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Running on Air

Chapter Text

The colour of the bones almost matches the summer-scorched grass pushing between the vertebrae. The ribs bend like stalks of wheat, permanently bowing to an invisible wind; the finger knuckles look like sun-bleached pebbles.

“Five or six years.”

The man offers the statement without raising his eyes from the skeleton. Harry shifts restlessly under the high sun. It’s too hot, he thinks, especially this late in the summer. His robes hang off him, heavy and damp with perspiration, unmoved by the slight breeze. The other man — small and bespectacled, with a neatly cropped salt-and-pepper beard — gives no indication of being affected by the heat. He wears the ivory-coloured robes of the post-mortem division and somehow, the pale colour gives the illusion of coolness and shade.

A camera clicks; the sound of the shutter echoes across the field. Both Harry and the other man turn. The photographer — a tall, broad-shouldered witch with an aristocratic nose — gives them a look.

“I’ve got another job at three, Butterworth,” she says. The man — Butterworth — gives her an irritated look.

“I’ll perform the spells, then we’ll be out of your way,” he says tersely. The woman waits, hand hovering impatiently over the shutter release button.

Butterworth performs the spell. Numbers waver above the skeleton, as if caught in a shimmering heat-wave. “Five years,” he says, a note of satisfaction in his voice. He likes being right.

Harry shifts from one foot to another. The hair at the nape of his neck is curling damply as perspiration beads across his skin.

“Month?” Harry asks, wishing he could leave already, retreat back to the soothingly cool halls of the Ministry. Butterworth flicks his wand.

“Between January and April.”

Harry sighs. Butterworth bristles.

“The longer they’ve been dead, the less accurate the spells are. I can’t give you anything better than that.”

Still...it’s close enough to suit Harry's current case.

“Could be Fenwick,” he says. “He went missing March 2001. Found his broom not far from here. Might be a match.” He doesn’t get his hopes up, though; too many failed matches have taught him caution.

“We’ll get a sample and take it back to the department,” Butterworth says. “Let you know in a week.”

“That’s short.” Harry's surprised. Cold cases rarely get priority.

Butterworth shrugs. “Been a slow month. You can leave if you want. I’ll collect the sample and Glassbrook here will finish photographing the scene. Rest of the team will be along soon.”

“Thanks.”

Harry Disapparates with a pop.

* * *

When Harry was a fresh-faced Auror, twenty years old and eyes sharp with eager enthusiasm, a white-knuckled grip on his wand and a mind clear as sunlight, he thought he knew exactly what his job was. Saving lives and saving people through tangible work: footsteps racing along alleyways and hexes darting like frightened rabbits, skin-bruising tackles and flashy counter-spells.

He was good at that part. Very good in the field. But, as his supervisors explained cautiously, he was not good at the investigative side of it.

“That’s what the detectives are for,” Harry had argued, and his supervisors had all swapped expressions before saying that a Head Auror — just for example — needed to have a mind carefully honed to the subtle intricacies of each case. People skills, they agreed, was what a Head Auror needed. Not just raw strength and skilled magic.

“I’m not Head Auror,” Harry had pointed out helpfully.

“Yet,” they’d said.

And with that single word, Harry had been assigned to work with the Investigative Division for the next eighteen months. He hadn’t been very pleased about it and there had been considerable mutterings about ‘missed fieldwork’. His supervisors had been suitably soothing, telling Harry he already outclassed every Auror as far as practical wandwork was concerned and there was no need to worry about his skills growing rusty.

His new supervisor — Head of the Investigative Division, Clara Holdsworth — had been far less diplomatic.

“Aurors like you,” she had said when they first met, “view your work as a game of Quidditch. As though you’re a seeker and people are simply snitches.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Harry had retorted, feeling rather defensive, and Holdsworth’s mouth had thinned. She had set him a cold case as his first project — an ancient file from 1949 — and Harry had considered that a calculated insult. Not even something new and interesting, just old files regarding people long gone. He’d made a half-hearted attempt on it before delegating it to the bottom of his desk drawer. At least the Fenwick case was actually within the current decade; Harry regarded it as a slight upgrade.

But now, six months into his assignment, he still doesn’t understand the lesson he’s supposed to be learning.

* * *

A file drops onto Harry’s desk.

“Congratulations on closing the Fenwick case,” Holdsworth says. She doesn’t smile. Only the faint warmth in her voice indicates any praise. “This is your latest assignation.”

“Thanks.”

She leaves. Harry can appreciate how blunt Holdsworth is; she speaks when she has something to say, and goes away when she doesn’t.

The pale blue colour of the folder denotes it as a cold case, but that could mean anything from two years ago to a 1920s relic. He turns past the index and onto the first page, where detectives first on the case would have summarised the facts.

Case number: L10-332-5
Date filed: 10 September 2003
Case Classification: Missing
Name: MALFOY, Draco
Other names: None.

Harry stops there. He puts the file down and stands up, then wonders where he’s going. To Ron, to share the file? To Hermione, to ask what she thinks? He shakes his head. It won’t be news to them. Lucius Malfoy went missing in the summer of 2002 and Draco Malfoy had, as ever, imitated his father and disappeared one year later. Harry, in the midst of his Auror training and in a heady rush of his new life — engaged to Ginny, celebrating Ron and Hermione’s marriage, avoiding reporters as he breezily Apparated to casual get-togethers with Neville and Luna and all the rest — had barely registered the news. Malfoy had probably retreated to a sunny Italian villa or French château along with his supposedly missing father, Harry had thought unkindly. Well, at least karma caught up to one of the Malfoys: Lucius, unlike Draco, had still been awaiting trial at the time of his disappearance and a warrant was issued for his arrest. The Aurors caught him in the winter of 2003. Harry’s colleagues had been floating on a cloud of euphoria after tracking and capturing the elusive Lucius Malfoy, but the victory had proven bitterly short-lived — Lucius had died during the capture due to a rebounding curse.

Harry shakes his head, bringing his thoughts back to the present, and stares down at the file, forcing himself to calmly read through it. Be objective, he reminds himself. Be professional.

It lists the usual details. Nationality, sex, height, weight, physical characteristics, clothing when last seen. None of it is anything unexpected. The ‘distinguishing features’ section notes the Dark Mark on the left forearm, of course, and a ‘small crescent-shaped scar on the lower back’. Malfoy seems slightly underweight, Harry notes, frowning at the height/weight section.

All in all, brief notes. He turns the page.

Circumstances of Disappearance, the heading states, and then written underneath: Last seen Eeylops Owl Emporium, Diagon Alley (4pm, 09 September 2003).

Very brief notes, Harry thinks critically.

Well, every case must start somewhere. He turns the page, skipping to the evidence section. The detective took a memory from one Herbert Higgs, proprietor of Eeylops Owl Emporium.

Time to visit the evidence vaults, then, and use the pensieve.

* * *

Owls hoot softly; there’s the smell of living creatures in the air. The rustle of feathers, the creak of sun-warmed wood. The smell of sawdust as the field mice nest in their cages. The shop is dark and enclosed, the overhead roosts dotted with owls and the walls lined with teetering boxes of pet supplies.

Harry looks around the memory, but he can't see Malfoy anywhere. The shopkeeper — a portly man in robes of red, with receding grey hair — is handing a bag of something to a young witch.

“Two drops a day, and your owl should be perfectly fine by the end of the week,” the man says kindly. The witch nods and gives him a handful of knuts, then turns and leaves.

Not a minute later the door opens again, sending the silver bell chiming. Draco Malfoy steps inside.

Harry frowns, carefully scanning Malfoy for any clues to his disappearance. This is the last anyone saw of him, after all. And it’s the first Harry has seen of Malfoy since the Battle of Hogwarts. The description in the file was right, at least, but Harry supposes they took the details direct from this memory. The weak sunlight, filtering through the narrow windows, catches on the tiny clasp of Malfoy’s black travelling cloak. A silver snitch, Harry thinks with closer inspection, no bigger than the fingernail of Harry’s index finger.

“How may I help you?” the shopkeeper says stiffly. Malfoy glances at him.

“I am in need of an owl. Speed is less important than accuracy.”

Malfoy looks in need of a good meal, but Harry had expected the thinness from the file information. He looks a little tired, Harry thinks, noting the faint shadows beneath Malfoy’s eyes. Still, nothing particularly notable; nothing more than Harry would look after a long day at the office. He spoke without his usual arrogance, affecting a politely bland tone, but Harry can’t detect anything else unusual about Malfoy. He watches as the shopkeeper makes his recommendations and Malfoy selects a very ordinary looking barn owl.

“I have other errands to run,” Malfoy says, giving the shopkeeper a handful of galleons. The shopkeeper nods.

“You can pick it up later, or give it your address and it will fly there.” The shopkeeper gives Malfoy a scrap of paper and a quill. At that moment, another customer enters the shop and the man bustles over, leaving Malfoy to write his address and tie it to the owl’s leg. A few moments later, Malfoy opens the door, allowing the owl to fly out, and steps onto the street. In a matter of seconds, he’s gone. Harry goes to the window but since it’s the shopkeeper’s memory, the street is nothing more than a beige blur. The memory keeps refocussing on the new customer.

Well, that was completely useless. Harry surfaces from the memory with a sigh.

No matter which way he looks at it, he has to admit his presumptions are wrong. Draco Malfoy certainly did not ‘disappear’ to a luxury estate somewhere. All the circumstances are leading to the most probable scenario: Malfoy was forcibly taken away. He had been dressed warmly for the autumn weather but otherwise travelled light, with no sign of luggage. He’d mentioned running other errands and hadn’t wanted to carry the owl around with him while he completed them.

Malfoy had turned left when he’d left the shop, Harry recalls. There’s only a few shops on the left of the owl emporium, and then it leads straight to the Leaky Cauldron. No other shopkeeper had seen Malfoy, the file notes, and he didn’t pass through the Leaky Cauldron. It stands to reason that somewhere in the short distance between Eeylops and the Leaky Cauldron, Malfoy disappeared.

Harry enters the memory again. This time — having gotten an outline of the entire incident — he focuses on tiny details instead. It feels strange to do so, but he walks straight up to Malfoy, eyes narrowed, checking for anything noticeable. He’s wearing a white button-up shirt beneath the robes, Harry notices, and neatly-pressed grey trousers. Was he expecting to go somewhere requiring formal business wear? The robes are good quality but ordinary; robes that any wealthy wizard might choose to wear to run errands.

Malfoy turns and takes a step closer to the owls, nearly walking into Harry; Harry instinctively ducks away.

“I’m afraid I’m not fond of eagle owls,” Malfoy says to the shopkeeper.

“Well, if you’re not interested in our eagle owl range, then may I recommend several barn owls?”

Malfoy had an eagle owl during Hogwarts, Harry recalls. Strange for him to say he’s not fond of them.

Malfoy turns again, sunlight winking off the small silver clasp. Harry studies it for a moment. It strikes him as unusual, if only because he’d expect a large and ornate clasp — something worthy of wealth and prestige. A large gold serpent, perhaps, with jewels for eyes. Not a tiny silver snitch.

Maybe Harry’s just drawn to it because it’s something he’d wear himself, something he’d choose.

In fact, there’s very little decoration to Malfoy’s outfit. The clothes are nice, Harry guesses with another look, but they don't look particularly special. No elaborate stitching or patterns, and the robes are plain. The cloak, too, is without decoration; a simple travelling cloak without a hood. Malfoy’s wand must be in a pocket somewhere, for Harry can’t see it at all.

“That one, sir?” the shopkeeper asks Malfoy. Harry glances up and watches Malfoy nod at the plain-looking barn owl.

Malfoy’s address. Did the owl ever turn up there? Perhaps it left, if Malfoy didn’t let it in. It should have returned to the shop. Harry peers over Malfoy’s shoulder as he writes the address, but once again the memory limits him. He can only see what the shopkeeper’s eyes saw, and the shopkeeper never glimpsed Malfoy’s address. When Harry looks at the parchment, all he sees is a beige blur again.

Someone taps his shoulder and the memory dissolves.

* * *

“What?” Harry asks irritably, lifting his head from the pensieve.

“Oh, that’s a nice way to greet your oldest friend, isn’t it?” Ron drops into the chair opposite Harry’s desk.

“I was in the middle of a memory.”

Ron winces. “Don’t want to know. Saw one of your colleagues on the way in, he’s working a case where a little witch disappeared in Leeds. Little girl she was, barely five years old.”

Harry’s not particularly fond of those cases either.

“Did the Grimwright raid today, then?” he asks, switching topics.

Ron lights up as if it’s Christmas, eyes brightening as he leans forward. “Mate, you wouldn’t believe it. We’ve been staking out this place for months...”

Yes, Harry thinks. He was part of the initial sweep team. He listens to Ron’s story, wondering how much is exaggeration and how much is outright fabrication.

But a good story is a good story.

And, as he’s learned from this division, a story can be found in the smallest details: a stitch in a robe, a smile across a room, the faint tremble of a hand. He can pick a story out from the bruise dancing across Ron's knuckles, from the droplets of blood on his collar, from the way his knee jitters as he spins his tale.

The easy thing about being an Auror, Harry thinks, is that if he looks at a picture and doesn’t see what he wants, he changes the picture. He can start new surveillance, or interrogate a different suspect, or use other informants.

But the problem with cold cases is he cannot change the picture.

He can only look harder.