As Uncle Vernon's belt buckle bit into the flesh of his back, bruising the very bone, Harry writhed on the living-room floor, choking with the effort not to cry out. I've taken the Cruciatus Curse.. this should be easy.. he tried to think, but it was getting more and more difficult. How did I get into this mess? he wondered. While Uncle Vernon had often expressed the desire to use his belt on the 'ill-mannered' Harry as a correctional device, something had always intervened to protect him – first the Dursleys' fear of his magical powers, then, when they had discovered that he could be expelled from his beloved Hogwarts for using magic during the holidays, the threat of retribution from his loving godfather, wanted throughout the country for murder by Muggles and wizards alike. But all that had changed this afternoon when Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had gone down the pub.

"Harry! You, boy! Get down here!" Uncle Vernon bellowed as they came in, at around ten o'clock. Harry put down his quill in the middle of the letter he was writing to Ron.

/Hang on a sec, Uncle Vernon's shouting about something or other again./ he wrote. /I'll see what they want this time and be right back./

He walked down the stairs with what he thought was a good mixture of respect and subtle insubordination in his expression. He had had all summer to practice this expression, and was getting rather good at it. His wand hung loosely in his hand, as an unspoken threat. "You bellowed, Uncle?"

Slap.

He had no time to ride the blow, not having expected it in the least, and was knocked headlong down the remaining two steps to the floor. Head spinning, he looked up into Uncle Vernon's face, plastered with a self-satisfied sneer. Through his confused senses, he registered two things. One, that his uncle was definitely the worse for liquor, in a way he had never seen before; and two, that the sneer on his face reminded him of nothing so much as Draco Malfoy.

"That's right, and well may you look surprised, boy! I'm not taking any of your lip any more." Vernon looked down at him with a distinctly gloating expression.

Feeling that he had better regain control of the situation before it got out of hand, Harry found his voice as he got up, swaying a little. "You don't dare," he said. "My godfather-"

And that was when Uncle Vernon laughed, a laugh that sent a chill through Harry's body. "It's over." He said it as if it were some sort of hilarious joke.

The room seemed to be drained of colour. Harry had to swallow before he could speak. "What do you mean?"

His uncle turned his back on him and walked complacently into the living-room, followed closely by Aunt Petunia. Normally this room was off-limits to Harry, but he followed them doggedly, fear in his heart, and stood trembling inside the doorway. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN?"

"I mean," Uncle Vernon said, smirking as if he was disclosing a particularly delightful secret, "that tonight when we were down at the pub, who had the ruddy cheek to walk in there but your precious Mr. Sirius Black. Nobody recognized him at first – he was in disguise – but your Aunt Petunia saw him and screamed, and I stood up and said, "It's Sirius Black!" just like that. That's right, I was the one to catch that murderer you're so fond of. They rushed him and took him down the police station while they contacted the proper authorities-"

Harry's wand slipped from his nerveless hand as he felt the room spinning. His head was a jumble of agonized thoughts. The proper authorities. Azkaban. The dementors. Sirius. His Sirius, the only adult, other than Dumbledore, he could say he loved – He must have come here to see me. That would be the only thing that could bring him

He looked up into Uncle Vernon's grinning, gloating face. A rush of furious grief and despair tore at him. He threw himself at his uncle, wrapped his hands around the great tree-trunk throat. He felt himself going over the edge, but he didn't care – he could face Voldemort on the battlefield, but he couldn't deal with the news of Sirius' death in this cold place he called home. He felt lost. Voldemort was back and without Sirius he had nothing – nothing –

His mind had barely registered going to Dumbledore as a possibility when he felt himself being picked up and thrown to the floor. His head bounced hard off the floorboards, his wand flew out of his hand, landing close by. Through his dizziness and the haze of his own anguish he heard something about the Smeltings Stick being just the thing to take him down a peg, and felt a dull thud on his back. He hardly registered it, and turned his face to the carpet, numb with grief. More thuds, more crying. Sirius' face swam before his eyes and he reached out desperately to touch him, to hold him, to protect him. A drum beat, louder and more insistently… it seemed to block out Sirius' face… it… it pounded… it…

It seemed to be coming from inside him. Finally the fog that seemed to be clouding Harry's senses lightened, ever so slightly, enough for him to register that the drum was the pounding of the blood in his own throbbing back, shoulders, buttocks and legs. His body seemed to be twitching and jerking quite a bit, but he was only half-aware of it. Vaguely he became aware that he was being beaten. The throbbing was beginning to turn into real pain. Uncle Vernon was laughing, and this scared him.

I'd better do something, Harry thought, and reached for his wand, lying just out of reach on the floor. But he never reached it. He cried out as a heavy boot crushed his wand-hand beneath it. He felt a bone snap, and tasted bile in his throat. "Told you those football boots would be good for something, Dad!" Dudley was saying cheerfully as he ground Harry's hand beneath his massive foot. "Can I have a go?"

"No, you may not," Vernon said as he whacked the stick down on Harry's back so hard that he thought his spine might break. "I'm teaching this boy a lesson in manners he'll never forget. Now just stand over there and watch quietly with your mother."

But Dudley seemed to have been a source of inspiration to Vernon. Harry saw the stick clatter to the ground within his limited field of vision. Daring to hope that it was over, he rolled over, ignoring the throbbing agony in his back. His vision was blurry and he shook his head to clear it. He slid his elbows under him… slowly now… first an owl to Dumbledore telling him to rescue Sirius before he got sent to Azkaban, then…

His head snapped around with a sharp pain in his cheek. Before he could fully register it, Vernon's belt buckle whistled through the air and impacted his neck. Reflex kicked in as Harry's arms flew up to protect his head and face, not a moment too soon as the blows began to rain down. He curled up onto the floor as he felt the metal piece puncture the flesh of his arms and shoulders. He tried to move or do something, but the belt buckle's impact was excruciating, as his body was by now a solid mass of bruises. He could feel many of them bleeding. His skinny frame offered no protection for his ribs, and it was all he could do to keep from crying out. Famous Harry Potter, yeah right, he thought as he struggled to remain conscious. Blood choked him from where the buckle had struck his cheek. He could tell he was badly hurt, and he regretted underestimating his Muggle relatives. His body was now completely out of his control as it twitched and jerked uncontrollably under the powerful blows. Funny I'm so careful about Voldemort and I finally get killed by the crowd at Privet Drive, he thought. Then the belt landed on his temple again and he knew no more.