Harry couldn't remember ever feeling lonelier than he did that warm late-June evening. Privet Drive seemed about to suffocate under a cloud of humidity; a storm had threatened all day, but the rain held off, punishing them with oppressive heat. The temperature had everyone in a foul mood. Even Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were in meaner spirits than usual - which was why Harry had opted to brave the sweltering evening without the pleasure of air-conditioning. Not even a nice cool glass of lemonade in front of the telly seemed worth withstanding the tension in the Dursleys' living room.
This summer, soon to be Harry's sixteenth, had in some ways been the best of his life. After Mad-Eye Moody, the Weasleys, Tonks and Lupin out-right threatened the Dursleys at the train station if they weren't good to their nephew, Harry had enjoyed much more freedom. His aunt and uncle and cousin still detested him, and he certainly wasn't treated like a member of the family, but he worked on his summer schoolwork without interruption, openly sent and received letters by owl-post, and came and went from Privet Drive as he pleased. Even Dudley had laid off his usual harassment. Harry had long ago learned to outrun his grossly overweight cousin, but words were harder to outrun than punches, and Dudley had in the past never missed an opportunity to poke fun at Harry. Now, he walked a wide circle around his cousin, obviously afraid that the slightest insult might bring curses raining down on his head.
So why, when things were as nice as they'd ever been for him outside of Hogwarts, was Harry so down?
He scuffed his shoe along the sidewalk, following his now well-worn path to the park on Magnolia Road - his safe haven, his private spot. He supposed part of it was the unmasked tension between his aunt and uncle that had escalated all summer. Much as he disliked Petunia and Vernon, Harry never intended to cause them any real trouble, and the arguments they'd been having since his return were unsettling to him. He couldn't recall them ever really fighting before. Now, they didn't quarrel over anything significant - a burnt piece of toast, a late arrival from work, a busted headlight on the car, any of these things could send them into snarling fits of rage with one another. Harry sensed the underlying source of the tension was more serious than toast or headlights, of course, and he suspected whatever it was had to do with him.
But that was only part of it. The truth was, Harry still couldn't get over the death of his godfather, Sirius. Although Petunia was his mother's sister, losing Sirius had felt to Harry like losing the last tangible link with his parents. He missed his godfather terribly, and he suspected he always would. But he hoped that sooner or later the gnawing emptiness in his stomach would ease up and allow him to breathe easier.
Or maybe it's the weather, he thought glumly, using the hem of his white tee-shirt to mop sweat off his forehead. Another improvement on Privet Drive this summer were his clothes; whereas in the past he'd been saddled with Dudley's cast-offs, which were inevitably five sizes too big for him, this year Aunt Petunia had packed him off to the shops and bought him new clothes. Another side-effect of Moody's threats, no doubt, and while the clothes were hardly fancy or expensive, they suited Harry just fine.
And he was certainly growing fast, as Petunia had sniffed with something akin to horror during the clothes-shopping trip. He supposed he looked enough like his father as Aunt Petunia remembered him to ruffle her a bit. Harry wasn't sure what to think about his appearance, really. He still had a mop of unruly brown hair, the same piercing green eyes, and of course the inescapable scar on his forehead, but now he was getting tall - not nearly so tall as Ron, but still - and Quidditch practice had seen to it that he was thin and muscular. He wondered, sometimes, whether he was handsome, but it wasn't as if he could ask anyone - he certainly wasn't about to pose such a question to Ron or Hermione, or anyone else in the D.A. club or at Hogwarts, and he already knew what the Dursleys thought of him.
Cho didn't seem to think so. Harry was startled by that thought and quickly shrugged it off. He was long past caring what Cho Chang thought of him. Too much had happened this year to make girls a priority on his mind. What did it matter if he was good-looking, anyway? Some of the girls at Hogwarts thought Draco Malfoy was handsome, and look what an idiot he was. Harry decided he would settle for being the best wizard in the world, and let his looks be hanged. Girls were the only ones who cared about looks, after all, and what did it matter what girls thought?
Later, Harry would wonder if Fate hadn't decided to play a cruel joke on him just for thinking that.
Because as he rounded the last corner and tromped into the empty nighttime park, making a beeline for the swing-set where he spent many lonely evenings, he stopped dead in his tracks as he realized someone else had found his spot. His eyes swept her over from bottom to top: a pair of tanned, well-sculpted legs flowing out of a rather scandalously short white cotton skirt, which was connected to an ice-blue tanktop from which extended lithely muscled arms, and on top of which sat the prettiest face, framed by the most beautiful screen of silky red hair, Harry had ever seen.
* * * *
Harry, who had faced dementors, dragons, Death Eaters and the Dark Lord himself, almost immediately acquiesced to that first impulse. He was abruptly aware that his hair was uncombed and that the back of his tee-shirt was soaked with sweat. He also suffered a horrid rush of memories of idiotic things he had said and done in front of Cho, who, up until this moment, had been the prettiest girl alive to him. Better to hightail it out of the park than make a fool of himself in front of this girl, too!
But he hesitated. He didn't recall ever seeing her around Privet Drive or the park - and he knew he'd have remembered her. For a second he considered introducing himself, then realized he'd probably forget his own name if he got any closer to her, and so turned to go.
Naturally, she looked up at just that moment and saw him. Harry heaved an inward sigh. No getting out of it now - if he rushed off, she'd probably think he was an axe-murder or something. Bloody hell...
American, he realized the instant she spoke. No wonder he'd never seen her in the neighborhood. But what was she doing here? The park on Magnolia Road hardly qualified as a tourist attraction.
He ambled a bit closer, trying to strut the way he'd seen Bill Weasley do in front of pretty girls. The stranger's hazel eyes sparkled at him; the knowing grin that turned up the corners of her mouth said plainly she saw through his attempt to impress her. Harry colored a bit in the cheeks and thanked the Fates that it was too dark for her to notice.
"Hello," he said back. He stopped at the edge of the swing-set and leaned as nonchalantly as possible against one of the support poles. An awkward silence descended almost instantly.
Say something, idiot! Be interesting!
The girl looked away and pushed off the ground with her bare feet. She swung lightly back and forth for a few moments, the squeaking of the chain filling the silence. Harry licked his lips and, mind racing wildly through possible conversation topics, settled on the most obvious: "Are you new here?"
Oh, very insightful, Potter...
"How'd you guess?" She grinned at him, but not maliciously, and Harry smiled back automatically. He was close enough now to see a dusting of freckles over her brown face. He wasn't sure why they made his heart flop oddly in his chest. "Just moved here. From Orlando."
Orlando? He shook his head slightly, puzzled. "That's in the States, right?"
"Oh, yeah. Florida." Ah. Palm trees and beaches - she looked suited for that.
The girl grinned again. He decided he liked her smile a lot; she had cherry-red lips and two rows of perfect, small white teeth. "My mom just got remarried, and her new hubby lives here, so..." She shrugged, as if to say, And that's that.
"What street'd you move to?" Feeling more relaxed - she seemed easy enough to talk to, and probably as lonely as he was - Harry eased into a swing two down from hers.
"Pivot, I think? Private?"
He swallowed audibly. Surely he wouldn't be so lucky as to have this gorgeous creature on his very own street! "You mean 'Privet'?"
"That's the one. Privet." As Harry decided there really might be a god, she added, "I'm Quinn, by the way."
Quinn. Turning the name over in his mind, he decided it was the prettiest one he'd ever heard. "Harry." He shook the hand she offered, relishing the feel of her soft skin against his, and they shared both a grin and a blush.
"Sorry if I invaded your spot," Quinn went on. Harry was wishing he could hold her hand but not about to say it. "Mom and Aaron - that's my stepdad - are having this dinner party, and it's all these stuffy British - "
Her eyes widened and her voice trailed off. Harry couldn't hold back a laugh. "Stuffy British wankers?" he volunteered. She flushed deeper but also started to grin again, so he continued, "Dread boring suits? Bloody ole' English farts?"
Quinn was giggling. "I think you've got the general idea." The smile she bestowed on him was dazzling. "I've gotta learn to keep my mouth shut over here."
"It's all right. We have our own thoughts on Yanks," Harry assured her. The short silence that fell then was companionable, not awkward, and he asked out of real curiosity, "D'ya know anyone here?"
"Nope. Just this nice guy named Harry."
He blushed so fiercely he thought his face might catch fire. To cover it, he offered, "I don't have many friends around here myself." She cast him a sideways look, to which he hurriedly added, "I mean, I go away to school all year, so my friends don't live around here."
Nice one, Potter, make yourself sound like a dolt - and now you've brought up Hogwarts, way to go!
"Where's your school?"
Of course that was her next question. Harry hesitated, brutally torn between the truth - unfortunately he expected Ministry officials would descend on them immediately and drag him off to Azkaban for breaking the Statute of Secrecy (again) - and the lie the Dursleys told, St. Brutus's School for Incurably Insane Boys. Neither seemed a good option, so he waffled, "A boarding school up north."
Quinn made a face. "Yick. Boarding school. I bet it's all matching uniforms and segregated dormitories, huh? And some crotchety old headmaster always slapping your hands with a ruler?"
Harry thought of the Hogwarts uniforms and the stair to the girls' dorm that turned into a slide if boys approached it. "Well," he admitted, smiling to himself, "pretty much, yeah. Except the headmaster's all right."
"Mom's packing me off to school this fall." Quinn looked suddenly morose. "I can't imagine it. I mean, I went to public school back home, and it was great. Some stupid people, ya know, like everywhere," Harry pictured Malfoy and nodded heartily in agreement, "but my friends were all there. And...I sort of knew where I belonged, too."
Having been threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts on a few occasions, Harry completely understood Quinn's predicament. He couldn't imagine being shipped off to a new school, thousands of miles away from his friends. He supposed Quinn had been very popular in her school as well, and the fear of being disliked had to be even worse because of that.
Even still, he wasn't sure what to say to comfort her. She seemed to sense that and offered him a quick, understanding smile. "But hey, why worry over something that's months away, right?"
Right - we've got the whole summer ahead of us...
The prospect of spending long, sultry days in the company of this beautiful girl made Harry's head swim. He wondered what Ron would say if he could see them. Or Hermione. What would she think of him befriending this girl?
Weird. What do I care what Hermione would think?
Well, she'd probably warn him to beware of a stranger, first off. Harry sighed. Much as he realized the danger he was in from Voldemort, he wasn't about to live in total paranoia. So he shook away thoughts of what his friends would say (although he suspected Ron would tell him to spot on, or something along those lines) and said brightly, "Exactly. Uh, I mean, there's not really loads of stuff to do around here, but..."
Quinn offered him another heart-stopping smile. "I'm sure we'll find ways to entertain ourselves."
She got to her feet and smoothed down her skirt. Harry stood, too, sensing that the evening was over. "Could I..." He fumbled for words, feeling suddenly tongue-tied. "I mean, would you like me to...walk you home?"
"That'd be really excellent, actually," she replied laughingly, "since I have absolutely no idea how to get back. I was just sort of walking when I found this place."
Harry laughed, too. "What number are you?"
They had struck away from the swings. Now he slowed to a stop, his mind whirling. "Number Six, Privet Drive?"
"Yeah." She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Why? What's the matter?"
"I live at Number Four."
"Oh." Quinn winked at him. "Then I guess that makes us neighbors, Harry."
As they started off again into the warm darkness, the first few drops of rain began to fall, and the storm finally broke.