"So, I've been thinking . . . " Ron trailed off as they passed through the dim quiet hall back into the sitting room.
Harry seized him by the shoulder and dragged him closer to the shimmering blaze radiating from the hearth, peering seriously into Ron's eyes. "Are you okay?"
"Har har," Ron said with hurtful sarcasm, throwing off the helping hand. "Like I don't get enough of that from Hermione. D'you know, just the other day, she accused me of apparating backwards into her new garden plot—the one with the Fanged Geraniums she supposedly filed down, right? As if I'd let my assets anywhere near those bloody things."
"What?" Harry flopped into an overstuffed chair—his new favorite way to sit down—and looked his confusion at Ron reclining beside him. "Apparated backwards? That doesn't make a bit of sense."
"I pretended not to think so either, but she had me pegged," Ron said, shaking his head with regret. "Must've been the dirt and petals covering my backside. But she wasn't there at the time—there was no way for her to know I'd apparated in a little off-kilter instead of, say, tripping over a root—"
"Tripping over a root," Harry said in one quick breath.
"—I swear she's like the worst personal seer you can imagine, who only predicts how I'll mess something up. It's maddening."
"Yeah," Harry said noncommitally; he was heavily invested into not being invested in his friends' romantic lives. To change the subject he said, "You were thinking about something?"
"Oh, right!" Ron sat up straighter. "So, your birthday party."
There was a pause, and Harry blinked. "Er, it happened, yeah? What about it?"
"I've gone over that night in my head, everything I can remember," Ron said, rubbing his face as if emerging from a stupor all over again. "I'm thinking I didn't eat your entire cake. I had an accomplice."
"We're back to that? I forgave you already. As much as we loved that cake, we need to drop it. It's unhealthy both as a food and an object of obsession."
"Well, if I'm right, there's nothing to forgive me for, is there? I might be in the clear for once."
"Ron," Harry said, sitting forward intently, "you absolutely massacred my birthday cake. Come to terms with yourself and move on."
But Ron's face had set into a stubborn line. "No. You prove it beyond all reasonable doubt," he said, thrusting a pointing finger, "or it never happened, and furthermore, the very idea offends my sensibilities."
Harry laughed. "Alright then, should be easy enough—let's ask Ginny. She was hanging around at the same time. There's your impartial witness."
Ron looked undeterred, waving a hand at the fireplace. "Get on with it, then."
Harry snorted and imitated Kreacher's croaky voice. "Yes, Master Weasley."
He leaned forward across one plush arm of the chair and reached out toward the mantel over the hearth, fingers splayed and arm straining, as if seeking the most important snitch of his life. With a few soft huffs and grunts of effort Harry persevered for several valiant seconds before letting his arm fall back to its rest, defeated.
"There's a problem," Harry said. "The Floo jar is over there, and I'm right here."
"So summon it, you lazy git. Or are you afraid I'm right?"
Harry had an idea that necessitated less movement; his wand was all the way inside his pocket, after all. "Kreacher!"
With a soft pop the elf appeared before the fireplace, backlit in hellish colors that shone dimly through the translucent flaps of his ears and rendered him a decrepit silhouette staring hard with slightly mad bulbous eyes.
"God, no—it's him!" Ron recoiled in his armchair, shielding himself with arms set in a cross. "It's Beelfzebub!"
The ancient elf shook his head, batty ears flopping. "Master Weasley is drunk. Forgive Kreacher for saying so, but this strikes Kreacher as the very opposite of a surprise. Master will have to try much harder than that to startle—"
"It's not that," Harry said. "I—"
"Oh no—no, no, no! Kreacher will not watch over a drunken Master Weasley, not ever again!" the elf cut in firmly. "His linen cupboard still reeks of ham and despair, in spite of every elfin cleaning charm at Kreacher's disposal—"
"Oi—settle down, you! We only want you to firecall Ginny," Ron said, red about the ears. "Get her over here, alright?"
While the elf knelt on knobbly knees and plunged his head into emerald flames, mumbling imprecations, Harry cast Ron a sideways glance. "So, er . . . ham is one thing, but how—?"
"Drop it, mate." Ron wouldn't meet his eyes.
Kreacher shuffled back, and the fire flared up and regurgitated Ginny, face set firmly in annoyance, her wet hair wrapped in a towel. She unraveled it and set to drying, dripping all over the bunches and wrinkles of her hastily donned pyjamas.
"What's so bloody important?"
"My good name," Ron declared, waving a regal gesture at himself. Ginny snorted and was halfway back into the fire before he added, "Hang on! In exchange I'll tell you all about how I blew up Harry's thing with Leah. A little something for your massive vindictive side, yeah?"
"What is wrong with you?" Harry said sincerely.
Ginny ducked back out of the fireplace and spun around. She had the suggestion of a smirk around her mouth, eyes lit devilishly and flicking between Harry and Ron. "Easier to ask what's right with him. What's this about a breakup?"
"You're one to talk," Harry said before Ron could respond. "You're really going to hang around only to hear how he almost," Harry said, "compromised my relationship? I thought we'd parted on better terms than that."
"It was a perfectly amicable split," Ginny said with a nod, "and I hate you."
Harry turned to meet Ron's dry look. "I'm beginning to question her impartiality."
"So you have a stake in it too?" Ginny cocked her head, then grinned and bounced into a seat between the two, tossing her towel back through the fading Floo. She settled in and draped her arms over the chair's rests like a presiding judge. "Alright, hit me. What's this all about?"
They briefed Ginny on the drama surrounding Harry's birthday cake, their stories replete with accusatory interjections, wild and hazardous arm gestures, and thinly veiled character assassination dressed as helpful anecdotes. Out of the corner of his eye Harry saw Kreacher cast a despairing glance through the ceiling and wander off in the direction of the kitchen. At length Ginny stemmed their diatribes with raised palms in their faces.
"I hate to make this ruling, but I'm positive Ron slaughtered your entire cake."
"Yeah?" Harry said eagerly, sitting forward, waving down Ron's spluttered objections. "Did you see him doing the deed, then?"
"Well, no," she said, tossing her damp hair over a shoulder; Ron swiped hair water out of his eyes with a disgruntled noise. "But it was definitely all him, right? I mean, come on. Everyone knows he has all the table manners of a randy niffler."
"A randy—?" Ron shook his head like a wet dog to rid himself of the image. "Those rumors are entirely overblown! And you, what sort of arbitrator are you? Honestly—"
"A traitorous arbitrator?" Harry suggested under his breath.
"—not listen to a single word I said? I gave you all sorts of evidence, alibis and whatnot—!"
"The only evidence I need is you," Ginny said. She shot a knowing glance at Harry, then looked back and pointed at her flabbergasted brother. "Villain! You planned the crime from the very beginning! Premeditated, I say!"
"Based on what, you lunatic?"
"Come off it!" Ginny slammed a palm on the arm of her chair; she sat up on her knees and leaned over Ron like an interrogator. "I was there that day—I saw you! You were unfrosting that cake with your eyes before we were halfway through the bloody birthday song! Don't deny it!"
Ron sat forward, and with a hand atop her head pushed Ginny back down into her armchair. He gave her a condescending pat that she slapped away. "I declare a mistrial," he said, "on the grounds that the judge is somehow also the prosecutor, and her breath smells like bacon."
"What, really? You still eat bacon in the shower?" Harry said. He adjusted his glasses at Ginny as if he was no longer sure what sort of life form he was seeing. "I'd thought you were only doing that to irritate me. Honestly, who in their right mind wants to inhale bacon steam and mint shampoo at the same time?"
"I've switched to lavender," Ginny said, like it made all the difference. Her smile was such that Harry couldn't suss if she was joking or not.
"This kind of thing," Harry said to Ron, pointing sidelong at Ginny. "This is why I had to end it."
Ginny gave an affronted huff. "It was mutual!"
"Yeah, of course it was . . . a mutual breakup with the Boy Who Lived," Harry said, sitting up and fanning himself, looking away haughtily. "The tabloids will believe that one, for sure."
"Or they might be too busy writing about the Git Who Went Missing," Ginny said, eyes sparking with a mix of anger and playfulness. "As if you were anything close to a perfect boyfriend!"
"Oh? Does the prosecutor have any evidence to the contrary?"
"Damned right I do! You were a selfish lover!" Ginny burst out, poised halfway to rising as if daring Harry to challenge her on the assertion.
"Okay, hold on, that's enough," Ron said, waving his arms like a referee calling foul. "I do not want to hear any more. Not another syllable."
"It's not what it sounds like," Harry said, withholding a laugh. "That's how she chose to phrase it when I took up dodging her sweaty hugs after practice with the Harpies."
The clarification made Ron snort loudly, which set Ginny to her vibrant laugh lending more warmth to the room. They joined in with her to send their merry voices ringing throughout the dim old house. While it lasted the moment was akin to blissful, but they wound down quickly, weighed upon by the gravity of the situation they had yet to resolve.
"So, a mistrial?" Harry said, running a hand through his unkempt hair. "What now?"
"You need hard evidence," Ginny said. "Bickering at each other isn't going to go anywhere helpful, and Ron's memory retention while plastered rivals that of a salad fork."
Ron threw up his hands. "What is it with you women measuring my faculties in units of silverware?"
"But nobody else was there, the party was all but over," Harry said. "I walked in and found him alone, passed out, snoring into the empty dish."
"Right . . ." Ginny twisted a lock of red hair between her fingers thoughtfully. "I do recall . . . yeah, that's something! Er," she said with a wince, trailing off. "You won't like it, but here's what I've got." She turned in her seat to nod over at the long dark entrance hallway. "Towards the end I passed through the dining area searching for Mum—the cake had evaporated already, of course—and I'm fairly certain I saw him stumbling off down that way. Looking for that horrible troll's leg umbrella stand, I reckon; something to retch all that cake and butterbeer into."
Harry stroked at his imaginary goatee while he considered this latest information. He looked at Ron. "Well? Does that sound right?"
"It's possible," Ron hedged, squirming with a bit of embarrassment. "Hermione must've slipped me a mickey—she wanted to leave early, said she had a headache, but . . ."
"But you weren't going to abandon your exhaustively plotted cake heist, we get it," Ginny said. "And, yes, I'm certain you were hammered because she drugged you, nothing at all to do with the thirteen bottles of butterbeer you put away, those last seven chased with shots of honey firewhiskey."
"Okay," Ron said with a sigh, rubbing at his temples. "Yeah, I might've overindulged a little."
"'Overindulged a little'?" Harry said incredulously. "Either you were smashed or you weren't."
"You were," Ginny said with a helpful nod.
"I get it, alright, I have a problem! Blimey," Ron said, "there's no need to get pedantic on me, mate."
"What?" Harry sat up straight in his chair, fully alert to a possible impostor. "Hang on, what? Did you just use the word 'pedantic'?"
"He said 'faculties' a moment ago, as well! He's been with Hermione too long," Ginny said, voice coloring with dawning horror. "Oh no—Harry—" she clutched at his sleeve "—she's moulding him in her image! Soon they'll be hounding us together! One riding on each shoulder, correcting the grammar in our letters and pointing out health-conscious alternatives to our favorite dishes on every menu!"
"Oh my God," Harry said faintly, crumpling in on himself where he sat. He aimed a haunted stare into the fire."Nag-teaming."
"If you two are about done with your double act," Ron said, arms crossed, "Ginny, how exactly is the umbrella stand going to help reconstruct the events of that night?"
Ginny shook her head gravely. "Not the stand. Walburga's portrait, just there; she might've seen or heard something as you went by. I did say you wouldn't like it," she added at Ron's groan.
"Bit of a longshot, but it's an idea," Harry said. He shifted in his seat and cast a thoughtful look over into the dusty gloom. "I need to check on her anyway; she should've kicked up a fuss at least two or three times already. We've had a bit of a hectic evening."
"Bloody hell, I forgot all about her raving," Ron said, following Harry's gaze. He shivered. "That's odd, isn't it? It's always been so easy to set her off, impossible to shut her up. Maybe she's . . . dead?"
"Portraits don't die, that's sort of the point," Ginny said. She shoved up from her chair and weaved around the furniture into the dining area, Harry and Ron bravely trailing behind. "She could be sleeping off her own bender. They can get sloshed."
Their footsteps rang sharply against the floorboards despite light steps. As one they passed the scorched dinner table—the scene of the crime—and drew up to the matted carpet of the entrance hallway, cramped and narrow and overhung with oil lamps most at home in the sixteen hundreds. Distantly outlined, a tall and spindly console table sheltered a lumpy, stumplike shape in its shadow; the troll's leg umbrella stand, bristling with all sorts of disused parasols and canes and even one pool cue.
Harry kept the revolting leg around exclusively for his godson to trip over. He would set it up anyplace in the house Teddy meant to pass through, occasionally attempting to top his personal best of five faceplants in a day. It never got old . . . and Teddy often swore Harry wouldn't either.
Just past the stand, mounted up on the opposite wall, a small drawn curtain hung motionless across Walburga's portrait.
"What's she even going to tell us?" Ron whispered. His breathless tone brought Harry back to their second year, following spiders into the Forbidden Forest. "There's no way in hell we actually held a conversation, right? D'you reckon she can tell how much cake I had from the volume of my vomit?"
"That's if she decides to speak at all," Harry muttered, peering over Ginny's head. She smelled of rashers cooked in a meadow, a strangely homey combination. "She might cut straight to performing our favorite blood purist aria."
"Stop sniffing me," Ginny said under her breath, treating him to an elbow in the ribs. "Go on," she added, prodding again, "get in there! You first! It's your damned house!"
The air hung thick with anticipation and clung to Harry like muggy fog as he crept down the corridor, every footfall placed with care, arms tucked at his sides as not to brush against the dried wallpaper. He felt more than heard the soft padding of Ron and Ginny at his heels. Gingerly they edged around the flaring vase mounted on the side table, and stepped over the gnarled toes of the umbrella stand.
Harry glanced over a shoulder and jerked sideways awkwardly; the rim of his glasses had nearly rasped against the iron frame of a lamp. Ron righted him and gave him a helpful push toward the lank curtain.
The moth-eaten cloth was dead still. Harry grimaced and parted it, withdrawing immediately as if it would bite.
The canvas portrayed a simple setting, a finely crafted armchair with silver trim and a high back, layers of velvety purple curtains serving as a backdrop. But the chair sat empty . . . and smeared across the center of the portrait was a flaky neon green residue.
"Oh . . . she's gone." Harry stood aside to let them see. "But she never visits other portraits . . ."
"What's all this?" Ginny picked at the residue with a fingernail, chipping off flakes that drifted to the carpet.
When it clicked Harry leaned in to be sure, then turned a flat look toward Ron. "Did you use Walburga Black's portrait as a napkin?"
"What? I dunno, I—I don't think so—?"
"That's frosting, mate."
"Good Lord, Ron," Ginny said around breathless giggles, pointing at the besmirched canvas, "what a drunken mess you are, look, what an absolute trainwr—eek!" She hopped back against Harry's chest. "It moved! Look there, it's moving!"
There was a flicker of motion from behind the seat of the stately chair, there and gone, a snatch of color. Harry edged closer, braced for an outburst of vitriol at any second. Again he caught a flash of movement, the edge of a shape roughly human sized; Harry thought she was crouching. He stood very still and watched. Several times more he saw the pointed tips of fancy shoes, the edges of white knuckles clamped around knees, the black wisps of hair drifting in and out of sight.
Walburga was hiding behind her chair, rocking herself back and forth. Stunned, Harry breathed as much into Ron and Ginny's ears, and Ginny motioned for them to leave. They followed her back into the cheery firelight illuminating the sitting room, but didn't reclaim their chairs. Instead they stared at one another.
Harry was the one to voice their thoughts. "This is getting a little weird."
"Shouldn't we have, er, asked after her?" Ron said, as if there was no question of returning to the hallway ever again. He ran a hand across his pale, sweaty forehead, looking disturbed. "There's no chance it was me who put her in that state, right? I mean, what could possibly shut the mad old hag down?"
"Maybe it wasn't one specific thing," Ginny said, hands on her hips, frowning at the floor. "Could be she finally cracked. The last straw, a blood traitor hurling chunks into her precious heirloom."
"I dunno," Harry said. "I've had the impression she exists for those moments, screaming about what filthy degenerates we are. Portraits have to get their kicks somehow. Come to think of it," he said, pacing back and forth, "I've just remembered, I heard her shriek after the party—yeah, because I'd nearly nodded off, and then I thought I had to go shut her up, but then she stopped. And she never pipes down that fast."
"What did you do, Ron?" Ginny threw an arm aside at the mouth of the hall. "You're the only one who knows. Think back carefully, like you're piecing together Hermione's increasingly bitter hints at what important date's coming up."
"I've said a thousand times it's all a blur," Ron snapped, "just like tonight'll be for the next person to make me repeat myself on that front!"
"Relax," Harry said, thumping him on the shoulder. Then he tapped the side of Ron's head with a fingertip. "It's all in there, but you can't access it . . . I think I have a solution. Kreacher!" Harry called. "Pop on upstairs and snag my pensieve, mate!"
"Master Harry's godson is called Theodore Remus Lupin," Kreacher croaked back from the kitchen. "Teddy, for short. He lives with his grandmother Mistress Andromeda Black at forty-nine Fairway—"
"Oh, fuck off, I remember my godson—it hasn't been that long since I visited—"
"Twenty-two days and counting, Master."
"I bloody well get the point—now you get the pensieve!"
"Shame on you, Harry," Ginny said, stifling a laugh with her knuckles.
"It's fine," Harry said, raking at his hair. "He's got his own stuff going on."
Ron snorted. "Right. Always on the go, those eight-year-olds."
Moments later the pensieve had snapped into existence upon the dining room table, and they seated themselves around it at the scorched end. Ron took the same seat Harry had found him unconscious in.
The receptacle wasn't nearly so intricately crafted as that of the Hogwarts Headmaster; it was a simple spun clay bowl large enough to facilitate giving a passed-out Ron the perfect haircut. Silvery memories swirled within. Rudely etched runes girded the bowl just beneath the rim, a single contiguous line, composite of several dead languages borrowed at random. The resulting translation was nothing but gibberish. When sounded out phonetically, however, the symbols formed an awkward approximation of a sentence: I never took Ancient Runes.
"Go on, then," Ginny said.
They watched as Ron fished for his wand and drew it, then brought the tip up to his temple. He squinted with a concentration one normally reserved for a particularly involved bowel movement. Inch by inch he coaxed out a ghostly slick strand of memory, shimmering and pale, until it won free and dangled airily from the upheld wand. Gently he began to lower it into the bowl.
"Rub it along the rim a bit first," Harry said. At the odd looks that brought he added, "It's soaked in alcohol, yeah? Might as well sanitize while you're at it. Thing's been sitting under my bed."
"It's hard to spend time around someone so hilarious," Ron deadpanned as Ginny shook with silent laughter. "It really is."
The memory seeped in without so much as a ripple and joined with the swirling currents. Ron prodded at it, and like a broken egg yolk it bled outward to fill the pensieve with one swaying pattern, the view akin to that of the ocean's sunlit surface from beneath the tides. The three of them glanced around at each other and stuck in a finger each.
Yanked forward and down into freefall, they waited in endless space until color and shape phased in around them, and they landed neatly in the middle of what became the dining room they had just departed. The party was in full swing; the dining table was a mess of deconstructed dishes, confetti and wrapping paper littered every inch of the packed floor and crinkled underfoot, and everywhere there were bodies in motion, dancing, drinking, talking and laughing. The wireless belted out the Weird Sisters' latest single.
With shared sidelong grins the three of them stood back to watch the festivities unfold over again. Harry laughed hysterically at a story George related to Andromeda, the poor woman's face aghast, a spectacle he had missed entirely the first time. Ron and Ginny snickered and poked fun at past Harry attempting to keep up with Luna's improvised dance moves. Bill roared in triumph as he wrestled Kingsley's arm into a plate of mashed potatoes, and at the other end of the table Arthur and Hermione were locked into a tense game of chess, Ron and Molly offering commentary on the sidelines.
"Aha! So that's where the little blighter snuck off to!" Harry said when he spotted Teddy at Victoire's heels, vanishing up the stairs to the second floor.
Ginny laughed and throttled an imaginary neck. "They're so cute, I just want to strangle them!"
Ron shot a disturbed look over from the card game in the sitting room, where he'd been peeking at the hands dealt to Minerva and Hagrid. "You've got a few wires crossed, y'know?"
The atmosphere of the house brimmed with suffocating, noisy love, and Harry spent a great deal of time drifting about and soaking it all in. Hemmed into the far end of the sitting room Fleur sat surrounded by guests engaged in her tales of the Triwizard Tournament, and they were no less than lucid in her presence, choosing their questions with an alert fascination. Arm in arm, Neville and Hannah sang along to the chorus of Celestina Warbeck's ballad as if they were the only two people in the house. At the conclusion of the song everyone in the room broke into applause, Neville flushing at the attention, Hannah beaming and laughing her thanks. Ginny sent an olive pelting into Seamus's forehead after he took a bow on their behalf.
In the middle of observing a spirited debate between Percy and Hermione, Harry turned at the tug on his sleeve; Ginny's face was lit with excitement. "C'mon, Andromeda and Teddy just headed out. It's about to happen again."
They made their way to a prime viewing spot against a far wall, where Ron already stood waiting. His face was plastered with a foolish grin as he watched the partygoers. "Best part of that night coming up, for certain," he said, throwing an arm each around Harry and Ginny. "I never did ask how this came about."
"He's taken on the brunt of the responsibility for his family's ongoing litigation," Harry said, already with his eyes on the spacious hearth. "When it's called for I appear in court on their behalf; sometimes I even take it seriously. He'd had a date coming up, and we were set to discuss it sometime soon . . . but I forgot to mention I was unavailable that day."
Not a minute later the fire erupted into lashing tongues of emerald, then settled back down, a neat blonde head nestled in the midst of the flames.
The flash had drawn every eye in the room, and when they recognized Draco Malfoy of all people goggling back at them, every conversation cut off in an instant. A beat later someone killed the wireless, and silence reigned.
Charlie released past Harry from an arm lock and helped him to a sitting position on the floor. Harry straightened his glasses and offered a cordial nod. "Malfoy."
Malfoy's mouth was drawn thin, but his eyes, slightly wide with subtle alarm, darted from one stare to the next before meeting Harry's. "Potter."
There was a pause in which Harry recalled considering asking Malfoy to join, before thinking better of it. Instead he gestured with one arm toward the overburdened dining table. "Cake?"
With the weight of near a hundred stares on him Malfoy deliberated in perfect quiet, looking as if his head may pop like a kernel of corn. "Fine," he said at length.
At that Harry summoned a slice of delicious neon green cake on a plate and passed it along to the fire, where Malfoy stuck out one arm to accept.
"Thanks," he said flatly, ducking out of the fireplace the very next second.
The flames burned orange again, and the house erupted in a unified mass of laughter that swept forth like waves crashing against the walls. Within a minute the music was back on and activity had resumed, though George now entertained a small audience with an impeccable Malfoy impersonation, down to the slicked-back hair gelled so liberally that his parents could check their reflections by it.
Over the next hour one guest after another said their goodbyes and took their leave until numbers dwindled down to immediate family. There was a mass migration toward the kitchen to assist Kreacher in cleaning up, leaving behind only the massive cake platter, still bearing more than a third of the heart-clogging masterpiece. It struck a pang of longing for Harry to see one last time the leftovers that never were.
The three of them watched and waited, and sure enough Ron staggered out of the kitchen, throwing suspicious looks over his shoulders every few steps. He dragged out the nearest chair and collapsed into it, hauling the platter in front of him without preamble, and he fell upon Harry's cake like a thoroughly sauced dementor inhaling its inert victim. Harry and Ginny looked on in horrified fascination as he put it away little by little—the cake as a whole had been larger than a car tyre—while present Ron waited in vain for someone to happen by and share in his misdeed.
Past Ron sat back in his chair and unleashed a resounding belch at the ceiling. It took him several labored breaths to recover. "I hate myself," he said to the empty room, then lunged for the rest of the cake.
When Kreacher shuffled in from the kitchen, present Ron perked up and gripped their shoulders. The elf bore appalled witness to the atrocity for a short while, then wiggled his fingers at Ron's hunched back. The chunk of cake still intact hopped up and jiggled violently, as if some creature were moments from bursting free.
"Gah!" Ron shoved himself backward and tipped his chair over, sending him sprawling across the floor. He flopped over heavily and spotted Kreacher. "You! You arsehole!"
"Is Master Weasley enjoying Master Harry's birthday cake?"
"It's 'mazing," Ron said, his ire instantly gone at the mention. "Y'want—want—wanna—?" He gestured vaguely toward the table, still lying prone.
"What Kreacher wants is a peaceful household," the elf said. "Kreacher would suggest Master finish what he started and flee the scene before the tidying is done."
"I can't believe we forgot to ask Kreacher about it," Harry said, massaging his eyes under his glasses.
"I can't believe Ron's not dead," Ginny said, walking around the table, marveling at the last scraps of cake. Past Ron dragged himself back up to the table with grim, bloated determination. "Or even fat!"
"I s'pose that's what I remembered earlier; talking to Kreacher," Ron said, rubbing at his neck sheepishly. "Damn. I really did polish it all off alone. Sorry, mate."
"Don't worry about it." Harry patted Ron on the back. "It was me who spent your collection of first run Wizard Wheezes fireworks."
Ron gasped like a belle confronted with a devastating faux pas. "You rat bastard, I knew it! Those were out of the same batch the twins used when they left school—have you got any idea how much the bloody things were worth?"
"Not half as much as your reaction just now."
"Oi," Ginny said, pointing at past Ron. He'd pushed to a rickety stand and was making for the entrance hallway, burping and moaning, clutching his stomach. Past Ginny shot him an incredulous glance as she hurried by, calling up the stairs for Molly.
They watched past Ron vanish into the darkness, following behind, pulling up shoulder to shoulder at the threshold to the hallway.
"Do we even want to know?" Harry said quietly.
Ron looked at them and said, "I think we have to."
Ginny nodded, resolute. "Then let's go."
For reasons that went unremarked but understood they joined hands, plunging into the hallway as one. Ron took the lead down the cramped passage, Ginny and Harry just behind. They followed wet splattering and hoarse retching to the source.
Past Ron knelt over the troll's leg, shivering, sweaty face smeared with green frosting and spittle. No sooner had he drawn in his first gasp of air than Walburga Black launched into a vitriolic tirade.
"WHAT IS THIS DEPRAVITY? BLOOD TRAITOR DREGS EXCRETING UPON THE MOST STORIED POSSESSIONS OF OUR NOBLE HOUSE—"
"No—bugger off, you demented harpy—"
"—BILIOUS VAGRANTS, BOILS, BLIGHTS BESPOILING THE LEGACY OF MY FAMILY WITH EVERY FOUL BREATH—"
"Foul breath? I'll—I'll have you know—" Ron broke off to puke violently into the stand again.
"—LOWER AND MORE PUTRID THAN SCUM-TRAWLING MAGGOTS, NOT EVEN FIT TO KISS THE HYPOTHETICAL MUCK BENEATH OUR FEET—"
Swaying precariously, Ron braced himself with an arm against the wall, putting him face to face with Walburga. He tilted back his head and chortled as a thought seemed to strike him; he winced and ignored the portrait's howling, turning his face to call out down the hall.
"Kreacher! Oi, Kreacher! I think—I think I've figured it out, mate—I know how to calm her down! Look here, look—come on—" Ron giggled deliriously, turning back to face the bulging-eyed, frothing madness of Walburga, "—watch this, you—you ancient codpiece—"
Time and space contracted around the nightmare to follow; Ron screwed his eyes shut and lurched forward with his lips parted like some ghoulish baby after its mother's milk. He made nose to canvas contact, tipped forward further, and planted his grimy lips upon the painting with a wet smack.
Walburga Black's barely-strung ravings unraveled into a scream of pure hysteria that rose to blistering heights, nearly honed enough to force cracks in Harry's lenses, until her voice failed entirely. Then the hall was haunted with the moist slopping sounds of Ron's mouth struggling to maintain a suction seal while his balance wavered beneath him. Foamy drool trickled down the ancient paint.
"No," present Ron whispered.
Ginny clamped both hands over her mouth tight enough to keep her soul from flying out. Her muffled voice clawed up from beneath deepest horror. "Is that . . . ?"
"No," Harry said to reality, the word ringing in his ears.
" . . . Is that tongue?"
"Merlin preserve me," Ron groaned into his clenched fists.
"Come on," Harry said, seizing them both by a shoulder. "Come on, we're getting out of here! Right now! Ginny!" He gave her a vigorous shake, and she snapped back to herself, eyes glassy and shell-shocked. "Fall back, pull out, let's go! Fucking abort!"
They wrenched themselves free of the memory with a flash of light and came out of the pensieve tumbling and rolling, falling over their chairs, sprawling across the dining room in a clatter of bones and wood against the floorboards. In an instant they were all on their feet, and Harry's blood thundered. The room spun slowly beneath him.
Aghast, Ron gaped back and forth at them, face white as curdled milk. "It was a joke!"
"Reducto!" Ginny shouted, thrusting out her wand; the pensieve shattered into tiny pieces skittering everywhere, memories going up like oily smoke to fade in the air.
"Come on, it's not as bad as all that!"
Adrenaline pumped through Harry and cried for an outlet. He paced back and forth, breathing heavily, then made for the front door. At the hallway he stopped short, shivered, and turned sharply on his heel to stride into the middle of the dining room.
"Harry!" Ron pleaded.
With numb fingers Harry scrabbled and wrenched off his glasses; he flung them at his feet and stomped over and over, grinded at them until nothing remained but grit and twisted metal.
"Listen, I wasn't in my right mind—"
"God," Ginny said, doubled over and clinging to Harry's shoulder. She took a breath, pushed off and staggered toward the hallway. "Where's that fucking umbrella stand? No, no—Accio!"
"Right," Ron said, injecting a note of indignation into his panicked tone. "Don't you think you're having a bit of an overreaction, the pair of you?"
"You snogged—" Ginny stopped short at the upsurge of bile, splattering the contents of the umbrella stand set between her feet.
"That wasn't proper snogging—look, I said it was a joke, I was trying to upset Kreacher, you saw—"
"You snogged—" Harry paused when Ginny retched again, her back arched and trembling with strain.
"Fine! Yeah, I snogged Walburga's damned portrait!" Ron hollered, face shining red. "It was just a bloody gag—now calm down, stop acting like—"
The sound of short, smart strides caught their ears, and they all turned to see Hermione emerge from the entrance hallway, back from escorting Leah home. Her expression could have crumbled stone, and it was aimed directly at Ron.
"You did what?"