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Harry traced a finger over his cheek as he stared at his reflection in the mirror. Three days without Snape had done wonders for him. He looked infinitely better. He had finally shaved off the beard that he had allowed to grow. He wasn't as pale anymore. The dark shadows under his eyes were gone and his cheeks looked a little less hollow. His lips had regained some of their colour and his eyes weren't bloodshot anymore. Somehow, he didn't feel as frail as he had been feeling three days ago. He was still skinny but miracles didn't happen overnight. The best thing was that he didn't feel so miserable anymore. His feelings weren't back….he was still numb….but he felt better enough to fake them now. He'd have to fake them for Lord V. Tonight was important because he had to prove that he wasn't weak and he didn't need sessions. He had to stand by everything he had said to Lord V that night.
Harry sighed and looked away from himself. Who was he kidding? He was doing all this so that he wouldn't have to relive everything that Crouch had done to him. This was his avoidance tactic. But he couldn't deny the fact that he felt obliged to serve Lord V. Harry undressed and stepped under the cold shower spray. The freezing water pushed away all thoughts and Harry felt blissfully blank. After finishing his shower, he stepped out into the room, wrapped up in a towel when he saw a black tux waiting for him on the bed. Before he could wonder where it had come from, Stan's spoke from outside his door,
"Lord V sent that for you. He's going to call you soon, Doll."
Harry stepped forward and picked it up. He had expected Lord V to visit him tonight. This meant he would be going to him. Harry got on with the task of getting himself dressed and when he was done, he could barely recognize himself. The tux had been tailored to mould to his lean frame and he couldn't begin to fathom how Lord V knew his exact measurements. The cell phone rang, and Harry was pulled out of his thoughts. He picked it up and Lord V's cold, smooth voice spoke,
"Harry, I hope you are dressed now."
Harry couldn't say anything but,
Lord V made a pleased sound,
"Good. You shall be representing me at a Charity Ball."
Harry couldn't believe what he was hearing and he blurted out,
Lord V sighed impatiently,
"Yes, Harry. A Charity Ball. Stan will give you the invitation and the cheque you shall be handing over on my behalf. You have half an hour to reach there and I do not want you to be late."
Harry couldn't understand any of this. This wasn't what he was expecting. Lord V had completely blindsided him,
Lord V had already ended the call. Harry slipped his phone in his jacket pocket and stepped out of the room. Immediately he was met by Stan who greeted him with a Cheshire grin and an appreciative once over,
"You're really looking sharp, Doll."
Harry ducked his head and Stan laughed,
"You're too modest for your own good."
He led him out. The drive was mostly silent but it was pleasant. Stan had let him roll his window down and for once Harry didn't have to stare at the black tint. The car took him right into the heart of Kensington—past on-site security and into a leafy boulevard literally behind Kensington Palace itself. A street of private mansions, delicately illuminated by lampposts and patrolled by armed guards.
It was hard to process really…the existence of a place like this, right in the middle of England's capital, where the land values were unthinkable. Even One Hyde Park, with all its aggressive opulence, had been obliged to build upward. Not these languorous, three-story homes, with their wings and gardens and stable blocks. There was a quietness of conviction here, an unshakeable expectation of wealth and its advantages that was frankly kind of scary. How did people even own places like this?
The houses themselves, though, were just a little bit strange. The ornate stucco frontages, all pillars and porticos and wedding cake moulding struck him as something he'd have expected to find in a novel or a fairy tale. They were status symbols and nothing more.
The car drew to a halt in front of one of the mansions. Stan opened the door for him and Harry scrambled out, feeling dazed and floaty. Stan handed him the invitation, the cheque and a gold mask. Harry stared at in wonder and couldn't help but ask,
"What's this for?"
Harry thought Stan's grin couldn't get wider but it did,
"It's a Masquerade."
Harry tried his best not to let his bewilderment show and pulled on the mask. He pushed the cheque in the inside pocket of his tux and shook his head. He couldn't disappoint Lord V. After showing his invitation to the guard outside the gate, he was led by a man servant straight through the swung-wide gates, past the fountain and up the steps to the house, which was lit up and shining like a medieval vision of heaven.
A small collection of glamorous people, all of them masked, the men aloof and interchangeable in black tie, the women aloof and marginally less interchangeable in their designer frocks. Laughing, their voices entangling, glided past him, and Harry realized that he was walking too slow.
He scampered after them. Clearly starting the evening as he meant to go on: looking like an idiot. And caught up just inside the entrance hall, somehow managing not to fall, face down on the highly polished marble floor.
The house or Mansion or whatever it was, was huge. it had an entrance hall, for starters. It was that sort of place. Full of stately rooms that didn't seem to be for anything. At least, nothing that normal people did like watch TV or wander round absentmindedly. It was all ornate plasterwork and inlaid panels, curlicues and chandeliers.
Harry felt slightly dizzy. Too much light glinting on too many surfaces. He felt horribly out of place in that gleaming white gallery, among the beautifully dressed people. A caterer with the tray of champagne paused beside him and Harry picked up a flute just to have something to do with his hands.
A few strangers greeted him as he made his way through the crowd. He politely greeted them back. Not knowing what to do, how to behave or what to say. This was too much. He found a quiet corner and leaning against the pillar, he took a sip from his flute. That was when he noticed him and he instantly felt claustrophobic. His heart twisted itself into a knot so tight and tender he could hardly breathe. It took him all his effort to hold on to the flute.
He was immaculate in full black tie. Effortless, too, nothing imprecise or overdone: just fiercely fine tailoring and the subtle sheen of matte silk from the reverse and buttons of his classic, one-button peak lapel jacket. His mask was a single strip of black satin that he could already tell would make everyone else look too ornate and tacky by comparison.
Mr. Riddle was deeply engaged in a conversation with an older looking man. Harry instantly pushed himself away from the pillar and willed his feet to move. But before he could, Mr. Riddle's soft brown eyes sought him out through the crowd and zeroed in on him. Harry felt frozen in place by his piercing gaze and slumped back against the pillar. Harry didn't feel numb anymore. His heart was bursting with emotions. Emotions he didn't want…didn't need…couldn't afford.
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