Life as a celebrity had its perks, but it also had its downsides.
The anonymity Harry had once enjoyed was gone; likely it had never really been there but people had at least pretended. Harry had been persona non grata for much of the student body for so long that now that people were actually paying attention he felt as though a spotlight was being shone on him and his activities.
Gryffindors actually smiled at him in the hallways. Apparently Ginny Weasley was popular and saving her had been his way into their good graces, at least for now.
Harry knew, however that people were fickle. It was only a matter of time before they returned to hating him, and he couldn't forget the way they'd treated him, both currently and during times they didn't even remember.
Still, some of the Slytherins were making quiet overtures of friendship. They still weren't willing to go public; that would be a good way to get attacked or to have their families face retaliation. However, there was a sense that the battle between Voldemort and Harry wouldn't be quite as one sided as everyone had always assumed.
Harry knew that this would enrage Voldemort and his followers. They'd have to respond because the fear of the populace was a great deal of their power base. Harry's popularity would be a threat to that.
Yet somehow the attack that Harry was expecting never came.
He didn't really think that threatening Lucius Malfoy had really accomplished anything. The man was a hardened Death Eater, and had likely faced death in the face even more times than Harry himself.
However, he still wasn't so far along the path that Tom Riddle had trod that he'd actually been willing to cut through the man's head in cold blood right in front of the Headmaster's office. That would have made his sleeping arrangements a little awkward, considering that the man's son slept less than ten feet away from him.
Malfoy would attack again, and the next time Harry wouldn't show any mercy.
The House Elf had been awestruck by Harry and had been embarrassingly grateful. Harry had managed to get him to promise never to attack Harry again. The elf had promised to help Harry if he ever needed it, a promise that Harry suspected that he would need sooner or later.
The Weasleys had been effusive in their thanks; their family was even larger than Harry had thought and the twins informed him that there were more who were away working.
Life slowly got back to normal.
Harry didn't inform on Lockhart because he rather liked having a professor in his pocket. Lockhart promised to teach him the memory removing charm after Harry told him that he'd written everything down in a place only Harry could find.
Months passed with no further attacks, and Harry slowly began to develop a few acquaintances.
Contrary to expectations, the year ended peacefully, and Harry returned home, pleased that he hadn't been murdered in more than half a year.
Coming back to the Dursleys after months of being relatively popular was a disturbing contrast.
Although they didn't treat him nearly as bad as they once had, there was still an attitude of cold indifference. Harry had once chosen to see that as the best life possibly could be and it was an adjustment to realize that it wasn't.
Still, he managed to reach an accommodation within a couple of weeks. He hadn't lost his Slytherin skills of controlling his emotions, and that helped him to be compliant when Vernon was being particularly annoying.
Petunia watched him increasingly, though. He'd told them about how the basilisk had almost killed him, hoping that would cheer them up but it seemed to have the opposite effect on her. It seemed to remind her that he was growing stronger every day, stronger and more dangerous.
The fragile peace they accomplished was something to be valued. It wasn't until Harry learned that Aunt Marge was going to visit that he realized that would be threatened.
He'd never liked Marge. Unlike the Dursleys, she'd never heard about his magic, about dark wizards or terroristic threats. She'd always been unpleasant simply out of spite.
Harry wasn't even the only one she vented her bile on. Petunia always had a pinched look whenever she came over.
"You've been doing better lately, boy," Vernon said. "Almost acting like a respectable human being instead of one of them. Keep it up...keep a respectful tongue in your mouth with Marge."
Harry scowled. Part of the reason he'd been more respectful of the Dursleys was that he could understand why they acted like they did. He'd put their entire family in danger and he was a threat to them every day that he stayed.
He couldn't understand Marge at all. He suspected that in the Wizarding world she'd have been a Death Eater, and she'd have raised Hell Hounds.
"Second, no mention of any funny stuff," Vernon said. "She doesn't need to know about any of it."
On that, Harry agreed. Letting Marge know even more things she could taunt Harry about was the last thing he wanted.
"And third, we've told Marge that you attend Stonewall High. Stick to the story and don't get caught up in the details."
Harry stared at the older man. Vernon was giving him lessons on lying? Apparently Harry hadn't gone into enough detail about just what Slytherin was.
He'd already gotten them to sign his Hogsmeade permission form.
Although Harry had no intention of casually allowing himself to be the target of assassins, there might be times when he needed things in Hogsmeade. Having permission would make everything easier.
Surely Aunt Marge couldn't be any harder to deal with than sitting across the breakfast table every day from people who wanted him dead.
"Calling my mother a bitch?" Harry stared at Marge. "That's funny, coming from you."
If he'd had time to become more emotionally invested in his parents, Harry was sure that his magic would have exploded around him. As it was, only Slytherin control had kept him from decorating the walls with the back of Marge's head.
He could see that Petunia knew it too. She was pale, staring at him, even if Vernon didn't know the danger.
"What are you saying, boy?" Marge asked suspiciously.
"I'm saying it takes one to know one," Harry said.
Marge's face reddened and she reached out to slap Harry. Harry was already moving, stepping out of her range.
It was important to predict just how people were likely to react.
Vernon's face was already turning red, but Harry could see a secret glee on Petunia's face. Petunia had never liked Marge, not really, although she'd tolerated her.
"My mother...even my aunt," Harry said, glancing at Petunia. "You aren't fit to lick their boots. You talk about blood, but uncle Vernon is worth two of you."
What he didn't say was exactly how much he thought his aunt and uncle were worth. More than Marge at any rate.
As Vernon roared and came after him, Harry ducked around him and sprinted up the stairs. He could hear Vernon stomping up the stairs after him.
Harry reached his room and he turned around, holding his wand.
Vernon skidded to a stop at the top of the stairs. His face was red and he was breathing hard but there was an undercurrent of fear in his eyes.
Harry started screaming at the top of his lungs and banging the wall.
"What are you doing, boy?" Vernon asked, staring at him as though he'd suddenly gone insane. His anger had been replaced by confusion.
"Aunt Marge won't respect you unless she thinks you've punished me properly," Harry said. He leaned forward. "And this way you've got an excuse to ground me to my room for the rest of her visit. That way I don't have to listen to her and there won't be a chance of something...freaky happening."
"You planned all that?" Vernon asked, staring at him.
Harry grinned. After three days of listening to Marge, the idea had taken root and had become almost irresistible. She'd given him the opening he'd needed and he'd taken it.
Harry started to yell again as though Vernon was killing him, crying out that he was sorry and wouldn't do it again.
"That's enough!" Vernon said. "Keep it up and the neighbors are going to call the police."
The Dursleys were very concerned about what the neighbors thought. Harry wondered if he should have started making a scene years before.
Vernon must have seen something in his expression, because he leaned forward. "If they call the police, they'll come and take you away. How long would you last out there with all of them looking for you?"
Sobering instantly, Harry suddenly became quiet. Vernon had a good point, and Harry hadn't realized that he was bright enough to make a point like that.
"I'll be good," he promised. He was silent for a moment. "Why do you put up with Aunt Marge? She doesn't respect Aunt Petunia and she even looks down on you sometimes."
Vernon stared at him for a moment, then said, "You wouldn't understand what it's like with family, boy...when you've got a brother or sister."
In a better family Dudley would have been like Harry's brother, Harry thought. He was bright enough not to say it.
Harry nodded. "You'd better sell it when you go down, or she'll never believe it."
"What are they teaching you in that school of yours?" Vernon asked. "I knew they were freaks, but teaching you to lie like this?"
"I'm surrounded by people who hate me," Harry said. "I've got to learn to lie."
Vernon scowled. Considering that Harry hadn't said whether the people who hated him were at school or at home, that wasn't surprising.
Harry stepped into his room and slammed the door. He heard Vernon stomping down the stairs, bragging loudly about how he'd put Harry in his place.
The fact that he'd let Harry essentially dictate the terms of what was going to happen had seemingly escaped him.
Even better, he'd gotten to call Aunt Marge a bitch to her face and had essentially gotten rewarded for it.
That evening, to his surprise, Aunt Petunia left him a piece of cake along with his dinner. Harry suspected that it was because he'd gotten to say what she'd always wanted to say to Marge.
Running the gauntlet in the train station before getting to the Hogwarts Express was getting easier every year. Not only was Harry getting better at being stealthy, he was less worried about what would happen if he was caught. He still wasn't the match for a full Death Eater, but he probably could fight an out of practice adult wizard who was simply out for the bounty.
His disguises were getting better. No one had recognized him yet in Diagon Alley, and speculation in the Daily Prophet was that he was having someone else pick up his school supplies every year. The fact that no one had caught on was proof of the blind spot wizards had about muggle methods sometimes.
Having a disguise he could remove before entering Gringott's and then reapply had been more difficult, but he'd practiced.
He'd been pleased at the contents of his vault. Rendering the basilisk had doubled his fortune. Although he'd been a little disappointed that it wasn't more, Snape had explained that he'd damaged or exploded all of the really good parts of the basilisk when he'd damaged its head.
Fifty thousand galleons wasn't something Harry had needed strictly, but he was an optimist. If he ever actually did kill Voldemort and his followers, he'd need something to fall back on.
Snape had seemed pleased with his own share, which was half of what Harry had made.
Hogwarts had kept seventy percent, reasoning that if the Basilisk belonged to Salazar Slytherin and it was found in the school, it was property of the school. Harry had tried to argue with the Headmaster, but had found him a proficient arguer. More than a hundred years in politics had given him skills.
The money would probably give Dumbledore leverage in case of another disaster. Since the school seemed to be a target of Voldemort's attacks, he probably needed the extra help. This, and the fear that Dumbledore would simply take it all had caused Harry to give in.
Harry hadn't even bothered to wear a disguise this year as he walked into King's cross road. He'd used a number of different muggle transportation methods- cab and bus and underground in disguise before he'd cleaned himself up and taken the Knight bus to King's cross road. The last thing he wanted was for a smarter Death Eater to find out the general area he lived in by using magic on his cab driver.
No disguise meant that people called out to him as he got on the bus. He looked for Hermione and Neville, and found them waiting to get on the train.
"Harry!" Hermione said. "Are you all right?"
"Are you talking about the convict that's trying to kill me?" Harry asked. "The Ministry sent me a letter about it."
"Aren't you worried?"
Harry shrugged. "I have hundreds of Death Eaters and even more random wizards out to collect the bounty after me. What's one more wizard, especially one that hasn't practiced magic in twelve years?"
Hermione frowned. "I never thought I'd say this, but you can't take it too lightly."
"If he comes for me, I'll be ready for him."
"You're getting overconfident, Harry," Hermione said as they stepped onto the train. "He's a full grown wizard and crazy too. Have you seen his picture in the Wizarding paper?"
As was Harry's habit, he'd waited until late to reach the train. He figured that would give any attackers less time to find him and kill him. He was surprised that Hermione and Neville were late this year as well. Usually they had a compartment reserved for him.
The train seemed unusually full this year; there wasn't an empty car to be found except at the end of the train, where there was a single adult man who seemed to be sleeping.
Harry was immediately on his guard. Adults usually weren't on the train and this man's being here was immediately suspicious. The fact that the man looked ill and exhausted didn't lessen his suspicion. Quirrell had been dying when he taught Harry's first year.
Gingerly sitting as far as he could from the man, Harry kept his hand on his wand.
"You think he's the new professor?" Neville asked.
To Harry's disgust, Lockhart had been caught in a scandal with a fifth year girl at the end of last year and his other lies had been discovered. Although he hadn't been much of a Defense Professor, Harry had put a lot of work into blackmailing him and making him think they were friends.
At least Harry could now manage a decent memory charm if necessary. If it weren't for the Trace, that would make life at the Dursley's enormously easy...possibly part of the reason for the Trace. After all, without restrictions on underage magic, Harry could have utterly terrorized the Dursleys by the end of his first year.
"His bag says Professor Lupin," Hermione pointed out.
"If I were a Death Eater pretending to be a professor, I'd get a bag like that too," Harry said grimly. Little details were important in creating a believable disguise.
The man's shabby clothes certainly didn't look like those of any of the other professors.
"Are you excited about finally getting to go to Hogsmeade this year?" Neville asked Harry. "I've heard the sweet shop is amazing."
"I'd be more interested in the joke shop and the book shop," Harry said. "The Weasley twins have been charging me a fortune to deliver things from there. I'm not sure how often I'll get to go though, what with the bounty on my head."
Harry fully planned to go; he simply intended to be in disguise when he did. Saying that in front of a potential Death Eater would be stupid though.
"You shouldn't go at all until Sirius Black is caught," Hermione said.
"What, this is the year you've finally decided that I'm in danger?" Harry asked, staring at her. "I've been telling you that since first year!"
"This is the first year a maniac is after you!"
Harry snorted. "There's a few hundred maniacs after me all the time."
The train started and they spent the first few minutes chatting about their summers. Harry kept his discussion about his own family situation vague. He suspected that the professor, or whoever he was was only pretending to sleep so he could eavesdrop on him.
Still, he enjoyed hearing about Neville and Hermione's summers, so different from his own. Hermione had spend the summer in France, and Neville had spent the summer in his garden,growing magical plants.
As the afternoon wore on, Harry became more convinced that the man was faking. He hadn't attacked yet, but Harry kept an eye on him. Night eventually fell.
He was winning a game of wizard chess with Neville when the train suddenly began slowing.
"We can't be there yet," Hermione said, staring out the window.
Hogsmeade was nowhere in sight.
Suddenly the train slammed on the brakes and Harry was thrown forward. He was struck in the head by falling luggage and the lights all went out.
"What's going on?" Neville asked.
"It's an attack," Harry said grimly. He should have seen it before. Outlaws had stopped trains in America in the past to rob them; why couldn't Death Eaters attack a train with a known route in order to get to Harry?
He'd been foolish to think he was safe as long as he stayed in the car and away from any upper years.
Glancing outside, Harry didn't see the attackers on brooms that he'd expected, but that might mean that they were already on the train.
There was movement from the corner; the man pretending to be a professor had woken up. Harry turned his wand toward the man, who looked at him irritably. In his hand was what seemed like a handful of fire, flickering.
"I'm not going to attack you," the man said. He carefully kept his wand away pointed down.
Apparently he knew about Harry's reputation. "I'm going to see what's going on. Stay here."
He headed for the door of the compartment, stepping around the trunks on the floor. Harry kept his wand trained on the man as he approached the door.
Before he could reach the door, it slowly slid open.
On the other side was a horror out of Harry's worst nightmares.