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Notes: This was originally posted on FictionAlley on 19 February, 2004. It is NOT related to the Psychic Serpent universe at all but begins during the summer BETWEEN Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (the summer that Harry turns 16). After that it will jump to Harry's adult years and ONLY the content of the first FIVE canon books will be taken into account. (No Horcruxes, no Slughorn—nothing that occurred in the last TWO books, which were not available at the time.) It will be 60 chapters long and will not always be from Harry's PoV. It will also involve "next generation" characters different from those in the epilogue of Deathly Hallows. So don't worry when it departs from the last two books—just kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

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Replay

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Chapter One

Over the Wall

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He should have bolted when he had the chance.

Surely it wouldn't have hurt too much to leap from the moving car as it zoomed down the road from London to Little Whinging. It would probably have hurt less than having to be in the same house with her for a fortnight.

Whirrrrr THUMP! Whirrrrrrr THUMP! Whirrrr THUMP!

Harry Potter awoke to the sound of his aunt's hoover ramming against his bedroom door repeatedly. He rolled over and put his pillow over his head, willing the noise to go away; he knew Aunt Petunia was trying to rouse him to do housecleaning. She would be arriving that evening, and despite the fact that the house was usually spotless (except for any place that Dudley had been shedding crumbs) his aunt was compulsively cleaning more nonexistent dirt from the carpet outside Harry's room.

It went on.

Whirrrrr THUMP! Whirrrrrrr THUMP! Whirrrr THUMP!

And on.

Whirrrrr THUMP! Whirrrrrrr THUMP! Whirrrr—

Harry sat up and screamed above the noise of the hoover and the thumping, "All right, all right! I'll help you clean if you stop that!"

The motor on the vacuum was abruptly switched off and his aunt opened his bedroom door. "Did you say something, then, you layabout?" she said acidly. "Eight o'clock in the morning, and still in bed! Make yourself useful! Marge will be here in nine hours and the house is a disgrace, now that you're back. Oh, and we've also invited Yvonne to dinner, so I don't want any funny business!"

Harry bit his tongue, trying to refrain from telling her that the disgraceful state of the house (it wasn't that bad, in his opinion) was the fault of Dudley, who was also still abed (and probably would be until noon, as was his wont since returning from Smeltings). "I'll do anything except hoover the upstairs, Aunt Petunia. Anything but that," he said emphatically.

"Oh, no, you don't—" she began, and then proceeded to tell him about every place upstairs that was expected to be spotless. He groaned but tried not to overdo it.

"Aunt Petunia! Next thing you'll be telling me I have to hoover the downstairs, too."

Her eyes blazed at his insolence. "Just for that—yes! You do! Now dress and get to work!"

When she was gone he couldn't prevent a grin from crossing his face; he'd become rather good at manipulating her over the years. Hoovering was one of the few household chores he didn't hate. When he was the one operating the machine he didn't mind the noise, as he was in control of it, and it let him think his own thoughts while mindlessly pushing it back and forth. It also caused a major headache to anyone who wasn't operating it, and gave him a very good excuse for pretending not to hear anything the Dursleys said to him. However, if he'd volunteered for this job, he'd have been cleaning windows or polishing silver in a trice and probably wouldn't have been permitted anywhere near his aunt's precious dirt-sucking machine. He shook his head over her naïveté; he'd been pulling the same stunt since he was nine years old, and she still fell for it. (Of course, after all these years of his complaining about it, she must have been convinced that it was his least favourite thing in the world, which made her more determined to thrust this chore upon him at every opportunity.)

He sat up with a groan and fumbled for his glasses on the table beside his bed, still having to blink a bit to bring the room into focus even after he'd put them on. Now that he could see the world a little better, he reached into the drawer in the table to pull out the letter he'd received from Professor Dumbledore just after he'd returned to Privet Drive at the end of his fifth year, an eternity that was only a fortnight ago.

Dear Harry,

I do hope you have a good holiday. Though I must ask you to remain with your relatives for at least six weeks to ensure the efficacy of the spell of which we spoke at the end of term, this letter is meant to bring you news of a more immediate nature. While it is acceptable for underage witches and wizards to perform magic outside of school in case of emergency, as you did last summer, this does usually require an inquiry into the reason for magic being performed, something we wish to avoid again if at all possible. After speaking to Minister Fudge, I have convinced him to grant you amnesty from the Restriction on Underage Magic during the summer holiday on certain conditions:

1) You must not perform magic frivolously, for your own amusement or for others';

2) If you perform magic for the purpose of protecting yourself or others, you or the other people involved must be in IMMEDIATE danger;

3) You must not perform magic in the vicinity of Muggles if at all possible, but if this is not possible, you must take steps to contact a Ministry official immediately so that Obliviators may administer memory charms to the Muggle or Muggles in question.

While it may not seem that you are receiving more latitude than other students, I assure you that Minister Fudge has promised that there will be no inquiry unless you violate one of the above conditions. As difficult as it sometimes is, we would like to try to keep you out of the public eye during the holiday. (The Minister is also using his influence at the Daily Prophet in this regard.)

Carry your wand with you at all times, Harry, and be very alert. I do not anticipate that you will have need of this amnesty, but I also do not want you to be unnecessarily anxious about being unable to use magic to protect yourself, should the safeguards in place prove to be inadequate in any way. This does NOT mean that you may use a summoning charm any time you wish to avoid crossing the room to fetch something. You should also bear in mind your relatives' general distaste for magic and be considerate of their sensibilities regarding this. I am certain that you do not wish to find yourself before the Wizengamot again and trust that you will conduct yourself accordingly.

Have a good summer, Harry.

With warmest regards,

Albus Dumbledore

Harry happened to drop the letter onto the kitchen table when he'd received it at breakfast the day after he'd returned to Privet Drive. Dudley and his aunt were still recoiling from the owl that had delivered it, which was soaring out the open window again. "Oh, can I have my letter back, Uncle Vernon?" he'd asked innocently when his uncle had picked up the heavy parchment and started glancing it over. "If I should need to do…anything I normally don't do here this summer, I want to be certain I have that as proof that I had permission. Of course, the headmaster probably made a copy before he sent it, but still…" Harry didn't know any such thing but he didn't imagine it would be difficult for Dumbledore.

His uncle had turned an alarming shade of raspberry (which had put Harry off raspberries for a week) as he handed the letter back to his nephew, hand shaking. "I don't care what that letter says. I do not give you permission to—to engage in any abnormal behaviour under my roof, at any time, for any reason. Do you understand? Never! And what do you mean 'made a copy?' Since when do your kind use copy machines?"

Harry raised his eyebrows. "I didn't say how he did it," he'd answered with wide-eyed innocence, avoiding the 'M' word. "And if that letter says I have the right to protect myself, then I have the right to protect myself. I think it shouldn't be hard to convince someone in authority that if I were locked up again with almost no food that I would be perfectly in my rights to take action to put a stop to that, don't you agree? If that sort of thing doesn't happen, I don't see why I should need to do anything at all. Right, Uncle Vernon?" Harry said, glaring at his uncle. The raspberry colour intensified and his uncle's rather large moustache was quivering with rage and impotence. Harry also thought it possible that his uncle was remembering his exchange with Mad-Eye Moody at King's Cross.

"Petunia!" he roared suddenly. "The tea is cold! Harry has wasted so much of my time on this I'm going to be late to the office. Make sure you give him plenty to do to keep him busy today, as punishment." He gave Harry an evil grin. "Try to convince someone that that requires you to 'defend' yourself, if you can. I expect to hear that you have followed all of your aunt's orders to the letter!" He rose and strode toward the door, turning at the last minute and saying, "To. The. Letter." Spit flew from the corners of his mouth. He turned on his heel and strode down the corridor away from the kitchen. Harry picked up the parchment from the floor, where it had fallen during Uncle Vernon's tirade. When his head was below the table, Harry grinned. Maybe that would keep his aunt and uncle from even threatening to lock him up again.

Harry sighed as he put the letter back in the drawer. Four more weeks to go. And half of that time would be spent with Aunt Marge. Which wouldn't have been so very bad if he hadn't had to send Hedwig to Hermione's house. He'd already sent letters with Hedwig to Hagrid and the Weasleys to warn them that he wasn't to receive any owl-post during Aunt Marge's time on Privet Drive. After that he'd sent the snowy owl off to Hermione, who'd agreed to act as a go-between; anything that Hagrid or the Weasleys wanted to send to Harry during that time would be sent to her and she'd send it to Harry by Muggle post. (Harry had told her that the Weasleys still didn't quite grasp the concept of 'stamps.') This would be particularly necessary if he was to get anything for his birthday, which would come at the tail end of the Fearsome Fortnight, as he'd taken to thinking of it. It would also mean that all of his post would be slightly delayed, but there was no helping that.

After dressing and eating breakfast, Harry took much of the day to hoover the house (his ears were still ringing), and with five o'clock fast approaching, he braced himself for Marge's arrival. As the clock struck five, the crunch of the gravel was heard from Vernon Dursley's car pulling into the driveway. Harry knew he was supposed to open the front door, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. So Marge Dursley's imperious finger rang the bell of number four, Privet Drive moments later, immediately causing Harry to think fondly of the previous Margeless days he'd spent in the house since returning from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to be referred to as St Brutus's Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys when Aunt Marge was about. (To be referred to by the non-Marge Dursleys as "that place" when she wasn't.)

"Open the door!" his aunt screeched, trying to smooth down Dudley's thick blond hair. Harry's own hair was standing on end as usual, which Marge would no doubt criticise. Feeling like he had a stone in his stomach, he turned the knob.

There she was, as large as life. Marge Dursley. With each passing year, she seemed to develop an even greater similarity to her brother, from the spherical body (Had the Ministry wizards really finished the job of deflating her? Harry wondered.) to the moustache (very nearly as full as Vernon's) on her beefy purple face. As ever, Ripper was under her arm when Harry opened the door. She thrust her suitcase at Harry as she entered, still clutching the old bulldog (who growled at Harry) and otherwise utterly ignoring him. He grunted as the wind was knocked out of him by the suitcase. Clutching the monstrous piece of luggage, he staggered toward the stairs and began to ascend the flight slowly, hoping he wouldn't lose his balance and hurtle to the bottom, ending up in a heap in the front hall, Marge's one-ton suitcase on top of him.

He tried to avoid listening to the sickening conversation between the four of them. It was, on the surface, a mutual admiration society, but he knew that each of them had his or her particular agenda; he had heard his aunt and uncle discussing Marge's will with Dudley while they were anticipating her visit. Marge had recently asked her brother Vernon to be her executor.

"Is that a new handbag, Marge?" Petunia gushed; Harry had reached the top of the stairs and he put Marge's suitcase down with a thud, turning to look into the front hall. He thought the handbag very ugly: orange-coloured mock crocodile skin with a zebra-print strap. He suspected that this was also his aunt's opinion, as she had much more understated taste.

When they had been discussing Marge's will, he had been cleaning the oven; from its echoing interior he had heard his aunt say, "I hope she doesn't try to give me one scrap of clothing she has ever worn. She seems to think I fancy her taste. If she leaves me that rot, just throw it on a bonfire. The rest of the world will be well rid of it."

She seems to think I fancy her taste. Well, Harry thought, if you didn't go about gushing over her things every time you see her, she probably wouldn't. He felt it would serve his aunt right if she were left nothing but Aunt Marge's hideous clothes.

"Have you lost weight, Aunt Marge? Why ever would you do such a thing? You'll waste away to nothing!" Dudley said to her, his voice loud and false-sounding. Harry wasn't sure whether Marge would take this to be a compliment, as a rhino would appear svelte beside Dudley, despite his being more muscular since taking up boxing. Vernon Dursley was now having Smeltings uniforms custom-made for him. It was a good thing Dudley was gaining muscle; if he'd grown any wider, he would have brushed both sides of the hall when walking from the front door to the kitchen, something he still did far too frequently. Plus, Harry had actually heard Dudley, of all people, insulting Marge's weight, again when they were discussing the will. "When do you think the fat old girl will kick it?" he'd asked his parents.

Harry had thought they would be appalled, but with jovial good humour, Uncle Vernon had said, "Oh, don't worry. High cholesterol, clogged arteries, blood sugar all over the place—she told me all of the things wrong with her. Something will catch up with her sooner or later, no fear of that." He'd clapped his hands together, satisfied that his sister already had one foot in the grave.

Harry dragged the suitcase to the guest room, thinking that if there was any justice in the world, Aunt Marge would outlive them all. On the other hand, that would mean Marge would still be around, he thought with a shudder.

He braced himself, then in a great burst of exertion swung her suitcase up onto the bed, wishing he dared levitate it. When he had returned to the top of the stairs, still breathing heavily, Vernon was the one trying to ingratiate himself with his sister, while simultaneously insulting his wife and son. Harry didn't feel the least bit insulted, though he knew he was the real target of Vernon's barbed remarks.

"Well, isn't it nice to have a perfectly normal relative come to see us for once," he said pointedly, noticing Harry at the top of the stairs. Aunt Marge's beady little eyes followed her brother's gaze and her mouth twisted unpleasantly upon seeing Harry again. He swallowed, hoping he could keep his emotions (and his accidental magic) under control.

"Your suitcase is on your bed, Aunt Marge," he informed her as he descended the stairs, though he wanted nothing more than to lock himself in his room and pretend he didn't exist. (He would have been perfectly happy to do this when the Masons had come to dinner if Dobby hadn't shown up and made it impossible.)

"I hope you didn't go poking about in it, boy," she said suspiciously, her eyes narrowing.

He gazed innocently back at her. "Of course not, Aunt Marge."

"Hmph!" she said sceptically, following her brother into the lounge. Harry closed his eyes, breathing deeply, counting backward from one-hundred to keep himself in check.

I will not lose my temper, I will not lose my temper he thought. He remained in the hall instead of following the others into the lounge.

"So," he heard Marge say when she had lowered her bulk into a chair; "how bad were his marks this term?"

"Oh, you wouldn't believe how bad," Uncle Vernon said after a moment's hesitation, making Harry bristle. "And I don't expect his GCSEs to be much better," he added, evidently remembering that Harry was supposed to be like any other boy his age, only more likely to end up in prison.

"In my days, they were O-Levels. How do you think you'll do, Dudders?"

"Oh, I thought it was easy," Dudley answered breezily. Harry doubted that; he anticipated that his one possible bright spot during the holiday, before going off to number twelve, Grimmauld Place, would be the arrival of Dudley's GCSE results. Harry fully expected to find that Dudley had done miserably.

After Dudley's boast, he suddenly felt like asking his cousin things like, "What's a dangling participle? What's the capital of Argentina?" even though he wasn't certain he knew these things, either, let alone whether questions of this sort were generally asked on the GCSEs. A week earlier, he'd been watching a quiz show with the rest of the family and these questions had come up. He was starting to feel like he should behave like Hermione during the summer and read up on the sort of things he would have learned if he'd gone to Muggle school. He was starting to feel a little ignorant of basic Muggle information.

His train of thought was derailed by the doorbell ringing, however, and Harry called into the lounge, "I'll get it." He knew who it would be. He swung open the door and found his aunt's best friend and partner in gossip, Yvonne Martin, standing on the mat, looking down her long nose at him.

"Oh," she said, ever the friendly one; "it's you."

"Good evening, Mrs. Martin," Harry said, doing his best butler imitation.

He wondered how on earth servants put up with horrid masters who insisted upon discussing them in earshot, as though they couldn't understand English. This was what Yvonne Martin and Petunia Dursley habitually did to Harry, all the while ordering him about. It was always, "On the roof of the school kitchens, if you please!" and "Well, I never! Such cheek!" followed swiftly by, "More ice for our drinks! Now!"

That was when he was younger. While his aunt had less ammunition now that he was away at school, instead of blunting her attacks, this seemed to challenge her to come up with just as many things to criticise, though she only saw him six weeks out of the year.

Petunia appeared in the hall to greet her best friend. "Yvonne! So glad you could make it," she said with genuine feeling, embracing her. Harry had often heard his aunt say that Yvonne was the sister she'd never had, which made Harry want to throw something. You didn't appreciate the sister you had, he'd thought more than once. Now that he'd seen his mother in Snape's Pensieve, he wondered how she had refrained from hexing her sister; perhaps she hadn't refrained, and that was part of why Petunia wasn't very fond of her. He liked what he'd seen of his mother and couldn't imagine her taking anything from her sister lying down.

"Come in, come in," Petunia said, looking far happier than when her sister-in-law had arrived. "You remember Vernon's sister Marge, of course? I knew how well you and Yvonne got on when you visited at Christmas two years ago, Marge, so I thought you'd appreciate having her here again," she lied, her voice dripping with obsequiousness. Harry knew Yvonne was only there to save Petunia from having to converse with Marge more than necessary.

Harry would have given anything to get out of hearing them talk about how worthless he was, so he decided to be helpful instead. "Do you want me to check on the dinner, Aunt Petunia?" he asked deferentially. She immediately looked alarmed, springing to her feet.

"Why? What are you planning to do to our food?" She hustled past him, going down the corridor to the kitchen, Yvonne close behind her. Harry followed, his exasperation threatening to overwhelm him.

"Nothing, Aunt Petunia. I just thought you'd like to relax instead of having to watch the time," he said as he entered the kitchen. His aunt was peering into the oven, eyeing the roast suspiciously, as though she expected it to start dancing a hornpipe any second. No, he ordered himself. Don't think about things like that or you might make it happen. He had to watch it; if he got very worked up and wasn't careful about his thoughts, there was no telling what he could do accidentally. "Can't I want to be helpful without having an ulterior motive?" he asked, unable to mask the resentment in his voice.

She looked at him through narrowed eyes, her lips very thin. "No," she replied simply, leaving the kitchen again, Yvonne travelling in her wake.

He managed to make it through the hour before dinner by sitting in a corner of the lounge with his hands folded in his lap, staring into space and thinking about Quidditch fouls while the talk swarmed around his head, never really penetrating. At one point Marge barked at him, "You! Why are you sitting there with that queer look on your face? Planning something criminal, are you?"

He blinked, having been thinking about how much he'd like to commit a Blatching foul on Draco Malfoy, if there weren't a virtual guarantee that Madam Hooch would catch him. That's all that's missing here, he thought miserably. To round out the polar opposite of his fan club, all the lounge of number four, Privet Drive needed was to add one very anti-Potter Slytherin to the mix. Or two, if you threw in Professor Snape. The main course at dinner would no longer be roast beef but Harry-Potter's-Head-on-a-Platter.

When they were sitting around the dinner table, Harry was attempting to be as invisible as possible and largely succeeding apart from the odd remark about his messy hair, dreadful marks, skinny build or criminal tendencies. But when his aunt was dishing up the trifle they were having for pudding (giving Harry a measly spoonful of wilted fruit with no cake or cream), Marge started in on him again, forcing Harry to struggle to keep control over his emotions.

After shoving a large forkful of trifle into her mouth, resulting in a dollop of cream sitting on one of her chubby chins, she waved the empty fork in Harry's direction, saying, "Now he's almost sixteen, Vernon, you should turn him out. What's he need more schooling for? He'd never pass A-Levels, after all, let alone get into university. You've more than done your duty. A sixteen-year-old is perfectly able to support himself, if he puts his mind to it." She sniffed and scratched her nose, but she'd had some cream on her hand as well, and now another dollop adorned the end of her pudgy nose. "Of course, most sixteen-year-olds would start as manual labourers, and he doesn't look like he could even lift Ripper without hurting himself." The dog barked in his direction as though he agreed with her assessment and Harry bristled again; she'd seen him carry her ruddy suitcase upstairs. It had to weigh at least fifty kilos.

He tried the deep breathing once more, to stay calm. I can get through this, I can, he tried to tell himself. I won't let her get to me.

"Petunia," Yvonne suddenly said, after taking a tiny, dainty speck of cake from her fork; she was always slimming, telling his aunt about this or that plan guaranteed to take off the weight. She never looked any different to Harry, always slightly pudgier than his aunt but never what you'd call outright fat. "Didn't you tell me once that he has a godfather? Why couldn't he take him? Why didn't he take him when your sister and her husband left him on your hands?"

Harry counted in his head some more; the way she'd put it, you'd think his parents had wilfully abandoned him, as though they'd had any choice about it. He decided he'd had enough of this and it was time to shut up the lot of them. He saw that his uncle was about to open his mouth to answer, but Harry rushed to do it first. "Oh, he couldn't take me because he went to prison right after my parents died," he said casually, loading some fruit on his fork. "For mass murder," he added, before putting the fork in his mouth and chewing the fruit thoughtfully, gauging the reactions of the others at the table.

Complete and utter silence reigned; his aunt and uncle looked like they wanted to throttle him. Dudley was taking advantage of the general paralysis of the adults to help himself to more trifle. Harry was rather pleased by the result of his little bombshell. This is going quite well, he thought. "Of course, after he escaped from prison a few years ago," he continued, "he asked me to come live with him, and I might have done, but since he's on the run from the police, that wouldn't have worked very well. Maybe you heard about him? It was all over the news that he'd escaped. Sirius Black. It was three years ago almost to the day," he added. "It's a pity I couldn't go to live with him, but he visits me at school and writes to me often enough. He and my dad were like brothers."

It was almost as if he could convince himself that Sirius was still alive by speaking about him like this. The sharp pain of losing Sirius had not dulled in the time that had elapsed since; he still had the Department of Mysteries dream every night, but slightly changed now. He was walking down the corridor, drawing nearer and nearer to the door, but when he opened it, he immediately saw Bellatrix Lestrange hexing Sirius, Sirius falling through the veil, heard his own voice screaming, "Noooooo..." He'd woken in a cold sweat each night while it was still dark, hoping Dudley wouldn't come into his room and ask him whether Sirius was his boyfriend, as he'd done when Harry had cried out Cedric's name in his sleep the previous summer. It was difficult to fall sleep again after that, but he usually managed eventually. The interrupted sleep didn't make it any easier to get up at a "civilised" time, or at least civilised enough for his aunt.

He put another forkful of trifle in his mouth, trying again to not see the image of Sirius falling through the veil, trying not to think about it. He was not going to make them happy by telling them that Sirius was dead. He didn't want to give them that satisfaction. He wasn't completely convinced that Mad-Eye Moody's threat had been enough to make them treat him well, nor even the letter from Dumbledore, so he had no problem letting them continue to think that another reason they had to treat him well was that they might otherwise be risking a murderer slitting their throats in the night. And by pretending to them that Sirius was alive, it almost made Harry feel that he was, that he could walk in the door any moment.

Marge's mouth was open wide enough that they could all see her unchewed food, a quite revolting sight. Yvonne had ceased to chew and looked like she'd bitten a lemon, her face was screwed up so painfully. Vernon Dursley's thick neck was bright red and his face was brighter red as he worked on building up a proper head of steam, ready to explode in Harry's direction.

However, Marge surprised them all, coming to herself again quite suddenly and attacking from a direction Harry hadn't anticipated. "Well," she said, sniffing, even as she continued to chew. She swallowed and went on. "That explains quite a lot, now doesn't it? Mass-murderer for a godfather. What sort of godfather is he, eh? That's what I'd like to know," she said, elbowing Dudley and raising her eyebrows suggestively. Dudley, his mouth full of trifle, nodded vigorously in agreement, his jaws busily working on the enormous amount of food he'd shovelled into his maw.

Petunia was looking daggers at Harry while Yvonne started edging her chair away from him, trembling. Harry was about to say something else, but Marge went on.

"And here I'd always thought that that Potter your sister married was an unemployed lout, Petunia! Turns out he was far worse; if this Black was like a brother to him, very likely he was living a life of crime as well, and we can all see that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," she opined, gesturing at Harry with her fork. "No doubt it was some rival drug lord who killed them. Probably started poaching on his territory. Dreadful! No thought at all for his wife's poor relatives who would have to clean up his mess by raising his delinquent child, not that your sister must have cared at all for the law either, marrying a gangster as she did."

Despite his best efforts, Harry was feeling the negative emotions welling up in side of him and was afraid that they would soon break free if he didn't manage to calm himself. Oh, so now my dad's a gangster? he thought angrily, though he'd tried to cultivate this view of Sirius to unnerve everyone present.

"And you say that he visits you at school?" Yvonne finally choked out, staring at Harry as though he would take out a gun at any moment and murder her in cold blood. "Petunia!" she said fearfully. "He's—he's in contact with a fugitive! And he hasn't told the police!"

Now his aunt and uncle were looking angrier with him than he'd ever seen, even after the Weasleys had destroyed the lounge in order to travel by Floo. But Marge still wasn't done.

"Of course, it might have been someone in his own organisation who killed Potter and your sister," Marge said to a very stiff, tight-lipped Petunia Dursley, as though she were very well-versed concerning the ins and outs of organised crime.

Suddenly my dad's not just a gangster but a criminal overlord, Harry thought crossly.

"He probably double-crossed one of his own thugs, who wanted to pay him back. That's very likely how it was done—inside job. No honor among thieves, you know," Aunt Marge said, not noticing that Dudley was now trading his empty bowl for her still-heaping serving of trifle; once it was before him, he dove in with abandon.

Harry had never seen his aunt and uncle so livid, but he was feeling a fair bit of anger himself, and he knew that this was bad, very bad. He couldn't risk staying in the room with Aunt Marge any longer; she had a knack for saying just the thing that would send him over the edge, and he was amazed that he'd managed to control his temper as long as he had. So he knew that he had to push further, to get his aunt and uncle to do the only thing that would save them all from a dose of his accidental magic.

He stood and forced his face into a frown, glaring across the table at Marge. "If you don't watch your mouth," he said to her through gritted teeth, hoping he sounded tougher than he felt, "I'll get my godfather to come here and teach you a lesson you'll never forget, you fat, hairy old cow." Everyone at the table gasped, except for Dudley, who was now busy polishing off Yvonne's forgotten trifle. Harry was torn between hoping that his words would turn Marge into an actual fat, hairy old cow and hoping that they wouldn't.

Aunt Petunia's hand was on her chest and she was the colour of curdled milk; Uncle Vernon, on the other hand, could have passed for a beetroot, struggling to his feet and pointing at Harry with a shaking finger. "You will go to your room, you piece of filth, and see if you get to come out of it before the end of the summer! I will not stand for my sister to be spoken to that way by the likes of you!"

Aunt Marge fanned herself with her hand. "Honestly, Vernon! I don't know why you don't chuck him out on his ear tonight, his age be damned! Let that fugitive take care of him! With any luck the police will put them both where they belong!"

Uncle Vernon looked uncomfortable and put his finger in his collar as though it was too tight. (His fleshy neck was spilling over it.) "Er, Marge, as tempting as that is, you know how the police are about that sort of thing. He's our responsibility for a little while longer."

"And I don't know why you're so upset about my calling her a fat, old cow," he said to his uncle, feeling a very pleasurable sense of power. "It's nothing you haven't said yourself when discussing what you'll do with her money when the 'old girl kicks it,' as Dudley is so fond of saying." Dudley looked up in alarm, his mouth full of trifle and cream all around his busy mouth. "I don't know what's more disgusting; the way you kiss up to her or the way you turn around and talk as though she's already six feet under."

If Harry had thought that lies would be effective—such as Sirius still being alive and a mass-murderer—it was nothing to the effect that the truth had on everyone present. "Let me see if I remember— 'High cholesterol, clogged arteries,' something like that. 'Something will catch up with her,' I think you said, Uncle Vernon." He turned back to Marge. "And whatever you do, Aunt Marge, don't leave your clothes to Aunt Petunia. She hates all of your stuff and will just burn it."

As her brother and sister-in-law spluttered and tried to make excuses for why Harry would say such hateful things ("Mentally ill! Always has been! Trying to get his treatment paid for, but you know the government…"), he strode out of the dining room, while his uncle bellowed, "I meant what I said! You are in that room for the rest of the holiday!"

"Yeah, yeah," Harry said carelessly, glad that he was out of there before anything happened. He didn't know how he was going to stand a fortnight of Marge, especially now that he'd told the deep, dark family secret that they really couldn't stand her. (Would she want to stay after all? he wondered. He thought he'd seen a flicker of belief in her eyes when he'd told her the truth about what her family thought of her.)

He closed his door and threw himself onto his bed, the springs complaining beneath him. Despite the fact that he was still quite thin, he'd grown some during his fifth year, and was coming very close to having his feet hanging off the end of the mattress unless he had the top of his head right up against the headboard. He rose and paced the room restlessly, wishing he had Hedwig to talk to or to send off with a letter to Ron or Hermione about the rubbish he'd been dealing with. Instead he was stuck in a house with four people—five, tonight—who all hated him and made him want to do dreadful things, which he couldn't afford to do if he was going to avoid breaking wizarding law. Dumbledore was right about that: he hadn't enjoyed going before the Wizengamot the previous summer and did not want to repeat it.

He thought for a moment of going into Dudley's room and having at the punching bag his aunt and uncle had given his cousin for Christmas. He'd brought it home from his Smeltings dormitory for the summer in order to continue to stay in practise. When Harry saw it for the first time, he stopped short; Dudley had drawn on it with permanent ink. The top of the punching bag was adorned with a crude cartoon of Harry. There was a lopsided oval for the head, spiky black hair, glasses that looked like they'd been sat on by Dudley himself, and a jagged scar traversing Harry's cartoonish forehead, a far larger scar than he really had. He'd also drawn Harry's mouth with most of the teeth missing, as though Dudley had already knocked them out himself.

Harry had stared and stared at the bag that first time, at the insulting caricature, the missing teeth, the exaggerated scar, the wild hair, wondering what he could do to Dudley to get back at him. But suddenly, getting back at Dudley had seemed like the least important thing in the world. He stared at the drawing, looking into the eyes of the cartoon Harry, feeling a hatred well up in him such as he had never known, a greater hatred than he had felt when he failed to curse Bellatrix Lestrange.

He began punching the bag repeatedly, harder and harder, until his scrawny arms seemed like they would ache for a year. He hit his own image in the face over and over, his eyes streaming, grunting with the effort. "It's all your fault," he had gasped between blows. "You killed him. You. You murdered him. He'd be alive if it weren't for you. So would they. Mum and dad would be alive if it weren't for you, if you weren't in that damn prophecy…"

Dudley had been out with his gang at the time and his aunt and uncle evidently forgot, thinking that the sound of blows raining on the punching bag was due to Dudley getting in some practise. Harry had collapsed afterward, not quite finding the catharsis he sought. However, he also knew that he couldn't possibly tell his relatives that Sirius had died. It was my fault, just like with my parents. Just like with Cedric. He couldn't get these thoughts out of his head, awake or asleep.

I need to get out of this house, at least for a little while, he thought, still pacing his room. He felt that it was not the time for another confrontation with his cartoon self on Dudley's punching bag. There were enough people who weren't him attacking him; he didn't need to help them. He knew how Sirius had felt, cooped up in number twelve, Grimmauld Place, forced to listen to his mother's screaming portrait and the vile mutterings of his evil house elf. Harry could still hear his uncle raving at the top of his lungs, and Marge, as well, producing a steady, even stream of opinions about criminals, and Sirius in particular, saying, "What sort of godfather is he, that's what I'd like to know, eh? I've seen those American films. I know how the criminal mind works…" Their voices formed a macabre duet.

Harry tried to shut them out by putting his fingers in his ears, but it was no good. At length his eyes landed on his trunk and he wondered whether there was any way he could possibly avoid getting in trouble if he cast a deafening charm on himself to avoid doing any other magic accidentally. But when he opened his trunk to look for a spellbook, the first thing he saw was his Invisibility Cloak. He picked it up, feeling the silvery folds slide through his fingers.

That's it! he thought. I'll do the same thing I do at Hogwarts—I'll sneak out using the Cloak! He thought about where he would go; just hanging about in the park didn't hold much appeal. Plus, he didn't know that Voldemort wouldn't decide to send Dementors after him, and the park was now known to be a place that he frequented. (He was not completely convinced that Dolores Umbridge wasn't in the service of Voldemort.)

Is the park protected the same way that Privet Drive is? he wondered. Perhaps the Dementors had been able to attack the previous summer because they weren't affected by the ancient magic that Dumbledore had invoked to protect him. At any rate, Harry didn't want to leave the house to wander about alone. He missed people, normal people who would speak to him as though he wasn't about to kill them or steal everything they owned. It would be nice to actually talk to someone instead of screaming at them or being screamed at, to remind himself that there were humans in the world who could hold a conversation without insulting everyone he held dear.

There was only one possible catch: the guard outside his house. Initially unaware that anyone was watching his house the previous summer, since returning from Hogwarts a fortnight earlier he'd grown adept at determining the identity of each person who was charged with guarding the outside of number four, Privet Drive. Despite his best efforts, Moody's wooden leg made a little thunking sound when he was pacing back and forth under his Invisibility Cloak. Harry would need to listen for that sound before leaving the house. If Moody was on duty, there was nothing to be done; once he looked through Harry's Invisibility Cloak with his magic eye, that would be that.

Tonks also usually gave herself away by her clumsiness; she was always falling into the shrubbery. He hadn't realized that was what was going on the previous summer when a strange squeak would come from the front of the house and the shrubbery started swaying about like mad, even without any wind. This year he'd worked it out on his third day back in Surrey. But even without that, Tonks wouldn't have been a problem, as she wouldn't be able to detect Harry. Neither would Shacklebolt or—especially—the addle-brained Mundungus Fletcher.

The other potential problem was Snape.

Now that he'd tried learning Occlumency with Snape, he realized that the times Snape seemed to have been aware of his presence, despite his use of the Cloak, was due to his having felt Harry's mind's presence. Even now, Harry had to hope that if Snape was lurking outside his house (the very thought gave him a shiver), he hadn't picked up on the thoughts Harry was having about getting away for the evening. Unlike the other guards, Snape was silent as mist and completely undetectable. Harry didn't like to think about his lurking outside the house; he normally preferred to think of Snape being confined to Hogwarts, though he knew better, since Snape had come to Grimmauld Place more than once to give a report to the Order the previous summer. To think of him being in Surrey was highly disturbing.

He went to the window and opened it, surveying the front of the house critically. In the still summer twilight he saw the shrubbery near the pavement start vibrating quickly, despite there being no wind. He sighed in relief. Tonks.

He returned to his trunk and dug farther down, finding his money bag. He'd spent all of the wizarding money he'd had in it, but upon arriving in Surrey for the holiday, he'd written to Mrs Weasley, asking her to withdraw some gold from his vault and convert it to Muggle money, so he'd have some spending money during the summer, before coming to London. It wasn't much, only thirty quid, plus a fifty pence piece from his desk drawer. But it would be more than enough for him to get a bus to the next village and have a Coke at the pub, maybe some crisps, too. Now that he was taller, he could probably pass for eighteen, he reckoned. (He also wasn't planning to try to buy alcohol, which he felt would only draw unwanted attention.) It might be enough money for him to sneak out many nights before his birthday, if he resisted the urge to buy more expensive food or splurge on other items. (Suddenly he was itching to go to the cinema; that would eat up his money too quickly, though, so he tried to put it out of his mind.)

After checking on his wand, he stuffed the six five-pound notes and fifty-pence piece into the pockets of his jeans, put his rucksack on his shoulder (so he could use it to carry the Cloak), and threw the Invisibility Cloak over his head. It's the only way, he thought, justifying it to himself. One more minute in this house and they'll be having to deflate Marge again. He'd been let off when he was twelve, and it was a miracle that he hadn't been expelled the previous summer. He needed to be inconspicuous for his own safety. Performing accidental magic because of things that his tactless aunt was saying to him would just make him look like a troublemaker. It would basically confirm everything Severus Snape had always said was wrong with him, from his arrogance to his disregard for rules, and especially a disregard for people bending over backward to protect him (like Snape himself). If I wanted the likes of you protecting me, I'd have asked, he thought crossly as he crept down the upstairs hall, covered by the Cloak. But he hadn't asked; Dumbledore had. That was enough for Snape, and was supposed to be enough for Harry, too.

He reached the foot of the stairs without anyone noticing him; he could still hear his uncle's voice telling his sister how unbalanced Harry was, while his aunt was complimenting Marge's clothes yet again, trying to convince her that of course Harry was lying and trying to be hurtful and she'd always adored Marge's taste.

At the bottom of the stairs, however, sitting on the mat, blocking his way to the door, was Ripper. Harry swore under his breath; the dog was sniffing the air and looking about suspiciously. He knew something was wrong, that someone was present he couldn't see, and he looked highly disturbed about this, a low growl emanating from his throat. However, a second later, Ripper's ears perked up, his nose went into overdrive, and he bolted for the dining room, tongue out eagerly. When Harry crept to the door of the room, he saw that Yvonne, in the midst of the controversy over Harry's conduct, had discreetly dropped some roast beef beside her chair, probably so Petunia wouldn't notice that she hadn't eaten it. Ripper was on the roast beef in a trice, and Harry silently thanked Yvonne for her vanity. He opened the front door very quietly (not that anyone in the dining room could hear anything) and stepped out of number four, Privet Drive, into the still, humid air.

He was free.

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