The knowledge of what waited for him at the end of the day made the cupcake taste like ashes. Despite this, he didn't share any with Dudley; not sharing the cupcake with him had only been an excuse. Dudley and his friends didn't need an excuse for Harry hunting.
The fact that Harry was getting attention when Dudley wasn't, even if only for five minutes was enough to set everything in motion.
Concentrating on his classes proved to be impossible with the looming threat at the end of the day casting a pall over everything. The fact that the classes were exactly the same as the day before only worsened his horror. The thought that it might just have been a dream was washed away by the third class of the day.
The fact that he'd been through all of it before allowed him to turn his work in in a daze. It felt as though his body was working on automatic.
Lunch was normally his favorite part of the day. The Dursleys cared what other people thought, and if they shorted him lunch, people would talk. Dudley sometimes stole his lunch, but that was a different matter altogether.
Today everything tasted like sawdust. He ate alone like he did every day, and there wasn't anyone to distract him from his thoughts.
He saw Dudley talking to his friends and they all kept glancing in his direction. He wondered how he'd missed the significance of it the day before.
The end of the day came before he was ready.
The moment he left the front entrance to the school, he began running. He hoped that he'd be out of sight before Dudley or his cronies had a chance to find him.
Just in case, he made sure to turn down a street in the opposite direction from the way he'd gone the last time. A simple beating was much better than having his throat cut and having the pain of whatever that man had done with his stick.
Harry had a five minute head start on the bullies looking for him, and even though some of them were on bicycles, that was all he needed.
By the time Dudley came home, flushed and angry, Harry made sure that he was already cooking dinner for his aunt.
He made sure never to be alone with his cousin, and he went to bed in his cupboard. The one advantage of his cousin's casual cruelty was that he probably wouldn't remember to be cruel tomorrow, at least not for the reasons he'd been after Harry today. It was possible that one of his smarter friends might remind him, but Harry planned to be on his guard.
Laying in his cupboard, Harry shuddered. He'd been able to change the course of the day, but there was no guarantee that the man, McNair wouldn't find him in public one day and simply follow him home of simply snatch him off the street.
His entire life he'd had strange encounters with men who bowed to him and acted strangely. Always they'd stared at the scar on his forehead. The horrible face on the back of that man's head hadn't known who he was until McNair showed him the scar.
Harry became intensely self conscious about the scar. He found himself looking away from people, and he found himself scanning crowds for any sign of something being off.
It took time, but eventually he noticed that there were people whose clothing seemed...off. They looked as though they were trying to fit in but just didn't know what they were doing. The adults ignored them as odd eccentrics, but these were always the people who stared at his scar.
Eventually Harry asked his aunt about wearing a hat.
“A hat?” she turned to stare at him for a long moment. “What makes you think that we would ever spend a single penny on you that we didn't have to.”
His aunt and uncle had always hurried him and Dudley away from the people who had bowed to him. Harry suspected that they might know more than they were letting on.
“It's just that the men with sticks like to stare at it,” he said. “And it makes me uncomfortable.”
He'd never actually seen any of the men carrying a stick, but if Petunia knew more than she was letting on...
Her face went white and she grabbed him by the biceps, hard enough to hurt.
“Have freaks been showing you their sticks? Have they been showing Duddie-kins?” Her voice was intense and there was an undercurrent of fear.
“Not yet,” Harry said. “But I think it's just a matter of time the way they stare at it.”
When he arrive home the next evening, his aunt threw a baseball cap and a hooded sweatshirt at him with a sour look on her face.
He smiled at her, but she only promised to make him work extra to pay for them.
Despite the extra chores, it was worth it. With his hood up and baseball cap on, Harry felt a little safer out in public, although he never really let his guard down.
He began to notice places where things were off out of the corner of his eye, places where the air shimmered. It wasn't ever as obvious as it has been from the inside of the house McNair had found him at, but Harry was especially careful to avoid those places like the plague.
He conjured all kinds of fantasies in his mind about what it all meant. Was it a secret government conspiracy? Had his parents been spies?
Were their monsters hiding among them?
Why did they want to kill him in particular? Had his parents' car crash actually been a drunken accident, or had it been something more sinister?
Had he time traveled, or had he simply had a vision of the future? Either way, where had that power come from?
How had the man caused pain? His stick had never come close to touching Harry. How had the other man turned a fire poker into a knife?
Would he ever feel safe again?
His nights were filled with nightmares of men with sticks yelling Crucio, of knives flashing and strangely of green flashes of light and a woman screaming.
He tried looking up self defense techniques in the library, but although the pictures in the book looked simple enough, he could never remember what to do when his tri-weekly beatings came from Dudley and his friends.
It would take practice and a willing partner, Harry supposed, and he didn't have either of those. His only choice was to stay alert and get faster.
He began to look at Harry hunting as something more than an opportunity to get away from beatings.
If men actually wanted to kill him, he was going to have to get faster. He'd have to learn to be alert, and to be able to dodge whatever came at him.
He never actually reached the point that he was grateful for Dudley and his friends, but he did find himself getting better and better. Dudley kept having to recruit more and more people to keep up with him, and Harry took to escaping as though his life depended on it.
One day it might.
Months passed, and Harry got better at running and hiding. It wasn't brave, but when adults with strange powers were hunting you, it was the smartest thing to do.
One day, they were leaving a toy store. Harry had been brought along to be a pack mule, and he had boxes in his hand piled up past his eyeline.
That was the only excuse Harry had for missing the man at the end of the parking lot. Harry was helping to put the presents into the car when he first noticed the man staring at them.
Harry wasn't wearing his hat; Dudley had grabbed it while his hands were full and thrown it into the back of the car underneath the presents where it would get squashed.
“Aunt Petunia,” Harry said, his voice strained.
“What?” she snapped.
Harry turned away from the man who was staring at them, and said, “It's one of them.”
“One of...” Petunia asked, and then her face whited as she looked up.
“Get in the car,” she said shortly. She began shoving the presents in the back of the car as quickly as she could.
Dudley, for once was unusually observant.
“Is the freak scared of strangers?” he asked, grinning nastily.
Dudley's grins had hardly affected Harry at all since he'd seen what a real evil grin could look like.
“You want me to bring him over here and introduce you?” Dudley asked.
For the first and possibly only time in Dudley's life, his mother cuffed him. “Get in the car!”
As they pulled out of the parking lot, tires squealing, Dudley stared at them both in shock. He was uncharacteristically quiet.
Harry was too busy staring back at the man who was watching them to notice. His heart was in his throat. Had they found him?
From what he'd seen on the telly, all they had to do was write down the license plate and they'd be able to find out where they lived.
Vernon seemed unusually at a loss for words as he made both of them sit down that evening.
“I need to talk to you boys,” he said, glancing toward his wife.
She nodded at him sharply, urging him to continue.
“You may have some questions about what happened today,” he said. “And about what's been happening for a long time.”
Dudley had run to his father immediately after getting home with the story of getting slapped by his mother. He'd clearly expected that there might be an argument, but after a short period of whispered arguing, they'd been sent to their room and their cupboard respectively.
For the first time, Harry was happy to have his cupboard. If men were coming to murder them, the bedrooms and living areas were the first places they'd look.
The Dursleys had done everything they could to make Harry as invisible as possible. There were no pictures of him on the wall, no toys, no indication at all that he lived in the house.
Even his cupboard's door wasn't obvious as anything but a small closet.
The thought that the men with sticks might come and murder his aunt and uncle and cousin hadn't bothered him as much as he'd thought it might.
“Harry's parents didn't die in a car accident like we always told you,” Vernon said.
Harry's head snapped up. “What?”
“They were murdered,” Vernon said. “By people who were in...a cult I guess you'd say.”
“Why didn't anybody call the police?” Harry asked.
Vernon looked disgruntled. “You don't think we'd have tried that if we could? They've got people in the police. If we went to them they'd have us.”
“They want to kill me, don't they?” Harry asked, feeling numb.
Vernon scowled. “If it was just you, it wouldn't be that much of a loss. But if they get you they'll get the rest of us too.”
It explained a lot. It explained why the Dursleys resented Harry so much. Every moment that he stayed in their house he was endangering all of them.
The anger they'd shown every time one of the men had bowed toward harry, that had just been their fear showing.
Beside him, Dudley began crying and Aunt Petunia rushed to comfort him.
“Why do you keep me here, then?” Harry asked.
Vernon scowled and didn't answer for a long moment. Finally he said, “There's two groups of them, and one of the groups is making us do it. If it was up to me, I'd have left you at an orphanage the day we got you.”
“So if you give me up one group comes for you...if you don't, the other one does.” Harry said, staring at his uncle.
They were trapped even more than he was.
Strangely, he found himself getting along better with his aunt and uncle after that. Their behavior toward him didn't change much, but he suddenly found himself unable to resent their coldness toward him. They had reasons for it that he could understand, and that made it easier to accept.
That didn't mean that he didn't still crave love and affection, but at least he didn't fight back against them.
His attitude improved, and they softened toward him, even if only imperceptibly.
The one who changed the most was Dudley. The same paranoia that had infected Harry had begun to infect him.
The Harry hunts stopped; Dudley no longer wanted anything to do with him. If adults were hunting Harry, Dudley didn't want to be anywhere in the vicinity.
Now Harry wasn't the only one to have nightmares.
Life began to settle into a predictable pattern, at least until the summer holiday.
That was the day the letter came that was to change Harry's life.