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Sighting Tally – 0
[ a rather unoriginal plot device of forced introductions ]

Tick-tock.

Tick-tock.

Hermione glares at the clock. Her schedule for the day is filled with house calls and field work, but she can’t leave yet. She looks away from the clock, trying to ignore its persistent noise-making, to set her sights on the door instead. It remains firmly closed, and the sight deepens the lines around her mouth, turning her glare into a scowl.

Tick-tock.

Upon arriving at the office this morning, Mr. Crowley, her department head, informed her that a new hire would be arriving shortly. But that wasn’t what led to her foul mood. It was the announcement that followed: the responsibility of training the new hire rested on Hermione’s shoulders. When she attempted to object – her case load wouldn’t allow her the time for such an enterprise – her boss dealt the finishing blow. The new employee had been hired for the sole purpose of lightening her heavy burden, and as such, she would be expected to work with him for the next six months.

So now she is stuck waiting for a partner she neither needs nor wants.

Tick-tock.

Hermione steeples her hands in front of her and turns to watch the clock again. The time it displays – 9:07 am – is an hour and seven minutes past the start of the morning shift. She’ll give the new bloke three more minutes. If he doesn’t show up by then, she’ll leave a list of tedious tasks that he can complete from the confines of the cramped desk in the far corner of the division’s communal office space. Tedium punctuated with sneezes would be a punishment well-suited for someone arriving late on the very first day at their new job.

Like an adult version of time-out, she thinks with a smug grin. Perfect.

At 9:10 am, Hermione gathers her wand and bag, and stands. But before she can take a step away from her desk, the door opens to reveal a familiar, sharply dressed man. Hermione stiffens in shock, staring, until the man clears his throat.

“Um… Hello, Mr. Malfoy,” Hermione says, remembering her manners. She scans the office, then stifles a groan. The secretary is currently away from the front desk and the others seem busy with their work. Hermione sits down again, her back straight, and folds her hands primly over her lap, hoping that it won’t take long to deal with whatever issue he has for her. “How may the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures assist you today?”

“Save the spiel for your clients, Granger.” Draco surveys the room, his mouth twisted into a grimace. “Just show me where my desk is, and I’ll get out of your hair. If I can, considering how hard it would be to manoeuvre through its bushy mass.”

“Hang on.” Ignoring the mild insult, Hermione raises her hands as if they could shield her from this revelation. “You are our new hire?”

“You really think I’d be up here otherwise?”

“Down here, you mean; we’re on the fourth floor. And I’m not privy to the inner workings of your mind,” she replies, her voice equal parts sarcastic and sceptical. “I don’t understand why you’d need a job in the first place, what with the Malfoy fortune at your disposal. Besides, isn’t your constitution too delicate for menial work?”

“Funny.” His lips curve into a tight, fake smile. “Just show me my damn desk so I can get on with the next six dreary months of my cursed life.”

“Ah, now it all makes sense. This must be a part of your probationary term.”

Granger.

“Sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t show you to your desk right now.” Hermione smiles, the expression every bit as fake as Draco’s. She holds out her hand. “Welcome to the Beast Division, Mr. Malfoy. I’m Hermione Granger, and I’ll be in charge of your training. We’ve got a packed schedule today, so we better get going.”

Draco pinches the bridge of his nose. “Do you mean to tell me that we will be working together? Not just tangentially, but directly?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Tick-tock.

Draco finally takes her proffered hand and shakes it, looking far from pleased. “Bloody hell.”

“Yes,” Hermione says, frowning once again. His hand is warmer than she had thought it would be, dry and firm rather than clammy as she expected, and the pleasantness of the physical contact unsettles her. “Bloody hell, indeed.”

Sighting Tally – 1
[ arses(nic) & lace ]

“You run an apothecary supply business, Mr. Lumpkin?” The man nods his round head at the question. The wiggle of the fat man’s jowls turns Draco’s stomach, and he covers his mouth with his hand to hide his grimace. In spite of the off-putting sight, Hermione’s smile never wavers, though her eyes narrow when she casts a quick glance at Draco. “Then, would it be correct to assume that this acquisition will be used for commercial purposes?”

“Yes, Miss Granger.” Mr. Lumpkin puffs out his chest. With meaty fingers, he pats the knee of the reedy woman seated to his right. “Business has been good as of late, so the missus and I are looking to expand.”

Draco scoffs before he can suppress the urge. He can’t help it; the unfortunate phrasing, combined with the man’s portly stature, makes for a rather comedic effect.

Apparently, though, Hermione fails to see the humour of the situation. She kicks him with the toe of her boot. Hard. Then to cover his groan of pain, she delivers her response to the client in a tone too loud and bright to be appropriate for the subject at hand. “I see. Very good, sir. You will need to fill out this permit.” She slides a thick pile of parchment across the table. “In triplicate, of course.”

Mr. Lumpkin’s expression droops as he takes up his quill. “Of course.”

“While you fill those out, my partner and I will need to speak with your staff and see that your facilities are up to Ministry specifications.” Hermione’s countenance shifts from friendly to stern, and her voice takes on a swotty tone. “The care of a magical beast, especially one as spirited as a unicorn, is to be given the highest regard. The Ministry must not have any doubts as to your ability to care for such a creature.”

“Yes, yes. I understand completely. I think you will be pleased with our preparations.” Mr. Lumpkin nods again, this time with more enthusiasm, much to Draco’s disgust. “My wife can show you around. Dearest?”

~*~

Their trek through the extensive grounds is quiet, at least at first. There are a dozen greenhouses, each outfitted with the best climate control and irrigation systems available from both the Wizarding and Muggle worlds – a herbologist’s wet dream. Hermione manages just three minutes of speechless awe before she opens her mouth to bombard Mrs. Lumpkin with questions. Draco can clearly see dissatisfaction on Hermione’s face when Mrs. Lumpkin fails to answer her questions clearly. After sputtering her way through a few attempts, the woman suggests that Hermione direct her queries at the knowledgeable Mr. Murray, the Head of Production, whom they are to meet at the stables. Silence recommences as a deflated Hermione slows her pace to trail a good distance behind their host.

Normally, he would find amusement in her discontent, but his day has been terrible right from the start. His alarm never went off, and Draco awoke an hour late for work. Cursing, he forewent a shower to save those few, precious minutes and proceeded to get dressed. Only he couldn’t find any of his suits. In their place he’d found a note from his mother informing him that she’d sent them out for cleaning.

Every last one.

With no other options, Draco slipped on his best pair of Muggle denims – acquired during his rehabilitation program – and rushed off to the first day of his Ministry-appointed job. Then she had greeted him, plastering a pleasant veneer over her obvious vexation at his tardiness, and he knew that the rest of his day would be doomed as well. Granger, in all her prissy glory, had been the icing on top of the shit cake that fate prepared for him.

But even that wasn’t enough.

Hermione had to go and injure him for a small moment of weakness, something that could have easily been brushed off as a cough. His ankle is still smarting from her nonverbal admonition. Under the weight of these afflictions, Draco is feeling anything but chipper.

“Was that really necessary?” he asks when he’s sure that Mrs. Lumpkin is no longer within earshot. Hermione doesn’t answer, just cocks her head his direction. Her expression is one of confusion, so he gestures to his leg and continues. “The kick, Granger. That interrogation was obviously unnecessary. The Ministry doesn’t need to know the bloody soil to mulch ratio they use in their Dittany beds to make a decision about a unicorn permit.”

“I was curious,” Hermione says with a lift of her chin, “and your behaviour was bordering on rude. If Mr. Lumpkin were so inclined, he could submit a complaint to the Ministry.”

“Merlin forbid we get one small write-up!”

She stops, pinning him with the same serious stare she gave Mr. Lumpkin. “Maybe you don’t have to take this job seriously, Malfoy, but I can’t afford that luxury.” As she walks away, he hears her whisper, “Not if I’m ever to make a real difference.”

Draco watches her go, and a tiny, painful flutter knocks about inside his chest.

Guilt.

It’s been over three years since Draco saw Hermione, the last occasion being his trial, and he likes to believe that he has matured during that time. He’s somehow managed to grow a conscience from the tiny seed of decency he acquired during the war, and it’s mostly served him well. It’s kept him from diving head first into any new misfortunes at any rate. He just wishes that he could ignore it at this particular moment.

Dammit, he thinks as he jogs to catch up with her, there goes my pride.

“If it’s that big a deal, Granger, just blame it on me,” he says with a sneer, trying his best to appear indifferent.

Her mouth drops open and her eyes widen in apparent shock. “We’re a team now, like it or not, and I would never leave my partner out on a limb like that.”

“Good lord, woman, I’m not offering to be a martyr. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.” He rolls his eyes for good measure, maintaining the façade. Maybe he’s laying it on a little too thick, but he can’t help it. That little flutter of pain is now a warm squeeze, and the last thing he wants is for his happiness over her words show on his face; his pride’s taking a beating as it is. “I’m simply saying that we should use the circumstances to our advantage. It’s my first day on the job, and I’ve not yet been trained in interview protocol. The worst I’d receive is a dressing down, I’d wager. No harm, no foul.”

“Clever.” Hermione smiles, and unlike this morning it appears to be genuine. “With that line of reasoning, I suppose I’ll have to let you take the blame, then.”

“Yes, if Mr. Lumpkin files a complaint. I’m not convinced of the danger.”

“Miss Granger, Mr. Malfoy,” Mrs. Lumpkin calls out. “This way, please. We’re nearly there.” The woman points to the path on the right, a meadow and sizeable barn now visible in the distance.

Hermione quickens her stride, leaving Draco a few paces behind. Each step causes her bushy hair to bounce and her skirt to swish, and Draco decides that from now on, he’ll walk behind her whenever the circumstances allow it. The view is more pleasant than he could have predicted. The cadence of her gait is pleasing, her bum is shapely and pert, and he finds the amalgamation of the two oddly hypnotic. It lulls him into an agreeable stupor, and for the first time today Draco is content. But then, just as Hermione’s pace settles into a good rhythm, it all comes crashing down.

Or rather, Hermione does.

One second, she’s walking and bouncing and swishing. The next, she’s sprawled out on her hands and knees, arse in the air and skirt flipped over her head.

Hermione is only on the ground for a moment. She bolts upright, adjusts her rumpled clothing, and clears her throat. As she turns his direction, he can see that a blazing blush colours the entirety of her exposed skin. Her gaze doesn’t quite settle on his face, but rather on some point to his left. “Erm… Yes, well. Okay.” She fidgets with the collar of her pink shirt. “Shall we continue, then?”

Draco forces himself to nod jerkily, and Hermione nods in return, the exchange painfully awkward. Then she walks away. He remains as silent as he can and hopes that the embarrassment will keep her from looking back at him. He’s every bit as red as she is, skin feverish and too tight for comfort, his colour growing deeper by the minute.

He’d only caught a glimpse – satin and lace in the same petal-pink as her shirt, paired with a creamy garter to hold up her stockings – but it had been enough.

Sighting Tally – 2
[ a lady’s prerogative and a gentleman’s pride ]

“We’re missing something.”

“Oh yeah. A motive for the crime or a list of suspects, perhaps? Or, I don’t know, maybe even a single clue? ” Draco rubs his neck, weary, and slumps back in his chair. “We’re not missing ‘something’. We’re missing everything.”

Hermione glares at the conference room’s blackboard, as if by sheer willpower she could make it list the missing pieces of the case. When that produces no results, she begins to pace the width of the room.

It is late, even by his partner’s standards. His stomach growls in protest. After two weeks of working with Hermione, Draco’s learned to be prepared; he has food delivered to the office every evening for the two of them. But tonight’s delivery came hours ago, and there is nothing left of it save some crumbs. Draco rests his heavy head on the table and fights to keep his eyes open.

“It’s late. We should–”

“No,” Hermione says, short and sharp. After a pause, he hears her sigh. When she speaks again, her voice is soft. “Just… Not quite yet. Please, Malfoy?”

Draco groans and shifts in his chair, trying to block out the images that her words bring up in his head. She’d whispered that same phrase – please, Malfoy – when she’d come to him last night. It hadn’t really been Granger, of course; it’d been just a dream, the same one he’s had every night since he started this damn job. Not that it matters. Hermione in any form, real or imagined, has the same effect on him. Thank Merlin he’d thought to cast a long-lasting Glamour charm over his crotch.

“Fine,” he says just as she walks into view. She’s wearing another one of her swishy skirts, this one a tiny bit shorter than the others. The sight of that delectable, extra inch of skin muddles his brain. Maybe it’s the extra strain on his pants. Or maybe it’s accumulation of too many days with too little sleep. Either way, his tongue is loose, and he speaks without thinking. “If you wanted to spend the night with me, Granger, all you had to do was ask.”

“I’d pick better accommodations, if that were the case.”

“Really?” Draco sits up, surprised by her provocative rejoinder. It only takes a moment for him to find his wits, though, and he attempts to capitalise on this gratifying change of subject. “By all means, do tell.”

“You needn’t sound so smug. I wasn’t referring to you personally.” Hermione sits in the chair next to his, crosses one leg over the other, and picks up the case file. “So, back to the Hippogriffs. What do think–”

“Oh no,” Draco says, wagging a finger. “You’re not getting out of this so easily. I’ve put in five hours of overtime tonight to appease your stubbornness. The least you could do is humour my curiosity. So, Granger”– he leans in, placing a hand on the back of her chair, and drops his voice to a low rumble –“tell me exactly what your ‘better accommodations’ entail.”

She places the file back on the table and turns her head towards him. He’s near enough that her hair brushes his cheek, and he can’t suppress the shiver that the contact elicits from him. Draco closes his eyes. When he opens them, Hermione is so close that he can taste her breath, the hint of lemon and sugar from the tea she had after dinner. She smiles, soft and sweet, and that warm flutter returns with a ferocity that makes the air rush from his lungs. He freezes when her smile widens into something almost predatory. She leans forward, her mouth near his ear. “No,” she whispers, “I don’t think I will.”

Then, before he can fully recover, she’s standing in front of the blackboard again.

Draco should be angry. Had he been younger, even by just a year, he would be livid. She’s ripped out a chunk of his pride with that display of her feminine wiles, and a Malfoy does not allow a blow like that to go unanswered. But he’s not angry. On the contrary, her teasing has exacerbated his body’s reaction to her. Every inch of him burns with adrenaline and want and need, and Draco feels so, so alive. It’s unlike anything he’s experienced before, and he likes it.

Draco inhales through his nose, deep and long. He’s too hot – seared, scorched, and close to boiling over – and as much as he wants to revel in that heat, he also doesn’t want her to see him like this. He shuffles to the window and slides it open. The brisk night air runs over his flushed skin, and Draco sighs in relief. He stays there for a minute or two, letting the coolness clear his head, before he chances a look in Hermione’s direction.

She’s still staring at the blackboard, tapping her chin while she thinks, oblivious to his struggle. The soft breeze from the open window sweeps across her skirt. The flimsy material lifts, swaying back and forth. It gives him an idea. With a wicked smirk, Draco returns to his seat. He leaves the window open.

A Malfoy does not allow a blow like that to go unanswered.

With a whispered incantation and a swift swipe of his wand, a gust of wind shoots through the room. Hermione gasps at the chilled air and wraps both of her arms around her body, neglecting her flapping skirt. She shoots him a withering glare as she stomps over to close the window.

Draco plasters on his best impression of innocence. “Quite windy tonight, isn’t it?”

“Hmm.” Hermione studies him as she runs her hands over her wayward hair. Then she crosses her arms and continues to stare, her scepticism clearly written on her face. Draco knows what she’s looking for: an admission of guilt. But he’s been at the end of even worse staring matches before, so he will not buckle under pressure. After a few more seconds, she relents and turns her gaze back to the board. “I have a theory about our missing Hippogriffs.”

“Are you going to tell me anytime soon, Granger?” Draco asks, affecting a mien of impatience. He can’t maintain it long, though, not when he’s so pleased with the results of his little prank. A sly grin spreads across his face. “Or must I guess about that as well?”

“Oh, don’t be petty, Malfoy. It’s unbecoming,” Hermione says, her matter of fact tone mixed with good natured teasing. “Do you think it could be related to a fighting ring? There’s a history of underground werewolf fight clubs in the province where most of the thefts occurred. With the Ministry’s heavy crackdown on those establishments, they could be looking for a different source of easy revenue.”

“Maybe.” Draco shrugs. “We could pay a visit to Goyle tomorrow. He used to be a bookie for one of those places before they got shut down.”

“That’s something at least. Enough for tonight, at any rate.” Hermione stretches, pulling her hands as far above her head as they can go, and there is an audible crack. As he winces at the sound, her eyelids droop with the weight of her fatigue. “I’ll write this down, and then we’ll call it a night.”

“Hurrah,” Draco says, sardonic, as he waves his hands through the air in a facsimile of celebration. “Finally.”

As Hermione adds her hypothesis to the board, her skirt swishing to the rhythm of her handwriting, Draco smiles in triumph.

Tonight’s dream would feature lavender knickers.

Sighting Tally – 3 & 4
[ a series of stimulating recollections ]

Hermione can’t believe they ever thought Draco was sneaky – they, of course, meaning Harry, Ron, and herself. She’s only worked with him for two months, yet she’s seen through every ploy he’s devised during the time. It hadn’t even been difficult, once she’d figured out his tells.

Not that she’s complaining. Ever the Slytherin, Draco’s schemes work to his own benefit. That, in turn, tends to benefit her due to their partnership. Client interviews and suspect interrogations yield better results when combined with his talents for manipulation, and Mr. Crowley has grown more lenient about procedural infractions under the influence of Malfoy’s flattery. His skill set is a near perfect complement to her knowledge and logic. They work well together, her and Malfoy.

What’s more, Hermione enjoys his company. His sarcasm and dry humour appeal to her, and she finds that his haughty demeanour doesn’t bother her like it once did. He’s intelligent, though perhaps not as much as he gives himself credit for, and that keeps her on her toes. She can see that Draco’s changed. Maybe not entirely, but enough in the ways that count to her. His presence fills a hole in her chest, shaped from boredom and loneliness, which she hadn’t even realized was there.

These positive attributes of their relationship are offset by one thing she’s not sure she can reconcile, though: Draco’s a first rate pervert with a fetish for knickers. Specifically, her knickers. She’s caught him in more than one intrigue to catch a glimpse of her undergarments.

Hermione will readily admit that she brought the first instance upon herself. She’d been exhausted, both mentally and physically, so when he’d thrown that first flirtatious comment her way, she’d responded in kind. Instinct, she’d told herself later as she tried to justify her actions. But neither instinct nor weary wits could possibly be blamed for her furtherance of the situation. That had been attraction, plain and simple, and a need to determine whether said attraction was mutual. In that regard, her gambit had been more than successful. Afterwards, she could say with complete certainty that she hadn’t been the only one to feel it; he gave her numerous signs to read, and his Glamour charm told her everything she needed to know. She’d been a spectacular tease, and the revenge he’d doled out for his stung pride had been little more than a silly prank. In all honesty, she’d been flattered. Merlin knows how rare it’d been for a handsome man to care about her knickers. Besides, he’d seen them once already.

That time was my fault, too, Hermione remembers ruefully. Stupid, clumsy feet.

The second incident of purposeful viewing, though, had been all Malfoy. They’d just finished with a contact about some information regarding the missing Hippogriffs case. The woman had insisted upon meeting them at a Muggle park on the outskirts of London, far from any entrance to the Wizarding world. No doubt she was afraid of some kind of retaliation, should it be discovered that she’d approached Ministry agents.

Draco seemed to view the trip as some kind of adventure, a fabulous foray into the mundane world of Muggles. He’d been bursting with inquisitiveness the whole way there, though he’d tried to hide it under an aloof demeanour and cool stare. But Hermione had seen right through his façade, and a fuzzy, warm feeling sprouted inside her chest.

That was probably why Hermione hadn’t thought twice when he asked her about the swing set. Pleased as punch, she’d sat upon the seat, tucked her skirt underneath her thighs so that it wouldn’t flap about, and demonstrated how to manoeuvre the contraption. After allowing herself to fly free and careless for a few short minutes, Hermione dragged her feet and ground the swing to a halt. Then Draco had stepped forward with the intent of holding the chains so she could hop off and he could have a turn. But instead of a smooth transition, he had fallen.

Face first and right into her lap.

He’d removed his head from under her skirt with haste and apologised with appropriate remorse, claiming that a rock had tripped him up. She’d accepted his apology, beet-red and stammering herself, and then let the matter go. But she knew the truth; his smirk had told her the whole story.

(And if she’d dreamt of Malfoy that night, who was to judge her for it?)

For his third trick – and a resultant fourth viewing – he’d employed a measure of subtlety, and she might have missed it had she not been paying close attention to his every move. The Ministry had received an anonymous tip that a shop in Wimbledon was selling half-Kneazles to unsuspecting Muggles, and Draco and Hermione had been sent out to investigate. Thinking it better to go undercover, they posed as a newly married couple looking to purchase their first shared pet.

Draco had played the part well. Too well for Hermione’s comfort level, actually. He’d kept her tucked tightly to his side as she asked the shopkeeper questions, his thumb drawing circles into the sliver of bare skin on her hip left unprotected by her cropped blouse. Even when the shopkeeper left them alone to help another customer, Draco had kept up the act. He’d nuzzled her ear, lowering his voice to an intimate whisper as they’d discussed their impressions of the place. They’d both agreed that their insider information seemed to be false, so they’d discreetly made their exit.

A block from the shop, Draco had finally released her. As he did so, he took a half step back and let his fingers trail across the small of her back, tugging ever so slightly on the waist of her jeans. The action made just enough of a gap to expose the top band of her knickers, and he’d whistled an obnoxiously happy tune the rest of the trip back to the office.

(That day, for the first time since she’d hired on with the Ministry, Hermione committed two terrible acts that she’d swore she never would: she left work early and lied to her boss about feeling ill. At the time, she couldn’t trust herself to act in a work-appropriate, non-amorous manner; distance from Malfoy and a cold shower had been more important than her integrity.)

Recalling exactly how his attentions have affected her, especially the ones that she’s been quick to label as perversion, makes Hermione doubt herself. She’s never asked him to stop, even during those times that she knew that he knew that she’d caught him. Perhaps she’s judging him too harshly. There could be a perfectly logical reason for his behaviour. It’s natural for a man of his age to…

Hermione laughs as a ridiculous thought comes to her.

She’d testified for him at his trial, so she’s familiar with his story. Between his experiences in the war and the terms of his consequent sentence – two years of house arrest and another two of probation – he’s spent a lot of time isolated from his peers. It’s not a stretch to think that his social development could be stunted due to his circumstances. As silly as her new theory might seem at first glance, it’s plausible.

What if Draco Malfoy has never properly seen a pair of woman’s knickers?

Sighting Tally – 5
[ confessions of the not-so-appropriate kind ]

“Nothing useful in this one, either.” Hermione slams the book shut and adds it to the towering stack on the corner of her desk. She checks the time on her wristwatch – 10:23 pm – and runs a hand over her tired face. “Any luck with yours?”

“Nope.” Draco takes one last sip of his tea, grimacing at its cool temperature. Setting his cup aside, he peers into the small cage in front of him. Then he takes the non-writing end of his quill and pokes it inside. A fierce chittering resounds through the office. “Testy little bugger, isn’t he?”

“You’d be testy, too, if you had someone poking at you all the time. Leave the poor creature alone.” Hermione takes the cage away from Draco, pinning him with a reproving stare. “I just wish we could figure out what he is so we could take him to his home. He looks miserable stuck here with us.”

“I’m sure the fluffball will survive.”

“Be that as it may, we still have a job to do, and so far we’re not doing it well,” Hermione says as she pulls her hair up into a loose bun. It’s been in her face all evening, hindering her research and adding to her frustrations. A piece falls out of the tie to dangle over one eye, and she feels dangerously close to losing her temper. But she won’t, not when she’s got so many things on her agenda. She inhales deeply through her nose, releasing the breath through her mouth, and turns her attention back to the creature. “Are you sure you don’t have any idea at all? We’ve exhausted all known creature possibilities, and you’re more familiar with magical myths and lore than I am. All I can think of when I look at him is ‘tribble’, and I know that’s not an option.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” he asks with a frown. “We could have at least looked into this ‘tribble’ idea, whatever it is, before you dismissed it entirely. What if you’re right?”

Hermione snorts. “Tribbles are quite imaginary, I assure you.”

“People think lots of things are imaginary, Granger. That doesn’t mean they are.”

“Tribbles,” Hermione says slowly, fighting the urge to laugh aloud, “are fictional alien creatures from a Muggle television programme about space exploration.” His dumbfounded expression breaks her will, and she can no longer hold it back. She bursts into a fit of giggles. “Like I said, it’s not an option.”

Draco sends her a dirty look, so she composes herself as best she can. She doesn’t feel guilty for teasing him, though. She’d needed that release, more than she could have guessed, and she feels lighter for it. Silence stretches out between them as he stews at his desk, his lips a thin line of irritation as he plays with the rim of his empty teacup. When she can take it no longer, Hermione prods him again. “Any other ideas?”

“Better than creatures from outer space?” Draco crosses his arms, defiant. “No. I think we’ll have to– wait. I think… Yes!” His grey eyes lock onto hers, bright with sudden understanding, and he stands. He gestures for her to do the same. “We need to go to the library. Now.”

~*~

“Ah, here we are.”

“The restricted section?” Hermione asks, confused. “What could we be possibly looking for in here? The creature seems harmless.”

“Yes, the fluffball mostly likely is harmless.” Draco moves behind the empty reception desk and rummages around until he finds the inventory log. He examines each name on the page before he flips to the next. “But I wager that he was created using less than savoury means.”

“Dark magic. Really?” Hermione whispers, craning her head in both directions before following. She checks the time on her watch. “It’s 10:30, Malfoy – the library is closed. If we get caught, Mr. Crowley will have our heads on a spike.”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure we don’t get caught.”

“Fine.” Hermione sighs. Malfoy’s right. They haven’t any other leads, and the consequences for being in the library after closing aren’t all that harsh. In all honesty, they probably wouldn’t even receive a verbal reprimand, not with the way Draco has their boss wrapped around his finger. “Why are we here?”

“Most of the books the Ministry confiscated from Malfoy Manor are housed in this section, including one on the lost art of creature manipulation.”

“Are you saying that past generations of wizards experimented with genetic modification?”

Draco pauses to give her a pained look. “You know I don’t understand that Muggle technical babble.”

“Chimeras, Malfoy.”

“Then, yes,” he says, turning another page of the log, “only infinitely more advanced. From what I understand, there’s a method to produce a creature that is wholly unlike the parts used to create it. Rather than being a piece-meal creation of separate, recognisable features, the use of this method results in perfect unification.” He points to a name on the parchment, beaming. “There it is: bookcase 47, shelf K. Alchemic Practices with Magical Beasts by Gerald Kipper.”

They wander around the expansive room, searching. Hermione knows her way around the library quite well, but she hasn’t had a chance to explore the restricted section in depth. The best she can do is point them in the direction of the bookcases in the forty series. It takes them nigh on ten minutes to find the correct section, and another five to locate the shelf. When they arrive at their destination, they both groan.

The bookcase is massive, fifty metres in length and four stories high, and shelf K sits just above its horizontal centre. Unfortunately, the use of magic is strictly prohibited in the restricted section due to the sensitive, and often dark, nature of the books kept there, so the only way to access the upper shelves is by way of a ladder. The ladder attaches to a rail on the top of the bookcase and has wheels on its bottom legs for easy manoeuvring. It also looks like it’s been around since the time of Merlin and Morgana.

“Granger,” Draco says as he sidles up next to her, “you’re not afraid of heights, are you?”

“Does it even matter?” Hermione’s words are bitter, filled with dread at the sight before her, even though she knows it’s the logical course of action. “We can’t magick that bloody book down, and that ladder’s liable to fall apart under your weight.”

“I’ll hold you steady, Hermione,” he says, soft and sure. “I promise.”

“Yes. Okay, good. I’ll just get going, then.” Hermione steps onto the bottom rung, flustered but fighting down the panic. She turns to him one more time and says, “Draco… just keep talking to me, please?”

He nods, then she squares her shoulders and starts to climb.

On her way up, she asks him a multitude of questions. Some of them are dull, mundane – whether he has a favourite dessert (the more chocolate, the better) and which Quidditch teams he roots for (whichever ones thrash the Chudley Cannons). Others, while mostly unobtrusive, deal with matters of a more personal nature – what his middle name is (Abraxas, after his grandfather) and what he’d like to do once his probation is over (travel; anywhere, it doesn’t matter). She asks about things she doesn’t care a whit about – his favourite colour (blue, surprisingly enough) – and things that she has a biased interest in – whether he has a definite type (intelligent and female; other than that, no comment). At one point, he adjusts the ladder’s position so she can better reach the book, and the movement startles her into asking about one of the issues that’s been at the forefront of her mind: how many girlfriends he’s had (two; Pansy and Daphne).

On the way down, she’s asks a couple more – whether he really hates Harry (no, but he’d kill himself sooner than he’d it admit to anyone except her) and where his favourite place on earth is (his mother’s beach house in Italy). With each inquiry, his answers flow readily from his tongue, and she is thankful. He’s made a difficult task much easier for her. Then, when she’s just within his reach, Hermione turns around on the ladder and asks one more question.

“What colour are my knickers today?”

Pat comes the answer. “Periwinkle blue with white stripes.” He clamps his mouth shut as the last word crosses his lips. But his expression holds steady, calm and cool, and she has the fleeting thought that he’d make an amazing poker player; she hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s thinking.

“Clever witch,” Draco says finally. He shakes his head and his lips curve into a small, disbelieving smile. “You spiked my tea.”

“I did,” Hermione admits as she steps off the ladder.

“You realise that’s all the dirt you’re going to get, yeah?” He taps the side of his head. “I’m very skilled in Occlumency.”

“I’ve already prepared for that eventuality.”

Draco raises one sceptical eyebrow. “And just how do you plan to counter one of the two confirmed weaknesses of Veritaserum?”

“Actually, I was hoping,” she says as she leans into his personal space, “that you’d answer the rest of my questions just because I asked.”

He chuckles appreciatively. “Out of the goodness of my heart? Don’t be daft.” His breath is warm as it washes over her face. “Although, I suppose I could be persuaded. So, Granger, what’s in it for me?”

Hermione raises onto her tiptoes, curling her fingers into his shirt, and whispers into his ear, “A proper viewing of my knickers.”

Draco slowly backs her into the bookcase, his hands curling over the slim set of her shoulders. He’s wearing that poker face again, but this time she doesn’t need any facial cues to read his thoughts. His pupils are dilated, leaving only a thin ring of grey around the black, and his body shudders as he draws nearer to her. He wants what she’s offering, that much is certain. All that’s left is to see if he’ll take it.

“Go on, Hermione,” he says at last. “Ask your questions.”

The rough, throaty quality to his voice, so unlike his usual smooth tenor, sends heat to pool deep within her belly. The sudden flood muddles her mind, and she has to take a moment before she can speak. “Do you have a panty fetish?”

“Don’t hold back on my account. Merlin’s balls, woman.” Draco drops his gaze to the floor as his body language changes. He fidgets, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, and runs a hand through his hair. “I didn’t think so, but now I’m not so sure.” He chuckles again, and this time the sound is laced with reticence. “It’s your fault, you know. I can’t get the image of you and those pink knickers out of my head.”

“Is it just mine? Or…” She pauses, unsure of whether she wants to ask this particular question. Hermione fancies him, she realises with sudden clarity, and the feeling is more than just attraction or lust or anything purely physical. If his answer disappoints her now, it’s likely to crush that bud of emotion before it can grow into something more. Still, she has to know. “Or will any lady’s undergarments do?”

“Of course it’s just yours.” His response comes fast and fervent. “Have you seen me so much as look at another woman since I was hired on here?”

“No,” she says, her heart gone light and a smile spreading across her lips, “I suppose not.”

“Any more questions?”

“Just one – why?” At Draco’s bewildered expression, she continues. “What I mean is, why did that particular incident have such an effect on you? Surely you’d seen a pair of knickers before you saw mine.”

“I haven’t, actually.” He takes a half-step away from her, his posture suddenly stiff, and his arms drop to their sides. “Is your curiosity satisfied?”

“No,” she says, pinning him with a challenging stare. “You haven’t answered my question yet.”

“What do you want to hear?” he asks, stepping back into her space with a ferocity that it causes her own feet to retreat. But there’s nowhere to go, not with the bookcase at her back. He continues his advance, bracing himself against the old wood, and she finds herself trapped. “That I’ve never been with a woman? That at the ripe, old age of twenty-two, Draco Malfoy is still a virgin? Bloody hell, Granger! Why do you always–”

Hermione cuts him off with a kiss.

There’s nothing graceful about the way she mashes her lips against his. She’s out of practice. It’s been over a year since she broke it off with Ron, and she hasn’t dated at all in the time since. She feels uncoordinated, clumsy and fumbling, and she’s sure that he’ll push her away because of the sheer inadequacy of the gesture.

But he doesn’t. His lips soften under the pressure of her own as he kisses her back, and his actions are neither clumsy nor fumbling. Draco plies hers with gentle nips of his teeth and flicks of his tongue until she opens up for him. When his mouth wanders to suckle at her neck, heat trails up her spine and flows to her extremities. She’s on fire, aching with need. And with how they’re pressed together, flushed and heaving, she can feel his need as well. But they’re still in the library, at work, and on the clock.

Hermione pushes against his chest and waits for him to look at her. “I think we should call it a night.”

“Alright.” The word is laden with emotion – confusion, fear, hope – but he doesn’t push any further. Then, without meeting Hermione’s gaze, he drops his arms and says, “I’ll see you at work on Monday.”

“Perhaps,” she says, a coy smirk lifting one side of her mouth. “But it’ll likely be sooner.”

Draco’s head jerks up in surprise. The shock only lasts for a moment, his countenance shifting from uncertainty to confidence in a heartbeat, before he once again traps her between his arms. With a flirtatious leer, he asks, “Oh?”

Hermione pats his cheek and ducks under his elbow. Once she’s a few steps away, she calls over her shoulder. “I still owe you a reward.”

Sighting Tally – 6+
[ a gentleman’s choice for a satisfying conclusion ]

Draco awakens on Saturday morning to find a familiar owl sitting on the ledge of his bedroom window. He lets it in without delay, curious about its burden; a sealed scroll is tied to the owl’s leg, and it holds a small box in its beak. When Draco tries to retrieve the box, the owl shakes his head and sticks out his foot. The creature has been given a very specific set of delivery instructions, it seems.

Draco decides to follow along with whatever game Hermione has put it up to and takes the scroll. He cracks the seal, and the formality of the writing he spies inside makes him grin.

~*~

Dear Mr. Malfoy,

I cordially invite you to join me for a private dessert sampling tonight. A variety of dishes have been prepared with your express pleasure in mind, and I believe that, should you accept my invitation, you will find the experience a most rewarding one. I have enclosed a portkey, as there is no official Apparition point near my place of residence, and it will activate at 8:00 pm sharp. If you plan to attend, please send a token of your intent with Flynn.

Sincerely,
Hermione Jean Granger

~*~

Draco pockets the portkey – a blue hairpin that’s been magically affixed to the parchment – and sets the letter aside. The owl finally releases the box into Draco’s waiting hand. The box is no more than a few centimetres square, and is unadorned save for a paper tag pasted on its top bearing the words, tap me.

Draco grabs his wand from the nightstand and does what the note says. The box shudders and sparks, causing him to drop it. After another few seconds, the box expands to roughly five times its original size. When it does nothing else, Draco picks it up off the ground and opens it.

Inside is another note in Hermione’s handwriting, and this one says, pick your poison. Underneath the note is a layer of dark, silky fabric. He lifts it up and sees another layer of cloth below it, this one soft and lavender. Beneath that is yet another layer, the material a pale, periwinkle blue. Sensing a pattern, Draco dumps the contents of the box on his bed. What he sees sends bright, flaming spots of colour to his cheeks and heat racing through his veins.

Hermione sent him a box full of her knickers.

Draco spies a familiar bit of pink lace, and he untangles it from the pile. He returns the rest of them to the box and charms it back to a manageable size for the owl. Marching over to his desk, he writes to Hermione. When the ink is dry, Draco adds his token, seals the message, and sends Flynn on his way.

~*~

Dear Miss Granger,

I accept your invitation. Please be prepared for a thorough ravaging, as my appetite has been quite fierce as of late.

Sincerely,
Draco Abraxas Malfoy

~*~