When Harry and Dudley got off the train at King's Cross, Uncle Vernon was waiting for them. He helped them put their trunks in the boot and pulled out of the car park in relative silence, listening to Dudley's chatter about the year. Harry was free to subside quietly into the backseat and let the sound of Dudley's voice wash over him.
By the time they reached the motorway, though, Dudley had run out of stories that had nothing to do with what had happened to Harry and trailed off, uncertain.
"I have a question," Vernon said, glancing at Harry in the rearview. "What's all this I've been reading about you in the paper?"
Harry blinked. "You read the Daily Prophet?" he asked, baffled and suddenly embarrassed.
"They send it through the post," Uncle Vernon explained. "Wrapped in parcel paper. Stop avoiding the question. What have you been up to this year, boy? The paper said-"
"Oh, that wasn't Harry's fault," Dudley interrupted. "That awful woman was making things up to make him look bad because she was mad he wouldn't talk to her."
Vernon looked at Harry in the rearview again. Harry nodded.
"The media these days," Vernon grumbled. "This country is going to the dogs. Those reporters think they can just write whatever they want about anyone! That's called libel! That woman deserves a big fat lawsuit, in my opinion..."
Harry and Dudley nodded along in all the right places as Uncle Vernon settled into a comfortable rant that lasted them the rest of the drive home. As they dragged their trunks up the stairs to their respective rooms, Harry caught Dudley's eye.
"Did you know he'd been getting the Prophet?" he asked.
Dudley shrugged. "He's been getting it delivered since summer of last year. Dad likes to keep up on the news, and it gives us stuff to talk about in our letters. He was pretty interested in the Tournament."
"Right," Harry said, shifting his owl's cage so that he could get his door open. "Right."
Uncle Vernon did indeed read both the muggle and wizarding newspapers over breakfast every morning. Harry only began to regret this a couple days into the holiday, when Uncle Vernon started choking on his bacon halfway through the meal. He had just picked up the Prophet.
Harry looked up with a sense of dread. Dudley had already leaned over to glance at the paper, and Harry's suspicions were confirmed when Dudley went pale.
"Dad," he said, and took the paper from a still coughing Vernon, and slapped his father on the back a couple times for good measure. Then Dudley peered down at the text, his eyes moving back and forth across the words, his frown deepening with every pass.
Harry shoved his seat back and stood. He wasn't hungry anymore.
"Don't tell me," he said. "I don't want to know."
"You really don't," Dudley agreed. Uncle Vernon took the paper back and began reading, his face slowly going purple. That was an even worse sign. Harry had just turned around to leave the kitchen when they heard a loud squawk and then a lot of shouting coming from upstairs.
"Who-" Vernon stood, dropping the paper onto the table and glaring up at the ceiling.
Harry swore and ran up to his bedroom, making a brief detour to the bathroom. He'd left the window open. Sure enough, there was a pile of letters forming, and two of them had burst into flames already, screaming invective at his owl who huddled in his cage and screeched back at intervals.
"-Slytherin scum! How dare you try to upset what we've worked so hard for? You have no right-"
"-attention seeking! I remember your record with the Dark Arts, too, don't think I've forgotten that-"
"-upstanding wizards and witches in our community! You disgust me-"
"-not worth the dirt in the soles of Dumbledore's boots! Disgraceful, childish-"
Harry poured a cup of water over the first Howler, which quieted the shouts to more of an angry gurgle, then ran back to the bathroom for more water.
"-parselmouths deserve to be Kissed, if you ask-"
The second Howler fell to the floor in a sopping mess as well, and Harry let the cup slip from his grasp and fall to ground, staring around his room. There were a lot of letters. He always got letters when Skeeter wrote about him, but usually Blaise and Pansy helped him sort through the worst of them, and usually there weren't so many. Usually he could just ignore them all. A bit of smoke floating up from a pile at the end of his bed sent him back to the bathroom. There would be no ignoring these.
"Well here's another one that believes you," Dudley said with optimism, several hours later. He and Harry had rooted out all the Howlers, and were now sitting on the floor in his room, trying to make some sense of the pile. He would have just chucked the entire lot in the bin, but there had been a furiously sympathetic (but mostly furious) letter from Pansy in the first pile. There might be more from people he actually wanted to communicate with. Dudley did insist on opening them all, though.
"Well," Dudley paused and continued skimming the letter. "They believe Dumbledore, anyway."
"Put it in the pile," Harry said, and rubbed his eyes. That was twenty six from people who believed Dumbledore but still thought Harry was untrustworthy Slytherin scum. There had been three that actually supported Harry so far, and one of those was from Pansy.
Dudley ripped open a new letter. "This one is... a Slytherin."
Harry groaned. Those were often the worst.
"And she says...well." Dudley dropped it in the steadily growing 'Slytherins who hate Harry' pile. It was separate from the other pile of letters from people who hated Harry, mostly because of the particular brand of invective they usually contained, and because Harry thought it might be useful to keep track of his enemies within the House. It seemed like something Pansy and Blaise would have him do.
"This one supports you! And they want you to come visit!" Dudley frowned at it. "That's kind of... oh, it's from Neville. He says I'm invited too!"
Harry reached a hand out for the letter, which Dudley handed over dutifully. Harry skimmed it and smiled a bit. It was nice seeing words directed at him that weren't hateful, after all the sorting they'd been doing that morning.
"He wants us to visit next week," Harry said, let down. "Dumbledore said we can't leave until after my birthday, because of the wards."
A few wizards had dropped by a couple nights ago, Remus and Dumbledore included, and updated the wards to work with Dudley's contribution instead of Aunt Petunia's. It had been interesting to watch them work, but the upshot of it all was that the wards wouldn't be stable enough for either of them to leave the house for anything longer than a shopping trip until at least the end of the month.
Harry reached up to set Neville's letter on the desk and picked up another. This one was thick, and written on particularly fine parchment. He flipped it over to break the seal and froze. The Malfoy crest gleamed up at him from the wax, and Harry stared at it for a long moment.
"Hey, this one says you... never mind."
Harry reached under his desk for the bin and chucked the letter in, seal unbroken. If Dudley noticed, he said nothing.
The next letter writer wanted to make sure that Harry was one hundred percent clear on exactly how supportive they were of Harry drowning himself in a vat of bobotuber pus.
From what Harry could gather from the letters he received (having not read this most recent Skeeter article), she had basically recounted the events following Harry's return on the Knight Bus, including Harry's claim that Voldemort had been resurrected. If she expressed any belief that Harry was telling the truth, her readers hadn't picked up on it. Most of them made it sound like she'd painted him as an attention craving, Dark Arts obsessed maniac.
Harry would believe it, coming from her.
So whenever Harry woke abruptly from some unpleasant memory-turned-nightmare and found himself staring around at piles of parchment inscribed with hatred, he would pull out his Map, which he had activated on the train and never turned off, and he would look for her.
She was still at Hogwarts, presumably still stuck. She spent a lot of time on the grounds and in the higher towers. Harry wondered how she was managing to stay hidden during the summer. It wasn't as though she could exactly hide in a crowd when the school wasn't even in use.
It was on one of these late nights, staring at the Map, that it hit him. Sirius had said it himself. He couldn't come or go without Dumbledore's permission because of Snuffles. And Rita couldn't come and go at all. Harry somehow doubted she was about to ask Dumbledore's permission. She had to be keeping it a secret.
Harry remembered the whole situation with Sirius and Pettigrew and his father having unregistered animagus forms, and how angry Snape had been. He was sure someone had said it was illegal, not registering.
Harry pulled his blankets off and stumbled over to his desk, switching on the small lamp. Loki was gone for the night, hunting, but he would be back soon. Harry pulled a fresh sheet of parchment out of a drawer and uncorked a bottle of ink. He spent a minute searching for a quill and eventually gave up, turning instead to his trunk.
He found the scrap of parchment in one of his old Charms textbooks, and crept downstairs to the kitchen. It was late, but this was urgent. He picked up the receiver and dialled carefully. The phone rang for a long time before a woman finally answered.
"Hello?" she asked. Half a second later, another, equally sleepy voice chimed in.
"Hermione?" Harry asked. The first voice responded.
"Hermione, dear, it's for you."
There was a click on Hermione's end.
"Harry, why are you calling me at two thirty in the morning?"
"I'm sorry," he responded in a whisper. "I have to ask you a question. It's important."
There was a pause. "Well?" she prompted.
"I wanted to know if you knew how to check the animagus registry," Harry said, glancing at the doorway to the kitchen. It didn't sound like anyone was awake upstairs, and he didn't want to change that. Uncle Vernon wouldn't take kindly to late night calls, however vital.
"I- yes. Er, Harry," Hermione began. "Don't get me wrong. If you need to talk, call me, any time. But couldn't this have waited until morning?"
"No," Harry hissed. "I was thinking. Skeeter is stuck on the grounds, right? Sirius said Dumbledore put up wards last year for Pettigrew, and now Sirius can't cross the wards without Dumbledore's permission! Because of his animagus form!"
"You think Skeeter is an animagus?" Hermione's voice was intrigued now. "Oh, that would make so much sense! I don't remember seeing her name on the list; I'll check again and get back to you! That's highly illegal!"
Harry grinned. "It's perfect, is what it is. If we're right, she won't be writing anything about me for a long time."
"Do you mean to turn her in, or blackmail her?"
"I haven't decided yet," Harry said, walking as far as the cord of the phone would let him and leaning against the table. "Probably blackmail."
"I'll get back to you as soon as I can," Hermione promised. "Harry, I hope you're right."
"Me too," Harry said. They talked a few minutes longer, but eventually Hermione claimed exhaustion and they said goodbye.
Harry went back to bed and managed to get to sleep with minimal fuss. When he woke up, the sun was shining in his window. He'd managed to sleep through the rest of the night.
There were more articles about Harry over the course of the next week, not all of them written by Skeeter. Skeeter's were the ones that really caused an influx of mail, though.
Uncle Vernon read through each article, which upset Harry terribly. For some reason, having his friends read lies about him was one thing, but having Uncle Vernon see what elaborate new story Skeeter could spin about his insanity, his sociopathic tendencies, or his insatiable desire to corrupt the innocent was mortifying. Uncle Vernon's opinion of him was a question at best, and Harry could only imagine what he must be thinking of it all.
So when Uncle Vernon called Harry into the kitchen one night after dinner and Harry saw all the newspaper spread out over the table, he felt like sinking through the floor.
"Dudley said this woman was making up lies about you," Uncle Vernon said, his moustache twitching as he sifted through the papers. "But I'll tell you what, boy. She seems to know an awful lot about you for someone who's making everything up. I want the truth."
Harry sank into a chair and put his head in his hands. "She-"
"Dark magic?" Uncle Vernon said, pushing one of the articles toward Harry. "Dudley told me what that means, and I won't tolerate that kind of freakishness in my house."
Harry looked up at him. "I don't do dark magic," he exclaimed. "She's making that up."
"This snake language," Uncle Vernon said, shoving another article at Harry. "The papers say it's dark magic. Dudley said himself that you talk to snakes."
"I, but no," Harry said, feeling cornered. "It's not dark magic, it's just a language-"
Uncle Vernon sifted through the pile and ripped another article out from under the others. His face was beginning to turn red, which was always a bad sign.
"And this one says you were covered in blood and saying someone returned from the dead," he blustered. "That sounds like necromancy if I ever heard it, boy! I won't have it!"
Harry felt his breath start coming in short. "But I didn't- That wasn't my- They tried to-"
"And the papers, not just that woman, mind you, but all the writers, have been saying your House, what's it called, Slythern? That it's the House where dark wizards are trained!" Uncle Vernon stood up and shoved another article at Harry. "Is that what my money is paying for?"
Harry shook his head as he stared down at the article, wondering frantically where Dudley had gotten off to.
"That's not true," he said, feeling tears prick at his eyes. "Slytherin is just another House. People just don't like us because the Dark Lord was in Slytherin. That's not my fault!"
Uncle Vernon stared at him with a narrow expression.
"Dudley's a good boy. And he insists you're not doing any of those things," he said. "I want to believe him." He leaned forward over the table and met Harry's eyes directly. "But if I get one whiff of trouble coming from you, or if I find out you've been teaching my boy anything... dark... you'll be out of this house so fast it'll make your head spin. Do you understand me?"
Harry swallowed hard and nodded, still gripping the article.
"Yes," he said. "But I promise I'm not, Uncle Vernon." He stared down at all the newsprint and felt his shoulders slump. The articles nearly covered the table entirely, there were so many. Seeing it all laid out like this was daunting and disheartening.
Uncle Vernon watched him stare at the newspapers for another moment, then nodded his head briskly.
"Good," he said. "As long as we understand each other."
He gathered up all the articles, including the one Harry was holding, and tossed them all in the bin. Harry watched uncertainly as Uncle Vernon took the whole bin outside to empty it, then came back, replaced the liner, and left the kitchen with no further comment.
Harry sat at the kitchen table until it was time to go to bed.
It turned out that Harry had been right. Skeeter wasn't on the list of registered animagi, and after conferring with Pansy, Blaise and Hermione through various modes of communication, they all agreed that it was the most likely explanation. The only question at this point was how to exploit their new found knowledge.
"Harry," Dudley picked up the extension one morning when Harry was on the phone with Hermione, debating the merits of sending an owl to Skeeter versus tracking her down when they returned to Hogwarts. "Hey Hermione," Dudley said.
"Hi, Dudley," Hermione responded. "How have you been?"
"Alright," Dudley said. "Harry, Dad's getting ready for work and he said to get the door."
Harry raised his eyebrow at the telephone. He had heard the doorbell, but assumed Uncle Vernon or Dudley would get it like they usually did.
"He told you to do it, didn't he?"
"Well yeah," Dudley said. "But I'm upstairs. You're in the front room. Closer to the door."
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Be right back, Hermione," he said.
"No problem," Dudley said. "I'll keep her company."
Harry heard Hermione laugh as he set the receiver down on the end table and went into the hallway.
Harry opened the door, expecting the postman or some kind of solicitor, or perhaps a neighbour. He was wrong on all counts.
Aunt Petunia stood in the doorway, holding a small suitcase and looking huddled and pinched.
"I..." Harry stared at her. "I, er...Aunt Petunia."
"Hello, Harry," she said. She sounded strained and terribly awkward. "Has Vernon left for work yet?"
Harry blinked a few times before responding. "I think... let me check." Harry closed the door and stared at it, letting his face go slack with shock now that she couldn't see him. He went into the front room first and picked up the phone, interrupting the conversation Dudley and Hermione were having about Hogsmeade.
"Hermione, we're going to have to call you back," he said. "Dudley, get Uncle Vernon."