Harry Potter spent the morning of his 18th birthday lying on his back in bed and staring listlessly up at the ceiling.
It had been nearly two months since the end of the War—the end of Voldemort—and Harry had thought that by now things would finally be easier. But instead, here he was, trying to convince himself that it was worth it to get up.
Sometimes it felt as though everyone except for him had managed to move on. To rebuild their lives and move forward. To leave the War behind. Ron had been accepted into the Auror program at the Ministry and was busy with training. Hermione had tracked down her parents in Australia and brought them home again. George had brought Lee in as a partner for his joke shop and they were working on expanding the business, and Ginny had been invited to attend the Holyhead Harpies summer training camp, and Luna and her father were busy rebuilding their home, and Neville and Hannah had surprised everyone by eloping. They’d returned a few weeks ago from their honeymoon in Spain and were just days away from the grand opening of their own little flower shop in Hogsmeade.
And here was Harry: alone on his birthday, lingering in the narrow little bed in what used to be Fred and George’s old room at the Burrow, trying and failing to make himself get up.
It was difficult not to feel a bit pathetic.
Harry sighed and rolled over, groping at the rickety little bedside table until his fingers closed around the smooth length of his wand. He cast a Cooling Charm, then dropped his wand back amongst the clutter on the table and turned over onto his side, burrowing down beneath the light summer quilt. If he was lucky, he might be able to drift off for another hour. Maybe even two.
He’d only just begun to slip into a light doze when the steady thump of footfalls coming up the stairs registered somewhere in the back of his brain. But before he could fully process what that meant, the door to his room flung open, bouncing off the corner of his trunk with a loud bang! that startled him fully awake in an instant. He jolted upright, heart pounding.
Molly Weasley stood framed in the open doorway, hands fisted on her hips. She looked disapprovingly around the room—at his open trunk half-blocking the doorway, at the piles of dirty laundry dropped haphazardly over every available surface, at the desk where an enormous stack of unopened letters and unread newspapers had accumulated, and finally at Harry himself, who sat helplessly in bed, blinking up at her a bit owlishly without his glasses on.
“Erm,” he said, trying to bunch the quilt modestly over his lap without making it obvious what he was doing or calling attention to the fact that he’d been sleeping in just his pants.
“Ten minutes,” Molly said firmly. “We’re having guests tonight and I could use your help in the kitchen.” With one final stern look at him, she flung a spell at the window to sweep the curtains open, flooding the room with bright sunshine. Then she turned on her heel and went thumping back down the stairs.
At a bit of a loss for what else to do, Harry put his glasses on, picked up his wand, and went to dig through his trunk for something clean to wear.
Nine minutes later, he appeared down in the kitchen where he found Molly up to her elbows in soapy dishwater, dealing with the last of the breakfast dishes.
“There’s tea, and some croissants left over from breakfast in the breadbox,” she said over her shoulder. “Fix yourself something to eat, and then we’ll get you started baking bread.”
“But I don’t know how to bake bread,” Harry said, plucking a clean mug from the dishrack and drying it off with a spell. The Dursleys had made him cook for them, but only in the mornings so Petunia could have a bit of a lie-in. They hadn’t trusted him with anything more complicated than breakfast, nor had they ever given him any real instruction for even that, so Harry had never learned anything beyond how to toss things into a cast iron pan and fry them until they were edible.
“Well today you’re going to learn,” Molly said, her voice cheerful but firm enough to brook no argument.
So Harry learned. The Weasley Family Cookbook was so well-worn that when Molly flipped to the proper page, the book lay flat on the counter without any further prompting. Following the recipe, augmented by Molly’s gentle guidance, he learned how to mix up the dough and how to knead it on the counter. While it was left to rise in a glass bowl with a threadbare tea towel draped over the top, Harry put the kettle on for more tea, and then Molly showed him how to mix up a quick batch of cream scones. She let Harry drop them in sticky spoonfuls onto a baking sheet, and then fifteen minutes later, they ate them still warm from the oven with strawberry jam.
Harry’s loaf of bread came out somewhat lopsided, and a little dense from having been over-kneaded, but Harry still thought it tasted fine. He thought that the chocolate cake they’d made next, moist layers spread with a thick fudge-y icing, came out much better.
“I know what you’re doing,” Harry said later that evening.
Arthur had gone into the sitting room with the newspaper, and Ron, exhausted from a full day of Auror training and preparing for another one tomorrow, had gone off to bed. Everyone else had gone home, and the Burrow was dim and quiet when Harry followed Molly into the kitchen and took up a tea towel to dry off the dishes as she washed them.
“Oh?” Molly prompted.
“You’re trying to keep me distracted,” he said.
Molly looked over at him. “Did it work?” she asked, even though he could tell from the half-smile on her face that she knew that it had.
“Yeah,” he said, setting aside the glass he held. “It did.”
“Good.” Molly handed him a dripping plate. “Then tomorrow you’re going to learn how to make a Swiss roll.”
Over the next few months, Swiss rolls weren’t the only things he learned to bake. Molly helped him through cakes and rolls, biscuits and buns and all sorts of pastries. Bread was still his favorite, though, and not simply because it’d been the first thing he’d learned how to make. It was the kneading he liked best, how he could lose himself in the rhythmic fold-push-turn, fold-push-turn, and he especially enjoyed sitting down for a nice cuppa and a chat with Molly while it rose.
Though it started as a way to keep himself occupied and distracted, it was almost an accident to discover that baking could also be something of a cure for his anxiousness. It happened on a blustery autumn evening in October, when he awoke from another nightmare. Almost before he knew what he was doing, Harry grabbed his glasses and wand from the bedside table and slipped out of bed, creeping quietly down the hall past Ron’s room and down the stairs to the kitchen.
The nightmare had been a bad one, one of those made up mostly of memories and somehow mixed up into something even worse than it had been in reality. Sitting in the warm glow and comfortable clutter of the Burrow’s kitchen with a nice hot cup of tea seemed about as far away from the scenes still replaying across the back of his mind as he could get. He needed that, before he went back into the dark, needed to remind himself of when and where he was now or he knew he’d tumble straight into another nightmare as soon as he closed his eyes.
After he got down to the kitchen and put the kettle on, Harry thumbed through the worn-out book of recipes, looking for something he might want to try tomorrow. And when he landed on a recipe for cinnamon buns, he thought, why not?
That was the first time. In the weeks that followed, baking steadily became something of a crutch for him. But it seemed a far better option than any of the other ways of coping that immediately came to mind. This wasn’t anything that’d likely land him in St Mungo’s, at least.
And it was nice to be appreciated for something he did himself, with nothing but his own two hands. He took crispy twice-baked shortbread over to Luna, and a peach crumble to Hermione and her parents. He brought lemon bars to the Longbottoms, and sent a whole pile of raspberry coconut macaroons to Ginny and the Harpies. And that was to say nothing of how much Ron appreciated it.
“Better than Mum’s,” he muttered to Harry as he stuffed another bite of rhubarb cobbler into his mouth, then glanced nervously over his shoulder. “Don’t tell ‘er I said that.”
Harry smothered a laugh. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Harry moved out of the Burrow at the end of the year. He’d resisted at first, but Ron was moving out. Even though Molly and Arthur had both assured Harry that he was more than welcome to live with them as long as he liked, he still felt a bit as though he’d be imposing on them to stay at the Burrow when all of their own children had moved out.
To be fair, he also felt sort of like he’d be imposing to move in with Ron and Hermione, who still hadn’t quite left the honeymoon phase of their relationship but had both insisted that they wanted Harry to live with them. The fact that they’d be living in a house that Harry owned mitigated most of his guilt, and Grimmauld Place was more than big enough for the three of them. They’d picked out bedrooms on separate floors, and since they’d all have their own space, Harry didn’t feel as though he’d be crowding them.
He was just wrangling the last of his belongings into his trunk when a light tapping on the doorframe drew his attention. Molly stood there, holding something behind her back.
He expected something baked, or something knitted, and he was startled when she instead gave him her cookbook.
“Oh,” said Harry, running his thumb along the fraying edge of the cloth-bound cover. “This is—I mean—“ He had to pause and clear his throat. “I love it, but. Didn’t you want to keep this for someone in your family?”
The look Molly gave him was one part pitying and about five parts exasperated. “Harry,” she said. “You are family.”
“Oh,” Harry repeated, feeling touched and humbled and thoroughly wrong-footed.
Thankfully, Molly Weasley had never been one to let another person’s awkwardness stand in her way. She swept Harry up into a hug and squeezed him tight, and Harry hugged her back and let himself have this, let himself be held and loved.
“Thank you,” he said, and Molly squeezed him tighter.
And the last of Harry’s anxiety about moving into Grimmauld Place melted away. The future felt much less scary when he knew that he’d always have a home to come back to, no matter what.
When the clock struck six and Ron still hadn’t come home yet, Harry gave up trying to wait patiently. He’d already made a huge pile of blueberry muffins to take off the worst edge of his anxiety, but he’d wasted the last half-hour pacing uselessly. He might as well do something productive with himself while he waited.
They were meant to go over to the Burrow after this, and Harry knew that there’d be plenty of desserts there already, but it was a celebration. One more cake would be fine.
Harry gathered up the ingredients he’d need to make a raspberry swirl cheesecake, and collected the mixing bowl and measuring spoons from where they’d been drying by the sink. Then he got to work, burning off some of his restlessness by using a rolling pin to whack a pile of graham crackers into fine crumbs.
He mixed them together with some melted butter and some sugar, pressing the mixture into the bottom of the springform pan he’d lined with parchment paper, and gave his hands a cursory wipe on the thighs of his jeans before he realized he wasn’t wearing an apron. “Shit,” he said, wiping at the greasy spots, and only succeeded in spreading more butter on himself. “Shit.”
“Sounds like you’re having the sort of day that I’ve had,” Ron said as he came down the last few steps into the kitchen. He flung his crimson Auror robes onto the table in a clatter of brass buttons, then sagged onto the long bench and rubbed at his eyes, sighing, “Bloody hell.”
“That awful?” Harry asked, sliding the springform pan into the oven and closing the door. He grabbed his wand and set an alarm for ten minutes. “I thought you said the final exams went well.”
“They did,” Ron groaned as Harry went to fetch the rest of his ingredients. “The problem is who else they went well for.”
“Oh,” said Harry, freezing halfway back across the kitchen with his handful of eggs and cream cheese, and the canister of sugar tucked precariously under his elbow. “Oh no.”
“Oh yes,” Ron said.
“They didn’t. They couldn’t.”
“They can and they did,” Ron said. “I’ve got no idea why anyone thought that Malfoy and I would make good partners, but here we are. And I can assure you that the only person less pleased about it than me is him.”
As awful as it was, Harry spared a moment to be extremely grateful that he had decided against joining the Aurors, because this was exactly the sort of miserable luck that usually hounded him. Back when Ron had applied to the Auror program, Harry had just been too bone-deep exhausted to join him. Truthfully it was still a decision he struggled with, but right now he couldn’t feel anything but relief.
“What are you going to do?” he asked, carefully transferring his armload of ingredients onto the counter.
“Honestly?” Ron said, mouth twisting sourly as though this pained him to say, “I’m hoping that the git goes running straight to daddy, and he pulls some strings in the Ministry to get us unassigned to each other.”
“And if he can’t?” Harry asked. The Malfoys had lost quite a bit of their standing post-War, so Harry didn’t think it likely. Malfoy was probably lucky he’d even been allowed into the Auror program to begin with.
“Grin and bear it as best I can, I suppose,” Ron sighed. “And then put in for a transfer as soon as I can get away with.”
Harry grimaced. “That still sounds awful.” He tapped the rotary whisk with his wand and set it to a medium speed, then began adding ingredients to the mixing bowl.
“Yeah,” Ron sighed, slumping against the table. “Yeah, it will be.”
For a few minutes, there was nothing but the whir of the rotary whisk working away, and then Ron groaned loudly.
“I’m going to have to tell Mum and Dad,” he said, looking plaintively at Harry.
Harry grimaced, and suddenly dreaded this evening. From his understanding, the Malfoys and the Weasleys had been embroiled in a blood feud that spanned at least five generations, possibly more, and the War had only stoked the conflict. To find out that their youngest son would be not only working with the sole Malfoy heir, but put in a position where Ron was expected to trust Draco Malfoy with his very life, well, Harry couldn’t imagine that particular revelation going anywhere but sideways.
“Yeah,” he said awkwardly, eventually, and they lapsed back into silence.
The timer went off, and Ron helpfully went to fetch the pan from the oven while Harry finished pureeing the raspberries. When he finished with them, Harry tapped the hot pan with his wand to cool it, and noticed an errant corner of parchment paper poking out of the bottom. He pulled the lever to release the top of the springform pan and adjusted the stray bit of parchment paper, then pushed it closed again.
Then he picked up the mixing bowl and poured the cheesecake batter into the pan, and carefully smoothed it with his spatula. He poured the raspberry puree on top and then dragged the tip of the spatula through it, making elegant swirls, and couldn’t help but pause for a moment to admire his work. Oh, that was lovely. He couldn’t wait to see how it came out once it was baked.
Harry picked up the spring form pan and turned toward the oven, and made it two steps before the bottom fell out. Cheesecake batter splattered across the floor, oozing cold and sticky across Harry’s bare toes and spattering the cuffs of his jeans, leaving him standing and staring dumbly down at the mess, still holding uselessly to the empty ring.
“Yeah,” sighed Ron from across the kitchen. There was a thump as he dropped his head to the table. “That seems about right.”
“Harry, have you seen—”
Harry gave Hermione a flat look and whacked at his lump of dough with a rolling pin.
“Ah,” she said, dumping her load of textbooks onto the table before crossing the kitchen. “So you have seen it.”
“Yeah,” Harry muttered, giving the dough another couple of whacks before pushing the rolling pin down into the middle of it and giving it a good shove.
Honestly, he had no idea why he even bothered to read the Prophet anymore. Especially the day after he’d made the mistake of going out to lunch with Hermione on Valentine’s Day.
This morning’s paper had run a front-page spread of photographs of the two of them tucked away at a tiny table in the corner, accompanied by an elaborate story all about how they were engaged in a salacious affair and poor Ron Weasley had no idea. The tone of it was snidely smug, as if the writer were letting the reader in on a very juicy secret, and it was that blatant disrespect to Ron that had pushed Harry over the edge. How thick did they think Ron was that he’d somehow miss a whole article published on the front page of the bloody paper?
“Tea?” Hermione asked, plunking the kettle down onto the cooker with a clang.
“Why not,” Harry said without looking at her. He pressed harder into the dough, rolling it flat. “I’ve already got a mug, here,” he added, gesturing to where he’d made a cup of tea earlier, and then let it go cold.
Hermione came to fetch it, cleaning it out with a murmured spell. A few minutes later she returned it to him, freshly filled and steaming hot.
“Thanks,” he said. He prodded at his dough. There were visible little lumps of butter throughout, and he couldn’t recall whether it’d looked like this the couple of times he’d made pies with Molly over the summer. Shrugging, Harry kept rolling it out. It’d probably be fine.
“No one takes that paper seriously, you know,” Hermione said, hopping up to sit on the counter nearby.
Carefully, Harry slid his hands under the rolled-out dough and draped it over the empty pie tin he had waiting. “You know that’s not true,” he said, gently pressing the dough into shape.
“Well. No one who matters take that paper seriously, then,” Hermione said, and sipped her tea. “Do you want me to go threaten them for you? Because I will.”
Harry took a few long moments to savor the image of Hermione bursting into the offices of the Daily Prophet and putting the fear of god into them. “No,” he said, smiling. “But thanks.” He sprinkled the counter with more flour and plunked his second lump of dough down.
Upstairs, the front door slammed shut. Footsteps crossed overhead and then came thumping down the stairs.
“Hey, Harry—” Ron began as he crossed the kitchen to them.
“He’s already seen,” Hermione put in.
“Oh,” Ron said, and took a minute to observe Harry banging his rolling pin around. “Do you want me to go down there and have a word with them?” he asked.
“No,” Harry sighed. “Hermione already offered, anyhow.”
“With her schedule?” Ron asked, hauling Hermione close to smack a kiss against the side of her head. “She really does love you. Maybe the paper’s on to something there.”
Hermione snorted, and Harry whacked his rolling pin against the dough a few more times before he said, “That’s not funny.”
“It sort of is,” Ron said, plucking Hermione’s mug of tea from her hands and taking an obnoxious slurp from it. “I mean, I know I’m busy with work, but we all live in the same house. I’m pretty sure I’d notice if you two were… well, you know.”
“Well, you are an Auror,” Hermione said, stealing back her mug. “I’d hope you’d be able to add the clues together.”
Ron snorted. “That’s what Malfoy said about it.”
Harry scowled and viciously whacked at his dough.
This had been happening more and more often lately. Ron still talked plenty about how awful it was to be partnered with Malfoy, but then these little asides kept slipping out when he talked about his day. Harry knew that it made sense. Ron and Malfoy had come to a grudging truce shortly after they’d got stuck together, and for better or for worse, Malfoy was now part of Ron’s daily routine. Of course he’d come up in conversation.
That didn’t mean that Harry had to enjoy hearing about the git. He still thought Malfoy was awful, and was perfectly fine with that.
He finished rolling out his dough and turned to the bowl of cherries he’d left marinating with some sugar and lemon juice, dumped them into the pie tin, then laid the second sheet of rolled-out dough over the top. Using his wand, he sliced off the excess from around the edges and cut a little starburst shape into the center. Then he crimped the crust neatly and set his wand aside. The pie went into the oven, and Harry sighed and sagged against the counter.
He should go wipe down the flour-strewn counter, wash the utensils he’d dirtied. But with the pie in the oven, he couldn’t quite find the energy to make himself do it.
“Harry?” Hermione asked. “Are you all right?”
The words I’m fine floated on the tip of his tongue, and it was an effort to bite them back. Because he wasn’t fine, and if he couldn’t tell his two best friends in the entire world, then who could he tell?
“I’m just tired,” Harry admitted. “I’m tired of everything.”
Ron and Hermione were both on their feet in a moment, and it was Ron who wrapped Harry up in a hug and held him tight. All of the Weasleys gave the most wonderful hugs, and Harry was only a little embarrassed at how quickly he found himself clinging to his friend. A moment later, Hermione pressed herself to his side, one arm around Harry’s back and one arm around Ron’s, so that Harry was surrounded by warmth and love.
“And I shouldn’t be,” Harry went on after a long moment. “I’m not even—doing anything, I’m not—I’m not like you two, I’m not—”
Ron stepped back so he could look Harry in the eye, but Hermione stayed close, keeping one arm around him.
“You’ve done enough. You know that, right?” Ron said, and beside him, Hermione nodded.
Harry forced himself to take a deep breath. “But I could do more. I should have—” —joined the Aurors with you, he would have finished, but was cut off by a shrieking alarm.
All three of them startled. In a flash they all had their wands in hand, and for Harry the realization that the sound was the fire alarm came on the heels of seeing the way that smoke was seeping up from the oven.
“Shit!” he yelped, and dove for it. He yanked the door open and a hazy cloud of smoke poured out. Behind him, Ron and Hermione were flinging spells at the Fire Alarm Charm woven into the ceiling, and a few seconds later it went blessedly quiet.
In the oven, the pie was dripping butter, and a puddle on the floor of the oven had already turned black and was still smoking.
Harry sat down on the floor.
“You know what?” Hermione said briskly, coming up beside him. She had the pie Vanished, the smoke cleared, the inside of the oven Scourgify-ed, and the empty tin in the sink in about two seconds. “I feel like ice cream. Let’s go to Fortescue’s.”
Harry looked up at her. “It’s February.”
“That’s what Warming Charms are for,” she said, tugging on Harry’s arm and pulling him reluctantly to his feet. “Come along. Fortescue’s.”
“You know we’ll probably be photographed, don’t you?” he said as she steered him towards the stairs.
“Good,” she said. “Let them. Maybe tomorrow there’ll be an article about how we’re a threesome.”
That startled a laugh out of Harry. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Harry, I’m fine,” Ron said for what felt like the dozenth time.
“You’re not fine,” Harry said, turning to glare across the kitchen, because he wasn’t. Even now, two days after he’d been discharged from St Mungo’s, Ron was still moving gingerly, tender and aching as he finished healing. The sight of him sitting stiffly at the table made Harry’s breath catch, made a surge of directionless panic fizzle through him. It was over now, he reminded himself, and even though Ron wasn’t completely fine yet, he would be.
But he’d nearly died yesterday. He’d nearly died and instead of being there to watch his back, Harry had been right here at home. He’d swept all the floors and dusted, and then done his laundry. And while he’d been here, singing along with the wireless and folding his pants, Ron had been nearly killed.
Harry’s brain provided him with a full Technicolor vision of it: Ron lying on the ground, struggling to breathe with half his ribs cracked, all alone—
Except he hadn’t been alone. And Harry’s temper flared up all over again.
“He’s your partner,” he said, whacking the dough against the counter and giving it a vicious shove. At this point it was almost certainly overworked, and Harry did not care. “He’s supposed to take care of you.”
Hermione and Ron exchanged a look, and Harry scowled at his dough, trying to lose himself in the soothing rhythm of turn-fold-push, turn-fold-push.
“Isn’t that the whole point of working in pairs? He’s supposed to take care of you,” Harry repeated.
“Malfoy ended up in St Mungo’s, same as me, mate,” Ron said. “He did his best.”
Harry slammed the dough against the counter again. “Well his best’s not good enough then, is it?”
“You know there was an investigation,” Ron said wearily. “They cleared him.”
Harry did know that. Any time an Auror was injured on the job, the department did an investigation to make sure that it wasn’t the result of negligence.
“Only because you spoke up for him,” Harry said. “I thought you couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Well, here was your chance.” Even as he said it, he knew that was going too far. Ron took his job seriously, and Harry knew—he knew—that if Ron had spoken up for Malfoy, then he honestly believed Malfoy innocent of any negligence. To suggest that Ron ought to have lied about it for his own personal benefit was a shitty thing to do, and Harry fully deserved for Ron to tell him off for it.
Instead, Ron stood up with a groan. “I’m going to go upstairs and rest,” he said. “We can talk about this later when you’re feeling ready to be reasonable about it. But we’re just going round in circles here and… I can’t again, not right now.”
Hermione was by Ron’s side in an instant, and Harry could see her practically biting her tongue to stay out of this. Instead, she wordlessly tucked her shoulder under Ron's arm and helping to steady him as he began to make his laborious way up the stairs. Their footsteps creaked by overhead and Harry’s throat felt tight with the urge to scream. He wanted to throw something. Instead he went back to punching at the dough.
He wasn’t being fair. He knew that, and could admit it to himself down here, alone in the kitchen. This was the biggest reason he’d been second-guessing his decision to not join the Aurors after the War. He and Ron and Hermione had spent seven years saving each other, and Harry had mostly made his peace with the idea of stepping back and letting someone else watch Ron’s back in his stead. Aurors went through years of rigorous training, he’d reasoned. Whoever Ron’s partner ended up being would be more than qualified to keep him safe when Harry couldn’t.
Instead, the Ministry, desperate to replenish the witches and wizards they’d lost, had rushed their newest batch of trainees through with only seven months of training. And then out of all of them, Ron had been assigned Malfoy. And after Harry’s initial reaction of relief that it wasn’t him stuck with Malfoy, Harry had been mired in a mix of misplaced guilt and anger at his own shortcomings. That Ron was stuck with Malfoy keeping him safe, when Harry ought to have been there to do it himself.
Harry stilled, one hand still resting on the dough.
Malfoy made a very convenient target for that anger. But as much as Harry wished that he could blame him for everything wrong in his life, it wasn’t Malfoy’s fault that after that final battle, Harry had felt like a car that’d run out of road. His whole life up to that point had been clearly laid out before him, and when he’d found himself finished with no prophesy and no war to further guide his way, he’d come to a stop. And by the time he’d been able to make himself start moving forward again, it felt like everyone else had moved on so far ahead of him he’d never catch up.
It was hard not to feel angry with himself for that. If he’d just pushed himself a little harder. If he hadn’t let himself come to a stop like that. Maybe things now would be different. Harry would be an Auror and Ron would be his partner, and he’d never have let Ron get hurt like that.
Harry gave the bread dough another half-hearted punch. He could sit here and play what-if all afternoon, but that didn’t change the fact that he owed Ron an apology. Ron trusted Malfoy, and Harry trusted Ron. If Ron said that Malfoy had done all he could, then Harry had to take his word for it.
Biting his lip, Harry looked up at the ceiling as if he could stare straight through it. Ron had said he was going to rest, so Harry would leave him to it. This would give him enough time to work through the dregs of his own lingering anger. He’d apologize later, when he’d be able to mean it wholeheartedly. In the meantime, the afternoon was getting on, and if Harry didn’t get the dough finished and left to rise soon, they wouldn’t have any bread with their dinner.
Turning, he picked up the lump of overworked dough and dropped it into the bin.
Then he reached for the bag of flour and started over.
It was the fucking troll all over again.
Back during the first couple months of their first year at Hogwarts, Ron had talked all the time about how much he disliked Hermione. How annoying he found her, what a bloody know-it-all she was. He’d complained endlessly that she’d ended up in Gryffindor and he had to share all his classes and a common room with her. Why couldn’t she have gone off to Ravenclaw where she clearly belongs? he’d lamented.
And then the troll had happened.
After that, Ron and Hermione had still had their differences. He still found her annoying sometimes, and he still hated it when she’d acted like a know-it-all. But she’d become his know-it-all, and woe betide anyone else who spoke a word against her.
Ron’s change of heart over Malfoy wasn’t quite so extreme, but that case they’d worked in March that’d ended with both of them in St Mungo’s had clearly been a turning point in their relationship.
Today was a Thursday, and Thursdays were always their night for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to have dinner together as a household. Sometimes it felt a bit silly for them to set aside time to spend together, seeing as how the three of them all lived together. But Hermione was taking the maximum number of classes the university would allow her to take, and Ron was kept busy between his full-time work as an Auror and the “continuing education” classes all the recently-promoted trainees were strongly encouraged to take. They were, essentially, all the classes that the Ministry hadn’t managed to squeeze into their seven months of training, just dressed up with new names and everyone pretending they were supplementary rather than essential.
(“Continuing education? More like completing your education, what the fuck,” Harry had said when Ron had revealed the newest additions to his schedule, and Ron had sighed and said, “Yeah, that’s what Malfoy said, too.”)
But on Thursdays, Hermione didn’t have a night class, and Ron didn’t have any of his classes scheduled after his shift ended, and Harry… well, Harry was always free. Other than Sunday afternoons at the Burrow, these Thursday nights were the only things he had scheduled.
Which made it all the more of a blow when Ron came home and announced that they’d just closed a case and some of the people he worked with were going out for a celebratory pint. Harry was welcome to join them—Hermione had already agreed to it—and then they could all three stop off afterward and get dinner together as usual.
Harry had grudgingly accepted the change in plans until he’d found out that Malfoy would be there as well.
Now he was downstairs angrily peeling apples to throw together an apple cake, while Ron had run up to his room to change out of his Auror robes.
Harry finished with the apple he held, and cored it neatly with a spell. He really ought to invest in a Muggle apple corer; Petunia had had one, and he remembered the way she’d slam it through the apples whenever she got in another tiff with the neighbor. It looked enormously satisfying.
Well. This recipe called for beating egg whites until stiff, and Harry fully intended to make up for is lack of an apple corer by doing that by hand.
Overhead, he heard Ron come thundering down the stairs from his bedroom to the ground floor.
Just go, Harry thought at him. Don’t come down here, just go away.
No such luck. The floor creaked overhead as Ron came down the hall, and then down the stairs to the kitchen. Harry grabbed another apple and began peeling it in vicious swipes.
“I’m off now,” Ron said, lingering in the doorway. “Are you sure you don’t want to come.”
“I’m sure,” Harry said tightly.
He didn’t even have to look to know that Ron had just rolled his eyes at him. He’d been doing that a lot, lately, as if Harry were being so unreasonable for not wanting to spend time around the arsehole who’d done his level best to make Harry’s life miserable at Hogwarts.
(“He’s changed,” Ron had said the last time they’d had a conversation about it.
“No one can change that much,” Harry had replied, and Ron had rolled his eyes about it and told him, “Yeah, but he has, and you’d see that if you’d just give him a chance.”)
Harry didn’t want to give him a chance. In his darker moments, Harry sometimes wondered whether Malfoy could possibly be both ballsy enough to pull off an Imperio on a fellow Auror and talented enough to have got away with it for this long.
“All right,” Ron said. “Well. We’re going to be at the Kettle and Cauldron, if you change your mind.”
“I won’t,” said Harry.
“Fine. We’ll be back later, then.”
Ron’s footsteps went back up the stairs. Harry barely caught the murmur of voices, and then the Floo flared twice.
He went back to peeling apples.
Once the apple cake was in the oven, Harry ate a thoroughly unsatisfying dinner of leftover sandwiches and then took care of the washing up. The cake he left untouched, preserved under a mild Warming Charm for Ron and Hermione when they got home.
He hoped that Ron came home and saw it and felt guilty as fuck for choosing Malfoy over Harry.
For Harry, the first anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts began at seven minutes past midnight when he jolted awake from a nightmare. It hadn’t even been a bad one, at least by the usual scale of his nightmares. Usually when he dreamed of that night, he dreamed of Fred. He dreamed of Nagini. He dreamed of the long rows of bodies laid out in the Great Hall. He dreamed of Bellatrix and Molly’s duel, of Lavender falling and Greyback going after her, of that frantic broom ride out of the Room of Requirement with Malfoy’s arms clasped tight around his waist Fiendfyre on his heels and acrid smoke billowing around them.
Tonight’s dream had been almost tame in comparison. He’d been walking through the Forbidden Forest and had somehow got turned around. In the dream he hadn’t crossed paths with a helpful pair of Death Eaters to follow back to Voldemort. Everything had been quiet and peaceful and dark, and Harry had just kept wandering and wandering.
He opened his eyes to darkness and silence, and for one long, awful moment, he thought he was still there. The world resolved itself in a rush, the soft mattress beneath him, the warm sheets and blankets he’d kicked away in the night, and he knew where and when he was again. Harry flung himself out of bed and groped for his glasses and wand, shoved his feet into his slippers and threw on his dressing gown. As quietly as he could, he crept from his bedroom and down to the kitchen.
Just being down here made him feel incrementally better. Harry always kept the kitchen fastidiously tidy, everything organized away and kept in its proper place, leaving the long counters clean and shining and ready for him to get straight to work. He already knew what he was going to do—he always started off with the same thing on nights like this—but Harry still got out Molly’s old cloth-bound recipe book and sat down at the table where he leafed through it until his hands stopped shaking.
He thought, as he always did, about that first morning back in August when he’d crept down to the Burrow’s kitchen and made a batch of cinnamon rolls. He’d only picked that recipe because of the timing; with how long the dough needed to rise, they’d be going into the oven right around when Molly and Arthur and Ron would be getting up, and they’d all be able to have warm rolls for breakfast.
Some nights Harry found himself in need of different things, and had learned by now to adjust accordingly. He’d make something complicated when he needed to be distracted from his own thoughts. He’d make something tedious when he needed to calm down. He’d make something simple and fragrant when he needed comfort. But he always started off with those rolls.
Sometimes he changed up the filling, trying out apple-cinnamon, or cranberry-orange instead of the usual cinnamon-sugar, but the dough was always the same and by now Harry could make it from memory alone.
He’d just got it mixed up and turned out onto the floured counter for kneading when light footsteps crossed by overhead. A prickling grew between his shoulder blades and didn’t ease until Hermione came into view.
“Bad dream?” she asked.
Harry jerked one shoulder in half a shrug.
“Tea?” Hermione asked a moment later when he didn’t answer beyond that.
Harry thought for a moment. A nice hot cuppa with plenty of milk would soothe him, perhaps even enough that he could go back to sleep.
He shook his head. “Coffee, if you don’t mind.”
“Sounds perfect,” said Hermione, and went digging through the cabinet for their old battered percolator.
And that brought with it a different set of memories, once she got it set up on the cooker. The sound of it gurgling away, the scent of coffee slowly suffusing the air—that kicked him straight back to those terrible months spent camping as they hunted Horcruxes. Those long nights spent sitting in the cold outside the tent, Hermione’s wand clenched tight in this fist, ears straining for the sound of footsteps, startling at the sound of every rustling branch and snapping twig, drinking endless cups of bitter black coffee to stay awake when even the paranoia wasn’t enough to keep him from yawning.
Harry shuddered despite himself and took a deep breath. He was here, he was safe, and it was all over.
He did his best to lose himself in kneading for the next few minutes, then dumped the dough into an oiled bowl and sealed the top with a charm. Another couple of charms cleaned his hands and the counter.
Hermione passed him a steaming mug, lightened to a soft brown by a generous splash of cream. Harry spooned in sugar and gave it a stir, and took a sip. “Thanks,” he murmured, sliding the sugar canister closer to Hermione.
She took it and spooned sugar into her own mug, then slid it back to him. “Are you taking requests?”
Harry paused for a moment to take stock of himself, then shrugged. “Sure. What did you have in mind?”
“Cherry clafoutis?” Hermione asked hopefully.
That fell firmly into the third category of baking that Harry tended to do: simple and good-smelling.
“Sure,” he said again, and went to fetch cherries.
He’d just finished twisting the stems off them when the floorboards overhead creaked, and Harry grabbed his wand. Even though he knew better, he wasn’t able to force his grip on it to relax until Ron came shuffling down the stairs.
“Couldn’t sleep either?” Hermione asked.
“Smelled coffee,” Ron said through a yawn. “Woke me up.”
Neither Harry nor Hermione disagreed with him, even though he was holding himself tensely and hadn’t put down his wand.
“There’s plenty left,” Hermione said instead.
Ron grunted vaguely in thanks and fetched himself a mug. When he’d finished pouring himself a cup, he went to the table and sat down beside Hermione. A swish of his wand turned on the wireless perched precariously up atop a cabinet, and another swish turned the volume down low.
Upstairs, the clock chimed one. The night outside was still dark and quiet, and there were still hours to go till morning, but the kitchen was warm and bright, and Harry had Ron and Hermione right here beside him.
“Why did I ever agree to this,” Harry muttered, eyeing the batch of chocolate hazelnut biscotti lying innocuously on a platter in the middle of the table.
The biscotti didn’t answer, nor did the empty kitchen around him.
That was fine, because he didn’t have an answer, either. Over the last few months, pub nights had become a regular part of Ron’s week. Hermione tagged along when she was able, but Harry never had. He didn’t like the idea of spending time around a bunch of Aurors—Harry didn’t want to be one himself, but sometimes a sense of misplaced guilt still snuck up on him—and he really didn’t like the idea of spending time around Malfoy.
Over time, Ron’s casual invitations had become nudges, and then the nudges had given way to cajoling, which had eventually become outright pestering.
Harry had finally given in last night, but only because Ron had promised that if Harry went out one time, just once, then Ron would never say another word about him ever going out again.
Last night he’d been annoyed about it, and that had carried him through most of today. But this afternoon, in the hours before Ron got home from work, Harry had been all nerves. This would be the first time he’d seen Malfoy since the Battle of Hogwarts, and the idea of facing him scared him almost more than facing Voldemort had. At least with Voldemort, it’d been clear what would happen; Voldemort would try to kill him, and—aside from that last long walk into the Forbidden Forest—Harry would do everything he could to stay alive. Tonight with Malfoy was a complete unknown, and Harry had never done well with those.
He’d managed to calm down somewhat by keeping himself occupied with the biscotti, but now he was finished and already itching to do something else. But he didn’t have time. Ron had come home and run upstairs to shower and change and would be back down any minute. And then it would be time to leave.
Harry didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to go out tonight, and he didn’t want to see Malfoy, and for an instant he was so angry at Ron for pushing him into this.
But no, Harry told himself, and took a deep breath. It’d be best to get it out of the way like this, in a relaxed setting and with Ron and Hermione by his side. It was something of a miracle that he’d made it this long without bumping into Malfoy out in public yet. The Wizarding section of London wasn’t big enough for Harry to believe that his luck would last forever.
And besides. He’d promised Ron he’d go tonight.
“Harry!” Ron bellowed from upstairs, right on cue. “Are you ready?”
“Coming!” Harry called back, and cast one last look around his kitchen before he started up the stairs.
The morning of his own birthday party found Harry in the kitchen, making his own cake. Molly was making him one too, but there’d be enough people attending that they’d need two cakes, and Harry had been looking forward to doing one of them himself. He’d decided on a strawberry chiffon shortcake, and had just finished up the batter.
Ron, lingering over a cup of tea after he’d finished his breakfast, was also down here, currently making an enormous nuisance of himself.
“Mum teaching you to bake was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, swiping his finger through the batter that Harry had just finished pouring into one of three cake pans.
Harry tapped the spatula with his wand, and it leapt up from the counter and smacked Ron’s hand.
“Ow!” Ron yelped, shaking out his stinging fingers
“Baking’s not the only thing I’ve learned from your mum,” Harry said mildly as the spatula gave Ron’s hands another couple of whacks, followed up with a firm swat across the seat of his trousers.
Harry looked ceilingward, as if praying. “Thank you, Molly,” he said as the spatula returned itself to the counter.
Ron scowled and rubbed exaggeratedly at his backside. “Arsehole,” he muttered.
“Says the one swiping batter from my cake,” Harry retorted. He slipped the pans into the oven, set his timer, and then turned to the heaping pile of strawberries he’d need to slice.
Still grumbling, Ron got a second knife from the drawer and came up next to Harry to help. They quickly fell into a rhythm, with Ron trimming the leaves from each berry before passing it to Harry, who cut it into neat slices.
With the smell of baking cake slowly suffusing the air, berry juice staining his fingers and his best friend at his side, Harry couldn’t imagine that it got much better than this, and all the awful birthdays he spent alone, moping in his cupboard, felt almost worth it, because they’d led him here. To this. If only his younger self could see him now, Harry thought. This was already his best birthday yet.
While Harry had done as much of the cake in advance as he could, he’d been afraid that it would get soggy if he finished the whole thing and then let it sit until it was time to eat it.
So now here he was, hiding away in the kitchen mid-party. He had three layers of cake, a bowl of sliced strawberries, and a batch of freshly whipped cream laid out before him. It wouldn’t take long to assemble, and honestly it was nice to have a bit of a break. Harry loved his friends, but the house was loud and crowded, and he already felt better for having taken a few minutes for himself. To take a few breaths and regroup.
When footsteps came down the stairs a few minutes later, Harry expected Ron or Hermione, or maybe one of the Weasleys.
It was quite a surprise to see Malfoy.
Harry hadn’t expected Malfoy to show up at all. Ron had talked Harry into letting him extend an invitation to Malfoy to be polite, and they'd both been surprised when Malfoy had actually accepted. Malfoy and Harry had crossed paths on two pub nights Harry had joined Ron on, but they hadn’t spoken more than a few words to each other.
“Erm,” he said as Malfoy came a few steps closer.
“Listen, Potter,” Malfoy said, then hesitated. He cast a spell on the stairs.
“What was that?” Harry asked, cutting off whatever Malfoy had been about to say.
“Repelling Spell,” Malfoy said. “It’s harmless. Anyone who tries to come down here is going to realize that they urgently need the toilet, that’s all.”
Harry gave him a look. “You do know there’s only two in the house, don’t you?”
“Well then I hope that no more than two people try to come down here in the next few minutes,” Malfoy said. “Listen, Potter. I wanted to apologize.”
“Apologize?” Harry repeated.
Malfoy shifted his weight. “Yes,” he said. Then. “I’m sorry.”
Harry stared. “You’re sorry? For what?”
“For—Good Merlin, for. Well, you know.” He waved one hand vaguely. “All of it.”
“All of… what?”
Malfoy coughed out a sound of disbelief. “Would you like me to give you the complete list? We’d be here all afternoon, you’d miss the rest of your party.” He huffed, then drew himself up again. “Look, I’m rather bad at this—“
“I can see that,” Harry said, feeling utterly bewildered by what was happening.
Malfoy scowled, but didn’t rise to the bait. “I’m sorry for how I treated you at school, the things I said to you, and for breaking your nose that one time, and for—Merlin, for probably a thousand things I don’t even remember but you do, and that’s what I’m sorry for. I did things without even thinking twice about them, and they hurt people, and I knew that and sometimes I even did them because they hurt people and—why are you laughing?”
“Because you really are bad at this,” Harry managed. He had no idea what about this was funny. Probably that the whole thing was so surreal. Malfoy apologizing. Harry would have bet every last Knut in his vault that pigs would fly, first.
“Well. I said I was,” Malfoy said, expression caught somewhere between relieved and offended.
“This doesn’t make it okay, you know,” Harry said a moment later, all seriousness now. “You might be sorry about it now, but it doesn’t make up for all the things you’ve done.”
“I know,” Malfoy said quickly. “I know it doesn’t. But I hope that it can be a start.”
Harry looked at him, really looked at him, then. Malfoy held himself stiffly, but there was something determined about the set of his chin, in the steadiness of his gaze. He’s changed, Ron had said, over and over. The things he’d done in the past had been awful. He’d been awful. But if he’d changed, or was trying to change, then Harry thought that maybe it was time to see whether that was true.
After all, Ron Weasley of all people was convinced that he had. And Harry trusted Ron.
“Yeah,” he said, and held out his hand. “All right. This can be a start.”
Malfoy’s palm was warm against his own, his grip firm but not tight. “Thank you,” he said quietly as he let go a second later.
“You’re welcome,” Harry said, his palm still tingling with the ghost of Malfoy’s touch. “Now take that bloody spell off my stairs.”
Yawning, Harry went downstairs, and came up short as he passed by the living room. There was a person on the sofa. Harry couldn’t see anything besides the tip of a sock-clad foot trailing from the cocoon of blankets, but it definitely looked too tall to be Hermione, and Harry didn’t think it was Ron either. The only time Ron had ever slept on the sofa had been when he’d come down with a bad cold and couldn’t stop coughing, and had slept downstairs so he wouldn’t keep Hermione awake since she had an exam the following morning.
Cautiously, Harry edged closer to the sofa, and his breath caught when he drew close enough to catch a glimpse of white-blond hair half-buried in the blankets.
“What the fuck,” he mouthed to himself, because Harry only knew of one person in the world with hair that color.
(Well, two people, but the idea of Lucius Malfoy asleep on his sofa made even less sense than Draco Malfoy being there.)
Cautiously, Harry backed out of the room, feeling very weird about the whole thing. It felt very strange to have seen Malfoy asleep, as if Harry had intruded on him in a vulnerable moment, with some soft, hidden part of himself exposed. Which was ridiculous, because Harry hadn’t seen anything of him other than a tousle of blond hair poking out from the top of the blankets and the tip of one socked foot coming out of the bottom. Any anyhow, it was his house.
Harry tip-toed down to the kitchen. Scones. That’d be something relatively quick and relatively easy he could make for breakfast, something to keep him occupied while he processed the sheer weirdness of Draco Malfoy asleep in his house.
Barely ten minutes later he’d got all the ingredients in the bowl and had just stuck his hands in it to get it properly mixed when he heard someone making their way down the stairs behind him. Harry peered over his shoulder, half-afraid that it was Malfoy.
Instead, it was just Ron.
“Morning,” he said through a yawn.
“Why is Draco Malfoy on my sofa?” Harry asked, still wrist-deep in scone dough.
“Oh, you saw him,” Ron said, pouring himself a mug of tea. “St Mungo’s wanted to keep him overnight for observation—you know how they get when they have to administer Skele-Gro—and Malfoy didn’t want to stay. This was the compromise, I bring him back here and check on him a couple of times overnight.”
Harry’s head snapped up. “I thought you said the case you were working wasn’t dangerous.” Ron had told Harry that they were working the back end of an illegal potions trafficking case; it was all strictly paperwork and following up on administrative-type leads, nothing at all to worry over.
“It’s not,” Ron said. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s not. The other Aurors on the case found a warehouse the smugglers had been using and we were sent out to collect evidence from it. Malfoy fell through a staircase.”
“He fell through,” Harry repeated slowly, “a staircase.”
Ron nodded and took an obnoxious slurp of tea from his mug. “Yeah. It was rotten and when Malfoy tried to go upstairs, he went straight through. Landed in the basement. Broke both legs. Apparently the smugglers had abandoned the building because it was structurally unsound.”
That was a pretty fucking good reason for abandoning a building. “Oh,” Harry said. He squished at his dough for a moment longer, then turned it out onto the counter and patted it into a rough circle. “That still doesn’t explain why Malfoy’s on my sofa.”
“Where else would he go?” Ron asked, sounding perfectly baffled about it, as if Malfoy didn’t have parents, or friends, or literally anyone else.
Because he did have those. Well, parents, at least. But maybe Ron was the closest friend he had right now. And Harry guessed it made a certain amount of sense that Malfoy would be more willing to let Ron watch over him than his parents. After all, when Ron had been injured back in March, he’d come back here to Harry and Hermione rather than going home to Molly and all of her fussing over him.
“Oh,” Harry said awkwardly. He picked up a knife to cut the dough into wedges, then realized belatedly that he’d forgot to add the blueberries to his dough and scooped it back into the bowl. “Does he, erm. Like blueberries, do you think?”
Ron’s eyebrows went up. “You’re all right with him staying for breakfast?”
“I guess,” Harry said, dumping the blueberries into his mixing bowl and gently folding them into the dough. He could feel his cheeks going inexplicably warm. “I mean, he fell through a staircase. Seems the least I can do to let him stay for breakfast. I mean. It’s no trouble. There’s going to be plenty.”
“I don’t know,” Ron said after a moment.
Harry glanced at him. “If there’s going to be plenty?”
“If he likes blueberries.”
“Oh,” Harry said, and looked at the bag of flour sitting open beside the mixing bowl. “I’ll make some plain ones, too, then. We’ve still got some of that strawberry jam your mum sent over, it’ll be nice with scones.” There’d be leftovers, but Harry didn’t mind having scones with breakfast and then again with tea. He glanced over and saw that Ron was smiling at him, and Harry looked away again. “What?”
“Nothing,” Ron said, and Harry could hear in his voice that he was still smiling. “Just, I’m glad you’re coming around on Malfoy.”
Harry thought back to Malfoy’s exceedingly awkward but seemingly genuine apology back in July. They’d only seen each other once since then, and exchanged brief pleasantries before settling into conversations with other people. But, two pints in, Harry had spent a while watching Malfoy across the pub. He seemed different. More settled, somehow. It was almost jarring to suddenly be aware of how much posturing Malfoy had done at Hogwarts, until now, watching him just be himself.
And as much as Harry wanted to hold on to how awful Malfoy had been, and how angry Harry still was about it, he thought that maybe it was time to start really trying to let go.
Harry gave Ron a small smile and shrugged. “Well. I’m trying.”
“Two batches of scones,” Ron said, sounding exceedingly amused. “I’ll say you are.”
Harry could feel his cheeks going warm again, but he had better things to do than argue with Ron about it. He had two batches of scones to make.
The leaves turned, the temperature cooled, and suddenly it felt as though Malfoy was constantly underfoot.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Harry had decided to try his luck at macarons. He’d heard they were tricky to make, but he’d been baking for over a year now, and lately he hadn’t even had any mishaps.
He should’ve guessed that he was overdue for one.
The batter came out much too runny and he had no idea why, but he’d gone ahead and tried to pipe them onto a baking sheet anyhow. They’d oozed into sad little puddles, but Harry had let them sit on the counter as the recipe instructed for one hour, then two. They didn’t look any better, nor did they form a skin, as the recipe said they ought to have. Harry baked them anyhow, just to see what would happen. Malfoy came down into the kitchen just as he was pulling the first batch out of the oven.
“What are you making?” he asked, going straight for the kettle.
“Macarons,” Harry said, taking off his oven mitts and tossing them aside as he looked over what he had done. The macarons had gone in as sad little puddles, and come out as slightly bigger sad and strangely shiny puddles. Some of them had oozed into their neighbors, including two which had, to Harry’s delight, somehow merged into a shape that looked remarkably like a penis.
Malfoy paused, kettle in hand, and stared down at the pans Harry had just removed from the oven. His brows drew together. “Are they… supposed to look like that?”
“God, no,” Harry said, and pointed at the glossy full-page picture in the recipe book he’d bought just for this recipe. “That’s what they’re supposed to look like.”
Malfoy looked at the book. He looked at the pans. He looked at the book again. “Ah, yes. I see it now,” he said diplomatically.
Harry snorted. “Don’t lie to me. They’re awful.”
“This one looks like a cock,” Harry said, pointing. “Don’t tell me you don’t see it.”
Malfoy’s eyebrows went up and a moment later he started to laugh. “That… is definitely a cock,” he managed to gasp out between bursts of laughter. “How did you manage that to do that?”
“Entirely by accident,” Harry said, more than a little distracted by the sight of Draco Malfoy, pink-cheeked and shaking with mirth. “I’m sure if I tried to do it on purpose, I’d never be able to do it again.”
“Of course not,” Malfoy said, still smiling, and Harry’s heart gave a funny little trip.
“Of course not,” Harry echoed.
His gaze was still pinned helplessly to the curve of Malfoy’s mouth, so he saw right away when his smile began to slip, edging a little towards confusion, and Harry realized with a start that he was staring.
“Erm,” he said, turning quickly away, and the realization that his abrupt movement had probably just made things weirder struck him a scant second too late to actually do anything about it. Flustered, he picked up one of the pans.
One of the very hot pans which had come out of the oven barely a minute ago.
Yelping, Harry dropped it, and it toppled off the cooker and clattered onto the floor. Malfoy startled backward, and Harry bent double, cradling his right hand in his left as tears sprung to his eyes.
“Shit,” Harry hissed through clenched teeth. Motherfucker, that fucking hurt. “Oh, ow.”
“Here, let me see,” Malfoy said, reaching. His voice was calm and his fingers were cool when he pried open Harry’s fist to get a look at his hand. “Oh, that certainly looks nasty, doesn’t it.”
The sight of his blistering fingertips made a fresh wash of pain scream through him even as Malfoy twirled his wand and cast a strong Numbing Charm. The pain blinked out like a candle being suddenly snuffed.
“Have you got a first aid kit?” Malfoy asked, and Harry nodded.
“Under the sink,” he said. At least, he hoped it was still down there. That’s where Molly had kept it, back when this had been the Order.
Malfoy fetched the wooden box and sifted through it, coming up with a jar of salve. He unscrewed the lid and stopped just shy of sticking his fingers into the thick white paste.
“Ah, shall I—“
“No, no,” Harry said quickly, reaching. “Thanks. I can do it.”
“Right,” Malfoy said, handing over the jar.
Harry took it from him, and then realized belatedly that with his injured hand, he couldn’t hold it and apply it at the same time. “Erm,” he said, holding the jar out to Malfoy. “Could you—?”
“Hm? Oh!” Malfoy took the jar back and held it steady for him. “Right.”
Harry scooped a dollop of the white paste out and gingerly applied it to his fingers, and minute later, the burns had been healed entirely, leaving Harry’s hands faintly greasy and smelling sharply and most unpleasantly of arm-pits. He couldn’t wait to wash off this gunk, but the label on the jar said to leave it alone for at least fifteen minutes.
“Well,” said Malfoy after a moment. He looked at Harry, then surveyed the macarons on the floor, then the ones in the other pan. “At least the cock-shaped one survived.”
Harry couldn’t help but laugh. “At least there’s that,” he agreed.
“I knew I’d find you down here,” Malfoy said from behind Harry.
With the wireless blaring upstairs and the general commotion of a house full of people at a party in full swing, Harry hadn’t heard him come down to the kitchen. Smiling, he glanced over his shoulder.
“And here I am,” he said, looking over Malfoy’s costume.
He, like Harry, had gone for something relatively simple: slicked-back hair and black robes, and a large glass of red wine with a label Spellotaped on it that very helpfully proclaimed it to be BLOOD!!!
“Vampire?” Harry asked, squinting at him. He thought so—the wine glass sort of gave it away—but Malfoy seemed to have skipped out on doing the fangs, so Harry wasn’t entirely sure.
Malfoy smiled at him, big and bright and a little muzzy, and toasted Harry with his wine glass. Harry suspected that this wasn’t his first glass of blood. “Pumpkin,” he said with an elegant little nod in greeting.
“Jack-o’-lantern,” Harry corrected, turning fully so Malfoy could see his costume in its entirety. “I worked hard on this.”
He hadn’t. It had taken him all of ten minutes to cut triangle eyes and a grinning mouth from a piece of black felt and use Sticking Charms to secure them to an orange jumper. Hermione had knitted the lumpy wool hat he wore, orange with a green stem and little curly vines trailing down.
Malfoy snickered. “I’m sure,” he said, then leaned to see around Harry. “What are you doing down here?”
“We’re almost out of punch,” Harry said, gesturing to the cauldron he’d been stirring.
Hermione had come up with the recipe for it, and Harry was making some alterations for the second batch to make it a little less dangerous. It barely tasted of alcohol at all, yet the two cups of it Harry’d drunk had left him nearly three sheets to the wind. Two-and-a-half sheets, at the very least. So for this batch he’d cut the liquor in it by half. Hermione might be annoyed at him for messing with the recipe she’d spent all week tweaking to perfection, but she’d had three cups of punch already so Harry was pretty sure that by this point she might not even notice.
“Hm,” Malfoy said,
Harry gave the fizzling red brew a final stir, and then dumped in a couple of scoops of blueberry-stuffed lychee “eyeballs.” That’d been Hermione’s idea, too, and Harry had to admit that they looked delightfully gory bobbing in the blood-red punch.
Wiping his hands on his trousers, Harry sighed and looked at the stairs. He’d leapt on the chance to come down here to replenish the punch because the noise and bustle of the party had become almost overwhelming. The relative quiet of the kitchen had been a relief, but now that he was about to leave it. The ten minutes he’d spent down here only made it harder to get back to the party.
“Here,” Malfoy said, handing off his wine glass. “Why don’t you fix yourself another drink while I take this upstairs, and I’ll meet you in the back garden?”
Harry took the glass. “Oh. Erm…”
“That is,” Malfoy added quickly, “if you’d like some company. I can take this upstairs and then leave you be, if you’d rather.”
“No, no,” Harry assured him. “That’s fine. I’ll see you in a minute?”
Malfoy smiled at him, big and bright again. “I’ll see you in a minute.”
He hefted the fizzing cauldron off the table and lugged it to the stairs, and Harry had the ridiculous idea that he wished Malfoy had his sleeves pushed up, so he could see the corded muscle of his forearms straining with the weight of the full cauldron.
Flushing, Harry turned away and didn’t watch as Malfoy disappeared upstairs. He wished he could blame it on the potency of Hermione’s punch, but the truth was that these sorts of thoughts had been popping into his head, unbidden and only-partly-unwanted, for the past few weeks. As always, he thought very firmly to himself, Malfoy’s fit, it doesn’t mean anything that I’ve noticed, and then did his best to occupy himself with something else. Thus far, Harry had been successful at avoiding examining it in any more depth than that, and he wasn’t about to start now.
Harry cracked open a Butterbeer and poured it into a mug, then warmed it with a quick charm before spiking it with rum. Then he topped up Malfoy’s glass from one of the bottles of cheap cabernet sauvignon they’d stockpiled for the party, took a deep breath, and headed back upstairs.
Even before he reached to top, the cacophony made it feel like the walls were closing in. The wireless blaring, people laughing and shouting, it struck him like a wave and knocked him sideways, half-disoriented. He reached the top of the stairs and turned down the narrow little hallway that led out to the back garden, curling his shoulders in and squeezing between people, focusing on not spilling his drinks and doing his best to block out everything else.
Outside was a relief, and once the door shut behind Harry, most of the sound cut off. There were still people out here, but fewer than inside, and they were talking in groups of twos and threes and no one was shouting. Someone had dragged the phonograph out here and had put on a Weird Sisters album, but the volume was kept down to a reasonable level. Harry inhaled, exhaled, and felt his shoulders drop.
He didn’t see Malfoy out here yet, so Harry lingered near the door so Malfoy wouldn’t have to search for him. The back garden was dim, lit only by long strings of fairy lights stretched back and forth overhead and a dozen flickering jack-o’-lanterns. Charmed paper bats swooped in and out between the strands of lights, and fake cobwebs stretched around the fence and over some of the shrubbery, and two bedsheets charmed into cartoonish ghost shapes dangled from the tree. It hadn’t looked like much when he and Ron had set it up this afternoon, but in the dark it was all fairly impressive.
And, Harry realized when his eyes caught on a couple off to one side of the garden who were all wrapped up in each other, clearly snogging, it was the perfect place to escape to for, well. Exactly that sort of thing.
Another unbidden thought popped into Harry’s mind: had Malfoy realized that when he’d asked Harry to meet him out here?
Malfoy’s an attractive person, Harry told himself a bit desperately. Of course I’ve noticed. It doesn’t mean anything. He shuffled to the other side of the garden, to give the snogging couple a bit of privacy. Of course Malfoy hadn’t meant that. It was just that Harry had a bit of a crush, and he was reading far too much into something perfectly innocent.
The door opened, spilling out a burst of sound, and Malfoy caught sight of Harry. He came over and took his wine glass back, tapping the base of it against the rim of Harry’s mug. “Cheers,” he said, and took a swallow.
He licked his lips as he lowered the glass, and Harry tried and failed not to stare.
“Potter?” Malfoy asked, and Harry watched Malfoy’s mouth form his name because he was still staring.
Later, Harry wouldn’t be able to say what on earth had possessed him to do it. But watching the shape of his name on Malfoy’s lips ignited a burst of want in him that was more potent than anything Harry’d had to drink that night.
The world felt like it was moving in slow motion as Harry leaned in, and he felt more than heard Malfoy’s surprised inhalation. He paused, his courage deserting him in an instant, but before he could panic, Malfoy had closed the distance between them.
The touch of his lips against Harry’s was soft, and warm, and over far too quickly.
Harry opened his eyes—when had they shut?—and couldn’t stop himself from smiling. Malfoy was blushing, looking both startled and happier than Harry had ever seen him before. That made Harry want to kiss him all over again, so he did.
As Harry found out, the back garden was indeed excellent for that sort of thing. He and Malfoy spent almost an hour tucked away in a darkened corner together, learning the taste of each other’s mouths, the feel of each other’s bodies. Harry now knew what Malfoy’s hair felt like as it slipped through his fingers, how the faint rasp of stubble against his throat made him moan. Eventually the party began to wind down and Harry had to go back inside. Malfoy stuck by his side for the rest of the night and was the very last person to leave. Harry stepped out onto the front porch to see him off, and they spent about thirty minutes saying goodbye.
Harry went to bed that night—alone—but with his body still buzzing, his lips kiss-swollen, and excitement thrumming through him.
Next week, he had a date.
Harry hadn’t planned to bake anything else for tonight. He’d spent the morning baking, and made an assortment of biscuits for them to have with coffee after they finished dinner. But the pot roast was still cooking, and he’d already set the table in the dining room with the good china and freshly-polished silver and cheerful arrangement of chrysanthemums. He’d even cleaned the house from top to bottom, even though he and Malfoy had agreed to take things slow and it was very unlikely that Malfoy would be seeing anything above the ground floor tonight. But Harry still had almost an hour before Malfoy was due to arrive and Harry needed to do something with himself until then.
The fact that the oven was occupied limited his options somewhat, but a quick browse through Molly’s recipe book turned up a recipe for chocolate mousse that looked perfect. Other than melting the butter and chocolate, it was just beating: beating the egg yolks, beating the cream, beating the egg whites. Harry did most of it by hand, until his arm got tired, and then he charmed the rotary whisk to keep going on its own while he went digging through the china hutch to see what he could find to serve it in.
His search turned up four dusty little ramekins, and by the time he had them washed and dried, the egg whites were ready, and Harry folded everything together by hand. Unable to resist, he swiped a finger through the mousse and sucked it clean, eyes fluttering. Oh, that was good.
Harry’s brain went skipping merrily off on a lovely fantasy of Malfoy eating this and ending up with a little smudge of chocolate at the corner of his mouth. Harry would helpfully point it out to him, and Malfoy would try to wipe it away but it would still be there, and then Harry would murmur, Allow me, and lean in to kiss it away.
Flushing a little, Harry shook off his thoughts before he could get too distracted. He dished the mousse into the four ramekins, and put the rest of the bowl away as it was, knowing that Ron would take care of it as soon as he saw. Harry removed the Preservation Charms from a handful of fresh strawberries—yet another reason why magic was wonderful, no fruit or vegetable was ever out of season—and sliced them up, ready to use as decoration. Then he did the washing up, and was just drying his hands when the doorbell rang.
His heart leapt, a sudden case of nerves stirring up a flutter in the pit of his belly. Harry hastily finished wiping his hands, tossed the tea towel aside, and went upstairs to let Malfoy inside.
Dinner was a success, and not only did Malfoy enjoy the mousse Harry had made, the smudge-of-chocolate-at-the-corner-of-Malfoy’s-mouth fantasy had ended up coming to life. Well, it started to. It went exactly the way Harry had imagined, right up until the point when he murmured, “Here, let me…” and leaned in for the kiss—
And knocked Malfoy’s wine glass directly into his lap.
It had been entirely an accident, but it did have its advantages. It got Malfoy out of his trousers so they could wash the stain before it set. Harry let him borrow a pair of soft plaid pajama bottoms, and then a hoodie as well because it seemed ridiculous for Malfoy to wear soft plaid pajama bottoms with his fussy dress shirt and waistcoat. Then Harry changed himself, because he wasn’t about to wear jeans and his nice jumper while Malfoy was wearing comfortable things. It was a good thing that he’d cleaned the rest of the house because the pair of them ended up spending the rest of the evening in the sitting room upstairs, cuddled together on the sofa, and watching old episodes of Keeping Up Appearances, which, despite being Muggle, Malfoy seemed to find thoroughly captivating.
It was even better than Harry had hoped for.
“They’ll be fine,” Hermione said firmly.
“Of course,” Harry agreed. He didn’t pause in what he was doing, rolling little balls of dough between his palms, dredging them in sugar, and then setting them aside. He’d already rolled up dozens, and the huge mixing bowl was still more than half full. It should’ve tipped him off when the recipe called for him to start out with 4½ cups of flour, but he’d been distracted by worry and hadn’t thought through what that’d mean. He’d just seen gingersnaps and thought, yeah, that sounds good.
He took a breath, inhaling the scent of cinnamon and cloves and ginger. It smelled like Christmas. It’d be nice to package them up and send them off to his friends. There’d be plenty to go around, at this rate, and Harry would need to do something with them. Even with the three of them here, and Malfoy around so often he was practically living with him, they’d never eat this many without help.
“They’ll be home soon, I’m sure,” Hermione said, and Harry glanced over at where she’d settled in at the table, a cup of tea growing cold at her elbow, knitting needles clicking steadily as she churned out a lumpy-looking scarf in thick Chudley Cannons-orange wool. It was going to be a Christmas gift for Ron. She had her head ducked down, eyes on her work. He didn’t have to see her face to know that she was scared. He was, too.
“Yeah,” Harry agreed. “I’m sure they’re just finishing up. You know. Paperwork, debriefing. Right?”
“Of course,” Hermione said. “I’m sure that’s what’s keeping them.”
Harry nodded, and kept rolling dough into balls, dredging them in sugar, setting them aside. They would be fine, he thought to himself. They had to be. The Aurors had known in advance that this was going to be a difficult raid, and they’d prepared for it. The last of the Death Eaters had been tracked down, and tonight the Aurors were rounding them up once and for all. They were holed up in four different locations, and four teams of Aurors were going after them simultaneously, striking all of them at once so that none of them could possibly warn the others.
Ron and Malfoy had been assigned to the team going after the largest group of Death Eaters. The group that included Greyback. Malfoy facing off against Death Eaters already scared Harry. But Greyback was...
“They’re going to be fine,” Harry said.
“Of course they will be,” Hermione told him.
Harry ended up with nine and a half dozen gingersnaps, and had cycled all but the last tray through the oven when the Floo flared upstairs. Hermione was on her feet in an instant, ball of yarn tumbling off her lap and rolling across the floor. She didn’t stop to pick it up before running for the stairs and pounding up them. Harry flicked his wand at the oven, turning it off—to hell with that last batch—and hurried after her.
When he made it up to the sitting room, he found Ron and Hermione locked in an embrace.
“I’m fine,” Ron was saying, petting one hand gently over her hair, “I told you I’d be fine.”
Harry felt a little of his tension uncoil to see that Ron was safe, but relief didn’t wash through him until an instant later, when he spotted Malfoy standing by the Floo. He hadn’t heard it flare a second time, but Malfoy was here, he was here and he was safe—
Malfoy was moving forward, and Harry reeled him the rest of the way in, holding him close.
“Is it done?” he asked, tucking his face against Malfoy’s shoulder. He smelled like a wandfight, the faintly smoky smell of offensive magic clinging to his robes.
“It’s done. It’s over,” Malfoy said. “We got them.”
Harry exhaled hard. “Thank god.”
There would be other raids, other dangers that Malfoy would have to face. That was the life of an Auror, Harry knew. That was the life Malfoy had chosen, and by extent, it was the life Harry had chosen when he chose to be with Malfoy. But nothing would ever be like this. With the change in his allegiances, Malfoy had made himself a very attractive target to any Death Eater still on the loose, and Harry had been so afraid that one of them—that Greyback, especially—would settle for one last taste of revenge when he saw the Aurors closing in and knew that it was over.
Harry hugged Malfoy tighter, reveling in the feel of his body. He felt warm and solid and real in Harry’s arms. He was here, and he was safe. Tomorrow, Harry would have to let him go back out there, but for tonight he didn’t have to let go at all.
“You smell good,” Malfoy murmured with his nose tucked into Harry’s neck.
“I baked,” Harry said helplessly, and felt more than heard Malfoy chuckle against him.
“Of course you did,” he said, stroking his hands up and down Harry’s back, up and down. “But I’m fine.”
“I knew you would be,” Harry said, and held him closer.
Harry woke on the morning of his twentieth birthday with an unfamiliar little flutter of excitement playing through the pit of his stomach. He lay still, savoring the feeling. For years, his birthdays had always been a day of poorly managed expectations and bitter disappointment for him, so waking up and knowing that it he had all sorts of good things to look forward to still felt like a bit of a novelty.
Letting out a slow, satisfied breath, Harry stretched. His arm bumped into a warm body beside him, eliciting a sleepy grumble.
The flutter of excitement burst into a flurry, and Harry rolled over to find a blanket-covered lump in the bed beside him, a tuft of white-blond hair peeking out the top.
“You’re here,” he said.
“Mmrph,” said the blond-haired blanket-covered lump.
Grinning, Harry burrowed closer to him. “What time did you get in last night?”
Draco struggled against the blankets for a moment before managing to untangle one arm. He patted his hand clumsily over Harry’s face without opening his eyes.
“Shh,” he said. “It’s still sleeping time.”
Harry pressed a kiss to Draco’s palm, and Draco gave his face another pat before pulling his arm back under the blankets. Harry had no idea how Draco managed to roll himself up like this in his sleep. It took some doing before he was able to loosen the blankets enough to get at skin, but eventually he managed and scooted closer. He slid his arm over the smooth warmth of Draco’s back and tangled their feet together. Draco rolled toward him, pressing in close. He mouthed a sleepy kiss against Harry’s bare shoulder and then went limp.
A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt anything, Harry thought as he closed his eyes. He’d stay here for a few more minutes before he headed downstairs to start breakfast.
A few more minutes turned into another three and a half hours. But forty minutes of that was taken up by the sort of slow and gentle fuck that drove Harry half out of his mind before Draco finally let him come, so Harry couldn’t say he minded the late start to the day overly much. They showered together and went downstairs to find that Ron and Hermione had cooked breakfast.
“We’ve been waiting for an hour,” Ron complained, waving his wand to release the charms keeping breakfast hot and fresh.
“You asked me to keep him in bed late,” Draco said with an unrepentant shrug, snagging a slice of bacon and crunching into it.
“We spent most of the time sleeping,” Harry said defensively, and realized too late that he’d just confirmed that they’d been doing other things up there as well.
“No,” Ron said, handing him a clean plate. “No details. That’s the deal. I don’t tell you anything about what Hermione and I do, and you don’t tell me anything about you and Malfoy.”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “We’re all adults here, you know.”
“Exactly,” Draco agreed, then closed his mouth and slanted a look at Harry. “It’s your birthday, so I won’t say what else I was about to say.”
“Much appreciated,” Harry muttered, scooping scrambled eggs onto his plate.
After breakfast, the four of them cleaned up the kitchen, and then Ron and Hermione went upstairs, leaving Draco and Harry to the part of the day that Harry had been sort of dreading.
It shouldn’t have been as big of deal as it felt like to relinquish control like this, but honestly it hadn’t seemed like it would be when Draco had broached the topic of Harry’s birthday cake last week.
But it turned out to be a bit different in practice, and now here he was, practically sitting on his hands to keep from pushing Draco out of the way and just doing it himself.
“And don’t forget the—“
“E on my Potions NEWT,” Draco sang obnoxiously as he reached for the salt Harry had been about to remind him to add. “Let’s just assume I’m capable of reading and following instructions, shall we?” He tipped a little sprinkle into his palm, added a pinch to the cake batter, and then Vanished the rest with a showy snap of his fingers, slanting a smug look at Harry as he did so.
Harry rolled his eyes, and marveled inwardly at how he’d come to find Draco’s tendency to show off for him charming rather than obnoxious. Harry supposed that, much like magic, it was all about intent. That these days, he did it not to show off his own superiority, but because he liked it when Harry found something he did impressive.
He was just so ridiculous about it, and Harry had sort of grown to love the way Draco went all bright and pleased when Harry reacted the way he’d wanted him to.
Despite Harry’s worrying, the cake came together perfectly and went safely into the oven. Harry made them tea, and Draco mixed up a batch of frosting, and then they spent a while kissing. All too soon the alarm they’d set had gone off and the cake was ready.
Draco tucked his hands into the oven mitts and opened the oven. The butter knife went into the center of the cake and came out clean. Draco half-turned to give Harry a smirk as he took the cake out, and knocked the lip of the cake pan against the top of the oven. With his hands swaddled in the thick oven mitts, the pan slipped right out of his grasp, flipped neatly end over end, and clattered down onto the opened oven door.
“Well,” Draco said, planting his oven mitt-clad hands on his hips. “All right. I can work with this.”
As Harry watched, Draco fetched a plate and a spatula, and carefully piled up a little mound of crumbled-up cake, spooned a little dollop of chocolate frosting on top, and then went digging in Harry’s cupboards. After locating a jar of cherries and twisting it open, he fished one out and stuck it atop the frosting and tucked a candle beside it.
A warm burst of affection detonated in Harry’s belly, spreading through him, and he did his best to hide his smile. He was in love, he was so in love and even in his wildest dreams he’d never imagined it feeling quite this wonderful. He hadn’t told Draco yet, but he would soon. For now he was just carrying it with him like keeping the best secret in the world.
He tried to dial down his expression to something a little less hopelessly besotted as Draco turned toward him, plate in one hand as he sucked cherry juice from the fingers of the other. He paused and a warm, fond smile tugged at his mouth.
“What’re you smiling about?” he asked.
So Harry hadn’t done quite as good a job hiding it as he’d tried. “You,” he said honestly. “I’m just really happy right now.” That was also true.
Draco set the plate on the table before him and lit the wand with a flamboyant snap of his fingers. Harry had been trying to master a wandless Incendio for ages.
“Make a wish,” he said.
Harry thought for a long moment, then blew out the candle.
Another year like this one, he’d wished for. Another year exactly like this.