Harry Potter and the Runecraeft of the Norns

Chapter Twelve: Roses and Wine

Author's Note: This chapter is mostly food porn, so you might want to get yourself something to eat before you start.

"Coming!" Jessie called out in reply to the knocking on the door, turning off the TV with the remote. When Harry had suggested they spend the remaining few hours before their dinner reservations apart, she wasn't quite sure what she would do with the time, but after a quick shower to wash away the sweat built up from walking around in the hot summer sun (and to shave her legs), laying down on the luxurious hotel bed, relaxing and watching TV came naturally.

"Hey Harry!" she greeted as she opened the door, the shawl in one hand, stopping short when she found herself at eye level with the knot of a burgundy necktie—backed by a white dress shirt and framed by the lapels of a black suit jacket—instead of Harry's face. As her gaze drifted upwards, she caught sight of a square jaw and a straight nose before her eyes met a pair of piercing green ones that seemed to stare directly into her soul.

All in all, he looked like Harry, if Harry was suddenly older and taller than her and handsome enough to be a movie star.

"Beautiful flowers for a lovely lady," he said in an English-accent that was certainly Harry's, even if his voice was now a little deeper than before, presenting her a bouquet of five red roses from behind his back.

"Thank you," Jessie said, as she took the flowers.

"May I?" Harry asked, fingertips lingering on the roses, and she nodded even though the request was vague.

Taking a single rose with a ribbon shimmering with gold and silver tied in a bow around its stem from the bouquet, he gently tucked it behind her right ear along with a lock of her hair.

"Shall we go to dinner?" he asked, offering her the crook of his elbow.

Taking the offered arm, Jessie followed Harry down the hall and into the elevator before she asked the question she really wanted to ask: "Why this body?"

"Well, bigger body means bigger stomach, and, by all accounts, we're going to a really nice restaurant, so I'd like to enjoy the food as much as I can," he explained.

"Why didn't you just make yourself really fat, then?" she asked.

"How would you feel if you were to be seen going to dinner with a really fat gonk?" Harry asked.

She thought about that for a moment. "A little embarrassed?" she said, not really sure if that was the correct answer even though it was how she felt.

"That's why," Harry answered. "Besides, it's harder to move around when I'm heavier."

Jessie was surprised to see a black luxury car waiting for them as they exited the hotel; she climbed inside and took a seat as Harry held the passenger-side door for her, watching him take the driver's seat after he closed the door behind her.

"This is a nice car," Jessie said once he shifted it into drive and pulled into traffic. "Is it yours?"

"Company car," Harry answered.

With only light traffic on the streets, it was only a short drive to the restaurant where they had reservations. Leaving the car parked in the lot behind the restaurant, they were greeted by the hostess, a cheerful young woman in shirtsleeves and a pencil skirt, as they entered the door.

"Hi! Welcome to Whisperwind," she said brightly. "Do you have a reservation?"

"It's under Potter," Harry told her.

The hostess checked the reservation book. "Party of two for the chef's table?" she asked and Harry nodded. "Right this way, please."

Led through the dining room, which had a sleek, modern design, Jessie, her arm through the crook of Harry's elbow, followed the hostess through the swinging door into the neat, clean-looking kitchen where they were seated in a right-angle booth at the back corner where they could see all five cooks hustling at their stations.

"I'm Lawrence Dean, the head chef here," greeted a tall man in a chef's coat and a backwards baseball cap, rubbing his hands together as he came to the table. "From the way Nam talks about you, I'd have thought you'd be younger," he continued.

"And Chef never said you were magic," Harry responded.

Jessie could hear a pin drop as everything in the kitchen came to a screeching halt, with the hostess frozen at the swinging door leading to the dining room, hand on it like she was about to push it open.

"What, it's not as if you're not all magical here," Harry continued. "At least all your kitchen staff." Turning to the hostess, he added, "And you too."

"How did you know?" Lawrence asked.

"I can see magic," Harry explained, tapping the side of his face besides his eye.

"Oh, man," the chef said, visibly exhaling before turning to Jessie. "Can I get your autograph? I'm a huge fan; I wish I had thought of buying an ad in the Express to promote Whisperwind."

Jessie was taken aback. Nobody had ever wanted her to sign anything before. "Uh… um… what do you want me to sign?" she asked nervously, looking around for a pen, only for Harry to hand her a thick, black Sharpie.

Lawrence looked around the kitchen, then grabbed a white apron off of a hook, handing it to her. Hesitating a moment, unsure how to sign it before finally writing it out in a looping cursive, dotting the "i" in "Jessie" with a heart.

"Thank you!" Lawrence said gratefully as he collected the apron. "Your appetizers will be ready in a couple minutes; can I start you off with some wine?"

Before Jessie could respond, Harry answered, "Something that'll go with everything, if you'd be so kind."

As Lawrence stepped away, signed apron still in hand, Jessie turned to Harry. "Are you trying to get me drunk so you make a move on me?" she joked.

To tell the truth, the idea had a certain appeal.

"Wouldn't happen," Harry answered shortly.

"Why not?" Jessie asked, feeling a twinge of disappointment and a little bit of anger.

"Had a feeling we might be offered alcohol," he explained. "That rose tucked behind your ear? The ribbon tied around it has an enchantment that neutralizes poison, which alcohol basically is, so you'll be able to drink the wine without getting even a little bit tipsy."

"But what about you?" she asked.

"I'm immune to poison," he told her.

Jessie wanted to ask how, but before she could, Lawrence returned with a bottle and two wine glasses, filling each about a third of the way and then setting the bottle on the table. "This rosé complements everything you'll be served tonight," he explained.

"Thank you," Harry said, and Lawrence nodded, stepping away and returning to the hustle of the kitchen. Lifting one of the drinks, he said, "Cheers."

Raising her glass, Jessie tried to tap her drink against Harry's, but he quickly pulled his glass away.

"Don't do that; it's bad etiquette," he said.

"But they do it all the time in the movies," she protested.

"And in the movies, they barely use any pressure when performing CPR, but in reality, you need to use your entire body weight to generate so much force that you can crack ribs," he countered.

"Well, cheers," Jessie said, not wanting to argue.

Taking a sip of the light pink wine, she tasted notes of peaches, melon, and strawberries and just a faint hint of Coke before it went down the hatch.

"It's good," she said, putting down her drink. "Shouldn't we get a menu to look at so we can place our order?"

"Usually, when you make a reservation for a chef's table, you get a tasting menu where the courses are at the head chef's discretion," Harry explained.

As if to make the point, Lawrence came to the table with two plates. "For our first course, we have an herb salad," he said, placing the plates on the table.

Seeing Harry's eyes stay on the course for a few moments, Jessie asked, "What is it?"

"What's the salad dressed in?" he asked Lawrence.

"Horklump juice, standard ingredients and powdered bezoar," Lawrence replied.

"So, a deconstructed healing potion," Harry said.

"A what?" Jessie asked, not sure she heard him right.

"The salad is dittany, wormwood, bitter root and fluxweed, which—along with Horklump juice and standard ingredients—are components used to brew healing potions," Harry explained. "He's taken everything you'd need to make a healing potion and put it in a salad."

"Good eye," Lawrence said. "I created this dish in honor of my great-grandfather, who sold potions in the old country. The bezoar is meant to serve as an anti-venom to prevent any allergic reaction you might have to any of the components served tonight."

"Does it work like a healing potion?" asked Harry.

"A little bit," Lawrence told him. "It doesn't take effect until after about six to eight hours, and when it does, it has a small regenerative effect that lasts around a day and a half."

"Sounds like something you might eat the day before some intensive training," Harry remarked.

"What do you mean?" Lawrence asked.

"To build muscle, athletes have to work them until they develop microtears, and when those tears heal, the muscle becomes stronger and better at doing whatever task caused the tear," Harry explained. "Normally, that'd take a couple days to heal on its own, but the salad's effects should allow them to heal much more quickly, meaning the athlete would be able to develop muscles much more quickly. It'd be like taking steroids, except it's not prohibited. You could probably serve this salad to athletes for a lot of money if it does what you say it does."

"Huh," said Lawrence. "I hadn't thought of that."

"Well, thanks for the food," Harry said.

"Bon appétit," Lawrence said, stepping away.

Stabbing her fork into the small salad in front of her, Jessie took a bite and was met by the sourness of the dressing first, followed by a light and floral taste, like a combination of rosemary and thyme, only to be immediately hit by a mouth-puckering bitterness that was worse than chewing on raw coffee beans and made her tongue suddenly feel chalky, making her reach for her wine. A quick sip later, and something sweet in the bite made the bitterness start to mellow, until two more bitter notes, both mild, one a little bit spicy and the other almost meaty, added to the layers of flavor in the mouthful she was chewing.

Swallowing the bite of salad, Jessie sneaked a glance to her right and saw Harry carefully trying the herbs in the salad one at a time, his expression difficult to read.

"What do you think?" she asked, curious.

"The wormwood is really slotting bitter," Harry said. "Bitter root has a surprising umami to it, and the fluxweed tastes a little bit like gai choy with a little bit of heat on the end, but both are a different kind of bitter than wormwood, which gives the bitter flavor some interesting layers. I knew anjelica was sweet, but I didn't know dittany was too. The tartness in the vinaigrette balances out the whole thing; because the salad is so heavy on the bitter flavors, the sourness actually refreshes the palate."

Jessie wasn't quite sure what all that meant, but she understood enough to agree with the sentiment. Even though she normally didn't like bitter foods, there were enough other tastes in the salad to not completely overwhelm her, and when she did get a mouthful that was almost too bitter, a sip of wine helped wash it down.

Finishing the last of the salad, she was about to set the plate aside when Lawrence swooped in to clear them away, asking, "How was it?"

"It was like my aunt and uncle," Harry said lightly.

"Excuse me?" Lawrence asked.

"Very bitter," Harry said. "Bitter root, fluxweed and wormwood are all bitter, so even though you've got sweet dittany and the vinaigrette in there for sourness, most bites are just bitter on bitter on bitter."

"I'm sorry to hear that," the chef said. "I'm sorry, we don't have a lot of guests in here who are familiar with magic, and never before at the chef's table, so it's actually our first time serving this."

"It happens, chummer," Harry answered. "This seems like it was a very concept-driven plate, so it's just a matter of tweaking. Maybe try adding components with different flavors, like anjelica, to balance out the bitter."

"Thank you, I'll keep that in mind," Lawrence said thoughtfully. "I'll be back shortly with your second course."

"Thank you, Chef," Harry said as Lawrence departed.

"Thank you, Chef," Jessie echoed. "You sure know a lot about food," she said, taking the chance to try to get to know Harry a little better.

"When I lived with my aunt and uncle, they would lock me away in a cupboard under the stairs without food pretty frequently," Harry explained. "That's why I appreciate food as much as I do."

"Isn't that child abuse?" she asked, horrified.

"Yeah, but every time my friends reported it to the badges, nothing came of it," said Harry in a tone so casual, it gave her goosebumps to realize how little faith he had in the police.

"But what about now?" she asked, troubled by what she had learned about his home life.

"They disappeared not long after I started boarding school," he said. "Then I got emancipated, and I've been taking care of myself, Liv and Dia since then."

"Your girls, they're around your age, aren't they?" she asked, and he nodded. "How does that work?"

"I provide food, clothes, a roof over their heads, and I try to give them the best advice I can, but I guess you could see it as more like brothers and sisters than parent and child," he said. "But legally, if we were siblings, we'd probably all end up as wards of the state, so parent it is."

Feeling the conversation was getting too heavy, Jessie decided to change the subject. "So, what do you cook?"

"Jade Garden, the restaurant I worked at last summer, is a Japanese and Chinese restaurant, so mostly those two, though I did learn a few other things from the times we did catering, so I can cook a little bit of Mexican food and a few other things," Harry answered.

"I'd love to try your cooking sometime," Jessie thought aloud.

Harry started to answer, but was interrupted by Lawrence, who came to the table with two shadow, wide-rimmed bowls in hand.

"For your second course, we have a sea scallop crudo in a citrus-ginger sauce," the chef explained as he placed the bowls in front of Harry and Jessie before returning to the kitchen.

Taking in the beauty of the three thin off-white rounds sitting in orange-yellow liquid, arranged in a triangle, she speared one of the scallop slices, putting it in her mouth. The fruity sweetness of oranges and the crisp sourness of lemon, along with just a hint of a peppery bite, washed over her tongue, followed by the buttery, mild salty sweetness of the scallop as she chewed on the delicate bite.

"This is really good," she said, swallowing the mouthful before speaking.

"It really is," Harry agreed, finishing his plate. "The tartness of the lemon in the sauce makes it incredibly light and fresh. Can't say I've had raw scallops before, but I like it."

Jessie nodded in agreement as she had a sip of wine. Starting on the second piece of scallop, she chewed slowly, savoring the fruity flavors that complemented the seafood beautifully. It was a shame that, after a third bite, only the sauce, yummy as it was, remained.

Just as she was about to push the plate away, Lawrence was there to clear it away and pour her more wine.

"That was amazing," she told him, and he smiled warmly. "That might be my favorite thing I've ever had at a restaurant."

"Thank you," Lawrence said. Turning, he asked Harry, "Nam said you worked with him last year. In what capacity was that?"

"I was a dishwasher and worked prep," he answered. "Why, are you looking for somebody?"

"We could really use a couple servers," Lawrence explained.

"I'm heading up to Vegas tomorrow, so I can't help you there, but if you ever decide you want to start a restaurant in England, I have some contacts I could put you in touch with," Harry offered.

"I'll keep that in mind," Lawrence said before one of the other chefs came to the table with a small bowl in each hand. "This is my sous chef, James Porter."

"Howdy," said the man, nodding and crinkling his nose to raise his glasses, setting the bowls down onto the table in front of Jessie and Harry before hurrying away.

"You'll have to forgive him; he's not too good with new people," Lawrence added. "This is a cockatrice puff. If you're unfamiliar with cockatrice, they're a lot like chicken, but it has a natural acidity to it. Please enjoy."

Turning her attention to what was in the bowl in front of her, Jessie found an egg-shaped thingy with a golden bird's nest pattern on its outside. The wispy golden threads crumbled away as she stuck her fork into it, revealing a pale layer underneath that was almost white, with a purple undertone, gently giving away under the pressure of her knife until it finally split open and diced carrots, peas, corn and small pieces of white meal spilled out of it.

"This is like a wu gok," Harry said after a bite of the appetizer.

"A what?" she asked.

"It's a Cantonese pastry, a deep-fried taro dumpling," he explained, setting down the puff.

Spearing half of the dumpling, she took a nibble and was surprised by just how soft and smooth the flaky outer layer was, even though it was fried dough, and she found the flavor of it—a combination of pecans, walnuts, buttered popcorn and cereal milk after all the cereal had been eaten—unusual, yet strangely familiar and cozy. Beneath the creamy, salty sauce the filling was cooked in, she could taste the sweetness of the peas, corn and carrots, while the meat tasted a lot like chicken, except with a faintly sour note, just enough to cut through the richness of the sauce and the dough.

Jessie finished the cockatrice puff quickly, and there was nothing new left to eat for the moment, giving her a chance to look into the kitchen and see the chefs work. It was her first time seeing what went on the kitchen of a restaurant that wasn't Lilah's, and she watched with interested as the chefs prepared and cooked the food to be served to the guests in the dining room, somehow matching the time they finished the plates for one table together even though different chefs were cooking them.

"Is this what a restaurant kitchen is supposed to be like?" she asked Harry.

"A little bit, I guess?" he answered, his voice going up at the end of the sentence. "It's not this calm at Jade Garden; Chef is always yelling at the cooks on the line to hurry up and get things done perfect, which always stresses everybody out. In fact, everybody who works there pretty much prefers it when he leaves early, because nobody has to walk around on eggshells once he's gone for the day. It's why I never moved up to the line, even though he offered me the chance to; I didn't really want to have to deal with him more when he was having a bad day."

Once a server took the last of the plates for the table and carried them out of the kitchen, Lawrence hurried back to the grill, taking something off of the flame and putting them on plates, adding something onto it with an ice cream scoop and spreading it with a knife before flipping it onto a cast iron pan, letting it heat for several moments, then plating it and adding something from a squeeze bottle before bringing them to the chef's table.

"No silverware needed for this one." Lawrence said as he placed the plates on the table. "Your fourth course is shrimp paste and bacon bits on brioche toast with shaved Gruyère cheese and a horseradish sauce,"

Seeing Harry use his hand to pick up the toast, Jessie did the same, getting a good look at the thin layer of pink and brown spread on the pale yellow bread, covered in thin, ivory-colored flakes and a drizzle of beige sauce.

There was an explosion of flavors in her mouth as her teeth sank through the crispy outside of the bread and into the fluffy, buttery richness inside, a kick of pepperiness that traveled up into her nose and cleared her sinuses, but was quickly mellowed by the creamy sweetness of the cheese. The distinct flavor of the shrimp that tasted like the sea and crunch of the salty, meaty bacon came next, dancing on her tongue along with bits of sweet, buttery bread, and quickly she wolfed it down, then felt a twinge of disappointment when it was all gone.

"I wish there was more of that," Jessie said longingly. "One piece just doesn't feel like enough."

"You want the rest of mine?" Harry asked, offering her the piece of thick-sliced toasted bread in his hand.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "You don't like it?"

"I think it would probably be better served with a chili sauce than a horseradish sauce," he said. "It's good now, but it would probably be better."

Taking what was left of his toast, which was missing the corner where he had taken a small bite, she wolfed it down quickly, then licked her fingers without thinking. When she realized what she was doing, she felt her cheeks burn as blood rushed into them.

"The way you ate it made it look way more delicious than it actually was," Harry said.

"Um, thanks," she mumbled, having another sip of wine as she looked away to hide her embarrassment.

As she watched, the chefs moved together like it was a ballet, so calm and completely unlike the disorganized panic when Daddy was working the kitchen by himself or the wild whirlwind of activity Harry had going on after he took over.

"Are all kitchens like this?" she asked.

"Kitchens tend to take on the personalities of the people running them," Harry told her. "When I was at Jade Garden, everybody was on eggshells during service because Chef had a temper on him and he wanted things in very particular ways, so if you messed up even a little bit, he'd lose his drek and start screaming, which is generally not a good thing to have going on in the middle of service. Personally, I like to go hard, go fast, work like I've got twenty different things I've got to do, because I usually do, so I'm nonstop when I'm in the kitchen, but I'm all about the work and nothing else, just getting it done. Chef Lawrence here is cool and collected, looks like, and his kitchen reflects that."

Jessie couldn't help but stop and think about what Harry said. Daddy had always worried about not being good enough, and even a few orders piling up would make him panic, so it made sense the kitchen would be a mess when he was in charge.

She was so lost in thought that she didn't even notice Lawrence clearing the plates away until he spoke.

"I'm sorry, could you say that again?" she asked, when she realized he was talking to her.

"Are you enjoying your meal?" he asked patiently.

"It's been amazing so far," she answered. "I thought the scallops was the best thing I'd ever eaten at a restaurant, but then I had the toast, and now that's my new favorite thing."

"I still think the toast would be better with a chili sauce instead, but that's just me," Harry said. "Don't particularly care for the way horseradish just goes up into my sinuses."

"I'll keep that in mind," Lawrence said thoughtfully. "I'll be back in a bit with your next course."

"I'm looking forward to it," Jessie told him, and he smiled crookedly before he left the table.

"You said you have a company, right?" she asked, turning to Harry, and he nodded. "What does your company do?"

"We're an investment firm, but not in the traditional sense," Harry said.

"What does that mean?" she asked.

"Most investment firms trade in securities," Harry explained. "Irregulars Securities Investments on the other hand, invests primarily in property, in small companies that could be something if they had the resources to succeed, and in people and in opportunities to help those people succeed. Yes, we do have some investments in securities and in the stock markets, but our primary investment is in people and ideas."

"How does Lilah fit into that?"

"The food is fantastic, but the location of the restaurant is less than ideal and your father doesn't handle the pressure of a rush that well, so the keys for success were mostly there," he told her. "All you needed was a customer base that wouldn't be influenced by location—which the magi community filled out since teleportation is a fairly common way to travel—and somebody who could run the kitchen in a calm and collected manner without interfering with the core product. Taylor can do that, null sweat; she's a beast in the kitchen, and if I was putting together a new restaurant concept, I'd definitely want her on the team, but I couldn't just approach her directly about it because she doesn't have that much self-confidence, so I needed Chef to recommend her and talk her into taking the job."

She wanted to ask him what else his company was involved with, but Lawrence had already returned with a plate in each hand, setting them down on the table before them.

"Pan-seared Chilean sea bass with caramelized lemon-honey sauce and a fresh salad of grapefruit, blood orange and jalapeno," he said with a smile. "Enjoy."

The plate before her was beautiful: a half-inch-thick half-oval of white fish, thin golden brown crust on top and a stripe of black-and-white marbled skin along its side, sitting on a small pool of thin orange sauce, pale pink and deep red citrus segments arranged on the other half of the plate, a number small green circles sprinkled over them. The meat flaked easily when she touched it with the tip of her fork, breaking off a small piece that made the skin peel away from the flesh a little bit before cracking and breaking off.

The only fish Jessie had ever had before was fried catfish and she really didn't like it, so she cautiously brought the flake of fish to her mouth, prepared to not like it either. However, she was pleasantly surprised from the moment it touched her tongue, the sweet and sour of the sauce on the crust of the edge of the flake playing a magical tune on her taste buds, with a little bit of heat that warmed her up ever-so-slightly, and just underneath that was a very subtle sweetness from the fish along with the salty crispness of the bit of skin. Biting into it, she was surprised by just how buttery and moist it was, so different than the catfish, and so tender that it tore apart easily on her teeth.

Glancing over at Harry, she was surprised to see him with two thin, long ivory-colored sticks between first, middle and ring fingers and thumb, carefully separating the flakes from each other before dipping the tips into the sauce and tasting it.

"This sauce is basically magic," he remarked with an expression of genuine surprise on his face. "Well, not like magic magic, but it's just great, the perfect balance of sweet, tart and heat, not too thick or thin, and not sticky at all."

Jessie could only nod along as she used the edge of her fork to split a chunk of the sea bass from the rest of the steak, biting into the larger piece to find it had an incredible firm texture and a fattiness she hadn't gotten from the small flake. Eating a few pieces of salad, she was surprised by how mouth-puckeringly sour they were at first, but the sweetness of the orange and the tangy flavors of the grapefruit followed quickly before her tastebud was hit by the mild spiciness and bright vegetable flavor of the pepper, cutting through the richness of the fish, and when she put it all together, she found it was a perfect mouthful, so, unable to help herself, she quickly gobbled it all down until all that was left on the plate was the sauce.

"You can lick the plate, you know?"

Harry must have seen the way she was looking at her plate. Embarrassed, Jessie felt her face grow hot as the blood rushed into her cheeks.

"I couldn't," she protested weakly.

"Nobody's going to think any less of you if you do," Harry reassured her, and so she lifted the plate to her lips, lapping up the golden sauce as she tilted the plate towards her face.

"You must really like my food."

Lowering the plate, Jessie saw Lawrence standing there and blushed even harder, the dish slipping out of her fingers in surprise, though Harry caught it before it touched the table.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled in apology.

"Don't be," Lawrence said, taking the plates. "I'm honored that you like my food so much that you'd want to lick the plate. I've never had a diner do that before."

"I think that's the first perfect plate we've had so far tonight," Harry said. "If it's a sign of what's to come, I'm really looking forward to it."

"What was wrong with the previous dishes?" the chef asked.

"The salad was a great concept, but in reality, it's bitter on bitter on bitter, which is to be expected of herbs, and although there's some balance in the different kinds of bitter flavors because some of the herbs having spicy or sweet notes, it's still mostly bitter, which would make it hard to eat if you didn't know it was a deconstructed healing potion and you were eating it for the effect. Jessie even needed a few sips of wine to get the whole thing down."

"Is this true?" Lawrence asked.

Jessie swallowed uncomfortably but nodded.

"To be honest, these dishes with magical ingredients, I'm still kind of workshopping them," Lawrence admitted. "I know, I know: I shouldn't put them on a tasting menu until they're perfect, but I pretty much never have magically-active guests who also colleagues in the restaurant industry at the chef's table, so I thought I'd see if I maybe could get an opinion from outside of my kitchen."

"Once I had the cockatrice puff, I thought that might be the case," Harry said.

"What's wrong with the cockatrice puff?" the chef asked, worried.

"It's completely out of place within the context and progression of the menu, seeing how it's traditional dim sum preceded and followed by modern American cuisine," Harry explained. "Otherwise, it's a perfectly pleasant interpretation of a wu gok, and the cockatrice gives it an unexpected flavor, but it just doesn't fit the rest of the menu thus far."

"I'm going to lie, I have to agree," Lawrence admitted. "But I do rather enjoy a good wu gok, and it's not easy to use cockatrice because it has that underlying sourness that makes most people think it's gone bad because its flavor is so close to chicken."

"But if you take out the salad and the cockatrice puff, it's actually been a pretty good progression so far," Harry continued. "Although some might mistake it for the menu of a seafood restaurant, with the scallops, the shrimp and now the sea bass."

"Well, then, you'll be happy to know the next course is duck," the chef said.

"And I look forward to eating it," Harry told him.

"We look forward to eating it," Jessie added.

Turning to Harry as Lawrence left with the empty plates in hand, Jessie asked, "When did you start cooking?"

"When I was old enough to reach the countertop by standing on a stool, so about six or so," Harry answered.

"But you said your aunt and uncle would lock you in a cupboard without food," she objected, remembering what he had told her earlier because it was such a horrifying thought.

"Just because I was cooking for them doesn't mean they were letting me eat," he told her dryly. "Of course, I'm not saying they were clever; if I'm the one doing the cooking, what's to stop me from sneaking food for myself?"

"Did you?" she asked.

"Of course. How else was I going to get the nutrition necessary for my body to heal itself after their son kicked the drek out of me most days?"

Jessie felt her mouth suddenly go dry, and she reached for her wine, taking a long sip, letting the fruity flavor wash over her tongue before speaking. "But couldn't you use magic to heal yourself, like you did with my ankle?" she asked.

"I wasn't raised around magic," Harry explained. "In fact, now that I think about it, my aunt and uncle were probably the way they were because they were terrified of it. Would explain why they kept calling me 'freak' and encouraging their son to beat me up, especially after that time my aunt basically shaved my head, only for my hair to all grow back the next day. In hindsight, I guess it was the first time I ever did accidental magic."

"'Accidental magic'?" she asked, confused.

"Right, you wouldn't know," he said. "People with magic, they're born magically dormant; in fact, for more than a few families, it's actually a point of contention and worry that a child might not even be magically active. Most magically active children, when they're young and under stress, will cause magical effects to happen outside of their control, and that's 'accidental magic'."

"You're talking about accidental magic?" Lawrence asked as he placed the next course in front of Jessie and Harry.

"What's your experience with it?" Jessie asked, genuinely curious.

"It was my first time at the circus," the chef answered. "I was six, and I had never seen a mime before in my life…"

It took a moment for what he meant to sink in. "Oh my," she said.

"I'll give him credit though, even though he got struck by lightning out of a clear sky, he never made a sound," Lawrence said. "Say what you want, but that's dedication to your craft."

Even though Harry chuckled, Jessie didn't think it was funny. "That's terrible. I hope he wasn't hurt too badly."

"Besides getting a lightning-shaped scar and a shocking story to tell, he came out of it pretty okay," Lawrence said.

"A girl I go to school with probably has one of those," Harry said.

"A shocking story to tell?" Lawrence asked.

"Maybe," Harry said, "but I meant more the scar."

"Did she get hit by lightning?" Jessie asked.

"No," Harry answered.

"Then what happened?" Lawrence asked.

"I had to put enough electricity into her to stop her heart."

Jessie froze at Harry's sudden announcement. Even though she had seen him fight Marcus and his friend and knew he had killed the Howler, she had never thought he might have killed a person before, and the casual way he said it sent a chill up her spine.

"Oh my gosh!" she ejaculated in horror before asking, "Why would you ever do that?"

"Well, she was literally being possessed by the soul-sucking spirit of a so-called 'dark lord', so I made her clinically dead long enough for the spirit to detach from her soul, because it was the only thing I could think of in the moment," Harry answered.

"Why didn't you contact an exorcist?" Lawrence asked. "They would have a better idea of how to deal with the spirit without having to kill her."

"It was a call I had to make in the moment," Harry said. "The spirit had been draining her soul for the better part of the year, probably, so it was on the verge of resurrecting itself. I didn't have time to contact an expert; all I had was my bag of tricks, and that was the one I thought might work best."

"From the fact we're talking about it, I take she's not dead," Lawrence said, and Harry nodded. "How'd you bring her back?"

"Chest compressions, epinephrine, and once her heart was beating again, electric shocks to get her heart back into a normal cardiac rhythm," Harry explained.

"How do you know how to do that?" Jessie asked.

"I know first aid," he answered. "With what I went through with my aunt and uncle, it only made sense to learn it as soon as I could."

"But you have magic! You used magic to fix my ankle!" she protested.

"Magic's just one tool in my toolbox, and it's good to have multiple tools you can use, in case something goes terribly wrong," Harry argued back. "Case in point, if I'm expecting it and I know what's coming, I can counter a lot of spells and keep them from going off, and I don't see why I'd be the only person capable of doing so, so if my healing magic were to be counterspelled, I like know how to do the bare minimum of first aid at the very least."

"How did you even get involved in the first place?" Lawrence asked.

"I solve problems," Harry told him. "It's what I do."

"That sounds vague… and not at all ominous," the chef said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

Harry shrugged. "So, what do we have here?" he asked, meaning the plates of food in front of them.

"Oh, right," Lawrence said, like he had forgotten about the food for the moment. "Roasted duck breast and sous vide of the thigh, with caramelized apples and lavender honey."

"Well, it looks amazing," Harry said.

Jessie couldn't help but agree. On one side of the white plate was the breast, reddish skin on the outside, sliced thick and still a light pink on the middle, with the caramel-colored thigh next to it all in one piece. On the other side of the plate were lightly-browned wedges of fruit that could be apples, coated in a golden sauce.

"I've never had duck before," she said. "Thank you."

"No, thank you," Lawrence said, smiling. "I'm honored I'm your first; I hope you like it."

Starting with the slices of breast, Jessie was surprised by the duck skin as it hit her tongue, so thin and light, crispy and perfectly flaky, like it was made of pastry, but slick with melted duck fat and salty, with a faint hint of cinnamon beneath the spice. The meat gushed juice as she sank her teeth into it, and even though it tasted a little bit like chicken liver, it felt closer to eating a rare steak than any chicken she ever had before. The thigh came apart easily under the blade of her knife, and she found the skin soft and limp with a fluffy layer of fat almost a little bit like jello underneath, while the flesh was tender and juicy with sugary undertones of orange. Eating a few pieces of diced apples set on the plate between the breast and the thigh, she found them sticky and sweet, but the taste of cinnamon and the sourness of cooked apples quickly followed, melding with the orange flavor and cutting through the richness of the duck fat.

She was only a few bites into the duck when Jessie truly started to feel the effects of everything she had eaten so far, her fork hand instinctively rising to her mouth as she stifled a burp.

"Something wrong?" Harry asked.

"It's nothing," she lied, eating another slice of duck breast.

He studied her face for a moment, saying, "You don't have to hide it, you know? I won't judge."

"It's just, it's kind of embarrassing, but I'm starting to get a little bit full," she admitted.

Harry set down his fork and knife, crossed across the top edge of his plate, then looked Jessie dead in the eyes. "Do you trust me?" he asked.

"O-of course," she told him, suddenly feeling conscious of how close they were sitting together. As she watched, he quietly said something she didn't understand, his hands forming a strange sign before touching her lightly on the stomach.

"What language is that?" she asked.

"It's Latin, but not really," answered Harry.

"What does that mean?"

"It sounds Latin-y, but it's not really Latin, even though it does keep the concepts of root words and affixes, but it's close enough that it could pass for Latin."

There was a soft gurgle, and Jessie felt her intestines start to move. "What did you do?"

"I used a little bit of magic to speed your digestion along," he explained. "It should last for about half-an-hour, which should be enough for tonight."

"You can do that?" she asked, surprised.

"Magic can do a lot of things," he said. "Just keep in mind, though, the calories are going to have to go somewhere."

"Then it'll make up for all the running from the howler we did earlier and for skipping lunch," Jessie said.

"You know, this dish is pretty clever," Harry remarked.

"How so?" she asked, genuinely curious as she continued to eat.

"The apples really bridge the two ways the duck is served," he explained. "They're sweet, sour and a little bit fruity, not unlike the orange of the sous vide duck, but they also carry the cinnamon to the roasted duck. There's also the different textures: the roasted duck is crispy and has a bit of a chew to it, while the other one is soft and fatty. It's just interesting on so many levels."

Jessie wouldn't have thought about it like that, but now Harry had said it, it made sense.

"Do you have any plans for after you finish school?" Harry asked, changing the subject.

"Well, before Momma got the cancer, I wanted to travel and see the world, but I can't just leave Daddy on his own," Jessie told him. "Lilah would crash and burn without me."

"What do you mean?"

"Daddy wouldn't even know what to get and from who, and he's no good with numbers, or even pressure," she explained. "I've been placing the orders everyday and wrangling the books, so if I were to leave, Daddy would be helpless."

"Taylor should be able to take over ordering once you show her what she needs to order, who from and how often, and I have a somebody who should be able to connect us with an accountant who we can trust to handle the books," Harry said. "You shouldn't have to sacrifice your dreams for a parent's, and any parent who would want that isn't fit to be one."

"Hey! Daddy's…!" Jessie started fiercely, but Harry interrupted before she could continue.

"I'm not saying your father's like that, just the idea in principle."

They ate without speaking for a moment. Then, she realized Harry had never talked about his family, and that made her wonder…

"Were your momma and daddy like that?" she asked.

"They died when I was very, very young," he told her. "I don't have any memories of them."

Jessie felt her heart go out to him right away. "I'm so sorry," she apologized.

"Don't be," Harry said calmly. "You didn't kill them."

An awkward, somber silence followed, interrupted when Lawrence came to the table, a plate of food in each hand. "What's with the long faces?" he asked.

Jessie wasn't sure how to answer.

"It's nothing important," Harry said. "What'd you have for us?"

"This is a crispy pork belly with a salad of apple slaw, pecans and carbonated grapes," he said, taking the empty plates from the previous course.

"I look forward to trying it," Harry said. "The duck was just wonderfully complex, a treasure trove of textures and flavors. You must have spent a lot of time fine-tuning it until you were happy with the result."

"Thank you so much," Lawrence said. "You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear you say that; when Nam asked if the chef's table was available, he didn't mention you were somebody who thought so much about food, so I wasn't expecting to really get feedback, but it's great ."

"Naw, chummer, it's a pleasure."

"I gotta get back to the line, but if there's anything, just holler."

"Sure thing."

The plate before Jessie was a piece of meat about the size of two packs of playing cards stacked on top of each other, the skin perfectly golden brown and bubbly, while the other half of the dish was covered in a thinly-sliced slaw of green-skinned apples, tossed with broken pieces of wrinkle-covered nuts and a dozen green grapes with bubbles slowly leaking out of where the stem would have been attached. As she tried to cut the pork, she found the knife had a little bit of trouble getting through the skin, so she expected it to be hard to the bite when she put it in her mouth, but instead was met by something crunchy, almost a like a rice cake but a little bit stiffer and perfectly salty with a hint of porky flavor, before she found the thick layer of fat just beneath it, somehow both rich but also light and delicate the same time, a stark contrast with the firm but tender meat that sandwiched it on the other side. Forking a bit of the slaw into her mouth, she was surprised by the crisp apple's mild sweetness drawing out the pork's own, while the pecan pieces gave the salad a nutty flavor and a crunchiness that was somewhere between the apple's and the pig skin's.

The biggest surprise, though, were the grapes. She wasn't sure what to expect when she stabbed one with a fork and it immediately started to ooze bubbles, but then it exploded as soon as she bit into it, bursting like a tiny soda, filling her mouth with fizzy juice, and her hand instinctively went to her lips in surprise.

"Man, that's good," Harry said, saying what she was thinking. "That pork is just perfectly cooked, which must not have been easy, since the meat wasn't brined."

"What makes you think that?" Jessie asked.

"The meat itself isn't salty," he explained. "All the salt you're getting from the pork belly, it's from just the skin, which, by the way, is probably better than any siu yok I've had before."

"S'ew yoke?"

She didn't know what that was.

"It's a Cantonese roasted pig which has a similar result but is produced by roasting an entire side of pork, if not the whole animal, all at once."

"I'd love to try it sometime," she said.

"You should be able to find some in Chinatown, if you're willing to go looking," he told her.

"But I wouldn't know if it was good," Jessie protested.

"Neither would I unless I tried it," Harry said. "I've only tried a couple different places out in Vegas and back home."

A brief break in the conversation followed, interrupted only by the crunch of pork skin and pecans and the fizzing of grapes.

Then, Harry asked, "What do you do in your free time, besides going hunting?"

"I haven't had a lot of time to myself the last couple years, with Momma getting sick and then Daddy starting Lilah, but I used to go fishing all the time," Jessie answered. "We had a creek running through our yard before we moved to the city, so I'd go out and fish a couple times a week just to relax. What about you?"

"I read, I exercise, and I play role-playing games," he told her.

"What're 'role-playing games'?" Jessie asked. The phrase was new to her, but she was interested in knowing about it, since Harry had brought it up.

"It's a game where you pretend to be a character, then with other players pretending to be other characters and somebody to help adjudicate and keep things civil, tell a story together that involves all the characters," he explained.

"I don't really get it," Jessie admitted.

Harry seemed to think things over for a moment, then said, "Let's play a game."

"Here?" she asked nervously.

"Don't worry, it'll only take a couple minutes, and we can eat while we're playing."

She considered it for a moment, moving the food on her plate around with her fork, wishing there was more of the salad, then nodded. "Where do we start?"

"All right, pick any job you can think of," Harry directed.

Using the time she chewed on a piece of pork belly before swallowing to think, Jessie considered her answer. Finally, she said, "An actress."

"That's a good choice," Harry said. "Now choose five adjectives."

"Remind me again what those are?" she asked. English had never been her best subject.

"Descriptive words."

"Um… intelligent, funny, beautiful… uh… yummy and nice?" Jessie said, unsure of herself after the first three words left her lips.

"All right, the rules are as follows: to successfully do anything, you'll have to describe it in a sentence that includes one of the adjectives that you picked earlier, but once you've used it, it's gone," Harry explained. "You can also choose to fail at what you're trying to do by describing it with a sentence that doesn't include any of the adjectives you chose previously, in which case, you can pick an adjective I use in the sentence I used to describe how you failed."

"That sounds easy enough," she said.

"Now, in this scenario, you're an actress who has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and your name has just been read out as the winner," Harry told her as he painted a picture with his words. "For a moment, you remain in your seat, too shocked to do anything else, but the thunderous applause echoing through the theater brings you back to your senses, and you quickly realize you're going to have to go on stage to give your award acceptance speech."

Taking a sip of her wine as she finished the last of the pork belly, Jessie took a moment to think about the situation. "I look around in surprise, get up and shake hands with my co-stars and director, then squeeze past the other people sitting in my row and make my way down the aisle to the stage."

"As you're climbing the steps to the stage, you accidentally step on the hem of your dress, tripping on it, though you manage to catch yourself with a hand on the hard wooden floor ," he told her.

"But why?" she protested. "I was only walking to the stage!"

"You forgot to use one of your adjectives, which is why you failed," Harry explained. "On the other hand, you do get another adjective, though your choice is between 'hard' and 'wooden'."

Considering her options for a moment, she finally asked, "If I pick 'hard', do I also get 'harder' and 'hardest'?"

"Nope, just 'hard'," he said.

"I'll take 'wooden', then," she said.

"All right. Your adjectives are 'intelligent', 'funny', 'beautiful', 'yummy', 'nice', and now, 'wooden'."

"I stand up and go accept the award, then say something funny about when I nearly fell."

"The audience laughs along with your joke, the tension that remained from after your tumble easing noticeably."

"I thank Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the film, calling her the most intelligent and visionary director I've ever worked with."

"From the audience, Bigelow mouths 'Thank you' and blows you a kiss as you wave to her," Harry narrated. "I'm not going to lie, I didn't expect Kathryn Bigelow; she's not really a big name yet, though Near Dark and Blue Steel are both pretty good films."

"I love Point Break," Jessie explained. "I've watched it so much, the tape of it Daddy bought me wore out and I had to buy another one."

"Sorry, am I interrupting?" Lawrence asked, setting down two plates of food before taking the empty ones.

"Nothing that can't wait," Harry said, looking down at the food. "Short ribs?"

"Bourbon-braised bonnacon short ribs with a kimchi-coffee sauce, sauteed mushrooms and a pickled watermelon salad."

"Bonnacon?" Jessie asked. She had never heard of such an animal before.

"It's like beef, but with better marbling and a much deeper, richer flavor, though they're kind of hard to hunt because they flee at the first sign of danger and can projectile diarrhea acid," Lawrence explained.

"I've never had, but it sounds good," Harry said. "Thanks chummer."

"My pleasure."

The dark brown meat cut easily under the knife in Jessie's hand, then almost melted in her mouth in a dizzying blend of flavors, something that tasted a lot like beef, but rich and a little bit gamey, with hints of vanilla and caramel under the funky, mouth-puckeringly sour sauce that quickly turned spicy and had a roasty, bitter finish. The limp, browned mushrooms were earthy, almost meaty, with just a kiss of garlicky, buttery and sweet notes, while the sour-yet-sweet flavor of the watermelon pieces cut through the fat, refreshing her taste buds. Every bite danced over her tongue with its blend of flavors, and as good as the scallops and the toast were, the short ribs made them feel like they were made by somebody who only cooked as a hobby.

"Now this, this is just aces," Harry finally said, though by then, he had already eaten almost half of what was on the plate. "Best thing I've ever eaten, and it's not even close. Just a perfect symphony of flavors that hits every part of the palate; if Lawrence were to put it on the menu, it'd be worth it to fly in from another country and eat here just for these ribs."

She didn't really understand all the words, but she agreed with the feeling, and they ate without talking until they both finished everything on their plates. Then, she asked, "Where were we?"

"You just thanked your director," Harry said, before pausing. "I forgot your adjectives."

"Me too," Jessie said after taking a long moment to try to remember. "Since I don't remember, can I pick new ones instead?"

"Of course," Harry replied. "It's my fault for not writing them down."

She thought about it for a moment, wanting to impress him. "How many do I have left?" she asked to buy time.

"Let's call it four," he answered after a pause.

"Uh, how about, 'wonderful', 'talented', 'incredible' and 'amazing'?" she asked.

"It's your decision," Harry said. "You don't need my permission."

"Okay," Jessie said. "I thank the writers for the amazing script that, once I read it, I knew I had to be a part of it, even if it was just the smallest role, and I'm blessed to have been cast by the wonderful casting director for such an important role."

"Although your speech continues to hold the audience's attention, you can hear the orchestra start to play softly, like they're trying to force you off of the stage," Harry said. "Remember, you still have two words: 'talented' and 'incredible'."

Jessie tried to think of something that might impress Harry. Running through the speeches from all the award shows she had watched with Momma, only one thing came to mind:

"I quickly thank my co-stars, who are all so talented and taught me so much about acting, and finally thank all the incredible fans of the movie, whose support made it possible for the movie to get this award."

Harry's lip quirked upwards in amusement, and Jessie swallowed nervously, taking a sip of the wine to wet her lips.

"The audience applauds politely as you finish your speech, and you return to your seat, not thinking too much of the experience. However, in the following days, your speech is one of the most talked-about parts of the show, your earnest appreciation of your fans galvanizing them to support you in ways no other actor has ever truly had before. Although your next role is in a medium-sized action film where the studio cast you as the lead only because they wanted to capitalize on your winning an Academy Award, your fans show up in force, making it the first movie in the history of cinema to earn a billion dollars at the box office and turning you into a legitimate draw and movie star."

Jessie felt a rush of glee as Harry told her what became of her, a shiver of excitement running up her spine. "This is fun," she said. "I can see why you like playing this."

"There's usually more rules, but at the end of the day, it's sharing a story with friends, except you're also making the story up together," said Harry. "Who wouldn't like doing that?"

She didn't want to tell him that, besides Daisy, she didn't really have any friends.

"Next, we have a chocolate cake with rum-peanut butter buttercream icing and boom berry compote."

Jessie jerked in surprise as the plate touched the table. She had been so focused on the game that she hadn't even noticed Lawrence arrive.

"Um, thanks," she managed to mutter. "It looks yummy."

"Thank you," Harry echoed.

"Bon appetit."

Jessie thought she knew what a cake was, but her first bite into the square she had cut with the edge of her fork made her think again. It was heavy, almost more brownie than cake, rich and eggy, with the unmistakable flavor of chocolate pushed just to the edge of almost being bitter, mellowed by the caramelly and nutty flavors of the buttery frosting on top. Scooping some of the berries into her mouth, she bit into them and nearly yelped, her hand going to her mouth in surprise as they burst in her mouth in a blast of juice—almost like big Pop Rocks—and a bit of the juice squirted through her lips, splashing against her palm. Quickly, she licked it up, then realized what she had done and blushed, stealing a glance at Harry, who caught her gaze. She quickly looked away, her cheeks burning even hotter.

"It's good, yeah?" Harry asked, and Jessie could only nod in agreement. "Didn't know boom berry could be used like this."

"You didn't?" she asked, surprised. "Why?"

"I've only ever encountered dry, as potion ingredients," he told her as he chewed and swallowed another bite of the cake. "I've never seen paracritters and paraflora used as foodstuffs back home; it might be a cultural thing."

"Paracritters? Paraflora?" she asked, cutting off another piece of cake with the side of her fork. "What are those?"

"Paracritters are animals with magical properties like the howler from before," Harry explained. "Paraflora are plants with magical properties, like the fluxweed that was in the salad earlier."

Jessie remembered the earlier exchange between Harry and Lawrence and nodded. "What're potions like? How do you make them?"

"Potions are like, well, think of them like medicine: they come in all colors, flavors and consistencies, and they do all kinds of different things. For example, there's the Pepperup potion—which cures or suppresses cold-like symptoms, though it's hard to tell which one, since wizards and witches don't follow medical procedure, or the scientific method for that matter—or the Alihotsy Draught, which is like nitrous gas or a Tasha's uncontrollable hideous laughter spell in that it makes the person who consumes it laugh uncontrollably.

"As for how they're made, as far as I can tell, they're brewed in a cauldron on an open flame, but besides that, it's not different than cooking by following a recipe. Hell, if you have the right ingredients, even a normal person without magic can make potions as long as they follow the instructions step-by-step."

"So, you're saying, I could make potions?" Jessie asked, suddenly feeling hopeful.

"Of course," Harry said. "You'd just need ingredients, equipment and recipes. In fact, right now, I'm working with an associate who's researching how to reproduce potions through science."

"Why though?"

"If we can re-create the effects of a potion through chemistry, we can probably mass produce it, have it pass medical trials and regulatory bodies, then sell it on the market as medicine that's much more effective than the medicine people are used to. Take the Pepperup Potion as an example: usually, if you take cold medicine, it only suppresses the symptoms of the cold for about eight or so hours, but after you quaff a Pepperup Potion, you won't have any symptoms until the next time you catch a cold, which means it blows everything else on the market right now out of the water in efficacy. If we can get it through trials and approved for sale, we'd be able to generate an unprecedented amount of profit by holding a monopoly on the only perfectly effective cold medicine. And that's just one potion out of thousands; the market is untapped and basically limitless."

Hearing Harry say all of that, Jessie suddenly realized for the first time the difference in scale between his goals, and hers and Daddy's. It was like she had just found out she had been talking to a Rockefeller and not known it, and it made her feel both a little bit small, and a little special that somebody like him wanted to spend time with her.

She was pulled out of her thoughts by Lawrence coming to the table, two desserts in hand.

"For the final course, we have a warm apple pie with a bourbon-chocolate ice cream," he said, setting the plates down on the table. "It's what we normally serve as dessert, since we wouldn't be able to explain boom berries to magic-free diners."

"Well, it looks fantastic," Harry said, and Jessie nodded in agreement. "Thank you."

The first bite of the pie wasn't all that impressive compared to everything else she had already had that night, but there was something about the soft, slightly sour apples, sticky in a sweet, cinnamony sauce that tasted of honey with a mild, warming touch of spice and the flaky, buttery pie crust that pulled at something in her heart.

Only after the second bite did she realize it reminded her of something Momma used to bake.

"Are you okay?" Harry suddenly asked. "Is something wrong?"

"What?" she asked, not understanding.

"You're crying," Harry said, tapping his left cheek just below the eye.

Touching her face where he had touched his, Jessie felt wetness on her fingertip and realized she had shed a tear. Accepting the handkerchief Harry held out to her, she dabbed her cheek with a corner of the fabric before giving it back.

"I'm okay," she told him. "It's just that it reminded me of Momma's apple pie."

"My condolences," he said. "Smells and tastes are two senses that can dredge up memories whether you want them to or not. You want to talk about it?"

Jessie shook her head, scooping a bit of ice cream into her mouth. It was sweet and chocolatey, creamy with a hint of vanilla and caramel, and the cold only made it sweeter and yummier as it melted in her mouth in contrast to the flaky pie and limp apple slices.

They finished the dessert without speaking, and it felt like Harry was trying to give her space.

"Why the long faces?" Lawrence asked, his tone light like he was trying to break the tension with a joke. "Did somebody die?"

There was a moment of silence. Only when Jessie realized Harry wasn't going to answer did she say anything.

"Momma," Jessie told the chef. "Your apple pie reminded me of the one she used to make."

"Oh shit, I'm so sorry," Lawrence apologized, looking sincerely remorseful. "I didn't mean to…"

"It's okay," she reassured him. "You didn't know."

There was an uncomfortable pause. Then, Lawrence asked, "So… what'd you think?"

"It was good," Jessie said before looking to Harry. "What about you, Harry?"

"The plates were all between good and great, but it's a shame that the best thing all night was the short ribs, because you can't really serve that to your magic-free patrons, and it's probably a plate worthy of Michelin stars," Harry said thoughtfully. "If you take just the normal menu, it's a good progression going from light to heavy, and I like the way you have motifs that run through the courses, like with the citrus in the scallops and the sea bass; or the ginger in the scallops, the bass and the apple pie; the apples with the duck, the pork belly and the pie; or the honey that was in bass, the duck and the pie."

"Thank you," Lawrence said.

"Don't thank me yet," Harry said. "I'm not done."

Downing the last of the wine in his glass in one gulp, he continued. "I think the cake should have went last; it was the richest thing all night, to the point of being decadent, and it just completely overshadowed the pie that came afterwards, which was good, but it wasn't the cake, which was absolutely aces, and finishing on the pie was kind of an anticlimax after that. We talked about the herb salad earlier, so I won't talk about that, but I really could have used more slaw to go with the pork belly because I ran out well before I finished the entire plate."

"You really don't hold back, do you?" the chef asked, frowning.

"I mean, you either asked me because you respect my opinion as a colleague and you want feedback, in which case, this will be helpful, or you're just fishing for compliments, and I'm not particularly helpful when it comes to that," Harry said, shrugging. "That said, the fizzy grapes were a very nice surprise; I've never had anything like that before and I really enjoyed it."

"Well, thank you again," Lawrence said. "I was messing around with some dry ice when I came up with the grape thing."

"Well, it was wizzer," Harry said. "I might have to try making it sometime."

Another pause followed, and Jessie sipped her drink.

"Hey, it's getting kind of late," Harry said, checking his watch. "Can I get the check please?"

"Sure," Lawrence said, beckoning to the hostess from earlier, who came over and set a black leather check holder on the table.

She watched Harry's face as he opened the bill folder, trying to get a read on him, but he gave nothing away, calmly taking a wallet out of the inside pocket of his jacket, pulling a thin stack of bills out of it and slipping them into the folder before handing it back to the hostess.

"Keep the change," he told her.

"How much was it?" Jessie asked, curious, as the hostess walked away.

"You don't have to worry about it," Harry answered, smiling mischievously. "I promised I'd treat you, remember?"

"But I'd feel guilty if it was a lot!" she protested, though it made her happy. It felt like a date.

"I know," he said. "That's why it's a secret."

Standing, Harry extended a hand to Lawrence, and the two shook hands. "It's been a pleasure," he told the chef. "I'm going to try to reserve the chef's table again next time I'm in Houston."

"In that case, I look forward to cooking for you again," Lawrence said, before shaking Jessie's hand. "I'll be making a reservation at Lilah soon."

"We look forward to having you," she answered nervously. She still wasn't used to the idea of people wanting to eat at Daddy's restaurant.

Leaving the restaurant, it only took a few moments for the valet to retrieve the car, and the short drive back to the hotel was filled with small talk, and she kept darting glances at Harry, sneaking looks at his face as it was lit by the passing lights of the city night.

She fidgeted nervously as they rode the elevator up to their hotel rooms, her hand in the crook of his arm, still stealing glances at Harry, blushing and looking away when he caught her eyes.

The walk from the elevator to her hotel room was both too long and too short at the same time.

"Well, we're here," Harry said, as they came to stop in front of their hotel rooms, which were across the hall from each other. "I've had a great evening."

"Me too," she said, still holding his arm.

"Well, you have an early morning tomorrow," he said. "There's the Howler, and a flight back to Dallas/Fort Worth so you'll be in time for lunch service at Lilah."

"Right," she said wistfully.

"Well, good night," he said, starting to pull away as he turned towards his hotel room.

"Wait!" Jessie exclaimed.

She reached for Harry's face with both hands, cupping his face as she leaned in on her tippy toes, eyes closing as she pressed her lips against his.

She felt his body stiffen at the kiss.

His lips were soft, and he smelled faintly of cinnamon and leather.

After a moment, Jessie pulled back, her heart pounding in her chest. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked into Harry's face and found his expression blank.

"I'm sorry, I can't do this," Harry said, stepping backwards, and Jessie felt a pain in her chest.

"Why? Is it me? Is it because I'm not your type?" she asked, not wanting to believe what was happening.

"No, it's not you," he told her. "You're smart. You're pretty. You're hard-working. You're exactly my type, if I had one."

"Then what is it?" she asked, almost pleading. "I can change."

"I don't mix business with pleasure, unless the business is pleasure," he said. "If we got involved and it goes sideways, it'll get complicated at Lilah."

"I can give up…"

Harry pressed a finger against her lips, stopped her before she could finish. "Don't do that," he said. "Lilah is about to be huge, maybe even on a scale you can't imagine yet, and if you give up your share of it now, for this, you may resent me forever, and I don't want that."

She didn't want to believe what he said made sense, but it did. Even so, it didn't make the pain in her chest any less.

"I'm not saying I don't like you," Harry quickly added, "but if we go any further than we already have, it'd be unfair to you, to me, to your father and to Taylor, because we're all involved in Lilah, and I don't want emotions to stop us from making the right decision based on what either of us really believe."

It took Jessie a moment for Harry's words to sink in and for her to understand what he meant.

"So, you're saying I have a chance, after Lilah?" she asked, hopefully.

"After Lilah? Of course."

That was all she needed to hear.

Author's Notes: As long as something exists, humans will try to eat it. If it's delicious, humans will keep eating it. And if there are edible magical plants and animals, magical humans would definitely eat them.

This chapter took four months to write; because I wanted to get the tasting menu just right, I ended up cooking everything that was included in the menu, plus a bunch of other things that I ultimately decided didn't fit the progression. The only thing on the menu that I didn't actually make was the herb salad, simply because those herbs don't exist in real life; the rest I simulated with similar ingredients that I added my imagination to.

"Roses and Wine" is also my attempt at combining food porn with a romantic date, written from the perspective of somebody who doesn't realize it's not a romantic date from the other party's perspective.

Due to poor staffing at my workplace, I'm now the only person at the location where I am employed who does my job, leaving me exhausted and with little energy to write after working of my shift; combine this with the length of and details in the chapters I'm currently writing and the fact I have other projects that I also work on, along with other things I do for leisure, I've made very little headway on this book, though taking four months to cook for and write this chapter has done little to help. However, I'm not abandoning this series and am just trying to get my personal and professional life back in order so I can work on it more smoothly (I wrote Hermetic Arts while taking care of my grandmother and not holding a job otherwise, and Physical Adept was written before I had to open and close by myself five days a week most weeks, so my workload during both was much lighter); as such, Runecraeft of the Norns will be going on hiatus until December 2022, as I try to rebuild a backlog of chapters (I don't like the idea of uploading whenever I finish a chapter, since that will only lead to the pace of work slowing until the dries up). I still have everything up through book 5 outlined, and I would like to see this series through, but right now, real life isn't as permissive of my creative desires as I'd like.

With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, please take care to be safe. Even if you're tired of wearing a mask, it's important to keep wearing one even after you've been vaccinated, as you never know which strangers aren't, and the vaccine's primary function is to make it less likely for its recipient to die upon contracting the virus, since no vaccine is 100% perfect.

Once again, many thanks to my long-suffering editors Romantically Distant and pmansell for proofing and editing my work. Also, thank you for reading what I've written.