The Slytherin common room was cozier than might be expected, considering it was not only underground, but also under a lake. It boasted not one, but three large fireplaces, each with a merrily crackling fire to ward off the January chill.
Scorpius Malfoy and Albus Potter sat in the farthest corner, near one of the hearths, playing Wizard's Chess, which Scorpius was good at and Albus was not. Scorpius was trying to teach Albus the finer points of the game, since Albus was the only person, apart from his father, who would play with him. OWLs, which had seemed ages away only a few weeks before, felt much closer on this side of the winter holidays. They would have to start revising soon, but Scorpius had missed his best friend over the break, and it was nice to spend time together, not worrying about school work.
"You might want to think about moving your rook rather than your knight," he suggested. "Look where my queen is."
Albus's hand hesitated over the board. His remaining pieces looked up at him anxiously, awaiting his decision. They appeared visibly relieved when he nudged the yellowing ivory castle three spaces to the left. Scorpius nodded in approval.
"So," he said casually, moving his queen out of harm's way to menace Albus's remaining bishop, "did Rose say anything about me over hols?"
Albus's shoulders tensed. "No. She didn't," he said testily.
"I feel like she's definitely warmed to me in the last year. Or not warmed exactly, but maybe thawed a little. When I said 'hello' to her this morning, she didn't look at me like I was something she'd stepped in."
Albus gave him an exasperated look. "Why are you so keen on her, anyway?"
Scorpius shrugged. "She's smart. She's fierce. She's good at Quidditch, and pretty much everything else she does. She's got amazing hair."
"But she doesn't even like you!" Albus burst out.
"Thanks, mate," said Scorpius drily.
"I didn't mean it like that," Albus relented. "It's just ... you're an ace bloke. You deserve to be with someone who really likes you. Who thinks you're brilliant."
Scorpius grinned. "I've got you for that."
Albus blushed and looked away.
"I didn't mean it like that," Scorpius said hastily, his cheeks growing hot. "Obviously. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I'm not - you know ..."
"I wouldn't mind if you were," said Albus quietly, poking at a pawn, which looked affronted.
"I know," said Scorpius, still embarrassed. "Of course I wouldn't mind if you were, either."
Albus glanced nervously around the common room, but no one appeared to be paying their conversation any mind. Shoulders tensed, eyes fixed firmly on the chessboard, he muttered, "I am."
Scorpius blinked, not certain he had understood properly. "You're what?"
"Gay," whispered Albus, cheeks flushing darker. "I-I like boys. Not girls. I was going to tell you. Just - y'know - maybe not in the common room."
Scorpius stared at him. "But - I thought you liked Delphi. Last year. I mean, before she started murdering and torturing people, obviously."
"I did," Albus admitted. "I thought she was really cool. But I'm not sure I ever liked her like that. Not that someone can't like both girls and boys."
"Oh. So - um - how long has this been - a thing?"
Albus shrugged. "I kind of figured it out last summer."
Scorpius bit his lip. Five months, at least, that Albus had kept something important secret from him. "Did you really think I'd mind?"
Albus looked down at his hands. "No. Not really."
"Then why didn't you say anything?"
"I just - I wasn't ready yet, I guess," said Albus unhappily. "Sorry. You're the first person I've told."
"It's OK," Scorpius said earnestly. "I mean, it's OK as long as you're OK. Like I said, I'm fine with it. Be as gay as you like. I'll be here to support you, waving a rainbow flag. Rainbow flags are a thing, right? So - um - d'you fancy anyone?"
Albus looked more miserable than before. "Look, can we just - not talk about it?"
Scorpius frowned, confused. "I guess so. But you know you can tell me anything, right? I'm not going to make fun or judge. Unless - it's not Jenkins, is it? Because I might judge you a little, if it is. He's a prat, and he's not even that good looking. You can do loads better than him."
"I do not fancy Jenkins," said Albus between clenched teeth.
"What about Selwyn, then? He's all right," Scorpius went on. "Or Zabini? Zabini is pretty good looking. I wouldn't blame you if you were into him. Though he's probably straight. At least, he's only ever been out with girls, that I know of."
"Will you just stop -?"
The desperate tone in Albus's voice halted Scorpius's train of thought in its tracks. As he stared at the miserable, downturned face of his best friend, the obvious came crashing down on him.
"It's not - you don't - it isn't me, is it?"
"Of course it's you, you enormous dork," hissed Albus, glaring at him.
"Oh," said Scorpius, thunderstruck. "Wow. Squeak. You fancy me. My best mate fancies me ..."
"Look," Albus grimaced, rubbing a hand through his wayward curls. "I don't want this to be a - a thing between us. All right? It's fine if you're not - if you don't -" he shook his head. "I don't want things to get weird. That's why I didn't tell you sooner. I just want to carry on being best mates. Is that all right? Can we do that?"
"Of course," said Scorpius, still feeling Confunded. "I'd never want us to stop being best mates, no matter what. I'm sorry I'm not - you know - because I think you'd probably make an ace boyfriend and all that. But I just can't -"
"Stop." Albus stood up. "This is getting weird. Forget I said anything, all right? It's not important. I'll get over it." He sighed, looking suddenly very tired. "Look, I'm going to bed. When you see me tomorrow, I'll be fine. I promise. I won't mention it again. We can pretend this never happened. OK?"
"But - we're not finished with the game," said Scorpius, gesturing at the board.
The remaining chessmen shuffled impatiently, waiting for Albus's next move.
"Yes we are." Albus bent down and pushed over his startled king. "I lose. I always lose. Good night, Scorpius."
The green velvet drapes around Albus's bed were drawn closed when Scorpius returned to the dormitory. He briefly considered climbing between them, to talk things over some more with Albus, and to make sure he really was all right, but Albus had made it clear that he did not want to talk anymore tonight. Anyway, the two of them curled up and whispering in his bed might now fall under the heading of "things getting weird", even if it had never felt strange before.
With a sigh, Scorpius climbed into his own bed and stared up at the shadowy canopy with unseeing eyes, thoughts whirling in his head.
Albus was gay. His best mate liked boys - liked him.
"Wow," Scorpius breathed again, trying to sort through his feelings.
He was surprised, but certainly not horrified or disgusted. Searching his heart, Scorpius found that he did not mind so much. There was nothing wrong with someone being gay, after all. Scorpius was even a little flattered that someone as wonderful as Albus would feel that way about him.
Gay or straight, Albus was still Albus. He was the most important person in Scorpius's life, and there was no one on Earth he would rather spend his time with. They had been best friends for four and a half years, and in that time, they had been through hell and back together. Scorpius had never thought there was anything more between them than wonderfully close friendship, but apparently there was - for Albus, at least.
Scorpius turned over on his side, curling in on himself.
Now that Albus's secret was out, would things change between them? Scorpius hoped not. His friendship with Albus was the most comfortable and comforting thing in his life. The two of them always knew where they stood with each other.
You didn't know about this, whispered a practical voice in the back of Scorpius's mind. It sounded like his mother.
As much as Scorpius was the sort of person who loved to pick apart and analyse everything, he had never questioned any part of his friendship with Albus before. It was difficult to be objective about someone towards whom he felt such deep affection.
So he likes boys. So what? thought Scorpius. That doesn't change anything.
He likes you, replied the practical voice.
There was nothing Scorpius could do about that. He liked girls. He had assumed Albus did, too, because of Delphi, age difference and homicidal disposition notwithstanding.
Not that someone can't like both girls and boys, said Albus's voice in his memory.
Scorpius had been so focused on getting Rose to like him that the possibility of being attracted to boys as well as girls had never crossed his mind. Could he be one of those people who liked both? He could see no harm in testing the hypothesis with a little thought experiment.
One by one, Scorpius brought to mind each of the boys from their year, weighing their relative merits and physical attractiveness. Did he think they were good-looking? If so, how did he feel about that? Would he be interested in kissing any of them? Scorpius was not certain.
He imagined what it would be like to kiss Rose. She seemed like a good control group for his thought experiment. She had soft-looking lips, and a sweet smile, even if she rarely turned it in Scorpius's direction. Yes, kissing Rose sounded pleasant enough - assuming she did not hex him immediately after.
Dismissing Rose from his mind, Scorpius thought instead about what it might be like to kiss Albus. He imagined Albus's full lips grinning at him, and how they might feel pressed against his own. Albus's eyes sliding closed, his hand curling around the back of Scorpius's neck, pulling him closer...
Scorpius's mouth went dry. His heart sped up. He tried to push the vision out of his mind, wiping suddenly-damp palms on the sheets, but Albus's smiling mouth would not be banished as easily as Rose's.
Scorpius shoved his hot face into his pillow, and tried very hard to think about anything other than his best friend's lips.
True to his word, Albus did not mention his feelings for Scorpius again. He was quieter than usual in the days that followed, and a little glum, but when Scorpius nudged him and asked if he was all right, Albus rallied himself, claiming to be fine.
Scorpius was not fine. Having been given a moment's space in his mind, the thought of kissing Albus had taken up residence, and would not leave. More than once, Scorpius caught himself staring at his friend's mouth, and had to quickly look away before Albus could notice.
The worst part was knowing that Albus would probably be happy to kiss him. But Scorpius was still not certain whether he really liked boys, or was only fixated on the idea of kissing Albus because of how much Albus meant to him, and because he wanted his friend to be happy. He could think of no way to know for certain without actually kissing him, and that would not be fair to Albus. It would be wrong to kiss someone who had feelings for him, only for the sake of an experiment. He did not want to risk hurting Albus more, or causing irreparable damage to their friendship.
His wayward thoughts made Scorpius self-conscious, causing him to babble and chatter much more than usual around his friend.
"Are we going to the Quidditch match this weekend?" he asked. "Slytherin aren't playing, but Gryffindor are. We could cheer for Rose - I mean, if you want to. I wouldn't go just to see her, obviously. Actually, the weather will probably be dreadful this weekend. It's January, you know. Of course you know! Maybe we should just stay indoors. There's OWLs to revise for, after all. Or, that's no fun on a weekend, is it? We could see if Hagrid wants to have tea -?"
Albus frowned. "Are you OK?"
"Sure! I'm super," beamed Scorpius. "Why wouldn't I be? Life is generally pretty good. No one is trying to murder or torture us or erase us from history this year, so that's a definite improvement. We've got OWLs coming up, but that's no big deal. Just preparing us for the rest of our lives, and all that. Nothing to worry about, I'm sure."
"Right." Albus hesitated, frown deepening. "Are we OK?"
"Yeah," said Scorpius, grinning so hard his face hurt. "Sure. We're great. Good as new! Or, good as ever, rather. Best of best mates. Why wouldn't we be? Potter and Malfoy: friends to the end."
Don't look at his mouth. Don't think about kissing him. Do not do not do not think about his lips ...
"OK," said Albus dubiously. "I hope so."
Gradually, over the next few weeks, things returned to something approaching normal between them. Scorpius's thoughts still drifted back to Albus's lips with alarming frequency, but he trained himself not to stare. As Albus's mood improved, some of Scorpius's guilt over hurting him began to fade.
February arrived, and they began revising for OWLs in earnest. Scorpius, studious by nature, was relieved to have something else on which to focus his attention. Albus was less keen, but he was worried enough about his marks to go along with Scorpius's revision timetables without much complaint. The library was crowded with harried fifth and seventh year students preparing for their exams, and the two of them often retreated to their dormitory to study, where there was at least some chance of quiet.
They were lounging on Albus's bed, heads bent over notes and open books one afternoon, when Albus said casually, "I'm thinking of asking Connor O'Mannan out to Hogsmeade next week."
Scorpius's head jerked up. "What? You mean - like a date?"
"Sorry." Albus's ears reddened. "I know you probably don't want to hear about - gay stuff. But who else am I supposed to talk to?"
"It's fine," Scorpius assured him hurriedly, feeling as if he were standing at the brink of a yawning chasm. "You can talk to me about anything. I don't mind. Really."
Albus looked relieved. "Thanks, mate."
"So ... you fancy O'Mannan?"
Unbidden, a picture formed in Scorpius's mind of Albus sitting across from Connor O'Mannan at the Three Broomsticks, dark heads bent together, fingers intertwined under the table. Perhaps leaning across their butterbeers for a kiss. The cozy vision made him feel slightly ill.
If you're not planning to kiss him, it's not fair of you to be upset if he decides to kiss someone else, said the practical voice in the back of his mind.
Albus shrugged. "He's all right. It's not like there are loads of queer blokes to choose from at Hogwarts. Or many people I'm not related to." He grinned at his own joke.
Scorpius did not. "Does he fancy you?"
Again, Albus shrugged. "Dunno. I guess I'll find out. I mean, I don't suppose he thinks I'm an utter troll or anything."
Scorpius's jaw clenched. His hands balled up into fists under his Transfiguration textbook. He had never given O'Mannan much thought before, but in that moment, he disliked the Hufflepuff boy with an intensity that surprised him. The thought of Albus and O'Mannan sitting cozily together at the Three Broomsticks was unbearable. He wanted to be the one sitting beside Albus, talking and laughing and holding hands under the table. He wanted it so much that his chest ached.
There's your answer, said the voice that sounded like his mother. Now, what are you going to do about it?
Scorpius could not pretend anymore, and he could not lie to Albus. Heart pounding, throat tight, he forced down his fear.
"Y-you shouldn't go to Hogsmeade with O'Mannan."
"Why not?" Albus frowned. "Have you heard something about him?"
"No. It's just - you're an ace bloke. You deserve to be with someone who r-really likes you. Someone who thinks you're brilliant."
Albus gave him a quizzical look, as if he thought Scorpius might be making a joke. "Don't I have you for that?"
"Yeah. You do," said Scorpius, meeting his gaze as bravely as he could.
Albus scowled. "Look, I'm trying, OK?" he snapped. "I've said I'll get over it, and I will. But you saying things like that isn't funny or helpful."
"I-I wasn't trying to be funny," said Scorpius, feeling slightly panicked. "If you really want to go to Hogsmeade with O'Mannan, that's fine. I won't stop you. But if you'd rather, I thought maybe you and I could go to Hogsmeade. Together."
Albus stared at him.
Scorpius lowered his eyes, blushing. "That's a really stupid idea, isn't it? Sorry. Forget I said anything."
"You want to go to Hogsmeade with me?" said Albus slowly. "Like, a date?"
"Yeah. If you want to."
"But you said you're not queer."
Scorpius looked sheepish. "I know. But I've done a lot of thinking since then, and I think maybe I spoke too soon."
"But - you still like girls, right?" Albus pressed. "You're telling me you're bisexual now?"
"I-I guess so," Scorpius shrugged self-consciously. "I mean, I care more about you than any girl I know. Way more than Rose, and you know how much I like her. Before you told me about being gay, I'd never really thought very specifically about how much I care about you, or what that meant. It turns out it's a lot, and I'm still not a hundred percent sure what it means, but I think I'd like to find out. So ... d'you want to go to Hogsmeade with me?"
Albus looked flustered. "I - OK. Sure. If you want to."
They stared at one another, wide-eyed, trying to grasp the enormity of the moment. Scorpius licked his lips, mouth dry. In for a knut, in for a galleon.
"Can I kiss you? I mean, would that be all right?"
Albus nodded slowly, looking more than a little Confunded.
Neither of them moved.
"I dunno how to start," Scorpius confessed. "I've never kissed anyone before."
"Neither have I."
Scorpius could not help grinning. "No one except your Aunt Hermione, the Minister for Magic."
"That doesn't count!" Albus exclaimed hotly. "It was a desperate situation. Anyway, those weren't my lips."
As if on cue, Scorpius's eyes dropped to Albus's mouth. His heart pounded in his throat. He swallowed, forcing it down, and reached, hesitantly, for his friend's hand. Albus's fingers were warm and strong, and his palm was as damp as Scorpius's own. He gripped Scorpius's hand tightly.
"I want to kiss you. So much," Scorpius admitted. "I've been thinking about it for weeks."
"Me, too," said Albus softly.
His free hand rose to touch Scorpius's cheek tentatively, brushing back a lock of blond hair. His green eyes were full of fierce determination. When Albus leaned in, Scorpius met him halfway. Their lips touched hesitantly, and then more surely. Albus's mouth was warm and eager, and his lips were just as soft as Scorpius had imagined.
A thrill shivered through Scorpius's belly. He was kissing Albus. He was kissing his best friend in the entire world, and it was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
When at last they broke apart, Scorpius rested his forehead against Albus's. "Wow."
Albus gave a breath of a laugh. "Yeah. Wow."
"We can still be best mates, though, right?" Scorpius asked anxiously. "That doesn't have to change?"
Albus sat back to look at him, their fingers still laced together. "Of course. Who says we can't be best mates and boyfriends, too?"
Scorpius's breath caught in his throat. "Boyfriends?"
"I mean, if you want to," said Albus shyly, thumb tracing the edge of Scorpius's palm. "I do."
Scorpius grinned, and rubbed the tip of his nose against Albus's. "Me, too."
"Good." Albus beamed. "Kiss me again?"
Scorpius laughed, heart alight with joy, and leaned in to kiss his boyfriend.