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I Almost Lived Without You

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Draco always assumed it wouldn't be that difficult to get disowned. The way his father talked about it when he was at Hogwarts, it sounded like it was always on the verge of happening, that if he'd put his mind to it, he could have managed it in an afternoon and still been able to have an early dinner. Being a Malfoy, he'd been told, was a privilege, one he could easily lose.

Either his father's threats have always been empty, or Lucius is aware now that the Malfoy name has fallen, and if he gives up his heir, another might not present himself. Or perhaps it's simply that the world is changing, Draco is changing with it, and his father has decided that disowning his son for hating Muggles less than he used to and distancing himself from the Death Eaters would be worse for the Malfoy name than having a disappointingly liberal heir.

Whatever the reason, Draco finds himself, at twenty six, wondering if getting married on a Muggle reality TV series would be enough to get his father to finally kick him out of the family.

"Oh yeah," says the Muggle trying to convince him to be on said series. "It's great for pissing off parents. Did you watch last season?"

"I did not," says Draco. He'd been planning to take the Muggle home to sleep with him, but apparently Monty isn't actually out picking up anyone for himself, but instead just at a gay bar recruiting for the second season of a series called Love Is Blind.

"Well, one of the contestants nearly got disowned. Maybe she did? Honestly I'm not totally clear on it. She already didn't talk to her mom much. Do families still formally disown kids?"

"Mine would."

"Any family that disowns kids would disown a kid for them being on this show. Guaranteed."

"I think you might need to work on your sales pitch."

"This isn't the one I give everyone. But you want to piss off your parents and I have a way for you to do that! They'll hate it."

"What if I don't get married?"

"Generally, they still hate it. Getting married is the worst, but even appearing on reality TV is bad. Totally shames the family."

Draco's not sure his father would ever find out about the series, but he could tell him next time he goes back to England. Lucius already hates that his son lives in America; a high profile marriage and divorce in the Muggle tabloids might push him over the edge.

There's only one way to find out.

"What do I have to do to apply?"

Monty grins. "I'm so glad you asked."

*

Draco honestly isn't expecting to hear back from Love Is Blind. If he could have given his actual history, he's sure he would have been a shoo in, but being unable to mention his magic or his family or any of the other things that make him who he is, he worries there isn't much to his application. As Muggles living in Los Angeles go, Draco Malfoy is fairly unremarkable. On another kind of dating series, he could count on his good looks to get him farther, but since applying, he's looked more into the premise of Love Is Blind, and he's not sure that will help him either. It's supposed to be less superficial than other such series.

He's sunning himself by his pool when the call comes. "Malfoy," he says, his standard telephone greeting. He still doesn't like the things, but he's come around to admitting they have their uses. Especially text messages. With all their magic, wizards have yet to come up with a form of communication that matches the text message for efficiency.

"Hey, it's Monty. From the bar? And the TV show?"

"Yes, hello, Monty. Good to hear from you."

"I just wanted to let you know we've decided to cast you!"

"Really?" he asks, excitement breaking through the cool, serene facade he's been taught to maintain at all times. It's stupid, of course, to be competitive over being cast on a reality TV series, but he wants to win everything. At this point, getting cast is winning. "Brilliant."

"You'll be getting contracts, timeline, everything else you need via email," Monty goes on, sounding excited. "I just wanted to let you know. I think it's going to be really good."

"I hope so. Let me know if there's anything else you need from me in the meantime."

"Will do. And now you have my number, so feel free to reach out if you need anything."

"I will."

The call disconnects and Draco stares at his phone for a long moment, trying to decide on his next move. It's just before noon in Los Angeles, so it'll be eight o'clock in London. He doesn't think he should get in touch with his parents yet, but it feels like the kind of news he should tell someone, and he's not sure yet what to say to his Muggle coworkers. He's cultivated a careful air of aloof professionalism and the revelation that he'll be on a dating series is going to throw them all.

He's quite looking forward to it, if he's honest, but that's the kind of thing that must be timed carefully.

Instead, he calls Theo.

"I can't believe you make me speak on this," he says, by way of greeting. "I appreciate it for letting me play games, but it's unnatural to talk to it."

Draco snorts. "As if talking to a fireplace is natural. I'm going to be on TV."

"I knew it," says Theo. "You did move to LA to become an actor. I don't know if it's enough to ruin the Malfoy family name completely, but it's an excellent next step. Is it a soap opera? Which one? Will you be someone's evil twin?"

"It's a reality dating series for bisexuals."

As he expected, Theo starts to laugh, but he laughs for so long and so hard that Draco is honestly concerned he's going to injure himself.

"Are you finished?" he snaps, when the laughter finally subsides.

"Oh, no. I'm never going to be finished. I'll be on my deathbed laughing about this. How the hell did it happen?"

"I was trying to pick someone up in a bar and he asked me to be on his TV series instead."

"I don't think I've ever struck out that hard."

"Shut up. He was there for work, not pleasure."

"I'm sure that's what he tells everyone he doesn't want to sleep with. Tell me about the series. Do your parents know you're bisexual yet? I can never remember."

It's a good question. "To be honest, I'm not sure. I've told them, but you know how my father is. Anything that conflicts with his worldview is simply forgotten. I wouldn't be surprised if he's still telling people that I'm at the manor so he doesn't have to admit I'm living here."

"Brilliant, truly. I can't wait. What's the premise? The only Muggle dating series I've heard of is something called Love Island. Will you be on an island?"

"In an isolated pod. The idea is that we're meant to fall in love sight unseen. I won't even know the other contestants' names or genders. If everything goes well, I'll propose to someone without ever seeing their face, and we'll spend a month getting to know each other before we tie the knot."

"You're supposed to get married?" Theo asks.

"It's one way to find out if Father is ever going to disown me. If this doesn't do it, nothing will."

"You're just going to marry some Muggle you meet in a pod?"

"I won't know if they're a Muggle," he points out, although, really, that isn't the most pressing issue. He can't imagine any other wizards deciding to be on the series, but any other wizard who did decide to audition would certainly be an unfit match for a Malfoy regardless. "Marriage isn't forever, you know. I can just divorce them as soon as I get tired of them."

"I'm so happy you're already adopting strong American values like getting married for the wrong reasons and immediately filing for divorce. Is there a way I can watch the first season of this on my phone? I want to be caught up for the inevitable disaster of you attempting to pick up a gaggle of unseen Muggles."

"I appreciate your support. I'll send my Netflix login information."

*

Draco watches the first season as well, both because he assumes everyone else will have watched it and to make sure he's as prepared as possible. The second season won't follow the exact same format as the first--the all-bisexual cast is a change, as is the hiding of names and genders--but he gets a good enough idea of what he's in for and how he wants to present himself. It would be easy enough to be a villain, and Finn from the first season gave him an excellent template he could work from if he wants to go down that route, but he finds himself more drawn to the people who are there against their better judgment, the ones who realize how absurd the entire enterprise is but still want things to work out, somehow. Draco can't relate, exactly--for all he likes several of the contestants in the first season, he can't imagine marrying any of them--but he can't exactly say the only reason he signed up was to embarrass his father, so "cautiously optimistic romantic" seems like the next best persona to adopt.

It would be a shame if he actually managed to charm anyone into falling in love with him, but the odds of that seem low. Even the couples who ended up married in the first season didn't really seem to be in love, at least to Draco. They'd found viable partners and were willing to try to make things work between them, but he wouldn't be surprised if, once the spotlight had moved away from them, there were plenty of quick, quiet divorces.

After all, no one really finds love on television. He's not an expert on the medium, but he knows that for certain.

Still, the viewing of the first season leaves Draco feeling optimistic. He won't be as much of a bastard as Finn was, and even if he doesn't end up married, he'll surely be able to muddy the Malfoy family name for everyone with access to Netflix. His father won't understand how many people that is, but Draco will know. And if he ever wants to shut Lucius up in an argument, he can tell him.

His next step is telling everyone at his job what's going on. Draco's job is one of those easy, boring Muggle jobs that seems to exist primarily to make sure Muggles don't have enough time in the day to enjoy themselves. There's a lot of sending electronic mail and talking about TV series and complaining about bureaucracy, and while Draco wouldn't exactly say he enjoys it, there's something novel about it too. After the war was over and the dust was settled, he ended up just walking through the streets of London, trying to look at the Muggles there not as inferiors or enemies, but just as people living their lives, unaware of an entire world running parallel to theirs. It had been easy, when he was younger, to think they were foolish for that, but did he really know any more about Muggles than they knew about him? And he didn't even have the excuse of their existence being a secret. He'd simply believed his father when he said Muggles had nothing to contribute to the world.

As if the world didn't belong more to Muggles than wizards.

So after a few years, he went to California, as far away from England as he could get while still being in America, and got a boring job and a big house with a pool that said boring job would never pay for, and when he tells his boss and his coworkers he's taking a leave of absence to go on Love Is Blind, they're happy for him. They think he'll have fun, and they think "having fun" is a good enough reason to do something.

Muggles are not, as a rule, superior to wizards, as far as Draco is concerned. But he thinks his family could learn a lot from them.

The job was the last hurdle to his participating in the series, so once that's sorted, all he has to do is wait. He receives periodic texts from Theo as he makes his way through the first season, and then more texts as he branches out into other Netflix offerings, and tries not to worry too much about what's coming.

The day before he goes in, he floos his mother. "Is Father there?"

"No, he's at dinner with friends."

Draco doesn't believe his father has friends, only cronies and people he's using, but there's no need to say that when he'll be saying so many worse things later. "I'm going to do something that will enrage him."

"Wonderful, something different for you," says Narcissa, her smile fond.

In most regards, Draco's life would be easier if he cared as little about his mother's opinions as his father's. If he didn't love Narcissa as much as he did, there wouldn't be the small pit of guilt in his stomach when he upset his father, when he did things to sully the Malfoy name. Narcissa has never complained, but he knows she's the one who bears the brunt of his father's frustration with him.

"Well, what is it?" she prompts.

"Do you know what dat…" he starts, and immediately changes his mind. He's started at too high a baseline already. "Do you know what television is?" he says instead.

"Another Muggle innovation you've fallen in love with?"

"I just think you'd find a mobile phone useful," he says. "Ask Theo to show you his, there's loads you can do with it, and it would be easier for us to talk."

"It would be easier for us to talk if you came back home."

"Even if I was home, a mobile phone would help," he says, neatly sidestepping the rest of the statement. "I'm not particularly enamored of television," he adds, getting them back to the point. "It's very popular among Muggles, a form of entertainment. Moving pictures that talk as well. They use them to tell stories. Like theatre, but it's recorded and can be viewed any time."

"I don't see the appeal," she says. "What does this have to do with anything?"

"I'm going to be on television," he says. "On what they call a reality series. It's about ordinary people doing ordinary things. In this case, I'll be looking for a spouse."

There's a long silence. If they were on the phone, he wouldn't be able to see her expression, which he should use as an argument with her next time. She hates when she can't hide her reactions to things, and right now she looks as if she's eaten a lemon. "A spouse," she repeats.

"It's quite an interesting idea, really. Twenty people who, like me, don't care about the gender of their partners. We get to know each other without seeing each other or even knowing each other's names. After a few sessions, if I've grown close to anyone, I'll propose and meet them in person."

"You know," says Narcissa, after a long pause during which she does school her features into impassive neutrality, "no matter what differences you have with your father, there's no need to ruin your own life trying to make him angry with you. I think you could make him just as upset by doing things you don't hate."

"I don't think I'll hate this. I doubt I'll find true love, but I think it will be an amusing diversion. And Father might not ever find out."

"I'm sure you'll find a way to let him know. Tell me if you get married."

"I'll be sure you get an invitation to the wedding. I believe family is allowed to come."

"I can't wait." She sighs. "I hope you know what you're doing, Draco."

It's her standard farewell, at this point, and every time she says it, she sounds less like she believes it.

"I do. Give my love to everyone you think deserves it. Starting with yourself, of course."

"I love you too," she says, and then she's gone.

Draco sleeps fitfully and spends the next morning packing his things. A car arrives to pick him up and bring him to the hotel where he'll be spending his nights. He has a handler who escorts him everywhere, keeping him carefully apart from everyone else on set. Orientation, screen tests, eating: he's alone for everything. It wasn't like this for the first season, where the contestants of the same gender could consult with each other on breaks. With everyone a potential match, Draco will be by himself except when he's meeting people in the pod.

"Okay," says his handler, a PA whose name he's already forgotten. "Day one, you'll be meeting seven people, then it's six for the next two days."

"Not wasting any time."

"That's what you're here for. If you don't want to spend a lot of the time in pods talking to disembodied voices, you're on the wrong show."

"When you put it like that," says Draco. "Please, lead the way."

The first day is long, and, if Draco is honest, boring. He meets a lot of people whom he can't really keep track of, obscured voices with single-letter aliases who all blend together. He doesn't dislike them, exactly, but he's much better at finding one-night stands than he is at finding dates. Connecting with people has always been difficult for him. It was years before he really felt as if he was friends with Theo and Pansy, and he's met no one in America he would consider anything more than a casual acquaintance.

He might have been overly optimistic about his chances of finding a spouse here.

"Last one for the night," says his handler, after what feels like years. "H."

"Brilliant. Can't wait to do this all over again tomorrow."

"Remember what I said about being on the wrong show?" she says, and leaves before he can respond.

He has a few minutes to relax before the speaker crackles into life. "D and H. Last match of the night. You know the drill: hour to talk with fifteen minutes' flextime for reshoots."

Draco is lying on the couch by now, one arm over his face, fighting off a headache. It hadn't occurred to him that he'd be under the kind of constant scrutiny that prevents magic usage, nor had he realized how many times throughout the day he thoughtlessly casts little spells to make his life easier. Truly, how do Muggles survive like this?

"Hello, H," he says.

"Hello. I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. I doubt I'm going to be giving you my best."

"I'm not sure I've given anyone my best."

"No?"

Maybe it's the late hour, or the headache, or just the frustration of feeling as if he's done so poorly at this. Draco doesn't want to be the contestant on Love Is Blind whom no one even wants to consider marrying. If he's here, he wants to do well. Honesty isn't a bad place to start.

"I've never been very good at this."

"How often have you done this? I don't have any prior experience to draw from."

He has to smile. "I was referring to dating in general. I would think no one here is particularly good at talking to the disembodied voices of total strangers."

"I assume not." H sighs. "I'm not very good at dating either. It's part of why I didn't want to sign up to do it on TV. But I thought this might be better. Not that I have any idea why now."

"Being judged on just your personality only helps when you have a good personality," he says, and to his relief, they laugh.

"Yes, I think I might be an acquired taste. Of course, in theory, this is a good way for people to acquire me. I don't know if you watched the last season…"

"I did." He's glad for it, too, as everyone else seems to have.

"I know it didn't go perfectly for everyone. But it did seem as if those people who went into things honestly did well, for the most part."

"What usually goes wrong for you?" he asks, finding himself genuinely curious.

"Oh, I don't know. I had one of those relationships at school, the ones where everyone assumes you'll end up married. And I thought so too. I was so sure that was what I wanted, but, well…" They let out a soft little laugh. "Once I was done with exams and had a chance to breathe, I realized that wasn't what I wanted after all. But they--the person I was dating, I mean--they were one of my best friends. And for the longest time, I thought they wouldn't be interested because I can be so difficult. I always thought they were with me for the wrong reasons, and that didn't change once we were together. It's a bad way to begin a relationship."

"So you broke up."

"We did. And it was the right decision. But I felt as if I was off the rails, I suppose. I had this whole life in mind for myself and suddenly, it was gone."

Draco swallows. "I understand that."

"Oh?"

"Not a relationship for me. But my family. They had all these expectations. My father had my entire life planned out before I was born. And for a long time, I thought that was a good thing. But he's not a good person. Quite a rubbish one, to be honest. I realized I didn't want to be like him, but that didn't mean I knew right away what I did want."

They're quiet for long enough he starts to get nervous. "Are you English?" they finally ask.

"I am. Americans don't say rubbish, do they?"

"They don't. They also don't say exams. I'm from Oxfordshire."

"Shropshire," says Draco.

"So, after you decided you didn't want the life your father had picked out for you, you came to America?"

"Not immediately, but yes, that's essentially what happened. And you came here after you broke up with your ex?"

"I did."

"What do you do?"

"I'm a law student. I want to be a human rights lawyer. What about you?"

"Nothing very interesting. Your usual boring office job."

"What did your father want you to do?"

"Follow him in the family business. Investing, generational wealth, all of that," he says, with a vague wave of his hand that they can't see. "He wanted my job to be being rich and bigoted."

"So instead you've decided to be poor and bisexual?"

"I'm disappointing him, professionally. But still taking his money."

"Well, as long as you can do that, why not?"

"What's law school like?" he asks. He's getting more familiar with Muggle schooling, but law is a blind spot for him.

H is clearly passionate about justice and civil rights, but they have a number of issues with American institutions--not that Britain's impress them much either--and are more than happy to share all of them with Draco. When the PA gives them the ten-minute warning, Draco's barely done more than make vague sounds of agreement or say, "Oh, really?" but he doesn't mind at all.

He's charmed, to be honest.

"Oh, has it really been that long?" H asks. "I'm so sorry, you should have stopped me!"

"No, I didn't mind. It was very educational."

"I'm supposed to be trying to romance you, not educate you."

"I find being educated very romantic. And I learned a great deal about you."

"Did you?"

"You're passionate," he says. "You care about justice and think systems have failed people. You'd absolutely hate my father, and he'd hate you right back. You're intelligent and have figured out an incredible life for yourself, and your ex should be kicking themselves for losing you."

There's a long pause, and then they say, "Really?"

"Really. I wish I'd found my passion like you have yours. The only thing I'm passionate about at the moment is making my father angry."

"If he's a conservative bigot, there are plenty of nonprofits you could work for that would make him furious, I'm sure. Are there any social issues you're particularly interested in?"

Draco wants to be able to say yes. It's the kind of question he should have thought about on his own. After all, he has money and power and his being vocally pro-Muggleborn or something like that might really make a difference. But he didn't want to get involved in these things in England, and he doesn't know how to get involved in them in America. He's avoided the entire wizarding community here.

But it's not as if Muggles don't have their own pressing social issues. There are a thousand problems Draco could be trying to solve that are far more pressing than the problem of how to get his father to disown him.

"I'm sure I could come up with a few," he says finally.

H doesn't let him off the hook. "That's a no, then?" they ask.

Draco doesn't think he's particularly impressed anyone he's met here yet, but he wants H to be the exception. He wants them to want to talk to him again.

"It's a not yet. Ask me again the next time we talk."

"I don't think we talk again unless I'm one of your top matches."

"You will be," he says.

"All right then," says H, their voice brisk and decisive even through the filter. "I look forward to hearing what you come up with, then."

He finds himself smiling. "I look forward to telling you."

*

Draco does manage to meet some other people he likes, but none of them lodge themselves in his head like H does. He doesn't know what it is about them, if it's that they're both English, or that they both came here to start over, or that H seems to have made themselves better while Draco has mostly just not made himself worse, but whatever it is, he's drawn to them.

Maybe he just wants them to know he's come up with something he cares about.

Part of him is nervous that H will have changed their mind, or met people on the subsequent days who knock Draco out of their top choices. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but he does want to talk to H at least one more time, to get a chance to convince them he's not quite as much of a shallow git as they must think he is.

He thinks, maybe, he could learn to be less of a shallow git. He wouldn't mind meeting someone who made him want to try it out.

To his relief, he needn't have worried: H is right there in the middle of his names, one of the five people who wanted to see more of him.

"Okay, let's talk about your front runners," says Monty, once Draco's had a chance to inspect the list. "How was it coming up with people?"

They aren't being filmed, so he doesn't have to be diplomatic. "Difficult."

Monty doesn't react. "How?"

"Most of the strong reactions people had to me were negative. And vice versa."

"You did get in a few fights."

"Surely I wasn't the only one."

"No, but everyone is different. So let's look at this from another perspective: what would you say you're looking for?"

It shouldn't catch him flat-footed, but he stumbles anyway. "In a partner?"

"Yeah. No wrong answers. Roan's going to ask this, so you want to have something ready to say."

"There is an appeal to the whole Love Is Blind conceit," he admits. "Something about being stripped down to only words. I'd like someone to know nothing about me and like me regardless. But I'm realizing now how much I rely on my trappings to make up for when I put my foot in my mouth."

"That's interesting, but not really an answer to my question."

"I can't say I'm looking for someone who will like me?"

Monty thinks this over. "So my best friend? He was always really bad at dating. And it got to be this cycle where he was desperate, so his only criterion for someone to date was that they were willing to date him, and no one would date him anyway, so he just got more desperate and less discerning. He thought that would make things easier, if he'd take anyone. But people can tell when you're just talking to them because they have a pulse, you know? He didn't find a girlfriend until he thought about the person he actually wanted, and tried to figure out how to meet people like that."

"I want H to think I'm worthwhile," he blurts out, to his surprise. "I want someone who makes me feel as if I can still be a better person, not someone who makes me feel as if my work is done. I want someone who makes me want to be good."

"And that's H, so far?" Monty asks, his voice mild and utterly impossible to read. Any Malfoy would be proud.

"So far yes," Draco admits. "That is H."

*

After a lot of thought and consideration, Draco's opening question to H is, "Are there charities where reformed assholes try to help other assholes recover?"

They laugh. "Honestly, I don't know. I never thought to look. I wouldn't be surprised if there were, though. I think there are groups to help former cult members, things like that. Deprogramming is the term, if I'm not mistaken. It wouldn't be exactly the same for you, but I'm sure there are groups that are trying to help bigots be less terrible. Although I'm not sure they're actually charities."

"No, I suppose not. I can't imagine anyone wanting to donate money to that cause."

"You might be able to find something online," H muses. "A group you could join. If that's really something you're interested in."

"It's a place to start. As awful as it sounds, I thought that once I wasn't actively being a bastard, my work was done. I didn't think about taking the next step to helping other people."

"Sometimes it takes time. To be honest, even realizing you've been a bastard is a good start. I've known plenty of bastards who never got over it."

"Still. I think I'd like to do more."

"That's the kind of thing everyone says on a reality TV series, though, isn't it?" says H. It's hard to read their tone, but he can't argue with the sentiment regardless. In theory, he's here to make himself look good. He can say whatever he wants, with no requirement of follow-through.

"I suppose so. Then again, for all I know, you're not really planning to become a human rights lawyer."

They laugh. "Yes, that could be a lie. Any of this could be, really. We just have to trust each other to tell the truth. Or as much truth as we can, I suppose."

"I am," he says, willing them to believe him.

"I am as well. So!" they add, the tone of someone decidedly changing the subject clear even through whatever is distorting H's voice. "Aside from being a reformed bastard, what are you interested in? Favorite books? Movies?"

After a few years of living with Muggles, Draco has ready answers for all those questions. It turns out he and H have read a lot of the same books, although their opinions only sometimes match up. They're in the middle of a rather heated conversation about The Chronicles of Narnia versus Lord of the Rings--not even an argument, just a very passionate back and forth about the authors' friendship and how their works have influenced the modern fantasy genre--when the PA says, "Ten minutes, you two."

"To be continued, then," says Draco.

"Looking forward to it," says H, and he really hopes they mean it.

*

If he's honest, Draco isn't sure if he wants to marry H, and he's not sure how to approach the situation. He certainly doesn't want to mislead them, which he wasn't expecting, but he doesn't know if he could actually date a Muggle, let alone marry one. No matter how much he likes H as a theoretical person, he doesn't feel comfortable making them think he's sure about marriage, especially when his primary motivation for getting married here was to piss off his father. That's not something you do with someone you actually like, not unless they're in on the joke.

But all else aside, proposing is the next step. If he doesn't propose to someone, he's off the series. And if he doesn't propose to H, he probably won't find out what they look like until the series actually airs. Which seems like a shame.

He wishes he could call Theo. The producers would do well to give them one phone call, to get a consultation. It's just not the same talking to Monty or the host. He'd be filmed no matter what, but he has no interest in discussing things with strangers. None of them know how to talk to him like Theo does.

H is the one who finally brings up the idea of marriage, in their second-to-last session. "Are you thinking of proposing to anyone?"

He taps his fingers on his shin. "Are you?"

"I asked you first."

"If I propose to anyone, it will be you," he finally says. He doesn't dislike anyone else he's been talking to, but he can't say he particularly likes them either. If H doesn't want him, he'll probably talk to the others, ask if anyone else is interested in agreeing to an engagement just to keep going, and it might not even be a bad thing. Mercenary is a more natural fit for him than romantic.

But first, he wants to know how H is feeling.

"Oh," is all they say.

"I don't have to, of course. It's up to you."

"I wasn't sure what you were thinking."

"That you seem entirely too good for me," he says, meaning it more than he'd like. H really does make him want to be a better person. Even he's not sure why.

They laugh. "Well, why not aim high?"

"I'm hoping you're not."

"I think you're being a little hard on yourself. You sound like you were a real arsehole in school, but you've changed. That counts for a lot."

They don't know him and can't absolve him, but the words still bring a lump to his throat. "I've always hoped so. Now, it's your turn. How are your prospects?"

"I think if I don't get engaged to you, I won't get engaged."

"So I suppose the question is if you'll get engaged to me," he says, keeping his voice remarkably even.

"It is. There's only one way to find out."

"You aren't going to give me a hint?" he asks, grinning like an idiot. It sounds a lot like a yes to him.

"I've given you plenty of hints. They wanted me to ask you about some, and I quote, unsexy details."

"Oh?"

"Do you want children?"

"I don't know." He leans forward, resting his forearms on his knees. "Growing up, I thought it was my duty. Carrying on the family name and all that. Then I thought I wouldn't have any to spite my father. And because, honestly, I didn't think I could have learned how to be a good parent from my own. Maybe my mother, but even she…" He sighs. "I love my mother very much, but I often wonder how my life would have been if she'd just told my father to bugger off."

"Are they still married?"

"They are. Against all odds, they seem to love each other."

"All right. So, you don't want children?"

"No, I've had a chance to think about it and I think I'd like to try to do better. I've been thinking a lot more about the kind of person I'd actually like to be since I started talking to you."

"Me? Really?"

They sound surprised, which he should have expected. "For all my family had high expectations for me, they were never expectations about me being a good person. I thought the only way for me to improve myself was to distance myself from my family. But maybe I could change my family. At least in the next few generations. Father would hate that even more."

"Do you have motivations in life aside from angering your father?"

"Impressing you," he says, only half joking. "I'm still figuring it out, to be honest. I've been running away, and now I'd like to find something to be going toward instead. Thinking beyond just myself and into how I can make things better for other people. Including the children I'd like to have."

H is quiet for a long time, long enough Draco almost wants to fill the space himself. But he doesn't actually mind sitting in silence with them. He wants to know what they're going to say more than he wants to speak.

"I don't think I want to come out of all this actually married," they say at last. "Not to anyone. But I want to come out of it with someone I think I could marry, if not a spouse. I've talked to some people who are ready for marriage and realized I'm not. If that sounds acceptable to you, then I think you should propose."

"We can get engaged, but not married?" he asks.

"That's my plan," says H. "You can do whatever you'd like."

"Then I suppose I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Yes," says H. "I hope you will."

*

"This needs to be romantic," says Draco's PA, whose name he still can't remember. He feels bad for forgetting, but will feel worse if he admits he's forgotten, so he's settled on hoping he can avoid ever referring to her by name unless and until she introduces herself to someone else in his presence.

Luckily, he usually has better things to do when he's talking to her than worrying about her name. "Romantic?"

"You can't just say, hey, let's get hitched. Do you have a speech prepared?"

"No."

"Ever thought about proposing to anyone before?"

"I have not."

"No fantasies about what a proposal is supposed to be like?"

"Am I supposed to have those?"

"Probably better if you don't. When my wife proposed, it was really personal to us. That's better than a generic proposal anyway."

"I am somewhat limited in my options here," he points out. "Given I have to be in an isolated pod and I'm not allowed to see my fiance's face unless they say yes."

"That's why the speech is so important here, yeah," says the PA, as if this should have been obvious to him. "It's about all you've got. And you want it to do two things."

"Which are?"

"Convince H to say yes and make the audience root for the two of you. You need to bring this all together for them. What is it about H that drew you in? What is it that makes you want to meet them in person, spend more time with them, marry them someday? This is your chance to control your narrative."

"Do I need that chance?"

The PA regards him. "You do know you can come across as kind of a bastard."

It's not a question, but he still says, "I do."

"Think about what H is getting out of this. Make it about what you're going to do for them. You make me want to be a better person is a pretty selfish pitch, when you get down to it."

"I appreciate this bracing wake-up call."

The PA shrugs. "Take the advice or leave it. But they're going to make you give a speech, you might as well make it a good one."

"I wasn't being sarcastic," says Draco. He knows people can't always tell. "I don't actually know what I'm doing with any of this."

"You'll be fine. Break a leg."

And with that, she pushes him into the pod to propose.

If the PA had told him to plan yesterday, he could have written something down, but as it is he only has about ten minutes to think about what makes him a good partner. Which he has been thinking about--obsessing over, really--on his own, but from another direction. Because he's not sure, when it comes down to it, what exactly he's doing for H. A lot of what he thinks of as his appealing qualities, especially in relationships, are physical. He's handsome and good in bed, has never had any trouble finding willing partners for one or two nights at a time. But all H has to go by is his voice, and his own admission that he's a rich person trying to break away from his conservative family, one who hasn't put much thought into making anyone other than himself happy.

It's just as well H doesn't want to get married right away. Dating for a while seems like a better fit for everyone.

The intercom crackles to life after what feels like no time at all. "Okay, you're both here. Go ahead."

H doesn't say anything, and Draco finds himself standing, needing to pace as he speaks. For the first time, he's grateful for the anonymity the series offers. He wouldn't want H to take his nerves the wrong way.

"My parents had a spouse picked out for me almost as soon as I was born," he admits. "It's like that with upper-class families sometimes, this obsession with rank and lineage. It wasn't quite an arranged marriage, but it was close enough I don't have a better word for it. And I liked them well enough," he adds. "The spouse. I think if I'd married them, we would have come out all right. But marriage was part of the appeal for me, coming on here. Another way for me to make my father furious."

"And then I told you I didn't want to get married."

"No, I changed my mind about that long before you said that. When I heard the concept, I didn't think anyone would be taking it seriously. I assumed everyone was just looking for their fifteen minutes of fame and planning to get divorced as soon as the cameras were gone. But then I watched the first season, and I met everyone here, and I realized it wasn't like that. And I certainly didn't want to be that person if no one else was."

H laughs. "But only if no one else was."

He ignores that. "I would like to find someone I love and marry them. I've always wanted that. And I don't think I've ever believed I'd have it. I was sure it would be about my family, my name, some impersonal kind of attachment. If someone liked me, it was because of my status, and if they didn't like me, they were jealous or poor or not worth liking anyway. So when I decided my name wasn't worth anything, it was hard. To be clear, I don't hate myself, I still think quite highly of myself. But I lost a great deal of who I thought I was and what I believed people liked about me. A lot of what some people did like about me."

"That must have been difficult."

"It's quite maddening doing this without being able to read your tone," he admits. "I won't say what I've gone through is nearly as bad as what others have. But someone asked me what I thought you'd be getting if you agreed to marry me, and it's a question I don't know how to answer. I can't tell you why you should agree to marry me. But I've been honest about who I am and how I want to be. I think you're an amazing person, and I won't be satisfied if this is all I get of you. I want to have more chances to argue about books and movies. I want to hear all about your classes and find out what kind of job you end up getting. I want to look into charities with you and decide where to donate my father's money until he cuts me off. I'm not sure yet what I want to do or who I want to be, but I know I want to find out with you by my side." Theo is going to watch this and make fun of him forever, but this is how reality series are. This is how it's supposed to be. And it's not as if he doesn't mean it. "So, H. I don't care when you marry me. I don't care if you never marry me. But I want to ask."

"Then ask," they say, and he smiles.

"Will you marry me?"

"Yes."

*

Of course, they don't get to meet immediately; there are too many couples and too much preparation. He has to wait until the next day, and even then, they're only doing one couple at a time, as these first meetings are the emotional climax of the courtship and must be done right. His PA tells him (after first telling him the proposal was good) that they're going in alphabetical order, so he'll have to wait through A and K meeting and then B and C before it's his turn at last.

It's the perfect amount of time for him to become very nervous.

At least he looks fantastic, if he does say so himself, polished and poised in one of those muggle suits he likes so much. He never liked dress robes, but until his first tuxedo, he hadn't realized exactly how much better formal attire could be. He thinks he could even talk his parents around to the change, once they saw how well the clothes suited him.

But he is worried he won't like H. It's a selfish, shallow thought, but an unavoidable one. Draco believes, to some extent, in the transformative power of love, but only to an extent. He's known people who are more beautiful because he cares for them, but he also found both Harry Potter and Hermione Granger annoyingly attractive at school, even though he hated them.

Then again, he never really managed to hate either of them nearly as much as he thought he should.

"Get a grip," he mutters. "Stop thinking about Potter and Granger."

Later, he will realize this is the best gift he could have possibly given the producers, but in the moment, it feels off-topic.

"Ready?" his PA asks, finally.

"Ready."

"Obviously, we'll do as many takes as we need to get it right, but we want to get something usable from the first time you see each other. If you hate how they look, you can show that. Honestly, feel free to let everything you're feeling show. The rawer, the better."

"I'm going to try not to do that."

He fails, of course, because it takes only half a second for him to think that H looks like Hermione Granger, and then another half a second for him to realize H is Hermione Granger, and she's staring at him with the same slack-jawed shock that must be mirrored on his own face.

Hermione Granger is here, in Los Angeles, on a Muggle TV series. Hermione Granger is exactly his type, which is less surprising than he'd really like it to be. And he is, in theory, her type as well, but it's hard not to feel as if that is extremely theoretical, at the moment.

Both of them speed up at the same time, staggering towards each other with jerky, awkward motions. Draco's mind is somehow both racing and empty, none of his crowded thoughts resolving into something to say. What is there to say, when it comes down to it? She's as slack-jawed as he is, so she clearly doesn't know either.

In retrospect, sorry would have been the best place to start, but what comes out is, "My father will be so angry," and Granger punches him in the face and storms off.

Really, though, he doesn't know how else it could have gone.

*

"So, the two of you went to high school together in England," says Roan. Draco was ushered away from the meeting place, away from Granger, into a small, cramped room that looks like it was made for criminal interrogations. He was alone in there until Roan showed up, no preparation with a PA or producer, nothing but himself and the pounding of his own thoughts.

Granger. Hermione Granger on a dating series. What was she doing here? She couldn't have really been looking for a match, could she? Granger would never go on a Muggle TV series to find someone to marry.

Of course, she would have said the same about him. If anything, he's even less likely to be here than she is.

He rubs his jaw. "Yes, we were at school together." He hadn't given a second thought to putting McGonagall High School on his application; it's the currently approved alias everyone uses for Hogwarts whenever Muggles ask about it. He hadn't thought anyone else would be from anywhere in the United Kingdom, let alone from the same school. But of course, the producers knew. It's probably why they were cast. They were hoping for something like this, and he and Granger delivered beyond their wildest dreams.

"And you didn't get along."

"My fault entirely. I was a git. If I was her, I would have punched me too. Is she still here?" he can't help asking.

"She left, and she refuses to come back. Believe me, every one of the producers tried to talk her into it. But she said she wouldn't talk to you and there was nothing in her contract that we could use to force her. Which was right, so that's a lesson learned for next season."

"You'll add something to the contract requiring that participants give an exit interview?" he asks, dubious.

"Something like that. It doesn't matter. All that matters for you is that Hermione has said she's done. So, how are you feeling?"

"How do you think I'm feeling?"

Roan steeples his fingers. "Honestly, I have no idea. I've been trying to put myself in your shoes and struggling."

"I'm not sure how I'm feeling either."

"Are you disappointed?"

Draco levels him with a withering look. "Of course I'm disappointed. Is this where you think I wanted to be this afternoon? I was supposed to be on my way to a tropical holiday with my fiancee."

"I meant that H is Hermione. Would you have wanted her to stay?"

"Of course I wanted her to stay," he snaps. "What kind of idiotic question is that?"

Roan looks as serene as ever. Draco's not sure what it would take to shake the man's calm. Maybe everyone involved in the production of Love Is Blind went through some sort of training on how to control their emotions. "She didn't seem fond of you. I assume you would have preferred a stranger. Would you have walked out on her?"

It hadn't actually occurred to him. "No, of course not." He rubs his face. "I should have gotten down on my knees and begged for her forgiveness. I was such a fucking prick. I'm still a prick. Bugger. I can't believe the only thing I said to her was about my father."

"It wasn't the approach I would have taken," Roan says delicately. "But I take it he would disapprove."

"He'd be horrified. But I don't care."

"No?" Roan leans forward. "Assume Hermione is watching this. What would you like to say to her?"

It's not a chance he should throw away. For all he knows, this is the last thing she'll ever hear from him, assuming she watches at all. "I meant everything I said," he says, looking directly at the camera. "And if I'd known it was you, I still would have meant it. I would have meant it even more. I was an arse in school, and I'm still kind of an arse, but a different kind. I'm sorry, and I hope I'll be able to say it to your face someday."

"And do you still want to marry her?" Roan asks.

It's a good question. Marrying Hermione would be both easier than marrying the hypothetical Muggle he thought H was and infinitely more complicated. After all, Hermione knows about wizards and the war and Draco's family, and he might even have been able to talk her into marrying him just to spite Lucius, if he'd been a little quicker on figuring out what to say.

But she wasn't looking for that kind of marriage. She was looking to meet someone she had a real future with. Maybe she could have. Maybe she came here because she was done with the wizarding world entirely. She could be planning to live the rest of her life as a Muggle civil rights lawyer. She'd be good at it.

It just seems like a waste of the brightest witch he knows.

"I'd like to get to know her," he says. "As herself. As hard as I'm sure it will be for her to believe, I think we have a lot in common these days. I'm not expecting her to ever want to marry me," he adds, moving his focus back to Roan. "There's too much between us."

"I didn't ask if you thought she'd want to marry you. Just if you're still interested in her."

Draco used to want impossible things all the time. Before and even during the war, he wanted things that he knew would never happen. He wanted Harry Potter to be afraid of him or respect him or maybe even like him. He wanted for the Dark Lord to never return and for his father to give up on him and accept that Muggles and Muggleborns were a part of life so that Draco could stop caring so much about something that didn't seem to mean anything, practically speaking. He wanted to be smarter than Hermione Granger and to study with Hermione Granger and to know what it would be like for someone like her to actually like him, someone who was so unimpressed with everything he was.

He's tried to want realistic things, since he left England. Small, achievable things. And he's gotten them, but it's not really satisfying. Like eating gruel when you can smell a feast in the next room. No matter how much you tell yourself you'd rather have the gruel, you know it's a lie.

"Of course I am," he says. "I said I meant it all, didn't I?"

*

Calling Theo, he decides, does not violate any of his agreements to details of his departure secret until after the series has aired because even if Theo wanted to leak the results, he wouldn't have the first idea how to do it. Even Draco would struggle with how, exactly, to get in touch with the Muggle press to give them information, and he's much more comfortable with Muggle things than Theo is.

"Are you married?" Theo asks. "Or just inviting me to the wedding?"

Draco drops his head against the wall, letting his eyes close against the dull thunk of pain in his skull. It's been about twenty-four hours since Hermione punched him, and he has a faint bruise on his cheekbone from the impact. She always could throw a punch.

"Legally, I have to swear you to secrecy. But Theo--it really is secret."

"I'm not planning to tell your parents."

"You can't tell anyone. What I'm going to tell you is--"

"I might already know."

Draco shoots back up, his mouth opening and closing in a most undignified manner. "What do you think I'm going to tell you?"

"That Hermione Granger was on your dating series with you."

"How the hell do you know that?"

"Because I'm fucking Harry Potter."

It says a lot about how completely bizarre Draco's life is currently that this is actually less surprising than the Hermione reveal. "Since when?"

"About a day after you went no-contact. I ran into him at the pub, we got to talking. He is quite fit."

"He's Harry Potter!"

"As if you wouldn't fuck him given half a chance."

Draco neither confirms nor denies, which they both know is confirmation. "And he told you about Hermione?"

"We were chatting. He asked after you, actually. Surprised he hadn't heard more about what you were up to these days. To be honest, I think he thought you were lying in wait somewhere, ready to murder him once I got his guard down."

"Sounds like Potter."

"I told him you were in America and he asked where. Maybe I shouldn't have told him you were on Love Is Blind, but I thought he'd be more likely to sleep with me if he really believed you were on another continent. And of course there was no reason for me to know the name of a Muggle television program other than your being on it. I showed him the phone for proof as well. He was really having trouble with it."

"I don't actually care. What did he say about Hermione?"

"That she was doing Love Is Blind too."

"Did he say why?"

"The same reason as you. Supposedly it was just for a laugh, but he's sure she was hoping to find true love. How did you find out she was there? Did someone propose to her? I assume since you're calling me you didn't find a match."

"I proposed to her," he snarls. "And then she saw me, punched me, and left."

To his credit, Theo doesn't laugh. "That sounds about right. We did talk about that, Harry and I. Whether or not the two of you might match up if you didn't know you were talking to each other. Especially with you on your self-improvement kick."

"Is she really going to be a Muggle lawyer?" he asks. "Did Harry tell you?"

"I'm hoping to sleep with him more, I'm not going to call him Potter for the rest of our relationship. She said that there wasn't any kind of wizarding education that would teach her what she wanted to know. She's going to Muggle school so she can bring what she learns back here. And before you ask, she went to America because she said she needed a break from England."

"So she's not planning on settling here."

"Not as far as Harry knows. He thought if she met some American bloke she liked, she might change her mind, but no risk of that now. She just left without saying anything?"

"They were filming us. What kind of conversation could we have had about it, exactly?"

"So you're glad she left without saying anything?" Theo asks, supremely unimpressed. "Just so I'm clear."

"Did Potter tell you her address?"

"I'm going to let you think about that one and come up with the answer on your own."

Draco rubs his face. "Well, could you ask him for it? Or better yet, give him my address. And my phone number. Email address. All the contact information you have for me. And ask him to pass it along to Hermione."

"So, you really do want to marry her."

"I want to talk to her. And to apologize."

"I can't make any promises about what Harry will do," Theo says at last. "But I'll tell him."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. You're more fun to tease when you aren't such a miserable git."

Draco sighs. "Yes, I think so too."

*

Giving Hermione his contact information and leaving things in her hands is the right thing to do. He knows it is. Especially because he's already done it. Now that he's asked Theo to ask Harry to tell Hermione how she can reach him, if he reaches out to her, he'll be an arsehole. And he's trying very hard not to be an arsehole in general but also especially not to her.

Which means all he can really do is wait.

He does allow himself to google her and finds out she's at the top of her class here too, a know-it-all overachiever with a bright future ahead of her. The surge of pride he feels is as unsurprising as it is annoying--of course she's like this, but when did he start thinking of it as a good thing? Something he liked about her?

The worst part is that he doesn't think it's just because of H. If he'd heard Hermione was in Muggle law school and leaving them all in the dust, he thinks he still would have felt the same strange surge of connection, the same satisfaction in someone he knows and doesn't dislike being successful. Even more than Potter, Hermione felt like a loose end to Draco. Potter and Weasley had remained in the press, easy to keep up with thanks to his Daily Prophet subscription, but Hermione had been absent after the first year or so, and he'd wondered about her.

Knowing what happened doesn't help as much as he thought it would.

He finds an email address for her, not that he allows himself to use it. He still loses a few hours writing and erasing draft emails, no more sure of what he wants to say to her now than he was when he first saw her coming out to meet him on Love Is Blind.

When he sees her, he tells himself that he'll know. Somehow, like magic, the words will come together, and he'll say the perfect thing, and Granger will realize that he's changed, that he's better, that he's someone worth knowing. Maybe even someone worth loving.

More likely, he'll just put his foot in his mouth and she'll give up on him once and for all, assuming she hasn't already.

To keep himself from getting too obsessive or stupid, he gives himself a timeline. If Hermione hasn't contacted him within a week, he is allowed to, just once, email her. And by then, he can only hope that he will have come up with something to say.

Theo is unhelpful. Aside from confirming that Potter passed along Draco's information to Hermione, he has absolutely no updates. Apparently, Potter says it's none of his business, which is quite obviously shite. Theo is asking on Draco's behalf, and it's obviously Draco's business. It's Theo's business by proxy. Either Theo is unwilling to make this argument, however, or Potter simply doesn't agree, because he remains unmoved.

If the email doesn't work, Draco does have other options. He could ask Monty for her address, but he's not sure Monty could legally tell him, and if he did, he would insist on filming it. And Hermione would certainly never forgive Draco for that.

That's the problem, really: anything Draco can think to try past one final email is too much. He wants to explain himself to her, but even more than that, he wants her to like him and give him another chance. And if he forces his way past her boundaries to make her listen to him, he'll get to explain himself but lose all chance of Hermione ever changing her mind about him.

A lifetime ago, at Hogwarts, he would have made that choice. He would have only cared about her opinion of him, never recognizing that ignoring what she wanted and thinking only of himself would have reinforced all of her worst suspicions about him.

So he lets the week pass. He jumps every time his phone makes even the slightest noise, but it's never her. His mother floos him and he tells her that he hasn't married a Muggle yet, but if he does, she'll be the first to know, and his father sends an owl with an invitation to an event he's welcome to attend if he's interested in "being a Malfoy again." He goes to work and tells his coworkers he can't talk about what happened, which all of them know means that he isn't engaged, because cameras would still be following him if he was. Aside from the fact that he goes to no bars and makes no attempts to bring anyone home, it's a completely ordinary week.

Once it's over, he sends her the only email that he thinks has any chance of convincing her to speak to him again.

Dear Hermione,

This is the last time I'll try to contact you, so you don't have to worry about hearing from me any more. I used google to find your school email, but I won't use it for anything else. Theo said that Harry had passed on my contact information, but just in case he didn't, I wanted you to have it. Any time you'd be willing to talk, I'll be ready. I understand if you're done with me, though.

I don't think there's anything I can say to make up for the way I treated you at school. I could spend paragraphs telling you things you already know: that I was a wanker, an arsehole, a bloody fucking bigot. But, as I said, you already know all that. You know it even better than I do. All I can say is that I'm sorry, and if there is something I could do to make things up to you, I would do it in an instant.

And I'm sorry the first thing I said when I saw you was about my father, because none of this is about him for me, not anymore. I should have told you the truth, or a better truth. That I was glad that it was you, for a start. That I always knew you were brilliant and amazing, and I was just too much of a bloody fucking idiot to admit it. That I think you're more amazing for coming here and going to law school and trying to make the world a better place, and that you inspired me. And of course, I should have apologized.

As I said, you have my phone number and email address. I'm planning to be in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future. This is the last you'll hear from me unless you initiate communications. I wish you well in your studies, and whatever you do with them in the future. I'm sure it will be remarkable.

Draco

*

The series airs a few months after filming wraps, and Draco watches it like it's a distorted pensieve. Of course plenty of the footage is completely unfamiliar, but even the parts he was involved with aren't quite the same. It's surreal to see himself as others see him, to experience disagreements he had with other contestants and hear them explaining where they were coming from. It's the first time he's ever had the opportunity to hear the other side of any of the disagreements he's had, and it's both a little painful and somewhat educational.

The strangest thing is, of course, seeing Hermione. There hadn't been pictures of her that he could find with google, and he really only had the briefest of looks at her before. Everyone had agreed that she'd grown into her looks at Hogwarts, but Draco had found it easy enough to remind himself of her flaws. The general opinion was that she'd gotten prettier, so he could say they were grading her on a scale. She wasn't really a beauty, she just looked better than she used to and people gave her more credit than she deserved for it.

The truth of the matter was probably somewhere in between. Hermione was quite lovely, if not the prettiest girl at Hogwarts, and Dracio gave her too little credit because he was both an arsehole and in denial.

On Love Is Blind, she's grown into herself. Or rather, in America--Draco doubts the series deserves credit for her comfort in her own skin. America probably doesn't either, really. It's easy to forget how young they were when they knew each other, but they really were just children forced to grow up too quickly. None of them fit into their bodies quite right.

Now, Hermione does, and Draco can't take his eyes off her. He doubts he would have been able to even without everything they went through. As soon as he saw her again, he would have been transfixed. She's bright and intelligent, a little self-deprecating as she talks about why she decided to come on the series, but with a solid core of optimism that makes Draco's stomach turn.

She did want this to work. And he can see it so clearly, how it could have worked for them. The conversations are bittersweet to watch now, knowing how things end up, but he thinks if he hadn't been Draco Malfoy and she hadn't been Hermione Granger, they would have been happy to see each other. They might have made it work.

Seeing her again, hearing her talk, hearing her talk about liking him is the best part of watching, but even that's tinged with the inevitability of heartbreak. Every conversation they have, every time she says something nice about him, he's reminded that nothing came of any of it. The only thing he got out of the whole thing is a bruised heart and the knowledge that Hermione Granger still hates him, even if he doesn't hate her.

Her last conversation before he proposed was with B, real name Bellamy, who seems to have been her second choice. Given Bellamy himself is in love with Clarke, who returned for a second chance after her disastrous first season, Draco doesn't feel bad for keeping Hermione from him. He wasn't going to propose anyway.

But he's the one who asks her, "So, are you going to marry D?"

It's not the first time she and Bellamy have talked about him. One of the things that surprised Draco watching the series was how early almost everyone seemed to have made up their minds. It was probably a blessing for the producers, who only have two episodes for the pre-proposal meetings, but the only relationship with even a hint of mystery is whatever's going on with Alec, Parker, and Eliot. Draco honestly has no idea who's going to get engaged to whom with those three.

But Bellamy knew about Clarke--and Hermione knew about Draco--early, so the two of them have settled into an odd kind of anonymous friendship. Bellamy has a younger sister and seems to have decided, sight unseen, that everyone on the series he's not hoping to marry should be treated as a surrogate younger sibling. It's probably part of why he and Draco didn't get along, but Hermione seems to find it endearing.

"If they ask me to marry them, I'll say yes," says Hermione. "And I think they're going to ask."

"But marriage is still a lot."

"And I'm still ready to change my mind." She sighs. "You didn't get along with D."

"I didn't hate them or anything," he says, which is actually a surprise. They got into a fight, but Bellamy doesn't seem to consider that a dealbreaker. "They just didn't make my top five."

"You aren't having second thoughts about C?"

"Depends on what you mean. I don't know if we're going to work out, but I know I want to meet them and see if things could work for us. I'm not second-guessing proposing. Marriage, the future, yeah, who knows. But I'm not worried about the next step."

"No, I suppose I'm not either." She sighs again. "Do you think people can change?"

"I hope so. This conversation would be easier if you just said what you were worried about."

"D says they used to be awful, when they were younger. And they say they've changed, and I want to believe it's true, but it's easy enough to lie about something like that. I don't want to end up spending a month with someone who's still some kind of hateful arsehole. Much as I'd like to believe the people who bullied me at school have changed, I'm not sure I could. So why can I believe that with D?"

It's suddenly very clear to Draco why this conversation made the cut.

"So, what?" asks Bellamy. "You think just because you like D because you secretly want a redemption arc for your high-school bullies?"

"It would be nice to have someone realize all the terrible things they did to you and feel terrible about them, wouldn't it? But it seems like a fairy story. More likely D has realized they need to say they've changed, but haven't, not really."

"Huh." Bellamy seems to be thinking it over. "I guess that's not how I would do it."

"Do what, exactly?" Hermione asks, looking amused.

"I can be kind of a dick, I'm never going to deny that. But not, like, racist or sexist or whatever. Never on purpose, anyway. But let's say I was. I know everyone on this show is queer, at minimum. I wouldn't be volunteering that I used to be a bigot or anything. Either I changed and I don't want to tell everyone how bad I used to be, or I haven't and I can just pretend that I was never bad in the first place. Why bring it up at all?"

"Maybe they're just trying to impress people. They say they came from a rich, terrible family and have learned to be better. It's impressive, right? It impressed me."

Bellamy rubs his jaw. It's strange, seeing the two of them on opposite sides of the screen as if they're having a normal conversation, knowing they couldn't see each other. "I guess, but it's a gamble. C talked about hating their rich family too, but not about being a dick in high school. I'd probably like them either way, but I wouldn't be surprised if they just didn't mention if their family raised them to be conservative. If D did, I'd assume it's something they think is important. That they're proud of. Not something they're lying about. Someone could hear I was a high-school bully and be out, no matter what came after it. Personally, I wouldn't risk it."

Hermione smiles. "You might be right."

"I'd have trouble if it was my bully," Bellamy goes on. "I'm not white and there was this kid who asked me where I was from every time we saw each other. I don't even know their name, just that they were older and we walked to elementary school the same way. I'm always going to hate them, but I'm not going to say no one else should ever love them. It's just not going to be me."

"So if D was your childhood bully, I have your permission to marry them?"

Bellamy laughs. "I'm pretty sure my bully was American, but I guess I never asked them where they were from, so I could be wrong."

"I just wish I could be sure," Hermione admits, her voice soft enough to break his heart.

"You're not going to get surer if you don't meet them. You're always going to wonder. And hey, if C says yes to me, we'll all get to hang out. I'll vet D for you if you vet C for me."

Hermione laughs, and for a second, Draco is wildly jealous. Unless something goes wrong with Bellamy and Clarke, he doesn't think Bellamy and Hermione will make a match of it, but he can imagine Bellamy getting her contact information and calling her to see how she's doing, the two of them developing a friendship. She'll never talk to Draco again, but she will make friends from this experience, and he'll be the villain. A victim too, nowhere near as bad as Finn from the first season, but he's gotten what he deserved. His just desserts, as the Muggles say.

"I'll hold you to that," Hermione says.

They cut to just him, smiling, something Draco has seen enough in his own conversations to recognize as something of an elision. Maybe they spoke more or the producers just cut a PA telling them to wrap it up.

Either way, Bellamy says, "Well, I hope I see you soon, H."

"I hope so too," she says, and, mercifully, they cut to another couple, so Draco has some time to collect himself.

*

He almost doesn't watch the proposal. They cut between him speaking and Hermione reacting, and if things had gone well, it would probably be nice to have the footage. All of this could have been a nice memory.

The meetings start in the second episode, but Draco and Hermione don't make it until the third. The second ends with the surprise twist that Alec, Eliot, and Parker have decided to try to make it work as a triad, which involves no marriage and a lot of complicated logistics. He has to admit the editors did a good with the story, keeping just enough of the intact conversations that the swerve makes sense without showing what must have been a lot of complicated conversations between the three of them. That episode ends with a note that the three of them will be starring in their own spin off, Love Is Blind: Three's Company, and he has to admire Netflix's mercenary instincts. Like most corporations, all the higher ups would have been in Slytherin.

Draco's proposal is at the beginning of the third episode, then the meeting, with, of course, his muttered comment about Potter and Granger making the final cut. The camera focuses mostly on Hermione as she sees him, though, her eyes widening in recognition, then her whole face clouding over. He honestly can't tell what she's thinking at all, not until he says the idiotic line about his father and she loses her temper. She storms off, and Draco is left alone, staring after her.

They air most of his interview with Roan, which Draco appreciates. Even if he was reeling and irritated, he was honest, and he said what he wanted to say. A title card explains that Hermione declined to comment or return, and it lingers in silence for a long moment before the narrative returns to successful matches.

With seven-and-a-half more episodes to go, Draco's role on Love Is Blind is over. It's almost enough to make him regret telling his mother about it. She's going to ask what happened, and he has to decide if he's willing to admit that Hermione Granger rejected him and he left in shame.

He's pouring himself a glass of wine when his phone buzzes, and for a wild moment, he thinks Narcissa is actually calling him for the first time ever, as if she could sense his humiliation. But it's just two quick buzzes, a text, not a call, so it's more likely Theo has finally figured out how his phone works and has texted about Draco's episode. Maybe Potter taught him. Potter probably knows about mobile phones.

There's another pair of buzzes before he gets back, but that's no surprise. The only surprising thing is that Theo isn't calling, so he can get his thoughts out more efficiently. He's almost certainly dreadful at texting.

But the notifications aren't from Theo; they're from an unknown number: We could get coffee followed by Sorry, this is Hermione.

Luckily, he already put his wine down, or he probably would have dropped the glass.

His first instinct is to call her, because he's not much better at texting than Theo probably would be, but he's done so well respecting her boundaries that now isn't the time to fuck it up.

Did you have somewhere in mind? is what he finally asks, and Hermione supplies the name and address of a coffee shop he's driven past on his way to work. It sends a shock up his spine, thinking that he might have driven by when she was there, that this might be a place she likes.

Then again, this is Hermione. She might have looked somewhere up as far from her own life as possible, just so that he won't know anything about her. Not that it matters, really; he'd meet her in Siberia, if that had been where she suggested.

Luckily for Draco's nerves, new episodes of Love Is Blind come out on Fridays, and Hermione wants to meet the next morning. It minimizes the amount of time he's obsessing over what she wants to say to him. It must be related to what she saw in the last few episodes, but that doesn't help Draco as much as he'd like it to. Maybe she just wants closure. To hear him out, just once, before she's done with him.

He arrives fifteen minutes early, but she still beats him there. She's dressed casually in a black t-shirt with a worn logo he doesn't recognize and a pair of blue jeans, with an unfamiliar pair of glasses sliding down her nose and her mess of curls pulled back in a loose ponytail. She looks like any ordinary, American student, surrounded by open textbooks with a mug of what looks more like tea than coffee steaming precariously close to the edge of the table.

"Hello, Hermione," he says, and she jerks up, pulling an earbud out of her left ear.

"You're early," she says, her voice blank with surprise.

"So are you."

She pulls the other earbud out. Although they're worlds and oceans away, it reminds him of seeing her at the library in Hogwarts. Years later, that look of frazzled surprise and confusion at anything that pulls her out of her books is the same. "I always study here on Saturday mornings," she says. "To get away from my roommates. Are you going to get something to drink?"

"Are you actually having coffee?" he asks.

She smiles a little. "English breakfast tea."

He does like coffee, but it feels strange to be drinking it with Hermione. She reminds him too much of home. "I was going to get the same."

She cleans up the table while he waits in line, stowing her books and notes in a bag that's large enough to carry them, but he's sure is spelled to be larger anyway. It's easy enough to live like a Muggle without giving up all amenities.

As he returns to her with his drink, her phone trills and a message pops up: Malfoy early warning. She dismisses it quickly, but doesn't flush.

"Sorry I beat it," he offers.

"That's the only reason I knew you were early. I lose track of time when I'm working."

"I remember."

He settles in across from her with his tea and takes a sip, studying her as she studies him. It's different seeing her in person, more overwhelming, but not bad at all.

He wants to see her so much more.

"I thought that you'd done it on purpose," she says at last.

He blinks, the words catching him totally by surprise. "You thought what?"

"I thought that you must have found out I was going to be on the series somehow and set it up. I thought the whole thing was some awful prank, and I'd fallen for it."

It hadn't occurred to him, but it makes the worst kind of sense. After all, what would be more likely: him being on a Muggle TV series to be cruel to her, or because he was actually looking for love?

"I just heard everything you'd said to me echoing in my head and I was sure you were laughing at me the whole time. Maybe the producers knew too. I had come up with all these stories about what you'd done before you even opened your mouth, and when you made the crack about your father, it felt like you were telling me I was right. That I should have put it together sooner."

"No," he says, looking down at his tea. "I had no bloody idea what to say to you, so I said the stupidest thing I could."

"Yes, that's one way to do it."

"What changed your mind?" he asks. "About it being my evil plot?"

"To be honest, I started having doubts as soon as I was on my way home. No matter how I looked at it, it didn't make sense. I couldn't figure out why you were in America, let alone how you would have found out about Love Is Blind. Then there was Harry, of course. I believe this is the first time in his life Harry has been the one telling me that you weren't up to something nefarious. But he was basing a lot of his opinion on Theo Nott's word, which he trusts more than I do. And then once it started airing and I actually saw you with other people, I realized you were the same with them as you were with me. Of course, you could be a phenomenal actor, but I don't think you are."

He snorts. "I shouldn't be offended if it's working in my favor."

"Clarke is friends with one of the producers," she goes on, like he didn't say anything. "And I had Bellamy's number, so I asked him if the producers knew anything about our history. He said all they knew was that we had gone to the same school. As far as they were concerned, they had gotten lucky."

"I tried to pick one of the producers up at a bar," he offers. "That's how I found out about the series. And I thought it might finally make my father disown me if he found out. Once I explained to him what a television and a dating series and Netflix were."

She actually laughs a little, this soft, involuntary reaction that makes his heart swell. He made her laugh. Just him, and just her.

"I had no idea until I saw you," he adds, just to make it very, very clear.

"And if you had known?"

He glances around, making sure no one can hear them. "I would have bloody apparated into your room so we could have a conversation without anyone overhearing." He frowns. "What would you have done?"

"I don't know. If I'd been sure you didn't know either, I would have had a thousand questions."

"Well, I didn't know and here I am. Ask away."

"Why are you here? In Los Angeles, I mean."

Belatedly, he remembers the copy of All Quiet on the Western Front he's enchanted with a privacy charm, pulling it out of his bag and holding it up for Hermione. "If this is on the table, we can speak freely." She nods, and he puts it down and taps twice to activate it. "I doubt it will surprise you to hear I had my doubts about the Death Eaters before the war. I wish I'd turned against them like I wanted to, but if I'm honest, I was sure they were going to win, and I was afraid of being on the losing side."

"Some of us didn't have a choice," she points out, but her tone is mild.

"If you interrupt me to point out every time I was a bastard in this story, it's going to take a very long time to tell it."

She laughs again, stronger this time. "Please, go on."

"So, Voldemort lost the war, and for the first time, I saw my father as just a person. A small, bigoted, fallable person who'd thrown his lot in with other small, bigoted, fallable people. He wanted to regroup, and he was sure I was going to start the next generation of Death Eaters. To him, the battle was lost, but the war never ended. I wasn't the only Slytherin our age to decide I didn't want that, but I had the highest profile. Perhaps I should have stayed and spoken out against him, but if I'm honest, I needed to leave. I wanted to find out more about Muggles, and find out who I was away from my family. But I've always thought I'd go back."

Hermione nods. "And this is who you are?"

"So far. What you said really did mean something to me. Coming here was good for me. It was the right thing to do. But I don't want to do things just for myself. Not anymore."

"I hope it's not just for me, either."

"No." He tries a smirk, to see if he can do that with her. "As always, you bring out my competitive streak."

"I wish you'd decided you wanted to be a better person than me years ago, then. Think of all the good you could have been doing."

"I do want to go back to the wizarding world. Not right away, but in a year or so. Make a splash talking about how amazing Muggle technology is and how I think blood purity is an archaic concept we should all just forget about."

"And where would I fit into this?"

There's only one answer to that. "Wherever you'd like."

She takes a deliberate sip of her tea. "I thought that if coffee went well, we could think about getting dinner sometime."

He never understood the idiom "heart in your throat" before, but suddenly, it's the most logical phrase in the world. "It's tea. Is it going well?"

"Tea isn't a date in America. Coffee is." She takes another sip. "I think it is."

"Are you free for dinner tonight?"

His father would hate this, not just for his choice of partner, but for his neediness, his vulnerable and open wanting. Hermione could break his heart right now, and he's done nothing to mitigate the risk. It would be the easiest thing in the world.

But all she does is smile. "I am, actually."

"Then I'd love to buy you dinner. I think I owe you one or two."

That laugh again. He doesn't think he'll ever get tired of it. "Yes, I think you do."

*

Under ordinary circumstances, Draco and Hermione wouldn't have much to do in the reunion special. The producers would give them a call to see if anything particularly noteworthy had happened, but the reunions are for updates on marriages. The real drama is in who stayed married, who broke up immediately, and who might actually make it.

"Unfortunately for us--and I say this as a producer, not a human being--most of the relationships are doing really well, so I'm glad you two are giving us something to actually focus on," says Monty. Having socialized with him more off set, Draco can see the hard line he draws between being a producer and being a person, and it's more than a little fascinating. As himself, he's one of the kindest and most considerate people Draco's ever met, but as soon as he gets to work, it's his job to profit off of other people's pain.

"You're welcome?" says Hermione, making a face. "This season does have a much higher success rate than the last does, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it's been interesting," says Monty. "On the one hand, it's great for us, because everyone watching wants to believe that all this stuff is forever. You don't see, like, Bellamy and Clarke connecting for weeks and figuring out how much they like each other and then hope they got a quickie divorce. You want them to be thriving."

"But it makes for bad television," Draco supplies.

"It makes for a reunion special that's pretty surprise-free. Like, not everyone actually got married on the show, but they're all still together. Korra and Asami are engaged again. The threesome's doing fine. George and Alanna got a cat, Clarke and Bellamy got a dog. The most drama we've got is that Sara and Rosa want to have a giant fight, but I think that's just their kink? They're not together but sometimes they hang out, pretend to fight, and have hate-sex or something. So, yeah, works for me, but I don't get much credit. You two are our big surprise."

Of course, Draco and Hermione were prepared for this. For weeks, they've been discussing what to say about their relationship. It's not really so hard to translate it for Muggles, to smooth over the strange details of how, exactly, Draco was awful to Hermione, and why he changed his mind about his upbringing, but they're still planning on this being their only reunion. In a few months, Hermione will graduate from law school, and they'll go back to England together and concern themselves again with the problems of the wizarding world, not Muggles and dating series.

If things go as Draco's hoping they will, they'll also be engaged when they do go. While there were enough Muggleborns who watched Love Is Blind that Draco and Hermione's appearance made it to the press (Lucius told Draco that he was "shaming the family" with his "Muggle-loving ways," but has yet to take further action), so far, only Theo, Pansy, Potter, and some number of Weasleys know that they reconciled, and he's hoping their return will be even bigger news. But once they're home, he doesn't think they'll want to return to America for any future Love Is Blind updates. They've got plans for England.

"I'm so glad we're providing you the drama you crave," Hermione says dryly.

"This isn't just about me! Everyone loves a good romance, and this one is perfect. You've got it all: childhood acquaintances, enemies to lovers, a redemption arc."

"Is that what you're expecting this to come across as?" Draco asks.

"I'm not sure he had a redemption arc, really," Hermione muses. "More of a redemption line. Nothing changed except that I gave him another chance."

Monty snaps his fingers. "Second chances, that's what I forgot. Everyone loves second chances."

Hermione's hand is in his almost absently, already a state of being so natural for her she doesn't seem to notice, but for Draco, it's still a novelty. Here he is, backstage at a Muggle sound stage, waiting to go on camera with his girlfriend, Hermione Granger. He's not sure it will ever stop being a wonder.

"Yes," he agrees. "I'm rather fond of them myself."