Title: The Mark of the Fox
Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.
Pairings: Harry/Draco preslash
Warnings: Violence, profanity, Dark!Draco, not epilogue-compliant.
Summary: After making a horrible mistake that has ruined his career as an Auror, Harry is "persuaded" to take a holiday in a small town deep in a hidden valley. He thinks it will be relaxing. Until, that is, he meets the Dark wizards who run the town—and the wizard in charge of them.
Author's Notes: This is the first fic in a series of four. It's very much a Jaded!Harry and Bastard!Draco story, so beware if that's not your cup of tea. Thanks very much to songquake for the beta and myfluffcanfly for offering. While this fic is complete, it's being posted in parts as I get it edited and updated.
The Mark of the Fox
"You know that you really don't deserve a second chance."
Harry stared at his hands, clasped in his lap. He had the impression that Robards would have liked more of a reaction from him, but he couldn't give one. None of the horrible things that the Head Auror could say to him were a patch on the horrible things that he had already said to himself.
They could have lived, and they were innocent, and you killed them.
If he closed his eyes, he could still smell the flames. How was he supposed to forgive himself after that? How could anyone try?
He wouldn't have bothered fighting for his job, except that he was so good at being an Auror he feared he couldn't be anything else. But if he couldn't imagine a future outside the Department, a future inside it, when no one could trust him not to make a stupid mistake again, seemed equally impossible. So, in the end, he had come to Robards and explained what he was thinking and left his fate in the man's hands. Either way, the man would make a decision, and Harry's tormenting, wavering uncertainty would stop.
Harry tensed. He knew that tone. It meant that Robards was reconsidering, and that he could hardly dare to hope. He swallowed and managed to look up, fighting against the pressure of gravity and guilt all the way.
Robards leaned back behind his desk and looked at him with small, distant eyes. The way his fingers tapped on the desk made Harry blink. That was always a sign that the Head Auror was nervous.
So he really doesn't want to give me this chance at all. Someone pressured him into doing it, someone higher up the chain of command.
Harry felt the first faint stirring of interest since he had appeared outside the fire, instead of inside it, as was his place. He leaned forwards and said, "However, sir?"
"Certain—people—have kept your record in mind," Robards said. It sounded as if it would have been easier to get blood from a stone than to get those words to emerge from his mouth. "People I trust, people who are ready to throw their weight behind you and prove they have confidence in you. People who have suggested that you take a holiday, in a place known for improving the mood and morale of those who stay there." He reached down, pulled out a file folder that had been hiding under a pile of other folders, and shoved it across to Harry so violently that the papers sprayed out in a neat fan.
Harry picked up the first paper and scanned it with eyes that were used to reading reports and picking out the important details from thousands of unnecessary words. Fox Valley…secluded houses…Muggle-Repelling Charms…reasonable prices…companionship of many or none, as requested…
"What is this, sir?" Harry worked hard to keep any distaste out of his words. He knew what it looked like, one of the privileges of a select number of pure-blood individuals. He'd joined the effort to eliminate those privileges once he realized how much money and land it let them control. But Robards wanted him to go to this place for some reason, or at least the Department of Magical Law Enforcement did, and he would do his best to prove that he deserved this second chance.
Even though you don't deserve it.
The smell of smoke and burning flesh filled his nostrils again.
"Fox Valley? It's a refuge that works wonders to heal the heart and soul." Harry had never heard Robards' voice sound so dry. "You wouldn't be offered the use of it at all, except that certain Aurors think your heart and soul need healing." He leaned so close that Harry's vision was filled with his small and staring eyes. "Understand this, Potter. It is in the Ministry's best interest to keep you employed. So you will stay for a month in Fox Valley, and you will bloody well get better, and then return to us cleansed of past injuries. Do you understand?"
He might as well have said "cleansed of your past." Harry's fingers tightened briefly on the folder, bending glossy photographs of people waving from a brilliant meadow dotted with crystal-blue ponds. They scuttled for cover to the edges of the pictures and frowned up at him.
Then Harry remembered that he had no right to feel angry. He nodded and stood, gathering all the important papers back into the folder with a practiced sweep of one hand. "Yes, sir."
"Get out of my sight," Robards said, whirling his chair away. "And remember who had to die for you to be here today."
Harry nodded, but he doubted it did much good, since Robards had his back turned.
That didn't matter, because it wasn't Robards to whom Harry made that promise. It was to himself, and the dead.
I promise, no one else will pay with their lives as you did.
It was a normal, calm, lazy day in his office. Sunlight poured through the window, which was enchanted but in this case couldn't display a scene more beautiful than what lay outside it. Small birds, the size of hummingbirds but more brightly-colored and tuneful, clung to the vines that grew up his walls and sang among their heart-shaped purple blossoms. Their voices mingled with the sound of the fountain splashing in the next room.
All those attractions for the eye and the ear, and still Draco could do nothing but stare at the name on the parchment in front of him, hear nothing but his heartbeat thudding in his ears.
"Harry Potter," he murmured aloud at last, to hear how the name fit with the birdsongs and the water. It cut across them, sharp as the buzz of a bee, and Draco nodded. He had thought that would happen.
But the note came from a source in the Ministry who had never yet disappointed him; they had a working relationship begun in enmity but nourished by necessity. Draco folded the parchment and put it carefully on the desk next to him. Then he faced the door, sent a stinging thought into flight, and waited.
The sound of footsteps pattering up the stairs on the outside of the house was clearly audible. Draco had designed the stairs for that, chosen the stone and then "tuned" it by careful use of magic, and it fit the purpose admirably. Lisa came inside a moment later, brushing flower petals from her clipped dark hair that clearly showed she'd been arranging the large bouquets near the entrance of the neighboring house. It was tourist season in Fox Valley, after all.
"Yes, Lord?" she asked, a bit breathlessly, halting before him and bowing her head.
Draco rolled his eyes but let it pass. Lisa was one of those he had Marked unwillingly, and she seemed to live better with the relationship if she could call him Lord and pretend that he was someone like Voldemort instead of what Draco knew he was: a very good criminal. In general, Lisa didn't try to make trouble or secret plans to rebel, both of which Draco didn't tolerate in his organization, and she didn't press for unusual rewards, either. She wasn't ambitious. Draco hated to think of what would have happened to her if he hadn't come along. She would probably be wasting all her gifts in some isolated little cottage.
"We're going to have Harry Potter as a guest in a few short days," he said, and then waited. Of all of those he'd given his Mark to, Lisa's natural reactions were the most useful.
Lisa's eyes widened, and she stood so still that Draco thought he could have fooled some of his less observant guests into thinking she was a statue. Then she turned and looked out the window towards the head of the valley, her lips thinning. "I reckon there's a fear that he might try to investigate?" she asked at last.
"On my behalf and that of my contact at the Ministry," Draco said, with a sharp tap of his finger on the note, "yes."
Lisa glanced back at him, her eyebrow rising skeptically. "I've never trusted Arthur, my Lord."
Draco took a moment to smile, as he often did, over the irony of his contact choosing a name that belonged to one of the wizards on the side of "goodness" and "light" and "not making money." He did not have Arthur Weasley under his thumb, more the pity. On the other hand, they could never have achieved the amicable relationship that Draco and his Arthur had. No, his contact had chosen the name as a play on his own and to remain unobtrusive. "I know that, but his information has always been good. Now, how would you go about preparing the Valley for the visit of an Auror who's reputed to be the best they have ever trained, both in suspecting a crime and finding it?"
Lisa chewed her lip for a moment, eyes narrowed. Then she said, "I'd try to make sure that he never suspected anything in the first place, Lord. Put him in the house with the most lenses and keep him safe and sleepy most of the time he's here."
Draco nodded, since her thoughts accorded with his own perfectly, but, just to be difficult, said, "We hardly want him addicted to the Valley and dying to return."
Lisa flicked him the tiniest glance of contempt. Such things were allowable. "No, my Lord. Of course not. But the lenses alone, without the temptation to buy our merchandise or to see the beautiful places in the Valley, should be enough to lull him to sleep without addicting him. And if we use that many lenses, it's not a total waste." She looked with great emphasis at the magical birds that flickered through the flowering vines on Draco's walls.
Draco nodded. "See that it's so, Lisa."
She bowed and departed from the room with a slight spring. Draco chuckled to himself as he watched her go. She could have struck out on her own and made a lot of money long ago, and then he would have respected her as an equal partner and worked with her instead of Marking her. But she hadn't, and Draco considered that people who didn't take advantage of their considerable opportunities deserved what they got.
His gaze went back to the parchment, and he wondered if any of his followers would find his contempt disturbing. Draco rarely showed contempt. It was bad for business.
There's another one who didn't take advantage of the world that threw itself at his feet. Draining his magic will be a positive pleasure.
Harry hadn't known what to expect of Fox Valley, but when he stepped out of the cave that the Portkey had transported him into, he hadn't expected the perfect stillness, perfect green, and perfect quiet.
The ground in front of him sloped steeply down into a valley gleaming with white buildings, ponds so round and blue Harry had to rub his eyes, and plenty of trees and bushes in a positively unnatural shade of green. The white snow on the mountains around it, in combination with their pure black stone, made it a study in contrasts. An artist's study in contrasts, Harry thought. He didn't think any place was this pretty naturally.
He waited a moment, listening for the sound of someone coming to welcome him. The breeze brought the splashing of water, the sound of clacking pebbles as a large animal trotted through the undergrowth, and the tentative sounds of birds as they built back up to a concert that Harry's appearance had stopped. Harry heard nothing else, no matter how hard he concentrated.
Maybe this really is as secluded as Robards promised, Harry thought, and began to walk downhill. He hadn't been out of his house much in the last few days, as he first awaited investigation and sentence, and then packed for his journey—Robards had ordered him to take a least a fortnight's holiday—and it was pure pleasure to feel the way his legs stretched as he mastered the slope.
For a moment.
The scent of burned flesh returned to his nostrils, and Harry closed his eyes in pain, wondering how he could have allowed himself to forget it.
I don't deserve to treat this like a holiday. What I need is to clear my head of all the clutter and all the stupidity that caused me to make that mistake in the first place. Then I can go back to my job and actually do it properly.
With his eyes closed, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that he stumbled, but he nevertheless gasped and his eyes flew open, his hand reaching for a support that wasn't there.
He fell down part of the slope in a clatter of scree and twigs and branches, his arms flailing, before he managed to grab a tree-trunk and stop himself. For a minute, he leaned against it, panting. Then he patted his pocket, realized his shrunken trunk was gone, and turned around with a curse to look for it.
A woman stood behind him, holding it. There was a slight, unnerving smile on her face as she regarded him. Harry stared back, not smiling himself. There was something about her dark eyes and straight-cut dark hair, ordinary as they were, that unnerved him. Or was it those things combined with the still intensity of her face?
"That's what you get for concentrating on the past and not the future," she said. "I have the feeling you were very far away when you didn't notice that you'd put that first foot wrong." She tossed his trunk to him with a casual motion, and Harry caught it, glad for the Seeker reflexes that meant he could do it without taking his eyes off her. That seemed to amuse the woman, and she laughed, a deep sound that purled up from the middle of her throat. "Did I surprise you? I'm sorry. I should have realized that someone who was thinking his own thoughts that deeply wouldn't hear me approach." She gave him a neat and oddly formal bow from the waist, a bow that Harry realized, as she flowed back upright, gave her the best possible economy of motion. "My name is Lisa Baines."
She's balanced, Harry thought, with a slight shock of recognition. It was the kind of posture that he fell into himself when he confronted someone he knew was a dangerous criminal.
The kind of stance he was using now, as a matter of fact. He cleared his throat and stood straighter. "Yeah, sorry," he said. "My name's—"
"I know it already," Baines interrupted, and then paused and studied him. "Oh, dear, you don't like that, do you?" She laughed again, this time a softer and higher sound. "I just thought there was no point in pretending I didn't recognize that scar, or those eyes." She examined his face for a moment, then shrugged and turned away.
Harry's unease was rapidly mounting. He couldn't understand what it was about the woman that made him feel so, other than the way she moved or the way she'd managed to approach him in silence on such a treacherous slope, but he knew to listen to his instincts when they stood up and screamed at him.
"Right," he said. "Um. The pamphlets promised that I could have a bed? And a private room?"
"Oh, a private house." Baines waved an airy hand as she started to move downhill again, and Harry followed her because there seemed to be nothing else to do. "We don't skimp on the conveniences here, Mr. Potter." She studied him this time with her head turned backwards over her shoulder. Harry noted with mild envy that she must know the terrain well; no falling when she didn't look at her feet for her. "Or do you prefer Auror Potter? Forgive me for being flustered. I've simply never met someone who has so much fame, and I assumed I never would."
I would wager you'd never been flustered in your life, Harry thought dryly. Aloud, he said, "Mr. Potter is fine. After all, I'm not chasing down criminals right now."
For some reason, that brought a smile as vivid as lightning up on Baines's face. "Very true," she said. "Well, as I said, we don't skimp on the conveniences. You can eat your meals privately as well, and I'll introduce you to the bathing pools, the walking trails, the Quidditch pitch—I assure you, you can rent one of our excellent brooms if you forgot to bring your own—and the winged horse stable. There are plenty of other things that you can do, of course, but those are our most popular attractions."
Harry blinked. It was bizarre trying to reconcile the voice that babbled on like one of the pamphlets Robards had given him come to life with the body he was becoming more and more sure was that of a trained fighter.
"Er, right," he said. "Can someone go up with me if I ride one of the winged horses? I've never done that before."
"I wouldn't see why not," Baines said, as she hopped over a projecting stone and rounded a tree that looked as though winds had pounded it flat the moment it tried to raise its head. "After all, we like people to know their limitations. But I should also mention that your house will be deeply comfortable, and many of our visitors prefer simply to rest. If you were to spend most of your mornings sleeping in the bed—the best pillows anywhere come to Fox Valley, stuffed with phoenix feathers—then I can't imagine that anyone would object."
Harry just nodded, instead of objecting or agreeing; it was useless to argue with someone who expected him to believe that they actually used phoenix feathers in their pillows. Baines's voice had faltered on those last words as it had not on others. She expected him to sleep a lot.
They were soon in the middle of Fox Valley, and walking between the white stone houses, which were all neat and trim cottages—at least on the outside. Harry looked through the windows they passed, and saw rooms filled with polished wooden furniture, mirrors, and indoor fountains that seemed much too big for cottages to contain. Wizardspace, then.
And why shouldn't they use it, if they like? Harry shook his head. You're getting suspicious about what looks like a nice place to spend a holiday on the outside, and probably isn't any different from that on the inside. You're probably making up some of the danger and imagining the rest. You've already proven that you can't exactly trust your Auror instincts.
That chastened him as much as even Robards could have wished. Harry lowered his eyes and nodded or grunted in response to Baines's chatter about the size of the houses and how each contained a private field of wards that would allow him to screen out the existence of his neighbors if he wished, as well as enchanted windows that would allow him to see totally empty streets.
"I can't imagine that someone like you gets privacy very often," Baines added, with an oblique look sideways.
"I think I should have chosen somewhere else if I wanted privacy," Harry said, watching the couples who strolled along arm-in-arm, or the solitary witches and wizards who sat on their balconies in the sun. No one seemed very active, despite the list of activities he'd heard from both the pamphlets and Baines herself. "Fox Valley looks well-populated."
"With people here to enjoy themselves, and with people, like me, who are here to serve you." Baines gave him another deep bow that Harry didn't believe for a second. It was too neat. "But even our presence can be blocked by the wards. Some people enjoy the sensation of invisible servants, I'm told."
"I don't enjoy the presence of servants of any kind," Harry said. He knew he'd been too abrupt when Baines smiled at him, another lightning-smile.
"Then I assume that you prefer to hunt down your food and eat it raw?" She paused in front of a house that backed into the cliff on the right side of the valley. Harry studied their surroundings with small darts of his eyes and decided they were more or less in the center of Fox Valley. The cottage was three floors, one of the larger ones, and of course it had a pleasant little garden and roses growing around the door. What Harry noticed more than anything else was how many neighbors it had, and how the street in front of it was broad and flat, rather than bending into hidden corners as it sometimes did in other parts of the valley.
Not an easy place to escape from without being seen, if you wanted to.
Baines paused and looked at him, head cocked, and Harry realized she was waiting for an answer to her question. He shook his head. "But I do prefer making my own food and cooking it to my taste," he said.
Baines laughed gently. "Forgive me, Mr. Potter, but I think you've had too much of that lately."
"Too much cooking?" Harry knew he must look stupid as he gaped at her, but he didn't have the slightest idea what she meant.
"Too much work." Baines took his hands, a gesture so unusual that Harry blinked at her and didn't try to draw them away. "I think you have been spoiled by doing so much for yourself. I understand self-reliance, but at certain points it becomes pathological. Perhaps you should relax. Perhaps you should cheer yourself with the thought of doing almost nothing but resting and waking in the morning to the delightful certainty that you need do nothing more."
"Do you give that speech to all your customers?" Harry asked, twisting the words as he would not twist his smile.
Baines stepped away from him, eyes narrowed and shoulders tensing as though she would give him one of the strikes Harry thought her well-prepared to give. Then she bowed her head and nodded at the same time. "Very well," she said. "I cannot tell you how to enjoy your holiday. But I will say that Fox Valley is a unique place, and you would be a fool to give up the chance to enjoy it. You have spent the rest of your life working, struggling, conquering. Why not have a taste of peace?"
She turned away and walked up the valley. Harry tracked her with his eyes, but only for a second. He was confident that he knew enough about her to satisfy him for the moment, and he did not want her, or anyone else watching, to think his interest was excessive.
With nothing else to do, he turned around and entered the house.
Draco stood in front of the lens in his office adapted for observation rather than draining and watched Potter with some fascination as he stumbled through his house, gaping at everything around him.
The poor sod looked like a complete innocent. He touched the tapestries as if he couldn't believe they were real. He bounced on the bed, actually bounced on it, and stood up without a trace of shame. He tapped the roses in the vases with his wand and looked astonished when they didn't vanish. He measured the dimensions of the shower and stepped back from it distrustfully.
But Draco had Potter's full record from his contact in the Ministry. Potter was no innocent.
He had solved more cases in the last five years than any other three Aurors combined. He could fight in a bewildering variety of styles, and his repertoire of curses was unknown; his contact had hinted darkly that he believed Potter used many more than he ever showed in combat in front of his mates. He had grown harder, colder, grimmer since his friends Weasley and Granger had moved to Australia two years ago. He had many acquaintances, many temporary partners with whom he worked smoothly, but no one, it seemed, who wanted to permanently take up the burden of his company.
Draco knew that, yes, but he had never believed that he could learn as much from reading reports as he could from personal observation, or at second-best through the eyes of a trusted subordinate like Lisa. Since Lisa had yet to return to report on Potter, Draco was watching.
Potter finally stopped looking at things and tapping on them. He sat down in the middle of the bedroom, on the floor and leaning against one of the enormous glass windows, and gazed wearily out of it as though he was in the midst of enemies and expected to find no reprieve.
Draco felt his mouth move in a quick smile. That is true, of course, but I doubt that he could know it as yet.
Potter sighed and shook his head. Then he rose to his feet and untied his cloak, dropping it on the floor. Draco rolled his eyes. It seemed that some of Potter's habits hadn't changed since he was a student.
Potter dragged his shirt over his head and tossed it in the general direction of the bed. Draco saw it fall, but he couldn't roll his eyes at that particular failure; he was too busy being unable to tear them away from Potter's back.
He was more finely muscled than Draco would have expected, though it had been obvious from his form that he was no brute like Crabbe and Goyle had been in school. But Draco had somehow gained the impression that he was gawky, perhaps because of the weary way he walked or the careless way his clothes hung on him. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Slender sheaths of muscle worked beneath skin that Draco thought would be soft enough to the touch.
Despite the scars that covered it.
From a simple glance, Draco could identify the scars of whip, sword, several spectacular Slicing Curses, and a variety of Dark spells that he would have been hard-pressed to duplicate in half an hour's time, casting them one immediately after each other. Potter turned around, and most of the scars continued on his chest, as did the muscle and the softness of the skin. He rubbed his eyes and left his hand there for a moment, which Draco didn't mind. With his arms up and extended like that, it made his view all the more unimpeded.
Potter was a fighter. It was in the way he moved, in the way his head tilted, and in the scars. No matter how tired he got or how much he seemed to hate his life—Draco knew that particular flat, dull shine in someone's eyes—that would always be true.
Draco nibbled his lip. It seemed a shame to simply take Potter's magic and strength and use it for the project of making Fox Valley more irresistible and increasing his personal fortune. Of course, he had never scrupled to use others like that, but those others had only magic to offer. Potter might have more, just as Draco had known Lisa had when he first found her.
What Draco didn't think he could contend with was that irritating commitment to righteousness that all Gryffindors had and which he doubted would have lessened in Potter in the years since Hogwarts, given that he spent all his time in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
In the end, he shook his head regretfully. No, it was better not to try to recruit Potter. He would be a lovely addition among Draco's Marked ones, but the risks outweighed the benefits. And Draco was no longer a schoolboy to be controlled by ancient grudges.
Potter shucked his trousers then, and Draco saw that the scars also marked his legs, including one spectacular one that curled around his left hip and then spiraled down and around the thigh and calf in a regular corkscrew pattern like a unicorn's horn. Draco stared. It was the first case he had seen in years in which he could not even conjecture which curse might have left such a scar.
Suddenly, Potter's head jerked up. His eyes narrowed at the far wall. Draco looked at the wall in perplexity. Had one of his people disobeyed his order to leave Potter's house strictly alone for now?
No. Potter strode across the bedroom with fierce steps and spent some time staring at the wall. Draco felt his eyes widen and his breathing quicken. A lens was buried beneath that wall, but surely Potter could not have sensed—
Potter pulled his wand from what might as well have been thin air and cast a spell Draco couldn't see, since his head was turned away from the mirror enough to hide his lips. The spell was visible as a cone of white light that zipped into the wall, and a moment later bounced out in radiating rays.
A bright ringing sound invaded Draco's head, and then the wards in his office shrilled.
And the observing lens went dark.
Draco leaned back in his seat and stared at the ceiling. Somehow, without knowing exactly what they were, Potter had sensed the presence of the lenses and then broken every single one in the house. Or so the alarms said.
And he had, for the moment, placed himself beyond the reach of direct observation, though Draco could quickly fix that.
In spite of the ringing wards and the fists pounding on the door, Draco licked his lips and felt a chill sweetness invade his mouth, as if he were eating ice cream.
It might be worth the risk.
What were those things?
Harry cocked his head warily from side to side, studying the wall where the thing had been. It had looked like an enchanted mirror to him, though a mirror smothered under a layer of the wall itself. He didn't know what it was meant to do, but he knew that he had never agreed to be spied upon.
He had long since mastered spells that would let him destroy all things of the same kind in one house or room in a single instant. He was glad that he knew it now. He had not noticed the outline of the mirror at first, and who knew how long it might have been before he found every last one of them?
I was right. Something is wrong.
Harry narrowed his eyes and began scooping up his clothes again. He had wanted to shower and then sleep, but fuck that. There was no way he was staying in Fox Valley when so many strange things were happening around him.
Someone knocked on the front door just as he pulled his shirt over his head. Harry snatched up his cloak, made sure his wand and trunk were secure, and then moved silently in the direction of the bathroom. Part of his Auror training had included learning many quick escape routes out of a building with anti-Apparition wards on it, and one of the things he had noted was that almost every window was enchanted and not a safe route. The bathroom window, however, was real.
He flung open the window, hearing Lisa Baines's voice calling, "Mr. Potter? Are you all right?"
There was no staircase beneath the window, but Harry had done more difficult descents. He cast two quick charms on himself, a Lightening Charm and a Bone-Strengthening one that would allow his bones to bear considerable stress without breaking, and then flung himself out the window.
He landed with the usual unpleasant jolt that that combination of spells always produced, as if his body couldn't decide whether to be light or heavy, and grimaced. But the most important thing was to get out of sight, and he did, flattening into a crouch and running towards the side of the mountain behind his house.
Baines's voice sounded closer this time. Harry hissed between his teeth as he considered the options. There were a few trees on the mountainside, but most of it was bare stone, and he had seen how well Baines moved in this landscape. She probably knew every trail that was convenient to use, every cave that he could conveniently hide in.
When in doubt, improvise, he thought, and dropped into a sitting position at the foot of a tree that he could maintain without effort for some hours. Then he held up his wand over his head and moved it in a slow line forwards, outlining his extended legs.
"Admisceo cum arbore," he whispered.
The air about him shimmered and trembled, then exploded into a series of tiny sparks that landed on the stone and rare dirt and straggling grass about him. Where they landed, they created an elaborate illusion and extension of the tree, making its trunk appear bigger, its roots longer, its branches heavier. Harry would shelter in plain sight, and hope that Baines's knowledge was not good enough to make her notice that one of the trees didn't look exactly the way it should have.
The illusion had barely settled when Baines sprinted around the corner of the house. Harry watched the way she traveled—low to the ground, like him—and noticed the way that she wasted no motion, and grinned.
I was right. And why should she panic so much, when for all she knows I'm lying in the house, stunned senseless by that unfortunate explosion?
"Mr. Potter," Baines called quietly, in the sort of soothing voice Harry had learned to keep jumpy suspects from panicking. "No one wants to harm you. I only want to explain some things."
Yes, of course you do, Harry thought, holding still. Even if he moved, the illusion should hold firm—it was more like a tent than most glamours were—but he didn't want to risk it yet. Sometimes the magic emitted an unfortunate flicker, and with his luck lately, that would be the moment when Baines chose to look around.
"We do have mirrors in our houses to let us look in on our guests during an emergency," Baines said, her eyes going back and forth so rapidly that Harry wondered how she managed to fool anyone. Then again, most of the people she probably had to fool weren't trained Aurors. "We did that because we had certain elderly guests who had heart conditions or trouble getting up and down stairs by themselves, and we needed a swift way to let us know if they had injured themselves. I am sorry if you misunderstood the mirrors. They were never meant to spy on a guest's privacy." She gave a quick smile. "I know you must have had more than your share of that."
She's very good, Harry thought. Her statements were reasonable, especially since Harry was sure it had been mirrors he'd smashed. She even had the right combination of sympathy and friendliness and gentle chiding.
He might have been tempted to believe her, if she had once stopped looking around as though she was hunting an escaped prisoner.
"Hundreds of our guests have stayed in this house," Baines said, moving a step closer to the tree, but in a slight, dancing way which told Harry that she didn't yet suspect what spell he had cast. "All of them have understood the mirrors. We can move you to another one if you're uncomfortable. Will you let us do that?"
Shit. The other guests.
Instincts, his own and an Auror's, raced to the forefront of his mind. He couldn't simply leave Fox Valley if other people were trapped here, people who might be the victims of whatever scheme required enchanted mirrors in every room and trained fighters to act as servants.
A darker voice whispered and laughed in the back of his mind. You would have left them behind without even thinking about it, as you left others behind. And the smell of smoke filled his nostrils.
Harry could have embraced Baines in that moment. She brought him back when he would have sunken into darkness and lost everything to the memory that smoked and steamed in his nostrils. But he was more than that; he had to get past this, or he would never be an Auror again.
Perhaps you don't deserve to be.
Questions of justice could wait. Right now, there was a question of danger. Harry got one knee beneath him and waited, hunched forwards slightly, ready to leap in any direction if Baines showed a sign of discovering his hiding place.
Baines frowned and paced a few steps on either side of him, once coming close enough to touch. Harry held his breath, and then reminded himself that that was ridiculous. If the glamour worked the way it was supposed to, she would feel only bark even if she brushed against his skin.
If it works the way it's supposed to. Nothing in Harry's life recently fit that category.
Baines shook her head and pulled back the sleeve from her left arm. Harry almost leaped to his feet, so much did he expect to see a Dark Mark there.
Instead, there was a light, stylized shape. Harry could make out long legs and an equally long muzzle when he squinted. A crocodile? It could be. The long jaws looked like it, until Baines bent her arm in his direction.
He understood then, as much from the pale red color of the mark as anything else. It was a fox.
Baines touched the mark and whispered, "He's gone, my Lord. I don't know where." She paused and then said, her voice snappish, "No, there are no traces. Did you think there would be? Trained Aurors can cover their tracks."
Shit. This goes deeper than I suspected. Harry tried to mold himself invisibly to the trunk of the tree. Even if Baines couldn't sense him, her "Lord" might be able to. This is like Voldemort all over again. I have to figure out what's going on and stop it.
Abruptly, Baines cried out and bent at the waist, clutching her arm as though someone had broken it. Harry stared, but couldn't make out any trace of an injury or a spell. He would have cast one of the Auror charms that let him detect magic, but it would have been a bad idea to do anything that might break the glamour.
"Yes, my lord," Baines said, when she recovered. She spoke through panting breaths, but Harry could hear only buried resentment in her tone. She probably doesn't dare show anything else. "Yes, of course he shall be found. I'm sorry for questioning you." She rose to her feet and walked back around the house. Harry heard her speaking to someone else a moment later.
This is bad. Harry stood up, but kept his back to the tree, and looked around for more observers. This is worse than I thought. If someone has discovered the art of marking people against their wills and forcing them to obey him through the marks, then I might even have to rescue people like Baines who serve him.
Of course, there was the question of how he was going to stay hidden in the meantime and keep the Fox Lord's servants from capturing him. And to do that, he needed a better idea of the layout of the valley.
Harry wrapped a Disillusionment Charm around himself and, keeping the mountain at his back so that he could cast a stationary glamour against it in a moment if he needed to, he crept off to explore.
Potter rattles the best of them, Draco thought, shaking his head. His head still stung from the unexpected displeasure of punishing Lisa through her mark. He couldn't remember the last time she had defied him.
All the more reason to hunt Potter myself.
He stood up, stretched his arms above his head, and then began gathering what he thought he would need. A coil of rope, an enchanted dagger, and the secondary wand that he had picked up from Ollivander's at the point when he thought his hawthorn wand lost to him forever. He paused as he stood before the glass case on the far side of the office, and then smiled.
Why not? Whims have paid off for me before.
He opened the case and slipped out the fox statue, its shape that of a running animal with muzzle projecting forwards, made of golden wood. The simplest dolt touching it could have felt the thrum of magic running through the wood. Draco stroked it once, then slipped it into the pouch that clung to his waist. Embedded with wizardspace, the pouch could hold an infinity of things, as far as Draco knew; he'd never found the bottom of it.
He summoned another of his guards with a thought, and waited until he came panting into the room. Victor Albero was a slim man with dark hair and eyes whose hands were deadlier than knives. Draco nodded to him.
"Keep watch over the office," he said. "I have an errand to run."
Victor knew him better than anyone except Lisa, which was the reason he was third-in-command. His eyes widened. "Lord," he said. "Alone?"
Draco gave him a gentle smile, and Victor shuddered and looked down at the floor. "Certainly," Draco said. "I know him best, and remember that he is not the only skilled fighter I have faced in my time."
And reduced to slavery, the words were that hung unseen between them, because Draco had marked Victor, like Lisa, against his will.
Victor nodded and leaned against Draco's desk, looking resigned. Draco stepped out onto the second-floor porch that ran all around his house and stood gazing towards the eastern end of the Valley, where Potter's house was.
The house he hardly got any use out of, Draco thought a moment later, with a wry shake of his head. He loped to the edge of the porch and swung up on the slender railing that surrounded it. The porch was made of white wood, carved with running foxes that Draco trailed a hand over in greeting. He learned quickly what was going on, where I had hoped he wouldn't learn at all.
But then, Draco thought as he flipped backwards and made his way to the ground in a series of somersaults, Potter had never done anything but disoblige Draco. He could hardly be expected to begin a different tradition now.
Draco jogged easily along the street that ran the length of the valley, pausing to nod to some of his guests, to wave his hand and call names he learned as easily as the names of people he intended to Mark. They answered, but their voices were sleepy, their eyes hardly able to focus on him. Draco smiled. The draining of magic had side-effects that were beneficial beyond the power it gave him and the attachment that it created to Fox Valley. Most of his guests felt as if they had undergone a blissful sleep, or a series of them, and longed to return to Fox Valley after they left. Many of them managed it. Thus, Draco's business sustained itself, and grew when his guests told their friends.
He stroked the bracelets that gripped his wrists. One was silver, set with pearls, and the other platinum, set with topazes. There was no particular reason they had to be, but Draco admired that combination of metal and gems.
Has Potter ever faced anything like me? Draco thought as he slipped behind the proper house and began to hunt in the dirt for traces. He was the most skilled tracker in his coterie, and soon he saw the place Potter had leaned with his back against a tree, the distinctive scuff-mark of boots and the trailing line of a cloak carried over the arm rather than worn. Draco smiled as he began to run. I doubt it.
Damn it, there is no place to hide in this bloody valley.
Of course, Harry would hardly have expected someone who wanted to spy on clients and use a variant of the Dark Mark to leave good hiding places, but he had counted on overlooked corners and small abandoned areas that no one wanted for anything. You got those places in the best and most tightly-controlled villages or strongholds or old manor houses, and Harry had been trained to hide in them.
But whoever had created Fox Valley had a fiendishly clever eye for finding those sorts of things and eliminating them. Each niche contained a bench, and the line of one of those enchanted mirrors Harry soon learned to recognize, planted in a bush or hovering behind the bark of a tree. Each small area off the path was the lawn of a house, or the site of a pool where people sat staring dreamily into the water, or a campground with a pit of stones for the fire. Harry shuddered and hurried past those particular places when he saw them.
Everything was open except the sides of the hill and the places where the street bent. The bends were under observation from windows and from more mirrors. Harry saw places in which caves and fissures in the sides of the mountain must have existed, but they had been carefully filled, most of the time with fallen stone.
Harry paused, still Disillusioned but now out of breath, next to one of the tiny clearings. A fountain splashed here. A young witch in a long white robe sat on the bench in front of it, swaying dreamily to the splashing of the water.
Can I make an ally out of someone? Tell them what's going on and request help? Much of Harry's careful training had taught him never to involve civilians in Auror business, but the most fundamental point of all was that he survive and carry the information back to his superiors. If talking to someone would let him do that, then he should.
This woman was the first person he'd seen alone. Harry took a deep breath and approached her, retaining the charm for the moment. It would be best if he could get an idea of what she was like before he revealed himself.
She was singing softly, he realized when he stood beside her. He hadn't heard her from a few feet away. He didn't recognize the tune, and the words wandered back and forth between a song about a mouse and a song about walking into woods. Harry felt the hair rise on the back of his neck as he realized that she had a large, dreamy smile on her face that made her look as if she were drugged.
"Madam?" he asked quietly.
Her singing stopped, but she didn't look up, or jump and try to find the source of the strange voice. She kept trailing her hand through the water instead, and her voice wandered and stumbled and faltered over itself, muttering words now. Harry winced. It was painful to watch her.
"Ma'am?" he tried again, wishing she worked at Fox Valley. There was the chance that she might wear a torque or ring with her name on it then, a custom some wizarding establishments had picked up lately.
But the woman stared into the water and contemplated it. Harry tried speaking louder, and then yelling right in her ear. Nothing happened. The woman might have been deaf for all she could hear him.
Harry slipped to the side and dropped into a crouch so he could see her face better. It was oddly motionless, he realized after a few minutes' study, even for someone drugged. Her eyes blinked too slowly. Her smile didn't waver, as if the muscles that controlled the smile never grew tired. She breathed in a way that Harry would have expected from a comatose person.
Something is wrong.
Harry hesitated, glancing over his shoulder. He kept expecting that someone would come to hunt him along the quiet Fox Valley street any moment, but he couldn't ignore someone who needed his help. That wasn't what Aurors were trained to do. He leaned his wand against her face and murmured a basic diagnostic charm that would reveal the presence of illness, injury, or a foreign potion in her body. At least he could tell the nature of what she suffered and whether it was likely to affect anyone else in the valley.
The charm bounced into her body—
And nothing came back. It was as if Harry had cast his spell into a chamber enchanted to deaden sound.
Harry rocked back on his heels, eyes narrow. Diagnostic charms relied on the magic of the patient; they picked up disturbances to that magic on its deepest level and sorted them into different kinds. The only time Harry had ever heard of the charms having this effect was if they were cast on Muggles, or Squibs.
Someone with no magic of their own, or very little.
Could whoever owns the Valley be preying on Muggles? But Harry saw the wand in the woman's sleeve, and had to dismiss that idea. Besides, she was wearing robes.
Harry stood up and reached out to put a hand on the witch's shoulder, wondering what the fuck he should do. Guide her to a house, where she would probably be taken advantage of more? Try to get her out of the valley, when there might be other victims here who could use his help? Try to rouse her and make her defend herself, when she showed no inclination to look at the world outside her own head?
A footstep crunched in the dust behind him.
Harry whirled around, and realized too late that the Disillusionment Charm, meant for slower movement, would show ripples like a heat haze to anyone looking for them. And the man strolling casually up the center of the street was, pausing to shade his eyes theatrically with one hand.
The pale face, the pale hair, and the arrogant smirk couldn't belong to anyone else. But Harry had never thought about Malfoy doing something like this. To be fair, he hadn't thought of Malfoy at all in the last six years. He simply hadn't been important from the moment Harry had sent the hawthorn wand out the window with a post owl.
Roaring hatred burst like a flame through Harry's chest. He clutched his wand and fastened his training around his impulses in iron jaws. He had to be careful. He had to control what he did. He had to remember that what he did could affect other people, innocents who relied on him, and could also affect the reputation of the Ministry.
"I know you're here, Potter," Malfoy said softly. Jeweled bracelets flashed on his arms as he took out his wand. "We might as well duel, so that I can show you your place in the scheme of things."
Harry wanted to laugh. Malfoy duel him? It didn't matter what Malfoy had done in the past few years. He was never going to be as good as someone even the Aurors who had trained him admitted was a natural fighter.
Harry began to stalk stiff-legged in a circle. He retained the Disillusionment. It didn't provide as much advantage as it would have if he were standing still, but any possible confusion for Malfoy was always good.
Malfoy held his wand up in front of his face and whispered two words. Harry felt the Disillusionment shimmer and vanish, blowing away from him like mist.
His shock made him falter. That didn't happen. The Disillusionment Charm was part of a class of magic that could only be dispelled with great difficulty—
As he was reeling, Malfoy struck.
Draco grinned as he felt the stored magic flow from the bracelet on his right arm up to his wand and then out towards Potter. He became visible again, and stumbled, which was better than Draco had hoped for.
Draco sprang forwards—no point in letting the enemy recover—and unleashed a Blasting Curse. A simple enough spell, but the extra power behind his own let him strike with twice the normal force. Potter, who clearly wasn't expecting anything that Draco could do, especially this, caught the full brunt of it.
He soared across the small plaza and crumpled into a heap at the base of the fountain. Draco shook his head and sighed. He did have to wonder a bit at the quality of the talent the Ministry was getting if one of their best recruits reacted like this.
He waited, but Potter didn't move. Draco used a simple detection charm and nodded in satisfaction to find that he was still breathing. It would have been a waste to kill him.
Think of the power that I can harvest from him. Draco had learned to sense the strength of his enemies or possible servants from the aura any spells they cast spread around them. Potter was tempting. Attractive.
Draco's mind overlaid the limp image of a robed Potter with the image of the mostly naked one. He blinked and shook his head. He might wank to that image, but he couldn't let it get in the way of business.
Potter rolled over and cast a spell that took Draco from his feet.
Draco hit the ground hard, but he was rolling before his conscious mind caught up with his legs. One thing he had learned the hard way in the last few years was never to let an enemy have control of the battle. He popped back up and looked swiftly around for Potter, thinking he would have taken the opportunity to move, or perhaps to Disillusion himself again, while Draco couldn't see.
No, he was straight ahead, in the spot that Draco had temporarily made a blind one. He cast a charm with several quick bobs of his wand, and Draco felt invisible fleas begin to creep across his skin.
He had to pause and deal with it now, before the sensation could get worse, and Potter wasn't idle while he did it. By the time Draco could glance up again, Potter had created a regular Fortress Shield around himself, a literal building of stone and wood with walls so thick that someone could shelter in it while three people attacked.
Three normal people, at any rate. Draco smiled thinly and aimed his wand at it, willing the magic in the bracelet on his left arm to cross over and down through his body.
The gates of the fortress blasted inwards, and with that breach in the integrity of the spell, the entirety of it began to dissolve. Draco listened to the rumble of falling stone and wood sides with great satisfaction, and looked up. Potter would probably be on one of the battlements the spell had created, and he would have to move quickly and without grace as his defenses crumbled, leaving Draco a chance to choose the spell he used. He had learned his lesson. Potter was swift and strong and much more dangerous than he looked. He would—
Potter still clung to one of the battlements, and as Draco looked up, his countercurse struck him right on the forehead.
Draco staggered. All Potter had done (probably all he could do, given some of the defenses that Draco's rings provided him) was to open a shallow cut on his forehead. Unfortunately, that cut was just above Draco's eyes, and head wounds tended to bleed like mad. Draco couldn't see with the blood running into his eyes, but he knew it would be even worse to ignore it right now and strike out blindly in the hope of hitting Potter with a lucky spell.
The ground under him flapped like a cloth that someone was tugging off a table. Draco went down again. He tried to use some of the stored magic to absorb the impact, but either his arm wasn't at the right angle or one bracelet was drained already and he didn't call on the right one. He hit fully and lay there, gasping, for a breathless moment unable to concentrate on anything but the pain in his ribs and head.
Nothing else hit him, strangely. Draco understood when he finally had the air for the incantation and could heal the cut on his head and sit up again.
Potter was nowhere to be seen. There was a long skid in the dirt at the base of his fallen fortress where he had hit the ground, but though Draco studied the ground carefully, he didn't see blood.
Draco stood there with eyes narrowed, panting, and working hard to master the overwhelming rage that told him to go after Potter this minute. That would do no good. Potter had already proven that he could handle Draco, stored magic or not, and had done so even when he couldn't trick Draco into thinking he was unconscious.
He was a powerful opponent, and Draco gave a tiny bow to the heaped stone and wood in homage.
Though vengeance would be his in the end, since he was simply more powerful here than Potter was, Draco turned away for now. He would have to send different hunters, and watch the hunt. If Potter could handle Draco even when he fought with stored magic, there was no point in trying again himself. Draco liked his revenge, but he liked his life even more.
He sent thoughts flying to two of his Marked ones, who spent most of their time sleeping in one of the houses at the far end of the valley. He felt them stir, and smiled.
Potter was used to fighting wizards crazed by the use of Dark magic, and perhaps that was why he had outfought Draco so easily. But he had never faced the likes of Draco's Twin Brothers. Nor would he return from facing them.
A pity, Draco thought, but this time the words in his mind were mingled with respect. Potter had acted better than the reports from the Ministry had described him as acting. Draco had expected someone who would be helpless when cut adrift from his job, particularly after the mistake that the report described him as making in his last case.
And then he paused, his eyes narrowed.
Yes, the report did describe him that way.
But Arthur did not make the level of his power clear.
He started at a lope back to the office, sending mental orders ahead for Victor to look among the files on his desk for the relevant one.