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.'
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.'
'Not sure, I have a meeting I can't get out of. You live near the pub, don't you?'
'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.'
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.
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 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.'
'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.'
'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.'
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.
'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.'
'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.'
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.'
'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?'
'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.'
'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.'
'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?'
'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.
'I heard. Thank you.'
'Not at all. Mind if I sit down?'
'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.'
'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.'
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?'
'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?'
'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 …'
'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.'
'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 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 Standard 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!'
'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?'
'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.'
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.