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Everybody's got a hungry heart

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I.

 

Harry is arranging the lattice on his pie when Maggie stomps in to the kitchen, heaving herself into a chair with a sigh. It's attempt number two: the first is cooling on the countertop. He steps back to admire his handiwork—narrowly missing Maggie’s feet. Maggie, who was at the table the last time he looked her way, mere seconds ago. Staring morosely at her phone, no discernible interest in the intricacies of pastry.

“Harry,” she says, nose twitching, “is that—apple pie?”

“A little warning?” he suggests, eyebrow raised, wondering briefly if she's acquired the power to teleport. Perhaps she copied a spell from the Book, before the Elders borrowed it. He dusts off his hands, preparing a five-point lecture on its redundancy, when one has a perfectly adequate set of legs.

Maggie has located his earlier effort. She squeaks, clapping her hands together. Harry beams, enjoying the reception. It's browned to perfection, even though the edges have cracked, and the lattice isn't quite as straight as it should be. He's really rather proud of it.

“Apple and English blackberry,” he says. “Somewhat out of season, but still. Note the little pastry apple I carved, positioned just so—”

“Harry,” Maggie says, looking gleeful, “since when do you bake?”

“Am I not permitted a pastime?” Harry asks mildly.

“Don't you have marking to do, or something, you know...” Her hands flutter. “Whitelightery?”

Harry pops the other pie in the oven, somewhat deflated. He checks his watch. “Don't you usually frequent the dining hall, at this hour?”

“So do the Kappas,” Maggie says. Harry is troubled by the cracks: not in his pie, but her bright facade. “And I wanted to check on Mel. She's ghosting my WhatsApps. Is she even out of bed?”

“Melanie has not yet emerged, no.”

Maggie's shoulders sink. Her fingertips fly across her phone. “That's it. We need an intervention. I know she's broken-hearted over Niko, but this is so wrong. Maybe Macy can get off early, we can try—”

Harry rests a hand on her shoulder. Personal space should be treated as delicately as pastry; he is careful, always, of how and when he touches. The Charmed Ones most of all, but Maggie makes no objection as he steers her from the hot zone, and back to her seat.

“It's your lunch hour,” he says, firmly. “Now, would you care for a slice of pie? I'm sure I could rustle up a sandwich. Or perhaps a salad..?”

Maggie rests her chin on her hands, settling in while he fusses over options. Since he has an audience, he switches from one aborted lecture to another, on the perils of tackling demons, or heartbroken sisters, on an empty stomach. A Whitelighter's charges need feeding in ways both magical and mortal. It feeds something in him, also, to take care of her; to be permitted to do so.

He glances at Maggie, lips pursed as she scrolls through someone's Insta. She looks up, feeling him watching with that innate empathic sense. Warmth floods her gaze, at once fond and somehow knowing, even from a distance. He thought he was looking after her, but suddenly, he's not sure which of them is doing the other that kindness.

“You'll make someone a wonderful husband some day, Har,” says Maggie—jesting, he's sure; she was raised by a women's studies professor, after all—as he places a tray before her. Her phone buzzes, Macy's face flashing up on the screen.

Harry goes to check on his pie, blaming the steam from the oven for pinking his cheeks.

 

II.

 

“What are you making?” Macy asks as she joins Harry in the kitchen, gathering fruit for her morning smoothie. She bends to examine the oven. “Ooh. Cupcakes.”

“I quite resent,” says Harry, “the idea that I'd spend what little spare time I have crafting that abomination.”

One of Macy's eyebrows starts to lift.

“These are fairy cakes. A very different beast, I can assure you. The British sort,” he adds hastily, the question already forming on her lips, “not those made from actual fairies. Probably best not to examine that page of the Book too closely. Might put you off your breakfast...”

Macy shudders. The movement travels, one tiny toss of her head, rippling down. Harry blinks at his icing sugar, trying to remember where he's up to.

“What have you got against cupcakes, anyway?”

“Far too much frosting for the amount of cake, for one thing. The ratio is all out of balance...”

Harry spoons more water into the mixture—his own set of measuring spoons, moved here for convenience—and begins to stir. Powder mists the air, sweet on his tongue, snow on his jacket: foregoing an apron was not the wisest choice, in the circumstances. Macy has moved next to him, inspecting his efforts. Clearly, he's still more used to working alone, in the too-quiet of his condo, than with the bustle of sisters. The sound of her breathing distracts him.

“You need to add more sugar,” she says, and mock-whispers, “Your ratio is all out of balance.”

Harry hmphs. Since she's quite correct, it's what he does. Macy glides back to her side of the kitchen. He finds himself peculiarly conscious, of the space left empty beside him; how cool it feels in her absence, despite the heat throb of the oven. Macy is chopping, and peeling, and making easy conversation that requires no answers until, inevitably, it does. Harry has followed just enough to not disgrace himself by asking her to repeat the question.

“A faculty birthday,” he explains. Consistency achieved, he checks on his cakes. He rises, satisfied they're doing the same. “I considered my rarebit for the luncheon, but, well. Everyone likes cake on special occasions, don't they?”

“I think I saw edible glitter, in the pantry,” Macy says, filling up her blender, “if you want it for your topping..?”

“Are you certain it wasn't fairy dust?” Harry asks in alarm. Macy turns her head, glaring. He holds his hands in surrender, lest she dust him whiter than he already is.

“Cupcakes were the first thing I learned to make,” she says, hand paused on the switch. She turns to Harry, a wistful smile on her face. “My dad taught me. Well, I guess we taught each other... I used to bake a lot, at home. It kept me busy, after he died. I gave away a lot of cupcakes that year.”

He bows a little, to cover his embarrassment. “I'd be honoured to try them.”

“Even though they're an...abomination?”

“I'm sure that in your capable hands, Macy, they are quite the opposite.”

“I hardly ever burn things,” she assures him, turning her attentions back to the blender. Harry frowns, since she would tell him directly if his cakes were burning, which they're not, given the delightful scent of sponge, suffusing his nostrils. But then, he mentioned the rarebit, thereby reminding her of the ash pie she produced. It bothers him, more than he cares to admit, that she might believe it a criticism.

Macy walks past him, smoothie in hand, and points a finger. The snow rises from his jacket, dancing above them as she passes, looking back with a small, radiant smile. He steps back, and watches it fall. His cakes blacken and crisp, while his thoughts are elsewhere.

He buys cupcakes on the way to work, instead. They're a satisfactory substitute, if not what his heart truly desires.

 

III.

 

There's only so much time Harry can spend in the attic, feverishly recording a haze of memories. In some ways, the kitchen is no better: he can't bear to turn the oven too high, because the heat reminds him of Tartarus. It's why he's on his third flat tray of Yorkshire puddings, stubbornly refusing to puff.

Mel stabs a fork in the leaden weight of one such failure, looking sceptical. She should be in bed, after a late shift at the Haunt. But she's a stubborn one, too.

“Where did you learn to cook like this, Harry?” she mutters, grimacing as she takes a bite.

“England, one assumes,” he says, ignoring the sarcasm.

Mel's face lights in interest, even with her jaw working away. She forces it down. “Most men in your time didn't cook. Their wives and mothers did it for them...” She gestures for his glass, taking a deep draught once he slides it her way. “They oppressed generations of women by chaining them to the kitchen sink. The learned helplessness of the patriarchy.”

“Not inaccurate,” Harry says, “if a touch on the nose.” He's uninclined to debate it further; a discussion, he suspects, Mel is attempting to draw him in to, to draw him out of himself. He risks his first bite. It's the culinary equivalent of concrete. “But as you'll recall, I have no memory of it.”

A sudden sharp twinge, in the scar on his side. Ears ringing with the scream of sirens. Face phantom-hot with tears, for a child saved by his father, at the expense of having one— He toys with the remains of the pudding, evidence of one more failure. Tartarus has ruined him as a Whitelighter, as an academic, as a friend. He can't concentrate on the present, with his past now haunting him. He can't follow the simplest of recipes, much less gain control of his powers.

“No active memory,” Mel insists. “You learned those skills from somewhere. Which,” she allows grudgingly, “are normally pretty good, if kind of...British.”

“I'll be sure to expand my repertoire,” Harry says drily, the compliment not boosting his spirits, the way it normally would. He recalls how Maggie devoured his leek and potato soup, despite her initial distaste. And then there was Macy, accepting his bread and butter pudding, and even asking for seconds. It gladdened his heart, to see that ease in her face; temporary respite from the darkness in and around her. How ever can there be darkness in this world, when she exists to brighten it?

He pushes away his plate, reminding himself, too late, that some of the things in his head are best left buried there.

“I learned the way anyone learns anything,” he says, fixing Mel with a pointed look. He is still Whitelighter enough for that. “By practice and repetition.”

She rolls her eyes, tapping the empty glass. “I just can't see you chaining anyone to your kitchen sink, ever.”

“It was once believed an effective way to tame a succubus,” Harry says. He stares into the shadows, bruising the house. “Witches make missteps too, Mel. Even the best of them.”

“That’s disgusting,” Mel says. She passes him his wooden spoon. “So are Yorkshire puddings. You promised me supper, Harry.”

“How about a nightcap, while we're waiting?”

“Why not,” she agrees, apparently intent on keeping him company on this dark, lonely night. Time feels suspended, in these long, early hours. Perhaps that's why she feels so at home in them. The way he feels at home, with her and her sisters, safe beneath this roof.

Harry turns the oven up: just a smidge.

 

IV.

 

These are not things he remembers, but things that still feel real, in the space the Elders carved from him, and Carter's face has filled:

He arrives home, paper tucked beneath his arm, removes his hat, kisses his wife on her cheek. He stirs the stew that's spent the day simmering, adds a pinch more salt. He slices bread for the table. He helps with the dishes. He makes her tea and then dances with her, in the twilight, her head snug and warm on his shoulder.

For their son he boils an egg, runny and golden, the way he likes it. He cuts up soldiers, removing the crusts. His wife would insist on them staying on. He is the soft-hearted one, the one who loves too hard, too much, too unwisely. It hides inside him like yolk, and he is oh so good at hiding things, especially from himself.

He won her hand after a struggle. He was not her father's first choice. Too reckless, too poor, a fruit too forbidden. He courted her anyway, since his heart bends to risk, in a world full of rules. He was restless, sometimes, but isn't everyone? He had a family, and he would have died for them, and he did.

In the absence of memory, there's nothing left but hope.

 

V.

 

Harry is preparing a batch of pancakes, English-style, even though it's not Shrove Tuesday, or a Tuesday at all. Early light butters the kitchen, illuming Macy in its halo. Her nose wrinkles, deep in concentration, juicing lemons beside him. She could tell him why lemon and sugar is a time-honoured pairing, if he asked. The precise pH, the reaction that sparks in the tastebuds. Science, creating something as magical, in its own way, as her.

“I can hear you thinking,” Macy says, breaking the spell. She goes still, biting her lip. “Sorry. I wasn't—”

“I was thinking about science,” Harry says. Macy tilts her head. He clears his throat, realising how it might sound, horribly conscious of what she knows, even while they’re pretending she doesn’t. “That is, to say, I wasn't thinking about you—well, naturally I am, since you're a scientist in this very room, how could I not?—but no. Science in this context refers to the science of cookery. Specifically.”

“The science of cookery,” Macy says. “Got it.”

Harry would wish for the ground to swallow him, had it not happened once already, and proven most unpleasant. He moves to the hob, spooning a circle of batter into his frying pan. A test run, to proof it. He feels, more than sees, Macy standing behind him, watching. Her hands smell strongly of lemons. Her hair smells of coconut. He searches for his palette knife, to flip the pancake; she passes it to him, while he's fumbling.

“Why don't you just flip it?” Macy asks, as he mutters a thank you.

“And have it land halfway out of the pan?” Harry says, appalled.

“I've had crepes before, Harry.”

“Pancakes,” he corrects.

“It's what you're supposed to do. Just try it... Take a chance. You might be surprised.”

Harry starts on his second pancake, disposing of the first. Macy steals the handle from him. He grants her custody with only a little resistance, and if his hand lingers too long in the changeover, well. She can read into it what she likes. Her fault for being so pushy.

“You're testy this morning,” Macy says, peeling the edges with his knife.

“As would you be, had you woken to find satyr sheddings sticking into your cheeks. Maggie has been allowing them to frolic on my bed—”

“The couch in the attic?”

He stiffens. “Yes, well, while we're on the subject of your overcrowded house, there's also the elves. And the pixies. I promise you, Macy, if I find a stray speck of pixie dust one more time—”

Macy tosses the pancake. Expertly. Perfectly. Well, of course she does. She says something about velocity, and aerodynamics, and laughs: a sound so full of delight that he’d suspect the pixies had laced the flour, were she not impervious to their charms. This pancake cooks faster, the pan approaching optimum heat, and it's not long before they're on the sixth. Fifth. He's lost count.

“Your turn,” Macy says. She relinquishes the pan. Harry reclaims it, but her scrutiny undoes him; pancake five-slash-six ends up in pleats. Macy’s brow creases. She says, “No, like this—” and makes a bid for the handle. Harry pulls it from her reach, irked. She gives him a look, and seizes it anyway.

“Might I point out,” says Harry, not letting go, “how juvenile it is to be playing tug of war with a frying pan.”

“Oh, so now you think I’m juvenile?”

“You know very well that is not how I think of you,” he retorts, too late to make it sound like anything but what it really is.

Something shifts in her face that he is afraid to decipher; he cannot bear her pity. He looks down, unable to meet her eyes, habit making him hide what is surely written in his own. He becomes aware that Macy is standing too close to him, or he to her. Propriety, duty, the respect he has for her, the value he places on their friendship—all compel him to distance. But his heart, as ever, disobeys.

The pan burns slowly between them, waiting. Harry moves his hand, so very carefully, until it’s resting, feather-light, on hers. His thumb drifts gently across her skin. It’s different from the other times he’s judged it appropriate to touch her: tentative. Testing. Part apology, part admission. An end to the pretence.

Macy smiles. In the light of a brand new day, it feels like a beginning.

 

VI.

 

He’s banned from cooking, on the day of their wedding. That honour is the gift of Maggie and Mel, who start by presenting Harry with breakfast: a Pop-Tart, which he stares at longer than politeness dictates. Mel smirks. Maggie giggles. They congratulate themselves and swap it for homemade crumpets, and imported strawberry jam. He thanks them heartily, eyes going misty, and tastes not a bite.

The kitchen smells of vanilla and rum, chocolate and almond. He spots pineapples and chicken, cranberries and ham. There’s an aubergine, looking lost on the sink. When he can’t restrain himself and questions its purpose, Mel scowls, tells him it’s eggplant, and shoos him off to get dressed.

He goes to make tea, to settle his nerves, but Maggie won’t let him back into the kitchen, her room plan scheduled to the second. Macy is in there, being pampered by her sisters, while he's dying of thirst and newborn fear: that he is not, and never will be, worthy of her. A cup finally arrives, via a harassed-looking Mel; when he puts it to his lips, he knows at once who made it. It feels like a kiss, and suddenly he's not nervous at all.

There’s a secret ingredient in the cake, Maggie tells them, later, a twinkle in her eye. Harry exchanges a private glance with Macy, who looks as touched, and suspicious, as he feels. It's bound to be magical, something that will get them in all manner of trouble, that they'll spend their wedding night getting out of. Such is this life, and this family. But that ingredient is also—demonstrably, indisputably—love.

When he shares the first slice with his bride, it tastes every bit as sweet.