"Can you two not at least save it until after breakfast?" Karl Jenkins grumbled from across the dormitory.
Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy broke off their good morning kiss, but did not let go of each other's hands.
Albus gave Jenkins a withering look. "I'd appreciate it if, as a special favour to me on my birthday, you'd keep your opinions to yourself, Jenkins."
"It's Albus Day," declared Scorpius blithely. He was still in his nightshirt, blond hair sticking up on top of his head in a way that made Albus want to kiss him again immediately. "The forecast calls for kissing, hand-holding, and a ninety percent chance of snuggling. Consider yourselves warned."
"As long as I don't have to see it or hear about it, you poofs can do whatever you like," said Jenkins, rolling his eyes.
"That's enough, Jenkins," said Rhys Selwyn, looking pained. "Happy birthday, Potter."
Helias Zabini clapped Jenkins on the shoulder. "C'mon, mate. It's Sunday. We don't have to hang around with this lot."
Jenkins looked disgruntled, but followed Zabini and Selwyn out of the dormitory without anymore barbed comments.
As they left, Zabini threw a wink over his shoulder at Albus. "I'll keep them occupied. The room is all yours until lunchtime. Happy birthday, Potter."
Albus's cheeks grew warm. He cast Scorpius a thoughtful glance, as breakfast dropped lower on his list of priorities. Their romantic relationship, less than two months old, was still in the hand-holding-and-kissing stage, but sometimes Albus's thoughts wandered beyond those chaste boundaries. He wondered whether Scorpius's did, too.
"Well, that was nice of Zabini," said Scorpius, ears pink.
Albus bit his lip. "You know what he thinks we're -"
Scorpius cut him off with a kiss on the nose. "Does it really matter what he thinks?"
"No," said Albus, relaxing slightly.
Scorpius put his arms around Albus and nuzzled his neck. "You smell good."
Albus grinned, affection for his boyfriend flooding his chest. "Nerd."
"You do," said Scorpius, voice muffled in the collar of Albus's pyjamas. "All warm and Albusy."
I love you. So much, Albus thought, but he did not say it. He was worried about saying it too much, when Scorpius had not said it yet at all. Instead, he said hopefully, "So, breakfast. Give it a miss, d'you think? See if we can't get that snuggling forecast up to one hundred percent?"
"We should go up," said Scorpius reluctantly. "There'll be owls from your family with prezzies. We can come back here after, though."
"All right," sighed Albus. "As long as we don't have to study for OWLs today. I am not revising on my birthday."
"No revising on Albus Day," Scorpius agreed, raising his head to seal the bargain with a kiss. "This is the last time it will even be mentioned."
"Good," said Albus. "I suppose we had better get dressed, then."
Scorpius hurried to the bathroom with his robes bundled under his arm. Albus looked longingly after him, admiring his long legs, bare below the hem of his nightshirt, until the door closed between them. With a sigh, he bent to gather up his own robes.
They walked to the Great Hall hand in hand. Breakfast was already in full swing by the time they arrived. Morgana Rosier waved them over to the Slytherin table.
"I saved you a spot," she said, gesturing at the empty seats across from her.
"Thanks," said Scorpius, as he and Albus sat down and began filling their plates.
Morgana's dyed black curls were swept up in a twist on top of her head today, and she wore her usual powder-white makeup, with dramatically shadowed eyes and dark lipstick. Albus had once found her intensity off-putting, but since her insistent instigation of friendship with himself and Scorpius at the Hogwarts LGBT club a few weeks before, he had grown accustomed to her look, and developed a tentative appreciation for her oddness, which, while different, fit comfortably with his own.
"Happy birthday," she said, grinning at him.
Albus frowned. "How did you know it's my birthday?"
Morgana glanced at Scorpius. "A little piskie told me."
Albus shot his boyfriend a sour look. Scorpius lowered his eyes demurely and began shoveling eggs into his mouth.
"Do you have any plans?" Morgana asked.
Albus shrugged. "What's to plan? It's a Sunday, like any other. Not like we can pop off to Hogsmeade for the day."
"You're still coming to Protego Club this afternoon, aren't you?"
"Yeah," said Scorpius quickly. He glanced at Albus. "We are, aren't we? Zabini and the others will be back by then, and it's something to do -"
"Sure," said Albus, rolling his eyes. "I hadn't forgotten about it in all the wild excitement of the day."
There was a sudden hooting and a fluttering of wings, and dozens of owls soared into the Great Hall. Albus's owl, Martha, landed on the table in front of him in an exhausted heap of brown feathers, a package almost as big as she was tied to her leg. Albus quickly detached the package and gathered the owl into his arms, smoothing her feathers and cooing softly to her.
"Aren't you going to open it?" asked Morgana.
"In a minute," snapped Albus. "I have to make sure she's OK first."
Scorpius snagged the last piece of bacon from a platter, and offered it to the wilting bird. She plucked it delicately from his fingers and gobbled it down.
"She seems OK to me."
"Yeah," said Albus, stroking her feathers. "I think she's just tired. Good girl, Martha. You did great. Why don't you go see if Hagrid has any mice for you, and then get some rest."
The owl shook herself, tweaked Albus's ear affectionately, and took off. She flapped up to the high windows of the hall, almost invisible against the enchanted ceiling - which today was the light grey colour of the high clouds outside - and out into the cool spring morning. Albus watched her go.
"Hey, Al," said a voice behind him.
Albus turned to see his brother James grinning and holding out a small rectangular package, too thin to be a book.
Frowning in puzzlement, Albus took the package from him, and tore off the wrapping paper. Inside was what appeared to be nothing more than a worn and much-folded sheet of parchment. Albus's frown deepened, wondering if this was some sort of joke.
"Happy birthday," said James. "I pinched it from Dad's desk, after you mentioned it last year. I don't think he's noticed it's gone. You know how it works?"
"Oh!" Albus's eyes widened as he realised what he was holding. "Yeah. I think so. Thanks."
James grinned. "There are some conditions that come with it."
"Which are?" Albus gave him a wary look.
"First, that you show me how it works, and I get to borrow it any time I want between now and the end of the year," said James. "Second, that when you finish school, it goes to Lily. Third, that after Lily, it goes to Teddy, for his kids. He has as much right to it as our family does. It wasn't fair of Dad to hide it away in a drawer all this time."
Albus nodded. "Yeah. OK."
James grinned. "Have fun, little bro. And try not to get into too much trouble." He ruffled Albus's hair and headed back to the Gryffindor table, whistling.
"What is it?" asked Morgana curiously, breaking off her quiet conversation with Scorpius.
"Oh," mumbled Albus, thinking fast. "It's a - sort of family joke. Hard to explain."
"It sounded important," she said, finely-arched eyebrows drawing together in a frown.
"It is, but it's ... personal," said Albus.
"Is it - the thing you told me about last year?" asked Scorpius, peering over his shoulder with interest.
"Yeah." Albus tucked the parchment away inside his robes. "I'll show you later."
Every single one of his cousins stopped him on his way out of the Great Hall to wish him a happy birthday - every one but Rose. She had lost none of her aloofness toward him, and Albus was not yet ready to forgive her for snubbing him for four years over his friendship with Scorpius.
When he finally reached the entrance hall, Scorpius was waiting for him.
"I'll never get used to how big your family is," he said, shaking his head, as they turned toward the steps down to the Slytherin dungeon. "You must be related to half of Wizarding Britain. And some of France, too," he added, remembering Albus's Aunt Fleur.
"And you're related to the other half." Albus chuckled. "I guess it's lucky we're not related to each other."
"Not closely, anyway," Scorpius teased. "We do have one cousin in common."
Albus rolled his eyes. "Teddy is my godbrother. We're not blood relatives."
Scorpius grinned. "Does that make us kissing cousins, then?"
Albus's hands were full of gifts from his family, but he nudged Scorpius with his shoulder. "As long as it involves you and kissing, you can call it whatever you like."
Scorpius opened the dormitory door for him with a bow. "After you."
Albus carelessly dumped the gifts into his school trunk, keeping back only the bit of parchment James had given him. He sat on the bed, turning it over in his hands.
"So, how does it work?" Scorpius asked, crawling up beside him.
"You say a charm, and it shows you a map of the castle, and everyone in it. Secret passages and everything. My granddad and his friends made it when they were at school."
Scorpius gave a low whistle. "That's an impressive bit of magic. Where would you even start making a thing like that?"
"Dunno," said Albus.
He had never given his grandfather much thought, growing up. There were a few photos in family albums he barely ever looked at, and up until the previous year, he had thought of James Potter Sr as a distant patriarch from a time long past. Their adventure, and its ending in Godric's Hollow, had brought home to Albus just how young and how real his grandparents had been - only twenty-one years old when they died, five years older than Albus was now. At Albus's present age, forty-odd years before, James Potter and his friends had created the Marauder's Map, which he now held in his hands.
"Are we going to try it out?" asked Scorpius hopefully.
"Sure. Yeah," said Albus, shaking off his brooding thoughts.
He drew his wand and pointed it at the parchment, searching his memory for the right words.
"I - er - solemnly declare that I'm up to mischief?"
Black markings flowed across the parchment, shaping themselves into words.
Mr Padfoot conveys his salutations to the current possessor of this frankly genius bit of magic, but regrets to inform him that those words will get him nowhere.
"Who is Mr Padfoot?" whispered Scorpius.
"That was - um - Sirius Black, I think. Dad's godfather." Albus frowned at the parchment. "I was almost sure that was the proper charm."
"Maybe if you told it who you are?" Scorpius suggested.
Albus poked the parchment again. "I command you to reveal your purpose, in the name of my grandfather, James Potter!"
More writing appeared below the first line.
Mr Prongs expresses his delight in greeting the grandchild of so illustrious - and might he add, good looking - a forebearer, but must sadly concur with Mr Padfoot's assessment.
"That's him!" said Albus excitedly. "That's my granddad!"
"Try again," Scorpius urged. "Maybe it'll work for you if you ask it nicely."
Albus took a deep breath and pointed his wand at the parchment again. "I, Albus Severus Potter, do humbly beg the creators of the Marauder's Map to reveal their work to me."
The writing that scrawled itself across the parchment this time was unsteady, as if the invisible writer was not quite in control of his quill hand.
Mr Wormtail assures the reader that he would come up with a clever reply, but he's too busy laughing himself sick at the idea of a descendant of his illustrious associate being named after Snivellus.
Albus scowled, cheeks growing hot. "Traitor," he muttered.
Scorpius took out his own wand and tapped the parchment.
"Please," he said. "We just want to see the map."
The tone of the final set of words seemed kinder.
Mr Moony sympathises with the reader's frustration, and wishes him the best of luck, but must regretfully agree that there are rules about these things. Perhaps he should seek the assistance of a past possessor of the item in question.
Albus's shoulders slumped. "Dad will never tell me how it works. He didn't even want us to know about it."
"Someone else must know," said Scorpius. "He had it at school, didn't he?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"So what about your Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione? They probably saw him use it loads of times."
Albus perked up. "Yeah. Aunt Hermione would probably just tell Dad, if I asked her, but Uncle Ron ... yeah, he might tell me. I'll write to him."
"Great!" said Scorpius. "Can I give you my gift now? It's nothing as good as this, but still ..."
"You can give me a kiss, first," said Albus, leaning closer.
Scorpius complied eagerly. They spent an enjoyable few minutes before Albus released him to retrieve a small, neatly-wrapped parcel from under his pillow.
Albus hefted it sceptically in one hand. "It's a book," he accused.
"Maybe it is," shrugged Scorpius, trying to suppress his excitement. "Open it."
Albus tore off the colourful paper. Inside was a beautiful leather-bound volume. He opened it to the title page and read, "Albus Dumbledore: The Man Behind the Legend, by Elphias Doge."
"It's probably the best and most complete biography of Dumbledore ever written," Scorpius enthused. "Some people write it off, because they think Doge was biased in Dumbledore's favour, but Doge knew him better than anyone. They were friends for more than a hundred years, and ..." he caught sight of Albus's face, "... and you don't like it." He deflated noticeably.
"No, I do," said Albus quickly. "It's - er - a really thoughtful gift. I'm actually surprised it's taken you this long to give me anything to do with Dumbledore. Usually, it's the first thing people think of, because of my name."
"Well, this is the first gift-giving occasion that's come up since I found out you're gay," said Scorpius with a shrug.
Albus stared at him, baffled. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Because you're both called Albus, and you're both gay," explained Scorpius. "I thought it would be obvious, but I guess not."
Albus's mouth dropped open, and his eyebrows sprang toward his hairline. "Dumbledore was gay?"
Scorpius frowned. "I figured you knew."
"Well, I didn't. Why didn't I know? Why does no one ever talk about it?"
"You know - or I guess you don't," said Scorpius apologetically. "It's probably because of Grindelwald. People don't like to think their hero might have had a thing for a fascist blood supremacist."
"Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald?!" Albus squeaked.
Scorpius nodded. "When they were teenagers, before Grindelwald went full-on evil. It's probably why Dumbledore took so long to confront him. Unresolved feelings, you know. A lot of the other biographies gloss over it, or leave it out altogether. They act like it wasn't an important part of who Dumbledore was. Skeeter's biography - which is sensationalist rubbish, of course - implies it, but she acts like his sexuality was some kind of character flaw. Only Doge talks about it openly. He and Dumbledore had a thing, too. They were on-again-off-again for decades."
Albus stared down at the book in his hands. It suddenly seemed heavier, with the weight of its significance. "I've never read about any gay wizards before. I never thought anyone important might be - like me."
"You're not that weird," teased Scorpius.
"Thanks," said Albus. "For this. I will read it."
Scorpius wrapped an arm around him and leaned against his shoulder. "I'm glad you like it. I read about a bunch of queer wizards, when I first started questioning. It helped me feel more normal. That was when I found out about Dumbledore."
He took the book from Albus's hands and flipped through the pages.
"Look, here's a picture of Dumbledore and Grindelwald as teenagers."
Albus hid a smile. "Looks like we had something else in common: a thing for hot blond blokes."
Scorpius laughed. "At least you don't go for the evil ones."
"That I know of," teased Albus.
"I don't think I can lay claim to anything worse than 'mildly mischievous'," sighed Scorpius dramatically. "I hope I can hold your interest."
"Well, there was that time you brought back Voldemort and plunged the world into hell ..."
"That was an accident!" squeaked Scorpius.
Albus pulled him close, kissing his protesting mouth. "Whatever you say, my Scorpion King."
Scorpius rolled his eyes. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"
"Nope," said Albus happily.
They nestled more comfortably onto the bed, turning the pages and reading aloud to each other from copies of letters that Dumbledore had written to Doge about Grindelwald, and later, about the connection he and Doge had shared.
After a time, Albus fell silent.
"Everything OK?" Scorpius asked.
"Yeah," said Albus. "Just thinking."
Albus shrugged. "About Dumbledore and how he got his heart broken as a teenager, and never really recovered. And about my granddad and his friends, and how they're all dead now. They'd only be in their early sixties, if they'd lived. That's not so old. My dad spent his school years in the middle of a war, and your mum is dead, and I couldn't help thinking about how much it all stinks. Why doesn't anyone ever get to be happy?"
"I dunno," said Scorpius, chin resting on Albus's shoulder. "I think I'm pretty happy. Aren't you?"
"Yeah, I guess I am. But it could all be snatched away, couldn't it? Nothing lasts forever."
"There isn't a war on now," Scorpius pointed out. "And I promise not to turn evil if you don't. Maybe nothing does last forever, but some things last a long time. I think the trick is to enjoy the good things while you have them."
"Like this?" asked Albus, turning to nuzzle Scorpius's cheek.
"Yeah, just like this," Scorpius agreed softly, bending to capture Albus's lips with his own.
Albus's fingers tangled in the soft blond hair at the nape of Scorpius's neck as he pulled him down beside him. Dumbledore's broken heart and the long-dead mapmakers were quickly forgotten. All that mattered was his own good fortune and current happiness with the boy in his arms.
"Better?" murmured Scorpius.
"Good. You're not allowed to be sad on Albus Day. Not if I have anything to say about it."
"Less talk, more kissing," ordered Albus.
"Mmm, if you insist," Scorpius sighed happily, returning to his task.
There was a brief knock, and the dormitory door opened. Albus snatched away the hand that had been creeping down Scorpius's lower back, just as their three roommates walked in.
"Still dressed?" said Zabini, shaking his head in mock disappointment. "I expected better of you."
"Shut it, Zabini," said Albus grumpily, sitting up and running a hand through his messy black curls. "When it's your birthday, you can do whatever you like."
"Thanks for the offer, Potter, but I have a girlfriend," Zabini grinned. "Anyway, Malfoy might get jealous."
"You shouldn't encourage them," said Jenkins darkly. "You never know what that lot might try on, if they think you're up for it."
"Don't worry; your arse is safe, Jenkins," Albus shot back with a sneer. "We're queer, not desperate."
Selwyn scowled. "Leave it, Jenkins. They're not doing anything to you. Are you two coming to lunch?"
After lunch, Albus and Scorpius climbed the stairs to the seventh floor, hand in hand. When they reached the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy and his ballet dancing trolls, they had to walk back and forth a few extra times. Albus's mind was still back in his bed, enjoying private time with Scorpius, instead of on a safe place for a group of young LGBT wizards, witches, and wixen to meet.
At last, the door appeared, with its iron curlicue heart and rainbow flag. Albus followed Scorpius through it, out of the dim corridor and into the warmly lit room.
"Surprise!" chorused a dozen voices.
Albus stopped short, blinking.
The room was filled with colourful streamers and twinkling lights. The members of Protego Club, all wearing paper hats, grinned at him from around a table loaded with cakes, crisps, and bottles of butterbeer. A banner with the words "HAPPY 16th ALBUS" in shimmering letters hung across the room.
Albus looked accusingly at his grinning boyfriend. "Was this your idea?"
"Maybe," grinned Scorpius, turning pink. "Happy Albus Day."
"He had help," said Morgana Rosier.
Happy birthday, Albus, his cousin Roxanne Weasley signed.
Thanks, Albus signed back self-consciously, and accepted a hug from her.
In a moment, Albus was surrounded by people clapping him on the back and giving him their good wishes for his birthday. Someone handed him a plate with a large slab of sticky chocolate gateau, decorated in green icing, and Albus looked up - and up - into the smiling, white-bearded face and twinkling black eyes of Hagrid, Hogwarts' enormous gamekeeper.
"It's the same as I made fer yer dad, fer his eleventh birthday," he said proudly. "Poor little lad. I don' think anyone had ever done anythin' nice fer him before that, since he was a baby."
"Thanks, Hagrid," said Albus uncomfortably.
"Think nothin' of it, lad," Hagrid beamed. "It's not every day your young man turns sixteen, after all."
Albus turned to find his godfather, Neville Longbottom, the Herbology master, smiling at him with a faraway look in his eyes.
"Don't say it," said Albus tartly.
Professor Longbottom looked surprised, but amused. "What was I going to say?"
"How much I look like my father did at my age." Albus rolled his eyes. "It's what everyone says when they look at me like that."
"Understandable," Professor Longbottom said mildly. "Does it bother you, being compared with your father?"
Albus shrugged. "A bit."
The Herbology master gave him an understanding smile. "It bothered me, too, at your age."
Albus could not help a wry smile of his own. "A lot of people compared you to my dad, did they?"
"Well -" Professor Longbottom said hesitantly, "perhaps not a lot of people, but I certainly compared myself to him. Hard not to when you share a room with 'the Chosen One'. My gran did, too. She would have loved having Harry Potter for a grandson. I was a bit of a disappointment to her, I'm afraid. But people compared me to my father, too."
"But you're a war hero!" Albus objected. "You faced Voldemort at the Battle of Hogwarts, and killed his snake with the sword of Gryffindor!"
The Herbology master shrugged. "That was later. Up until my fifth year, I was a nobody. I wasn't very good at magic, and I didn't really have any friends."
Albus stared at him in disbelief. "You're a professor! You have loads of friends! My parents love you."
Professor Longbottom's cheeks turned pink. "I'm gratified to hear it. I'm only trying to say, don't let it worry you too much if you haven't found your path yet, Albus. There's still plenty of time for that. You have careers advice coming up next month, I believe. Have you given that much thought?"
Albus shrugged uncomfortably. "Not really. I dunno what I want to do. And if I don't get good marks on my OWLs, I won't have many options."
"You do well enough in Herbology," said the professor. "I'd be surprised if you didn't get an Exceeds Expectations at least. There are lots of jobs for people who are good with plants."
"Maybe," said Albus. A career in Herbology did not sound terribly exciting.
"What else do you have good marks in?"
"Care of Magical Creatures is my best subject," said Albus. "And I'm doing better in Charms and Defence this year. I'm still rubbish at Transfiguration and Potions, though."
"Everyone is good at something," said Professor Longbottom. "Everyone has something they love. You just have to find it."
Albus glanced across the room to where his cousin Roxanne and Olivia Huang were teaching Scorpius rude words in sign language. Scorpius was the only thing Albus loved. He did not see any way to make a career out of that.
"Yeah, I guess."
The Herbology master gave him a reassuring smile and a pat on the shoulder. "You're a clever, good-hearted lad, Albus. You'll find something. And if it takes you a while, there's no shame in taking work that's just work. Those sorts of jobs are often the ones that keep the world turning."
Professor Longbottom moved away to get himself some cake. Albus plucked a bottle of butterbeer from the table and took a moody swig, sitting down on one of the sofas.
"Hey," said Morgana Rosier, flouncing into the empty place beside him. "Why so gloomy, Birthday Boy?"
Morgana's girlfriend, Keshet Goldstein, perched on the arm of the sofa beside her. Toby Edwards, a young trans boy from Hufflepuff, whom Keshet had taken under her wing, hovered at her shoulder.
"It's nothing," said Albus. "Just - what are you planning to do, once you've left school?"
Morgana shrugged her pale shoulders. "I'd like to do something in music or fashion, I guess."
"I'm not sure what I want to do," said Toby. "I've only known I was a wizard for a year and a half. I don't even really know what jobs there are."
"I might do something in the Muggle world," said Keshet. "Maybe something involving trans advocacy."
Though they were a year younger that him, Morgana and Keshet had clearly put more thought into their career options than Albus had.
"I dunno what I want to do," he admitted. "No idea at all."
Morgana gave him a sympathetic pat. "You'll think of something. You still have more than two years to figure it out."
"Yeah," said Albus, trying to look as if the thought comforted him.
"Are you and your other half going home for Easter Hols?" Morgana asked.
Albus shook his head. "We're staying to revise for OWLs. You?"
Morgana made a face. "No way."
"Do your parents give you a hard time about things?" asked Albus.
"Not directly. They think it's a phase." She rolled her eyes. "They don't even know Kesh is trans. Mostly we don't talk about things, although they have a lot to say about how 'proper pure-blood girls' should behave."
Keshet wrapped a protective arm around her girlfriend's shoulders. "I'm staying here with Morgue. I wouldn't want her to get lonely. Anyway, my family are Jewish. We don't do Easter."
"They're all right about things, though?" said Albus.
Keshet shrugged. "They don't really 'get' the whole trans thing, but they're trying. They've got a lot better about it since I first came out. I think there may be hope for them yet."
"I guess I'm going home. My parents want me to," said Toby morosely. "They don't really get it, either. They went spare when I was put in the boys' dormitory. Threatened to take me out of Hogwarts. McGonagall had them up to the school, and there was a godawful row. But in the end, they let me stay. I still get misgendered all the time at home, though."
"You don't have to go home for hols if you don't want to," Keshet said gently. "McGonagall wouldn't make you. You have us now. We look out for each other. And once you're finished with school, you don't ever have to go back to your family again. You'll always have a place with me, if you need it."
Toby gave her a grateful smile. He looked as if he might cry. "Thanks, Kesh. You're the best. It's just - maybe if I'm around them more, they'll start to get used to it, you know?"
Keshet's expression was sympathetic. "Best of luck, little brother. You can always owl us if you need to."
"I don't have an owl," said Toby sadly.
"Then I'll owl you the first day, so you'll have one to send back," Keshet promised.
Toby looked both pleased and self-conscious. "Thanks."
Morgana smiled fondly at her girlfriend.
Albus coughed in embarrassment and gulped his butterbeer. Emotional displays always made him uncomfortable.
"Hello, what's this?" said Morgana, sitting up straighter and peering across Albus toward the door.
Albus turned - and nearly choked on his butterbeer. Yann Fredericks and Polly Chapman stood in the doorway. Hanging back behind them was Albus's cousin, Rose Granger-Weasley.
"Sorry we're late," said Yann cheerfully, coming over to give Albus a kiss on the cheek. "Happy birthday."
Albus's eyes remained fixed on Rose, who stood next to Polly, staring down at her shoes, shoulders hunched.
Roxanne gave a glad cry and hurried over to her, followed by Kavi Singh, the Protego Club president.
Albus looked around for Scorpius, and found him standing at his shoulder, also staring at Rose.
What's she doing here? Albus mouthed.
Scorpius raised his eyebrows and signed, I don't know.
"Roxanne's her cousin, too, you git," Albus hissed. "She knows sign language better than I do."
"Yeah, but she's not looking at us, is she?" whispered Scorpius.
Albus glanced back at Rose. Her eyes were still downcast. She barely acknowledged Roxanne and Kavi's greetings.
"All right, gang, circle up," Kavi called out. "We let our labels and pronouns circle slide this week because of the party, but since we have someone new joining us ..."
Everyone scrambled for a seat. Polly and an overjoyed Roxanne dragged a reluctant Rose into the circle. One by one, the members of the club introduced themselves, and gave their labels and pronouns, either signing along as they spoke, or using the Dictatus charm, which displayed the text of their speech on a wide, shimmering ribbon that arced over their heads.
Albus's eyes never wavered from Rose. Her awkward, defensive posture reminded him of his own first Protego Club meeting, six weeks before. When her turn came to speak, she raised her chin, eyes flashing defiance, but her brown skin looked unusually pale under her freckles.
"I'm Rose Granger-Weasley. I came today because - well, I just wanted to see what it was like. I'm not sure if I'll come to any more of these meetings. I'm here because -" her voice fell into a rushed mumble, "- there's a girl I like. Not anyone here."
"It's all right," said Kavi encouragingly. "Remember to sign, though."
Rose's cheeks flushed, and her hands hurried to catch up with her words. "So - um - yeah. I like girls. A girl. Oh, and she/her is fine with me."
She sat back down between Polly and Roxanne, looking as if she wanted to disappear into the sofa cushions.
"All right," said Kavi. "Now that introductions are out of the way, we can carry on with the party. And let's be sure to include everyone."
As the circle broke up, Scorpius said, "I'm going to go talk to her."
"Why?" frowned Albus. "She doesn't even like us."
"Because deciding to come was probably a huge deal for her," said Scorpius. "She should know that people are glad she's here. Will you come with me?"
"All right," sighed Albus. "But you can do the talking."
He followed Scorpius across the room to where Rose stood awkwardly beside Polly.
"Hi, Rose," said Scorpius brightly. "You - um - look really nice today."
Rose gave him a cold look. "Aren't you gay now?"
"Bisexual," Scorpius corrected without missing a beat. "Anyway, I wasn't saying it because I fancy you. I'm over that. I just thought maybe now we could be friends."
Rose was unmoved. "I don't need pity friendship from weirdos and losers."
"Well then maybe you shouldn't be here," bristled Albus.
"Hey!" said Polly, affronted.
Scorpius put a restraining hand on Albus's arm, looking alarmed. "Of course she should be here. Protego Club is a safe space for everyone."
"No it's not," said Albus. "It's a safe space for people who need one, because the rest of the world thinks we're weirdos and losers. If Miss Popular-And-Good-At-Everything wants to be here, she can't pretend she's better than the rest of us."
Rose scowled at him. "You think you can tell me where I can and can't go, Albus Potter?"
Polly frowned. "No, he's right, Rose. We don't call each other names here. But you could have found a nicer way to make your point, Albus. Protego Club is all about kindness and acceptance. Everyone who comes here should be able to feel safe and comfortable. You don't have to like each other, just - be kind, OK?"
"I can be civil if he can," grumbled Rose.
"Albus?" Polly raised her eyebrows. "If you can't, we can ask Kavi to mediate for you. He's done it before, when there was a problem between members."
"No, it's fine," Albus scowled. "C'mon, Scorpius."
"It was nice to see you, Rose," said Scorpius, giving her a wave. "I'm glad you decided to come."
They found seats near Connor O'Mannan, Kavi's boyfriend, who was watching with fascination as Yann Fredericks painted Hagrid's giant nails with an Engorgioed bottle of sparkly pink nail varnish. Keshet was combing his tangled white hair and weaving it into neat plaits.
"We'll soon have you looking as pretty as a princess, Hagrid," Keshet assured him.
Hagrid blushed beneath his beard. "I've told yeh you can call me 'Ruby' when I'm here, Keshet."
"Ruby?" Scorpius whispered. "Is Hagrid queer?"
"Sure," said Connor in a low voice. "He's - sorry, ey's nonbinary, like Yann. Ey's not out to the rest of the school, though. Ey uses ey/em/eir pronouns when ey's here. You didn't think we'd let just any adults in here with us, did you?"
It was a second before the implication of Connor's words struck Albus. "Are you saying that Professor Longbottom is queer, too? But he's married!"
He craned his head around to look for his godfather. The Herbology master was on the far side of the room, engaged in animated signed conversation with Roxanne and Olivia.
Connor laughed. "Yeah, Professor Longbottom, too. Maybe your boyfriend can explain to you how a queer man might end up married to a woman."
"Bisexual!" sang Scorpius happily, snuggling up against Albus's shoulder.
Albus chuckled, shaking his head at his boyfriend's silliness. He wondered if his parents knew about Professor Longbottom or Hagrid.
Polly had joined Keshet in taming Hagrid's wild hair. Albus looked around for Rose, and found her cornered by Morgana, who wore a friendly but determined expression. Albus wondered whether Morgana would manage to break through Rose's anti-Slytherin prejudice, and bully her into friendship. Having been on the receiving end of that determination himself, Albus was not sure Rose stood a chance.
He slung an arm around Scorpius's shoulders, and kissed him on the cheek. Scorpius nestled closer, with a sigh of contentment. Perhaps having Rose in the club would not be such a bad thing. Albus decided to relax and enjoy the rest of his birthday party.
The dormitory lights had not been out for ten minutes when Scorpius slipped between Albus's bed curtains. Albus greeted him with a kiss, as if he had not just kissed him goodnight only moments before.
"Would you care to accompany me on a midnight stroll, my dear?" Scorpius asked in a whisper.
"What's this?" grinned Albus. "Am I being courted?"
Scorpius smiled mysteriously. "You'll see."
Albus pulled on his cloak and slid his feet into his slippers. He met Scorpius, wearing his dressing gown over his pyjamas, at the dormitory door.
"Where are we going?" asked Albus as they strolled along the night-dark dungeon corridor, hand-in-hand, peering around corners to check for Peeves the poltergeist, and Madam Pantulf, the Hogwarts caretaker.
"You'll see," repeated Scorpius. "You know, this would be a great time to have that map of yours."
"Yeah," Albus sighed wistfully. "Once we get it working, the school will be ours."
They climbed the stairs through the dark and quiet castle, ducking into the shadows and holding their breath whenever they heard a sound, pausing to share a kiss before moving on.
At the foot of the Astronomy Tower, Scorpius tried three different unlocking charms. The tower was out-of-bounds except for lessons, but it had a reputation as a popular trysting place for students. At last, the lock clicked and the door swung open. Albus followed Scorpius up the winding staircase.
It had been chilly inside the castle, but that was nothing compared to the night air at the top of the tower. A cold wind blew the light drizzle into their faces.
"Oh!" cried Scorpius, disappointed. He hugged himself, stamping his slippered feet.
"Come here," said Albus, opening his arms and wrapping his winter cloak around them both.
The castle wall gave them some shelter from the weather. Scorpius huddled close, resting his chin on Albus's shoulder.
Once he had stopped shivering, Albus asked, "So, what did you want to show me?"
"Hmmm?" sighed Scorpius. "Oh. Nothing. I just thought it would be romantic. You know, balmy spring evening at the top of the Astronomy tower, and all that."
Albus laughed. "When has it ever been balmy on my birthday? It's just barely April. But I still think it's romantic, weather notwithstanding."
"I wrote you a poem," said Scorpius unexpectedly.
Albus blinked in surprise. "What? Where is it? Can I read it?"
"I memorised it," said Scorpius. "I wanted to say it for you under the stars, on that balmy spring evening I was hoping for."
"Say it anyway," Albus urged. "I want to hear it."
Scorpius disengaged himself from the folds of Albus's cloak and stepped back. "It's not very good," he warned.
Albus smiled, amused. "I don't care. It will still be the best poem anyone has ever written for me."
"It's an acrostic," Scorpius explained. "Each line starts with a letter of your name."
"Nerd." Albus grinned. "Go on."
Scorpius took a deep breath, and clasped his hands together as he declaimed,
"As my friend, you're the best I ever knew,
Lonely Scorpius, before I met you,
But now something has begun to brew, (so)
Under the stars - or clouds, I guess - tonight I wanted to
Say that I'm in love with you."
Albus's breath caught in his throat. "Say that again?" he squeaked.
"The whole thing, or -?"
"The last bit."
Scorpius stepped closer, and took Albus's cold hands in his, looking directly into his eyes. "I'm in love with you, Albus. Utterly, absurdly, head over heels, hearts-and-roses in love."
"A while now," Scorpius admitted. "I wanted to save it up to tell you today, though, in case you didn't like the book."
Albus shook his head, and pulled Scorpius into a fierce hug. His chest felt tight, as if he might burst from happiness.
"I love you," Scorpius mumbled into Albus's neck.
"I love you, too. So much."
Scorpius shivered. "I think maybe I'm ready to be in love with you inside where it's warm, though."
Albus laughed. "Me too."
They were less careful on their way back to the dungeon, hurrying through the corridors, every now and then catching each other's eye and bursting into quickly-muffled giggles of happiness, and that was how Perpetua Pantulf, the Hogwarts caretaker, managed to catch them unawares.
"What's this? Mr Malfoy and Mr Potter, out of bed after hours?" she said, glowering at them suspiciously over her lighted wand. "What mischief are you up to?"
She was a tall, imposing grey-haired woman whom Albus and Scorpius usually found intimidating, but tonight their spirits were too high to be cowed by her.
"No mischief, Ma'am," bubbled Scorpius. "Just out for a romantic midnight stroll. We're in love, you see." He held up their linked hands in demonstration.
"It's my birthday," Albus added, grinning.
Madam Pantulf was not impressed. "Hmmph. Be that as it may, birthdays and romantic fancies do not exempt you from curfew. Ten points from Slytherin, and you will report to my office tomorrow and Tuesday after supper for detention. Now, run along to your beds. No detours or loitering."
"Yes, Ma'am!" they chorused, and hurried off down the corridor, trying hard to suppress their giggles until they were sure she was out of earshot.
They spent their laughter in the dark, empty Slytherin common room, before tiptoeing down the corridor to their dormitory, shushing each other along the way. Creeping across the room as quietly as possible, so as not to wake their sleeping roommates, they managed to find their way to their beds without tripping over anything.
Albus hung his cloak on a hook to dry. Somewhat more reluctantly, Scorpius shrugged out of his dressing gown.
"Are you still cold, Love?" whispered Albus, thrilled that he could now use the word as often as he liked.
He took Scorpius's hands and pulled him between the drapes, and into his bed, drawing the blankets up over them. Scorpius snuggled close, and Albus wrapped his arms around him, kissing him soundly.
Albus's heart was pounding. He felt giddy. He and Scorpius had crept into each other's beds after lights-out hundreds of times over the course of their friendship, but not since declaring their feelings for one another. Though they had never talked about it, they both sensed that it felt different now. But tonight, after learning that Scorpius loved him, Albus did not want to let go. He did not want the magic of the night to end.
The lingering cold was no match for their adolescent bodies. Albus shivered when Scorpius's fingers sneaked under the hem of his pyjama top to find the warm skin beneath, but not entirely from chill.
"Sorry for getting you detention on your birthday," Scorpius murmured against Albus's lips. "How was Albus Day, apart from that?"
"It was brilliant," Albus grinned. He was inclined to think that any day which ended with Scorpius in his bed was a very good day indeed. "Are you warmer now?"
"Lots," said Scorpius happily. "And you know what?"
"I love you."
Albus laughed and rolled onto his back, pulling Scorpius with him, and kissing him for a very long time. One of his hands twined in Scorpius's cornsilk-fine hair. The other traced its way down the curve of his back, hesitated a moment, and then slid lower, over the firm, rounded shape of Scorpius's bum.
"Sorry," mumbled Albus, snatching his hand away.
"No, it's - it's OK," said Scorpius. "I don't mind that. I just realised all of a sudden that things were getting a bit - um - sexy."
"Yeah. Is that all right?" asked Albus, trying not to sound too hopeful.
Scorpius rested his chin on Albus's chest. It was too dark for Albus to read his expression.
"I dunno ..." he said slowly.
Albus summoned up all his courage, heart in his throat. "Well, do you want to ... do something?"
"Like - I dunno - touching and ... things." Albus desperately wished he could see Scorpius's face. "I want to. With you," he said softly.
Scorpius rolled off of him, onto his side, and Albus swallowed his disappointment, sensing the no before it was spoken.
"Oh. I - um -" Scorpius's voice held the high, rushed tone that it always did when he was nervous. "I mean, parts of me are definitely ... interested, but - I don't think the rest of me is ready for that quite yet. Sorry. I know it's your birthday and all, but -"
"Hush." Albus groped for his hand and squeezed it. "It's OK. We don't have to. It - it was just an idea."
"Oh. Good." Scorpius sounded relieved. "You're sure?"
"Yeah. Of course," said Albus. "I'm not going to make you do anything you don't want to do. When we - do things, I want you to want it, too."
"That's - thanks. You really wanted to, though? Tonight?" Scorpius now sounded more curious than nervous.
"Yeah. I mean, I think so. But it's OK," Albus assured him quickly. "I can wait."
"I just thought - that doesn't seem very ... special," Scorpius said hesitantly.
Albus frowned, puzzled. "What d'you mean?"
"I mean, all rushed and sneaking it in the middle of the night, surrounded by our roommates," explained Scorpius. "I thought when we - that it would be ... special. The first time."
Albus grinned. "Soppy git." He wrapped an arm around Scorpius and pulled him close for a kiss, which Scorpius returned without hesitation.
When they broke apart, Albus said, "So you've thought about it? What it would be like -?"
"Yeah. A bit," Scorpius admitted. "Haven't you?"
Albus chuckled. "Yeah. More than a bit. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one."
"And it's really OK if we wait, and if we ... make it special?"
"It's really OK," Albus promised, kissing him on the nose. "And how could it not be special? I'll be with you."
Scorpius giggled and snuggled closer. "Who's soppy now? Anyway, I need to save something special for next year. My boyfriend will be turning seventeen. That's a huge deal."
"Next year?!" squeaked Albus, momentarily forgetting to be quiet.
"Or perhaps we should abide by my parents' wishes," Scorpius went on thoughtfully. "They've always said I should save it for the wedding night. That would make it really special."
Albus realised that his boyfriend was teasing him. "Wanker," he said, kissing him again.
"Only when I'm alone and thinking of you," Scorpius grinned.
"Mmm," said Albus, nuzzling at his throat. "I might like to hear more about that."
Scorpius's hand slid down his back and gave his arse a quick, playful squeeze. "You'll just have to use your imagination, for now."
"Tease," said Albus. "Don't think I won't."
He gave Scorpius's earlobe a gentle tug with his teeth that made Scorpius draw in a sharp breath.
"If we're not going to ... do things tonight," Albus continued, "I'll just have to do them myself."
Scorpius's laugh was breathless. His body was very warm against Albus's. "Will you be ... thinking of me?" he asked shyly.
Albus's lips brushed against his. "Who else?"
"I - might be ... thinking of you, too," confessed Scorpius.
"You should go do that," said Albus, capturing his mouth in another lingering kiss.
"Yeah, I think I will," murmured Scorpius. "Did I mention I love you?"
"I love you, too." Albus kissed him one last time, then pushed him away. "Now go. I need to be alone."
"Same," Scorpius laughed softly, slipping out of Albus's bed. "Don't forget your Silencing charm. Remember the time Jenkins forgot his?"
"Don't mention Jenkins wanking; you'll kill the mood," groaned Albus, but he was laughing, too.
"Well - g'night," said Scorpius.
"Yeah. Pleasant dreams," Albus grinned.
Scorpius returned the grin. "With any luck."
The bed curtains swung closed behind him, and Albus was alone. He quickly rummaged for his wand and cast a Silencing charm on the drapes. Then he lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes, imagining Scorpius, alone in his own bed a few feet away, thinking of him, with love.