucketloads. Most of it experimental, so be careful what you pick, and don't ask me to tell you their names, it will destroy your faith in humanity.'

A short while later, Draco sat down to eat with Harry Potter and considered the fact that the days of full disclosure with Smythe were necessarily past.

'So,' Potter ventured, 'Voldemort the bird buggerer, eh?'

'To be fair, it's always been a popular rumour.'

'Up there with I'm secretly married to Luna Lovegood and you're running the Department of Standardised Measures.'

'I do have my suspicions about you and old radish ears. How is Lovegood, anyway?'

'In her element.' Harry grinned. 'She has a real talent for publishing, but I think she's really in it for the humour.'

'She does make me laugh. Whoever she has doing cartoons is a genius.'

'Padfoot? The mystery artist? Yeah, she keeps the identity under lock and key, won't even let anyone else into the office when he or she is there. I'll grant you it's amusing stuff.'

'Incisive is the word you're looking for, and the art's really rather good, too.'

'Do you think? Anyway, Luna is having the time of her life. She was seeing Neville for a while, but they've both moved on amicably. She's engaged to a botanist now. She sent her regards, actually, I told her I was going to be seeing you tonight.'

'She did?'

'She did. She never blamed you or your mother, you know. Says you were both as trapped as she was, and that you were as kind to her as you could be.'

'Could we …' Draco poured them each another glass of wine to give himself a moment. 'Could we restrict conversation to the last ten years?'

Potter blinked at him. 'I still have your wand, you know.'

'That's fine, I don't need it.'

'I thought about using it again, but it would seem odd, given the last time …'

'Yeah, no, best leave things at that. Just stick it in a drawer somewhere, or bury it.'

'You really don't want it back?'

'Potter!' Draco took a deep breath. 'Ollivander used to say that the wand chooses the person. I'm not that person anymore.'

'Right. Sorry. Last ten years, you say.'

'Yes, please.'

'Don't suppose you've been following the Quidditch?'

'Not really, no.'

'I'm afraid I know nothing about agriculture.'

'Probably for the best. How are Granger and Weasley?'

Potter seized on the topic. 'They're good! Really good. The baby's doing fabulously well, little Hugo, tragically similar to his father in temperament, so Hermione's actually a bit angry with me for quitting and giving Ron an excuse to stay back at work and not deal with screaming toddler of an evening. Hermione's trying to extend the Ministry's childcare hours till 9pm, which Molly – Mrs Weasley – thinks is a sign of the end days.'

'Don't they have two kids?'

'Rose, she's the oldest. I think she is planning to take over the world. Every time I see her she has her nose buried in a book or building complex wood-block cities. She's three.'

Draco laughed. 'So she takes after Granger, then.'

'I told Hermione I was having dinner with you.'

'You were having drinks. You inveigled your way into supper with a not-too-bad wine.'

'Yeah, well she asked me to pass on a hello and a thank you for inviting her and Ron to your mother's ball on the weekend.'

'Nothing to do with me, my mother thinks we should curry favour with Weasley in case he turns out to be important. By halfway through the ball she'll probably have worked out that it's Granger who's the power in that relationship, and the Ministry.'

'Absolutely. So, dessert?'

'I don't think I have anything. Sorry, I wasn't expecting company.'

'That's fine. We'll grab something after a quick fly, then.'

Draco shook his head. 'There is no way on this earth that I am going flying with you, Potter.'

'I'm so sorry,' Potter apologised with lashings of sincerity. 'I didn't even think! You haven't flown in years, it would be so embarrassing for you. I have a friend in the Cotswolds who does remedial courses, I can give you his details. Very private, very discreet.'

'I'm not twelve years old!' Draco spluttered. 'You can't dare me to do something I don't want to do, I just don't want to do it.'

'No, you're quite right, that's fine.'

'Good.'

'I just thought it would be fun.'

'It'd be a breach of the statutes, there are CCTV cameras on every corner out there.'

'That's what makes it fun.'

'Where were you thinking of flying?'

'The Palace Gardens? St James's Park?'

'Because illegal acts in heavily guarded locations are even more fun, I suppose.'

'Absolutely.'

Draco shook his head, but a smile curled out from his lips despite his best efforts at restraining it. 'It's a terrible idea. It would be grossly irresponsible,' he said.

'Yup.'

'Why has it taken me this long to work out that you're a really bad influence, Potter?'

'You were too busy hating the surface me and never took the time to discover the true evil underneath.'

'Good argument.'

'So I take it I've won, then?'

'I'm still considering.'

'I'll buy dessert afterwards. And another bottle of wine.'

'A less gay man would offer beer.'

'Smythe told me you liked wine!'

'When did you ask him?'

'This afternoon, I stopped by his house before my meeting. His wife's really nice and normal.'

'I can't talk, my brain's exploding.'

'That's never stopped you before. Are you going to be warm enough? I'd grab a jacket.'

'Yes, all right.' Anything was better than contemplating the vision of Smythe returning home to find that his wife's treat was Harry Potter.

Draco grabbed a button-up canvas jacket, and quickly stuffed a pair of gloves in his pocket in case they ended up having to fly any distance to escape police pursuit. 'Smythe was still breathing when you left, wasn't he?' he asked as he came back out into the kitchen.

'He was fine. He seemed quite happy that I was planning to catch up with you.'

'That's nice. I may have to kill him tomorrow.'

'I'll let Ron know. Here, have a Firebolt.'

'All right, let's begin this adventure that will doubtless end in disaster. I have a little roof garden we can take off from.'

'You know, for such a dull street, your place is quite pleasant.'

'I live in town, not in squalor,' Draco reminded him. 'It's this way.'

Potter followed him down the dark hall to the narrow flight of stairs at the end. 'If I make any passage jokes, will you hex me?' he asked.

'Painfully. Mind yourself, it gets narrow after the turn.'

The door at the top of the stairs opened on to a small flat area, bordered with plants and scattered with a rather tasteful outdoor setting.

'Nice,' said Potter approvingly.

'Just try not to knock any of the pots over while you're getting airborne.'

'I wouldn't dream of it.'

A moment later they were hovering in the air, Potter grinning like a maniac and Draco holding on firmly, while trying not to show any facial expression whatsoever. He did a quick mental rundown of the spells at his disposal: two for slowing descent, one for quickly conjuring a large, soft object – he could manage that one wandlessly, Mother had gone through a dramatic fainting stage – and there was always a mid-air Apparate to somewhere over water.

'All right, let's go and cause an annoyance.'

'This way.'

There was a reason, Draco reflected, why they said 'it's like riding a broom'. Within a few minutes he had remembered the subtle positions of body and weight that would urge the Firebolt on, and make it veer or scream into a turn. He shot past Potter, aiming for Duck Island, in the lake at St James's. As he closed in, he slowed, so as to have a good view of the sleeping pelicans. Potter flew in beside him, as silently as he could.

'They're such comedic birds, and yet so graceful and full of personality,' Draco said.

'We're waking them up. Come on, time to buzz the Palace.'

Later, Draco had to wonder if Potter had known there was a function on. The smooth broad lawn that bordered the Palace was lit up as though it were Christmas, and the sundry dignitaries who were looking out towards the lake at the exact moment the two of them shot by were probably still wondering when giant black pelicans took to marauding through the evening. He didn't slow down until Belgrave Square, and even then it was only because he was laughing so hard he could no longer fly properly.

'How are you holding up?' Potter asked.

'Dreadful, hands are stinging, arse is numb, I have cramps in muscles I didn't know I had … But completely worth it.'

'Come on, let's get you home, and I'll get us some cake.'

Back at Above Wilfred Street, Draco threw Potter his keys and told him to let himself in when he came back. 'I'm throwing myself through the shower. I'd forgotten just how much muck is in the air.'

'And you want to get some hot water onto that arse before it starts to ache.'

'Any more smutty comments from you and I'm taking my keys back.'

'Any preferences?'

'Nothing mango or cheesy.'

Draco had time to shower, change and put together a tray of bowls, knives cake forks and spoons before he heard the jingle of keys in the door. 'You took your time,' he called.

Potter made it in just as Draco left the kitchen. 'The Leaky was all out of everything except cheesecake, so I grabbed ice-cream from Fortescue's. Is that all right?'

'How much did you get? It looks as though you're planning to feed the Horse Guards.'

'And now the reason why you live here is suddenly clear. I didn't know what flavours you liked, so I grabbed a selection. I like them all, so we can split the leftovers. And I grabbed two bottles of wine to apologise for being such a pest.'

'Thoroughly bad influence,' said Draco. 'This way, we can use the coffee table in the sitting room.'

Potter paused as he stepped through the door. 'Malfoy?'

'Yes?'

'Is it chic to use underwear as a light shade where you come from?'

'All the finest house-elves think so.'

'I'm sorry I asked.'

They each made it through a bowl of chocolate with sundry other flavours garnishing it. And three large glasses of wine. This was the only excuse Draco could find for the fact that he found himself asking Potter: 'So what's your game?'

'Quidditch,' Potter replied instantly. 'Or Exploding Snap.'

'Here. What's your game here.'

'I'm not with you.'

A part of Draco's brain screamed at him to stop, but the alcohol-soaked part, in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Smythe's, encouraged him to go on. 'Are you working with Kingsley to enlist me as your pawn in a clean out of the Ministry? You were very quick to agree when I asked you to warn The Quibbler off, was it all a ruse?'

'I thought you were engaged in your own hands-on grass-roots Ministry reform, making the one department work well, with an eye to expanding in the future,' Potter rebutted.

'Well I am, so you needn't try making use of me in your nefarious scheme.'

'I don't have a nefarious scheme.'

'So is it all a complicated plan to take some highly personal and embarrassing revenge for the Potter Stinks badges? Because that was years ago. And although I feel a little badly about it now, they were excellent work for a wizard that age.'

'They were, I was impressed. I still have one at home, you know.'

'Really?'

'Yup. I thought you were a wanker at the time, but I have to say, that was a quality Charm.'

'Thanks. So what's left? You're in the hire of someone keen to assassinate the last of the Malfoys; it's all an elaborate if somewhat clumsy plan at seduction; or you're desperate for someone to talk to now that all your friends are getting married and having children.'

'Those are my options? I'll take two, clumsy seduction.'

'Really?'

'I know for a fact you've not changed so much since school as to be surprised that people find you attractive,' Potter countered, smiling.

'People, yes. But you?'

'I'm people!'

'You're Potter.'

'You're rather appealing when you're exasperated.'

'This is a terrible idea,' said Draco, downing the last of his wine and pouring more.

'You said that about the flying, but you had fun.'

'Yes, and I am sure having you stay the night would be fun, too, but that doesn't mean it's not a terrible idea.'

Potter didn't say anything for a moment.

'You're trying very hard not to make any cracks about sore arses, aren't you?' Draco accused.

'Maybe,' Potter confessed.

'I had my money on option three,' Draco said. 'Which was not a bad option. I was perfectly happy with three.'

'It was a bit three, more last week, but now it's quite a bit two,' said Potter.

Draco looked at him. It wasn't as though it would be a hardship to shag Potter, he was very pleasant to look at and a disturbing amount of fun to hang around. And right now he was trying to look appealing, which fell somewhere between domesticated crup and child wanting a sweetie. But it really was a terrible idea. He looked at the table.

'I think you're probably drunk, Potter.'

'Only a very tiny amount. Less so than you. One bottle of wine over three hours, with food, it's not that bad.'

'Then maybe I'm drunk.'

'You want me to go home.'

'No, I want you to stay.'

Potter caught his breath. Then he looked at Draco more intently. 'There's a but, isn't there?'

'Thousands of them. But what the hell. Come on, bedroom's this way.'

'Are you serious?'

'Now, Potter, before I change my mind.'

The part of Draco's brain that remained sensible informed him that although he was doubtless right and this was a terrible idea, it was a terrible idea that looked more entertaining by the moment as Potter discarded clothes while he walked, and by the time he was down to trousers and was unbuttoning Draco's shirt as he snogged him against the bedroom doorjamb, Draco's brain was politely mentioning that it was just going to sit back and watch, if Draco didn't mind, and that he needn't worry about the ice-cream as the Fortescue tubs were self-chilling for two days.

There was a brief moment when it looked as though Draco's brain was going to be called on to re-engage, but his mouth won the argument with 'No, my arse is already sore,' and his brain was able to go back to uninterrupted admiration and enjoyment of the smooth expanse of pale skin and sleekly moving muscles that were moving beneath his body.

 

****************

 

By the time Draco's brain was capable of rational function again, it was morning, and there must have been an interlude of sleep, because Potter was gone and there was a note on the pillow and a tub of ice-cream on the bedside table.

Draco consumed a few spoons of the ice-cream before opening the note, working on the theory that if it was bad news it would be cushioned by the sweetness of Butterbeer Delight. However, it wasn't bad news.

Sorry to leave before you woke up, I couldn't bear to wake you, though. I have another meeting I need to get to and I won't be able to get out of it before you leave for work. Your keys are in the kitchen, most of the ice-cream is in the freezer, left you some for breakfast. Can I come back and help you with the rest tonight? Owl me, or I can pop by and see you at Standards. -- H

Draco ate the rest of the tub before he got out of bed. He may have hummed a little. Even the horrifying prospect of Smythe finding out he had been right was not enough to dent his mood. Finding that Potter had left the Firebolt by the door made him grin ridiculously. He decided to walk to work.

The first mile or two were uneventful, but as he entered the wizarding world, several strangers smiled and waved at him good-naturedly. The first two or three he returned, assuming they were responding to the ridiculously cheerful expression that he couldn't shift from his own face. After a few more, he grew suspicious.

He bought The Quibbler from the seller outside Flourish and Botts, no longer desperately concerned if anyone noticed.

'Nice pic of you inside,' said the paperboy, with a grin.

'Cheers,' said Draco, leaving quickly.

The nearest dark corner was empty, so Draco chose it to lean in and flick through the paper anxiously. No stories on the Secretary, a full-width on page three about the new regulations now having legislation to back them up, but while the 'Malfoy Standard' was referred to several times, the accompanying photograph was of Bruce Pickett with a basket of baby purple courgettes.

Draco kept flicking. He stopped at the centre. There was a cartoon. Of him. Holding what appeared to be a courgette in one hand and holding out his trousers in the other, then looking between the two. Beneath it, the caption asked: 'But did it meet the Malfoy Standard?'

Judging by the satisfied expression as cartoon-Draco tucked his shirt back in, the courgette came off second-best, but that was hardly the point. As a public figure he was open to the criticism of the press, but there was a significant difference between having his policies mocked and his penis.

He forced himself to take a few steadying breaths. It would not be a disaster, he would ask The Quibbler if they thought this was an appropriate way to treat a hard-working public servant, and when they admitted it was not, he would demand coverage of his mother's charity ball, thus driving up bids at the auction by at least fifteen per cent. And if he could convince Luna Lovegood to not print another edition today, that would be so much the better.

He was willing to bribe her, if that would help.

She answered the door when he knocked at The Quibbler's office. 'Draco!' she exclaimed happily. 'Lovely to see you!'

'Ms Lovegood, you're looking very well. I'd like to register a complaint, if you don't mind. Can I come in?'

'Oh yes, of course! Most of the staff have gone home for the day, but I handle complaints myself. Cup of tea?'

'No thank you, I won't stay long.'

The office was utilitarian, with desks arrayed in rows. In one corner he saw a desk with an artist's slope and a set of inkbottles on it, a cup of tea was still steaming there, but there was no one in the chair. Draco kicked himself for not hurrying, Padfoot must have only just gone home.

'Normally I am not one to interfere in the workings of the press,' he began.

'Is that strictly true?' Luna mused. 'I thought it was you who started that whole Voldemort shagged peacocks rumour yesterday.'

'Touché. All right, normally I am not one to interfere in the media's legitimate right to political commentary, but there is a line between commentary and mockery, and today's cartoon crosses that. You've made me look vain and foolish, and reduced the single most important win in my department for years to a willy joke. I know that you don't care, but I have a staff who work extremely hard in very trying circumstances and this belittles them as well as me.'

Luna nodded. 'I see. I didn't read any of that into it, you know, I just thought the artist was implying you have a big …'

The rattle of a doorknob interrupted her, to Draco's eternal relief. The side-door behind Luna opened and Potter walked in through it. Draco couldn't help smiling, and was ridiculously pleased when Potter's expression mirrored his own. He grinned at Potter's unemployment-wear: a grey T-shirt and jeans that had seen better days, they were nearly as ink-spattered as his hands …

The fading smile on Potter's face said everything as Draco looked from him to the desk and to Luna.

'I was going to tell you …' Potter began, but it was too late, Draco was already on his way out.

Potter caught him out on the street, but Draco wrenched his arm free. 'I trusted you,' he said without emotion.

'I meant it as a compliment. I'm on your side,' Potter insisted.

'Only as long as I remain an amusing topic.'

'Don't be ridiculous,' Potter began to protest.

'I wasn't, until you made me so.' He began to walk away.

'I didn't mean to!'

Draco stopped, and against his better judgement he turned back. 'I am certain that you believe that. But while to you it's a good giggle in the newsroom, to me, it's my life. You may find what I do is fusty, tedious and overly complicating. But it is a job that has a purpose and I do it well. Everything I have, I have earned. I can't expect you to understand what that means to me, but I can ask you to respect it. Good morning.'

Potter continued to call after him as Draco walked up the street, this time he did not look back.

Smythe was waiting outside Draco's office with a pot of tea and a bag of pain au chocolat. 'Did Mr Potter …' he began.

'Do not mention that man's name to me!' Draco snarled, storming past him and slamming the door behind himself. A moment later he opened the door again, snatched the pot of tea and thrust The Quibbler at Smythe. Another moment later, he was back, and rummaged in Smythe's bag, extracting two pastries and leaving the rest, as there was no reason why Smythe should suffer.

'Potter is Padfoot,' he told a confused Smythe, before shutting his door again.

He wasn't surprised to hear the lift ping less than ten minutes later, nor to hear Potter's unmistakable cranky-ex-Auror tread storming down the corridor … and coming to a sudden halt.

'I'm sorry, sir,' said Smythe's wavering voice. 'You are no longer welcome in this department.'

Draco held his breath, and imagined Smythe was doing the same.

'Please,' said Potter. 'I've come to apologise. I didn't mean any harm.'

'Then you should have thought more about who you were lampooning.'

'It was just a piece of fun.'

'Voldemort took his childhood, his father took his family's reputation. You could have left him his dignity, but you chose not to. I thought you were better than that.'

Draco silently cheered Smythe, and resolved to buy better tea and a higher quality of biscuits in future. He heard Potteresque steps retreating, and the lift arriving and leaving. There was a gentle knock at the door.

'Come in,' Draco called.

'He's gone.'

'I heard. Thank you.'

'Not at all. Mind if I sit down?'

'Please.'

'I have to say, I'm very disappointed.'

'You're not the only one.'

'I had high hopes that the Rainbow Wizard would be proved right last night. Did you know that he came round to mine to ask questions about you? Jane and I thought that he was off on a mission of seduction, we had no idea it was all background detail for satire. Are you blushing?'

Draco coughed. 'This has all been most upsetting.' He realised something. 'What did you tell him that you think he might have been inspired to draw that by chatting with you?'

'Nothing! Nothing about your bits at any rate. I might have mentioned that there had been a few woebegone young wizards pining after you over the years, but I thought I was making smooth the path of young love. Sorry. Jane is going to be most distressed, she was looking forward to knowing an alternative couple.'

Smiling, Draco shook his head. 'Never change, Smythe.'

'Well, I'm considering burning my Potter collection, but aside from that I'll try not to. Do you think it is stress left over from the war? Or the childhoood trauma of growing up in a cupboard?'

'I think it's being a prize wanker.'

'Yes, you're probably right.' Smythe picked the teapot up off Draco's desk and swirled it, saddened to find it mostly empty. 'You know Daniel Massol's still in town,' he said.

'Really? I suppose my mother's invited him, too, so he's stayed on.'

'I think so. Do you want me to organise a meeting with him? Somewhere on Diagon Alley? I was thinking either the tea rooms or the pub.'

'Start on one and move on to the other?'

'Excellent. After all, it's important that we maintain strong diplomatic connections, even while the Secretary is indisposed.'

'Still?'

'I believe he's currently sporting a black eye from his wife.'

'I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of her.'

'I'll go and make the necessary arrangements. Give me twenty minutes. And Draco, I'm sorry.'

'You're a good friend, William.'

Smythe smiled as he left.

Draco breathed in, and then out in a long sigh. Potter had seemed so entirely sincere last night. The worst part was the fact that he would probably never know if that had been a part of a long game to make him look a fool.

Except, if it were, Potter had even more to lose than he did.

And now that he had a pint of tea in his system, he found that, in addition to a pressing need to wee, he was thinking more clearly.

'William!' he bellowed.

Smythe galloped in.

'Am I over-reacting?' Draco asked.

'Maybe a little bit,' Smythe answered honestly, 'but not outrageously, and given your background anyone with half a brain could have predicted it would be a bad idea to treat you in such a manner.'

'My background?'

Smythe looked suspiciously innocent.

'William … did you read The Book?'

Smythe knew exactly which book was being referred to, as Draco had made his feelings on Draco Malfoy: Dastardly Death Eater or Victim of Voldemort perfectly clear when he sued the author, publisher, illustrator and typesetter in a case that had set legal and publishing history.

'Not read, not as such, more flicked through. Jane gave me a copy when you came to work here, solely because she thought you had been horribly misunderstood and might need some support.'

'Our entire friendship, based on shoddy journalism …' Draco sighed, the day getting worse by the minute.

'Don't be ridiculous!' Smythe blustered. 'From what I read I was expecting a right little tit, but you brought custard creams and Earl Grey in on your first day. I can't tell you how relieved I was.'

'Smythe, it occurs to me that I need a Junior Under-Secretary.'

'That's lovely. We can discuss my remuneration demands at the tea rooms, while we eat on the French expense account.'

'Should I apologise to Potter?'

'Depends how much you've shouted at him. But later, it won't hurt him to wait. For now, tea.'

And while it was not the best offer Draco had had today, he was happy to take it up.

 

****************

 

Afterwards, it was never clear to Draco how what was supposed to be a relaxing day of skiving off at the tea-rooms and pub turned into a marathon drinking session with Smythe, Daniel Massol, and Luna Lovegood at Massol's hotel, nor where all the French brandy had come from (he suspected Daniel), nor why Luna knew so many drinking songs (he suspected the Ravenclaw common room), nor how they all ended up discussing the fact that Potter had upset him, and whether his upset was proportionate (he knew for a fact that Smythe was to blame for that, he just couldn't recall how).

'It is clear,' said Daniel, 'that Potter is harbouring deep affections for you, yet has allowed his enthusiasms for his work to over-ride his natural feelings of sympathy towards you. While this is regrettable, I think that it is also forgivable. It is not as though he has accused you of anything other than being well-endowed, which in my country is something that men do not mind.'

'Frenchy makes sense,' Smythe added supportively. 'Though if Potter had half a brain he'd have known it wasn't going to be well received.'

'We don't love Harry for his brains,' Luna admitted. 'Look, he feels dreadful, especially since he supports everything you've been doing. He's been saying for years that the Ministry needs to clear out its generational deadwood and let people like you take over.'

'Funny way of showing support,' Draco groused. 'Abandoning his role in improving things and running off to make jokes in the paper.'

'Though to be fair,' Smythe clarified, 'he's been doing that for ages now. Making jokes in the paper, that is. No wonder Padfoot always seemed to know the day's news, he was in the middle of it.'

'That's why I hired him!' Luna said cheerfully. 'Our old cartoonist only did magical animal jokes, and I wanted someone more topical! Aside from which, magical animals deserve to be taken seriously.'

'Certainly,' agreed Daniel. 'Would you care to tell me more about the erumpents?'

'Who knew he could even draw?' Draco complained.

'I taught him,' Luna explained. 'After the war, he needed some hobbies. It's the sort of thing that's easy to put off when you think you might die any day, but you need a few to be a well-rounded adult.'

'You're as wise as you are beautiful,' Daniel declared.

'Did I mention I was engaged?'

'And engaging.'

'Are actual Frenchmen allowed to do such an appalling parody of a French man?' Luna inquired.

'It's not encouraged, no. Anyway, this affection Mr Potter holds for our young Draco, is it of the romantic variety? Or of the deep manly esteem variety? Because there will be very different solutions depending on which it is.'

'Bollocks,' Smythe countered. 'Get him drunk in both cases. Though, obviously, you should answer the question, Malfoy.'

Draco found the three sets of eyes avidly turned his way extremely unnerving. 'It's … it's not something I want to discuss in public,' he prevaricated. 'I think the other people in the bar are listening.'

This was true. Between Draco's minor celebrity, Luna's loud singing and Daniel's attempted seductions of several of the women in the room, they had attracted notice.

'You should talk to him!' Luna said. 'Send him a letter if you want. Give him a chance to apologise and then you can both pretend it never happened. He was really upset this morning, and he normally loves it when people beat up on him.'

There was a pause while all eyes turned to Luna.

'Not in any paid services sense,' she clarified, 'Just in the "enjoys not being the golden boy all the time" way. And that was golden boy the common metaphor. You three are disturbing.'

'You're the one who hunted us down and stayed,' Draco reminded her.

'You all plied me with good brandy, and it's fun watching men try to give each other emotional advice.'

'This is all some complicated revenge, isn't it?' Draco sighed.

Luna patted his knee. 'Not at all.' Then, because she was an honest woman, she added: 'Maybe "the Malfoy Standard" had the teeniest touch of what the young people call payback, but there was a respectful edge to it. At The Quibbler we only tease politicians we admire.'

'You were scathing about the Secretary.'

'Because he's a pillock. That wasn't teasing, that was thinly veiled contempt. You know the difference when you're sober.'

Smythe had started to chortle into his brandy balloon, while Daniel was looking at Luna with freshly serious amorous intent.

'Anyway, I came to tell you that Harry feels awful and is sorry and all the rest and I must have explained that three times. What I do not understand is why now, all these hours later, you're still here drinking with me and these two reprobates instead of making it up with him in whatever completely not dubious and wholly lacking in interest to that lot at the next table manner the two of you have worked out.'

'Because I have no idea what to say!'

'I hear you're sorry, I am sorry too, let us be sorry together?' Luna suggested.

'Write to him, you think?' Draco asked.

'Well, you could talk to him, but at the moment you're slurring half your consonants.'

'I'll do it. Right now. Does this hotel have guest owls?'

'Yes, of course,' Daniel said before turning his attention back to Luna. 'You know, there are many who say there are bonicons in the part of France where my family has its estates, I would be happy to host any representatives from your paper …'

Draco missed the rest of it, he was busy trying to navigate the straight line to the concierge's desk. Asking for parchment and a quill took all of his concentration, and the letter he penned was surely one of his worst: Luna explained. I am cross but sorry. Come around. I'll let you in and promise not to hex you, M.

It was not, he reflected as he paid for the postage, likely to rival the letters of Eloise and Abelard. On the other hand, he still had his testicles and Potter wasn't walled up in a nunnery, so that was a win.

He carefully negotiated the twenty-five yards back to the bar. 'I,' he announced, 'am going home. I will apologise to Potter in person if he appears, and he will be welcome in the department again so Smythe will not have to burn his action figures. Tomorrow, I will see what we can do to sell more of your members' produce over here, Daniel, and we'll nut out a way to repackage the best English goods and sell them to your gourmet market – it can be done! Luna, you can have the exclusive once we work out the details. Thank you all, and good afternoon.'

'So he is definitely sleeping with Potter, yes?' Daniel asked Smythe as Draco turned away.

'I'm fairly sure,' Smythe replied.

'Harry had that post-shag glow this morning before Malfoy turned up and had a tanty,' Luna added.

'I'm still here' Draco fumed. 'Just because I've turned my back it doesn't mean I can't hear you.'

'Well go home,' said Luna. 'Then it won't upset you.'

Draco gave up, and left.

By the time he made it home, he was starting to sober up. There was no sign of Potter waiting by the door, so he decided that a shower and change of clothes would work wonders, and was just buttoning up his shirt when he heard the knock.

'Coming,' he sang out. 'You can leave the door standing, I'll be there in a second.' Draco opened the door. It was not Potter.

'You!' snarled the Secretary, bursting in and slamming the door behind himself, wand at Draco's throat. 'As if it wasn't enough that you've run rough-shod over my department, as if turning Teddington against me wasn't abject treachery, now you have your mother inviting my wife to her party and specifying that it's a single invitation!'

Draco tried to back away from his shouting assailant, but the wobbling jowls, purple and pink face and flecks of spittle continued to fill his field of vision. 'I'm sure it's just a mistake, she probably wasn't thinking, she's always been terribly interested in botany and not politics,' he babbled, wondering whether he could survive long enough to make it to his own wand.

'Mistake? The only mistake here was me thinking that I could trust someone like you. You're a Malfoy, for Merlin's sake. I should have expected the knives in my back and the ground being swept out from beneath me, but how you've managed to curry favour with even Teddington … he was my prefect at Hogwarts, you know, and now he's spent the afternoon telling me that you and he have the situation in hand and that I've become an embarrassment … I won't have it!'

Draco found it a little hard to judge when weighed against his own breath, but he strongly suspected the Secretary had been drinking. Strongly. He tried looking guilty. 'You're quite right, it was unconscionable on my part. Rest assured there was no personal slight intended and it won't happen again.'

'Oh I know it won't,' said the Secretary. 'Because I am going to hex that smirking expression right off your face, along with your nose and eyebrows. Lets see how well you can manipulate the press when you look like a perforated egg!'

'What?' Draco was startled beyond good sense. 'Oh now that's just ridiculous. I have spent years propping you up because I thought that you were just lazy and venal, but if it turns out that you were a raving nose-napping psychopath the whole time, then I'm glad you've finally been revealed for the bloated willy-waving wanker that you are!'

'You ungrateful little arse-licker!'

'You enormous arse! Get out of my house! How dare you come in here threatening me!'

'Bugger threatening, that's it!' The Secretary raised his arm and Draco realised with horror that he was in the worst part of the house to dive out of the way, with only the sitting room door within leaping range. The Firebolt was still by the front door, but too far away to even use as a weapon, and the only piece of furniture in sight was lacking in both sharp edges and a convenient display of blunt metal objects.

A loud pop announced an Apparation just outside, interrupting the Secretary before he could begin his hex.

A jaunty knock at his door confirmed Draco's suspicions.

'Malfoy, I got your letter.'

Potter's voice left no doubt. The Secretary was thrown, looking back and forward between the door and Draco. 'Is that …? I thought you two hated each other …'

'Come on,' called Potter. 'Stop re-arranging your decorative underpants and let me in! I'm sorry, too!'

The Secretary's nostrils flared until he looked like a prize pig. 'Of course!' A mad grin contorted his mouth. 'All along you've been shagging Potter! No wonder everything fell into your lap! Just wait till the Prophet hears!'

Draco had long known that gloating never boded well for the gloater, and so when the Secretary threw back his head to laugh, he flung himself at the man's wand hand and forced it upwards.

While this removed the immediate threat of hexing, it meant that Draco was now grappling with twenty stone of angry Secretary. Desperation gave him strength: Merlin knew whether Potter would be willing to shag the nose-less.

'Who have you got in there?' Potter called through the door.

Draco opened his mouth to call for help in a manner that was purely sensible and not in the least indicating that he might need a tiny bit of rescuing, but a beefy elbow knocked it shut, while the Secretary's free hand made a bid for Draco's throat.

This was not a time for fairness. Draco reverted to the lessons of his childhood and kicked the Secretary's shins with all his strength. It was enough to move the man back a few inches and give Draco an unimpeded line between his knee and the Secretary's knob, a line he made use of in a manner that received an immediate and inescapable response. While the Secretary dropped his wand, and Draco was happy to see it skitter into the shadows, he also dropped his body, folding joint by joint towards the floor, and dragging Draco with him.

'Malfoy, are you all right in there?' Potter called, as the Secretary collapsed on top of Draco, pinning him from the chest down and proving far more bulk that Draco could move without leverage.

'Potter!' he shouted. 'I could do with a spot of help!'

Of course Potter blew the door of its hinges, but Draco was yet to see him in his boy hero mode without accompanying property damage.

Happily, years as an Auror seemed to have improved Potter's ability at assessing situations quickly. He levitated the Secretary off Draco and bound him in one swift wand gesture, then knelt to check Draco for injuries.

'I should have been here sooner!' Potter muttered.

'I won the fight,' Draco pointed out.

'You ended up squashed.'

'Because I won the fight.'

'I think that rib's out of line, how's your leg?'

'Sore, actually, he landed on my knee.'

'Yeah, we need to take you to St Mungo's, I hate to say. Can you sit up?'

'Give me a minute.'

Draco attempted to push himself up and found it very hard to breathe about halfway. Potter used one arm to lift him and pressed the other against Draco's ribs, holding them in place.

'You're a bit broken,' Potter said with a small encouraging smile.

'He was going to hex my nose and eyebrows off,' Draco replied.

'That's bonkers. You did well taking him down.'

'That's what I thought. Are you any good at Healing charms?'

'Not really.'

'All right, then can you check he's still breathing and then maybe call the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol?'

'You sit still.' Potter went and checked the Secretary's bindings, then pulse. 'What did you do to him? He's making sad little noises.'

'Kneed him in the nads, I'm afraid.'

'Good work,' said Potter, laughing. 'He'll be fine. Is this his wand? Here, can you mind it? Right, Expecto Patronum!'

Potter sent the spectral stag galloping off into the ether, then came back over and sat beside Draco. 'Shouldn't take them long. I am sorry, Malfoy.'

'It's hardly your fault.

'I meant about the cartoon.'

'Yes, well, my reaction to that may not have been entirely your fault, either.'

'I meant it as a compliment, after all, you're hung like a …'

'Potter! Not in front of the Secretary.'

'I can Confund him if you like.'

'Not sure there's enough mental stability left to survive that.'

'Are we …'

'Well, I'm hardly going to finish eight litres of ice-cream by myself.'

'That's good. Last night was …'

'Potter!'

'Would you feel better if I Stunned him?'

'Just sit, and be quiet. I think I can hear the MLE coming.'

He was right, and soon the matter was Being Sorted. Draco was in and out of St Mungo's within the hour. The Secretary was left in the Janus Thickey Ward, for 'extended observation'.

Potter insisted that he should escort Draco home. 'After all, your ribs may be fixed, but that knee is going to be tender for a few days.'

'I have a stick,' Draco said, waving it for effect.

'So you will need to sit in a chair and wave it at me while making outrageous demands.'

'I think you just have a pervy desire for sexual favours from cripples.'

'Damn, rumbled.'

'Potter?' Draco stopped him from Apparating them back to Wilfred Street. 'I want to check something.' He turned on his good leg and rested his cheek against Potter's, before moving his jaw just enough for their lips to meet. Potter's hand tightened on his arm, and his mouth curved upwards, and Draco enjoyed the warmth, taste and moment for as long as he could balance on one leg.

'All right,' he said, leaning back onto his stick. 'I just wanted to check that I wasn't mentally compromised by all the sugar and exercise last night.'

'You have a skinful of alcohol and potions at the moment,' Potter reminded him, a little breathlessly.

'Good point, I'll probably need to check again tomorrow.'

'And tonight.'

'And tomorrow night.'

'They tell me experimental rigour is very important.'

'You should probably get us back to my place reasonably quickly.'

 

****************

 

The lead story in Thursday's Quibbler ran with the headline 'Ethelred the Unsteady' and told of the Secretary's unfortunate breakdown at the home of his young Under-Secretary.

Draco was quoted as saying: 'The poor man has given many years to the Ministry, in what is essentially a thankless job. Faced with unfortunate developments in his private life, he dropped by yesterday to discuss departmental issues with me and had a momentary lapse in reason. I was forced to subdue him, in the process of which there was a small accident that led to me sustaining minor wounds. Nothing serious, a few days at home and all will have been thoroughly seen to.'

It was accurate as a quote, if not wholly as a representation of events (the seeing to, was, happily, proceeding apace). Unwittingly, the Prophet hit closer to the mark with 'Sloshed Sec Squashes Standards Hero'. Potter tutted at it that morning as he handed it across the breakfast table to Draco – 'As if all the vegie puns hadn't been done to death.'

'Bean? You're sleeping alone,' he replied mischievously. 'I like your cartoon, though.'

It had consisted of Draco, large round vegetable in hand, struggling his way out from beneath the prone mass of the Secretary and bore the caption: 'Under-Secretary Malfoy thanked gourd that was over, though beaning by calabash was a turnip for the books.'

'I have no shame, apparently,' Potter admitted.

A large bunch of young artichokes and baby asparagus arrived with a get-well note from Rupes Teddington, and by eleven they had been joined by not only Smythe and his delightful wife Jane (who promptly fussed that Draco's knee should be up and then set about cooking the artichokes and making a butter dipping sauce), but also Bruce Pickett and Daniel Massol, Luna Lovegood and, at midday, Narcissa Malfoy.

Who took one look at Draco, then one at Potter, glanced briefly around those assembled, then asked: 'All right, darling?'

'Mostly, a little banged up, but healing quickly.'

'I'll leave you in their capable hands, then,' she said, and left.

Draco glanced at Potter, who was pale. 'She winked at me!' Potter whispered, unnerved.

'Of course she did,' Draco said, resigned to his future. 'She's going to be even worse than Smythe.'

'And he's been appalling,' Jane Smythe confessed, dropping more artichokes onto their plates.

By Friday, things were nearly back to normal, with Elena Gambara interviewed in both papers on the topics of her successful visit and the exciting new age in European agricultural trade. Draco had even considered finishing the papers and going back to bed: Potter's bad layabout influence was contagious. Except there was an owl.

He took it into his bedroom, where there was still a Potter-shaped lump sprawled across most of the bed. Draco pinched a toe on the foot that was hanging out. 'Wake up!' he urged. 'We have a small crisis.'

Potter woke quickly and reached for his wand.

'Not that sort,' Draco reassured him. 'My mother has invited us to stay with her for the weekend, despite me begging her to retract your invitation to the ball.'

'Why is that a crisis?' Potter asked, pushing the hair back from his face and rubbing his eyes. 'You usually spend the weekend there, don't you?'

'She's invited us. I thought there'd be at least a brief period where she waited to see if I kept you around before she started machinating.'

'Steady on, I might dump you.'

'Of course you might. Seriously, though, Potter, you have no idea what this means. She'll be all: "Oh and Harry you must encourage Draco to develop his talents, he thinks he is still young, but time is moving ever onwards …" and then she'll start making suggestions, not the pervy kind, well, not unless you're the Minister, I have long suspected …'

'Malfoy, stop talking.' Potter reached up and took hold of Draco's shirtsleeve and pulled him down onto the bed beside him. 'Firstly, it will be fine. Secondly, you've accomplished a great deal already and you're only thirty. Finally, I am sure Kingsley enjoys it.'

'I am not thirty! I'm the same age as you! Twenty-nine!'

'I'm twenty-eight.'

'Oh for what, another week or two? What an appalling thing to say!'

'That makes you an older man,' Potter leered.

'It makes you an annoying git who is going to get a slap if he doesn't stop it.'

'You haven't even asked whether I'd enjoy that or not.'

'Why am I still talking to you?'

'Because I am attractive enough to be seen in public with you without overshadowing your pointy loveliness.'

'I had Muggles and masturbation and I traded them for you. Why?'

'But your mother's happy about it, and Smythe thinks all his Christmasses have come at once.'

'I suppose it could be worse.'

'And has been, so let's just enjoy ourselves, shall we? What time are we due at your mum's?'

'Seven.'

'Plenty of time, then.'

And it turned out that Potter was right, if one discounted the fact that they had to rely on Draco's wardrobe to see them through, as they forgot to get out of bed in time to pick up any of Harry's clothes.

Narcissa was on her best behaviour, and even gave Potter a guestroom in case he needed to escape for a while. Potter preferred to annoy Draco in his bedroom. 'Is that your old Nimbus 2000? Look at it! It's so tiny! Remember how cranky you were back then?'

'Because I was surrounded by lunatics! Little has changed!'

'Can I borrow some clothes? I'm guessing you change for dinner.'

'Of course. The house-elves can do minor adjustments if you need them.'

Potter rummaged in the drawers and wardrobe for a while, emerging with good but simple black trousers and robes, and a pair of little leather straps with attached buckles and clips. He waved the last in the air gleefully. 'I knew you'd have a perverted side, Malfoy!'

Draco dropped his head into his hands. 'Only my inexplicable attraction to imbeciles. They're sock suspenders. When Mother heard I was going to become a civil servant, she went a little overboard.'

'That's adorable. And if you wear them, I will be pathetically grateful.'

Draco threw the nearest pillow at Potter's head, then sent its twin for good measure. It was a mistake, because it provided Potter with weapons, and they were already looking like being late for dinner.

As they dashed down the stairs to the family dining room, Potter kept hold of Draco's hand. It was oddly charming, and yet … 'Potter …'

'What is it? I thought we were late.'

'Tomorrow. I think you should stay here and I'll go home until the ball is over.'

'That's a ridiculous suggestion. What would you do that for?'

'Because I am not absolutely certain that I can be in the same room as you and not look like someone who is dying to drag you out of there to bed.'

Potter smiled again, and Draco ruefully admitted to himself that when things ultimately went horribly pear-shaped with all this, it was going to hurt.

'Why is that a problem?' Potter asked with a grin.

'Because, oh flobberworm-brained one, it will break the hearts of Witch Weekly readers throughout the land, and probably be a bit more of a statement than I am willing to make to the general public.'

'Would it?' Potter asked. 'If I didn't mind, would you?'

Draco was surprised. 'In all honesty, I don't really care and it would be a bit of a relief not being furtive anymore. It's not as though it would be novel, aside from your involvement.'

'Exactly. So don't worry about it. I have the situation entirely under control.'

'Do you now?'

'Get that look off your face, your mother is waiting for us.'

'Mood killer.'

Dinner was excellent, and the rest of the evening likewise, and so it was rather late in the morning when Draco staggered out to eat, past the house-elves busily at work decorating. His mother was waiting at the table, marking off items on a long list.

'Morning, darling,' she greeted him as he walked in. 'Owls for you, and I have the papers.'

He kissed the top of her head and shuffled to his seat. 'In a minute, I desperately need tea, or even coffee.'

'Here you are.' Narcissa flicked her wand and brought a silver pot of coffee to the table in front of Draco, a sugar pot and milk jug followed it. She poured him a cup while flicking through the remainder of her list.

Fortified, Draco opened the first letter. It was from the Minister, asking if he thought the Standards Department could cope with Teddington, as Rupes seemed keen and there was some good young blood coming up through Sport. It was signed Kingsley again, which pleased Draco to an embarrassing degree.

The second letter was from Teddington himself, vaguely mentioning that he was reconsidering his career in the Ministry after the last week and would love to catch up when Draco was available, just for an informal chat.

Draco idly opened The Quibbler and began to flick through its pages. A heavily bordered box on the Comment Page caught his eye.

Harry Potter it read, wishes to announce that he has recently begun to see a rather fanciable young wizard and that any young witches keen to send him their knickers are encouraged to cut out the middle man and send them directly to the Charity Burbage Memorial Rest Home. Young wizards who have been in the habit of sending Mr Potter their underwear are applauded for their insight, but gently discouraged as he is currently quite happy. Miss Ginevra Weasley has been nagging Mr Potter to find a regular boyfriend for some years now and is likely to be happy with developments. Thank you.

Above the box, the comic showed the editor of Witch Weekly having a little cry, then picking up a quill to write: Dear Rainbow Wizard, It has come to my attention that you may be interested in the purchase of our extensive Harry Potter photo library …

'Darling, are you all right?'

'Fine,' said Draco, standing up and tucking the paper under his arm. 'Back shortly, I just need to kill a man.'

'Try not to stain anything,' Narcissa called after him.

Potter was still asleep – slugginess being but one of his vices – so Draco threw the paper at his head. 'You are a complete lunatic!' he shouted.

Potter reached for his glasses, and peered at the paper once he had found them. 'Ah,' he said. 'Though, technically, by my definition I am not a complete lunatic, as I still haven't taken you home to my place.'

Draco took the paper back, rolled it, and thwacked Potter over the head with it. 'What possessed you? We're just as likely to kill each other before the month is out. And why make a song and dance about who you're shagging when you're still keeping it quiet that you're Padfoot?'

Potter sat up and took the paper from Draco's hands. 'How am I meant to help you foment political revolution if everyone knows who I am?' he asked. 'And you'll find I didn't mention you by name, so if you want to stay secret, you can.'

'Don't be absurd, I'm not going to have you declaring you're seeing someone then only ever being seen alone in public – you'd look like a deranged fantasist again, and we went through enough to establish that you weren't after last time.'

'Excellent.' Potter reached around behind Draco and pushed his legs out from under him so that he fell on the bed. 'Now tell me if breakfast is worth getting up for and what we actually have on today?'

Draco reached up and straightened Potter's glasses. 'Well, for a start, I have to break it to Smythe that we're more likely to end up with Teddington as our Secretary, since you've committed yourself to satire. And then I need to spend money, I owe Signore Gambara something very nice, you know. If he hadn't gone shopping, you might not be here now. I'm beginning to suspect my luck has changed for the better at long last.'

'Hold on to that thought,' said Potter, brushing Draco's fringe back from his eyes. 'Ron and Hermione will be along in about ten hours, and we'll need all the luck we can muster.'

Draco bent his head to Potter's shoulder and sighed. 'I'm reasonably convinced the next 24 hours would be improved by us just spending them in bed, Mother would adore the chance to make suggestive comments if people asked where we were.'

'You have machinating to do,' Potter reminded him.

'It can wait,' Draco insisted.

'Don't let them beet you down,' Potter chuckled. 'Lettuce stand up to it all!'

Draco feared where Potter would have ended, but luckily, there were still pillows on the bed. Because he rather liked him, he decided against the smothering option. For now, at least.