The characters and world of the Harry Potter books are the property of J.K. Rowling, and are used here without her knowledge or permission. This story is set immediately following the events in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," and is not connected with my previous HP fanfics. Some chapters will contain strong language and violence.
As an experiment, I plan to post one chapter a week. Given that the story's nowhere near finished yet, this provides me the exhilirating and terrifying effect of writing without a net. Feedback is most welcome, so feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chapter One -- Troubled Thoughts
"Today's quite important, isn't it, Dudley?" Uncle Vernon said at breakfast, his voice taking on a bluff, boisterous tone. "A big day."
"We're so pleased," simpered Aunt Petunia.
Harry refrained, with effort, from rolling his eyes. He kept his attention focused firmly on his plate, forking overcooked scrambled eggs into his mouth and reaching for the marmalade.
It was quite early on Sunday, the sky outside only just touched with the pearly pinks and golds of dawn. Harry, who had stayed up late and been unable to get to sleep even once he'd gone to bed, felt like he had only half an eye open. Huge yawns kept threatening to split his head in half.
The Dursleys were little better off, but unlike Harry still in sweatpants and a tee shirt all three of them were washed, brushed, combed, and dressed in their literal Sunday best. Dudley's suit seemed to hang on him, having the simultaneous effect of making him look both enormous and diminished.
"That Jane is a lovely girl," Uncle Vernon said, clapping Dudley heartily on the back.
"And from such a good family," Aunt Petunia added. "A vicar's daughter, isn't that nice?"
This time, Harry couldn't stop the eye-rolling, but it was all right because none of the Dursleys were looking his way.
Regular attendance at church was a new development at Number Four. In previous years, it had been one of those things reserved primarily for Christmas and Easter.
Harry, of course, had never been to church with the Dursleys. He'd always been left with Mrs. Figg before he had known she was a Squib or on his own, with stern instructions not to handle any of Dudley's Christmas presents or Dudley's Easter treats.
Probably, he thought with a grim smile, the Dursleys figured that if someone like Harry set foot inside a church, there would be billows of sulfur and brimstone. Or the steeple would be struck by lightning. Or the ground would crack open and swallow him entire.
Lately, though, a new vicar had come to Little Whinging, and Uncle Vernon had gotten it into his head that church was a good place to make vital business and social connections. So, every Sunday, the three of them went out to the early service.
Harry had already come to cherish these mornings. If he was lucky, the Dursleys would extend their outing by going to brunch. Sometimes, they weren't back until noon or later. He had the house to himself, several blissfully quiet hours to study his spellbooks and practice his wand-work.
Today, though, was fixing up to be different.
Somehow, after the incident with the dementors, Aunt Petunia had gotten it into her head that what Dudley needed was a girlfriend. She had made it her mission to ask various neighborhood girls over to Sunday teas, starting with Vicar Kirkallen's daughter.
"and she's bound to be so impressed," Aunt Petunia was saying as she smoothed Dudley's hair. "My Dudders is such a handsome boy, and has the most exemplary manners. She'll be charmed."
As the word fell from her thin lips, she blanched and made a terrible grimace, the way she always did whenever anyone no matter how innocently used words like 'magic' or 'owl' or 'broomstick.' Vernon cleared his throat. Dudley, between them, sat slack and limp as a deflated balloon.
"Yeah," Harry said, not trying very hard to keep from sounding sarcastic. "The girls will go nuts for him. I can tell."
"No one asked your opinion," Uncle Vernon said stiffly. "And no one would expect you to know anything about decent girls. I've seen that crowd you run around with."
"That horrible hair!" said Aunt Petunia, though it was unclear whether she meant Tonks' bubble-gum pink, Hermione's bushy brown, or the flame-red that was the trademark of the entire Weasley family.
Harry wished for one second that the Dursleys could see some of the other girls he'd met. Fleur Delacour, for instance, with her shimmering fall of silvery-blond veela hair and her luxurious French accent. Or Cho
He winced, expecting it to hurt too much to think about Cho. But, to his surprise, there was only a tired old twinge.
Still, he supposed that Uncle Vernon was right, in a way. Not that Harry would ever admit it to him. But when it came to girls, he was the first to agree that he didn't know anything about them at all. Didn't understand them, with their giggles and their tears and their insane logic.
He did know that the kind of girls Dudley used to be interested in, before the dementors had left him like this, were not the kind of girls Uncle Vernon would have classified as 'decent.' Dudley and the gang of thugs he called mates would occasionally let girls follow them around, liking an audience when they beat up on younger or smaller kids. Girls in short skirts, with lots of eye-make up and jewelry. Girls who smoked, and had piercing laughs that made bats fall dead out of the sky. Girls who jeered and mocked and catcalled as Dudley's battered victims tried to escape.
Not, Harry was sure, vicar's daughters.
However, as Uncle Vernon had pointed out, no one had asked for Harry's opinion. He was left to do the breakfast dishes and clean the kitchen, and Aunt Petunia's parting shot as she'd straightened her prim little church-going hat was that if he put so much as a finger on the cake, tarts, cream-cheese sandwiches, and other tea-time goodies that filled the pantry icebox, he'd be sorry.
When they had gone, Harry let out a sigh of relief. He finished his chores and went up to his room. Reluctantly, he sat down at his desk and chewed on the end of a quill, a sheet of parchment unrolled in front of him.
"Dear Ron," he wrote. "Thanks for the Portkey and the birthday card."
That was as far as he got. Conflicting desires were warring inside him. He yearned to escape Privet Drive, but at the same time, he wasn't keen on going to the Burrow. Nor did he want to visit Grimmauld Place if the Order was still even based there. How could they be? Number Twelve was the ancestral home of the Blacks, and the last of the Blacks was gone.
What would become of the house? Harry wondered, chewing more on the end of the quill, until the feather was damp and crumpled. And what of Kreacher, the mad old house-elf?
Thinking of Kreacher made him grind his teeth in frustration and dismay. The house-elf had been the one to tell Voldemort's supporters how Harry cared for Sirius, and that had been what set off the final, disastrous confrontation.
He supposed that, with Sirius dead, the property would go to some relative. Not Bellatrix Lestrange, surely; she was in hiding somewhere with Voldemort. It would probably fall to Narcissa Malfoy, mother of the despicable Draco.
And wouldn't Draco gloat about that! His father, Lucius, was in Azkaban thanks to Harry, and unable to get revenge any other way, Draco would be certain to sneer about his family inheriting Sirius' home.
With a disgruntled snort, Harry pushed the unfinished letter aside and turned to the envelope that had arrived shortly before breakfast. It contained his book list for the upcoming school year. The sight of it annoyed him.
A book list.
Like everything was going to be normal. Like there wasn't a war on.
He was just supposed to go calmly back to school. To another year of classes and homework, evenings in the Gryffindor common room, weekends at Hogsmeade, Quidditch practice, House points, passwords, and all the other senseless minutiae that, in the greater scheme of things, didn't matter at all.
Back to the customary rivalry with the Slytherins, a rivalry that had gotten more deadly serious with each passing year. Draco and his cronies, Crabbe and Goyle, would want payback not only for the humiliations they'd suffered on the Hogwarts Express the three of them had been so thoroughly jinxed and cursed by members of the D.A. that they had been left as oozing sluglike masses on a luggage rack but also for the disgraceful arrests of their fathers.
All too soon, Harry heard the Dursleys' car pull into the drive, and the nervous twittering of Aunt Petunia as she rushed into the kitchen to begin getting lunch ready. Harry trudged downstairs long enough to eat a sandwich and endure a lecture from Uncle Vernon. That lecture was old hat by now, a reminder of what Harry should and shouldn't say and do when company was over. On the off chance, that was, that Harry happened to be called upon to speak.
" for Incurably Criminal Boys," Harry finished wearily, as Uncle Vernon loomed over him with bristling eyebrows. "They use the cane. I've been caned loads of times."
"Good," said Uncle Vernon, who probably thought that Harry could use a good caning, and would have loved to be the one to give it to him. "But it's best if you're not seen at all. I hardly think that Vicar Kirkallen would want his oldest girl exposed to to your sort."
"Yeah," Harry said.
The appointed hour finally arrived, and the vicar's sober black car pulled up in front right on the dot. Harry watched from an upstairs window as a tall, slightly stooped man with a high, pale brow got out of the driver's side, and a girl got out of the passenger's side.
Vicar Kirkallen, in a sober black suit that matched his car, looked more like an undertaker than a preacher. He was a greying, balding man who moved with the long scissoring strides of a stork.
His daughter was a slim figure in a white cardigan and a modest dress the exact color of a sherbet lemon. Her dark brown hair was drawn back from her face by a pair of yellow barrettes, and fell to the middle of her shoulder blades.
Dudley, no doubt prodded by Aunt Petunia, met them on the porch and welcomed them inside. Harry lost sight of them but could hear the vicar's mellifluous voice carry through the house. Introductions were made, and then came a moment that, clearly, Uncle Vernon had been hoping to avoid.
"I understand that your nephew lives with you, as well?" the vicar inquired. "He's not been coming to church. Is he in poor health?"
"Ah no," said Uncle Vernon. "He's ah rowdy. Apt to be disruptive, don't you know. A sad case. My wife's sister's boy. Orphaned. We've done the best we can with him, but kindness and charity can only do so much."
Harry could have vomited.
"I'd like to meet him," Vicar Kirkallen said. "Perhaps I could offer my guidance."
"Oh, well, I don't know if that's it's really very nice of you, Vicar, but " Aunt Petunia stammered. "After all, a busy man like yourself really you shouldn't trouble yourself."
"No trouble at all. Please, Mr. Dursley, Mrs. Dursley, it's the least I can do after you've been so welcoming to me and my family. And, if I dare say so myself, I know a bit about handling problem children. Isn't that so, Jane?"
A murmur of assent, followed by Uncle Vernon's heartiest, falsest laugh.
"Oh, come now, Vicar, you can't possibly imply that this pretty young lady is a troublemaker! I'm sure she's a credit to her parents."
"In that, Mr. Dursley, you're probably right. But, now, about this nephew of yours. I should very much like to meet him."
In his mind's eye, Harry could envision his aunt and uncle exchanging a trapped, helpless look. They couldn't tell the vicar too many bad things about Harry, or else it would reflect badly on the rest of them and ruin Dudley's chances with Jane not, in Harry's opinion, that Dudley had a chance, or even wanted a chance, with her. But neither did they want to bring him downstairs. Not after the ruined dinner party with the Masons, or the blowing-up of Aunt Marge.
"I'll fetch him," Uncle Vernon finally said, sounding defeated.
Moments later, his trudging steps came to a stop outside Harry's door. There was a short rapping knock, and then the door opened.
Harry, of course, had moved to sit on the bed and not give on that he'd been listening. He glanced up with a manufactured look of surprise. "What? I didn't do a thing!"
"Downstairs, boy. Now. The vicar wants to meet you. And mind that you're on your best behavior, your absolute best, or you'll be sorry."
It was an empty threat, and clear to both of them that Uncle Vernon knew it. Harry followed him down to the parlor, where Aunt Petunia was fussing with a tray of triangular sandwiches and the vicar was examining the collection of photographs crowding the walls and mantle. They were all of Dudley, at various stages in his life, and Harry thought that many of them would have been right at home in a livestock catalog.
The flesh-and-blood Dudley was taking up most of a sofa. Opposite him was Jane Kirkallen, sitting primly in an armchair with her cardigan folded across her lap. They were both silent, and avoiding each other's gazes.
When Harry came in, Jane glanced up, and for a moment her eyes widened. Then she hastily stared down at her hands, which were fiddling with the buttons of her sweater.
The strangest thing was, she looked familiar to Harry. He didn't know why, didn't know how he could have ever seen her before. Maybe she just reminded him of someone else.
Before he could pursue that line of thought further, Vicar Kirkallen stepped in front of him and held out a hand. "Hello," he said in a kindly tone. "You must be Mrs. Dursley's nephew. I don't believe I caught your name."
"Harry. Harry Potter."
In the wizarding world, every time Harry introduced himself to someone new, the same reaction always took place. A darting upward look, at the lightning-bolt scar partly concealed by his unruly black hair, and then a hesitation, as if the person were almost afraid to touch The Boy Who Lived for fear of getting walloped with an electric shock.
Vicar Kirkallen did neither of these things. He clasped Harry's hand and wrung it firmly. "How very good to meet you, Harry Potter."
Harry noticed both Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia watching closely, and it occurred to him that they were probably waiting for the moment when the vicar would shriek in pain and draw back a hand reddened with blisters from contacting the unclean skin of a wizard. When nothing of the sort happened, their faces drooped with what might have been disappointment.
"Sorry?" Harry said, as Vicar Kirkallen had been talking.
"I asked where it was that you went to school."
"Oh. Yeah. Um "
Behind the Vicar's back, Uncle Vernon made urgent gestures.
"St. Brutus'," Harry said resignedly. "For Incurably Criminal Boys."
The vicar drew back a little and released Harry's hand. Beyond him, Harry saw Jane glance at him again. She did look familiar. But that was crazy. He didn't know any teenage girls, except the ones who went to Hogwarts and a few who hung around Dudley's gang.
"He's not dangerous," Uncle Vernon was quick to reassure the vicar, though his nervous laugh belied the statement. "We do the best we can with him, but it's better for all concerned if he avoids being around others. Not really fit for company, sorry to say."
There was an awkward pause, which Aunt Petunia leaped into with evident gratitude when she saw Jane fiddling with her sweater.
"Oh, my dear girl, do let me take that for you!" She descended on Jane like a striking hawk and plucked the garment from her hands, with a wide toothy smile.
"Please, that's all right, Mrs. Dursley," Jane said, making a futile effort to snatch the cardigan back. "I'd rather keep it with me "
"For goodness' sake, Jane," the vicar scolded. "Is that any way to show your appreciation of these good people's hospitality?"
"I'm sorry." Jane bowed her head and bit at her lower lip.
"And then I think I'd like some tea, Petunia," Uncle Vernon said, before there could be another of those awkward pauses.
"Right away, Vernon. Vicar? Some tea for you as well?" She shoved the sweater at Harry, and hissed, "Make yourself useful and hang this up."
He went into the front hall, past the cupboard under the stairs that had been his bedroom for most of his life. He could hear the clink of china as Aunt Petunia poured tea and served out plates of treats, and the adults chatted to cover the oppressive silence coming from Dudley and Jane.
As Harry hung Jane's sweater on a coat hook, his fingers brushed something hidden in an inside pocket. Something long, thin and cylindrical, a shockingly known shape. He jumped as if he'd been stung by a bee, then shot a quick, furtive look over his shoulder at the parlor doorway. No one was in his line of sight, which meant that none of them could see him. He reached into the pocket and pulled out the object.
A dusty echo of a voice seemed to speak up in his mind. It was the voice of Mr. Ollivander. "Mahogany, eleven and a half inches, core is a hair from a manticore's mane."
Did he know Jane from school? Was she a student at Hogwarts? He supposed it was possible for him not to know her by name even if she was he knew all his fellow Gryffindors, and most of the Quidditch players. He knew the people in the D.A., and everyone who would, like Harry himself, be starting their sixth year. But Jane was a year or so younger than him. Ginny's age.
He imagined Jane in black robes instead of a sherbet-lemon dress, and felt more sure than ever that she looked familiar. He must have seen her in passing, on the Hogwarts Express or in the halls of the castle, maybe having a butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks some Hogsmeade weekend.
A witch. Jane Kirkallen, the vicar's daughter, Dudley's tea date, was a witch.
She knew him, too. That explained the way her eyes had widened when he'd come into the room. Of course, that in itself was no big surprise. Everyone knew Harry; whether he liked it or not, his notoriety had only grown with each passing year.
What would the Dursleys do if they found out their guest was another one like Harry? One of "those folk," of "his kind," or all the other, less polite terms that Uncle Vernon used?
But her father, clearly, had no idea who Harry was. The vicar was a Muggle through and through.
"You simply must try the cake, Vicar," came Aunt Petunia's voice, startling Harry back to his senses.
He replaced the wand in the inside pocket of the sweater, and hung the sweater back on the hook. A lively, buzzing curiosity was awake in his mind. He hadn't felt much of an interest in anything for weeks now, ever since Sirius and the black veil. But finding a witch in the very parlor of Number Four Privet Drive he had to know what was going on.
"Thank you, Mrs. Dursley, but I really should be going," the vicar said. "I did only come by to drop Jane off. Perhaps your son would be good enough to walk her back to the parsonage?"
"Dudley would be happy to," Uncle Vernon replied.
"Well, then, I'll be off. Have a nice time, Jane. And remember your manners, won't you, girl?"
It sent a shiver through Harry. The vicar sounded eerily like Uncle Vernon, telling Harry that there was to be no funny business, no embarrassing them in front of decent people. Always with the inherent threat of "or else."
He hurried upstairs as Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon walked Vicar Kirkallen to the door. From his vantage point at the top landing, he could see straight down onto the tops of their heads.
"Do call again, Vicar," Aunt Petunia was saying in her simpering way. "You're always welcome in our home."
"And don't perturb yourself for one minute about your daughter. Our Dudley is a perfect little gentleman," Uncle Vernon said.
"I'm sure that he is. Jane, however Jane can be a bit high-strung," the vicar said. "She gets it from her mother, God rest her soul."
"Oh!" Aunt Petunia's hands flapped. "Why, Vicar, I'm so terribly sorry I had no idea "
"The current Mrs. Kirkallen is my second wife," he explained smoothly. "It's a trial to her sometimes, coping with a teenager. They can be willful, can't they?"
Something in the way he talked set Harry's nerves on edge. The vicar's tone, the way it was absolutely devoid of warmth when he talked about Jane it almost reminded Harry of Snape. Snape, with his cold, carefully-controlled hatred that sometimes bubbled up like seething poison vapor from a cauldron.
Bidding the Dursleys a good afternoon, and saying he would look forward to seeing them again in church next Sunday, the vicar took his leave. Aunt Petunia waved from the porch as he went down the walk and got into his car. Only when he had driven away did she step back inside, shut the door, and turn to her husband.
"That didnt go as badly as it could have," she said. "But, oh, Vernon, when he said he wanted to meet him, I nearly fainted."
"Him," Harry whispered, shaking his head. "She'll be calling me You-Know-Who next."
He meant it as a joke, but it didn't feel very funny. For most of last year, he nearly had been You-Know-Who. He and Voldemort, connected, aware of each other's moods and thoughts. There hadn't been any stabbing pains in his scar since the Department of Mysteries, no bizarre dreams, no flashes of icy-hot joy or murderous rage. Perhaps, aware that both Harry and Dumbledore were onto him, Voldemort had given up that avenue for now.
"I know, Petunia dear," Uncle Vernon said, patting his wife on her bony back. "But the vicar knows a bad egg when he sees one. He's a wise enough man to not hold him against our Dudley, so that's all to the good. It's just what Dudders needs. I don't mind telling you, I'd begun to have my concerns about those friends of his. I wonder if they haven't been trying to coax our boy into bad habits. Do you know, he came home late once and I could have sworn I smelled alcohol on his breath?"
Aunt Petunia went ashy-grey. "If those ruffians are leading my precious Ickle Diddims down a wayward road, I'll have a word or two for them!"
"I think we've headed it off nicely by this clever plan of yours, Petunia. Getting him to spend more time with girls, that's the key."
"What do you think of Jane?" Aunt Petunia asked.
Uncle Vernon chuckled. "A fine, proper, demure young lady. If this is the vicar's idea of a high-strung troublemaker, I think we haven't a thing to worry about."
Smothering a snort of laughter, Harry retreated to his room. He would have given ten Galleons for one of Fred and George Weasley's Extendable Ears inventions, though he wouldn't be all that surprised if Dudley and Jane hadn't said a word to each other in all the time they'd been left alone.
He settled for keeping his normal, non-extendable ear close to the door. He heard snippets of conversation, mostly Aunt Petunia exhorting Dudley to tell Jane this, or tell Jane that. He heard the snap-flutter of cards as Uncle Vernon tried to engage everyone in a game of canasta.
It felt very strange, having a witch in the house with nobody knowing. Harry went back to his desk and picked up his barely-begun letter to Ron. He added a line, asking Ron to ask Ginny if she knew a girl named Jane Kirkallen, because she was having tea with Dudley. Then he wrote that he reckoned he'd be seeing Ron in London, when they met in Diagon Alley to purchase their school things.
By the time he'd finished, he could make out voices from the hall again.
"Here's your cardigan, Jane," Aunt Petunia said.
Harry waited for the clatter of a wand falling out onto the floor, which would be bound to be followed by Aunt Petunia's ear-splitting screams of horror. But nothing of the sort happened.
"And here's ten pounds, Dudley," Uncle Vernon said. "You and Jane might want to stop on the way for a soda pop or an ice cream."
Dudley mumbled something in return, and Jane said, "Really, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, I don't mind at all walking home by myself."
"Nonsense!" boomed Uncle Vernon. "Dudley is up for a stroll, aren't you, lad?"
"Sure, I reckon," said Dudley in a low, flat voice.
The two of them went out. Harry tied the letter to Hedwig's leg and instructed her to take it to Ron as soon as it had gotten dark enough. She hooted and nipped his thumb.
Five minutes later, shrugging into a jacket and trying to look nonchalant, he ambled downstairs. In the parlor, Uncle Vernon was picking at a slice of cake and Aunt Petunia stored away tarts in small plastic bags, fretting to herself that it wasn't like Dudders to scarcely eat a bite.
"It's all right, Petunia," Uncle Vernon said. "Probably having the girl here curbed his appetite. Wouldn't have wanted to seem rude, stuffing his face in front of her with his usual gusto, now, would it?"
He broke off, scowling, as Harry went by.
"And where do you think you're going?"
"Out," Harry said. "Just out for a walk, is all."
"You'd better not be up to anything," Aunt Petunia told him, her lips compressed into a tight line.
"I'm not. Honest. I just thought I'd go down by the park for a while."
The park being in the other direction from the parsonage, he saw them relax as they understood he wasn't planning to sabotage Dudley's special date.
Uncle Vernon picked up a magazine on drills and machinery, and riffled the pages. "Isn't it getting to be about the time those those red-headed people come to fetch you for the rest of summer?"
"Yeah, well, I expect they've been busy," Harry said.
"Well, when they do, I don't want any of that theatrical rubbish," Uncle Vernon said, burying his face behind the magazine. "None of those flying cars, or people stepping out of the fireplace, or phony lawn awards."
Harry bit back a grin. Last year, it hadn't even been the Weasleys to come and fetch him. The phony lawn award had been Tonks' work, and she, along with Lupin, Moody, and a bunch of other members of the Order, had shown up to escort him in a broomstick caravan to Grimmauld Place.
"Okay," he said. "I'll see what I can do."
This made Uncle Vernon lower the magazine and glare at him over the top of it. "I expect you think this is all very funny, dont you? What the neighbors must think of this house by now, I shudder to wonder. Owls flying in and out at all hours of the day and night "
He disappeared behind the drill magazine again. Harry turned to go, only to find Aunt Petunia there, twisting her apron in her hands.
"If if anything happens out there," she said, in such a halting and almost concerned manner that Uncle Vernon came out from behind the magazine a second time. "You'll you'll be well, careful, won't you?"
Harry would have been touched by this, except he knew that her concern was not directed at him. She only wanted him to look out for Dudley. It would all be fine and well if something happened to Harry, if a dementor came along and sucked out his soul, or agents of Voldemort ambushed him, as long as Dudley was at a safe distance.
Looking up at her though not by much; he was very nearly of a height with her by now it struck him that he had never asked much about her parents. Lily's parents. His Evans grandparents. They had been alive and well when one of their daughters went off to Hogwarts. Happy about it, even. "We have a witch in the family," wasn't that what Aunt Petunia claimed they had said?
Had they, then, been at the wedding? Had they ever seen their baby grandson? Or had they died and how? before Harry had been born? He remembered the Mirror of Erised, and all the people with his and his mother's large green eyes, his and his father's unkempt black hair. The mirror had shown him his heart's desire, his family. It had not, he thought now, included any images of Aunt Petunia, or Dudley.
"I'll be careful," he said, and patted the pocket where he kept his wand.
It was a mistake; Aunt Petunia went the color of cottage cheese and swayed on her feet a little, like she might swoon onto the parlor rug.
"Sorry," Harry mumbled, not really meaning it, and headed for the door.
The summer evening was cool, and full of long blue shadows. A fresh breeze was just picking up, and once, Harry would have loved to get on his broomstick and kick off, flying high into the twilight with the wind rippling through his hair. Even now, after everything that had happened, he felt the tug of yearning, the desire to soar through the air and leave everything that bothered him behind, like heavy, earthbound stones.
Keeping to his word, he did go toward the park. As he neared it, he saw a familiar group of boys by the playground. They had chased away all the younger children with their swearing, smoking, and rough talk.
One of them, a lanky friend of Dudley's, was walking in circles on the metal merry-go-round, stepping over the bars with his gangly legs. Two others of the gang leaned on a dustbin, keeping an eye out, while another used a pocketknife to carve something into the wooden surface of a picnic table.
A girl with big hair and a big bust and a tiny skirt sat on the low rock wall that bordered the park, blowing out regular streams of blue-grey cigarette smoke in between checking her lipstick in a compact mirror.
And there came Dudley, skirting as many shadows as he could and sticking to the pools of light left by the streetlamps. His mates didn't know how much Dudley had become afraid of the dark since last summer. How he needed a night light these days, and still sometimes woke the household, sobbing for his mother, saying that it was cold, so cold.
Harry couldn't help feeling a little bit vindicated by this. After all, last summer, Dudley had been giving him a hard time about his own nightmares. Nightmares about the graveyard, and Voldemort, and Wormtail's bloody stump replaced by a shining silver hand, and Cedric sprawling dead on the hard ground. It was Dudley's turn to wake in the night, gasping and tearful.
"Hey, Big D!" called the boy on the merry-go-round. "Finally escaped, did you?"
"Tea with the new vicar's daughter," jeered the one with the pocketknife. "Did she let you kiss her, Duds, or maybe get a feelie?"
"Ha, ha," Dudley said, exhibiting about the first signs of life he'd shown all day.
"Dudley and Janie, sitting in a tree," chanted the girl. "Kay-eye-ess-ess-eye-enn-gee."
"Shut it, all right, Babs?" Dudley said, flushing a dark brick red.
Entertaining though it was to see Dudley getting teased for a change, Harry came to a sudden decision and reversed his course. He left the park, and headed across town.