Standing at his front door, Harry Potter kept a white knuckled hold on his doorknob and had to try very hard to keep from automatically going for his wand. At twenty-one years of age, it was more than habitual now. He may not have been involved with the war in the last five years, but he'd had his fair share of bad situations within his time away from England. And his very first day back wasn't any better. Voldemort sent a welcome home party to greet him. Harry was not amused.
"Were you sent to kill me?"
Severus Snape mentally rolled his eyes. "I have never, nor will I ever set out to kill you, Potter."
"Your imbecilic letter, obviously."
"My letter…" he murmured. "I didn't actually think that owl would get through."
Snape's face hardened. "So it was a farce then."
"No," he quickly assured, "no, I meant everything." He stepped back out of the doorway. "Would you like to come in? I've just made tea if you'd like some."
Snape raised a brow, but then nodded and stepped inside. "Yes to both, thank you."
They watched each other for a quiet moment and Harry kind of felt dizzy. This was all very strange. "I'll be right back. Have a seat, the sitting room's just in there," he waved to the first doorway from the hall.
"I have several questions," Snape began as soon as Harry returned to the sitting room with tea for two. He waited until Harry had poured the tea and passed a cup and saucer into his hands before continuing on. "The first question seems to be the most important. At least for right now. Why the blazing hell do you have no wards set around your house?!"
The snapped words brought a quick flighty smile to Harry. He settled onto his worn and comfortable sofa, wrapping hands around his mug. "After buying the place, I thought why bother."
Snape slowly lowered his cup to the nearby table and narrowed his eyes. "Did you perhaps bang your head on multiple occasions during your five year absence?"
Harry laughed and shook his head. How was it that he had missed Snape? "Wards won't keep intruders away. It won't be a deterrent. But I am. When and if I am attacked, I will make it obvious how bad of a mistake it would be. As I did when Voldemort sent those Death Eaters after me my first night back."
"You didn't kill them."
"No. But they were hurt badly weren't they? What was it? Seven against one?"
"That brings me to another question. The spells you used could have easily killed. You kept them alive on purpose. Why?"
"I'm sure you've already come up with an answer, Professor."
"To illustrate your control."
"And to send a message."
"You barely touched Draco."
The young man's easy smile disappeared. "He barely touched me first."
Snape studied him for a long silent moment. "He was against going after you. My godson was uncharacteristically vocal about that. Arguing with the Dark Lord even."
Harry pulled in a breath. "Did he?"
"In a roundabout way I suppose. But it was still arguing and he was still punished harshly for it. I thought you should be aware."
"Next question," Harry demanded.
"Are you ready to meet with him, Potter?"
"That really depends on whether or not he took my letter seriously. I have no wish to walk into my death."
"I suppose one last question must be asked."
"You want to know why." Snape nodded. "I spent the last five years traveling. Honing my skills, learning more. Learning about the world. But now I want to settle and really start my life. Here. In England. England will always be home. But I don't want the threat of war over my head. I'm tired of it. I'm looking to be a solitary wizard, Professor. I want to be left alone." Harry stood. "That's all I'm prepared to say about it right now."
Snape stood too and nodded. "It's enough."
He showed himself to the door and was soon gone. Harry sank back down to his seat and curled his legs beneath him. A moment later, a sleek black and white cat jumped up and settled in his lap. Harry released a breath as he dropped a hand to immediately give the cat the attention he wanted. "Wonder how this is going to turn out, Bast." The cat turned bright gold eyes on him. "Yeah, suppose it all depends on how stable Voldemort is nowadays."
The next morning Harry Flooed from his country house and into the Leaky Cauldron. Diagon Alley was not a place he wanted to visit so soon after returning to England, but he needed to visit Gringotts and also pick up supplies. He could have gone to the less populated Hogsmeade for his shopping but again since he was going to Gringotts, he figured he might as well get his shopping done all in one spot. Besides, going out would keep his mind off of wondering when and what Voldemort might try next.
The walk to Gringotts was blessedly quiet. He supposed that had a lot to do with the fact that it was barely opening time for the shops around so not many patrons were about the Alley yet. As he neared the bank, he wondered how fast people would realize he was there. He had changed in the last five years. He was taller now, more tan too. His hair was almost the same, just a tad longer. And he had different glasses. The old pair having been blasted off his face a couple of years ago during a curse breaking job. The glasses had been shattered and impossible to fix. He nearly lost his eyes then too. Luckily the group forming the expedition he joined with also had an exemplary Healer tagging along.
He was a man now though and not a boy. He hoped people recognized this and backed off. He wouldn't be led around by a leash. He wouldn't do what he didn't want to. And he would not under any circumstances be guilt into doing something for politicians who couldn't or wouldn't do themselves. Yeah, he was powerful. So what? There were many who were just as powerful. He'd met dozens of them on his travels. Many who would do whatever wanted of them if the right coin or incentive was thrown their way.
"Can I help you?"
Harry blinked out of his thoughts. He had walked into Gringotts and up to the counter without even noticing. "Harry Potter. I want to see someone about putting my accounts in order."
The goblin nodded and soon had Harry following another of the creatures deep into the maze known as Gringotts. It took the better part of two hours to get his finances in order, to sign all the paperwork. He was told he should hire a solicitor once leaving, just to cover all his bases. Harry agreed with the advice and planned to seek out a solicitor the following morning.
A good crowd bustled through the Alley by the time he left Gringotts. He steeled himself as he descended the steps, trying to become one with the scenery. Luckily one of the shops he needed to visit was just down the way and he reached it without incident. Harry quickly slipped into Magical Menagerie and then groaned. The place was crowded with children. Luckily the kids were too busy ogling the caged animals at both sides of the store and he was able to pull down the hood of his cloak further and quickly and quietly get a bag of cat food before he was noticed. And when he was at the counter, he turned sideways so the lady couldn't get a good look at any part of his face.
He managed to get out of there without anyone recognizing him and he managed to get to the Flourish and Blotts with the same results, again making sure his hood cast his entire face in shadows as he perused the book store. Since leaving Britain visiting bookstores had become a favorite thing of his. Hermione would be excited to learn he loved to read now. Loved to read whatever he could get his hands on. Fiction, nonfiction. Especially spell books though. New spell books or very old. He was always on the lookout for lost out of time spell books.
There were more kids in the bookshop and even more adults. He couldn't go down an aisle without running into several people. Harry rolled his eyes. He should have known better than to do his shopping at this time. Two weeks before Yule. Of course everyone would be out. In his defense though he'd only just moved into his house. A house he had negotiated for and bought solely via owl post and the place had come semi- furnished. But he had no food in the house nor any supplies and he hadn't wanted to wait any longer to stock up.
In ten minutes he found four books already. Two were murder mysteries he had been meaning to pick up for a while now and the other two were graphic novels about a brother and sister who could see and commune with the dead. The graphic novels were part of a long series following the sibling adventures involving ghosts. He enjoyed graphic novels, loved studying the different types of artwork that went along with in depth story lines.
Sadly Flourish and Blotts had no new spell books to add to his collection but he did manage to find two potions manuals he hadn't come across before. He grabbed one to stick it on top of the pile and opened the other to page through even though he already knew he would buy it.
"Hey! Give it back! That's mine!"
Harry pulled his attention away from the book in time to see a boy and a girl at the end of his aisle. He watched for a moment; watched the boy stand on his tip toes holding a pink book high over his head while the girl jumped trying to get the book back. Harry was about to get back to his book when the boy suddenly shoved the girl back. Shoved her so hard she fell onto her backside. They weren't brother and sister as he first thought. The boy's nasty smile and laugh said as much. That sort of thing rubbed him the wrong way.
Before he could decide what to do, the boy had already shot into the potion book aisle, past a couple of patrons including Harry and was nearing the opposite end. He still had the girl's pink book with him but at least the girl got up, with fire in her eyes, and took chase after him. Harry kept his eyes on the boy, intent on following him but the boy never reached the end. A man suddenly moved away from the shelf and into the center of the aisle. The boy smacked right into him.
Harry pulled in a silent sharp breath. Malfoy. How had he not noticed him before?! That hair, that face, those eyes, and the overall baring was unmistakable. He was rooted to the spot as he watched Malfoy pluck the pink book from the stunned boy's hand. He then took firm hold of his shoulder and shooed him away before turning to the girl who was staring up at Malfoy with wide eyes.
Malfoy immediately handed her the book.
"T-thank you, sir."
The cold look on his face minutely thawed. "Be sure to eat your vegetables. You'll grow taller if you do. No one will be able to keep your books from you then."
And then the girl flashed him a smile. "I will, sir! Thanks!"
"Right then. Better get back to your mum before she misses you."
Harry couldn't help the shock appearing on his face. And then Malfoy was turning back to the books, turning towards him and Harry would swear Malfoy looked right at him, right though the shadows of his hood. But Malfoy continued to turn and once again faced the books, reading the spines and nothing about him indicated he knew it was Harry under the cloak. There would have been a sign, right, if Malfoy had recognized him. This is what Harry continued to think as he clutched onto his books and hurried away to buy his selection and get the hell out of there.
He next visited the Apothecary as he had a potion he wanted to start brewing that evening. He spent more time in that store than he did at the bookstore and by the time he was ready to check out he had a floating cart full of potions supplies. He was so excited about starting another potion that he flashed a smile and didn't even think to care if the clerk recognized him.
"That will be 11 galleons and 15 sickles, sir."
Harry dug into his pouch and produced eleven galleons and ten sickles. However he was five sickles short. He started mumbling to himself as his hand swished around in the pouch searching for something that wasn't there. He didn't want to break another Galleon and add more coins to his pouch. It was heavy enough. The little coins were heavier than the galleons it seemed.
A hand appeared from behind him, brushing his arm as it went, and dropped five sickles onto the counter. It was only then that he noticed the heavy presence at his back. He only had to turn his head a fraction for their eyes to meet. Since the hand hadn't yet pulled away from the counter, the man was leaning forward, practically right on top of him. Malfoy was so close he could probably count each and every one of Harry's eyelashes.
Malfoy inclined his head, though his eyes remained firmly fixed on his face. "No need to pay me back."
Harry wondered if he were followed from the bookstore. But then he saw Malfoy had his own basket of items. And then he wondered if Malfoy was going to announce his name out in the open. Just to be a prat. He would have once upon a time. But Malfoy stayed quiet and continued to watch him with those pale gray eyes. It wasn't until the clerk cleared his throat did Harry wrench his attention back to the matter at hand. He grabbed his receipt and his boxed up items and quickly removed himself from the close confines of Malfoy.
He ignored the rest of the shops he planned to visit and Flooed straight home.
Harry took a breath and raised his hand to knock. Then he lowered it again without knocking when he heard the laughter from inside. He cringed. Hermione wasn't alone. He would recognize Ron's laughter anywhere. But it wasn't just Ron's laughter he heard. There were several people visiting with Hermione.
He stepped back from the door and then turned to look out onto the street. Hermione lived in a quaint little house in a Wizarding neighborhood close to London. It was a fairly modern neighborhood…well, modern for Wizard standards anyway. However it a nice looking place.
"Stop stalling," he muttered. Now was as good a time as any, even if she did have people over. If he went home now there was no telling when he'd get up the nerve to visit her and Ron again. Actually having them both in the same place was fortunate. Hermione and Ron didn't live together as they only dated a year outside of Hogwarts before mutually agreeing it was a huge mistake and would never work long run.
Harry spun back around and immediately knocked. Only a moment passed before the door was opened to Hermione. He felt his breath release and a smile form. She hadn't changed a bit. She was still beautiful. Still a sight for sore eyes. She still looked like his best mate, just as she promised she would always be in her owls.
"Hello, Hermione," he greeted upon the widening of her eyes.
He kind of winced with her shout but was too busy hugging her back to really care she'd announced to the world he was standing outside her door. He heard the others rushing to the door, moving out to stand around, but he had his face buried in her hair so he couldn't really see.
And then she was pulling away before he wanted her too, before he wanted to be faced with people who were probably very pissed off at him; who might even hate him at this point. He turned to Ron first after noticing it was him, Dean, Ginny, and some other bloke he never met before. That bloke hung back just inside the house.
"You have some nerve," Ron began lowly and Harry internally winced. "You have some nerve… taking so long to come and see us, wanker!"
Harry was then subjected to a bear hug and nearly lifted off his feet. He laughed in pure relief as he hugged his oldest friend back. "Merlin, Ron, I…"
"Oi! Shove over, Ron! My turn," Ginny snapped and shoved her brother over to take his place. Harry laughed as she practically broke his ribs. "Shame on you, Harry! You didn't write me once! I don't care what you do, or what you plan not to do! I deserved a bloody owl once in a while!"
"Sorry, Gin," he croaked out.
When it was Dean's turn, he didn't hug Harry quite so hard, but only because he said he knew Harry's ribs would break then. Soon they all went into the house and Harry was sitting with Ron and Hermione beside and he couldn't help that his smile was identical to his two closest friends.
"I… I didn't think it would be like this."
"You're not the only one who grew up," Ron informed him. "You're more important to us than any war."
A snort from behind him had Harry looking over his shoulder to see the bloke he didn't know shaking his head at all of them. "Are you kidding right now?" he asked, looking at all of them. He narrowed his eyes on Harry. "You're just going to act like everything's okay? Act like it's okay that he ran away."
Ron jumped to his feet, temper instantly ignited. Ginny and Hermione soon followed. Dean had already been standing and he was glaring at the bloke.
Hermione pressed a hand to Ron's shoulder and pushed him back to his seat before rounding the couch to stand in front of the guy. She started hissing words at him.
"It's complete bullocks, Hermione!" the guy shouted in her face.
And then Hermione's claws appeared and she grabbed the guy's arm and started dragging him to the door.
Ron leaned into Harry. "That's Allen," he whispered. "Hermione's current boyfriend."
"I'd say he's of the ex variety now," Dean said as Hermione slammed the door shut in Allen's face.
"Good riddance," Ginny exclaimed and rubbed her hands as if brushing dirt off them. "Never liked the git anyway."
"He hasn't been around long," Ron said in response to Harry's look.
Hermione sat back down and smiled at all of them. "So, what were we talking about?"
"We were going to pass out a round and get Harry to tell us all about his adventures thus far!" was Ron's brilliant response as he popped up and hurried into the kitchen to retrieve five butterbeers from the refrigerator.
It was sometime later, hours actually, when Harry stumbled a bit to Hermione's front door with Ron alongside him. At some point they went from butterbeer to Firewhiskey. Both he and Ron were giggling like mad twats while Hermione tisked at them with that same wide smile on her face. Never mind that she was a bit wobbly kneed as well. Ginny and Dean had just dragged themselves to sleep it off in Hermione's guest room. It was good to see those two still together though Harry didn't say it aloud afraid of what kinds of feelings that might bring up between Ron and Hermione. He wanted this happy carefree feeling to last until the morning.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" she asked them both as they stepped out into the cold night. "I have a couch and a pull out bed."
"Don't worry, Mione. We're not too far gone. You know I've Apparated under worse conditions."
"Harry, you come back and visit me soon."
"I will. Promise. And as soon as I get my house in order, I'll owl you and Ron the address so you can visit whenever you like."
Hermione smiled that brilliant smile again. She hugged and kissed him and then moved over to do the same to Ron. "Stay safe," she told them before going back inside. He and Ron walked down the steps and to the sidewalk. The stood there for a moment. Harry tipped his face up to see the stars. Some twinkled down from between the heavy December rain clouds.
"I was mad at you for a time. Make no mistake."
Harry nodded. "I know. I guess you had a right to be."
"Just like you had the right to do what you wanted. But no, I wasn't mad about you wanting to leave the war. Actually, I kind of understood and agreed early on." There was surprise in Harry's eyes when he looked away from the sky and back to Ron. "No, I was mad because you wanted to leave me and Hermione. You didn't want us coming with you. I thought we were always supposed to be together. The three of us. Do everything together. But you were right. We needed to grow into our own. By ourselves."
"Good Merlin! Who knocked sense into you?!"
Ron barked out a laugh and shoved him. Harry thought about bringing up Voldemort then. About telling Ron about the letter. But seeing that same boyhood smile on his friend's face he decided that could wait for another day.
A/N: So, new story. Fingers crossed it turns out the way I want. It's another Harry goes neutral story, but this one is decidedly different. Hope you enjoyed this first chapter and that you're week is a great one. :D
P.S. Life Crusades and The Black Bunny is not discontinued. I'm working on the next chap of LC right now.