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.”