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scared but reckless

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Lucius Malfoy went to war when he was twenty years old and he never came back.

Not really.

His body came back, and did what it was supposed to and married Draco's mother and had an heir and attended his own father's funeral, but Draco's mother says he was never the same.

Draco never knew him then. But he knows him now. And he knows this: his father is still at war, and Draco is tired.

His father has brought the war home, and Draco is tired.

He's tired of never being good enough. He's tired of bringing home A's and still being told to do better. He's tired of being told he's too skinny, too lean, too weak.

His father demands perfection. He demands military order and precision.

Draco can never obtain it.

He's weak. He's a fool. He's the enemy. He spends too much time inside and he doesn't interact with people enough and he has no passion in life and no concept of discipline and he's never going to amount to anything.

He knows most of that is his father talking but the problem is Draco winds up believing most of it. He needs to get out. He needs to get out before he's so convinced of his own lack of self-worth that he can no longer believe that he deserves to leave.

But he can't just walk away.

His father will not let him go so easily. He is a worthless disappointment of a son but he's still the only heir his father has, and that's something that matters to his father. If he leaves now, his father will come after him.

He has to convince his father to kick him out.

So he goes to the one family that he knows his father hates more than he hates Draco.

The Weasleys.

He finds Ron Weasley in the cafeteria the next day because Draco has noticed him eating lunch there at the same time on Mondays — though usually Draco only notices to avoid him.

This time, he sits down across from Weasley.

Weasley looks up from his sandwich in shock. A bit of herb and cheese bread is stuck to the corner of his mouth. Draco rethinks the life choices that have led him here.

But the truth is he's got a black eye that he knows wasn't an accident no matter what his mother insists and he knows it doesn't get better from here.

He's got his hair combed carefully over the bruise. Usually, his father is more careful than this.

He hates thinking about it.

About the fact that somewhere out there, there is someone with a mark that's a mirror image of Draco's own. A soulmate who has the misfortune of seeing Draco's bruises painted across their own skin.

Draco gets marks of his own on occasion in a bright, brilliant blue. He has a blue slash that he's pretty sure is a burn scar across his left biceps and he gets scratches up and down his hands on a regular basis that aren't his.

In return for the blue littering his arms, he gives bruises over his ribcage and fingerprints on his arms and he hates it.

He hates that some stranger knows him this intimately. He hates that someone he never gave anything to, someone he doesn't even know, has access every broken blood vessel.

He never asked for this.

Draco doesn't believe that soulmates are some kind of magical cure-all. His mother and father were soulmates and look where that got them. Stuck in a broken marriage with a useless son and no love lost between any of them.

Maybe some small part of him believes in a happily ever after, but Draco crushes that part firmly and silences it. Happily ever afters don't exist. And if they do, they aren't for him.

So Draco doesn't have a choice.

But that doesn't make this easy. So he sits down at the table across from bread-faced Weasley and he stares at the man, trying to figure out how to say this.

Weasley blinks at him, swallows, and then says, "What?"

Draco stares at him, evaluating.

Weasley blinks again. "What do you want?"

Draco watches the piece of bread fall to the table. Weasley is too busy searching his face to notice. After a long moment, Draco shakes his head. "Never mind." He moves to stand.

"Sit down," Weasley snaps. Draco, startled, does. Weasley's face is weird, somewhere between concerned and peeved. "Now, tell me what you want. You came to me. You don't do that."

Draco breathes in deep.

Much as he hates to admit it, Weasley is right. He doesn't ask for help. The fact that he's trying is a mark of his own desperation.

Weasley finds something in his face. "Look. I know we're not friends." Draco huffs out a breath, and Weasley grins. "Yeah, all right. We're not even nice. But… if you're this desperate for help, I'll do what I can."

Draco blinks.

He hasn't even asked yet. If Weasley had come to him for help, he knows he wouldn't have been so willing to help.

But he can't afford to refuse it. Not when it's what he came for anyway.

"I want to date one of your brothers."

Weasley blinks at him, blue eyes wide with surprise.

"You… what?"

Draco refuses to squirm under the scrutiny.

"You heard me." Draco isn't going to repeat himself.

"Erm. Why?"

Draco sighs. "My father hates your family."

"Gee, thanks," Weasley says wryly. Draco glares. Ron grins and pretends to zip his lips.

"If I date one of your brothers, I think I can get my father to disown me. Fake dating. I'm not actually that desperate for a date."

"And… being disowned is a good thing? You want to lose your inheritance?"

Draco brushes his hair out of his eyes, just for a moment before letting it fall back.

Weasley's eyes don't leave his face, but he doesn't say anything about the black eye. Instead, he just takes a deep breath, and then nods.

"I'll make some calls. Give me your number and I'll let you know when I've got a meeting set up."

It's more reservation than Draco expected from him, but he isn't going to question it.

He thinks he's supposed to say thank you here, but it hurts too much, so he just gives Weasley his phone number and walks away.

R. Weasley: How do you feel about dating someone older? Like. Eight years older.

You: My father would hate that. Sounds perfect.

R. Weasley: Great. Charlie says he'll do it. He's out of the country for the next two weeks because his boss is petty and sent him to pick up a rescue rhino.

You: Dare I ask?

R. Weasley: It's more fun if it's a surprise. ;)

You: Right. That's not alarming at all.

Weasley says he'll introduce them in person, but then he has a last minute crisis and sends Draco a message that says to just meet Charlie in the cafe. He'll be the redhead in the jade green scarf.

Draco finds him easily enough, and Charlie stands to shake his hands.

He's perfect.

He's several inches shorter than Draco, and Draco can hear his father's voice in his ear saying, A man is only worth his stance. His father hates short men.

On top of that, Charlie has long red hair pulled back into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck. He's covered head to toe in freckles. On his left forearm, a dragon tattoo in bold green and black is proudly displayed, the tail curling around his wrist and ending in a point on the back of his hand. It's the same spot Draco has considered getting a tattoo because it's the spot where a deep scar crosses his arm where his father threw him into a mirror.

Charlie's arms are thick cords of muscle and his grip is strong around Draco's hands. His palm is covered in the calluses of a working man. His blue eyes sparkle with laughter even when he's standing still.

He's everything Draco's father will hate.

He's perfect.

Draco shakes his hand and sits.

"Draco Malfoy," he says.

"Charlie Weasley," Charlie says. "But you knew that. Ron said you needed a fake boyfriend. He said it was for a good cause, but he wouldn't tell me why."

Charlie cuts straight to the point. His eyes pierce right through Draco. Draco feels pinned, inspected.

He feels obliged to tell the truth.

"I need to leave that house," he says calmly, his voice low. "And if I choose to leave, I won't be left alone. I need my father to want me to leave."

Charlie leans in. His eyes cut like an arrow to the heart of everything Draco is saying.

"Lucius Malfoy is not known to be a friendly man when angered. Are you sure about this?"

There is raw, unmasked concern in his voice. Draco marvels at it.

He nods. "It is… my only option."

Because he's thought this through. He could leave, he could try to hide. His mother might even help him; he believes that if pushed she would take his side. But he'd be hiding forever.

He needs to start anew if he's ever going to get anywhere. He wants to be in politics — like his father, but not — and he can't do that from the shadows.

He needs to burn the bridges he has before he can build new ones in their place.

Charlie looks at him intently for a minute before nodding.

"You'd know better than I would."

It's not a sentiment Draco often hears from men eight years his senior. He appreciates that Charlie can admit that.

Charlie bites his lip, and then adds, "I'm… not going to get you hurt, am I? I can't… be responsible for that."

Draco wants to lie to him. He wants to tell Charlie what Charlie wants to hear, and what it would be easier for him to say.

He wants to say no, I won't get hurt.

But he can tell already that Charlie would see the lie.

And so instead he says, "I am asking for your help because this route will be less painful, in the end."

It's not really an answer to Charlie's question. But it's the only one he has.

Charlie decides they need to go on an actual date before they meet the family. He can act, he says, but not that well, and they need to be convincing. If Draco's father found out it was all a lie, it would serve no purpose at all.

So Draco lets Charlie take him to dinner.

Charlie has better taste than Draco had expected.

He takes them to a selective restaurant that only a few people know about where the second floor is accessible only by ladder. Their table is nestled in a corner, a small alcove the feels private without feeling crushingly intimate.

Charlie eats three slices of bread from the basket and sips at his glass of wine, declaring it sublime.

Draco looks at his own glass, at the stem between his fingers.

Charlie grins at him. "First dates are awkward enough when they're real. But maybe this can be less awkward. You don't have to try to impress me."

Draco doesn't know how to tell him that he's only been on two first dates and never a second. He's nineteen. He went on his first date at sixteen, with Pansy Parkinson. It was the first day he admitted to himself that he wasn't interested in women at all. It wasn't a great date.

The second was a kid he met at a coffee shop. He was cute, sandy-haired, short and freckled (Draco wonders if short and freckled is becoming a type as he looks at Charlie and thinks hot damn). But Seamus was out and proud and Draco wasn't ready to be.

They'd parted amicably enough but haven't really talked since.

That's the extent of his dating experience. But Charlie is twenty-seven and gorgeous as hell and definitely more experienced than that. So Draco doesn't say anything.

Instead, he says, "Explain the rhino."

Charlie laughs and his face is sunlight.

"The rhino was mostly just Kingsley being a dick. He's salty that Mariella, our boa constrictor, likes me better, and he knows that transporting large creatures like that is a bitch."

"Wow, that explained exactly nothing."

Charlie laughs again. "I work for the London Zoo."

"See, now we're getting somewhere."

Charlie flashes his teeth in a brief smile. "Mostly the reptile unit. Except when Kingsley is being petty."

"Sounds like a great guy," Draco says dryly.

"Nah, he is. He's hilarious, but he's also fierce as hell when he's got your back. He's a good guy."

Draco can see the fondness in his face when he talks about Kingsley.

He wonders what it's like to look up to someone like that.

Charlie must see something in his face, because he changes the subject just enough, launching into a story about Mariella that somehow winds up about a group of primary school kids and a rogue monkey.

Draco is trying not to laugh by the end of it.

So maybe Charlie is more charming than he thought. And maybe Draco actually enjoys his company, when he hadn't expected to. He meant for this to be just for utility.

But Charlie is stunning and hilarious and Draco enjoys his company, even if it doesn't really mean anything. Although, maybe it's easier because it doesn't really mean anything.

Maybe fake-dating a Weasley isn't going to be as bad as he thought.

Charlie decides that a test run with his own family is a good idea.

Personally, Draco thinks this is a terrible idea, but Charlie's fairly persuasive, especially when he smiles.

"You're okay with letting your family think you're gay?"

Charlie laughs. "Oh, they already know."

Draco blinks at him. He hadn't realized Charlie actually was.

He'd thought that was just him.

In the end, he agrees to the introduction to Charlie's family. Ron knows it's fake, but they haven't told anyone else. Instead, Charlie just brings Draco to dinner one night and says, "Mum, this is my boyfriend."

Molly Weasley looks up from the stove and her smile seems genuine.

"Hello, there," she says, putting down the spoon she's been stirring with and moving toward him. Draco goes to put out a hand, but Molly hugs him instead.

It's unexpected and half-terrifying and also kind of amazing? She smells like tomato sauce and warmth.

"I'm Molly Weasley, dear," she says after she pulls away.

"Draco," he says. And then after a moment's delay, he adds, "Malfoy."

Her face doesn't change. "Well, dear, any boyfriend of Charlie's is welcome here whenever. It's good to meet you."

For a moment he wonders if she just doesn't know about the way his father ruined her husband's chances at a decent career in government. The way his father tore her husband's reputation apart in front of the whole world.

But there's no way she doesn't know.

She just doesn't seem to care.

"Your brother is setting up in the dining room," she says to Charlie. "Why don't you help him with the silverware?"

Draco moves to follow him, but Molly says, "Not you, dear. You're a guest."

He tilts his head at her, and she smiles. "You can stay here and tell me about yourself," she says. "Or, if that sounds too alarming, Ginny and Percy are in the living room, since it's their turn to clean up after."

Draco isn't sure he wants to meet new people. But neither is he sure he wants to be interrogated.

In the end, he stays put as Molly turns back to her pot of pasta sauce.

"So, Draco. What do you do?"

"I'm in a business course at Uni," he says.

"Business." She hums. "Percy started out in business. He wound up moving to world politics, though. I think it suited him better, in the end, but he had to grow into himself a bit first."

Draco leans back against the dark countertop and fixes his gaze on the blue cupboards beside Molly.

"How did Charlie tell you he was gay?" he finally says. It comes out in a smaller voice than he means it to.

He's been thinking about it since Charlie mentioned it, though. Wondering what it's like to tell normal parents. What it's like to tell parents without worrying about how badly it'll hurt the next day.

Molly puts the spoon down and turns to face him.

There's so much kindness in her face that Draco has to look away.

"He was… oh, sixteen at the time? Bill brought home a girlfriend, and I think his father made a joke about how Charlie was going to be next to bring home a girl, and Charlie just… oh so gently said, no, dad, I'm gay. It was very low drama. Frankly, exactly what I'd expect from him."

"Did you know?"

Molly smiles, but shakes her head. "I want to say yes. They say that stuff about how a mother always knows. But I didn't. Maybe that makes me a bad Mum—"

"It doesn't," Draco says. He knows that much.

She smiles at him. "Thank you." She inspects his face. "Your parents — have you told them yet?"

Draco presses his lips together. "No," he says finally.

"Not expecting it to go well?" she guesses. Draco just twists his lip wryly.

"Well, you're always welcome here if you need a place." She turns back to the stove.

Draco stares at the back of her floral patterned shirt.

He tells himself that he is not going to get emotional over being welcomed by a stranger who has every right to hate him.

It's a lie.

Charlie comes back in at that moment and grins at him.

"Hey, babe. Mum's not terrifying you too badly, is she?"

Charlie drops a kiss on his cheek as he moves past Draco to get the spoons. Draco blinks at the easy affection. Mutely, he shakes his head in response to Charlie's question.

"Here," Charlie says. "Come meet Bill. He's doing the place settings."

Draco goes, grateful for the escape.

Bill, it turns out, is Charlie's only older brother. He's got at least six inches over Charlie and a much leaner build, though their hair is nearly identical and they have the same grin.

"You must be Draco," Bill says. Draco nods.

Bill grins and says, "You have shitty taste in men, but welcome to the madness. I see Charlie's being cruel and throwing you off the deep end right away."

Draco weakly smiles back. Charlie bumps his shoulder with his own and smiles up at him. Intuitively, Draco's smile grows more natural as he smiles back at Charlie.

Bill mock-scowls and says, "Hey, leave the sappy shit for when I'm not in the room."

"Jesus, Bill, can't I even smile at my boyfriend? We're nowhere near you and Dora the first time you two went out."

"We agreed never to mention that," Bill moans.

Charlie grins. "Then maybe give us a break, yeah?"

Bill rolls his eyes. "Fine, fine."

Draco thinks maybe it won't be too bad.

And then the full mob descends.

It turns out there are far more Weasleys than Draco knew. He doesn't even catch all the names, but there is one set of twins, Charlie, Bill, Percy-who-did-business, and Ron, as well as one girl.

Plus Molly and Arthur, who gives Draco a weird look as he comes in but says nothing.

Dinner is mass chaos. There are six conversations happening at once and a constant flow of dishes back and forth and silverware clattering on plates and Draco can't even hear himself think.

It's overwhelming.

Charlie takes his hand underneath the table just before Draco winds up panicking, and the tight squeeze of his hand sends a bold of warmth through Draco that he doesn't quite understand.

But not one person questions Draco's right to be there. Not one person questions them.

So, as trial runs go, it's fairly confidence inspiring, if not a very good representation of what is coming.

Draco finds his father sitting at the dining room table, newspaper in hand.

He steps forward and grabs an apple from the bowl in the middle of the table and then retreats a step and waits. After a moment, his father folds down the top of his paper, staring at him.

"Yes, Draco?"

"I was wondering if I might have someone over for dinner."

"Can't your friends feed themselves?"

This is why Draco doesn't have friends over.

"It's not a friend. It's someone I want you to meet. Someone… important to me."

Draco measures out his words carefully. Lucius stares at him.

"Very well. See to it that you tell the servants that she'll be coming. Saturday."

"Yes, sir. Thank you."

Draco backs carefully out of the room. His father returns to the newspaper.

Charlie shows up on a motorcycle that Saturday bearing the gift of a box of wine. Draco can't help a small grin as he lets him in.

Charlie's wearing a bright red and black flannel rolled up to his wrists, putting his tattoo on perfect display. His red hair is loose this time, creating a burning corona around his face, framing his strong jaw.

Draco greets him with a kiss, telling himself it's all for the facade.

"Mother and Father are in the lounge. Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes."

Charlie grins and says, "Let the games begin."

Draco doesn't smile, but he almost wants to.

When Charlie walks into the sitting room, Draco's parents fall into a stunned silence. Charlie smiles at them both and then waves around the box of a wine.

"A gift for my lovely hosts. Where should I put this?"

His father sneers at the box, and then his eyes drag from Charlie's ratty boots to his mass of wild hair. The sneer doesn't leave his face.

"What is this?" he asks.

"Charlie Weasley at your service," Charlie says cheerfully, giving a fake, sloppy salute sure to anger his father.

"What is this?" his father hisses, the sneer morphing into a glare.

Charlie thrusts his hand out for his father to shake. His father stares at it as though it is a venomous snake, fangs bared.

"Father, this is my boyfriend."

"No," says his father.

"No?" says Draco.

"No," says his mother.

Charlie looks between the three of them and then says, "I don't think that's really up to you lot, is it? I think that's between Draco and me."

His father rounds on Charlie. "You. Get out."

"I don't think I will," Charlie says.

Draco wonders if he's stupid. No one disobeys his father to his face. Not when he looks like that.

"My house. My roof. You, out."

Charlie tips his head, examining his father. Then he glances at Draco.

Draco isn't sure what Charlie finds in his face, but whatever it is, it makes him turn back to Lucius and say, "Sir? I don't understand. I'm just here to meet my boyfriend's family."

Charlie and Draco's father stare at each other for a long, silent moment before something in his father's face crumbles in acquiescence, seeming to decide that the facade is more important than his anger right now.

The tension breaks when one of the servants comes in and says, "Dinner is ready, sir," to his father.

Silence reigns as they move to the dining room.

"So," his mother asks as dinner is served around them. "Charlie, was it? What do you do?"

"I work with snakes and spiders and all manner of creepy-crawly things," Charlie says cheerfully.

"Oh," says his mother. She seems slightly alarmed. "That's… nice?"

Charlie just grins and says, "And what do you do, Mrs. Malfoy?"

"Me? I take care of the house."

"Ah, so you're unemployed?"

His mother sputters.

"No, Mr. Weasley. I am a homemaker. That is my job."

"Mmmmhmm," Charlie says, but Draco can tell he doesn't mean it.

It only goes downhill from there. Dinner is a perfect disaster. Charlie spends the entire time subtlety needling his mother and father both, while also seeming charming and smiling on the outside.

He ends the night by asking if they want to open the box of wine.

His father's eyes flash, and Charlie seems to take that as his cue to leave.

"Goodbye, darling," he says to Draco cheerfully. Draco gives him a small smile, and Charlie leans forward smoothly, but with a moment of hesitation before he kisses Draco — giving Draco a moment to back away. They talked about this, but Charlie told him firmly that he didn't want to cross any lines.

Draco doesn't mind. He leans in.

It's more than the brief kiss hello. This one is deep, fierce, firm.

It feels like a claim.

Draco watches him go and then turns back to face his father's fury.

"How dare you?"

Draco takes a shaky step backward.

"You won't see him again. Do you hear me?"

Draco thought he was ready for this.

He thought he was ready to stand up to his father. But the truth is, his father has always been the one thing he is truly afraid of.

He doesn't say anything, and his father steps forward.

"Do you hear me?" he hisses.

Draco tries not to tremble.

...

Charlie doesn't stop coming. He just stops announcing his presence. Instead, he lets Draco's father start finding him everywhere in the house.

First, his father finds them in the den watching some TV programme that Draco has chosen.

His father walks out of the room, but Draco knows he'll hear about it later.

Three days later, he finds them in Draco's bedroom, laying on the bed, staring at the ceiling while Charlie talks about his job.

Draco wonders what his soulmate must think of the new color scheme of their linked skin.

The next week, he finds them sitting at the dining room table, a bowl of strawberries between them. When his father walks in, Charlie's head is tipped back as he laughs. Draco is staring at the sharp line of his neck.

Furious, his father steps forward toward Charlie. Charlie sobers and stands. His face is carved in lines of anger.

"Out," his father says.

"Make me," Charlie replies, his voice like ice. "Or are you only brave enough to touch someone you know won't hit back?"

Draco blanches. He's never said anything about it. Neither has Charlie, but they met for coffee the day after that first dinner, when Draco was still working hard to move normally.

He figured Charlie might know, but they don't talk about it.

He's never seen his father look quite so enraged.

"You dare to insinuate—"

"It's not an insinuation. It's an accusation. You know I can't do anything because Draco would never make the accusation but if you touch me I swear to god you will never see the light of day again."

Every line of Charlie's body is cast in stone, firm and furious.

"Draco, leave," his father says.

Draco doesn't want to leave. He doesn't want to leave his father alone with Charlie.

But he's still not really ready for open defiance, and so he goes.

Charlie finds him, nearly an hour later. Draco is sitting on the sofa in his bedroom, staring aimlessly at his phone but not actually processing anything. Charlie sits down beside him, letting their legs touch. Draco melts a little into the warmth, into the casual pleasure of a touch that doesn't hurt.

Charlie wraps an arm around him and says, "Your dad's a dick."

Draco laughs bitterly.

"Yeah."

Charlie looks at him, but Draco refuses to meet his eyes.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Charlie asks.

"No," Draco replies.

Charlie nods. "Okay."

He doesn't want to talk about it. He doesn't want to talk about wearing long sleeves so nothing shows. He doesn't want to talk about why he is so ready to lose every cent of his inheritance and every family member he has in order to be free.

"What did he talk to you about?"

"He asked me to leave."

Draco can tell that Charlie isn't telling him the full story. His father has asked Charlie to leave plenty of times without making Draco leave the room.

"And what else?" Draco says.

Charlie looks down at his hands, staring at the dragon tail.

"He asked me how much money I'd take to leave you."

Draco bites his lip.

"How much did he offer?" he asks flatly.

"Ten thousand pounds. To start with."

Draco nods slowly.

"So this is goodbye, then?"

Charlie's eyes snap up. Draco looks at him.

"What?" Charlie asks. Draco meets his eyes. He looks confused.

"Well, you took it didn't you? I know your family isn't the most privileged…"

Charlie looks at him. "Draco. I'm fake dating you to help you get away from your crazy dick of a father. Of course I'm not going to leave just because he offers me money."

Draco blinks at him in shock.

He knows the Weasleys are poor. Not the most privileged was being polite.

Even if Charlie makes a lot as a zookeeper, his family is not one that can sneeze at ten thousand pounds. As a starting amount. Draco knows that his father probably went much higher when Charlie resisted.

He doesn't know a lot of people who would turn down money they needed just because they were doing a favor for someone they didn't even know.

He's not sure he knows any. Except obviously Charlie.

Charlie is not like anyone else Draco has ever known.

His father is furious. His father is so, ragingly furious that he looks at Draco, who is crumpled on the floor, grasping a wrist that may or may not be broken, and says, "You will leave that man."

And Draco, voice thin and lungs gasping, forces out the word, "No."

His father's eyes are stormy. "You will leave that man, or you will not be my son anymore. I will not have a son who dates a Weasley, who degrades himself by spending time with that man who is little more than a motorcycling hooligan with no ambitions in life."

And Draco knows this is a moment that will determine the rest of his life.

Carefully, he says, "Maybe I'm not your son anymore."

"You would choose that zookeeper over your family?"

And Draco wants to rage, wants to say what family? The father who turned me black and blue and the mother who watched and said nothing? But he knows better. Yelling at his father will gain him nothing.

"I would choose love," he says. He would choose freedom.

"Think about this carefully," his father says. "Realize what you are losing if you walk away. We will disinherit you. You will lose everything. And if you leave, you'd best stay gone."

Draco looks at him and nods calmly.

"I know," he says.

His father looks at him, stunned. "You would still choose to leave?"

"I would," Draco says, because this is the moment he can no longer take back.

"Then go. Now."

And Draco may be getting better at standing up to his father, but he still won't disobey an order like that.

He knows better than to try to pack up any of his things. He staggers to his feet and leaves.

He doesn't look back.

He goes to Theo's flat. Theo takes one look at him and invites him in.

Blaise is sitting at their tiny kitchen table, staring at his computer when Theo and Draco walk in.

He looks at the way Draco is cradling his wrist and he says, "Do you want me to call Seamus? He's not a full doctor, I know, but he's a medical student and he's good at being discrete."

Draco shakes his head, but Theo nods. "Thanks," Theo tells Blaise.

Blaise disappears into the bedroom to make the call. Theo seats Draco at the kitchen table and pulls out a series of ice packs.

"I'm sorry," Draco says. "I didn't know where else to go."

He met Theo in his first year of Uni when they both took the same Business course. Theo had latched on to him immediately, and yet somehow it didn't seem to be about Draco's family or who he was.

Theo had told Draco about his own family, about his own father, about how he'd left when he started Uni, getting an apartment with his boyfriend.

Draco wonders sometimes if maybe Theo knew. If maybe Theo was trying to tell him that he had a safe place to land.

It's what he needs right now.

"I told you," Theo says. "You're welcome here anytime. Do you want to talk about it?"

Draco shakes his head. But then, after a moment, he says, "I can't go back."

"Do you want to?" Theo asks carefully, pressing an ice pack gently into the swollen flesh of Draco's wrist.

Draco thinks about that. The truth is, he does and he doesn't. He knows it's better if he doesn't. He knows, logically, that the way his father treated him was wrong. That he didn't need to live in fear and pain.

But it's also the only life he's ever known. He doesn't know who he is without it.

He thinks about his future. He thinks about the fact that without his parents' backing, he's going to need to drop out of Uni and get a job. He's going to need to find a place to stay, and figure out how to pay rent, and probably even leave London because the cost of living is just absurd.

But then he thinks about being free. He thinks about learning who he is outside of his father's control. He thinks about having the support of Theo and Blaise and probably even Charlie as he finds himself.

And he says, "No. I don't want to go back."

Theo smiles like the goddamn sun.

That's when Blaise comes back in, saying, "Seamus will be over in a few minutes to look at that. Anything besides the wrist?"

"Nothing that needs looking at."

Theo looks at him, and Draco knows that Theo knows exactly what that means, but he lets it slide.

Blaise sits beside him at the table and says casually, "The couch pulls out."

Draco looks at him and thinks, this is what having friends is.

Theo bustles around the kitchen for a few minutes before depositing a mug of tea in front of Draco and one in front of Blaise. Moments later, Seamus knocks on the door. He looks harried, a trail of sweat evident at his brow as he deposits a medical kit on the table and takes Draco's wrist without asking.

It's abrupt enough that Draco flinches back, wrenching his wrist in Seamus's grip as he does so. Seamus swears colorfully.

"Sorry, sorry. That's my fault. Can I have a look?" Draco eyes him warily. Theo stands up and puts a hand on Draco's shoulder. Draco glances at him.

"It's fine," Theo says. "Seamus gets it."

Seamus looks between Theo and Draco and an understanding dawns in his eyes. Draco blinks before he realizes what Theo means.

Seamus gets it in the way that Theo gets it. Seamus gets it because he lived it.

Carefully, cautiously, Draco puts his wrist in Seamus's hands.

In the end, Seamus says he's pretty sure it isn't broken, but he'd need an X-ray to tell for sure. He gives Draco a bandage to wrap his wrist with, a few stretches to do, and says that if the pain starts getting worse instead of better, it may be broken.

Then he leaves.

Draco wonders what he's supposed to do now.

That's when his phone vibrates in his pocket.

He pulls it out to find a text from Charlie.

C: is now a good time?

You: Not really. We need to talk.

C: Are you breaking up with me over text? Gasp. I'm hurt.

You: Not quite. Meet me at the cafe in an hour?

C: Sure thing.

C: Everything okay?

You: fine.

C: You sure?

C: I don't need to kick anyone's ass for you?

C: Because you know I will.

You: No ass kicking necessary. Thanks, babe.

He signs it automatically, the way they have been, in case Draco's father checks his phone. He doesn't even realize he's done it until Charlie replies, No problem, babe.

A smile he hadn't even known was present drops off his face.

He wonders if Charlie will be happy that the show is over.

He thinks about Charlie inhabiting his space, thinks about Charlie's warm thigh next to him on the sofa, thinks about the way his very bones felt warm for the first time.

He's not sad that the facade can end. But there are parts of it that he thinks he might miss.

When he arrives at the cafe, Charlie is already seated, something that no-doubt contains too many espresso shots in front of him. A mug of black coffee sits across from him.

Draco smiles at the thoughtful gesture and then sobers.

He's half hoping Charlie will still want to be friends, but he's also all too aware that Charlie is twenty-seven and probably doesn't need a nineteen-year-old tagging along in his life.

This might be goodbye forever.

The thought causes an ache somewhere beneath his sternum that he can't explain. Instead, he walks over and sits down.

Charlie grins at him, wide and bright.

"What's up?"

Draco looks at him. For one wild moment, he considers saying nothing, seeing how long he could keep up the act.

But then he realizes that that's insane. And there's no point. He got what he wanted out of this, right?

Right.

He buys himself a moment by reaching for the coffee with his left arm — the right wrist is still tender. His cuffs wouldn't button around the bandage wrapped around his right arm, so he's left both sleeves rolled up to the elbow. It feels weird, because he never leaves his arms bare. Too often they're covered in bruises that would be telling.

He wonders if that will be another thing that changes with his freedom.

He takes a sip and then puts his coffee down. It's then that he notices Charlie's eyes fixed on the brutal scar on his left forearm.

He turns his wrist so that the scar is face down on the table, self-conscious.

"It worked," he tells Charlie to draw attention away from his skin.

Charlie looks at him in confusion for a moment before it clicks.

"You've been disowned?"

Draco nods. "It's over. We can stop pretending to date now. We can go our separate ways."

Because it's probably easier if he says it, rather than waiting for the words to come out of Charlie's mouth.

Charlie stares at him.

"I understand if you don't want to be friends," Draco says, heading off anything Charlie could say.

He doesn't expect Charlie to interrupt him, forcing out, "I do."

"What?"

"I do. Want to be friends," Charlie says. "If you do, that is."

Draco doesn't understand how they've gone from completely comfortable with each other to this awkward hell they're living in right now. He'd thought things would be less awkward when they stopped pretending.

"I… do," he says slowly.

"You don't sound very sure."

Draco sighs, contemplating his words. "Everything is changing. And I'm not entirely sure what to do with that."

Charlie looks at his face, and then down at his hands, one wrapped in bandages, the other hiding a scar.

"There's a time and a place for everything," Charlie finally says. "And I think maybe… maybe this needs to be on your terms. So you've got my number. You know where to find me, when you're ready."

And Charlie stands up and walks away.

Draco tells himself he isn't going to call.

He tells himself that Charlie doesn't really want to be friends; he's just too nice to say so.

He tells himself that Charlie is better off without him.

He lasts three weeks before he gives in to the temptation.

Except, it's not just because he wants to. It's because he's changing the bandage around his left wrist when he unwraps it to find two blue marks, about an inch apart, and something blue creeping up his veins.

He's not sure he'd even have the foggiest idea what it was if he hadn't spent four months fake dating the head of the London Zoo reptile house. But he has. And two spots, perfectly spaced apart like that? Looks like a snakebite.

He texts Charlie a picture and asks if he knows what would cause it. Charlie usually responds within an hour, even if he's at work, although then it's usually just an, "at work, talk later," type of message.

Draco looks at the wrist and decides against rewrapping it. It's basically healed, and he wants to keep an eye on the soulmark that's starting to worry him a little.

Not that he'd ever admit that.

Soulmarks are pointless, anyway.

He settles down with his computer, finding an online job application that he hasn't filled out yet and starting it, but he can't stop checking his phone and the mark on his arm.

An hour passes. He wonders if he should call Charlie. Instead, he sends another text.

Another hour passes in starts and stutters. Time crawls and then jumps by. Charlie still hasn't responded. The mark has stopped crawling up his arm, but it hasn't receded.

He gives up and calls. Charlie's phone rings out.

Now he's concerned about both Charlie and the mark on his arm.

Theo comes home in the middle of hour six to find Draco sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the wood grain.

"Draco?"

Draco glances up at him.

"What's wrong?" Theo asks.

And Draco has been sitting with it long enough that he looks at Theo's open, honestly interested face, and he says, "I think my soulmate may be dying and Charlie is screening my calls because he probably hates me."

Theo blinks. "Wow, that is two very different problems. Okay. Well. Let's start with Charlie, since I'm not sure what we can do about the other one right now. Why do you think he hates you?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Draco says.

"Oh, no. You don't get to bring it up and then do the stoic thing. Does this have something to do with the fact that you've been moping for the last three weeks, even though I know disownment is what you wanted?"

Draco fixes his eyes on the woodgrain and says, "You know how I was fake dating Charlie to make my father mad? I ended it when he disowned me. And I don't think Charlie wants anything to do with me." He keeps his voice flat.

"Wait, wait. Back up. Fake dating?"

Draco snaps his eyes up to meet Theo's. There is genuine confusion in Theo's eyes.

"Yes?" Draco says. "I swear I told you that."

Theo shrugs. "I mean, yeah, you did. But then you brought him to dinner with us. On date night. And you guys shared a milkshake. You kissed him goodnight. And your dad wasn't even around. So I kind of figured it wasn't fake anymore."

Draco blinks at him.

He had, in fact, brought Charlie to dinner on Blaise and Theo's date night. But that was just because they'd just left the Manor and Charlie had said he was hungry. And Charlie wanted a milkshake, but he could only ever drink half of one, so Draco had agreed to split it.

And the kiss had just been practice.

Right?

"Oh my god," Theo says. "You actually didn't know, did you? God, you guys haven't been fake dating since… I don't know, the first fucking week?"

Draco blinks. That can't be true. Can it?

He thinks about Charlie. He thinks about late night phone calls and Charlie taking him to see the snakes on his day off and he thinks about all the dates his father never knew about. He thinks about telling himself it was so that they could be more convincing.

He drops his head into his hands. "I'm an idiot."

"Yeah, kinda," says Theo.

"But then why isn't he answering my calls? He always has his phone on him."

Theo frowns. "Maybe he's mad that you broke up with him?"

Draco thinks about Charlie's face just before he walks away. He thinks about the resignation that was there.

"I don't think he was mad about that. I don't think he was pleased, but I don't think he was mad."

Draco flips his wrist over, checking the status of the bite. The blue creeping through his veins is fading, and he exhales a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding.

Theo's eyes fix on the mark.

"Do you have someone else's number? Sibling?"

"Yes, but I don't exactly want to call him if I don't—"

"Call him."

"Theo—"

"Call him."

Draco has never heard Theo sound like this. He unlocks his phone and calls Ron.

Ron answers on the third ring. "Is this important? Because now isn't really a great time."

"Have you heard from Charlie? It's been six hours and his phone keeps ringing out."

Ron swears colorfully. "Yeah, it's ringing out because Charlie's in St. Mungo's getting treated with antivenom because some dumbass kid pulled on Juliet's tail."

Draco's blood runs cold.

"Where?"

"At the zoo, obviously."

"No, the bite. Where is the bite?" Draco hisses.

"Oh. Left wrist," says Ron, who suddenly sounds very far away.

Left wrist. Of course it is.

"Room number?"

"107, but you don't need to—"

"I'll be there in twenty minutes."

He hangs up and grabs his coat, knowing he needs to keep moving if he doesn't want to freeze into a statue of indecision.

Theo takes one look at him and says, "I'm going with you."

Draco doesn't care enough to argue.

Draco shoots out of the cab, leaving Theo to pay as he strides down the hallway and into room 107.

Charlie is awake, surrounded by a crowd of his siblings, but Ron hustles them out when he sees Draco. Draco makes a note to get him a balloon or some shit.

He stares at Charlie.

Charlie stares back. He's even paler than usual. His left wrist is bandaged.

"Did you know?" Draco asks. It's not how he means to start, but he can't think of anything else.

Charlie glances down at Draco's wrist, which Draco turns out to show him two perfect blue dots.

"I wondered," Charlie says, his voice a bit thready. "When we had dinner, and the next day I woke up covered in green. I wondered when I saw how gently you were moving after that. But then you came to me last week with rolled up sleeves and I saw the scar on your arm that makes the backbone of my tattoo and I knew. But before I could say a thing, you were telling me it was over. You were telling me that we could stop pretending. The thing is, I haven't been pretending for a long time."

Draco swallows.

Charlie looks at him intently.

"What are you going to do about it?" Charlie asks him.

Draco shakes his head. "I don't… I don't want a soulmate," he says. "But… I do want you."

Charlie smiles softly.

"Come here," he says.

Draco moves closer, and Charlie takes his hand, running a finger over the blue dots on his arm. "I didn't need this," Charlie says. "I didn't need your marks on my skin to know. I knew the first time you kissed me and it felt like coming home. I knew the first time you ran away and it felt like a part of me was missing. And maybe it took me a while to admit it because you're fucking nineteen and that terrifies me, okay? Because I don't ever, ever want to be in a position where I'm taking advantage of you and I'm scared shitless and they've got me on the good pain meds which is why I'm even saying all of this but— you're amazing. And I want to date you. For real this time. If you want to."

"I've been told we already were doing it for real," Draco says with a smile.

Charlie smiles back and says, "But this time we'll do it right."

And the truth is, Draco is scared shitless, too. But not of Charlie.

And that's enough.