Five

"May the splendour never fade!
What a blessed release
and what a masquerade."
"Masquerade (Film Soundtrack Version)", Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber


Draco pulled on a black long-sleeved shirt and ran his fingers through his hair nervously. More nervously than he expected, and definitely more nervously than he wanted. Malfoys were never supposed to get nervous. It was simply beneath them. But Draco was most definitely nervous tonight. Tiny shots of adrenaline had been running through his veins since the hour before, when he stepped out of the shower and rubbed the fog off the mirror, the realisation that he was about to have a date with Hermione Granger practically blindsiding him. It was like an epiphany, only more joyous and more painful at the same time.

He cringed as he thought back to their conversation back in the bookshop, where, after a fabulous, heartfelt speech that he'd made up completely on the spot, he'd blurted out the most presumptuous, prick-ish thing he could ever have thought up: "Give me a repeat of Halloween night and I'll tell you." God. That sounded cheesier and grosser every time he thought about it.

Draco felt sort of lucky that he didn't get a nice slap 'round the face for that. Instead, there was just a guarded, slightly insulted, utterly silent stare from Hermione for roughly ten seconds.

"A well-and-proper date, I hope you mean," she said, finally, in a clipped voice. "Because if you think I'm going to shag you again, after all the shit I got myself into the last time I did it, you are out of your mind," she added.

"Yes. Yes, that's exactly what I mean," Draco replied, nearly sighing in relief as he realised the suggestion that had snuck underneath his sentiment.

"You won't be able to go anywhere for months, though," she said. "And the entire world will be scandalised if we suddenly appear together so soon after you were supposed to be finding love with a call girl, according to your article in Witch Weekly."

"It's not my article," Draco said, a bit indignantly. "I didn't write it, and I definitely didn't want it."

"I didn't mean it like that," she said defensively. "Honestly, it's like every word out of my mouth is a bullet."

"A what?"

"Never mind," she said with a sigh. But then she smiled. "We're so dysfunctional," she commented.

"Yes, remember? I've changed," Draco reminded her.

"Apparently not as much as I'd thought," she muttered, but the slight curve of her lips let him know that she was teasing.

"So... I'm taking that as a yes?"

"I just want to know how you're going to make this work," the former-Gryffindor answered.

"I'll figure something out," Draco said, waving dismissively. "Trust me, Hermione, I've had plenty of experience dealing with the media."

A strange look came upon her face when he said her name. It was only in the instant later that he realised it was possibly the first time he'd ever uttered her first name without her last trailing behind… in his entire life.

Perhaps it was the name-saying that prompted her amiable response: "Alright, I'll trust you. When are you free this weekend?"

This weekend? Draco wasn't sure if he'd be able to wait a week. The compilation of overwhelming emotions that had been packed into his psyche over the course of the weekend and that day had made him jittery and impatient to decide, for sure, that he wanted Hermione and that she still wanted him.

"How about tonight?" he blurted, and instantly cursed himself. He sounded awfully, awfully needy, and his Malfoy pride was smacking him over the head for it.

"Tonight? You'll be able to book a place tonight?"

Sometimes, honesty really was the best policy. "I'm not quite sure, but if nothing fails, I hope you don't mind coming over my flat and eating burnt pasta by candlelight," he said, putting on the most charming smile he could muster under the bewildering circumstances.

And she grinned. "That sounds much better than any other dinner."

He vaguely remembered setting up a time and giving her the address to his flat, her insisting that he go back to work, and then closing his eyes as she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his cheek right before he walked out. And, of course, that slick git, Matt, giving him a cheeky smirk on his way out. Draco couldn't blame him, though—he was probably grinning like an idiot.

In a long list of bad decisions, he'd finally made a good one, and he'd made it like that. Upon seeing Hermione, just hearing her voice and getting his head cleared, Draco was convinced that she had in fact been telling the truth, and though some part of him still simmered at the effects the media attention would have on him for the next few weeks, there was never a rush more intense than the one he had felt when he'd practically bared soul to Hermione, insinuating that the intended one-night-stand had ended up meaning so much more to him than he ever could have imagined.

And though he hadn't actually said it outright, he'd suggested it, which more than his father ever did for his mother when they had first been married, that he knew for sure.

Back in the present, Draco checked his appearance one more time—simple black v-neck with muggle jeans, hair attractively tousled—and walked out of the bathroom and into the rest of his flat. Spaghetti (the only meal he knew how to make the muggle way) bubbled on the stove in a small pot of boiling water, almost finished. The meal probably would have been a lot nicer, complex, and better-tasting if he'd used magic, but something told him that Hermione would be much more impressed if he made her something the muggle way, even if he could barely do it properly.

He checked his watch. 6:40. Hermione wouldn't be here for another twenty minutes or so. Having nothing else to do but wait for the spaghetti to finish, Draco settled himself down on the couch. As he'd found in his 6th year, emotions were much more taxing and exhausting than they let on, and he couldn't help but lean his head back against the cool leather and let his eyes drift closed…

O

"Jesus fucking Christ!"

The scream jolted Draco into consciousness and he sprung to his feet, a reaction born from war which proved beneficial in that moment.

He whirled around, his mind befuddled and bewildered as the blaring beeps of his single smoke detector blasted through the air and Hermione—how had she gotten into his flat?—whipped past him into the kitchen area, where apparently the pasta and stove had overheated and then proceeded to catch fire.

He tore towards her as she snaked her hand around the flame and smoke and fumbled with the dial. Draco pulled his wand from his pocket and aimed it at the fire. "Aguamenti!" he shouted, dousing the flames with water, which proved rather useless.

"No, no!" Hermione screamed. "You don't put water on a gas fire!" she added before finally reaching the dial and turning it off. The fire in the stove went out almost immediately, while the fire inside the pot dimmed slightly. The brunette leaned against the counter and sighed in relief. Apparently the greater of the evils had been extinguished. "Get a lid on that," she yelled, relatively calmer, as she pointed to the pot.

"Right," Draco said, reaching for the lid of the pot and slapping it on.

The smoke alarm still beeped overhead, and they both seemed to look up at the same time. "I've got it," Hermione said, kicking off her shoes easily and jumping onto the counter, reaching up to press some sort of button. The beeping stopped immediately and she jumped back down, walking back to the pot and lifting the lid, peering through the thin veil of smoke at the contents inside. The fire inside had gone out.

"You idiot," she said, turning around and smacking him upside the head. "Give me a fucking heart attack, why don't you?"

Draco caught her hand on the way down, gripping her wrist and forcing her to meet his gaze. She looked lovely when she was frazzled, her chest heaving and her golden-brown eyes glowing with this almost… mad sort of glint. "Thank you," he said sincerely while adrenaline seeped from his veins.

"Don't mention it," she said, reddening slightly and dropping her gaze back down to the floor. "Just don't fucking fall asleep when you've got something on the stove, dumbass," she added, but didn't sound nearly as angry as she should or could have been.

"How did you get in?"

"Heard the alarm going off through the door and then cracked your wards when you didn't answer me," she said. "You sleep through everything."

"You cracked my wards?" Draco said incredulously.

"Well, what was I supposed to do? Let you burn to death?"

"No, no," he amended quickly. "I'm just surprised you could do it."

Hermione's tone changed immediately. "They were very well done," she assured him gently. "But they don't call me 'the Brightest Witch of my Age' for nothing."

He chuckled softly. "I've done nothing but underestimate you the past few days."

"Yes, well, I suppose there's nothing much you can do about that," she said. "You were literally born to underestimate me."

"Quite right," Draco said thoughtfully. "I hope you don't mind, but I doubt I'm ever really going to learn to stop."

"That's alright," Hermione said with a shrug. "It'll make me seem more exciting."

"You've always been exciting. I've just recently found out that I actually enjoy it," he replied.

She blushed and slid away, reaching for her bag, which she'd dropped on the floor on her way in. "Here, hold this for a second," she said, opening it and placing either side of the mouth into Draco's hands. He frowned. It was a small beaded bag, hardly heavier than a feather, but when he peered inside its depths appeared almost endless and packed full of useful—and occasionally strange—paraphernalia.

Hermione reached in—all the way down past her elbows!—and emerged with a bowl of salad sealed with a clear lid, and small plate of biscuits. "I sort of wanted to bring a little extra," she said, setting them on the counter. "Lucky I did, or we would have gone without dinner."

"I think we would have found something to do if we had," Draco said, and the expression splashed on her face quite suddenly had him glancing over his words and cringing.

"I didn't mean that to come out as—"

"Crass? Bold? Arrogant?"

"Well—"

"It's okay. You're excused. You never had to learn social skills, considering all your friends adored the ground you walked on," Hermione said, and Draco bit back a retort—it was clear she was teasing.

"Do you have any plates? Cutlery?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah." He pulled out a drawer and fished out some forks and knives, setting them on the table as Hermione unwrapped the salad bowl and platter.

"Hey…" Draco said, noticing a bright red splotch on the inside of her forearm. He grabbed her wrist. "What's this?"

"Oh—nothing really. A little burn…"

He gave her a look. "Come on, Granger. You're supposed to put those under cold water as soon as it happens. I know for a fact that you knew that, because Snape told us so in second year."

"Yeah, but it doesn't feel that badly—"

"Come on," he said, leading her over to the sink in the corner of the kitchen. He flipped the spigot and pulled her by the wrist to guide her arm under the running water.

"Honestly, Draco, I'm fine," she said, turning around to face him, but he waved her off, ignoring the jitters that danced down his spine as she said his name. He was practically standing around her now, his front inches away her back, her hair right under his nose and… yep, he could smell it. Strawberries. Draco could barely stop himself from inhaling the scent. It took him back to four nights ago, when he had caught his first whiff of it in the ballroom and decided he wanted to take her into his bed. His trousers tightened as flashes of memory from that night blinked in his head.

"I've already started a kitchen fire," the blond said, hoping his voice didn't sound too strangled. "I don't see how you thought I was going to be too bothered that you needed to fix up a burn."

"Gryffindor Selflessness," Hermione said, turning around. "We're almost as bad as the Hufflepuffs…" she added, but trailed off, as she seemed to have just realised just how close they were.

It was one of those moments, the sort that one would read about in books and scoff at happening in real life, the sort that one secretly wishes for until the day they die, no matter how ridiculously romantically exaggerated that moment may be. If Draco had been the poetic type, he may have thought about the stars aligning or fate tying a knot, or some other such nonsense, but seeing as he was not at all the poetic type, he simply felt that this was undeniably right.

In that moment, there seemed only to be the small pants of their breaths, and the exact points where their skin touched (through fabric or otherwise), and Hermione's soft, golden-tinted eyes putting up a rather weak defence against Draco's penetrating stare.

"What's your opinion on kissing on first dates?" he murmured, practically breathed, the water still running even though Hermione had withdrawn her arm what seemed like centuries ago.

"Well, there isn't much we haven't done yet, is there?" she whispered back, and Draco laughed before pressing his lips to hers. The world seemed to turn to light and warmth, the air feeling as though it was threaded with the scent of strawberries and nothing else, not even oxygen.

He could not help but kiss her greedily, hungrily, as though he was trying to suck out her very soul through her beautiful mouth, and fuck, but it was the most wonderful, most satisfying kiss he had experienced in all his life. And she, being Hermione Granger (who hated to be outdone at anything and everything), kissed him back with an almost equal fervour that made his heartbeat sprint and his pulse ache at his wrist, at his neck, in his chest.

She reached up to wind her fingers through his hair (Merlin, he loved it when she did that) and pulled him even closer to her, backing herself into the corner made by the sink and the counter and taking Draco along with her. He could do nothing but comply, taking either side of her face in his hands and holding her still closer, until he was sure he would pass out from their proximity.

Thankfully, that was averted when she hitched one leg up onto one of his hips, grinding herself into his rapidly growing erection, and he pulled away with a shuddering gasp. To let her know that he was still very much interested, Draco kept his hands in place and lowered his forehead to rest it against her own. Merlin, she was tantalising like this, pink in the face with her lips swelling and red, her breathing loud and laboured. But—

"I thought… you said..." Draco said between gasps, "that we weren't…going to… shag."

"Hmmm," Hermione said as the pads of her fingers traced up and down the nape of his neck in a rather distracting manner. "Did I really say that?" Besides the colour on her cheeks and the heaving of her chest, the former-Gryffindor seemed much less affected by all this than he (she could form proper sentences, for God's sake!), and if she had been any other girl, or if it had been anything other time, Draco would have been horrendously furious with himself.

"Yes. Directly after I made that daft remark about 'repeating Halloween night' or some such bollocks."

"Ah, yes," she said, her fingers abandoning his neck and trailing down his back before coming to rest at the waist of his jeans, her thumbs in the belt-loops. "I think I may have to retract that, then…" Granger leaned in again.

It took all of Draco's willpower to stop her in her tracks, but he did, because the last thing he wanted to end up with was a regretful, annoyed or even infuriated Hermione Granger. It was bad enough when he didn't feel this overwhelming need to shag her silly or this (Merlin help him, but it was true) affection he was rapidly beginning to feel towards her.

"You're positive this is what you want?"

"You're positive that this is what you want?" Hermione asked, her tone much more serious.

He lowered his head to place his lips directly beside his ear, and relished the feeling of her slightly trembling body beneath him. "I've wanted this ever since you left the Manor that morning."

"Then I suppose that's settled," Hermione said with the hint of a stutter. Her thumbs tightened on the loops as she pressed her lips to his neck. "I am definitely shagging you."

"You're shagging me?" he said, teasingly.

"What? Do you have a problem with that?" she said, nibbling his neck before rolling her hips up into his. He shuddered.

"No. None at all." His voice was shaky and unsteady, but he was beyond the point of caring.

O

They lay in his bed (it had taken hours, from the kitchen to the couch to the floor in the hallway, but they had made it), and he lay on top of her, straddling her hips and running his fingers through her hair while they panted, breaths mingling in the small space between their faces.

"Fucking hell," Hermione breathed, looking just as dazed and sated as he felt.

"Quite right, love," Draco replied with a quiet chuckle.

"Fucking. Hell," she repeated, and he laughed.

"It's not like we haven't done it before," he pointed out.

"Yeah, but it sure as hell wasn't that good. Not to say it wasn't good," she amended, though Draco was far from offended. "It was spectacular. Only this was…"

"Mind-melting?"

"Exactly."

He rolled off of the Gryffindor and pulled her to his side, his hands making their way back to her hair. How had he not noticed it before, that it was this soft, this smooth, this comforting?

"Now Mr Malfoy," she rolled on her side and rested her head against her palm. "I believe you promised me that after today, you'd reveal the big epiphany you were on the brink of reaching."

"Shit," he muttered. "Did I really say it like that? It sounded rather good in my head, but—"

"It was rather good," she said, and looked honest, too, which was a quality in compliments directed at him that he wasn't used to. "Poetic, really, like something out of a romance novel."

Draco snorted. "Brilliant."

She laughed. "It is! I quite enjoyed it!"

"Well, if you say so…"

"…So? What is it?"

"Hmmm… let's see if I can remember…"

"Oh honestly, Malfoy, don't be such a prick," she said, laughing again.

"Alright." He took a deep breath. "Look, Hermione, this isn't really easy for me to say to you, to say to anyone, amd especially you, but… I think I want… I want you." Draco instantly wanted to hit himself over how corny that sounded. However, he forced himself to continue. "I want to date you—or court you, or however you want to call it."

She grinned and kissed him, softly, on the lips. It was different from any of their previous kisses in that it was chaste, and simple; but also a bit better, because it was sweeter, and more about loving want than carnal need, and held more promise than any that had come before it.

"Good," Hermione said, "Because I don't know what I would have done if you'd said otherwise."

"Disguised yourself as a gypsy and slept with me while we were both inebriated?" Draco asked. "Oh, wait, you've already done that bit." She laughed, and he could not stop the warm, slightly fuzzy feeling that had taken residence in his stomach. Not that he even wanted to, to be perfectly honest.

Content that he had succeeded his goal, that Hermione was his for an indefinite amount of time, Draco leaned back against the bed, taking the brunette with him so that she lay tucked in his arms, head against his shoulder, body aligned perfectly with his. "You don't have anywhere to go tonight, do you? Or tomorrow, for that matter."

"Nothing at all," she said, nuzzling his neck. "Except for work. But I'm yours for the next twelve hours or so."

"Excellent," he murmured into her hair, ready to close his eyes and fall asleep. However, something stopped him. A stray thought wandered into Draco's mind, and it escaped through his lips before he could stop it. "Wait—I do have one more question."

"Yes?" Hermione said, already sounding sleepy.

"You were a fantastic actress on Halloween. But, if you don't mind me saying, you were an absolutely shitty one this morning."

Her body shook with laughter beside him. "Didn't I tell you, Draco? The mask was a safeguard. When no one knows who you are, you don't have to worry about being caught."

And Draco could not help but think, as Hermione's breathing slowed to the even pace of sleep, that he was bloody grateful she had been caught after all. The blond fell asleep with both the gypsy girl and Hermione Granger in his arms, and for some wonderful, far-flung reason, he was fortunate enough that they were one in the same.


A/N:

Oh my gosh, guys, this has taken so long, I am literally mortified at how long I've kept all (**161!**) of you waiting. It's utterly disgraceful. I'm never doing that again.

Well... I'm still not really happy with how it turned out, and I may put it through a revision at some point, but for now this story is done (my Halloween finishing near New Year's, way to go Gen). I have about ten or fifteen different story ideas jumping around inside my head, but I think I'm going to focus on this really dark one that I'm almost ashamed of writing, it's sort of disturbing and frightening, but the ideas that have popped into my head are absolutely, morbidly fascinating, I can't wait to explore more into them.

And finally, thank you to all my beautiful alerters, favouriters, and of course, my reviewers. Cheers!

I hope everyone had a good holiday and see you in 2013,
~Gen