The weekend came and went and Albus, true to his word, didn’t mention a thing to their parents about Scorpius’ letter or Lily’s impromptu visit to Malfoy Manor. This, however, hadn’t stopped him from throwing furtive glances her way whenever the two passed each other in the hall, or else from eyeing her from across the dinner table whenever he thought their parents weren’t looking. Unfortunately, Al wasn’t near as clever as he fancied himself to be, and it wasn’t long before their mother began to grow suspicious.
“What’s going on with you two?”
It was Monday afternoon and the house had been unusually quiet all day. Albus was sitting on the sofa, flipping through a magazine, his feet propped up on the coffee table. Lily was seated across from him in her father’s recliner, her legs dangling over the armrest as she read through the latest catalogue from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.
“Nothing,” the pair replied in unison, neither of them quite able to meet their mother’s gaze.
Ginny Potter was not one for tolerating a lot of nonsense, especially from her own children. She wasn’t a particularly tall woman, but she had an imposing presence, an air of confidence that gave the illusion of more height than her actual size warranted. Planning to spend the rest of afternoon at the office, she was dressed in a set of royal blue robes, the rich color making her red hair look even more vibrant than usual. A large leather satchel was slung over one shoulder, and in her arms she carried several large envelopes that Lily suspected were full of letters from her readers.
For the past eight years – ever since her eldest son had started at Hogwarts – Mrs. Potter had been working as a sports reporter, writing articles for various magazines and newspapers. She had started off as the senior Quidditch correspondent for The Daily Prophet – a job she was more than qualified for, thanks to years spent playing profession Quidditch. But recently, she'd begun branching out from her usual discussions of Quaffle regulation and player trade speculation to include reflections on life as a working mother and the role of magic in raising a modern family. If the volume of responses she got to her columns was any indication, Lily assumed her mum must be very good at her job.
“Enough is enough,” Mrs. Potter said, looking first at Al and then over at Lily. “The moping and lying about has got to stop. It’s depressing.”
“I’m not the one who’s been moping,” Al murmured under his breath, his nose still buried in his magazine.
Her mother ignored him, keeping her focus on Lily. “I don’t know what’s eating your socks these days but it’s time to snap out of it.”
Her mother wasn’t an insensitive person; she just didn’t put up with much in the way of self-pity. She was sympathetic, to a point, but she couldn’t tolerate sulking about when things didn’t go your way. If there was a problem, you worked to fix it. Simple as that.
And in truth, it wasn’t as if Lily didn’t want to ‘snap out of it.’ She just wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was. Ever since her encounter with Scorpius, she’d felt distracted, unable to keep her focus. She found herself wondering aimlessly about the house, unsure of where to go or what to do next.
Her mother, it seemed, had the perfect solution for just such a problem.
“You want us to do what?”
It was later that evening and the three of them – Lily, Albus and their mother – were seated around the dinner table, their father not yet home from work. Whether as a result of their strange behavior or simple because she was too busy to take care of it herself, Mrs. Potter had come up with a plan to get both of her children out of the house and off doing something constructive.
“I’ve already discussed it with your father,” she said, ignoring Al’s outburst and passing Lily the basket of dinner rolls. “Seeing as neither of you have any plans of your own, we’re going to let you take on a little more responsibility this summer. Your father and I haven’t had a good look around the place in ages, so there’s no telling what kind of shape it’s in. At best, it’s going to need a top-to-bottom cleaning before we can even think about getting anyone else in there...”
‘There’ was Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place – a four-story brick house that had once belonged to Sirius Black, a man who had died many years before Lily was born but who her father still spoke of fondly. Lily could only recall ever visiting the place on one occasion – when they returned there to bury a house-elf named Kreacher. She knew her parents had lived there for a time just after they were married, but they moved out long before James was born. Why they had abandoned such a large house in favor of a smaller one so far from the city center, Lily never understood.
As far back as she could remember, her parents had been renting the place out to various wizarding families who were looking for a little extra security and privacy in the heart of muggle London. The Boulstridges had been living there on and off for the past few years. Mr. Boulstridge did something or other for the Department of Mysteries. Lily didn’t know much about Mrs. Boulstridge or their son Zachary, who was several years younger than she was and had just started at Hogwarts.
“Clean out Grimmauld Place?” Albus whined. “But that stuff is for house-elves.”
That earned him one of their mother’s more reproachful stares.
Al had the good graces to go a bit pink in the cheek, though it didn’t stop him from reminding their mum about his upcoming trip to see their Uncle Charlie.
“Me and Hugo have been planning it for months.”
“That’s not for another few weeks yet,” she said. “You can get plenty done on the house before then.”
Al had no ready reply for that, though he was quick offer up several more feeble excuses as to why he couldn’t waste his precious time cleaning out some musty old house. He only stopped his pleading once he realized he wasn’t being expected to volunteer his services.
“You mean you're gonna pay us?” he asked. “Like with real money?”
Ten Galleons each, it turned out, was the going rate for a few week’s worth of cleaning. They were to receive the first five upfront, and the rest after the job was done.
For her part, Lily wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending her summer cleaning up someone else’s mess. Still, as she thought on it later that evening, lying awake in bed, she couldn’t see any way around it. And it wasn’t as if she had anything better to do. What was the alternative – sitting around the house, trying to convince herself she wasn’t thinking of a certain blonde-haired boy she used to know? Maybe the distraction would do her good.
By eight o’clock the next morning, Lily, Albus and their mother were standing in the front hall of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, all three pairs of arms loaded down with every brand of cleaning product known to wizard and muggle alike.
“Bit of an overkill, don’t you think?” Al whispered in Lily’s ear as their mother tossed them each a set of scrub brushes and two pairs of rubber gloves.
Lily had to agree. They had enough supplies there to clean half the homes in London.
“If you two had seen this place when I was your age...” Mrs Potter said, looking around and taking it all in. “What a disaster. You wouldn’t have believed the mess. It was almost unlivable.”
Al pushed past Lily, crossing beneath the large chandelier and over towards the row of portraits that hung along the far wall.
“What happened there?” he asked, pointing at a gaping hole situated between two empty picture frames. It looked as if one area of the wall had been set on fire, the flames put out before they could spread to any of the surrounding portraits but not before they had done some serious damage to whatever had been hanging there. In one spot, Lily could see right through the plaster and straight into the room that lay on the other side.
Mrs. Potter smiled to herself as if recalling some private joke, but she offered up no further explanation on the matter.
The three of them spent the next few hours traveling from room to room, taking note of any areas that were going to need extra attention. While Lily wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Boulstridges had trashed the place, it was apparent from the general state of things that they had left in rather a hurry. The rubbish bins were full, the moldy remnants of a very old steak and kidney pie still in the fridge. They had even left a few personal items behind – jumpers in the wardrobe, a book left open on a bedside table.
“We’ll pack it all up in case they come looking for it,” their mother said, extracting out a pair of men’s socks that had been wadded up and stuffed behind the toilet.
And then there was the general wear and tear one expects to find in a centuries-old home. More than once, Mrs. Potter stopped to point out a spot where the paint had begun peeling away from the wall, or where a rusted pipe had sprung a leak, leaving behind a large brown stain on the ceiling. The list of things to do was growing longer by the minute and Lily couldn’t help but wonder what she and Albus had gotten themselves into.
It was nearing noon by the time they reached the top floor. Unlike the three floors below, the space up there was small, with low ceilings that slanted down at odd angles. There were only two rooms up there, one on either side of the hall. Though it should have been warmer that high up in the house, Lily noticed the air was cool and seemed to stir of its own accord, as if being circulated by some invisible fan.
Mrs. Potter stepped to her right, disappearing behind the first door only to reemerge a few second later. “Doesn’t look like the Boulstridges ventured up this far. I don’t think anyone’s been in there in years.”
Lily glanced over her mother’s shoulder. The room beyond was small, with much of the floor space taken up by an oversized four-poster bed. Or at least, Lily assumed it was a bed. She couldn’t be sure. All the furniture was buried beneath an odd collection of yellowing tarps and mismatched bed sheets. Whether they had been placed there to protect the furniture or to hide them from view, Lily wasn’t sure.
The three of them turned their attention then to the only room in the house they had yet to inspect. Albus got there first, reaching out and grabbing the doorknob. He turned it, but nothing happened. He jiggled it some before trying again.
“It’s stuck,” he said, continuing to pull at it. When it handle still refused to move, he took out his wand, tapping the lock and shouting, “Alohomora!”
The door didn’t budge.
“Let me try,” their mother said, waving him aside.
Albus stepped back, watching as their mother pulled out her own wand, casting a few well-aimed spells straight at the center of the door. When they failed to so much as put a dent in the varnish, Mrs. Potter just shrugged, tucked her wand back into her pocket, and said, “Your father can deal with that later.”
Done with their tour of the house, the trio made their way back downstairs and into the main entryway.
“That bath on the second floor is going to need replaced,” their mother said. “I don’t know of any spell powerful enough to get rid of that much rust. It’s eaten right through to the bottom. Still,” she said, flashing them a smile, “I trust you two can find enough around here to keep you busy.”
Keeping busy, Lily was sure, was not going to be a problem.
“Where do you want to start?” Al asked once their mother had gone, though not before issuing them a stern warning about staying out of trouble.
“I don’t know. Do you want to work together, or do you think it would be faster if we split up? You work upstairs, I’ll start down here?”
“Sounds good to me.”
And with that, they headed their separate ways. Lily figured she might as well tackle the worst of it first and set off for the kitchen. The smell of rotting food was growing stronger as the afternoon sun warmed the house to an uncomfortable level. She began her work by emptying the cupboards, pulling down half-filled cartons of cereal and sticky jars of jam and tossing them into the bin. After all the shelves had been emptied, she set about wiping down the cabinets and countertops.
She did the work by hand, pausing only once when she came across a rather nasty looking green stain on one of the kitchen chairs. No matter how much Mrs. Scower's All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover she used, the stain refused to fade. Lily was tempted to pull out her wand and blast the darn thing off, but decided it wasn’t worth the risk. She hadn’t a clue what kind of security spells might be placed around the house, preventing those inside from doing underage magic.
So she let it go for the time being, and after several more hours of hard work, the kitchen once again began to resemble a place where something might actually want to eat. She still hadn’t gotten around to cleaning the floors or emptying the pantry, but she had made a good start of it and, despite her exhaustion, was pleased with what she had accomplished.
Lily was just about to drag the rubbish bin down to the curb when she heard a loud BANG! ring out from somewhere overhead.
She stopped what she was doing, crossing to the door and sticking her head out into the hall.
“Are you alright up there?” she called, but there was no response. “Albus?” she called again, louder this time. But she was met with only silence.
Curious now, Lily made for the stairs, continuing to call out her brother’s name as she wound her way upward, searching through the second floor, and then the third. She was just reaching the landing on the top floor when she spotted him.
He was lying in the center of the hallway, sprawled out flat on his back. And he wasn’t moving.
“Al!” Lily cried, running towards him. She dropped to her knees, placing her hands on his chest. She could feel his heart beating against his ribs. “Al, can you hear me? Are you alright?”
Al remained perfectly still, only the shallow rise and fall of his chest assuring her that he was still alive. Lily shook him, calling his name again and again, but he wouldn’t wake up.
“Albus, please!” she begged. But there was still no response. Unsure what else to do, Lily was just about to run off to find help when – with a flood of relief – she saw his eyelids began to flutter. At long last, they opened, and he stared up at her. “Albus, you scared me! Are you alright?”
For a moment he just looked at her, his expression blank. Then, finally, comprehension began to set in. “I – Yeah, I think so...”
“Are you hurt?” she asked. “Is anything broken?”
Al lay there for another moment, seeming to take stock of himself, wiggling first his fingers and then his toes. At last, he nodded. Everything seemed to be in working order. Once she was sure it was safe to move him, Lily helped maneuver her brother into a sitting position, propping him up against the wall.
“I was in the kitchen when I heard this loud thump,” she said, sitting back on her heels, still half-expecting him to fall over. “I thought you were up here messing about. What happened?”
“I...don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I was just standing there.” He pointed across the hall. “I’d just finished cleaning up one of the baths on the third floor, so I came up here, and...”
“I don’t know. I reached out and then... Well, next thing I know, I’m lying here on the floor, looking up at your ugly face.”
“Hey!” Lily started to protest, but then she caught the grin on her brother’s face and she let out a laugh. “Well, next time I find you passed out on the floor, I’ll be sure to keep my distance.” She was just about to say something else but stopped short when she saw the small patch of bright red blood that had started to gather along the collar of his shirt. “Al, you’re bleeding!”
“What?” He lifted his hand, dabbing at a spot on the back of his head. When he pulled it away again, she could see that his fingers were covered in blood. “I guess I am.”
“We should get help.”
Lily made to stand up but Al reached out to stop her. “No, I’m fine. It’s nothing.”
“It’s hardly nothing. You’re bleeding...from the head!”
“It’s just a cut. I must have crashed into the wall before I hit the ground.”
If that was meant to put her mind at ease, it wasn’t working. “Al, I really think—”
But he cut her off. “Honestly, Lily, I’m alright. I swear.”
She paused, staring at him for a long moment before finally relenting. “Well, let’s at least get you cleaned up. Can you walk?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Putting an arm around his waist, she helped him to his feet, leading him downstairs and into one of the bathrooms, where she settled him on the edge of the bath. She began digging around in the cabinets and under the sink, returning a moment later with a couple of damp towels and a small bottle of rubbing alcohol.
She used one of the rags to wipe away the blood that was still trickling down his neck. Once that was done with, she folded a second towel in half, pouring a generous amount of the alcohol onto one corner.
“This may sting,” she warned him. Al said nothing, but she heard him inhale sharply as she dabbed at his wound. “There,” she said after she’d cleaned the area as best she could. “All done.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m practically good as new. Well, good enough...”
“I could try a healing spell if you want. Though, to be honest, they aren’t exactly my specialty.”
Al shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It hardly even hurts anymore.”
Lily didn’t believe that for a second but she kept her opinion to herself, gathering up the dirty towels and laying them over the edge of the bath to dry. When she was done, she once again helped him to his feet and back out into the hall.
“You never did say what you were doing up there.” Lily was looking over at her brother, who had stopped at the bottom of the stairs that led back up to the fourth floor. He made no reply, and a thought occurred to her then. “You were trying to open it, weren’t you? You were trying to get through that door.”
Al said nothing, continuing to stare up at the ceiling, looking as if he half-expected it to give way at any second, sending whatever was up there crashing down on top of them.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit odd?” he asked, looking over at her. “I mean, whoever sealed that door, they must have meant business. Have you ever seen Mum fail to blast her way through something?”
Lily thought about it. She supposed it was a bit curious, come to think of it. It must have been some serious spell work if neither her mother nor her brother could manage to work their way past it.
“So what’s the point?” he demanded. “I mean, what’s in there that needs protecting so bad?”
“I don’t know. This house is full of all sorts of weird old stuff. It could be anything.” She paused then, another much more unpleasant idea springing to mind. “Are you...I mean, do you think that what happened — that it was because you tried to get inside?”
“Almost had to be. What else could it have been?”
“But nothing happened when we were up there before. Mum tried to get in too and she didn’t end up half-dead on the floor.”
“I don’t know, Lily. I don’t know why it happened the way it did. But I’m telling you, there’s something weird going on.”
“What do you mean weird?”
Albus just shook his head. “I don’t know. But whatever it is, for ten Galleons a piece, I’m not getting paid enough to find out.”