Returning from Hogwarts was easier than arriving there. Neville and Hermione were both returning home for the holidays, and Harry wasn't nearly as helpless as he had been the first time he'd been murdered on the train.
Furthermore, the other students knew to be wary of him. The Slytherins, who were the most likely to try to murder him had witnessed him cutting the brains out of a troll. That would make them more cautious about trying anything.
The dangerous part would be once he reached the station. However, the Headmaster had assured him that no one knew about his Invisibility cloak, and so Harry felt confident that he would be able to get out fairly easily.
Neville had even told him about a special bus that took wizards from place to place.
Hermione agreed to let him hide in the Grangers car partway home; Harry didn't bring any luggage home with him. He'd done his homework for the holidays in advance and he didn't want to bring anything home that might antagonize his relatives.
The new peace between them was too fragile to risk.
It all went like a charm. Harry slipped into his invisibility cloak as the train stopped and he followed Hermione out onto the track. The hardest part was not bumping into anyone.
Harry watched as Hermione was greeted by her parents, and he felt a stab of envy at the easy love and affection they showed for each other.
Although Harry had no doubt that death eaters and others looking to collect the bounty on his head were looking for him, he managed to get out to the car without any problem.
Hermione held the door open a little longer than necessary, waiting for him to get in. She covered her action by talking to her father.
It wasn't until they were partway home that Harry revealed himself, almost making Hermione's father pull off the road.
After that they had to explain to her parents why Harry had hidden in their car, which involved a ten minute discussion about Voldemort, Harry and the bounty on his head.
Harry's plan had been to take the Knight bus back to his neighborhood and then find his way home. He wouldn't give them his exact address because that would make it too easy for whoever was looking for the bounty.
The Grangers were unhappy that he hadn't told them about the bounty before, but they insisted on driving him home, thinking it too risky for him to go alone.
Harry hadn't expected them to be that brave. After all, his own family had been willing to throw anyone under the bus to keep themselves safe. These were good people, even if they were a little naive. He could tell, however that they didn't really believe in the danger he and Hermione were telling them about.
They drove him home, and he stopped in the same place as before. Although he didn't mind as much now that they knew where he lived, muggles had no defense against magical compulsions to tell what they knew. He didn't want anyone knowing his exact address.
Harry slipped behind his neighbor's house, and then slipped his cloak on.
The Dursley home was quiet and dark. Harry had a key because the Dursleys had once almost been caught leaving him outside when they didn't show up after school. The gossip had been deflected, with the excuse that Harry had lost his key, but he'd been given one afterward.
No one was inside, and Harry felt uneasy. At this time of night Vernon should have been home and his aunt should have been making dinner. Dudley should have been been home from Smeltings, complaining in his way about the food not being ready.
Harry felt a sudden fear. While the wards protected the house, there was nothing preventing Voldemort's people from finding out where Vernon lived. From there it would be a simple matter to spell him into taking the family out somewhere they could be attacked.
Once they were dead, the wards would fall. Harry had asked the Headmaster, who assured him that the wards were linked to Petunia and Dudley.
The thought that he might be entirely defenseless even now chilled him, and Harry gathered his invisibility cloak around him.
He heard a movement at the door and he quickly moved back to a corner, pulling out his wand. There was a fumbling sound, and Harry pointed his wand. He'd heard that casting spells outside of school could get his wand snapped, but self defense was a valid defense.
As a hulking silhouette moved through the suddenly opened door, Harry prepared to cast his most powerful Diffindo. Against a troll it wouldn't do much, but against a human it would kill.
His hand trembled as the figure moved forward in the moonlight. He wanted Voldemort and his men dead, but did he have it in him to actually kill? Killing a troll was very different from killing a man, Harry discovered. He was hesitating, and he cursed himself for doing so.
“I've reached my limit....my limit, do you hear!” Vernon's voice rang through the house. “Shopkeepers should have more respect than to treat a working man with hard earned money like that.”
Harry's hand shook and his fingers gripped his wand so hard he was afraid it might snap. He'd almost killed his uncle. In a moment of rage and fear, he'd almost done something that he would never be able to take back. Even if he reset time, he'd always remember what he'd done, and the stain on his soul would never go away.
Quickly, he put away his wand and hid his cloak in his cupboard, which now had ordinary odds and ends filling it.
Dudley had gained more weight, Harry noted absently as the lights were turned on and the Dursleys stared at him.
Vernon started as he saw Harry. “What are you doing here, boy? Did those freaks kick you out of that school of yours?”
“It's Christmas,” Harry said. “I'll be here two weeks and then I'll be back.”
Harry's aunt and Dudley were following behind. His aunt had piles of packages while his cousin had nothing.
Vernon scowled. “I guess you ran back here, where its safe.”
“That's pretty much true,” Harry said, surprising his uncle. “We've already had one death at the school, and it's every bit as bad as you would expect.”
His uncle stared at him for a moment, and then, as though cheered by the thought that the school was unpleasant, he said, “Help your aunt with the packages.”
After Dudley went to bed, Harry spoke to his aunt and uncle. He explained about what he knew about the bounty on his head, and about the dangers of Hogwarts. He talked about the troll and about what he'd had to do.
Harry had sat his wand on the table in front of them, and as he described how he'd caused the troll's brains to explode, Vernon's face turned pale.
He looked down at the wand, finally seeing it as the weapon that it was, and Harry could almost see the thought moving through his head. How much did Harry resent the years of neglect and abuse?
Did Harry intent to murder them all?
“We need each other,” Harry said quietly. “As long as Aunt Petunia and Dudley and I are all alive, the wards around this place will remain. Wizards who mean us harm won't be able to find this place, although we'll still be in danger outside.”
“You've put us all in danger, boy,” Vernon growled.
Harry shook his head. “It's the wizards and their crazy ideas.” He hesitated. “They think I'm supposed to fight this Voldemort and one of us will die.”
He stared at the table. “I'm working at getting better all the time, but it may take a long time before I get good enough to take on someone like him. In the meantime, our best option is to lay low.”
“Our best option would have been for you to leave us alone,” Petunia said. She looked more frightened than her husband, probably because she understood the wizarding world better than he did. She knew just how dangerous wizards could be, while Vernon still thought the stories about them were somewhat exaggerated.
“You haven't been good to me,” Harry said coolly, “But you are the only family I have left. I'll protect you, and not just because of the wards.”
They discussed it, and even though Vernon blustered, in the end he agreed with Harry and Petunia. Harry would not leave the house for the next two weeks and he would make sure that the neighbors wouldn't even know he was home. In return he would try to be accommodating, and he wouldn't kill them all in their sleep.
Giving up something he wasn't planning to do in the first place wasn't much of a sacrifice.
Dudley had regained some of his courage over his time at Smeltings. The fear and anger of his parents over wizards following them probably felt like a distant dream.
The first time he tried hitting Harry, Harry grabbed for his wand. It wasn't intentional; after repeating months of being being attacked grabbing his wand had become second nature. Petunia's shrieks of fear when she saw Harry go for the wand must have gotten through to Dudley, because after that he restricted himself to just making comments.
He seemed to see something in Harry that was more dangerous; Harry wasn't the same downtrodden orphan who had let himself be abused. In the past he was just a child who had no power to defend himself.
Now he'd been through enough that he was perfectly willing to defend himself with the power that he did have- and in the future he was only going to get stronger.
Dudley eventually, hesitantly asked him about his school. Harry told him, once his aunt wasn't around to listen. He told him of the wonder and the horror of it, of trolls and giant dogs and murderous trees.
Somehow Dudley didn't take it the way Harry had intended. He seemed to think it was cool to go to school in a death trap.
Despite that, he taunted Harry about his lack of presents.
Harry knew that he'd be receiving presents from Hermione and Neville; he'd called Hermione on the telephone. They'd all agreed that it would be better to simply hold the presents until he got back to school, given his aunt and uncle's fear of being discovered.
He'd asked Hermione to deliver a letter to Neville, in which he'd asked Neville to buy Hermione a particular present. He'd promised to pay him back later. He'd asked Hermione to do the same for Neville.
There wasn't much money left over from his working during the summer, but Harry made the best use of what was left that he could. He wondered what he was going to do now that the money was almost gone.
The last thing he wanted to do was expose them all by being in the neighborhood. The odds of his being found were unlikely, but not impossible. His biggest defense was that Voldemort's followers didn't know what city he was in. The problem was that it wasn't just Voldemort's followers he had to worry about.
There was a bounty on his head, which meant that any wizard who wanted to curry favor with the dark lord could simply turn Harry in, or turn what he knew about his whereabouts in.
If they knew which city Harry was in, it would be a simple matter to hire an investigator to find out where Harry had gone to school and from there to find out the exact address.
Harry had asked Dumbledore carefully about the exact limitations of the blood wards. The Headmaster admitted that they wouldn't do anything against muggles. Once they knew the address, all the death eaters would have to do was use magic to compel the local police to pull them out of their homes.
All in all, it was best that Harry remain unseen.
Harry decided that he needed to learn more about disguising himself with magic and through mundane methods. He mentioned as much to his aunt and uncle one day.
He was surprised, though, to have a single present on Christmas day from his aunt and uncle. It was unexpected; he'd only had one Christmas gift before. Harry wondered if this was going to be the other sock to complete the pair from his last Christmas gift.
The shape was wrong though.
He opened it and was surprised to find that it was a book titled “How to disguise yourself.” It was an old copy, apparently bought at a used bookstore. Flipping it open, Harry saw that it had been written in 1974.
Even though it was self serving of them, Harry still smiled at his aunt and uncle. It was the first real present they'd ever gotten him, and if the book was any good, it might save his life some time.
In the time that remained he studied the book as well as he could. The book had handy illustrations about creating a variety of disguises. Some of it involved stagecraft and was meant more for theater than for the kind of work Harry was hoping for.
Some of it would be useful, and Harry was relieved. He asked his aunt to get some of the materials he would need, and for once she didn't argue, although she bought these as cheaply as she could as well.
Dudley even helped him practice, although he taunted Harry about wearing makeup, feeling it was unmanly.
Harry still had to clean and cook and work outside in the yard. The yard was protected; wizards outside the ward wouldn't be able to see Harry although muggles would.
Several neighbors approached Harry about doing work for them, but Harry declined, telling them that he was grounded by the Dursleys for the entirety of the holidays.
Despite everything, he didn't mind the work. It kept his mind off the worries he'd had constantly at Hogwarts.
Being someplace safe, even if his aunt and uncle were still cold to him felt as though a weight he hadn't even been aware of had been taken off his shoulders.
He felt like Atlas when he'd no longer had to hold up the sky.
When he'd come home, he'd been so on edge and fearful that he'd almost accidentally murdered his uncle. With time at home being safe, he gradually felt something unclench within him.
He began to relax, and although he still had nightmares, they weren't as intense.
After one particular nightmare, he got up to wash his face and he saw his aunt in the hallway. She'd obviously heard him crying out. He almost saw something that looked like sympathy on her face, although it vanished quickly.
She was careful not to show any kind of expression of kindness by day, and certainly not in front of Vernon.
The truce between them all held, and as the holiday came to an end, Harry almost felt ready to go back.
He'd needed time away from the constant fear of death and pain. Feeling safe was a precious gift, one that no amount of money could have bought him.
When the time came for him to leave, the Dursleys were willing to drive him halfway, although they insisted that he disguise himself and hide under his invisibility cloak, which Harry had eventually revealed to them.
Petunia was shocked and didn't seem to know what to do when Harry impulsively grabbed her and hugged her before he left and summoned the Knight bus. Although they had not been good to him, for once they hadn't been particularly bad, and Harry appreciated that.
The Knight bus driver had no idea who Harry was, not through the disguise. Harry gave a false name. He found the trip to be anxiety provoking, and by the time it was over, much of the inner calm he'd developed over his time with the Dursleys had vanished.
Wizards, apparently were pants at driving.
Slipping through the gauntlet at the train station was easy with his invisibility cloak. His main worry was about bumping into people, and Harry was quick to find a massive couple to walk behind until he could get to platform 9 3/4ths.
Hermione and Neville were already waiting for him on the train.
As they headed back to Hogwarts, Harry couldn't help but feel as though he was riding back to his doom.