It wasn't until Harry hit the platform wall and bounced off that he realized he was in trouble. He'd waited until late to arrive to the station to give any attackers less time to attack, and now he was in danger of missing the train.
Worse, whoever had spelled the wall had apparently waited until Harry was about to go through, which meant that they'd penetrated his disguise.
Harry's mind raced even as he forced himself to keep his face impassive. Whoever was watching him had to know he was panicking. Undoubtedly they were waiting for him to step outside and then they'd attack him while he was waiting for the Knight bus.
Settling on a course of action, Harry quickly moved toward a ticket counter. He was grateful for the money he'd taken from Petunia; with any luck it'd save his life.
Studying the schedules, he found the earliest departing train, and he waited in line.
When the lady behind the counter asked, Harry pointed at a man sitting alone; he claimed his father was seeing him off and that his parents were divorced. His books had talked about the importance of selling a story and about not being nervous when telling it.
Apparently Harry was successful in lying, as she sold him the ticket. Harry was outraged by the price, but didn't say anything about it. Ten minutes later Harry was on the train.
He watched the other passengers suspiciously. It wouldn't take much for one of them to put the tip of a wand to his back and walk him off the train. The train was overcrowded and Harry had been lucky to find a seat, wedged in between a heavyset woman and a thin man who smelled as though he hadn't bathed in a week.
By comparison, the Hogwarts Express was the height of luxury.
Some of the other passengers looked suspicious, too, although Harry couldn't tell if they were wizards or simply very sketchy muggles. Some seemed to have hygiene problems and others had piercings in places that it had never occurred to Harry that someone might have them.
Harry waited until the last stop, a forty five minute ride before getting off. He moved quickly, watching for anyone following him. The fact that there were spells to hide wizards didn't make him any more confident about his ability to find any attackers.
If it weren't for his school trunk he'd have slipped into the first loo and covered himself with his invisibility cloak. As it was the trunk would be too difficult to move while wearing the cloak as well. It was heavy, and without wheels it was difficult to carry around easily. Harry wondered if he was going to have to leave it behind.
So Harry settled for moving as quickly as he could. The moment he reached a vacant street he lifted his wand.
He was still in disguise, and the driver stared at him.
"Shouldn't you be on your way to Hogwarts?" the driver asked.
There didn't appear to be anyone else on the street or inside the bus for that matter other than the baggage handler but Harry was nervous nonetheless.
"I missed my train," Harry said shortly. "Any chance I can get a ride to Hogsmeade?"
"Not on the route, sorry, mate," the driver said.
"Diagon Alley then," Harry said, grimacing.
He'd have to use the Floo network to get to Hogsmeade and then he'd wait for the train to arrive. Harry hated the fact that he'd be alone in a wizarding village for hours, but he didn't see that he had much of a choice.
"Hot chocolate?" the baggage handler asked as he pulled Harry's bags onto the bus.
"No!" Harry said. Getting third degree burns from hot chocolate as the bus flew through its usual antics wasn't his idea of fun. He paid the usual fare, and the bus was off.
His first time through the floo network wasn't much fun. Worse, Harry thought he'd drawn attention just by being on Diagon Alley on the day that children his age were on their way to Hogwarts.
If he'd known of any other place that had floo access he'd have used that, but he'd been forced to slip into the first business in the alley that he remembered had access.
Zonko's Joke Shop was the only shop in Hogsmeade whose name he remembered, primarily because the twins went on and on about it incessantly. Consequently, this was where he ended up, slipping through the fireplace and pulling his trunk behind him.
He was covered with ash, as was his trunk.
Now that he was in a wizarding area, Harry immediately turned to his trunk and cast a shrinking charm on it. It would last an hour; hopefully by that time Harry could find a place to hole up. He shoved it into his new backpack.
An outraged clerk was already coming around the counter. Undoubtedly they kept watch on any uses of magic to stop shoplifting.
Harry was out of the shop before the man could reach him, and as soon as he turned the corner he covered himself with his cloak.
Watching carefully, Harry stayed where he was for ten minutes before finally assuring himself that no one was following him.
He wandered Hogsmeade under his cloak for almost a hour after that. This was an experience that he wouldn't be allowed to have for another year after all...and if he died often enough maybe not for another five years or longer.
There were shops he was interested in; the joke shop probably had items that he'd be able to use for more serious purposes. He kept the Peruvian darkness powder on his person at all times for example. The best thing about items was that they didn't trigger the Trace. They were the closest thing he could get to using magic during the summer.
There was a potions shop; it seemed to focus more on medicinal potions than offensive potions, but considering the kind of damage Harry faced, any help would be useful.
A bookstore called Tomes and Scrolls was tempting as well. He'd worked his way through most of the books he'd bought earlier in the summer, and he needed more to keep him occupied over the Christmas break.
The problem was that this was a town that had lived by the Hogwarts schedule for hundreds of years. Any child of Hogwarts age wandering around would immediately draw attention.
He could try to appear younger than he was, but he didn't see any younger children wandering around alone unaccompanied.
Harry recast the shrinking charm on his trunk, and decided to hide in the abandoned building he'd seen earlier. It was up a slope and was somewhat above the rest of the village. The garden outside was overgrown with weeds in a way that would have given Harry's aunt a panic attack. The windows and doors were boarded up and the place looked as though it hadn't been occupied in decades.
The path up to the shack was muddied and there were puddles covered in green algae. Harry hated coming alone to a place like this, even under his cloak but he didn't see any other choice.
Getting in proved to be a challenge. The doors were sealed tight as were the windows. There was some kind of a magical seal on the doors and windows that nothing Harry tried managed to get through.
However, a judicious use of the severing charm let him slice through the back wall itself. He cut through the wall carefully, cutting a small square low on the ground. He lit his wand and looked carefully inside. He slipped inside and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside.
There was a staircase leading up to the second floor, and as he moved through to explore his surroundings, Harry had an uneasy feeling. The furniture inside the room was smashed, torn apart in a way that didn't seem human. There were claw marks on the walls.
One of the windows looked out onto the castle; Harry could peer through the slats in the boards to see; he carefully checked all the windows to make sure that no one was coming up the path toward him.
There was a low doorway in the wall and a staircase leading upward. Harry took the stairs first. There wasn't much to see up above, although the view was much better from there. There was enough dust on everything that he could tell no one had been in this place for a very long time.
The low doorway on the first floor, however, led down into a tunnel and Harry suddenly felt uneasy.
The sensible thing to do would be to lock the door and simply wait, but for once Harry couldn't. He had to know what was on the other side of the tunnel.
His heart in his throat, Harry lit his wand and he descended into the darkness. The tunnel was earth floored and narrow. It was a few inches shorter than Harry himself, and so he had to crouch a little to make his way through it.
It took a half an hour to reach the end of the tunnel and by the time he did, Harry was seriously considering going back.
He had to bend even lower to get through the exit, only to gasp as the doorway opened out onto familiar grounds. He was on the Hogwarts grounds and...
A tree branch struck where Harry had just been. He lunged back inside the tunnel, happy that his reflexes hadn't atrophied over the summer as much as he'd feared.
Who would be stupid enough to put a tunnel at the base of a murder tree?
Harry suspected that there was some way to make the tree allow entrance, but he had no way of finding out at present.
He headed back to the shack to wait out the remaining hours in boredom.
It was a twenty minute walk to the train station, and Harry felt a chill down his spine as he waited for the train to arrive. It was already after dark and the wind was cool.
Worse, anyone who knew he hadn't been on the train would know where he was likely to be waiting.
He'd used magic to repair the hole he'd put in the wall of the shack; there might come a time when he needed a place to hide again and there was no point in letting things in that hadn't already been there.
He'd also made a special effort to remove every aspect of his disguise. Disguises only worked if people didn't know you used them. Even if wizards knew he was disguised, the only aspect of his disguise that was magical was his hairstyle. The rest was a combination of muggle clothes and makeup and acting. They wouldn't be easily reversible by magic and wouldn't be expected.
Harry huddled under the cloak and was relieved when he saw the train coming. He glanced around; no point in getting sloppy just because the end was in sight. The tricky part would be transitioning from being invisible to visible.
After a thought Harry settled on stepping as close to the tracks as he dared as the train slowed to a stop. He was close enough to the train that the people in the windows above couldn't see him.
He pulled off the cloak and stored it away, and then he waited as the doors opened and children streamed out of the doors. He slipped into the crowd the moment he saw Hermione and Neville, both of whom looked distressed.
"Harry!" Hermione said the moment she saw him. "Where were you?"
"Someone spelled the wall to Platform 9 3/4s so I couldn't get through," Harry said grimly. "I think they were planning to murder me when I left King's cross."
"You think everyone is out to murder you," Hermione said. "More likely it was the twins playing a prank."
Harry shook his head at Hermione's naivete. Everyone really was out to murder him; he'd been murdered often enough that he considered himself an expert.
Still, he felt somewhat relieved that he now only had to worry about someone slipping a knife into him in the crowd instead of a full on attack by Death Eaters.
They could hear the familiar voice of Hagrid calling out to the first years. As the younger students separated away from the crowd, Harry, Hermione and Neville followed the rest of the crowd along the platform and then onto a muddy track.
At least a hundred coaches waited. Each was pulled by winged skeletal horses; glancing around, Harry saw that no one seemed to be bothered by this, not even those in his same year, who presumably wouldn't have seen the horses before.
Harry had read about Thestrals when he'd done his reading about the creatures around Hogwarts, but it still seemed strange that no one else could see them.
"Can you see them?" Harry asked Neville and Hermione.
"See what?" Hermione asked.
Neville, though, nodded. "Thestrals..they can only be seen by those who have seen death."
Harry stared for a moment at his friend. When had Neville seen death?
"My grandmother died," Neville explained, interpreting his look.
No one asked Harry where he'd seen death. Between the troll, Adrian Pucey and his own mother, it would have been enough. Having seen his own death multiple times was even worse, not that they knew about that.
Hermione seemed a little nervous about getting into the coach when she couldn't see the thing pulling it, but Harry and Neville encouraged her and they soon loaded into the coach.
It smelled of mold and straw, although the smell was faint. Before anyone could say anything, the carriage lurched forward. They were soon moving through a pair of impressive wrought iron gates.
Harry began to explain what had happened as the carriage made its way up the long sloping drive up to the castle. Hermione seemed to think that he was paranoid and that no one had actually been after him, but Neville wasn't so sure.
Given Neville's families' own history with Death Eaters, Harry wasn't surprised that he'd be more cautious.
It didn't matter what Hermione thought. Harry was convinced that he'd been the victim of a poorly executed assassination plot.
The sorting ceremony didn't hold any surprises. The red haired Weasley girl followed the rest of her family into Gryffindor and the rest of the evening went the way it had the year before.
It was a little less impressive the second time around, although only a little. Harry could see how the trip by boat across the lake was designed to impress the children and maybe even cow them a little.
He welcomed the arriving students politely, although he disliked the way that the pureblood students stared at his scar. Only the muggleborns seemed oblivious, and it was a little depressing how easily he was able to pick them out from the others.
They seemed more amazed by everything than the other students; every little magical thing seemed to astound them. Some of them clumped together. None of them had the feigned attitudes of the purebloods, who were determined not to seem impressed even though they secretly were.
After all, the purebloods had been around magic their entire lives. Harry wondered if the deliberate showmanship of the first year boat ride was in part to overcome that attitude.
Not seeing Quirrell at the head table was a bit of a shock. Harry somehow hadn't thought nearly as much about what had happened as he felt he should have. Ultimately, the man had been willing to murder a child and possibly do worse, and Harry felt that in some ways he deserved what he got.
He suspected that he'd feel more guilty when he got older, hopefully when he had the luxury of being safe and thinking back on what he'd been forced to do.
Still, although the new teacher who had taken Quirrell's place didn't have a turban, Harry didn't trust him. If Voldemort was willing to debase himself enough to sit on the back of someone's sweaty head under a turban for an entire year he wouldn't hesitate to hide on someone's back or chest or even in a worse place.
Harry planned to touch every teacher he had over the next semester...when turning work in, when passing by, whatever excuse he could find. Given the way Quirrell's flesh had burned when he touched it, it might be an excellent warning sign.
Of course, even if none of them were Voldermort himself, the odds were that some of them were Death Eaters. Harry wouldn't let his guard down until he was safe back at home.
Harry was getting stronger all the time; he was determined to become as powerful as Dumbledore if that was what it took. Of course that might take a lifetime, and Harry suspected that he didn't have that long, since the point at which he revived kept moving forward.
The only question was whether it would be enough. Voldemort had plans within plans and Harry didn't have a great deal to fight them.
All he could do was watch and wait.