Sitting in his best black robes, which Kreacher had pressed and brushed until they positively glistened, listening to one speaker after another describe a person that he wouldn’t in a million years recognize, Harry decided that he would rather have been back at one of the funerals.
True, Fred had been, as Mr. Diggory said, “warm and generous to a fault,” but glancing down the length of the head table at a line of grave faces beneath bright red hair, Harry knew that they were thinking, as he was, that Fred would have hated this. Hadn’t he said…?
But that had been about his wedding—the wedding Fred would never have. In a way, Harry thought, Fred had got his wish: he’d never had to bother with all of the fuss of getting married. Harry glanced down the table again, spying Ginny, who was looking out into the packed atrium of the Ministry with bright eyes and her chin held high as if daring anyone to try to make her start to cry.
What would she look like in white, rather than black? What would it feel like to stand, holding those small, strong hands, staring into those same bright eyes?
Would she still be interested? Perhaps someone else…
But she wanted to give him the rest of his birthday present. Whatever that meant.
For a moment, that morning in her room so long ago pushed the present away and he could feel the slide of her lips against his, her hips against his, her unique, floral scent and the warmth of her hair between his fingers…
Then the audience clapped politely, and the present pushed its way back into his awareness.
Beside Harry, Hermione sniffled; Ron, who was looking thoroughly bored, nonetheless squeezed her hand.
The rest of his birthday present. What did that mean?
Professor Flitwick began to rhapsodize about Fred’s imagination and his innate skill with Charms—and the ways in which those skills had saved lives during the past, dark year. This Fred, at least, was one that Harry could recognize.
Looking out into the first row, Harry found the Grangers, newly returned from Australia, looking happy and tan, beaming up at their daughter. The last year—the war, the terror, the deaths—hadn’t happened for them, and Harry couldn’t help but envy them.
Beside them sat two families who looked as if they would rather eat ground glass than hear about Fred Weasley’s virtues: the Malfoys, who were still looking much the worse for wear, and a trio that could only be the Parkinsons. Draco looked supremely uninterested, and Pansy kept swatting his hand from off of her knee. Of the six, only Narcissa Malfoy seemed to be able to maintain an expression of polite interest.
It was possible, Harry thought, that he felt more warmly and more forgiving of her than towards any of the rest because he owed her his life.
Three rows behind Pansy, Harry spotted another head of black hair that he could have done without having seen: Romilda Vane, who was wearing the same ridiculous set of robes that she’d worn to Fred’s funeral. Her face was turned towards the podium with an expression of studied fascination that Harry didn’t buy for a minute, in part because she had her torso faced towards him, her arms pressing together a cleavage that had never held any interest for Harry, but certainly not at a ceremony such as this.
Finally Kingsley got up and made the actual presentation—Order of Merlin, Second Class. George got up and accepted it, speechless for once, the huge audience applauded and Harry’s sense of ill ease quadrupled. Like the crowd, who began to lean forward, he knew what was coming next.
Thankfully, there would be only one testimonial: Professor McGonagall. Standing tall and ramrod-straight as ever, she strode to the podium, touched her wand to her throat and began to speak. “Over the course of nearly fifty years as a professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it has been my pleasure,” she said, her voice echoing in the huge space now unencumbered by any monumental statue, “it has been my pleasure to teach students who were great scholars and taught me more than a thing or two about my own subject; great citizens, who re-imagined the social structure of Hogwarts and of our society; outstanding theorists and spell-weavers whose imagination and skill when it came to magic knew no bounds.”
Peering out into the crowd. McGonagall closed her mouth in its familiar straight, thin-lipped line before the edges twitched up, cat-like. “Harry Potter was never one of those students.”
The audience gave a quiet collective gasp; Hermione let out a huff of surprise. Then, at the other end of the table, Ginny snorted and Harry couldn’t hold it in any longer—he had to laugh, and his laughter set off a long rolling wave of tittering that broke across the hall.
When the crowd had finally quieted again, Professor McGonagall continued, “Please don’t misunderstand me—Mr. Potter was a more than passable student. I am given to understand that when it came to Defense, he was first in his class, topping even the indomitable Miss Hermione Granger. And he was, of course, an excellent Seeker. Yet he was not what we usually think of at Hogwarts as a student leader.” She leaned forward on the podium, something that Harry had seen her do to great effect a thousand times in the classroom—but never from the side. “Yet, as we have all discovered, Harry Potter is truly the best kind of leader—one who leads not by speeches or by force of will, but simply by example. From the time that I met him, Mr. Potter’s senses of justice and of duty and his utter lack of a sense of self-preservation were so close to the core of who he was that scarcely a year went by while he was at school in which I did not fear quite seriously for his life at least twice. Against his own stated intentions, he became the conscience of the school in the fight against the hatred and bigotry represented by the so-called Lord Voldemort, when, during the two most shameful periods in which it was my duty to serve as a teacher at Hogwarts, an underground group of students known as Dumbledore’s Army chose him as their teacher and—whether he acknowledged it or not—as their role model. Throughout the year in which Dolores Umbridge terrorized students and faculty, attempting to turn the night of the Dark Lord’s return into the balmy day of denial, and during this past year, when Hogwarts became as much a prison as a place of learning, Harry Potter’s steadfastness, his courage and his unwillingness to settle for what many of us heard Albus Dumbledore refer to as that which was easy, as opposed to that which was right—all of these served as beacons to the community at Hogwarts and throughout wizarding Britain. For we all knew that while the Death Eaters and their friends continued the attempt to throttle the best of what we have to offer, yet while there was breath in Harry Potter’s body, he would not rest, would not submit, would not stop fighting until justice truly was served and the Side of Light truly victorious.”
Bright-faced, McGonagall paused to catch her breath, and Harry found that he too was breathless—he did not think that he had ever heard his one-time Head of House speak so forcefully at such great length. She continued again, her expression more somber. “Many followed Harry’s example over the past year, fighting on when all seemed hopeless. Some paid grievously for doing so. Some died. And yet we fought on because we knew and trusted that Harry himself would do no less. Nor did he. In spite of his tender years and of the great risk to his own person, he waged the campaign that eventually made it possible to vanquish the dark shadow that lay across our bright land. He delivered himself up to Voldemort to save those of us who were fighting at the castle, and through that act, he protected us more potently than even he could have known. He delivered himself up in the sure knowledge that he was walking to his death, and yet when that long night at last gave way to dawn, it was Voldemort who lay there dead in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, his army defeated, and not this young man. It is my honor, my privilege and my pleasure to present to you this young leader—this young hero. Harry. James. Potter.”
If Harry had thought that he was breathless before, it was nothing to what he felt now as the entire throng let out a roar such as Harry had never heard. He felt as if he were Apparating, squeezed under the weight of the tumult. Astonished, he sat there, mouth agape, as the cataract of sound rolled over him, until Ron and Hermione began pushing him up and towards the podium. He stumbled, blinking, to where Professor McGonagall stood, smiling broadly, and he was so overwhelmed by a feeling of warmth for this stern Scot that he did something he could never in a million years have imagined himself doing: he threw his arms around her and embraced her.
“Oh, my!” Professor McGonagall stiffened in Harry’s arms—it shocked him to realize how much taller than her he now was—before patting his back with a fluttering hand. “That will do, Potter,” she said in what was no doubt meant to be a stern tone, and Harry released her. She was standing imperiously again, but her cheeks sported vivid red circles as she strode back to her chair, and Harry smiled as the ovation washed on.
“Not going to hug me too, are you?” rumbled a low, unmistakable voice in Harry’s ear, and Harry was suddenly reminded of what was about to happen. Turning, he saw that Kingsley Shacklebolt was grinning, but apprehensive.
“Think you’re safe,” Harry mumbled, and Kingsley smiled, casting a Sonorus as he turned to the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the acting Minister for Magic, his bass tones rattling the glass windows that overlooked the atrium and quieting the last cheers, “there is very little for me to say. All of you know Harry Potter, or at least believe that you do. All of you know what he did to end the war and to sweep away the corruption that had attempted to choke our society at its source. When the Wizengamot passed the act founding the Order of Merlin over four hundred years ago, the virtues that were to qualify one for membership were enumerated as follows: valor, charity of spirit, honor and humility. I have known Mr. Potter for the better part of three years, and in that time have personally seen him embody each and every one of those virtues not once, but on numerous occasions. It is with a great sense of honor—and perhaps a little humility on my own part—that I present to Harry James Potter the Order of Merlin, First Class.”
Harry bowed his head as he had been told to do at this point, and he could feel the lump in his throat growing as Kingsley slipped the ribbon on which the heavy medal hung around his neck.
As Harry straightened, about to thank the Minister formally, he was knocked breathless as Kingsley’s arms crushed him.
“Didn’t say I wouldn’t hug you,” Kingsley laughed in his ear.
“Thanks a lot!” Harry laughed, rubbing his ribs only partly for effect. The Ministry officials on one side didn’t seem to know what to do with all of these displays of affection, but beyond them, Harry could see the entire Weasley clan laughing. All but Fred. And of course Ron, who was on the other side, his own brand-new Order of Merlin bouncing on his chest in time with Hermione’s matching medal as they both cheered and laughed.
There was another loud ovation, this one less deafening than the first, but no less lengthy. Harry looked out into the audience, looking for and finding familiar faces. There were no frowns now. Even the Malfoys were smiling, though Harry didn’t blame them for smiling less than warmly. He wasn’t sure that they were even capable.
Kingsley touched his wand to his own neck and then to Harry’s before stepping back from the podium, leaving Harry entirely alone.
Again the multitude fell silent, and again, Harry felt the weight of their anticipation press down on him.
Taking a glass of water and draining it without feeling any less dry, Harry looked around the audience, knowing how to start but not sure that he could. He hated speaking to groups, and here a thousand witches and wizards were waiting to hear what he had to say—more, he realized, remembering at last that the Wizarding Wireless Network was carrying this event live.
At one of the tables towards the back set up for the members of the press, Harry saw Luna Lovegood’s unmistakable mop of dirty blonde hair. She seemed to be smiling as calmly as ever, and seeing her seemed to fill him with some of that same calm; when at last he began to speak, it was to her moon-like face. “Minister Shacklebolt, members of the Wizengamot, ladies and gentlemen…” He took a deep breath and found that he felt less nervous with every word. “Thank you. Thank you. I am overwhelmed that you have given someone as young as I am so great and so heavy an honor. Seven years ago, I didn’t even know the magical world existed, and yet here I am, singled out to accept its most prestigious medal, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, in addition to gratitude, I felt more than a little humbled.”
There was a round of quiet applause. The glass of water on the podium had magically refilled itself, and so he paused and sipped from it.
In the first row, the Grangers beamed up at him. Draco Malfoy was peering up at the ceiling while his father scowled down at the floor. Pansy simply scowled.
They were listening.
“As Professor McGonagall said, I’m not much for speaking, but I do want to say this: I’ve been singled out a lot over the years—some of it good, and some of it not. Some of it was because of things I did, and a lot of it wasn’t. The first day I came back into the wizarding community, I was swarmed by dozens of people who treated me like a celebrity because I was the Boy Who Lived, because of something that I didn’t even know about that my mum had done; she sacrificed herself for me in a way that protected me from Voldemort.” Harry paused, grinning grimly at the inevitable group shudder at the taboo name. Luna continued to smile at him serenely. “I’ve realized since then that it didn’t matter whether I was the one who vanquished the Dark Lord or was telling lies about the Ministry—people needed to believe that someone was doing those things, and I was there for the job. I’m proud of what I’ve done over the past seven years—learning magic, making friends, starting the DA, helping to fight against all of the injustice that Voldemort”—he didn’t bother to pause this time; let them get used to it—“and his supporters in the Ministry were trying to inflict on our community. I fought him, and I’m proud of that; in the end, he’s gone and I’m here, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the things that Professor McGonagall and Minister Shacklebolt said about me, not least because I respect their opinions a lot. But everything that I’ve done, everything that this medal symbolizes, was done with others. The price for the battle against Voldemort”—this time there was hardly a ripple, though the Malfoys flinched—“was paid by many, many people, fighting for themselves, fighting for each other: purebloods, half-bloods; and many, many Muggleborns, but even Muggles themselves. It was even paid by beings we don’t even think of as being our equals: werewolves, centaurs, goblins, giants, and house-elves. They all fought—all—every bit as much as me or anyone else up here carrying one of these wonderful medals. They fought, and like Professor McGonagall said, some of them died so that all of us could live in a better world.” Pausing for breath again, Harry realized that the table where Luna was sitting, still smiling beatifically, was immediately in front of the Floo where the Cattermoles had made their escape. He wondered briefly if they were okay. He’d have to ask.
Shaking his head, he continued, “I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m proud of this medal, proud that you’ve seen fit to give it to me. But everything that I did to come anywhere close to deserving this, I did with others.”
Again, Luna nodded; Draco Malfoy seemed to be rolling his eyes but his mother was gazing up shrewdly, a thin finger over arched lips.
As Harry was about to go on, Hagrid’s dulcet Dorset tones boomed out from somewhere near the main entrance. “Ya didn’t have no one with yer when ya walked into Old Snake Face’s camp and let him take a shot at yer!”
A murmur of agreement swept across the hall. Harry blinked.
The scene had been described in detail in both The Quibbler and the Prophet’s accounts of the battle; Xenophilius had got the story from Luna, who had got if from Harry himself, but where Rita Skeeter had scavenged it out, Harry could only guess. Hagrid perhaps, or the Malfoys.
“No one was with you then, Harry!” shouted a woman whom Harry did not recognize, and a number of voices joined hers.
People need to believe, Harry thought, blinking again, though his mind focused on the memory of that moment, of watching the green light of the Killing Curse burst from Voldemort’s wand, and he found himself turning to look at the face that had filled his thoughts then. Not blazing now, but bright and no less fierce, and open.
Without turning from her, Harry said, “I was never alone. Never.”
As the applause rolled on once again, Harry stood in the midst of a crowd who were pressing up to congratulate him. Some of the faces surrounding him were full of an adulation that rather turned his stomach; he had to remind himself to be polite.
People want to believe.
Others had rather more thoughtful looks on their faces.
Chuckling into Harry’s ear, Kingsley murmured, “Werewolves! Goblins! House-elves! I hope you know that you put the boot to everything that most wizards hold dear—not just the pureblood fanatics, but the everyday witch and wizard as well!”
“He knows!” squealed Hermione—who had helped him write his speech—and hugged him nearly as hard as Kingsley himself had earlier.
As Harry thanked the members of the crowd who were thronging up to him—he recognized Doris Crockford from that first day at the Leaky Cauldron so many years before; she broke into tears when he remembered her name—he kept looking for Ginny and her family, but they had withdrawn to a corner behind the stage, waiting for Harry to finish.
Andromeda Tonks, who had left Teddy with Molly Weasley’s old Aunt Muriel in order to accept a medal for her daughter, happened to walk up just as her sister pressed in from the other side. The two Blacks, their features giving witness to what everything else in their lives had denied, stared at each other stonily and Harry felt a dull ache shoot through his gut; he couldn’t stay silent. “Thank you, Mrs. Malfoy.” Turning to Mrs. Tonks, he said, “Your sister saved my life, that night in the forest. If she’d wanted to, she could have exposed me to Voldemort, but she didn’t.”
Mrs. Tonks pursed her lips, but looked her sister in the eye for the first time.
Through the throng behind Narcissa Malfoy, Harry could see her husband and son skulking, looking clearly ill at ease.
“I’m glad you found Draco,” Harry said to Narcissa. “I’m glad you found your family.”
The sisters flashed identical grey gazes at him and then at each other. “I was sorry to hear of your loss, Andie,” said Narcissa, not terribly convincingly—though at least she said it—and extended her hand.
“Thank you,” curtly answered Andromeda, pausing a moment, and taking it.
The last group to surround Harry were the members of the press—the Wizarding Wireless Network News, the Prophet (“When did you know that you were the Chosen One, Harry?”), Witch Weekly and Teen Witch Weekly (“What’s your favorite dessert, Harry?”), La Presse Magique (“Ees eet true, ‘Arry, zat you ‘ave spent much time weeth ze younger daughter of Jean-August and Apolline Delacour?”), The Salem Gazette (“When are you coming to the States, Harry?”) and of course, The Quibbler, represented both by Luna and by her father, who looked much more like the blithe wizard who had attended Bill and Fleur’s wedding than the nervous wreck whom Harry, Ron and Hermione had visited the previous winter.
As the last of the other reporters wandered away, taking loud bets over whose article would garner the largest headline, Mr. Lovegood ambled forward, Luna at his side, and extended his hand. “You are looking very well, young man!”
“Thanks, Mr. Lovegood. You too.”
“Do you mean,” Luna asked, “for a man who spent much of the past few months in Azkaban, or compared to the way he looked the day he tried to turn you over to the Death Eaters?”
Mr. Lovegood stared down at his feet like a chastened schoolboy, but Luna continued to smile at him.
“Both, I suppose,” Harry muttered.
“I am terribly sorry about that,” said Xenophilius, his smooth brow bent.
Before Harry could answer, Luna said, “It’s all right, Daddy. Harry understands that you only did it for me. Though it was a rather silly thing to do.”
Her father nodded thoughtfully and gazed at Harry.
“Yeah,” agreed Harry, thankful not to have to manage this conversation on his own.
“Well,” said Mr. Lovegood, glancing around to make sure that no one was terribly close by, “I must admit, I learned that I am, perhaps, not as worthy of Questing for the Hallows as I had hoped. You on the other hand, my boy…!” He beamed at Harry. “Definitely the epitome of a worthy Quester! Wouldn’t you say, Luna, my love?”
“Oh, yes, Daddy,” agreed Luna, smiling at Harry.
“Tell me,” whispered Xenophilius, “is that wand that you took from You-Know-Who really the Elder Wand?”
Harry tried to think how to answer this and decided that—since so many people had heard him talking about it during that last battle—the truth would have to suffice. “Yes, sir.”
“Wonderful,” sighed Xenophilius, an expression of transported rapture on his face that bore a striking resemblance to his daughter’s. “May I… see it?”
“Not at the moment, sir,” Harry said. “It’s hidden away, and I would be very happy for it to stay that way.”
“Ah, yes, yes,” murmured Luna’s father, nodding sagely but sadly. Then his expression turned shrewd, and he whispered, waggling his eyebrows significantly, “Are you perhaps hiding it under that rather remarkable Invisibility Cloak that Luna has told me of?”
“Er,” muttered Harry, peering at Luna, who seemed to be turning slowly in place, staring up at the ceiling. “Not at the moment.”
“I don’t suppose there is any hope of finding the Resurrection Stone as well… do you?” Xenophilius Lovegood looked at the moment like nothing more than a very old, very excited child.
Before Harry could answer, Luna took her father’s arm. “Of course not, Daddy. Now come along. We need to get the story finished so that we can get the special edition out to your subscribers in the morning.”
Harry gaped. Luna knew about the Stone—he had spoken with her about it at Shell Cottage. Yet clearly she chose not to reveal the full truth to her father. She led Mr. Lovegood away towards the bank of Floos on the far wall; just as they were about to step into the flames, she turned toward Harry and winked.
Winked! With eyes the size of Luna’s it was hard to miss, but nonetheless more than a bit shocking.
The custodial staff were beginning to clear away benches and clean up.
Harry shook his head.
A crowd stood near the lifts: eight heads of red hair. Harry strode toward them, his eyes focused on the smallest of them, who seemed to be looking determinedly Not At Him.
“Finished with your adoring public?” joked Ron.
“Oh, stuff it, Won-won,” teased George, though by his expression, his heart wasn’t in it. “If I had to watch another bird bat her eyes at you tonight, I’d have puked.”
Bill grinned a bit more fully. “Mostly I noticed a lot of older witches fussing over your hair, Ronnie. That Skeeter woman looked ready to eat you for afters, you rascal.”
“Well, you know Rita,” said Percy, lips pursed. “Anything for a story.”
“Percy!” gasped their mother, “How can you even think of making such a joke!”
“Hey,” laughed Charlie, “who knew that he could joke at all?”
“I am perfectly capable of delivering a witticism,” Percy muttered.
“Yeah, right,” snorted George.
“All right, George,” Percy said stiffly. “Say Knock, knock.”
With a bewildered snort, George took up the challenge. “Okay. Fine. Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?” answered Percy, looking quite pleased with himself.
“Who…?” George gaped at his brother, his face contorted first in confusion, and then in laughter—low and groaning at first, but then full and loud and infectious. The whole family was roaring within seconds, and Harry couldn’t help but join in. It felt as if it had been far to long since he had truly laughed, and to see the Weasleys, who had been through so much…
When Ginny’s eyes, bright with amusement, at last met his once again, he thought perhaps that he had never felt quite so good. The applause was lovely, but this—
“Coming by the Burrow tomorrow, are you, Mr. Order of Merlin, First Class?” wheezed George as the laughter finally began to fade—though it echoed on through the huge, now-empty hall.
“Oh, yeah,” answered Charlie before Harry could respond. “He’s got to collect the rest of his present from Ginny, of course.”
Ginny’s gaze dropped to the floor; her skin, which had been mottled red by laughter, now flushed an even, deep crimson.
“Right, the one that we’re all supposed to be out of the house for,” said Ron. He crossed his arms over his be-medaled chest. “This wouldn’t be the birthday present that I interrupted last year, now would it?”
Ginny leveled a look at him that could have stripped paint, but Ron didn’t flinch.
Mr. Weasley attempted as always to keep the peace. “I’m sure that whatever it is that Ginny wishes to give Harry, it is perfectly appropriate.”
“Yeah,” snorted Charlie, “perfectly.”
“Perfectly appropriate,” Ron added, “for a girl to give her ex-boyfriend.”
“Who she’s hardly seen in a year,” said Bill, still smirking.
“In her bedroom,” said George, his missing ear giving his grin a particularly grim look.
“While her family is out of the house,” concluded Percy with a tut.
“Of course anything that your sister and a good boy like Harry could get up to will be perfectly respectable!” scolded Mrs. Weasley. “Honestly, boys, I can’t believe that you could imagine anything else!”
The brothers gave a chorus of nos and of course nots but Harry could tell that they weren’t buying it for a minute. “We were simply winding them up, Mother,” said Percy, but even he seemed to have an evil twinkle in his eye.
The horrible thing was that, in fact, there was nothing at all appropriate or respectable about what Harry hoped Ginny might be giving him the next day; ever since Charlie had passed her invitation along at Remus and Tonks’s funeral, he had been trying to shove down inappropriate, disreputable images and impulses that flooded his brain as he attempted to work on the speech that he’d delivered tonight. As the image of Ginny’s face, of the sunlight tangled with his fingers in her hair, her scent, the feel of her lips, of freckles dancing on pale skin, her fingers on his neck…
The speech was done. There was nothing holding back those images now.
Harry glanced back at Ginny, his mouth open, but he found that her gaze now was shut to him, though her eyes met his. What was she thinking? What did she want? What had she planned?
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Harry,” she said, in a low voice, and when a couple of her brothers snorted, she shot them a look that silenced even Bill.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Ginny,” Harry answered. “Will one o’clock be all right?”
“And feel free to stay for dinner, Harry,” Molly added, as she began to bustle her children towards the Floos.
“Goodbye,” Harry called, and they all answered in kind, even Ginny, though she did not look back before disappearing into the green flame.
Once they were gone, and Harry was alone, he plopped down on one of the last remaining benches.
“Er, sir,” said a mild voice. Turning, Harry almost expected to find a house-elf, but instead looked up into the oddly familiar, meek face of a wizard in the blue robes of the Ministry’s custodial staff. “Need to clear that away, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh!” said Harry, springing to his feet—suddenly aware of just how much he wanted to sit. “Sorry!”
“No problem, Mr. Potter, sir,” said the man with a self-deprecating smile and Harry suddenly gasped.
“You’re… Reg Cattermole!”
The man blinked—he wasn’t as short as Harry remembered; when Ron had taken on his persona, Harry himself had been Polyjuiced into the body of the much taller Runcorn. “I… You… Remember me?” Reg stuttered.
“Of course!” Harry answered excitedly. “How are… I hope your wife and family—?”
“Oh! Mr. Potter! Thank you,” Cattermole blurted. “You remembered! I didn’t think… They’re fine. We’re fine—my wife, you see, has some cousins in Toronto, so we visited there, and when you got rid of You-Know-Who—the very next day, mind!—I got an owl from the Ministry saying that all staff were needed, and that I was to report back at once, and all charges…” He began to tear up. “You… You saved my Mary, Mr. Potter. She’d have been in Azkaban if it weren’t for you, and Merlin knows if she’d’ve survived that, and our kids… Thank you. Thank you!” He was blubbering now.
“You’re… Anyone…” Harry held out his hand, not knowing what else to do, and Reg Cattermole grasped it, and began pumping it energetically. “I… It was the least I could do.”
“But you was the one what did it,” Reg said, still shaking Harry’s hand, still crying. “Oh, Mr. Potter. Anything I can ever do for you, ever… Here!” He let go of Harry’s hand and plucked a rumpled program of the evening’s events from the bag of rubbish that he’d been collecting. “D’you think you could sign this for my wife and the kids? They’ll never believe I actually talked with you. You’re the kids’ hero, Mr. Potter, that’s a fact. They think the world of you.”
“Er… Fine,” Harry said, feeling more and more embarrassed. He began to pat his robe pockets for a quill; Reg plucked a bent self-inking one from the rubbish as well—one of the reporters’ probably—and Harry signed the program, To the Cattermoles—I’m so pleased that you came through together. Yours, Harry Potter.
Reg beamed down at the piece of parchment. “Thanks, Mr. Potter. Thanks. It’ll mean the world.”
The older man laughed. “Run into my share of famous folk, working here at the Ministry, but none so regular as you. Don’t change, Mr. Potter. Don’t let fame change you.”
Shaking his head and smiling, thinking of Rita Skeeter and of a cupboard under the stairs, Harry answered, “I’ll try.”
Reg pumped his hand once more, carefully tucked the program away, waved and moved on to clearing away the last remaining signs of the presentation.
Walking across the barren hall towards the Floos, fingering the medal at his chest, Harry found his thoughts circling around the idea of fame, and family, and of the bright-eyed face that always seemed to occupy a still place at the center of his mind.