A/N: Written for liliancho in the 2008 AS/S Fest. The prompts I chose to use were Slytherin!Albus and Ravenclaw!Scorpius paired up in Potions, China, and items off liliancho's character lists. Countless thanks to my betas, gabespeaks and dracovontrapp, especially gabespeaks, who helped me completely transform this fic. Also, thanks to ruien for her help with the Chinese. The summary is stolen from the song "The Game of Love" by Carlos Santana ft. Michelle Branch.

The Game of Love

Scorpius first noticed Albus Potter at the Sorting Feast. Well, no – he had glimpsed the other boy earlier at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, but he had been busy fending off his mother's kisses and his father's last minute advice then. It wasn't until later, when Potter was beckoned forwards to take a seat and don the ragged old Sorting Hat, that he really caught Scorpius's attention.

Undoubtedly one of the smallest boys in Scorpius's year, Potter stumbled up to the front of the Great Hall and sat down on the stool amidst a wave of mutterings about "a new Potter boy". His eyes darted around nervously, taking in the sea of faces turned towards him. Someone from the Gryffindor table whooped and called out his name. Blushing, he ducked his head.

Over at the Ravenclaw table, Scorpius was busy studying Potter. The other boy had a pale, narrow face and bright green eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. He would have looked aristocratic, if not for the unfortunate smattering of freckles across his nose. His hair was also atrocious, a shocking contrast to the overall air of put-togetherness he gave off. At the moment, he looked terrified.

Scorpius rolled his eyes. Hufflepuff, he predicted.

The Sorting Hat was placed on Potter's head. The entire Hall drew in a collective breath, waiting, anticipating, hoping it would be...

"Slytherin!"

In the stunned silence that followed this most unforeseen proclamation, Scorpius dropped his fork and, like every other living, breathing person in the Hall, jumped to his feet to catch a glimpse of the boy who had just defied every existing universal law.

A Potter. In Slytherin.

There must have been a mistake.

Flitwick lifted the Hat off of Potter's head, but Potter sat frozen to his seat. A prickly silence fell over the Great Hall as students and professors alike blinked and shook their heads, as if emerging from a deep sleep.

At last Flitwick gathered his wits and ushered Potter away. Potter headed for the Slytherin table, his movements stiff and jerky. Every Slytherin head snapped in Potter's direction as he sat down heavily near the head of the long table. None of them bothered to conceal their disbelief, or even put on a show of friendliness. They were all too stunned to do anything but gawk at their newest housemate.

Slowly and steadily, the noise level in the hall returned to normal, and after many quelling looks from the headmistress, the Sorting resumed. Scorpius, however, was no longer interested in seeing how his classmates were divided. Instead, he gazed unabashedly at Potter, trying to discern a reaction other than shock in his countenance.

Potter must have felt Scorpius's eyes on him, because at that moment, he glanced up. Their gazes locked, and suddenly Scorpius found himself quite unable to look away. It was rather nerve-wracking, having those wide eyes with their doll-like lashes fixed on him. They were so bloody green; it was almost unnatural. Annoyed, Scorpius stuck up his chin and glared back.

Their silent staring contest lasted all of ten seconds before Potter furrowed his eyebrows and refocused his attention on his plate. Sighing with relief, Scorpius adjusted his glasses, which had slipped down his nose, and turned to the curly-haired boy sitting next to him. He was also a first year; Scorpius distinctly remembered him from the carriage ride earlier that night.

Thinking, Might as well get used to this, Scorpius extended a hand. "All right?"

The boy looked startled to be addressed by Scorpius. He looked at Scorpius's offered hand for one very long second, as if he couldn't quite believe it was there, and then took it. "Scorpius Malfoy, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Scorpius said, pleased that he'd made an impact already. Never mind that the boy had said his surname like uttering it would result in his untimely death; that could be worked on. "Who're you?"

"Simon."

"Simon...?"

"Oh, sorry. Longbottom."

Scorpius racked his brain. The name sounded familiar. He was sure his father had mentioned it once or twice, but he couldn't remember the context in which it'd been brought up.

Well, Scorpius reasoned, he can't be too bad if he's in my House.

"I guess we'll be sleeping in the same dorm from now on," Scorpius said, offering Simon a smile.

"From the looks of it, yeah."

"Nice to meet you, then."

Simon grinned at Scorpius. "You too."

Just like that, the first ever Malfoy-Longbottom friendship was formed.

Five years later

"For Merlin's sake, Scorpius, stop staring at her and get your gerbil under control!"

Scorpius blinked at Simon. "What?"

"You. Rose. Gerbil."

"Rose is a what, now?"

"Not her, your gerbil!"

Simon seized the creature by the base of its tail and held it upside down in the air. Scorpius wrinkled his nose at the wriggling rodent. "Get that out of my face, Simon."

"It's yours!" Simon exclaimed, dropping the gerbil on the table in front of Scorpius. It sat back on its haunches, looking dazed. "This is the third time it's nearly fallen off the edge of the table. If you're going to spend the rest of class gazing longingly at Rose, find someone else to gerbil-sit for you, okay?"

"I'm not gazing longingly at anyone! It just so happens that Rose is in the way of the board."

"So is the rest of the class, but I don't see you giving any of them starry-eyed looks." Ignoring Scorpius's indignant spluttering, Simon picked up the slipper he'd Transfigured his gerbil into and examined it. "I dunno; something about it seems off. What d'you reckon?"

"It's still got eyes," Scorpius said, pointing at the two beady eyes gleaming on the top of the slipper. "And I'm serious, I wasn't staring at her!"

"Yeah? What's this, then?"

Simon widened his eyes, pulled the insides of his eyebrows up, and stuck his lower lip out in an exaggerated pout, affecting a crude imitation of a lovesick girl.

"And here I was, thinking nothing could make you uglier than you already are," Scorpius retorted. "Stop it, before I hex that pathetic look off your face."

Simon laughed, and his features relaxed into their usual soft lines. Despite his physical resemblance to his friendly, unassuming parents, he could not be less similar to them in personality. For one thing, he possessed a strong sense of humour that escaped them, or so it seemed to Scorpius, who had visited Simon's house several times and seen the puzzled looks the elder Longbottoms exchanged whenever their son made a joke about... well, anything, really. Scorpius liked Simon's parents well enough, but they were hopelessly bland.

"Anyway," Simon said, resting his elbows on their table, "you were definitely staring at Rose again. Why're you still sulking over her, eh?"

"I'm not sulking," Scorpius snapped, flicking his wand a little too sharply at his gerbil. It collapsed with a tiny thump. "Shit! You prick, you've made me kill my gerbil! Smith's going to give me another detention now, just you watch..."

Simon leaned over to examine the gerbil. "It's not dead," was his verdict. He revived the gerbil with a wave of his wand. "Stop denying the truth, mate. You always talk about her. You stare at her during meals when you think no one's looking. Hell, you've still got her bloody picture on your bedside table! What's the deal? I thought you were over her."

"I am."

Simon clucked his tongue in a way that made Scorpius want to punch him in the face. "Y'know, your dad probably wouldn't be too chuffed if he knew how obsessed you are with her."

Scorpius glowered. "I don't care what Father thinks."

It was true. As much as Scorpius loved his father, the man drove him mad sometimes with his refusal to give up his old grudges. I've already sacrificed enough of the beliefs with which I was raised for the sake of progression, he always told Scorpius, before launching into a long-winded speech that essentially criticised Scorpius's choice of companions and interests. I just want the best for you, was usually his excuse. Scorpius knew that; he just wished his father could understand that their ideas of "best" were polar opposites.

"You probably should," Simon said wisely.

"I 'probably should' do a lot of things, like Transfigure this stupid –"

"Time's up!" called Professor Smith from the front of the room, clapping her hands. "Miss Gillen, if you would please collect the assignments for me... All partially Transfigured gerbils may go in this bin..."

Scorpius snatched up his now-slumbering gerbil and Transfigured it into a perfect tartan slipper with a quick flick of his wand. He handed it over to Maggie Gillen just as she passed by, and then hurried to catch up with Simon, who was already filing out of the classroom with everyone else.

"You don't deserve the brains you've got," Simon complained when Scorpius joined him.

Scorpius snickered. As they passed the front row, he noticed a notebook sitting on the second seat to his left. He bent over and picked it up without stopping.

"What's that?" Simon asked, as they began making their way to the dungeons for Potions.

"Dunno." Scorpius flipped the notebook open and checked the inside cover. He raised his eyebrows when he saw Albus Severus Potter printed neatly in the lower left-hand corner. "Looks like it's Potter's. Wonder what he wrote in it?"

"Probably notes," Simon said, shrugging. He checked his watch and sighed. "Remind me again who was cruel enough to put lunch after Potions? Measuring out newt's eyes and watching Slughorn waddle around the room are real appetite killers."

"Hey, these aren't notes!"

"Huh? Oh, well, you ought to return the notebook to Potter, then. Might be a private journal or something."

"He's got a list of names here," Scorpius said, frowning as he scanned one of the pages in the middle of the notebook. "Ezra Thomas, Maggie Gillen... Aiden Cotton... Scor – Scorpius Malfoy? Simon, my name's in here!"

Simon was unperturbed. "Relax, Scorpius. It's probably just his fuck list or something."

"His what?"

"A list of people he wants to... y'know." Simon made a vaguely obscene gesture and raised his eyebrows at Scorpius. "I still can't believe you and Rose never got that far. Four months... that's a long time to stay celibate."

"Half of it was over the summer," Scorpius reminded Simon. "And can we not talk about Rose right now? How about we focus on the fact that Albus Potter wants to fuck me?"

"I didn't say that," Simon said patiently. "I said it's a possibility. I might be your only friend" – he dodged Scorpius's poorly aimed shove – "but you're not a bad-looking bloke. I wouldn't be surprised if there were others who wouldn't say no to sleeping with you."

Scorpius felt his cheeks heat up. "Seriously? Who? They're not all like Potter, are they?"

Heaving a long-suffering sigh, Simon shook his head. "As far as I know, none of the other blokes in our year swing both ways. If they do, they haven't got the guts to admit it. Don't blame them, really – not everyone's got a famous name to protect their reputation." He pointed down the hall. "Potter's over there, by the way. You'd better give that notebook back to him before he realises it's missing."

Scorpius was sorely tempted to keep the notebook until he had time to peruse the pages he'd skipped, but he knew Simon was right. "See you in class."

Scorpius shut the notebook and jogged over to Potter, who was, to Scorpius's surprise, alone. Usually, when Scorpius saw him in the hallways, he was either tailed by his fanclub or flanked by his seventh year friends.

"Hey, Potter! Hold up!"

Potter halted and turned around. Scorpius froze momentarily as a pair of startling green eyes pinned him with a blank look.

"Something wrong, Malfoy?"

"Er... no." Scorpius held up the notebook. "Only meant to tell you that you dropped this."

Potter's reaction was instantaneous. His eyes widened beneath his long fringe and he snatched the notebook from Scorpius's hand so quickly it took Scorpius all of five seconds to realise he was no longer holding it.

"Did you read it?" Potter demanded, a hard edge to his normally quiet, solemn voice.

"There's no need to be testy," Scorpius said huffily. "No, I didn't read it. I noticed you left it on your seat in Transfiguration, so I picked it up and brought it to you."

The tension left Potter's stance. "Sorry," he said, flashing a small smile that didn't quite mitigate Scorpius's indignation. "The notebook's important to me. Thanks for bringing it back."

"Yeah, well, maybe you should mind your things better next time," Scorpius muttered.

Scorpius pushed past Potter and headed for the dungeons. Before he could get out of arm's reach, however, Potter grabbed his wrist, forcing him to stop.

"What's your deal, Potter?"

"Why don't we walk down together?"

"Simon's waiting for me."

"He already went down; I saw him."

Scorpius ground his teeth together. He couldn't very well say no when they had their next class together. "Fine."

"Do you dislike me or something?" Potter asked as they descended the stairs.

"Or something."

Potter's laugh was dry and contained. It suited him well. "You've got a sense of humour."

"Very perceptive. Why're you talking to me, Potter?"

Because he wants to fuck you.

Scorpius blushed, bothered that the thought didn't repel him as much as it should. He had a feeling that the absence of disgust in his reaction to the idea of sleeping with Potter wasn't exactly normal for a strictly straight bloke.

"Is there a reason why I shouldn't talk to you?" Potter asked.

"You're in Slytherin. I'm in Ravenclaw. We run in different circles."

Potter snorted. "Who told you that one? Your dad?"

Scorpius scowled. "It's an unspoken rule."

"It's obviously not, seeing as we're speaking right now."

"Just because you don't follow the rules doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't."

They slowed down as they approached the classroom.

"Who says I don't follow the rules?" said Potter, stopping just outside the door.

Scorpius made a point of glancing at his watch. "We're late, so..."

He stepped around Potter and opened the door. Class had already begun, but Professor Slughorn paused in the middle of his lecture, giving the students already seated time to glare accusingly at the newcomers.

"Mr Malfoy!" Slughorn announced, as if introducing a rare specimen to a crowd of curious onlookers. "How generous of you to finally... ah, hello, Mr Potter."

All eyes flicked from Scorpius to Potter, who had just entered the room. A few students exchanged confused looks. Although it was common practice for Scorpius to come to class late, Potter almost always arrived on time.

"Take your seats, boys," Slughorn said. "You'll be partners for today."

Potter nodded and headed for the only empty table in the front row. Scorpius, however, remained rooted to his spot.

"Sorry, Professor, but what do you mean?"

Slughorn pursed his lips, his expression disapproving. "I believe the meaning was quite clear. We'll be pairing up to brew Ageing Potion today, and –"

"But why've I got to pair up with Potter?"

Scorpius knew he was pushing the limits of Slughorn's patience. The old man had never liked him much – for all of Scorpius's scholastic accomplishments in Potions (and there were many of them), Slughorn still considered him merely a junior version of his troublemaking father.

Slughorn folded his arms and rested them atop his expansive belly. "Mr Malfoy, sit down, or it will be ten points from Ravenclaw."

"Fine, fine," Scorpius grumbled

He walked over to Potter's table and dropped into the seat beside him. The moment Slughorn resumed his lecture, Scorpius glanced over his shoulder and caught Simon's eye from across the room. Simon scowled and jerked his chin at his partner: Carly Nott, Hufflepuff, known for her stringy hair, prominent overbite, and record of cocking up every sixth-year Potions assignment so far. How she had achieved the required O.W.L. score to continue with N.E.W.T. level Potions, no one knew, but avoiding her was an unspoken classroom rule.

Biting back a smirk, Scorpius shrugged helplessly at Simon before turning to Potter and whispering, "What did he say we were brewing today?"

"Why don't you pay attention for once?" Potter replied, his lips barely moving as his quill flew across the page of his notebook, copying down the instructions on the blackboard.

"You're doing such a good job of it that there's really no point."

Potter finished scribbling and put his quill down. "How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"How do you manage to get perfect marks if you never make an effort?"

"I do."

"No you don't. I've seen you. You slack off all class, and then whip up a perfect assignment at the very last minute."

"I wasn't aware that you watched me so closely, Potter."

A fat hand slammed down on their table, cutting off Potter's reply. Scorpius could have sworn he saw the scrubbed wood surface crack a little under the force of impact.

"Mr Malfoy, Mr Potter, five points from your respective Houses for disrupting class again!" Slughorn said.

Groans and muttered "not again"s from the Ravenclaws filled the room.

"It's not his fault," Potter protested. "I was distracting him. Take the points from Slytherin, Professor."

The room fell silent. Scorpius laughed nervously.

"Ignore him, Professor. He's clearly delusional."

"Shut it, Malfoy, you've already lost enough points for your House."

"Ravenclaw's House points are none of your business!"

Slughorn's hefty moustache twitched in confusion as his eyes volleyed back and forth between Scorpius and Potter. At last he cleared his throat and waddled back to the front of the room.

"You may now begin," he said, apparently having decided that docking points for their misbehaviour wasn't worth the effort.

"You're mental," Scorpius declared, raising his voice to be heard above the sound of chairs scraping against the stone floor and students fighting to get to the ingredients cabinet first. "I'm not sure I want to work with you anymore."

Potter merely grinned at him and left to go gather the necessary ingredients.

"It's the Gryffindors we're supposed to avoid," he said when he returned with an armful of jars, boxes, and bundles.

Scorpius looked up from the cauldron he was tending to. "Sorry?"

"Slytherins and Gryffindors – historically, we don't get along." Potter shrugged and began arranging the ingredients in the order in which they would be needed. "Really, I don't have a problem with any of the Houses. I've got friends in all of them."

"Even Ravenclaw?"

"We get along with Ravenclaws the best."

"Who –?"

"Weina Corner. You know her?"

"She's a year below us, isn't she?"

"Yeah. She's my girlfriend."

Scorpius nearly dropped his wand into the cauldron. "She's what?"

"We're going out." Frowning, Potter turned a kidney-shaped object over in his hand. "What d'you reckon this is?"

"I didn't know you had a girlfriend."

"Does it matter?" Potter asked, fixing Scorpius with his solemn gaze.

Scorpius felt a blush start to creep up his face, and immediately crouched down to check the flames under the cauldron. "No. I just thought – I mean, I didn't know that –"

"That I like girls?" Potter offered.

Scorpius straightened up. "Yeah, I guess."

He ventured a look at Potter, but he was laying out jars, his head bent so that his shaggy black hair obscured most of his profile. "They're not too bad. Weina's pretty cool."

"Oh. But you do... um, y'know, with blokes?"

Potter laughed. "Yeah. Sometimes. Not lately, obviously."

"What's it like?" Scorpius blurted out. He blushed again – damn his genes – and picked up the ginger roots Potter had placed on the table. He needed to give his fidgety hands something to do.

"Why d'you want to know?"

Scorpius sliced the roots rapidly, keeping his attention locked on the chopping board. "Never mind. It was a stupid question."

He dumped the roots into the cauldron and reached for the essence of belladonna, but Potter snatched the bottle up first and held it behind his back. "It's a lot better than being with a girl. Boys are more forward. They know what they want and they're not going to beat around the bush, figuratively speaking. I mean, they've no need for the frilly stuff."

An image of Potter dressed in a lacy negligee immediately popped into Scorpius's head, and he blinked to clear it away. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know more about the girls Potter had slept with.

"Okay," he said, "but I really need that bottle right now."

"The textbook says you're supposed to add –"

"The box elder sap, I know, but we can skip two steps ahead if we use the belladonna instead. Trust me, Potter."

Potter handed the bottle over. "All right, you're the Potions expert."

Scorpius measured the correct amount of essence of belladonna and added it to the boiling contents of their cauldron. As he bent to check his textbook for the next step, he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that Potter was staring at him intently.

"What?" he asked, looking up.

"Nothing. I was just thinking... you really are good at Potions, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I suppose. Can you crush the laurel berries?"

Potter gathered the red berries into a neat pile on his cutting board. "You should learn to appreciate what you've got," he remarked as he rummaged around in his Potions kit for a knife. "It'd be a right shame if you let your brains go to waste. Most people would kill to have them."

"I highly doubt that, Potter."

"Easy for you to say. You've never known what it's like to be anything but a genius."

The note of bitterness in Potter's voice surprised Scorpius. He had never pegged Potter as someone who'd be susceptible to something as petty and pointless as bitterness.

"You're not stupid," Scorpius said, for lack of anything better to say.

Potter snorted and pressed down so hard on a berry that the juice splattered onto his face. Grimacing, he swiped at his cheeks with the back of his hand, leaving red smears across his freckled skin.

"No, don't do that!" Scorpius half-shouted when Potter stuck out his tongue to lick the juice off his lips. Potter blinked at him. Flustered, Scorpius tossed him the clean rag from his Potions kit. "The berries are poisonous to humans."

Shooting Scorpius a grateful look, Potter took the rag and used it to wipe off his lips before handing it back. "Thanks."

Scorpius stuffed the rag into his Potions kit with a grunt of acknowledgment. Normally, if it had been Simon who had messed up, Scorpius would have teased him mercilessly, but with Potter, Scorpius didn't know what to say. He returned to grounding dried doxy droppings with more vigour.

"I'm not stupid," Potter said after a while, "but I'm not like you. You probably got all O's on your O.W.L.s without studying a single page of notes. My best marks were E's in Charms and Herbology. Hardly impressive, considering I was named after two headmasters of this school." He paused. "Dad even had to come in and talk to Professor McGonagall about letting me continue Defence Against the Dark Arts. I told him not to, but..."

"Why Defence Against the Dark Arts?"

Potter perked up a little. "I want to be an Auror."

"Yeah?" Scorpius said sceptically. He had never heard of a Slytherin Auror.

"Mm. My dad's one, you know."

"No, I had no idea. He only saved the world once or twice."

"Yeah, Dad's brilliant," Al enthused, completely oblivious to Scorpius's sarcasm. "The problem is everyone reckons I'm trying to be a junior version of him, especially since I look so much like him. He was a Seeker at school, too. That, plus the Auror thing... It's just annoying when adults tell me to find my own identity, because this is me. I want to be great. What's so bad about that?"

Shrugging, Scorpius scooped the juice Potter had extracted from the berries into the cauldron. In truth, he agreed with the adults. No one had ever told him to find his own identity, even though he too resembled his father. If Potter was tired of the comparisons, he just needed to make it clear that he and his dad were different people. However, Scorpius refrained from voicing these thoughts. Potter rarely said so much at once, and Scorpius didn't want to discourage him from continuing.

"Anyway, how's the potion going?"

Scorpius stepped back to let Potter have a look at the silvery blue contents of the cauldron. "As well as it can at this stage."

Potter looked impressed. "We're ahead of everyone else. You're really good at this!"

Scorpius was surprised by how much the simple compliment pleased him. "Potter –"

"Al. All my friends call me Al."

Al. It was a common name – too short, too unobtrusive, too insignificant for someone like Albus Potter. Scorpius was certain there were multiple layers to Potter that a nickname like Al couldn't do justice to, but if that was what he wanted, then so be it.

"Al, then. Get to work on step six, will you?"

The rest of the double period passed quickly. Though Al had absolutely no finesse or intuition when it came to potion making, he was a good partner. He followed Scorpius's directions faithfully, but he wasn't too afraid to point out the careless errors that slipped past Scorpius's notice.

That Al was a good conversationalist surprised Scorpius. He told stories with clarity and enthusiasm, and managed to keep Scorpius thoroughly entertained over the next hour. There was a quiet charisma about him that became evident when he spoke about subjects that mattered to him: Quidditch, his family, and school, among other things. For the first time, Scorpius understood why Al was the popular Potter child. It had nothing to do with fame or family history, or even his uncanny resemblance to his father. It was all in the way he effortlessly drew attention to himself, even when he was being his usual silent, surly self. He had so much self-control that it was a hard to believe he wasn't a prefect.

Scorpius had never envied someone more. But for all his jealousy, he also found himself drawn to Al. He wanted to uncover Al's imperfections, the parts of him that no one but his closest friends knew about, because there was no way the confidence he exuded was impenetrable. The brief slip in Al's composure earlier in the hallway was proof that he had vulnerable spots. Scorpius was sure of it. He watched Al like a hawk, hoping – but failing – to locate these spots, until eventually it occurred to him that he was only watching Al because he couldn't tear his eyes away from him.

That was when Scorpius realised something was wrong.

He tried to focus on anything, anyone else, but Rose wasn't there, and Simon was on the other side of the room. Every time Al said something, Scorpius's attention snapped back to him quickly, as if it had never struggled to stay away. Eventually Scorpius gave up resisting and resorted to sneaking peeks at Al between adding ingredients to their potion.

By the time Al went to turn in a phial of perfectly concocted Ageing Potion labelled with his and Scorpius's names, Scorpius was starting to question his own sexuality.

"I'm fucked," he announced after bidding a quick good-bye to Potter and dashing across the classroom to meet Simon halfway.

"Really? How'd he do it so discreetly?"

"What do you – oh, Christ, Simon, that's disgusting. Leave off, this is serious!"

"Shame, half the school probably would've paid to see you and Potter get it on in public."

"Simon, he'll hear you," Scorpius hissed. He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder, but Al had left the classroom. "Great, he's gone. Let's get out of here."

They walked outside, Simon complaining the entire way about Carly Nott.

"...she didn't even realise you can't cut those, so of course we had to go ask Slughorn for another pair. I swear; that girl is common sense's worst enemy. We'll be lucky to get a P on our assignment."

"Shit, there he is!"

Scorpius tugged Simon out of sight. They peered around the corner and saw Al standing a few feet down the hallway with his girlfriend, Weina Corner. Al whispered something and she laughed, tilting her head back, exposing the graceful arch of her neck.

Scorpius and Simon continued to watch as Al leaned down and kissed Weina on the lips. She responded by curling an arm around his neck and tugging him closer, so that his body was pinning hers to the wall. Al braced himself against the wall with one hand and tangled the other in Weina's thick, dark hair, deepening the kiss.

Scorpius felt a sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach. "That's indecent," he said, tearing his eyes away and turning so that the couple was out of view. "Who knows where Al's lips have been?"

"Oh, it's Al now, is it?"

"He told me to call him that. C'mon, let's go to lunch. I'm starving."

--

"You going to Hogsmeade this weekend, Simon?"

"Yeah, you?"

"Reckon so. How about you, Scorpius?"

Scorpius, who had not been paying attention to the conversation between Simon and their housemate, Ettore, looked up from his scrambled eggs, surprised to be addressed. Other students rarely spoke to him unless they needed to. Simon was the popular one; he was the Malfoy.

"Er, yeah. Sunday, right?"

Ettore nodded. "You two wanna come with me and some of the Gryffindors? We're thinking of breaking into the Shrieking Shack. Rumour has it that Harry Potter's part-werewolf godson lives there."

"Seriously?" Scorpius said, making a mental note to ask Al about that later. Then he did a double-take – he had just thought of Al as a friend he could approach as easily as he did with Simon. They hadn't even spoken to each other since the previous week's Potions class, and Scorpius doubted they ever would. Get over it, he ordered himself.

"Nah, we're good," Simon said. "Dad wants me to meet up with him at the Three Broomsticks."

"Aw, c'mon, mate. You can't hang out with your dad on a weekend! Where's your sense of adventure, eh? Scorpius, tell him he's being a nance."

Scorpius stabbed at a sausage on his plate. "You're being a nance, Simon," he mumbled.

Just then, the morning post arrived. Scorpius looked up automatically. Sure enough, his eagle owl, Artemis, came swooping down with a neatly wrapped package of sweets from his grandmother. Scorpius relieved Artemis of her load and fed her a piece of pastry before letting her fly off to the Owlery. He checked the package she had delivered to him. There was a letter from his mother attached.

Scorpius sighed. His parents must have got into another argument – Mother rarely wrote him unless Father had done something to upset her. Scorpius was the only one who knew that his parents were far from happily married. Over the years, he had become something of a long-distance marriage counsellor to them. Sometimes he wished they would just forget about their pride and file for a divorce, but he knew they would not admit defeat until they were literally at each other's throats. Until that day came, he would have to deal with mediating their fights.

"Thanks," Simon said cheerfully, accepting the peanut brittle Scorpius handed him. It was a daily morning ritual: Scorpius always gave Simon the peanut brittle and, whenever it was included, the liquorice. "You're lucky your grandmum's so good about sending these."

"Yeah, it was cool when I was eleven, but I'm almost seventeen now," Scorpius pointed out.

"You're never too old for sugar," Simon scolded. He bit into the peanut brittle. "Speaking of, you up for Honeydukes this Sunday? Maybe we'll see Rose there again."

"Mm," Scorpius said absently, for he had just noticed Al stand up and start walking towards the Ravenclaw table. He tensed, but Al strode right past him and headed for Weina, who was sitting at the other end of the long table with the rest of the fifth-year girls.

Scorpius squashed the disappointment that welled up inside him and turned his attention back to Simon. He wasn't sure he could stomach another nauseating display of affection between the two of them while he was eating. "Sorry, what'd you say?"

"Well, well, well. If I'd known it'd only take a double period with Potter for you to get over Rose, I wouldn't have waited so long to suffer the indignity of working with Carly."

Scorpius glared at Simon. "You'll be begging her to take you back as a Potions partner if you utter a single word about me eyeing up Potter."

Eyes widening in alarm, Simon held up his hands in surrender. "All right, I got it. Hey, I just realised something – can I make a move on Rose now that you've given her up?"

"Simon –"

"Hey, Scorpius."

The sound of Al's voice behind him made Scorpius freeze in the middle of drawing his arm back to throw a roll at Simon.

"Hi," he said, dropping the roll and turning around in his seat. Weina was with Al, but they were not holding hands.

"This is my girlfriend," Al said, jerking his chin at Weina.

Weina was very pretty up close, but it was Al from whom Scorpius had to tear his eyes away. "I know."

Weina held out a hand. She had very delicate fingers and well-manicured fingers, Scorpius noticed. "I don't think we've ever formally met. I'm Weina."

Scorpius shook her hand. "Scorpius."

"How've you been doing?" Al asked Scorpius. "I haven't seen you around much. Are you going to Hogsmeade this weekend?"

"Yeah." Scorpius looked back and forth between Al and Weina. "I suppose you two are as well?"

They nodded at the same time. "We'd better get going, then," said Weina, wrapping her fingers around Al's arm and tugging him after her.

"Yeah, see you in Herbology, Scorpius." Was it just Scorpius's imagination, or did Al look upset about their conversation being cut off short?

The couple left and Scorpius exhaled. "I'd better go. See you, Simon."

He slung his bag over his shoulder and left the Ravenclaw table. As he headed for the greenhouses, he reluctantly opened and read the letter his mother had sent him. It contained nothing surprising: Father had called her a frigid, antisocial bitch when she refused to let him host another get-together at their manor, and she in turn had yelled at him for caring more about his colleagues than her, an accusation he had not denied. Tears and insults ensued, and now they'd gone back to sleeping in separate beds.

Scorpius rolled his eyes, refolded the letter, and tucked it into his back pocket. It was times like these that he wondered what it'd be like to have a normal family with parents who took care of him, rather than the other way around. Not that he felt any bitterness about his family situation, because he didn't. His father and mother were people, too; they just had more problems than the average adults. Besides, they both loved him, so he couldn't complain.

As he stepped outside, he noticed two red-haired girls sitting under a nearby willow tree: Rose and Al's sister, Lily Potter.

"Rose!" he called out. He was relieved to find that butterflies did not erupt in his stomach when he caught her eye. Maybe Simon was right – maybe he was starting to get over Rose.

It has nothing to do with Al, though, he told himself fiercely.

Rose motioned him over. Scorpius checked his watch. Class had already started, but there was no harm in being a few minutes late for Herbology. Professor Longbottom had a soft spot for any friends of his son.

Scorpius jogged over to the girls, the frosted grass crunching under his feet. "What's up?" he said, crouching down so that he was level with them.

Rose scooted forwards and hugged Scorpius. Her prefect badge gleamed in the morning sunshine. "Hi, Scorpius. You know Lily, right?"

"Yeah. Hi."

Lily smiled at him. She was cute, Scorpius supposed. She had Al's freckles and pale complexion, but she looked more like her other older brother, James. A red and gold ribbon held her long hair back, and her school robes hung open, revealing a partly unbuttoned blouse that exposed her nonexistent cleavage. Scorpius wondered how she hadn't frozen to death yet.

"Listen, Rose, I've got to get to class, but I'll talk to you later, all right?"

Rose grabbed Scorpius's sleeve. "Hang on. Are you free for Quidditch tomorrow? I want to practise as much as possible before everyone goes their separate ways for winter break. Don't forget, we play Slytherin right after we come back. So far it looks like they've got a pretty impressive line-up this season."

"Sure," Scorpius said. He and Rose were both on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team. Rose was a Chaser and he a Beater, but they were both capable of playing other positions, so they usually practised together when their entire team couldn't meet. The one-on-one games they played every week had been largely responsible for preserving their friendship after they broke up at the end of September.

Rose released his sleeve. "At four, then?"

"Done. See you later."

"Bye, Scorpius," Lily called out as he hurried away.

Surprised, Scorpius waved at her over his shoulder. He saw Rose nudge Lily in the side and whisper something into her ear, but before he could dwell on it, he arrived at greenhouse four. He threw open the door and made a beeline for the nearest seat.

Professor Longbottom was, as always, dressed in dirt-stained robes and wearing a pair of earmuffs around his neck. "Good morning, Scorpius," he said pleasantly. "Need I explain the concept of punctuality to you again?"

"No, sir, forty-eight times is sufficient."

Professor Longbottom sighed. "I'm glad to know you're keeping count, even if you're not taking the reprimand to heart. One more time and it'll be detention, Scorpius." He turned back to the rest of the class. "As I was saying, today we'll be discussing the changes certain magical plants undergo as the winter season approaches. If everyone could please turn to page five hundred and ninety-six, you'll see an illustration of..."

Scorpius zoned out as Professor Longbottom began describing the state of hibernation Flitterbloom bushes entered around the end of November. It was going to be a long class; he could already tell. He let his gaze roam the greenhouse lazily until it landed on Al, sitting a few seats away. As if he could feel Scorpius's eyes on him, Al looked up from his textbook and smiled at Scorpius.

Scorpius dropped his gaze. Perhaps "long" was an understatement.

--

"You didn't tell me Al was going to be here."

Rose cocked her head. "Does it matter? He's just practising with his team. Let's sit down and watch until they're done. Maybe we can steal some of their strategies."

Sighing, Scorpius followed Rose into the stands. It was a cold, breezy afternoon, but the persistent sunshine had warmed the benches. He glanced at Rose as they sat down. Normally at this point his insides would be squirming uncomfortably, but today he felt no different than he would have if he'd been going out to fly with Simon.

"You look nice today," he said, tugging her long pleat affectionately.

She smiled at him. "Thanks. You do too, but when do you not?"

"Yeah, well, like Father says, a Malfoy must be presentable at all hours of the day."

"Are you still not getting on well with him?"

Scorpius leaned back against the bench behind them and gazed up at the green-robed players circling the pitch, trying to locate Al. "He'll never change."

"I suppose not. Still, he didn't kill you when he found out about us... that's an improvement, don't you think?" Rose paused, as if waiting for an answer, but Scorpius remained silent. "You really ought to give him a chance, Scorpius. He loves you, and he's not a bad person. Dad even agrees, even though he'll never say it out loud."

"Look, there's Al," Scorpius said, pointing up at the lone figure doing figure eights above the other players. He didn't want to talk about his father – not with Rose, not with anyone. He was in too good of a mood to dampen it with that kind of discussion.

They sat side by side in silence and watched Al for the next few minutes. He continued to loop around the pitch, every dive clean and sharp, every turn perfectly executed. It was clear, even from a distance, that he knew what he was doing on a broom.

"I'm beginning to think he's inhuman," Scorpius said after a while.

"Al?" Rose laughed. "Why do you say that?"

"It's almost like he's perfect. He never argues with anyone. He's a Quidditch star. Everyone loves him. And he doesn't even have to try."

Rose shook her head. "Scorpius, with all due respect, you know nothing about Al. It's all about practise and effort for him, even with Quidditch. I remember when I was five, we went to his place for Christmas dinner. It was below freezing and snowing like nobody's business, but Al skipped hot chocolate by the fireplace to go outside and practise because he'd forgotten to earlier."

"That's ridiculous."

"It is. He's not nearly as calm and sensible as he lets on, either. He'll do everything in his power to get something he wants, even if it's beyond his reach. What's more, he's incapable of half-arsing things. If you try to stop him short of perfection, he can get downright nasty. Mum told me that one time he broke one of James's ribs in a fist fight just because James told him he'd never be an Auror." Rose sighed and tugged her robes tighter around her. "He's learned over time to tone it down in front of other people. Even so, his friends don't know him at all. Mind you, they think they do, and I don't blame them. Al's got this way of talking to you like he has nothing to hide. That's probably why everyone likes him so much."

For a while, Scorpius remained silent; he was stunned by this new information. Sure, he had been curious about Al's weak spots, but he had never once thought that Al might be hiding a completely different person beneath his unruffled exterior.

"I love him, though," Rose said, breaking the silence. "He's my favourite cousin."

"Really? What about Lily?"

"Oh, Lils is great, but she and I don't have that much in common. Well, except for our taste in men. She's developed a bit of a crush on you."

"What?" Scorpius squawked.

"Mhm. We Weasleys seem to have a thing for you."

"It's just the two of you," Scorpius said, confused.

"Right," Rose said, a little too quickly. "Oh, look, they're finished. They must've noticed us watching. Bollocks, I should've paid closer attention to their offensive plays." She stood up and dusted off her robes. "Come on, let's go down and say hi to Al."

"That's really not necessary," Scorpius protested, but he let Rose haul him to his feet. "What did you mean, by the way, about having the same taste in men as Lily?" he asked as they walked down to the pitch, brooms in hand.

"Oh, nothing." Rose must have correctly interpreted the expression on Scorpius's face, because she added, "I mean it, Scorpius. I'm over you." She punched his shoulder lightly. "It was fun while it lasted, but I like you a lot more as a friend than a boyfriend. Honestly, four months, and you only kissed me once."

"I'd have done it more if you'd asked me to!"

Rose rolled her eyes. "You really ought to ask Simon for some relationship pointers. I think you'd do well to learn what they entail before you enter your next one."

"What're you two bickering about?"

Both Scorpius and Rose turned to face Al, who had left his teammates and walked over to them.

"Good job out there, Al," Rose said. "We were just discussing Scorpius's shortcomings as a boyfriend."

"Oh?"

"I don't know what she's going on about," Scorpius muttered. His eyes unwillingly travelled up and down the length of Al's body, and he swallowed. Al looked too good for comfort in his Quidditch gear. "So, um, are you done for the day?"

Al raised his eyebrows just the slightest, but the gesture was enough to get the message across: the once-over Scorpius had given him had not gone unnoticed. "I was, but I'll join you two if you'd like."

"You don't need to –"

"That would be great," Rose interrupted, beaming at her cousin. She swung a leg over her broom and kicked off. "Come on, let's go!"

They played for an hour, tossing the Quaffle back and forth and switching positions every few minutes. It quickly became evident to Scorpius that Rose was right about Al not being a natural flier. His movements were flawless, no doubt, but it was a practised, polished sort of excellence that held none of the natural flying instinct his father was known for. As for the game itself, Al was not nearly as talented of a player when he wasn't Seeking, but he held his own against Scorpius and Rose, both of whom were average fliers but had more experience playing the other Quidditch positions.

By the time six thirty rolled around, the sun was beginning to set and the wind had picked up, so they decided to call it a day.

"You're a brilliant Seeker," Scorpius remarked as they made their way back to the castle. He adjusted his broom on his shoulder and cast a sidelong glance at Al. They had fallen several steps behind Rose, but Al didn't seem to be in any hurry to catch up.

"Thanks," Al said. He smiled, showing a dimple in his right cheek, and Scorpius couldn't help wondering how he could possibly be the person Rose had described earlier. This Al was so relaxed, so collected, so... self-assured.

They walked on in silence as night fell swiftly around them. The temperature was falling fast, and Scorpius couldn't keep his teeth from chattering audibly.

"You cold?"

Scorpius winced. He hated it when people fussed over him. "Rose tells me you used to fly a lot when you were a kid."

"Hey," Al said, placing a gloved hand on Scorpius's shoulder and stopping him, "there's no need to play it cool. Here..." quick as a flash, he unwrapped his scarf and tossed it at Scorpius, who caught it without thinking, "...take this."

"It's fine," Scorpius protested. He tried to give it back to Al, but Al shook his head. "I don't need it," Scorpius muttered, but he didn't make another attempt to return the scarf. Instead, he tightened his fingers around the thick, scratchy wool and examined it.

It was grey and green striped, and bore all the signs of a hand-knitted article of clothing. The material was still warm in places from Al's body heat. Scorpius was suddenly seized by the absurd urge to bury his face in it and find out what it smelled like. The moment the thought crossed his mind, he had to bite back a groan. What was wrong with him?

"D'you like Seeking?" he asked hurriedly.

"Yeah, it's great. Why?"

"Wish I was a Seeker," Scorpius sighed. Then, because Al was watching him expectantly, he wrapped the scarf loosely around his neck. He made sure to tilt his chin up to avoid smelling it. "You get to be the centre of attention. Everything rests on your shoulders."

"Is that why you want to be a Seeker?"

"Pretty much. Beating's fun, but no one really cares what the Beaters do."

"That's not true. Goyle and Kipps have saved my arse more times than I can count. I sure as hell care what they do. They're the best Beaters in Hogwarts; they deserve far more credit than you're giving them."

"Hardly the best," Scorpius said with a snort. "'Adequate' would be a better word. Macmillan and I are more than a match for them."

"Oh? That sounds like the makings of a bet, if you ask me."

Scorpius scoffed. "I don't need a stupid bet to prove that my Beating team trumps yours."

"So in other words, you're scared."

"As if I'd be scared by the likes of you!"

"Then bet on it. C'mon, Scorpius, stop being so uptight."

"Uptight?" Scorpius repeated, outraged. "You – you with all your aloof – the way you – you're telling me to stop being uptight?"

Al crossed his arms and leaned against the railing of the staircase behind him. He looked like he was enjoying watching Scorpius lose his temper. "Well?"

"No," Scorpius said, sniffing.

Al uncrossed his arms. "Too bad. And here I was, thinking everything was going so well..."

Scorpius blinked. "Eh?"

"Nothing."

"Don't whinge if you're not going to tell me. What do you mean?"

"Fine. Come here."

Sighing, Scorpius took a small step forwards and let out a sound of surprise when Al grabbed his wrist and jerked him closer.

"I was under the impression that you were flirting with me," Al whispered, his mouth a mere inch away from Scorpius's ear.

"It's probably just his fuck list or something."

Scorpius pushed Al away. "I wasn't," he said in a heated whisper. "I – I'm straight."

He glanced around nervously, but it didn't look like anyone in the hall was paying attention to their conversation. Even so, he took several steps sideways, putting a comfortable distance between him and Al.

Al reached out for his arm. "Scorpius –"

Scorpius twisted away. "You've got it wrong."

The amused glint in Al's eyes went out. "Fine. Sorry for assuming." He shoved his hands in his pockets, as if that was the only way he could keep them away from Scorpius. "One more thing. My dad's going to be at Hogsmeade this Sunday. He really wants to meet you."

Immediately, Scorpius's anger vanished. Had Al told his father about him? "Why?"

"Apparently your dad talks about you every time my dad drops by the apothecary."

"He does?" Scorpius said, dumbfounded. "What does he say?"

Al shrugged. "Why don't you come see Dad with me and ask him then? I mean, I know you might want to spend some time alone with your dad, but he and –"

"Wait, what?"

"Er..."

"Father's not coming to Hogsmeade."

Al frowned. "I could've sworn Dad said... well, never mind. I guess I heard wrong."

Scorpius's mind raced. If Father was going to be at Hogsmeade, why had he not mentioned it? A simple letter would have sufficed. Even though Scorpius had no desire to see his father, it still would have been nice to be informed ahead of people outside of the family. Or had Father been hoping to avoid him?

"In any case," Al said, looking uncomfortable, "you ought to come. Weina will be there, but I think she might leave early to go see some of her friends."

Scorpius forced himself to forget about his father for the moment. "I-I can't. I'm going to Hogsmeade with Simon."

"Then you can bring him along. He and Dad have met before, I think."

Scorpius looked away. "We've got other plans."

"Oh... all right."

Guilt twisted Scorpius's insides. An apology hovered on his tongue, but he couldn't say it. He didn't want to meet Al's eyes, didn't want to see the disappointment there.

Scorpius unwrapped the scarf and handed it to Al without looking at him. "Thanks for lending it to me."

Before Al could respond, he turned and hurried up the stairs.