by Nyx Fixx
Molly Weasley was sipping a cup of tea in the kitchen at 12 Grimmauld Place, flipping through the pages of a cookbook as she chatted with Remus Lupin.
"The thing is, Remus, he' sullen, he's unstable, he never thinks things through, and … he drinks."
Remus' face creased in a pained smile. He was sipping at a small glass of pale blue hang-over cure potion, a disgusting concoction informally known as "Never-Again" that tasted horrible but usually got the job done if you could get it down. He'd had a few too many glasses of elf-made wine himself last night during dinner.
"I'm only saying," Molly continued, "he's just not setting a very good example for Harry."
Maybe not, Lupin was thinking, but he brews a damned effective Never-Again draught. Thank God. I'll have to remind him to write down the recipe for Moody and Mundungus.
"The thing is," Molly went on, "boys Harry's age need decent role models to look up to and learn from and Sirius just doesn't provide the kind of healthy example that it's best for an innocent child like Harry to…"
Remus, who had heard all this before and whose head was still pounding a bit, let the rest of Molly's lecture resolve itself into meaningless noise as he steeled himself to finish off his glass of potion. Once that was done, he started trying to think of some conversational gambit that would distract her from her current and common theme of How Completely Unsatisfactory Sirius Really Is.
"Don't you think, Remus?" she finished, eyebrows raised expectantly.
"Er…" he said to Molly, stomach still roiling ominously."What's that you're reading? Um … a cookbook, is it?"
He really had no desire to talk about food at all this morning, but he had even less desire to hear another page out of Molly's book on How Terribly Peculiar and Hopelessly Immature Sirius Has Always Been.
Molly looked down at her book. "Oh. Oh, yes, it's next to impossible to think of something different to make for dinner every night with all this crew running in and out of the house at all hours and all just in time for dinner, more often than not. I've been at my wits' end. But this is Gilderoy Lockhart's Gastronomy Gilderoy Style and he has some lovely recipes in his 'My Dinners 'Round the World' chapter. I'm thinking of trying this one out for tonight."
She pushed the book toward him, and put her finger next to a recipe that looked diabolically fiddly and complicated to Remus, and that had a picture of a steaming cauldron of dark red goop next to it.
"Uh," said Remus in a rather strangled voice. "Uhh. Is that … is that …erm …borscht?"
"Yes, doesn't that look tasty? It's a favorite hearty Russian dish, you know. A nice change of pace, I'm thinking. You'll be here for dinner tonight, won't you, dear?"
Remus rose unsteadily from the table, swallowing several times in rapid succession.
"I'm … I'm sure it will be very … very nice, Molly. Anyway, I really must run, so…"
"Oh, must you? So soon? Couldn't you stay on for a bit of breakfast? I'm making poached eggs with capers and Hollandaise sauce and kippers and-"
"Uh." Remus swallowed once more. "Uh. No, no, so sorry, Molly, can't stay, must run, missions for the Order, you know … do have a lovely day…ta-ta…"
He sprinted out of the kitchen just as fast as his suddenly very wobbly legs would carry him, leaving Molly alone with her tea and her cookbook.
Molly watched his retreating form for a moment, frowning.
"The poor man!" she said, picking up her book again and starting to read the recipe she had chosen once more. "Dumbledore is just working him to death. I'll have to remember to set aside an extra large helping for him tonight. Now let's see, carrots and leeks we have, and the potatoes as well… hmm … and maybe I'll add some raisins for interest …now, I wonder where I could buy some beet-root?"
Molly had set the beef stock for her borscht to simmering in its cauldron by nine that morning, and after she'd added sugar, vinegar, carrots, onions, bay leaves, unpeeled red potatoes, and a few ounces of beef brisket to the mix, she'd gone out to do some marketing. While she was away, several small things that only seemed insignificant happened.
First, Crookshanks came sauntering into the kitchen, looking for some food to steal, a common pastime for all cats and most Kneazles. He wandered about the kitchen, nosing here and there, and padded about on all the kitchen counters too, prying open cupboard doors with his paws, because often humans hid the really delicious treatsies up high, where, they supposed, cats (and Kneazles) couldn't get them.
Crookshanks investigated the steaming cauldron on the stove as part of his circuit of the higher surfaces in the kitchen. He cautiously sniffed at it and instantly cringed back, sneezing so violently that several of his whiskers were dislodged. Those whiskers fell into the boiling stock as Crookshanks leapt back down to the floor.
Crookshanks never did find any suitable treats to steal. But he did discover a plump and exceedingly arrogant water-beetle under the kitchen table, and once he'd stalked it a bit, played with it, and tortured it to death, he took it into his jaws and trotted out of the kitchen.
I'll bring it to Sirius, Crookshanks thought cattishly. Even if he doesn't want to eat it right away, he'll be very grateful when he finds it under his pillow! He'll probably pet me and rub my tummy and scratch behind my ears and everything…
Then, about twenty minutes later, a very tiny juvenile doxy that had escaped the recent doxy-purge in the drawing room happened to be flying through the kitchen and was caught in a tendril of steam from the simmering beef stock. This unfortunate doxy, barely out of the larval form, was instantly parboiled in the rising steam and fell, dead, into the stock.
About half an hour after that, Mundungus Fletcher came into the kitchen, looking for either water, Never-Again, or a pitcher of Bloody Marys, whichever could be found first. He had fallen asleep on a sofa in the study last night and was at least as hung-over as Remus had been, if not more so. He lit his pipe with a load of his favorite pungent tobacco with shaky hands as he searched. A close inspection yielded only water in the end, but Mundungus did, of course, peer into the cauldron of Molly's burgeoning borscht along the way, just in the spirit of thoroughness. Small, smoldering shreds of black-brown tobacco and ash spilled from his pipe into the cauldron as he peered down into it.
"What's this stuff?" Mundungus asked himself as he looked. "Smells bloody awful!"
A little bit later, Nymphadora Tonks, who had also fallen asleep unexpectedly the previous night, awakened abruptly from a bizarre nightmare and sat bolt upright with great force. Since, as fate would have it, she had passed out the night before under a coffee table in the drawing room, her aching head made sharp, sudden contact with the underside of the table when she rose, and she shrieked out a loud "OW!". The small table, as well as a very nice wizarding chess-set that had been arranged on the tabletop, plus several empty wine-bottles and a bag of cats-eye marbles, all went flying amidst a deafening clatter and the shrill, piercing screams of all the chess pieces.
A small flock of bats, which had been peacefully roosting in the chimney for years, was so startled by the noise that they all burst out of the unlit fireplace with a whoosh, and swooped, terrified and dropping guano everywhere they went, throughout the house. Their brief, panic-stricken foray into the kitchen deposited several grams of bat guano into the borscht.
And so it went. A failed and ill-advised Wingardium Leviosa by George Weasley just happened to drop an Extendable Ear and a small length of Spellotape into the borscht. Kreacher dropped by the kitchen, recognized the cooking Russian soup for what it was, and dropped a handful of caraway seeds into it, because he knew that borscht required caraway even if that awful Weasley woman didn't, blood-traitor that she was. Arthur Weasley should have known better than to look into the cauldron right after having nicked himself shaving, but he didn't, so a few drops of blood wound up added into the mix. Several Bertie Botts Every-Flavoured Beans were Ron's accidental contribution, and he had no more knowledge that his jellybeans had gone into the borscht than Hermione realized that a small bottle of her best India Ink had fallen in whilst she was having a heated discussion with Ron over the stove about whether skis were or were not the most asinine invention Muggles had ever made. Later, Ginny Weasley somehow managed to drop her wand into the soup, and had to fish it back out with a pair of rusty fire-tongs.
Finally, about eleven-thirty, Molly returned to the kitchen with her purchases, and added beet-root, red cabbage, golden raisins and diced ham to the borscht, all unknowing that a great many ingredients that she had never planned for had found their way into her recipe while she was out. The color, at this point, seemed a bit off to Molly, so she murmured a little culinary Enhancing Charm she knew over the borscht as she grated a smidge of lemon peel into it.
The soup still did not look exactly like it did in the cookbook, she thought, and the consistency was rather more glutinous than she'd imagined it would be. The smell was a bit … strong, too. Molly thought of tasting the borscht to see how it was progressing, but the very idea made her feel strangely reluctant and she decided to wait until the new ingredients had cooked in a bit before making the experiment – maybe in a half hour or so, or - even better, an hour - or even two.
She sighed and hoped she hadn't made some small error in the cooking that would ruin the recipe. She had never made borscht before, after all. Molly made herself another pot of tea and sat down at the kitchen table to reconcile her accounting of household expenses for the Order before the next Ways and Means meeting on Wednesday.
Along about one, Sirius wandered into the kitchen, dressed but unshaven and decidedly rumpled-looking. He dropped what looked like a large, fat, partially chewed beetle into the waste bin with a grimace of distaste and then gingerly eased himself into a seat at the table.
"What on earth were we drinking last night?" Sirius muttered to himself. "Dragon piss? Acromantula venom?"
"Good morning," Molly said to him, a bit frostily. "Or should I say good afternoon?"
Sirius blinked, and then winced, as though it hurt him quite a bit to blink. "Umm, hullo, Molly. Didn't see you there. Any tea left? And what's that horrible smell?"
Molly's lips went even thinner than they already were.
"Here's the tea, I just made a pot. You might try to force down some solid food too, you know, you look like a corpse. And I shouldn't wonder, the way you were putting away the drink last night. Really, Sirius, I'll just say it again, you absolutely must think about Harry and how impressionable boys are at his age. It's not setting a good example for him when you-"
"Molly," Sirius interrupted in a moan and covered his eyes with his hands. "Molly, please. Not now. Tea first. Do be quiet and just let me get some tea in me first, won't you, Molly-honey-sweetie-darling-my-love? I'm asking you, and if that's not nice enough, I'm begging you. And – again – good heavens, what is that horrible smell?"
"It's borscht!" Molly snapped, completely put out. "And it's not horrible at all!'
Sirius opened his hands a little and peered out at her between his fingers. "'Borscht'?" he asked. "What an awful word. What's 'borscht'? Is it some sort of deadly potion? It certainly smells fatal enough."
Molly pulled the one weapon that witches had been using on wizards since time immemorial, the one that had never failed to control even the most stubborn of the buggers once wielded. She burst into tears.
Sirius removed his hands from his eyes and stared at her, alarmed and already visibly feeling hideously guilty. Molly caught his eye and wailed.
"I don't know why I work and slave so hard to make things nice for everyone and get a decent nutritious meal on the table every night and even try to keep it interesting and all with new recipes when not a one of you can show the slightest appreciation for anything I do and you all just treat me like a house-elf and now you're even making fun of the borscht and I've been working on it since early this morning and it doesn't smell bad and for your information Mr. Smarty-pants it's a traditional Russian hearty soup and Gilderoy Lockhart says it's divine and what do you know anyway you horrid, snotty, irresponsible pureblood berk!"
Molly was sobbing so much and so loud that Sirius did not point out to her that she herself was a pureblood, nor that it really wasn't his fault if he'd never heard of borscht before.
"Now, now, Molly, you mustn't take on so. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings. I just meant-"
"You stay in bed all day without a care in the world and then when you finally do come down you look like death warmed over and then you start right in denigrating my cooking and ignoring all my counsel and advice and making fun of -"
"Molly, I was not making fun of anything!" Sirius shouted, and then immediately clapped a hand to his head. He rubbed his forehead for a moment before going on in a considerably more subdued tone of voice. "My head hurts too much, for one thing. Now will you please pull yourself together and stop shouting at me? I said I was sorry."
"Sorry for what?" Harry asked as he walked into the kitchen. He pulled a green apple out of the bowl on the counter by the sink and sat down at the table. "And what's that horrible smell?"
"It's borscht," Sirius answered quietly and continued rubbing his forehead. "And according to Gilderoy Lockhart, it's divine."
"But Gilderoy Lockhart is an idiot," Harry objected reasonably before he noticed that Sirius was making emphatic hand-gestures at him to keep quiet.
"Professor Lockhart is hardly an idiot, Harry," Molly put in, and, rather unaccountably, shot a venomous glance at Sirius. "The man's published a small library of extremely helpful household hints books, after all."
"Not publishing much from Saint Mungo's just lately, though, is he?" Harry asked, ignoring all of Sirius' gestures for the moment. Harry always got a bit grouchy when Lockhart was mentioned in his presence.
"Now, Harry dear, I'm not saying he doesn't have his… little flaws," Molly said. "But that doesn't mean that one should just throw away all his books as though they were worthless. Why, this cookbook of his is just wonderful."
"Is borscht that awful magenta-colored soup that you make out of beets?" Harry asked suspiciously, still ignoring Sirius' gestures.
Molly stared at Harry for a moment and looked very much like she was considering bursting into tears again. Sirius stepped in before that could happen.
"Oh, well … beet soup sounds …very nice, Harry, actually. I'm sure it's delicious," he said.
Harry pinned him with a skeptical stare.
"There's cabbage in it too," Molly added, as if that would make some sort of difference. "And raisins."
"Oh – oh, yes, Molly?" Sirius said. He sounded as though his voice was coming from someplace very far away. "Cabbage. How lovely. May I …uhmm. That is to say … may I …try some?"
Molly brightened at once. "Really, Sirius?" she asked. "Would you really like a taste?"
There was a short moment of silence in the kitchen. Then Sirius said, still in a voice that was far and wee: "Yes, please."
Molly, very pleased, rose from her seat at the table and went to the stove immediately to dish out a small bowl of the borscht for Sirius. While her back was turned, Harry treated Sirius to a gruesome and very dramatic pantomime of falling on his sword. Sirius responded to the show by pointing to his wand, then to Harry, and then making a slicing motion across his throat. Harry choked on a bite of his apple and shook with suppressed amusement while pressing his hands tightly over his mouth.
"What about you, Harry, dear?" Molly called over her shoulder. "Wouldn't you like to try a little taste too? After all, Sirius is…"
Harry's silent guffaws came to an abrupt halt and he gulped. Sirius folded his arms across his chest and grinned at Harry smugly.
Harry thought fast and hurriedly said "Oh, no thank you, Mrs. Weasley, not just now. I'm eating an apple. Let's see how Sirius likes his." Now it was Harry's turn to look smug.
Molly set a lace-edged placemat and a linen napkin on the table before Sirius and set a steaming bowl of the borscht and a silver spoon before him too. She sat back down in her seat and watched him anxiously for a moment.
"Well, Sirius, dear?" Molly asked. "Tell me what you think, and do be perfectly honest."
Harry was also watching with avid interest. Sirius sighed and picked up the spoon. Both Molly and Harry continued to watch as though Sirius and his bowl of borscht was the most fascinating sight they had ever run across in their lives.
Sirius dipped his spoon into the soup and raised a spoonful of the stuff up and stared at it for a short while. The deep magenta colored substance clung to the bowl of the spoon for a moment, then slowly slid off and dropped back into the bowl with a gelatinous glurp. Sirius paled.
Molly sniffled a teensy bit and looked as though she might be on the verge of unleashing the waterworks again. "Sirius?" she asked.
Sirius sat up a little straighter in his chair and squared his shoulders. Then he dipped another spoonful of the borscht out of the bowl and put it in his mouth. His eyes widened momentarily, then squeezed shut tightly, and then, though he looked extraordinarily pained, he swallowed the borscht.
"How is it?" Harry asked, fascinated.
"Sirius?" Molly asked, again.
Sirius rapidly took up his napkin and pressed it tightly to his mouth. "Umnph," he said, voice muffled in the napkin.
"Is that good or bad?" Harry asked.
"You don't like it?" Molly asked, anxiously.
Sirius appeared to be struggling to keep his gorge down and they could see his throat working convulsively as he swallowed several times. Bright spots of color appeared on his pale cheeks and his eyes flew open. They looked unnaturally bright and liquid.
"Uhhhhn – nn - not – not bad," he finally choked out through the napkin. Now his whole face appeared to be flushed a deep red.
"Ahhhh," Molly sighed. "So you do like it? Not too sweet, is it? Or too sour? I suppose I might have overdone the vinegar…"
Sirius didn't answer, but kept his napkin pressed tightly against his lips. His eyes rolled up in his head.
"Mrs. Weasley?" Harry asked quietly. "Doesn't he look like he's going to faint? And is he supposed to be turning magenta?"
"Of course he's not turning magenta," Molly snapped. "Don't be ridiculous, Harry."
"But he really, really is, Mrs. Weasley," Harry pointed out.
The entire surface of Sirius' face was not only flushing a vivid violet-red like the borscht, the color was even progressing into the strands of his hair and the beds of his fingernails like a rushing tide. He swayed to and fro in his seat and a bizarre, wet rattling sound issued out of his throat.
Harry rose abruptly from his seat and ran around the table to where Sirius was seated. "There's something wrong!" he cried. "Sirius? Sirius? What did you put in that stuff, Mrs. Weasley? Sirius!"
Molly was also slowly rising, looking alarmed and dismayed. "Why," she whispered, "I – I didn't put in anything unhealthy. Just beets and cabbage and beef stock and-"
"SIRIUS!" Harry shouted. Now all the deep magenta hue was draining out of Sirius' face and hands and hair as rapidly as it had appeared, leaving him paper-white. He slumped forward bonelessly in his chair and his head thumped the table-top. He remained face down while the rattling in his throat grew so loud it could surely be heard several rooms away.
"He's poisoned!" Harry bellowed, terrified. "Find a bezoar or something! SIRIUS!!"
Sirius raised his head slowly and looked up at Harry, who was pounding him on the back and shaking him in a panic. Sirius' face had returned to its usual color and he looked perfectly normal.
"Do modulate your voice, Harry," Sirius said. "It's very rude and inconsiderate to shout indoors."
Harry pulled his hands off Sirius as though he was a red hot stove and gaped at him.
Sirius gazed at Molly disapprovingly. "Really, Molly, how much sugar did you put in that soup? It's awfully sweet. You do realize that a high sugar content is extremely detrimental to a balanced metabolism, not evening mentioning the havoc it wreaks with dental health?"
Molly gaped at Sirius too.
"Honestly, Molly, it's no wonder that the children are so ill-behaved and out of control, the way you're constantly pouring complex carbohydrates and unnecessary fat grams down their throats. Just look at Fred and George. Growing young bodies need better nutrition. Excuse me."
Sirius rose briskly from his chair and stood up.
"I believe there are several books in the study on the principles of a healthy, balanced diet. I'll see that you get them, Molly. Harry, have you brushed your teeth yet?"
"Wha-a-a…?" Harry asked.
"You've just finished eating an apple, young man. Surely I don't need to remind a child your age how important it is to brush after every meal? Now, I wonder where Kreacher's got to?"
"Kreacher?" Harry asked.
"Yes, I'm going to give him a well-deserved pat on the back and perhaps… some sort of employee-of-the-month award …something like that, anyway. It's about time the poor thing got some sort of recognition for all his hard work. He must be feeling ever so unappreciated, and it's very uncharitable of us to never think of his feelings. I'm going to go find him at once and apologize."
"But…" Harry mumbled. "But …you despise Kreacher."
"Don't be absurd, Harry. It's very wrong to hold grudges and let ill-will and bad feeling fester on and on. Kreacher has a point of view too, after all. I'm surprised at you!"
"Remember, Harry: 'a careless word may kindle strife, a cruel word may wreck a life, a timely word may level stress, but a loving word can heal and bless'. We can discuss that bit of wisdom later, after you've had a chance to think about it. Oh, and don't forget to brush your teeth, now."
Sirius briskly walked out of the kitchen, humming some cheerful tune under his breath. Molly and Harry stared at one another silently for a moment.
"Auuuuuugh!" Harry finally groaned. He glared at Molly accusingly. "What have you done to my godfather?! What have you done? You've turned him into a – into a – INTO A GIT!"
Over the next few hours, everyone in the house had a chance to meet the mysteriously changed new version of Sirius. He nagged at Mundungus about his unfortunate tobacco-dependency and his penchant for taking 'ethical short-cuts', and then he criticized Tonks, as her older cousin, for getting drunk the previous night and passing out under a coffee table, as well as for the pointlessly outlandish color of her hair.
When Alastor Moody came by to drop off his Invisibility Cloak, Sirius button-holed him at the front door and harangued him for a solid hour on the need for better planning of Order missions and how the Order should appoint a Hazard Committee that could hold Safety Meetings once a week. Warfare, he explained solemnly, was a very dangerous and unhealthy business.
Then he gave Kreacher a very nicely wrapped gift basket of fruit and a small plaque with Kreacher's name displayed on it. Kreacher was so unnerved he ran off and hid under the boiler in the cellar for two days.
Sirius also gave Buckbeak a bath, put conditioning potion on his coat, and then was so insistent on trying to braid the hippogriff's tail that Beaky finally kicked him. Then Sirius remonstrated with the Weasley twins to take their school careers more seriously, and also tried to tell Ginny Weasley that girls who played Quidditch were sometimes thought of as "easy" by their male team-mates, and did she really want to send that sort of message at her tender young age?
By the time Remus came back to the house, everyone in it was huddled in the kitchen, hiding from Sirius, and so, unfortunately, no one was around to warn Remus about the "new" version.
Remus, who had thought the apparent emptiness of the house provided the perfect opportunity to indulge in a quick afternoon liaison with his normally very sexy Significant Other, soon discovered that talk of condoms, STDs, the meaning of it all, and "is sex all you ever think about?" did absolutely nothing for his libido. He came stomping down the stairs and found his way into the kitchen.
"What the hell did you people give him?" Remus furiously demanded of the whole crowd at large when he saw them all ranged around the kitchen table, looking fearful.
"Shhhhh," Ron Weasley whispered. "He'll hear you."
Remus saw that Molly Weasley was wiping her nose with a handkerchief and appeared to have been crying, and that Harry was sitting off at a far corner of the table, seething, shooting the occasional withering glance at Molly, and looking distinctly homicidal.
Arthur spoke very softly to Remus. "Lupin? Er – where is he – ah – just now?"
Remus fumed. "He's out in the hallway, trying to have a 'meaningful dialogue' with his mother. Now, I've asked you people once what's happened, and I Don't. Mean. To. Ask. Again."
"We think he may have gone round the twist at last, Lupin," Moody said. "You must admit, he has been a bit … unstable since he moved back in here. He actually told me he didn't intend to turn into Padfoot anymore until he could be thoroughly groomed, because not only is he Unregistered, he sheds too much! Besides, he said, he can't with Crookshanks about, since according to him, Padfoot is secretly afraid of cats!"
"'Unstable' doesn't cover it, Mad-eye!" Tonks said. "Its like he's turned into some kind of moron! He told me he thought the Ministry had a point, dumping him under the jail and throwing away the key. He said he certainly looked guilty enough, and it was really all his own fault anyway for not confiding in Dumbledore immediately. Next thing I knew, he was talking about writing a thank-you note to the dementors for making sure he got his daily gruel on time all those years!"
"He told me he was going to send the Fat Lady flowers and a box of chocolates to make up for slashing her canvas!" Ron added. "And how sorry he was for scaring me when he was in our dorm room that time. He said he hoped I wouldn't be scarred by any lasting psychological trauma!"
"He told me 'a stitch in time saves nine' and 'when God gives you lemons, make lemonade'!" Mundungus said, grimacing. "He's turned into a ruddy stupid proverb machine! Do you think he could have been bitten by a poisonous insect of some sort? Do you think he has fleas?"
"He's mad, I tell you!" Hermione insisted. "He made a donation to S.P.E.W. and criticized my penmanship and tried to put a collar with a bell on it on Crookshanks! Crookshanks bit him! He's insane!"
"A magical disease or malady of some kind?" Arthur asked of no one in particular.
"Some curse or hex? Maybe something in this awful house cursed him without anyone knowing about it?" Ginny added.
Harry suddenly stood up and brought his fist crashing down onto the table-top with a loud thump. Everyone in the kitchen cringed at the noise, for fear it would attract the attention of Sirius and bring him into the room with them.
"IT'S NOT A HEX AND IT'S NOT A DISEASE AND IT'S NOT FLEAS AND IT'S NOT RABIES EITHER!" Harry said. "IT'S BORSCHT!!"
Molly let out a new outburst of sobs and covered her face with her handkerchief.
"Borscht?" Remus asked, nonplussed.
"Yes, borscht!" Harry raved. "He took one bite of that horrible borscht and turned purple and nearly fainted and came over all funny and now he's the most annoying, insufferable – Mrs. Weasley turned my godfather into a – a –"
"I didn't mean to!" Molly wailed. "I don't know what went wrong with the borscht! It's a new recipe! Gilderoy Lockhart says it's–"
Harry interrupted her, glaring virulently. "If you mention Gilderoy Lockhart one more time – I'm going to drop dead of sheer disgust right here!"
"But … but, Harry, while I do, in all honesty, agree that borscht is fairly disgusting, it's not generally considered poisonous," Remus pointed out. "Are you quite sure that–"
"ALL I KNOW IS SIRIUS USED TO BE THE COOLEST GODFATHER IN THE UNIVERSE!" Harry explained. "AND THEN AS SOON AS HE ATE THAT CURSED BORSCHT, HE TURNED INTO THE BIGGEST GIT IN THE UNIVERSE! I WANT MY GODFATHER BACK AND I WANT HIM BACK NOW!!!"
Harry dropped back into his seat, looking completely inconsolable, while everyone else at the table either eyed him warily, or stared at the cauldron of suspect borscht.
Sirius popped into the kitchen, followed by a very horrified-looking Severus Snape.
"Look who's here, everyone!" Sirius chirped, and pulled out a chair for Snape. "Isn't this a nice surprise?"
He tried to pat Snape on his back. Snape jerked away abruptly and snarled "Don't you touch me, Black!"
Sirius looked serious. "Uh-oh, Severus, is someone feeling like a Grumpy-Gus? Looks like we still have some unresolved issues to sort out, eh? I do feel your pain, believe me. No one could blame you for still feeling resentful about all the invalidating treatment we gave you at school – after all, it's only been twenty years. Remus, I really think you should apologize to Severus straightaway – I have already, and I feel very good about myself! I just know we'll all feel loads better once that's out of the way!"
Snape glared daggers at Remus. "Lupin, do you have any explanation to offer for … this?"
"Let's all have some tea and talk about our feelings, shall we?" Sirius chirped some more. Harry at his corner of the table groaned with his whole soul.
"Shall we all have a nice group hug too, Black?" Snape ground out through gritted teeth.
"Why, Severus, what a lovely and productive idea!" Sirius gushed. "That's the spirit! Come here!" He reached out to hug Snape.
"Control him or I kill him right now," Snape warned the entire room flatly.
Remus pulled Sirius aside before he could hug Snape and whispered to him earnestly for several moments. Eventually Sirius nodded wisely and sent an infuriating understanding smile Snape's way while Remus pushed him forcibly into a seat.
"Well?" Snape asked again. "What is the cause of this abomination?"
There was an embarrassed general silence until Remus finally spoke. "Actually, Severus, we think it may have something to do with the borscht."
"'Borscht'? What an awful word. What's 'borscht'?" Snape asked.
"It's evil beet soup that turns people into gits," Harry hissed.
"But the recipe looked fine!" Molly wailed again. "I swear it did! I'm sure there wasn't anything harmful in it and I didn't change the recipe at all – or – well, not very much – I just added a few tiny little things – diced ham and raisins and-"
Snape interrupted her. "So, you're saying you all think some kind of soup must have done this? Did anyone else eat this soup?"
"Only Sirius had the nerve to try it," Harry said sadly.
Sirius had turned to Moody. "I've been thinking, Alastor. Have we ever tried just reasoning with Voldemort?"
"He always did have more heart than brains," Snape said grudgingly as he rose from the table. "Not that I admire that particular trait in any way. Where is this alleged soup?"
He and Remus went to the stove and peered into the cauldron of borscht. It gurgled malevolently as it simmered.
"I'm sure it wasn't the borscht," Molly said again. "I've cooked thousands of dinners and I've never poisoned anyone yet! Arthur, tell them!"
"Now, Molly…" Arthur began.
Remus turned on her. "Well, then, I suppose it would be pointless to even check, wouldn't it? Maybe we could just leave him the way he is. I have no doubt that you like him much better like this! Aren't you the one who's always saying how immature and reckless he is?"
Molly flushed a bright scarlet and quivered with indignation. "That doesn't mean I poisoned him!
"Do you really say all that, Molly?" Sirius asked, concerned. "I think we ought to have a nice long chat about our parenting techniques sometime soon. You know, compare notes and combine our experience? They do say two heads are better than one and I'm sure some of your children's behavioral problems must worry you as much as they do me."
"My children most certainly do not have–" Molly began.
"WHAT ABOUT THE BORSCHT??" Harry interrupted her to ask.
"My, everyone seems so tense," Sirius chirped. "I'll bet I know what would cheer us all up! How about a couple of choruses of our old school song? Come on, Severus, Harry, everyone, we all know the words! 'Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts, teach us something please! Hogwarts, Hogwarts–'"
"OhmigodIcan'tstaaaandit…" Harry moaned as though his right leg was being slowly sawed off at the knee. Fred and George both pulled their wands and leveled them at Sirius in unison.
"Silenci–" they began to say at once, also in unison.
"Fred! George! Don't you dare!" Remus snapped at them both, in a voice that could have frozen ice. "Don't you dare hex him while we still don't know what's the matter with him!"
The twins reluctantly put away their wands while Tonks stood behind Sirius, clapped both her hands over his mouth, and held on.
"Mmonestly, boys!" Sirius managed to get out around Tonks' firm grip on his face. "I can't say I mmmph mthinmk mmmuch of your school mmmphspirit mmm….."
"Please, Professor Lupin. Professor Snape. Please," Harry pleaded. "Can't you do something?"
Snape and Lupin looked into the sinister depths of the borscht again, considering.
"Mmmm. Specialis Revelio?" Snape asked Lupin.
"Hmmm. Scarpin's Revelaspell?" Lupin asked Snape at precisely the same moment.
"Same difference," Snape said and pulled out his wand. "Stand back, Lupin."
Remus rolled his eyes a bit but did step back from the stove, while muttering something under his breath about making adequate room for Snape's gigantic ego.
Snape muttered something equally indistinguishable about Lupin's never-ending passive-aggressive sniping and then closed his eyes for a moment to concentrate. He flicked his wand in a complex movement over the cauldron of borscht and cast the Specialis Revelio spell non-verbally.
"Oh, dear…" Sirius said. "I'm a little worried by non-verbal spells. They can be so volatile and hard to control. Isn't all this a bit dangerous?"
"Shhhh," Tonks said softly, and renewed her grip on Sirius' mouth.
They all watched as the borscht slowly began to levitate out of the cauldron, rising until it was a steaming, magenta, cauldron-shaped mass hovering in mid-air a few inches above the cauldron itself. The mass started to revolve within itself, turning slowly at first in a counterclockwise circular motion. As it turned, it picked up speed, quicker and quicker until it looked like a miniature magenta cyclone, entirely self-contained and spinning above the stove, faster and faster. There was a thick liquid ping sound, and a small pseudopod of borscht flung itself out of the whole and snapped like a whip. A tiny parboiled doxy appeared in the air above the borscht. Another pseudopod sprang out with a ping and produced a handful of floating caraway seeds. More and more scarlet pseudopods appeared and flicked out individual ingredients. Spellotape, cat whiskers, a bottle of ink, raisins, cabbage and several drops of blood emerged as everyone watched. Hermione quickly pulled a quill and parchment out of her pocket and began noting down each item as it appeared.
"Molly?" Arthur said, staring at the dead doxy as it orbited the main mass of borscht. "Surely you didn't put intend to put insects in the soup?"
"Nonsense, Arthur," Molly snapped. "I don't know how any of this horrid stuff got into my recipe! But I think I recognize one of those ridiculous Extendable Ears when I see one! Fred! George!"
"But we never, mum, we swear!" George and Fred argued hotly. "Not on purpose, anyway!"
"What's this bit?" Snape asked Lupin, pointing to a group of small, shapeless blobs circling above the cauldron with the tip of his wand.
Lupin grabbed the fire-tongs that Ginny had abandoned on a nearby counter earlier in the day and deftly tweezed one of the blobs out of the air above the cauldron. He examined it for a moment.
"Is that…is that pipe tobacco I see?" Moody asked Mundungus in the meantime.
"Mmmmolly!" Sirius mmphed from behind Tonks' grip on his mouth. "Mmm diced ham and beef brisket m-mmin the same mm-recipe? Mmm-you have heard of cholesterol levels, I presume-mmmm?"
"Well, Lupin?" Snape asked again, waving his hand at the unidentified blob Remus was examining. "Have you determined what it is?"
Remus looked a bit green as he answered. "I'm afraid I have."
"Well?" Snape asked again.
"This," Remus said, displaying the unidentified matter he had in the fire-tongs to the onlookers at large, "appears to be … batshit."
There was a general silence in the kitchen as, for a time, there seemed to be nothing further to say.
Finally, Harry snorted. "Hmmph," he muttered. "I could have told you that!"
"Oh, Merlin's Sainted Whiskers!" Molly said and made a face. "I am never cooking in this filthy house or this filthy kitchen again!"
Sirius, despite his new relentlessly cheerful demeanor, also turned a bit green and shook Tonks' hands off him.
"Oh-hhh … yuck!" he groaned.
"Please, Professor," Hermione said to Snape, raising her hand just as she would in class. "I've been making a list of all the ingredients the spell has revealed so far."
"Of course you have," Snape sneered at her.
"Don't be a prick, Severus," Remus said mildly and walked over to Hermione to look at the list she had made. "That was good thinking, Hermione," he added as he started to read through the list over her shoulder. "Well done."
Once the floating mass of borscht had finished resolving itself into a large number of orbiting individual ingredients, and each of these had been added to Hermione's list, Remus took the list from her and brought it over to Snape so they both could read. It was interesting to see that, while Remus concentrated mostly on the written list, Snape seemed to prefer to ponder the circling ingredients.
But they both seemed to come to the same impression at the same time.
"Doesn't this combination of ingredients seem … familiar, Severus?" Remus asked, frowning slightly.
"I'm certain I've seen this formula …somewhere…" Snape was saying simultaneously.
"Batshit, vinegar, doxy venom…" Remus murmured to himself, a look of intense concentration on his face.
"Kneazle whisker, burning ash, India ink …" Snape murmured. "I … I know this formula, I'm sure I do …"
"Diced ham and rust…" Remus muttered. "I can almost remember…"
"Blood and raisins…" Snape muttered. "I've almost got it…"
"I've been thinking I need a new hobby," Sirius said clearly, since Tonks' grip on his mouth had slackened. "Something useful. Harry, what do you think about macramé?"
Harry moaned pitifully, Ron rose and joined Tonks in restraining Sirius, and Snape and Lupin both spoke at once.
"My God," Remus said. "It's-"
"Salazar's Bottom," Snape said. "It's Contrariwise!"
"That's … not possible…" Moody said.
"Oh, no, surely…" Arthur said.
"I thought Contrariwise Potion was… just a myth…" Tonks said.
"No, no, Nymphadora," Remus said. "It's real enough. The formula was invented by Egbert Ebbing Krafft the Cursed in 1458."
"The 'Cursed'?" Mundungus asked. "Cursed how?"
"His ex-wife, Trixie-Athena," Snape said. "Cursed him over alimony payments. She was reputed to be a particularly powerful and vindictive witch."
"What was the curse, then?" Tonks asked.
"That every single project he undertook for the rest of his life should come to everlasting disaster," Remus said, quietly.
"It's said that when he invented Contrariwise, he'd actually only meant to cook up a cauldron of wart remover," Snape added.
"But he wound up with the most diabolically difficult potion recipe in the history of the wizarding world," Remus added. "After Ebbing Krafft killed himself in a fit of despair, only three people, so far as we know, have ever attempted to brew Contrariwise since."
"Barnabus the Barmy's exploits, of course, you are all familiar with," Snape said. "But many scholars believe that it was an attempt at Contrariwise that unseated his reason in the first place."
"It's only a theory," Remus said. "All of his journals were written in an obscure dialect of Pig Latin, so there is no one accepted translation. But some of the translations do suggest…"
"And then there was Morbidia Feck," Snape continued. "An 18th century witch who was a potions genius. We still use some of her treatises on the uses of yak lymph in modern potions classes. She attempted the recipe on a bet."
"What happened to her?" Fred and George asked in tandem.
"She retired to a seaside glacier in Greenland and refused to be budged until Zeus himself came for her personally. She lived on a diet of moss and twigs and Kalamata olives when she could get them and believed she could speak to sea lions and penguins. She never brewed another potion."
"Who was the third person?" asked Moody. "I feel as though I should know this."
"That's because it was – oh, drat – Severus, do you –"
"Even I have always had to use a mnemonic device," said Snape gravely. "The trouble is, it's difficult even to remember which device is germane. Let's see …tip of my tongue. Déjà vu. Tip of my tongue…"
"Tong Vu?" asked Moody. "Early 20th-century Chinese wizard who specialized in memory-erasure spells? Lost all his teeth in a drinking accident?"
"No," said Remus. "I mean, yes, there was, and yes, he did, but Severus is trying to remember the Irish wizard Tip O'Halloran. Legend says that he decided to brew Contrariwise so that he could slip it into the drink of another wizard who always contradicted him out of pure spite."
"Taxidermy!" exclaimed Sirius, finally breaking away from his captors. "Save precious memories and whatnot. You can't say it's not dead useful."
"What happened to O'Halloran?" asked Arthur.
"We're not entirely sure," said Remus. "He… vanished. Vanished so completely, in fact, that people barely even remember that he existed. Even his biographer kept forgetting his name."
"And he was also cursed by being forever confused with Tong Vu," grumbled Moody.
Harry, who had been at a rolling boil continuously throughout this entire interesting discussion of the origin and history of Contrariwise Potion, rose from his chair and brought his fist smashing down on the table again.
"YES YES YES BLAH BLAH BLAH WHATEVER!" Harry said. "BUT JUST WHAT DOES THIS CONTRARIWISE STUFF ACTUALLY DO???"
Sirius looked extremely disapproving of Harry's mode of expression but was unable to comment due to Tonks' and Ron's combined efforts.
Fred, looking confused, asked "So, it's just a potion that turns people into gits?"
"Seems a bit pointless, doesn't it?" George added. "I mean, aren't there already loads of gits in the world as it is?"
Snape raised his eyes to the ceiling as he answered. "No, Weasleys, Contrariwise does not just 'turn people into gits'. It has a much more complex function than that, which you might have guessed if you'd been listening to the discussion of its provenance and had something other than cotton batting between your ears. What this potion does is nothing less than…" his words trailed off as he swung his head around to stare, very hard, at Sirius.
"Contrariwise," Remus said in a somber tone, "does nothing less than utterly reverse every expression and perception of any human personality it encounters."
"Whoever swallows even a single mouthful of this potion," Snape said, still unable to take his eyes off Sirius. "Becomes the perfect antithesis of whatever, or whoever, he was. He is still himself, technically, only …backwards."
"Or," Remus added, with the beginnings of an ugly smile on his face, "Sirius is still Sirius, only … contrariwise."
"Oh, but that's horrible!" Hermione said, hands pressed against her cheeks. "Why in the world would anyone want to invent a dreadful potion like that? Who would ever want to just… just rewrite… someone's whole personality?"
"Ah, but that's the true evil of the stuff, lass," Moody said. "The temptation. Haven't you ever, even just for a moment, wished someone you knew could be a little different from what they actually were? Wished someone you disliked wasn't quite so disagreeable? Or thought someone you loved could be perfect if only they were… a little more like this or a little less like that?"
Hermione looked both sickened and somewhat guilty as she thought about this, and blushed when Ron caught her furtive glance at him.
Remus sank into a chair beside Sirius and stared at him, stricken. He let a single jagged laugh loose. "And besides, don't you remember, Hermione? Ebbing Krafft was just trying to whip up some wart remover. The actual invention of the potion was a completely random mistake. Just as – just as, apparently, the first batch of genuine Contrariwise that's been brewed in almost a century – was originally only meant to be – a pot of borscht."
"Which would explain why Mrs. Weasley has apparently retained her sanity, or at least as much of it as she possessed when she began," Snape added.
Remus had put his hands over his face as he continued to laugh bitterly, long and hard and with an ugly, heavy sound, like lead sinkers plunking into the bottom of a bucket. Everyone at the table gazed at him with some concern, but only Snape looked at Remus with perfect comprehension.
"But … but, Professor Lupin," Harry began. "Prof – I mean, Remus - if you know what's wrong with Sirius, then that's a good thing, isn't it? Now that we know what the problem is, we can fix it."
"Harry …" Arthur said, and then stopped, apparently unable to go on.
"No, no we can't, Harry," Remus said, lowering his hands slowly.
"What do you mean, we can't?" Harry replied, voice rising. "Of course we can. Why can't we?"
"Contrariwise, Potter," Snape said in a surprisingly gentle voice, "was invented by mistake by a wizard under a curse who committed suicide not long afterward. Since then, it's only been purposefully brewed three times in over five hundred years and the mere attempt, in effect, destroyed each of those brewers immediately thereafter. Thus, no one has ever, so far as we know, actually drunk Contrariwise Potion in all that time. Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you?"
"No, I bloody well don't understand," Harry tried to say testily, but awful understanding was, nevertheless, beginning to show in his eyes and in the sudden pallor of his skin. "I don't understand at all," he repeated stubbornly.
"Yes, I think you do…" Remus murmured to him, very quietly. "What Severus is saying is that there is absolutely nothing we can-"
"NO!" Harry interrupted him. "NO, NO, NO. OOH, NO, UH-UH, NO WAY, YOU ARE NOT TELLING ME THAT-"
"Contrariwise has no antidote," Snape cut into Harry's panicked comments quickly and cleanly, as in a mercy killing. "There has never been any need for one, nor any witch or wizard daft enough, for that matter, to try and develop one."
"Harry, you must understand," Arthur added. "Just brewing the potion drives people insane or worse. Imagine what trying to invent an antidote might do."
"Are you saying…?" Ron asked, staring at Lupin and Snape and letting his hands fall away from Sirius' mouth, "Is Sirius …?"
Tonks had also let Sirius go; her hands were hanging nerveless at her sides. "Are you saying Sirius is stuck this way?"
All expression had drained out of Lupin's face, leaving him as blank as a man in a mask. Only the minutest shaking of his hands gave any clue that he was in any way overset, but it was terrible to see, just the same. "The Sirius we knew is gone," he said. "Gone for good. Everything he did, everything he was. All that's left is this …this … anti-Sirius."
Everyone in the room stared once more at the anti-Sirius.
"It can't be!" Molly wailed, tears streaming down her face. "It just can't be. It was just a little borscht! Harry, oh, Harry, love, can you ever forgive me?"
Harry was still staring at his new anti-godfather, his face pale and immobile, and did not answer her.
Sirius looked back at all of them, staring at him like he was the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. He smiled.
"My goodness," he said bracingly. "You all act like it's the end of the world. Harry, you really must try to look on the bright side. Turn your frown upside down!"
Remus looked as though he had been turned to stone and Harry looked as though he'd been hit hard in the head with a shovel.
"I'm certain I'm one hundred percent better like this than I ever was before!" Sirius chirped to them both. When neither answered, he turned to Snape "Well, at least you like me better now, don't you, Severus? And you, Molly, surely you like me better this way? I'm considerate, health-conscious and safety-minded, frugal but not stingy, a mature adult."
Snape and Molly both had to avert their eyes from Sirius, Snape in horror and Molly in an agony of raw guilt. Each looked as if they'd each have much preferred to be frying in vats of boiling oil than here in this kitchen.
"But I'm so improved now!" Sirius cried. "I'm sensible! I'm cheerful! I'm responsible! I'm the perfect role-model! I'm an all-around sensitive bloke!" He rose from his seat at the table and threw up his hands. "And you all hate me anyway! I don't understand! What more do you people want?"
When no one answered him or even met his eyes, Sirius turned his back and flounced out of the kitchen in a huff. Remus stared at his shoes, and Harry, after a moment, slowly walked out of the kitchen on unsteady legs, meandering and wobbling in his course like a boy in a terrible dream. On his way up to his room, Harry passed Sirius in the hallway, opening the curtains that covered his mother's portrait.
"Mother?" Sirius was saying to the painting. "Are you there? I want to ask your opinion on a few matters, and I don't think we quite resolved all our family issues last time we spoke, in any case. Mother? Hello? Are you there? Mumsie ..?"
Harry passed his new anti-godfather by with a strangled groan, and left him alone in the hallway, still calling forlornly for his mother, who was strangely absent from her picture frame, for the very first time that Harry could recall.
Over the next few days, everyone in the house tried, and failed, to get used to the new Sirius. His cheerfulness was unrelenting, his uninvited advice and critical commentary were virtually intolerable, his recently acquired habit of gasping in terror if he saw a spider made everyone feel like weeping, and his new penchant for spouting "inspiring" aphorisms at the slightest provocation drove everyone mad. In Sirius' new unremittingly optimistic world view, he had embarked on a quest to win them all over, no matter how much opposition he encountered nor how long it might take.
They all took to skulking through the hallways and sneaking about the house as quietly as possible, trying to avoid Sirius and his endless determination to make them see how much better and more likable he now was. No one spoke above a whisper, or stayed in any one place long, or laughed or smiled at all. Number 12 Grimmauld had become like a plague-house, a home stricken by the gravest tragedy, far gloomier and more forbidding than it had ever seemed before.
Harry refused to come out of his bedroom at all, and Buckbeak would not touch any of the ferrets and other plump, juicy rodents Fred and George would bring to try to tempt him. Crookshanks stopped hunting beetles entirely, and Kreacher would not come out of his hiding place under the boiler. Hermione had owled Dumbledore for advice, but he had seemed unavailable for comment, at least so far. Remus appeared to be fading away into a pale, unremarkable shadow of his former self, so nondescript it sometimes seemed difficult to see him at all, and he took to spending hours at a time staring at his shoes.
Molly Weasley blamed herself completely for the entire disaster, and though she had genuinely not meant any harm or anything more malicious than a new recipe for dinner, she was tortured by vivid memories of every critical thing she had ever said about Sirius and every uncharitable thought she'd ever had concerning him. She took it upon herself to continue to feed the household, but since she could no longer bear to enter the kitchen or even think about cooking, the Order soon found itself dining on fish and chips and take-away curries every night. Meals were now being served, haphazard buffet style, in the drawing room, since, like Molly, no one seemed to much enjoy being in the kitchen anymore.
One evening, Molly was returning to the house at dinnertime with a large bag of American-style hamburgers, and found that she was able to open the front door and walk right in after all her knocking went unanswered. In the general malaise that had gripped the household, even the most basic security measures had gone lax; the House itself seemed depressed. It was the third time this week that the door had been left unlocked and unwarded. Even the portrait of Mrs. Black had stopped responding to noises in the hallway, since its subject, Walburga, had taken to leaving her frame empty while she attempted to avoid her son and his incessant attempts to engage her in therapeutic encounters.
So Molly was really quite surprised, on this night, to hear a very low pssst sound issuing from the portrait as she passed.
"I beg your pardon?" Molly said to the drapes that covered the portrait, feeling silly.
The curtains slid open, very quietly, and Walburga Black appeared, peering around past the edges of her frame before she went on.
"You," she whispered. "Blood traitor. I wish to speak to you."
Molly stiffened. "But I'm not at all certain that I wish to speak to you," she replied, a bit hotly.
"Shhhh!" hissed Walburga, craning her neck to look past her frame once more. "He'll hear you, you awful woman. You sound like a fishwife. Keep your voice down."
"And I'm quite certain," Molly went on, not lowering her voice by a jot, "that I do not care to stand about in this hallway being insulted by a few daubs of badly executed paint!"
"Idiot woman! This is important! And I am not in any way badly executed! I expect the subtlety of my color scheme and ideal spatial relations simply don't register in your woefully uneducated aesthetic."
"Nonsense! Your brushwork is so bad it's childish and you're out of drawing in three different places. Plus you're an unpleasant, mad old cow with the filthiest house I've ever had the misfortune to encounter. I'm surprised you have the nerve to show your face around here, frankly. Surely you know that bats are roosting in your parlor chimney and the entire place is infested with insects?"
"Unlike you," Mrs. Black sneered. "I am somewhat above rooting about in the rubbish bins with the house-elves and concerning myself with vulgar housekeeping issues."
"Clearly," Molly sneered back and turned away from the portrait. "Good day … Walburga."
The portrait seethed for a moment as Molly started to walk away, because, in life, Mrs. Black had always detested being called by her somewhat less-than-mellifluous given name and everyone knew it. Then she called out to Molly.
"Oh, drat it all, wait – just wait a bit, can't you?" she cried softly. "I need to talk to you about something important, I tell you. Important to us all. It's about my … son."
Molly turned around and came a few steps closer to the portrait. "About Sirius? What about him?"
The portrait of Mrs. Black appeared to wince a bit at the mention of her oldest son's name, but she closed her eyes for a moment and went on. "I understand -" she said. "I understand that you all think my son's… unfortunate… recent personality changes are the result of a dose of Contrariwise?"
"I'm afraid there's no doubt of that," Molly answered, unhappily. "Snape and Lupin determined the cause precisely. Sirius has been dosed. I apparently brewed the filthy stuff myself, inadvertently. I was … I was just making a pot of borscht - in your disgusting kitchen, incidentally."
"'Borscht'? What an awful word. What is 'borscht'?" Mrs. Black asked.
"Oh, do shut up," Molly replied with some weariness. "Get to the point, won't you?"
"Very well," Walburga went on. "I also understand that you are all under the mistaken impression that Contrariwise has no antidote?"
Molly blinked, and stared at the portrait, hard.
"What do you mean – 'mistaken impression'?" she asked slowly.
"Just as I say – mistaken. You are a married woman, like me. I shall speak to you frankly, and I know you'll take my meaning. In our youth, my late husband, Orion, was a particularly lustful creature. He expected me to fulfill my…wifely duties… incessantly, as it were. His libido was insatiable. After the birth of our first son, I determined that I was under no further obligation to tolerate his continual vile pawing and prying at my person. It was both undignified and inconvenient for me, to say the least. Men are such beasts."
Molly raised her shoulders stiffly. "It's true enough that we're both married women, dearie," she said. "But I guarantee, I am nothing like you. I quite like men, and my Arthur is the best of them all."
"Just the sort of mindlessly lascivious attitude I might expect from the mother of seven," Walburga replied, equally stiffly. "I myself preferred, however, that my life should amount to a bit more than an endless round of rutting and indiscriminate breeding."
"Yes, yes, yes," Molly said. "You don't like sex. Understood. Orion was rubbish in the kip. Whatever. Do you actually have a point here, or is this just more of your everlasting loony raving?"
"Yes, I do have a point, and despite your nauseating vulgarity and offensive manner, I am not deterred. When I'd had enough of Orion pestering me all the damn time I decided to do something about it. I brewed a drought of Contrariwise to reverse his … natural inclinations."
Molly gasped. "You? Brewed Contrariwise? On purpose?"
"Indeed I did. All those absurd myths about its notorious effects on the brewer are just so much simple-minded rubbish. I'm the living proof."
"Hmm…" Molly murmured, gazing thoughtfully at Walburga in her picture frame. "That would… certainly explain a lot."
"Nonsense. Silly superstition. I am not and was not weak minded enough to put any stock in all the scare-stories. I brewed the potion, put it in my husband's morning celery tonic, and the results exceeded even my expectations. He went from insatiable satyr to virtual eunuch overnight. Other than his sudden development of an unforeseen obsession with locks, obscuring spells and household security, he was perfect. The potion was a complete success."
"But not completely complete," Molly said, counting on her fingers. "If I recall correctly, you had a second son two or three years later."
The portrait appeared to acquire a very faint blush for a moment. It looked particularly hideous with her normally sallow skin tones. "Oh, well, my mother Irma had suggested to me that having only one male heir and no spare to fall back on in case of emergency was not a sound dynastic policy. And my son… and Sirius… even as a toddler, he was already showing early signs of having the unmanageable temperament that would eventually make him the abominable, unspeakable, ghastly, vile, loathsome -"
Molly interrupted her. "You do realize that you're drooling, don't you, Walburga?"
Mrs. Black made a face and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. "In any case," she continued. "I became convinced that Orion and I must produce a second son. And that's where what I have to tell you becomes pertinent to the current position."
"How's that?" Molly asked.
"The Contrariwise Potion, I told you, worked perfectly. My husband had no further physical interest in me whatsoever. In truth, he appeared to have as little sexual desire toward anything as a nine-years-dead Inferi, if not less. Though this was, in my opinion, far more conducive to a happy marriage than his previous state, it did put the question of further procreation in some doubt. In short, if I wanted another heir, I must invent an antidote to the potion."
"You're joking!" Molly insisted, thunderstruck. "It's impossible! I absolutely refuse to believe that a mad old bitch like you not only brewed the fourth batch of Contrariwise in five hundred years, but that you also even invented an antidote to the most infamous potion in history! And all because – because what? Because you didn't feel like sleeping with your husband?"
"You wouldn't be so incredulous if you'd ever slept with him, believe me. Be that as it may, every word I've said is true. I know how to brew the one and only antidote to Contrariwise there has ever been, and now I'll show you how to brew it."
"But – but – how do we know your antidote even works?" Molly said, still struggling to take in all that Mrs. Black had just told her.
"This is what comes of disorganized breeding practices," Walburga sniffed. "Congenital idiocy. You'd know perfectly well that my antidote worked if you'd ever taken the time to look at our family tapestry. Regulus was born less than twelve months after I'd given his father the antidote! Heaven help me if he'd been a girl!"
Molly shrugged. "That's assuming, of course, that Orion was the father…"
Walburga went white and drew herself up in her canvas. "You atrocious slattern! How dare you!"
Molly smiled sweetly. "Oh, that's right, I forgot. You don't like sex. So sorry."
The two women glared at one another momentarily, neither willing to back down an inch. In time, they both had to relax a bit, however, if their conversation was ever to yield any productive result.
Finally, Walburga sighed. "This is pointless," she said. "Do you want the antidote or not?"
Molly sighed too. "How can I ever trust you? Why would tell me all this?"
"I chose you, Molly Weasley, because, though you are a blood-traitor of the first order and not fit even to scour the toilets in the house of my fathers, in some ways, we are not totally dissimilar. We are both mothers. We are both wives. I too once stood where you stand now, and made this house a home. In the end, in view of the rest of the band of mutants and mudbloods and lowlife scum currently infesting this place, I find that you are really the only one I can trust to get it right."
"Now I know you're mad," Molly objected. "Don't you realize this is all my fault? I brewed the stupid Contrariwise in the first place!"
"Just so," replied Walburga. "Given that, the antidote should be a snap for you. It's a much simpler formula."
Molly grimaced at this startling new variety of logic, but didn't argue the point. "Besides," she said. "I didn't actually mean why would you tell me. I meant why would you ever want to put Sirius back the way he was?"
Walburga grimaced herself. "When my son was the same old shame of my flesh I was accustomed to loathing, he was just barely tolerable. But, now…" She broke off and shuddered, and it took her a moment to gain the composure to go on. "But, now – he's - simply impossible to tolerate at all. Something must be done."
Molly realized that any further debate was moot. Even if she had to trust Walburga Black, even if she had to risk whatever effects brewing such a potion might have on her, she must do it. Though it had come from the most unexpected of quarters, she was being offered a chance beyond hope to set things right. And she knew she was more than willing to take any risk or make any allegiance or do anything at all, really, to seize that chance.
"All right," Molly said to the portrait. "I'll brew your antidote. When do we start?"
"I'll meet you in the kitchen at midnight tonight. Look for me in that small painting of Blinky the house-elf over the stove."
So, on the stroke of midnight, Molly Weasley and Walburga Black met in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place and began to brew the antidote to Contrariwise that they both hoped would restore Sirius to his natural state. Walburga squeezed into the small portrait of Blinky the House-elf, the most accomplished baker the House of Black had ever seen, and Molly set a fresh cauldron on the hob in the kitchen fireplace. Blinky did allow her former Mistress to shoulder her aside to make enough room in her small, plain frame, but she could not refrain from peeking at the proceedings from the lower left-hand corner of the picture, and occasionally offering baking suggestions as the potion took shape.
Just as Walburga had promised, the antidote was a much simpler potion to brew than Contrariwise itself. The number of ingredients needed was far less, for one thing, and one of the chief constituents, oddly enough, was the popular Muggle indigestion remedy, spearmint-flavored Rennie tablets. Molly was forced to spirit a twelve-pack tube out of Hermione's cosmetics case. Other than that, the assembling of the ingredients and the brewing went fairly smoothly, and Molly's fears of being driven as mad as Walburga by the attempt to brew the antidote did not materialize. Apparently, brewing Contrariwise was one thing, but brewing its solution was quite another matter.
All told, it only took them about six or seven hours to complete their potion, and they were able to decant a drought of the variegated liquid into a glass pickle jar just as the sun was rising outside.
"Is this it?" Molly asked Walburga, glancing into the frame above the stove and holding up the jar. "Is it supposed to be all different colors like this?"
"Well, I is still thinking leaving out the almond extract was a serious mistake," Blinky put in.
"Oh, yes, that's the correct appearance," Walburga said, shoving Blinky's head down and out of sight below the frame. "It's a reactive potion, after all. Meant to correct whatever effects it might encounter. Hence the neither-one-thing-nor-the-other quality."
"But will it really work?" Molly mused, staring into the multi-colored depths of the glass jar.
"Only one way to find out," Walburga answered. "We must act with subtlety, though. If Sirius were to find out what we're up to before-hand, he might well refuse to drink the antidote. He seems to think he's…much improved."
Molly, thinking of the many times Sirius had already lectured anyone he could corner on all his new sterling qualities and how wrong they all were not to appreciate those qualities, had to agree.
"Good point," Molly said. "I'll let everyone know there's a secret meeting here in the kitchen, first. And then … then we'll see what's to be done from there…"
Half an hour later, the entire household save one was assembled in the kitchen, grumpy and confused at being roused out of bed so early, and all for some sort of ridiculous secret meeting in the now-shunned kitchen. Harry especially was vexed at being dragged out of his bedroom, and objected quite loudly. And when Molly suggested that Professor Snape must be sent for before they could begin, Harry barked and growled pretty much continuously until the Potions master, grumpy and out of sorts himself, arrived.
Harry's objections were soon stilled, however, as Walburga and Molly recounted their story to one and all, and then produced the jar of potion they had made.
"I…just…don't…believe…this," Remus remarked, when Molly and Walburga were finished talking.
Snape was handling the jar of antidote, staring intently at its swirling colors. "You monstrous harridan," he said to Walburga. "How could you keep knowledge as significant as this a secret for so long?"
Walburga shrugged in her small frame and pushed Blinky out of the way once more. "My domestic affairs are hardly a matter for public consumption, nor are you qualified to criticize me, you grubby little social climbing swine. The point is – you have the antidote now."
Arthur Weasley had been eyeing his wife anxiously throughout the whole recital. "And… and… you're quite sure, Mollywobbles dear, that you don't feel at all… funny, after brewing that stuff?"
"I'm right as rain, Arthur. Brewing the potion may drive one mad as a March hare, but the antidote is nothing. I've had more trouble cooking up a pot of furniture polish."
"So, do we know if there are any side-effects?" Hermione asked. "Obviously there's no literature available regarding this potion…"
George snickered. "Side effects? How much worse can things be than they are now? Frankly, I couldn't care less if it makes Sirius break out in feathers, if it does the job."
"Or makes him speak in riddles or makes him think he's an Erumpent, for that matter," Fred added. "Or even if it–"
Harry once again rose from the table and brought his fist down like a gavel. "WHAT'S ALL THIS TALK, TALK, TALK?" he asked. "IS THAT ALL YOU PEOPLE CAN DO? YOU ARE ALL DRIVING ME OUT OF MY MIND! WE NEED TO JUST GIVE THE STUFF TO SIRIUS AND QUIT FAFFING ABOUT! WE NEED TO GIVE IT TO HIM RIGHT NOW!"
Harry had spoken. Molly quickly made up a pot of porridge and dished out a special bowl of the stuff, a special bowl with a chip on one side. Everyone watched as she poured the contents of the jar into the bowl, stirred it into the porridge so that it could not be seen, and set the bowl aside. Then she gave everyone else a bowl of porridge, so Sirius would not suspect anything when he came in.
"Seems a shame to deceive him like this," Mundungus muttered as he took his porridge.
"Oh, shut it, Dung!" exclaimed Moody, Tonks, and Ron in unison.
When the stage was at last set, Molly went upstairs to call Sirius down for "breakfast".
When he came bouncing cheerfully into the kitchen about ten minutes later, chipper as a young terrier, everyone stared at him as though he actually had broken out in feathers. He took a seat at the table and looked around.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Why are you all staring at me? Do I have something on my teeth?"
"No, no, mate, not at all," Mundungus said, after a pause in which everyone in the kitchen rapidly found something other than Sirius to stare at. "It's just… I mean, it's just that…"
Tonks stepped in to counter Dung's floundering. "It's just that new hairstyle," she said quickly. "Quite a change…"
Sirius on Contrariwise had taken to slicking all his hair back off his face neatly with Sleekeasy and containing it in a tight tail, with a ruler straight part on the side. It looked hideous.
"Suits you, it does," Ginny lied stoutly.
"Here you are, Sirius, dear," Molly said, and set the bowl with the chip in its side before Sirius. "Have some … porridge."
The old Sirius normally hated porridge, and wouldn't touch the stuff on a bet. Remus had a bad moment or two, but anti–Sirius soon put his fears to rest.
"Ah, wonderful!" he said heartily. "My favorite! Do we have any sugar substitute?"
"I've already put a bit of organic apple juice in," Molly told him. "Better give it a try before you add anything."
"Oh, what a good idea," he chirped, and took up his spoon. Then he set it down again. Everyone tried not to groan.
"Aren't you having any?" he asked Molly. "It looks delicious!"
"Oh – oh, yes – of course I am, dear," Molly said, flustered, and dished a bowl out for herself. She took a seat at the table too. "We're all having some! Aren't we?"
Everyone at the table took her point immediately. A general chorus of oohs and ahhs and slightly hysterical testaments to the supreme excellence of the porridge broke out round the table.
"It's … why, it's fabulous!" Dung cried, and almost choked on an overlarge spoonful. "Best porridge I ever ate!"
"Wicked!" the twins declared in unison. "This porridge is just …wicked!"
"Oh – oh – oh my God – I've never had such exquisite porridge!" Remus cried, stuffing his face with it mechanically.
Sirius watched them all go into paroxysms of delight over the porridge for a time, looking mildly baffled. Then he picked up his spoon once more and filled it with porridge.
He didn't notice that they all were holding their breaths.
Sirius put the spoon in his mouth and swallowed the porridge.
Everyone in the room leaned forward in their chairs and gripped the table, watching him intently.
After a moment, Sirius' shoulders hunched inward and his eyes crossed. The onlookers breathed a soft mass ahhhhhh.
His skin began to coruscate with multiple colors and then the waves of color migrated into the strands of his hair and the beds of his fingernails.
Ooooooh, breathed the onlookers all at once.
All the assorted colors drained out of his skin and hair and fingernails as quickly as they'd appeared, leaving him paper-white. His eyes rolled up in his head.
"That's it…" Harry whispered. "You can do it…"
His head drooped down onto the table with a small thunk and a wet, rattling sound issued out of his throat.
Harry rose from his seat and went around the table to stand beside Sirius. He put a shaking hand on his godfather's back.
"Sirius?" Harry whispered.
Sirius raised his head from the table. His face had returned to its usual color. He looked up at Harry, hovering at his shoulder, and then around the room at all the others staring at him, rapt.
He looked down at the table and the chipped bowl before him.
"What's this stuff?" he said, sounding grumpy. "Porridge?"
Remus too rose and came to Sirius' side. He stood across from Harry, at Sirius' other shoulder.
"Yes, Sirius," he said intently. "It's your breakfast. It's a bowl of porridge…"
Sirius made a horrible face. "But I hate porridge!" he complained.
Harry screamed in sheer joy and threw his arms around Sirius and hugged him so tight he almost strangled him. Remus leapt into his lap and kissed him silly. Everyone else sent up a rousing cheer and fell to embracing one another and shaking hands and pounding Molly on the back. Molly, for her part, burst into tears and sank back in her seat, limp with relief.
"I don't especially like breakfast either," Sirius continued to complain as best he could between Remus' frantic snogging and Harry's tearful squeezing. "What time is it, anyway? What are we all doing up so early? What's gotten into you all? I don't see why anyone would want to throw a party just because I don't like porridge!"
In fact, Sirius never stopped complaining and making marvelously tactless remarks until Severus Snape came to join the growing knot of well-wishers who were hugging, kissing and otherwise petting Sirius like he was the world's cutest and fluffiest angora puppy.
"Welcome back, Black," Severus said gravely, and stunned Sirius into silence by voluntarily shaking his hand.
"Snivellus?" Sirius said, bewildered. "Do you feel quite all right?"
As if that wasn't enough to thoroughly confuse the newly recovered Sirius, his own mother called to him from the picture of Blinky over the stove.
"Oh, shame of my flesh?" she called. "Abomination? Humiliation of my loins?"
"Mother?" Sirius asked, barely able to speak between kisses and hugs. "What are you doing in Blinky's picture? I've haven't seen you in the kitchen in twenty years!"
Mrs. Black laughed, a bit madly. "Just remember that I love you, son, traitorous biological freak of nature that you are! See you in the corridor!" She disappeared from the picture of Blinky.
Sirius had little space in which to contemplate the mystery of his mother actually telling him that she loved him. He was still inundated by the various members of the Order and all his other houseguests, who all seemed determined to hug him or shake his hand or kiss him or otherwise touch him in some way.
"Get off me, will you all?" he finally grumbled to all his admirers. "You're crushing me and I can't breathe for all this snogging."
They all sighed with delight and joy to hear this rather surly comment and promptly redoubled all their frenzied hugging and kissing and back-clapping. It took Sirius a full ten minutes to wriggle out from under the mass demonstration of affection.
Once he'd managed to struggle to his feet and out of the tight grips of Harry and Remus and out of the reach of the others, he stood for a moment at the door, gazing at them all with profound puzzlement.
"You've all gone quite mad, haven't you?" he asked, sharply.
"You don't know the half of it, Padfoot," Remus replied, with a huge grin that did indeed look quite maniacal.
"Mad as hatters," Harry agreed, and quickly grabbed Sirius once again before he could escape. He stood on his tiptoes and kissed his godfather on his forehead, one more time. "Every one of us. Don't ever change, all right? We like you just as you are."
Sirius looked down at Harry for a moment, and a small smile brightened his face. Even his formerly horribly neat hairstyle looked comfortably mussed once more.
"And you're the very maddest of the lot, aren't you?" he said fondly to Harry.
"Absolutely!" Harry agreed, laughing. "Though Professor Lupin there is certainly stiff competition."
Remus brought forth another huge, daffy smile in response.
"Well, then, that's settled," Sirius announced. "There's only one thing left to do."
"What's that, Sirius dear?" Molly asked, sounding sweeter and far more approving than Sirius had ever heard her that he could remember.
"It's far too early for breakfast," Sirius answered, yawning. "I'm going back to bed."
It had been a very good day at 12 Grimmauld, at least for everyone except Sirius. Though he'd tried to go back to bed that morning after being roused so early and baffled so completely, he had not been able to get much sleep. Remus, for one, hadn't really been of a mind to let Sirius sleep very much, and then later Crookshanks kept entering the bedroom at intervals, often meowing urgently at the door when he found it closed. When Sirius finally gave it up as a bad job and decided to get up after all, he found that no less than thirteen beetles, five roaches and one praying mantis had been left under his pillow as presents.
Later, he was annoyed by the way everyone in the house insisted on following him around everywhere, shivering with delight every time he yelled at anyone, looked depressed, had a shouting match with his mother, or made rude comments about Severus Snape, the Ministry, or the Death Eaters. When he'd finally had enough of all the non-stop adulation and tried hiding out in Buckbeak's room, Fred and George stood on the staircase outside and shouted out in tandem: "Oooo! Come and look, everyone! He's sulking and brooding up here with Buckbeak again!"
Life in a loony bin – as Sirius had put it acidly, when people kept popping into Beaky's room to bring him cups of tea, shots of Old Ogden's, and pieces of chicken – was no picnic. Except for all the food and drink, of course.
Though the day had perhaps been no picnic for Sirius, for Harry, it had been almost perfect. As he lay in bed late that night, listening to Ron's contented snoring and reviewing the day in his mind, he considered that it had been one of the finest days he could ever remember enjoying – and yet, somehow, he had the nagging feeling that there was still some small something missing. Some final issue unresolved or some small task left undone. He examined the question for a time, turning it this way and that way in his mind's eye, and eventually the answer came to him. He rose from his bed, put on his bathrobe, and slipped out of the bedroom.
The house was dark and quiet as Harry made his way down the stairs; everyone in it seemed to be sleeping peacefully. But when Harry reached the door of the kitchen, he found that a dim light was shining out under the kitchen door. He opened the door and stepped inside.
He saw Remus Lupin sitting by the fireplace, in which a small fire was burning merrily. He was tending the fire and pouring boiling water out of the kettle and into a teapot.
"Professor Lupin," Harry said. "I didn't know you were still up."
"Good evening, Harry," Remus said amiably. "How strange. I'm not surprised to see you at all. Actually, I'd had an idea I might run into you down here at some point tonight."
Harry grabbed a stool near the table and brought it over to the fire. He sat down. "Did you? That's peculiar. I didn't know I was coming down myself until a few minutes ago. I only just realized there was one more little thing I needed to do."
"In some ways, I find," Remus said, "you and I think alike, Harry. Tea?"
"Yes, thanks," Harry said, and took the cup of tea Remus poured for him. "So… are you saying you think you might have guessed what my… mission is tonight?"
"Oh, I think I might have a clue," Remus answered. He was busying himself with what looked to Harry like a pair of skewers. "Toasting fork?" he asked.
"Er… um… yes, thanks," Harry answered and took the toasting fork Remus handed him. "Well, then, seeing as how you already seem to have guessed, no sense beating around the bush, is there? Where is it?"
Remus was opening a small plastic bag with a picture of fluffy clouds on it. "Molly's cookbook, you mean?" he asked mildly. "Marshmallow?"
"Gastronomy Gilderoy Style," Harry confirmed, taking a marshmallow out of the bag Remus had offered him. He watched as Remus impaled a marshmallow on his toasting fork, and the faint glimmerings of an idea began to take shape in Harry's mind.
Harry watched as Remus brought his marshmallow to a suitable roasting angle to the fire, and then gazed at Harry, eyebrows raised.
Harry grinned. "Maybe we do think alike, Professor Lupin," Harry said, and began roasting his own marshmallow. "When did you start burning the filthy thing, anyway? It's almost all gone, except for that bit of binding on the hearth, there."
"Oh, about fifteen minutes ago. I would have waited if I'd been just a little more certain you were coming. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all," Harry said, still grinning. "The important thing was getting the job done, after all."
The two of them continued to drink tea and roast marshmallows over the flames of Gastronomy Gilderoy Style in companionable silence for a time. Then, Remus sighed and turned to Harry.
"In retrospect, I do wonder if I may have been a bit hasty," he said, and waved at the burning remains of Molly's cookbook in the fireplace.
Harry put another marshmallow on his toasting fork. "Oh, I doubt it," he said to Remus. "Why would you think so?"
"Well, it's just that I had a little look through the book before I set it alight."
"Did you? And..?" Harry asked, dipping his newly roasted marshmallow into his tea. He took a big bite and then waved his hands over his lips to dissipate some of the heat.
"Well, little as I like to admit it, there was quite an intriguing recipe in the 'My Dinners 'Round the World' section," Remus said. He also popped a perfectly roasted marshmallow into his mouth. "A moshsmllo ressuhpee, mmphoodly enough."
"Whassssat?" Harry asked, his mouth also full. "Muushmellow?"
Remus took a drink of his tea and swallowed.
"A marshmallow recipe, that is," Remus answered. "Something called 'S'mores'."
Harry thought about that for a moment. "Sounds horrible," he pronounced at last. "What kind of a name for a recipe is 'S'mores'? No, I'm sure you did the right thing. After all, look who wrote the book – couldn't be any good recipes in there, considering that."
"Well, perhaps," Remus agreed.
"But at least now we know Lockhart's book is good for something," Harry added.
"Oh, yes?" Remus asked, spearing yet another marshmallow.
"Um-hmm," Harry answered, preparing another marshmallow of his own for roasting. "It does make a brilliant fire. These are the best damn roasted marshmallows I've ever had!"