It was almost dark when Harry finally found his feet taking him back in the direction of the Dursley's, his stomach still growling noisily. He whistled tunelessly as he walked, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans. Suddenly, from nowhere, Dudley sidled up next to him. Harry took a large step away from him, but Dudley didn't get the hint. "I saw you with her again today," he said in a mocking voice. "So who is she?" Harry ignored him. "Is she a... a wizard -- like you?" Dudley continued, boldly. Harry laughed. "Wizards are men, Dud. And no, she's not a witch." Dudley seemed to relax a bit. "Why would a normal girl want to hang around with you?" he sneered. Harry glanced at him, sideways. "Maybe she got a look at the competition." He smiled maliciously. "Why? You jealous?" Dudley stopped short. In the last few years, Harry had grown quite a bit, and now stood several inches taller than Dudley, who was built more like Uncle Vernon. But what Dudley lacked in height, he more than made up for in girth. He cracked his knuckles menacingly. "It just ain't right for a normal girl to go around with a freak like you," he said, under his breath. Harry stopped too, and looked straight into Dudley's piggy eyes. "Maybe you should go explain to her why I'm such a freak," he taunted. Dudley frowned. "Yeah, your mumsey and daddy would just love that, wouldn't they wittle Diddy Dumpkins? You, spreading around rumors to all the neighbors about my 'abnormality'..." "Shut up!" Dudley growled, advancing on Harry. Harry took a step backwards and reached again for his wand, his fingers closing around the familiar smooth polished wood. Dudley laughed, but the laugh was forced, and his eyes were wide. "You wouldn't be such a big man without that thing, would you? Can't stand up for yourself like a real man. You just hide behind your freak friends and your freak godfather and your -- your -- magic!" Harry froze. It didn't occur to him that he'd never actually heard Dudley use the word "magic" out loud before, nor did he remember that his cousin was roughly three times his size. In fact, the only thing he realized was that he hadn't thought of Sirius since he'd met Gwyn that afternoon. A sick hot rush of guilt shot through him as he lunged for his cousin. Harry threw a punch that crunched sickeningly against Dudley's nose. "Shut up!" he screamed madly. The punch sent Dudley off balance and he fell backwards onto Mrs. Number Three's dead front lawn looking shocked. Harry threw himself on top of Dudley and started pummeling him with his fists. "Don't talk about him!" he shouted. "You don't know anything! You've no right!" The first punch caught Dudley off guard, but only for a moment. Grunting like a wild pig, Dudley grabbed Harry and threw him off onto the lawn, and proceeded to pick himself up. Harry scrambled to his feet and noticed with some pride that Dudley's nose was beginning to bleed down the front of his tee shirt. But his moment was short lived. Dudley lunged at Harry with a fierce growl and punched him hard in the side and then again in the jaw. Harry was blinded by white hot pain, but he managed to duck when Dudley aimed a second punch at his face. His head throbbed wildly as he flung one punch after another at Dudley, who expertly dodged each one, but Harry wasn't sure if the throbbing was due to the pain in his head, or the anger he felt at Dudley. Again, Harry waited a second too long, and Dudley's ham-sized fist crashed into the side of his head. Harry went down onto the lawn again, white stars popping in front of his eyes. He groaned and tasted blood from a split lip. Suddenly, he realized that Dudley was leaning over him, and he rolled quickly away. From somewhere nearby, Harry heard a shrill shriek. But it didn't matter to him. Nothing mattered to him. The voice distracted Dudley, and Harry took the opportunity to run at him, jumping on his back and knocking him to the ground. He punched Dudley hard in the ribs and heard his cousin groan. Then suddenly, Harry felt a think hand clamp around his neck. He was confused because he was still sitting on top of Dudley. The hand pushed him roughly to the ground and, fighting for air, he gratefully stayed there. He closed his eyes and wheezed through the painful throbbing in his head, neck, and side. After a moment, he realized that there were voices all around him. He opened his eyes to see Mrs. Number Three staring down her long pointed nose at him in disapproval. He squinted at her, and then a large, red face appeared next to her. Harry groaned. "GET UP!" Uncle Vernon roared, flecks of spittle hitting Harry in the face. Harry rolled to his side and found that getting up was a bit harder than he had expected. He felt Uncle Vernon grab him roughly by the back of his jeans and drag him to his feet. Harry squinted into the darkness and realized that the bridge of his glasses had bent, causing them to sit askew on his nose. Up and down Privet Drive, neighbors had come out of their cool houses to see what all the ruckus was about. Up ahead, Harry saw Aunt Petunia leading Dudley into the house as he held his head back and pinched his bleeding, probably broken nose. Harry smiled a bit ruefully. "MOVE!" Uncle Vernon shouted, shoving him roughly into the street. Harry almost went head first into the pavement, but obediently regained his feet and shuffled painfully towards number four. "Boy's a menace!" Harry heard Uncle Vernon fuming to anyone who'd listen to him. "He won't be out and about to bother you again! Don't you worry about that!" Harry reached the door and went inside the blindingly bright entry way. Squinting painfully, he made his way to the kitchen. Aunt Petunia was moaning pitifully as she applied an ice filled towel to Dudley's nose, which was still bleeding profusely. Harry slumped into a chair on the other side of the table, took off his glasses, and closed his eyes. Everything hurt. "Here!" Aunt Petunia hissed, throwing a cool damp cloth at him, "You're bleeding on the table!" Harry gratefully pressed the cloth against his bleeding lip and winced as he heard the front door slam. Uncle Vernon's round face was a very unhealthy shade of purple as he stormed into the kitchen. Rivulets of sweat ran down his flushed cheeks and into his bristly mustache. He whipped a white handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his face, angrily glaring from one boy to the other, as if debating where to begin. "I won't have it!" he shouted at last. "Vernon!" Aunt Petunia hissed, jumping up and shutting the kitchen window. "He started it!" Dudley whined from behind the bloody cloth. "You started it!" Harry shouted back. "You came up to me!" Uncle Vernon slammed his fist down onto the kitchen table rattling the entire room. "I don't care who started it!" he shouted. "I'm going to finish it!" He turned to Harry, leaning down close. "YOU!" he shouted, "You will stay in your room for the rest of the summer! You're not to go near to my son again! Do I make myself clear?" Harry glared angrily, but managed to hold his tongue and nodded. "And YOU!" Uncle Vernon shouted, rounding on a surprised looking Dudley. "You're to leave him alone! Do you understand?" Dudley removed the cloth from his face, looking stunned. "But Dad!" "No! I won't have you giving him any excuse to-- to-- to do you know what to you! Clear?" Dudley nodded, looking chagrined. Aunt Petunia stood trembling behind her son, looking almost as terrified of Uncle Vernon as she was of Harry. Harry had only seen his Uncle this angry once before, when he had practically gone crazy trying to prevent Harry from getting his first Hogworts letter. Uncle Vernon straightened up and looked down at Harry with a menacing glint in his eye. "Go," he hissed. Harry did not need to be told twice. He stood up from the table, and wobbling slightly, made his way up the stairs to his room. Harry slammed his door half-heartedly, most of his anger having dissolved into pain and guilt. He groaned as he gingerly lowered himself onto the edge of his bed and prodded his injured side. Nothing seemed broken. He heard footsteps outside his room, followed by the sound of the deadbolt being shot across as his door was locked. Aunt Petunia's boney hand shoved something through the cat flap fitted in his bedroom door. To his surprise, he found it was a bowl of ice, a clean towel, and a few band aids. Reluctantly, he felt somewhat grateful to his aunt, and remembered for a moment that she was his mother's sister. After tending to his wounds as best he could, Harry lay awake for hours. It wasn't his physical pain that was keeping sleep at bay, nor the masochistic pleasure he'd felt at breaking his cousin's nose; instead, it was the sick wave of guilt he felt at having forgotten, even for a few hours, about Sirius, about Voldemort, and about his own horrible fate. He'd been trying to push it all from his mind for nearly three weeks, but somehow, actually managing it felt as though he had betrayed his godfather's memory. And for what? A girl? And a Muggle at that, he thought. Still, it was the memory of a pair of bright blue eyes framed by a shock of pink hair that finally lulled Harry to sleep. Three days had passed and Uncle Vernon was as good as his word. Harry was let out of his room twice a day to use the bathroom, but was otherwise in solitary confinement. It actually didn't bother him all that much. He had gotten quite used to imprisonment while living with the Dursleys. He had taken to sleeping away much of day since he had very little else to do. He'd stopped taking the Daily Prophet, convinced that anything they had to say about Voldemort would be yesterday's news and tainted with falsehoods as likely as not. Besides, he had been getting tired of seeing his own face plastered across the front page with stories extolling his "single-handed" defeat of Voldemort at the ministry, and how he was now the wizarding world's "last, best hope." He was suddenly jarred out of a long doze by the sound of the dead bolt on his door being opened. He rolled into a sitting position, his stiff side instantly complaining with a shock of pain that made him grunt. Uncle Vernon opened the door and brusquely snapped on the overhead light, causing Harry to wince, and reach for his broken glasses. Uncle Vernon barely looked at him, but instead strode purposely over to Harry's desk. Using one finger, he shoved aside the book "Flying with the Cannons" as though it were a dead fish because the cover showed moving images of Ron's favorite quiddich team, the Chudly Cannons. He slammed something down onto the desktop and turned to Harry. "Come here!" he commanded. Harry got up slowly and went over to the desk. Uncle Vernon yanked out the chair and motioned for Harry to sit down. He pushed a sheet of Aunt Petunia's most expensive stationary in front of Harry and handed him a pen. "Write!" Harry didn't have to ask what he was meant to write. He took the pen and quickly scrawled a few lines. Dear Ron, Tell your parents that I'm fine. Harry "Now send it!" Uncle Vernon grumbled. Harry took the sheet over to his owl, Hedwig, who was sitting on top of her cage, and bound the letter to her leg rather more roughly than was necessary. She squawked indignantly and bit his hand less than affectionately before swooping out the window. "We're going out," Uncle Vernon said in a monotone. "You had better still be here when we get back." He was obviously referring to Harry's many escape attempts over the past few years. Harry nodded without looking away from the window. Hedwig was already little more than a dot in the black sky. Harry heard the door slam behind him and the lock being turned, and he found he didn't care. He didn't care about much of anything these days. What was there left to care about? Before long, Harry saw the Dursleys leaving the house one by one. He caught a glimpse of Dudley in the orange light of the street lamps, and smiled despite himself at the two impressively bloomed black eyes above his grotesquely swollen nose. He turned away from the window as he heard the tell-tale rumble of the Dursleys' car pulling out of the drive and off into the distance. Sullenly, he went back to bed and lay on his back, taking off his crooked glasses. He could have fixed them in an instant with a spell Hermione had taught him, but as it was, broken glasses hardly seemed worth the risk of being expelled for using magic outside of school. In the back of his head, he heard Hermione's voice in a sing-song as she recited the charm to fix his glasses in previous years. At the memory, he felt an ache inside that had nothing to do with Dudley's impressive boxing ability. He rolled onto his side away from the window and tried to will himself back to sleep. Before long, however he heard a strange sound, like something had fallen and rolled across the floor. He sat up and looked around. Nothing seemed out of place. He heard it again. A strange thump followed by a rolling rattle. He grabbed his glasses and stared around the room. At the foot of the bed, just visible in the moonlight from the window, was a large pebble. He squatted down on the floor to pick it up, when a third pebble hit him in the back. "Ow!" he yelped. "Sorry!" came a distinctly female voice from outside. Harry rushed over to the window. Standing in the bushes on the edge of the Dursleys' lawn was Gwyn. She dropped a fourth pebble that she had obviously been about to hurl at his window. "This works better when the window is closed, I guess," she said with an awkward smile. "What are you doing here?" Harry asked. "Checking on you!" she said, stepping out into the light. "I saw your aunt and uncle leave without you, and so I took a chance." Harry didn't know what to say. Gwyn looked away and stared at her feet for a moment. "I heard you and Dudley got into a fight," she said finally. "Yeah..." Harry said, amazed that the gossip on Privet Drive could spread almost as fast as it did at Hogworts. Gwyn smiled up at him. "Well, if it's any consolation, your cousin looks a lot worse than you do." Harry smiled widely at her, but she was looking awkward again. "I hope," she said softly, "I hope you weren't fighting about me?" Harry shook his head. "Dudley's had it coming for years," he replied. "He just finally pissed me off enough for me to give it to him." Gwyn nodded, sagely. "Can you come down for a while, do you think?" she asked hopefully. Harry's face fell. "Can't. They've locked me in." "In your own room? That's terrible! I could tell someone..." Harry shrugged and shook his head. "It's pretty much standard for the Dursleys." Gwyn looked shocked for a minute more. "Listen Harry, I wanted to see you to tell you that I'm leaving for London in a few days." Harry felt his stomach drop down to his feet. "You are?" She nodded. "My dad sent word for me yesterday. I just wanted to, I don't know, say goodbye I guess." Harry's brain began working feverishly. "Listen, Gwyn, I think I'm going to be in London later this summer. Maybe we could, er, meet up or something?" Her face suddenly brightened. "That's a great idea! Look, have you got a piece of paper?" Harry nodded and grabbed an extra sheet of Aunt Petunia's stationary off his desk. He folded the pen inside it and dropped it out the window. Gwyn caught it and began writing. "This is my phone number in London," she explained. "Call me when you get there and we'll make plans!" She finished writing, folded the paper around the pen again, and tossed it back up to Harry, who snatched it out of the air. She grinned at him. "Good reflexes!" "Thanks!" He grinned back. "Well," she said after another moment, "I guess I'd better get going. My Aunt will have a fit if she figures out that I'm gone. See ya, Harry." "Yeah! See ya!" Harry watched her as she jogged to the end of the street and around the corner, out of sight. With energy he'd thought he'd long lost, Harry rushed over to his desk and pulled out a roll of parchment and his quill and ink. Without bothering to sit down, he quickly scrawled out a message: Professor Lupin or Mad-Eye, or Mr. and Mrs. Weasely-- I am NOT FINE! The Dursleys have locked me up again! My uncle MADE me write that last letter! I've done my time, so please GET ME OUT OF HERE! Sincerely, Harry He rolled up the parchment and tied it with a bit of string. It was only then he realized that he'd have to wait at least another day for Hedwig to get back from delivering his last message to Ron. Frustrated, but feeling more positive than he had in weeks, Harry flung himself back onto the bed and meditated happily on the prospect of meeting Gwyn in London. ----------------------------------------------- I made a few tiny changes to chapters one and two so that they will flow better with the next bit -- and to fix a few typos. If you read, please take the time to reveiw. I know this is off to a bit of a slow start, but everything's got to start somewhere! Let me know what you think -- good or bad -- I love it. Thanks, ~Lacy and Brandon P.S. Credit for the cool cat flap picture goes to my dad, Mr. Wayne Boggs. THANKS DADDY!

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