His face hurt. He'd have thought by now that the Chosen Smile would come effortlessly … and most nights it did. But not tonight. Not so close to All Hallows' Eve. He'd known it was a mistake to come. But Kingsley had been insistent. It wouldn't do for the Head Auror - for Harry Potter - to be missing from the official Recognition of the Human Status of Werewolves and the launch of the Werewolf Rights Act. And he didn't want to let Hermione down either. He spotted her across the room, dominating the conversation of half a dozen Department Heads, Ron at her side, glowing with pride.
He did want to be there, if only to remember it for Teddy, so he could share the memory when the boy was older. Harry sighed and tilted his drink up, feeling the familiar burn of the firewhisky as it slid down his throat. He placed the now empty glass on the table beside him and was looking through the crowd for one of the many house elves circulating in their smart service robes when he heard a familiar booming voice behind him. He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed out a long, slow breath, and then plastered the smile back onto his face and turned.
'Lord Minchum, so glad you could make it tonight. And Lady Minchum. A pleasure.'
He shook hands with the portly old man, easily resisting the testing pressure squeezed against his hand. The former Minister for Magic laughed, 'Haven't gone soft cooped up in your office then, Mr. Potter?'
'No, sir,' Harry said easily, 'I make sure to keep in shape, and I'm out in the field with my team on occasion.'
'Good boy,' Minchum said, slapping his shoulder.
Boy. Harry winced internally, thinking about his upcoming thirtieth. It'd been on his mind more and more lately. A milestone. He found himself wondering again what his parents would have been like at thirty. What they would have been doing with their lives, if they'd had the chance … he wondered what they'd think of him, of the path he'd chosen to take.
He only realised he'd completely lost track of the conversation when Lord Minchum stepped forward, peering into his face with concern. 'I say lad, are you quite alright?'
Harry shook his head to clear it of the lingering thoughts of his parents and forced the smile back onto his face, but it felt more like a grimace. He could tell the elderly couple opposite him weren't convinced.
'Please excuse me,' he murmured, turning from them and making his way through the crowd. He snagged another drink from a passing elf with a muttered thanks as he headed for the wide double doors and the balcony outside.
He moved to the edge of the stone balcony and looked down over the softly lit gardens below as he loosened the stiff collar of his formal robes. It didn't matter how often he wore the damned things, they always felt like they were choking him. At least he didn't have to wear full formal dress underneath. He took a deep breath of the cool night air and felt himself relax slightly as he looked at the quiet, still scene beneath him.
He always liked it when the Ministry chose one of the forfeited Pureblood Houses for their events. They reminded him of Hogwarts in some ways - he could feel the magic brimming in them, tingling against his skin, as though asking for him to draw from it. But there was this sense of agelessness and traditional beauty in the houses and gardens that spoke to him in a different way. The old manors seemed impervious to the multitude of changes that had rocked the world over the last few decades. They endured, timeless and serene.
Sometimes he wondered how much of that was real, and how much of that was the Estates keeping up appearances, as generations of magical owners had trained them to do. In the absence of those owners they carried on, expending their magical energy to preserve themselves beautifully for families who would never return. Harry sipped his whisky and thought of the wild tangle of his own garden at Grimmauld Place. He wondered what the state of that house said about its owners, past and present. Ginny had given up on it years ago. She'd never had much of a green thumb, but Harry found the untamed jumble of life suited his moods some days.
He heard Ron coming before he felt the warm presence at his side. He didn't look over as Ron said, voice teasing, 'Drinking alone in the dark, Harry? I thought we talked about this.'
Harry smiled, despite himself, and leaned over to nudge against Ron's solid shoulder.
'Alone is better than with most of that lot,' he said, nodding his head back at the packed room, the noise muted by the muffling charms cast around the building.
Ron snorted. 'Tell me about it. I don't know how you manage dealing with them all, day in, day out. 'Mione I understand, she talks their language, but you …'
Harry shrugged. 'It's the job. You know that.'
They'd had this conversation a million times, and Ron clearly wasn't interested in having it again.
'Where's Gin tonight?'
Harry paused for a moment, trying to remember the note he'd come home to. 'Out with a friend, I think. Something came up. Something urgent. She said to say hi to you and 'Mione, and to send her love to Rose and Hugo.'
Ron laughed, 'Her love is fine. It's when she sends gifts that I start to panic. I swear she chooses the most difficult, obnoxiously loud toys on purpose. I can't wait until I can pay her back when you -' He stopped abruptly, a twisted look of sadness coming across his face. 'I mean - shit, sorry mate. I've had too much to drink. I didn't-'
Harry held up a hand, waving him off with a muttered, 'Don't worry about it.' He felt his fragile peace crack and lifted his drink to his mouth, draining it in a single swallow.
'Let's get another,' he said, clapping Ron on the arm before leading them back to the party. It was speeches next, and it wouldn't do for Harry Potter to be lurking outside in the dark. The Daily Prophet would want him front and centre for the photos, after all.
'I'm not drunk,' he assured Hermione, as he leaned on the richly upholstered sofa in the sitting room that held the floo connection. She raised an eyebrow at him and he sighed.
'Okay, fine, so I'm a little drunk. I - I didn't mean to. It's just tonight. With Lupin … and my parents …'
Hermione's expression immediately softened and she stepped closer, putting a hand out to rub his arm briefly.
'Thank you for coming. And for all the support you gave me in putting the Act together.'
Harry laughed softly. 'I drank wine in your office and listened to you rant about case law and discrimination. The credit for this is all yours.'
Hermione laughed too. 'Yes, well, be that as it may, I couldn't have done it without you.' She looked at him seriously again. 'And don't worry about Javier. The man couldn't see sense if it stepped in front of him and slapped him in the face.'
Harry grimaced, remembering his earlier conversation with Robert Javier, Head of the DMLE and technically his superior, though he dodged the man as often as he could.
Javier was currently pushing for reforms that would reduce the four-person Auror teams to two, and in some cases one Auror. And Harry just would not have it. He'd fund the bloody extra patrols out of his own vault if he had to. He gritted his teeth at the memory of the conversation. 'If he's not careful, I'll slap him in the bloody face,' Harry muttered.
Hermione looked to be holding back a laugh as she asked, 'Will you be okay getting home? You sure you don't want me to side-along you?'
Harry shuddered slightly, pulling his mind away from Javier and feeling his stomach roil at the prospect. Flooing while drunk was bad enough. Apparating while drunk was guaranteed to make him vomit. He shook his head emphatically.
'I'm fine. It's only a forty five minute walk home and the fresh air will do me good. I don't want to climb in bed with Ginny like this.' He looked across at his best mate, sprawled out on the couch, robes askew. The celebration had wound down an hour ago, with Hermione being one of the last to leave. Harry … wasn't sure why he'd stayed around.
'Get him home,' he said to Hermione, leaning forward to give her a somewhat clumsy kiss on the cheek. 'I'll floo in the morning to laugh at him.'
Hermione grinned at that. 'Come for breakfast if you like. The kids would love to see you and Ginny. It's been ages since we've had you both over.'
Harry nodded absently, pushing her gently away. 'You want a hand with him?'
Hermione rolled her eyes skyward a moment, before she pulled her wand out, casting a wordless Rennervate on Ron, who blinked and looked around sleepily. 'Was'appenin?'
Hermione pulled her husband to his feet and put an arm around him, kissing him lightly on the forehead before she said, 'We're going home now. Come on.'
Harry smiled as he heard Ron's muttered, 'Finally,' and he gave Hermione a wave as she paused to throw the floo powder in.
'Goodnight Harry,' she said, smiling gently.
'Night 'Mione,' he said, watching them disappear in a flare of green flames.
When he left the Manor he felt restless. He didn't feel like going straight home. Instead he took a roundabout route that led him through parts of Muggle London he wasn't as familiar with. He was glad he'd transfigured his robes into something that resembled an overcoat as he entered streets that were still busy, despite the fact that it had gone midnight. He could hear the throbbing of music from clubs, and neon signs glowed and flashed. For a while he just watched the people, walking, stumbling, laughing, arms cast around each other, quick presses of mouths and stroking of hands in darkened alcoves. The nightlife had a feeling of wildness to it. Of fun and freedom and the sort of abandon that Harry couldn't remember feeling in so, so long.
He wondered, sometimes, what it would have been like to be Muggle - a Muggle without the Dursleys. To live with no notion of the deadly war that had raged through the wizarding world. To have been a normal boy, with a normal family and a normal life. He might have been any one of these people, out for a drink and a laugh with friends. Wrapped up in the person beside him. Nothing more on his mind than a good time. No appearances to keep up, no obligations to meet.
He sighed, feeling a strange, hollow tugging in his chest, and pushed away from the light post he'd been leaning on. He wandered a while longer, lost in his thoughts, that same restlessness itching under his skin. Years of habit allowed him to ignore the way people's eyes took in his face, flicked over his scar and then lingered. At least with Muggles, the inevitable whispers didn't follow the looks, It's Harry Potter. Look, mum, that's him. The Golden Boy. The Chosen One. The Boy Who Lived. No, with Muggles, he just got the curious looks, the wonder at the lines of pale scars that travelled down over his forehead, across his eye and spilt onto his cheek, like a web of lightning striking against his darker skin.
Some of the looks lingered on more than his scar tonight, but it wasn't until a figure stepped in front of him with a broad smile and a husky, 'Hey stranger,' that he paid any attention. He stopped, pulling himself out of his thoughts. The man in front of him was tall and slim, wearing black jeans that looked as if they were painted on and a sharp, navy shirt that set off his blond hair.
Harry mustered up a smile and a hello.
The man stepped in closer, so close that Harry could breathe in the spicy scent of him. 'Want to get a drink?'
Harry shook his head, 'No. Thanks. I'm - I've had enough tonight.'
The blond man pouted, slanting Harry a look that was filled with heat as his eyes flicked over Harry's chest, through the open front of his overcoat. Harry realised with a faint flush that he was wearing one of his old t-shirts that stretched tight across his chest and arms.
'You sure? You and I could have some fun.'
Harry shook his head again, eyes widening slightly as the man's meaning was made clear.
'No. I - thank you - but I'm married. And - I should be going.' He gave the man a small smile, noting the way his mouth pulled up in a rueful smile in return as he ran his fingers through his white-blond hair.
Harry thought about the Muggle man as he walked away. He felt that same tugging sensation in his chest. It had been a long time since anyone had offered him ... that. He'd long ago made it clear to the legions of fans and potential matches that he'd made his choice and was perfectly happy. The slim lines of the man's body and the clear interest in his eyes ghosted through Harry's mind again. He'd been fit. Harry could admit that. And it wasn't like he'd never thought about it - about men - it's just … there'd never been a time when he could see where the thoughts went. He'd returned from the war to Ginny's welcoming arms eleven years ago, and that had been that.
He felt that tug in his chest again and then a faint buzz of sensation tingled across his skin. He looked up abruptly to see he was standing in front of a large, grey, stone building. It towered above his head, radiating sleek power. There was a sign in front of his face, a deep black with steely silver writing flowing across it. The words read:
Come in and let go.
Absolute discretion guaranteed.
He looked at it, feeling something shift and click inside him at the thought of letting go. Of release. He felt the ache in his shoulders, the tension in his temples. Through the dissipating haze of the firewhisky he'd drunk that night, he felt the weight of his role, the responsibility of the lives he held in his hands, the pressure of still being the Chosen One, so many years after he'd needed to act.
He looked at the words again, tracing them with his eyes. Release. Something inside him yearned to step into the building. To seek what it was offering. He felt the gentle tug again, softly, almost insistently, as though it was promising him comfort, succour, if he just stepped inside. It was late and he was tired - so tired - and there was just enough alcohol flowing through his system still that he listened to it. He stepped forward, pushing at the large, hardwood door.
It opened with a soundless glide and he blinked at the sight that met his eyes. Inside was a foyer, lit by softly glowing lamps. He could hear music. Something instrumental. Flowing and gentle, yet somehow putting him on edge as well. That same, fizzing restlessness shivered across his senses. His eye was caught by a booth near a set of large, ornately carved doors. Inside was a dark-haired woman who looked across at him with interest. He hesitated slightly and she smiled. It wasn't a friendly smile, but Harry felt drawn to it. He stepped closer, noting her fitted black dress and the red nail polish that matched her lipstick.
'Welcome to Release,' the woman said, her voice a silken purr as she looked him up and down. 'My name is Dahlia. How may I help you?'
'What is this place?' Harry asked, looking around. The interior gave no clues as to what service it provided.
'It's a Club. A BDSM Club,' Dahlia said. 'We cater to those who feel … bound by the circumstances of their daily lives and seek a safe space to let go.'
Harry felt the words flow over him. Felt that same restlessness rise in him again. He wanted that. Wanted it more than he'd realised. Maybe it was just the time of year - the anniversary of his parents death approaching. Maybe it was the fact that he would be thirty next birthday, and he couldn’t stop thinking that his life wasn't what he had thought it would be by now. Maybe it was the night he'd just had. The same night he'd had every few weeks for the past ten years.
But something in him - his Auror training … his sense of self preservation … urged him to slow down. To stop and think. He tried to remember if he'd heard the term BDSM before. There'd been a case, years ago, involving a Muggle and a wizard who'd had an explosion of involuntary magic in a place like this. He hadn’t been the Auror assigned to the case, but he remembered some of the stories he'd heard back in the office, about the sorts of things that went on inside establishments like this. He couldn't just walk into some place and hand himself over to them. He smiled, apologetically and turned for the door.
'It's not for everybody,' the woman said behind him, her tone dismissive. Harry stopped. Javier's dismissive voice from earlier in the night echoed in his mind. 'Once you would have leapt at the chance to take more glory, Potter. Look at you now, hiding behind your people, pushing papers around. Perhaps it's time for someone with more fire - more bravery - to step into the Head Auror role, and make way for the reforms we need to see for the future.'
Harry gritted his teeth at the memory - at his struggle to force himself to play politics to try get what he wanted in the long term.
The memory of his impotence fired his blood and he turned back around, rubbing a hand over his stubbled cheek. 'Fuck it,' he muttered under his breath. 'I - tell me more about it.'
The woman smiled at him and now there was a predatory nature to her gaze. He felt something in him stir in response. Something unfamiliar.
'Release has an exclusive membership policy,' Dahlia said, reaching beneath the desk for a black package, with the name of the club embossed across it in a shining silver. 'All the information you will need is in this envelope. If you choose to take a membership with us, you will be welcome to view any of our public spaces. If you choose to participate, you will be screened and matched with a suitable partner. Do you have any questions?'
Harry took the folder as she handed it to him, rubbing his thumb absently over the smooth surface. He shook his head, trying to resist the urge to open the package and peer inside. She seemed to see his interest because her smile broadened, showing a hint of teeth.
'I do hope we'll see you back,' she said, her gaze raking over him, more slowly this time.
Harry felt a tingle of warmth at the blatant interest, but then he hesitated, guilt hitting him thick and fast as he remembered some of the stories. 'This isn't … this isn't a sex club is it?'
Dahlia arched a shapely black eyebrow at him, 'Some of our members do choose to use sex to find release, yes. But this Club is not about sex and no member partakes in any activity they have not explicitly consented to. This place is about freedom, and letting go. It's about release. Pure and simple.'
Harry nodded, feeling slightly reassured, and then smiled. 'Thanks for your help,' he murmured as he turned to leave.
He was at the doorway before a final thought occurred to him, and he looked back, searching for any indication of who the club catered to. 'Is this - I'm quite well known in … some circles. Is this a W-' He couldn't quite bringing himself to say the word, but Dahlia seemed to understand, her eyes widening in the first hint of surprise he'd seen from her.
'This is a Muggle club, as I believe you would call it. We do, however, get the occasional one of your kind passing through. Please indicate your status on the forms if you choose to return them. We will make sure you are appropriately matched based on your … other abilities.'
Harry nodded, the idea that this wasn't a wizarding club setting him at ease. If he could find what he hoped to here … he didn't want the Prophet to get even the slightest hint of it. He stepped back out into the darkness of the night, casting a discrete Tempus and realising to his shock that it was three am. He moved to the shadow of a nearby alley and turned on the spot, disapparating with a familiar hooking sensation.
The house was dark and cold when he let himself in. He toed off his shoes and slipped out of his transfigured robes, chucking them over the back of the couch. He looked down at the package in his hand, tracing his fingers over the embossed writing before setting off up the stairs. He stopped at the landing in front of Sirius' old room and slipped inside. He took only the briefest of looks around, feeling the same dull ache that always assaulted him when he visited this room. He lifted the corner of the mattress and lay the black envelope underneath it, casting it one final glance as he left the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
Ginny was sound asleep when he entered the room. He watched her in the faint moonlight filtering in through the window in as he dropped his clothes in a pile beside the bed. She looked so peaceful, curled around herself, her hair a firey tangle across the pillow. As he slid into the bed beside her Harry considered for a moment reaching out to wake her, to talk to her about his night, and his mood … but she had a game tomorrow.
Instead he lay awake a long time, staring into the darkness and thinking about the envelope in the room below.