THE FIRST OF FOUR
A/N – Many thanks to the lovely Suburban House Elf, my generous and wise beta reader.
In a dark house on Spinner’s End, a single lighted window glowed downstairs even though it was the middle of the night. Draco Malfoy sat in the small sitting room; a dejected figure perched on the edge of an old armchair with his face buried in his hands. In front of him Severus Snape paced back and forth across a worn hearthrug. Now and then Draco fought to stifle an uncontrolled sob, and whenever he did, Professor Snape growled at him through a stern sneer. Other than the sound of Snape’s purposeful footsteps and the occasional crackle of the fire in the grate, the room was heavy with an almost unbearable silence.
Finally Draco looked up at Snape imploringly. “What's going to happen now?” he blurted out. “What will he do to me, when he finds out that I failed him? What will he do to my mother?”
“Silence!” spat Snape. He rounded on Draco. Crouching down in a swooping motion and grabbing the boy by his shoulders, he gave him an impatient shake. Draco’s eyes widened and he silenced immediately. “Your blubbering will not help you. The Dark Lord’s mission was accomplished, regardless of your inability to carry it out. That is all that matters - for the moment.”
Snape rose and returned to the fire. He stared intently into it, his folded arms giving him the appearance of a large bat. “The Dark Lord will want to see you soon enough. There is little time to waste. We must move quickly.” He turned and regarded Draco as he sat on the flat-cushioned armchair, seeming very small at that moment. Draco’s eyes were puffy and swollen from crying and he trembled with fear. Snape approached him slowly, assuming a less fierce approach than before. “Perhaps - there is something else you could do. Something that would return you to the Dark Lord’s good graces.”
“What?" Draco asked with renewed interest. "What is it?” He wiped his dampened cheeks with his hands and leaned forward on the edge of the chair. “I’ll do it – I’ll do anything. Tell me.” His voice at the last was demanding.
Snape kicked a cushioned footstool in front of Draco and sat down. “I will send you on an errand, a very risky one. There is something the Dark Lord needs. Something which lends great significance to his return to power and will give him another advantage over the Order.” Draco stared at him intently, nodding eagerly. “You must retrieve it and bring it here to me. But it will not be easy. It is hidden in a place I know of that is guarded heavily by the Order of the Phoenix. After you have brought it here, we will take it to the Dark Lord. Perhaps that will renew his trust in you and stave off any – " Snape paused to give emphasis to his words - "punishment he might be contemplating.”
Draco’s eyes flickered momentarily with horror. He sat up straight with rigid resolve and met Snape’s discerning stare. “Tell me where. I’ll go immediately. I know I can – this time I can do it.”
Snape stood, an appraising look on his face. Draco's eyes were dark-rimmed with exhaustion. “Yes – you will go, soon. But first you must rest and regain your strength. I will send a messenger to the Dark Lord telling him that we will meet with him in forty-eight hours. Wormtail – “
From beyond a swinging door leading to the kitchen, a scuffling noise was heard and Wormtail appeared, crouching and trying unsuccessfully to appear as if he had just accidentally fallen through it and was not listening in on their conversation. “Y-yes, did you call, Snape?"
“I need you to deliver a message to the Dark Lord. You must leave at once. Tell him that young Malfoy and I will come to him within two days' time. And tell him –" he gave Draco a meaningful look – "he will not be disappointed in Mr. Malfoy this time.”
“Yes, of course - right away, of course . . . ” Wormtail's voice trailed off as he backed subserviently through the door and into the kitchen, a look of intense resentment on his face.
“Now that he is gone, I am at liberty to tell you what you are to look for.” Severus lowered his voice and turned to Draco. “I know of the whereabouts of a certain item - a locket bearing the mark of Salazar Slytherin - that is hidden in a house at Grimmauld Place. You will have to bypass a series of protective spells and charms that have been placed on the house in order to enter. I myself having had access to it previously, am able to instruct you in the counter-spells you will need. This locket is of extreme importance to the Dark Lord – however, I am not sure that the Order of the Phoenix is aware of its significance yet and time will be of the essence.”
Snape turned again to face the fireplace. Its glow cast a shifting shadow behind him. “It will be necessary for you to go there alone. I will not be accompanying you.”
“Professor, I – “ Draco began, haltingly. “I owe you everything for what you did for me – back there. I won’t let you down.”
“See that you don’t,” hissed Snape.
* * * * *
Harry Potter was having trouble sleeping. He lay in bed, wide-awake, in Ron Weasley’s bedroom staring at the ceiling. Ron, as usual, was snoring soundly in his bed across the room, but that wasn’t the source of Harry’s insomnia. It had been two days since Harry had left Hogwarts, presumably for good, and he was mechanically re-playing the recent events in his mind.
Relenting to Ron and Hermione’s persuasion, he had traveled back to Privet Drive for one last visit with the Dursleys with the two of them along. If it hadn’t been for Dumbledore’s request he would not have wanted to go at all, but Dumbledore had felt it was important and that was enough. The visit was short and to the point as Harry explained to Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia that, as he would soon be an adult according to the standards of the wizarding world, he would be living on his own and was not under any further obligation to return to them. He was sure he detected an enormous amount of restraint on the part of Uncle Vernon, who appeared as if he wanted to jump up and do a tap dance on the coffee table.
Aunt Petunia hadn’t moved a muscle as she sat on the couch the entire time, not even an eyebrow twitch. She stared at Harry in stony silence with a mixture of fear and revulsion in her eyes. As Harry, Ron and Hermione finally got up to leave, she had then bounced up and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Harry to assume that this was her way of saying goodbye. She reappeared as they were exiting the front door and pressed a small bundle into Harry's hands, away from her husband's suspicious eyes.
Harry had looked down at her offering with a puzzled expression on his face. He took the package from her as she stood there, her eyes not meeting his and her face taut with a sour expression. Harry had muttered a quick “Thanks,” and then the three of them made a hasty retreat.
On the train ride back to London, Harry had opened what turned out to be a large brown clasped envelope, folded in quarters. It contained two smaller square ones inside, each inscribed with handwriting addressed to Aunt Petunia in familiar thin, sloping lines. One envelope contained a letter Dumbledore had written to her over two years ago outlining the seriousness of the situation with Voldemort. It instructed her that, if they no longer provided a home for Harry, the Dursleys would no longer be protected from him either. This would leave them open and vulnerable to any attacks from Death Eaters who might come looking for Harry. This made sense to Harry in light of the Howler Aunt Petunia had received later on when Uncle Vernon had threatened to turn Harry out. “PETUNIA – REMEMBER MY LAST – “ had rung in Harry’s ears.
The other envelope was addressed to "Petunia Dursley", with instructions to give the letter to Harry: “In The Unfortunate Event of My Demise.” Harry had shown the envelope to Ron and Hermione, but was reluctant to open it just then and had tucked it away into the pocket of his jeans. When he had finally had a moment to himself to read it, he discovered that it contained a Last Will and Testament of sorts. In it, Dumbledore had made Harry the beneficiary of seven pairs of wool socks, a tin of lemon drops that he kept on his desktop, and his Pensieve. He also gave instructions to Harry to take good care of Kreacher. Harry had wished for something more in a last letter from Dumbledore, but he wasn’t really surprised. Dumbledore had always wanted Harry to figure things out for himself, and this seemed no different.
It did, however, mean that Harry would have to return to Hogwarts eventually. And why taking good care of Kreacher was important, Harry could not imagine. Dumbledore had always seemed to him to be the champion of the underdog. Not the least of these including, of all persons, Tom Riddle, and, Harry thought bitterly, Severus Snape. If Dumbledore had any weaknesses, at least one would have to be an enormous blind spot with regard to character judgment, in Harry's opinion. A blind spot, which he felt led to Dumbledore's own untimely death. Taking care of Kreacher was, therefore, at the very bottom of Harry’s list of things to do. But if it had been important to Dumbledore, Harry reasoned reluctantly, perhaps it was worth looking into.
Harry shifted to his side in bed, still not feeling the least bit drowsy. At some point, he thought, he would have to return to Grimmauld Place and set things in order. There would be Mundungus Fletcher and his petty thievery to deal with. And the house itself was going to be a tricky place. Since Snape had openly returned to Voldemort, his knowledge of the location of their headquarters posed a very real threat. Now that Dumbledore, its Secret Keeper, had been murdered, the protection the house had previously enjoyed was greatly diminished.
That eliminated Sirius’ former home from the list of possible places Harry could go to live as well, at least for the time being. They would need to find a better way to hide the place, possibly updating the spells that guarded it, or find somewhere else to gather entirely. Until that time, returning to Grimmauld Place was far too dangerous a prospect.
What a shame, Harry thought, after all the hard work they had put into cleaning the house two summers ago. All the hours they spent ridding the cupboards, closets and chests of odd family heirlooms and enchanted things hardly even put a dent in what still remained to do. What would Mundungus want with any of that old stuff anyway, Harry wondered? Was any of it really worth anything? There had been nothing but a collection of old candlesticks, books, picture frames, dishes, and a locket Harry remembered in particular that none of them could open –
The locket! Harry sat bolt upright in bed at the thought of it. Suddenly he was even more wide-awake than before. He strained hard to remember what the locket had looked like, as the possibility dawned on him that it might be one of the four missing Horcruxes. His heart began to pound in his chest. What if whoever had retrieved the real locket from the island in the cave, had then taken it back to Grimmauld Place? Harry swung his legs over the side of the bed and began to stuff his feet into his shoes. He had to wake Ron up, and somehow they needed to wake Hermione up as quietly as possible. She had returned to the Burrow with them and was sharing Ginny's room. They had to get to Grimmauld Place straight away and search the house to make sure that Mundungus hadn't nicked the locket, or even worse – that Voldemort hadn't found a way to reclaim Salazar Slytherin's treasure.
A/N No. Two – A thank-you to my older brother who provided the inspiration for the story's title. It's what he used to say every year for four years on the first day of school when he was in high school. Before he would get out of the car to go to his first class, he would turn and say, "The first of four," or, "The second of four," and so on. It's not deep, but it's memorable.
A/N No. Three – The first half of this one-shot was written and submitted as part of a Mugglenet.com challenge to write Chapter One of Book Seven. At this point in time I have no inspiration for further chapters, but then again perhaps the Plot Development Bunnies will pay me a visit. Hope you like what you've read, please leave a review!