16. Christmas: Deputations

The banquet was everything Harry expected. One after another, a dozen courses appeared magically before the guests. When the first course arrived, Hermione's mother, who was sitting opposite her daughter, gave an eerily Hermione-like shriek.

'It's only magic, Mum,' said Hermione reassuringly. But Jean Granger remained nervous for some time.

The food was served at a leisurely pace and, over the following hour, Harry slowly began to relax. Waves of grief washed over him whenever Fred's name, or the names of any of the dead, was mentioned, but Ginny refused to allow him to become maudlin. Harry was surrounded by his friends and their families. Ginny, on his right, chattered and joked throughout the meal. On his left, Hermione and Ron were discussing when, and where, they could meet over the Christmas holidays.

The official Ministry photographer was walking around the tables photographing everyone. Harry grumbled discontentedly as the man took several photographs of him.

'Just ignore the photographer, Harry. The press will continue to pester you, and there's nothing we can do about it, except spend our time in the Muggle world,' said Ginny. 'But I'm sure that they'll eventually get tired of asking the same questions.'

Harry gave a grudging nod. Ginny gestured around the room.

'Look at this! You should be proud of yourself, because I'm proud of you. You've won again! You've managed to get medals awarded to centaurs, house-elves, and even a werewolf. It has taken months, but you didn't give up. Professor Dumbledore would be proud; he'd be the first to congratulate you.'

Harry smiled and allowed himself to accept Ginny's compliment. It was true. Despite considerable opposition from within the Ministry, the medals had finally been awarded to everyone who deserved them. Perhaps now the battle was truly over. This long-awaited day was approaching its conclusion. All that remained was the ball. Harry's stomach lurched at the thought. The idea of publicly dancing with Ginny both thrilled and terrified him.

The meal ended with a toast by the Minister to "the fallen" and a minute's silence. After that final act of remembrance and sombre reflection, Kingsley Shacklebolt spoke once more.

'Witches and wizards,' he began. 'The battle is over, the war is won, but there remains a huge task ahead of us. We must face the future. Now is the time for us to learn from the dreadful mistakes of the past. Now is the time to put things right. We must build a better world for future generations, and we must try to ensure that never again does our world fall into such a dreadful conflict. Never again must we allow ignorance, hatred and bigotry to take hold. Our task will not be easy, but with the assistance of committed and forward-thinking young people, people like Harry and his friends, we will succeed.'

There was tumultuous applause at the Minister's words. Hermione, Harry noticed, was carefully watching several people whose claps were rather perfunctory.

'Thank you,' said Kingsley when the applause finally died down. 'Now, the banquet is over. If you will all stand, please, the room must be made ready for the ball.'

The Minister moved away from the table. When everyone else stood and followed suit the long dining tables and chairs vanished. They were rapidly and efficiently replaced by smaller and more intimate round tables at the far end of the hall. A band walked onto the stage and began preparing to play.

As they moved down the hall Harry found himself alongside Andromeda Tonks, who had Teddy Lupin in her arms. He and Ginny became separated when she stopped to talk to George. People were beginning to mingle and the conversations, which had been a low murmur during the meal, became a rising and falling buzz. Ron and Hermione had already found a table with Hermione's parents.

Harry was deep in conversation with Mrs Tonks, discussing Christmas presents for Teddy, when he noticed the approaching scrum. Several wizards in their middle and late years were moving purposefully toward him. All were attempting to be respectable, sedate, dignified, and the first to reach him. Their polite jostling for position, a combination of surreptitious use of elbows and, in one case, standing on the lead wizard's robes, were causing the men a great deal of anxiety. The eventual winner was a stocky, black-haired and impressively bearded man of average height who approached Harry with three rapid strides to narrowly beat his closest rival.

'Odysseus Packman, Mr Potter.' The man stuck out a hand in greeting. 'Packman's Poultry Products, I'm sure you've heard of us.'

'No, I haven't,' said Harry honestly, as he shook the man's hand. His honesty caused the man's ingratiating smile to fade. It was replaced by a falsely hearty chuckle.

'What can I do for you, Mr Packman?' asked Harry.

'I'd like to offer you a directorship, Mr Potter,' Packman announced, ignoring the mutters from the crowd of wizards now surrounding Harry. 'As the Minister said, you're a forward-thinking young man, exactly the sort of person my company needs.'

'A directorship?' asked Harry incredulously.

Andromeda Tonks frowned. 'I'll leave you to discuss business with these gentlemen, Harry. Do call in and see us. You'll be most welcome.' She ignored Harry's silent plea for assistance and pushed her way to freedom. The mob moved closer.

'I too have a proposition for you, Mr Potter,' another wizard said. Harry was uncertain which wizard had spoken, as he was now surrounded by a babble of entreaties and promises. Packman attempted to ignore the interruptions.

'The remuneration will be very good, I promise. If you'd care to join my wife, my daughter, and me…' Packman indicated a portly woman who, from her dress, appeared to be successfully impersonating a red balloon, and a plump, whey-faced girl in preposterously flouncy pink dress-robes.

Harry remained silent. Why would someone he had never met offer him a well paid job? Packman, however, seemed to mistake Harry's silence for agreement.

'Excellent! If you'll simply agree to endorse Packman's Poultry Products…' Packman grabbed Harry by the shoulder and, from somewhere inside his robes, produced a contract and a quill.

'What?' Harry finally found his voice.

'Mr Potter, you have not heard my offer,' a deep voice protested. Harry looked around. The sound appeared to have come from an enormous walrus moustache, behind which a tiny wizard was sheltering. Then the clamour began.

'Or mine.'

'Or mine.'

'Mr Potter.'


'Packman's Poultry Products, Mr Potter…' began Odysseus Packman forcefully.

'Packman's Paltry Products? What on earth are they? What's going on, Harry?' asked Ginny, appearing at his side. She ducked under Packman's arm, slid an arm around his waist and stretched up to her full height, knocking Packman's arm from Harry's shoulder with her head. Harry finally found his voice.

'I really have no idea, Ginny,' Harry told her. 'I think that I'm being auctioned.'

As he looked around the crowd Ginny released his waist and slid her hand into his. They intertwined their fingers.

'Does anyone else want to offer me a job?' he asked the other wizards. 'Does anyone want to beat Mr Packman's offer? The bidding currently stands at "very good".'

Packman caught the edge in Harry's voice and began to protest. 'I can pay a lot more than an Auror's salary, Mr Potter, and, of course, you won't actually have to do any work.'

'What? Money for nothing? Why?' sputtered Harry.

'You've had a difficult few years, Mr Potter. Now that your troubles are over, I'm simply trying to help you get on in life,' Packman said obsequiously.

'Help me get on in life, now that my troubles are over?' Harry snapped. 'Where were you last year, when I needed help to simply stay alive? Had I knocked on your door last Christmas, would you have offered me the same deal? Or would you have…'

'The band is almost ready, Harry,' Ginny interrupted him. 'Unless you'd rather talk business with these…' she hesitated while apparently carefully considering her next word. '…gentlemen,' she concluded, somehow managing to make the final word sound extremely disparaging.

'Yes, we can dance all night!' Harry promised her without thinking.

He turned to face the clutch of well-dressed wizards. 'If any of you have money you really want to give away, give it to Katie Bell, not me! Her charity needs funds,' said Harry. 'I already have a job, I'm an Auror, and it keeps me very busy. I don't want another job. Now, if you'll all excuse me, I'm going to dance with my girlfriend.'

Still hand-in-hand, Harry escorted Ginny through the unhappily clucking brood of businessmen.

'Harry is the patron of Katie's Charity, so all major donors will certainly be invited to the same charity events as Harry,' Ginny called over her shoulder as they made their escape.

'Why did you tell them that?' grumbled Harry. Ginny pulled him purposefully towards the dance floor.

'Because it's true, Harry, and the opportunity to meet you at a charity event might be enough to make some of those daft old duffers donate. But why do you care? You get the invitations, but you're a grumpy soul and you don't attend, do you?' Ginny grinned mischievously, slid an arm around his waist and hugged him.

'But…' Harry began. He stopped and grinned. Ginny's eyes were sparkling triumphantly. It was true, he'd been invited, but he'd always made an excuse.

'You have no idea how much influence you have, do you?' Ginny asked. 'Look, there they go.'

Ginny nodded across the hall. Several of the men had simply disappeared into the crowds, but a large number were heading towards Katie. 'I'd bet that there are several Muggle-haters among them, but they're still going to donate, because you suggested it.'

'Because you told them I get invited to the charity events,' Harry corrected her.

'I didn't lie, you do get invited.' Ginny smirked. 'And it did some good, what more do you want?'

'You,' he told her.

The band started up, and Harry slid his arm around Ginny's waist. The official photographers' cameras flashed as the young couple slowly made their way onto the dance floor.

'Try to keep to the beat, Harry,' Ginny whispered as they stumbled clumsily around the room.

'Sorry, I don't dance … I don't know what I'm doing. We can stop if you want,' Harry told her desperately.

'You said that you'd dance all night,' Ginny reminded him. 'I think that you should, you need to practice. And you need to keep to the beat … that's much better.'

With further encouragement from Ginny over several slow waltzes, Harry's terpsichorean talents began to improve. They finally decided that they needed something to drink and, as they left the dance floor, Harry grabbed a couple of Butterbeers from a passing waiter. They managed to find themselves a table only to be immediately surrounded, this time by young women.

'Hello, Harry,' said Romilda, stepping forward and, with a remarkable display of bravery, ignoring Ginny's withering glare. 'Neville said that it would be okay if…'

'Harry is not dancing with you, Romilda!' Ginny spoke with absolute certainty.

'He's not yours…' Romilda began.

'I think I probably am, Romilda,' said Harry, a wry grin on his face. He took Ginny's hand and squeezed it. Ginny leaned her head on his shoulder and hugged him. Again, the cameras flashed.

'I'm dancing with Ginny, no one else,' said Harry, looking at the girls. Slowly and reluctantly, they moved away.

'I'm not trying to be possessive, Harry,' whispered Ginny apologetically. 'You can dance with anyone you like. Anyone except Romilda that is, because she is definitely up to something. I don't know what.' Ginny turned and looked thoughtfully into his eyes. Harry returned the gaze and was lost in a swirl of soft, warm, chocolate brown until her eyes blazed with an idea.

'Yes, I do!' Ginny said. 'Whoever you dance with will almost certainly get their picture in the papers, and that's what Romilda wants, her picture in the papers. Fame!'

'I've no idea why,' said Harry with feeling. 'Fame isn't much fun; it's people who don't know you thinking that they do, and wanting to be your friend. It's a pain in the bum.'

Ginny laughed. 'Perhaps you should dance with some other girls,' she suggested. 'Think of it as a reward, for them, not you. Anyone you dance with will get their picture in the newspapers.'

'But I thought that you wanted to dance with me all night. If I dance with someone else, what will you do?' Harry asked. He put on a fake frown. 'Either my dancing is terrible, or there is someone you want to dance with! Who? Should I be jealous?'

Ginny shook her head and laughed. 'I'll simply sit here and be a wallflower.'

'I doubt it. Someone is certain to ask you to dance. You can dance with anyone you like, too, Ginny. Well, anyone except Lee Jordan,' he teased 'You seemed to be enjoying yourself far too much with him at Bill and Fleur's wedding.'

'I was enjoying myself, but I'll tell you a secret. What I was really trying to do was make my cousin Barney jealous. I had hoped that he would ask me to dance.' Ginny gave him an impish grin and it was Harry's turn to laugh.

'Barney is a big coward,' Harry told her. 'He wanted to ask you to dance, but he was terrified of what Ron might do.'

Ginny laughed. 'Poor Barney, he just sat there, moping and talking to Auntie Muriel.'

'Not all of the time. He did … I did … stop Victor Krum from asking you to dance,' Harry admitted. 'I told Krum that you already had a boyfriend, a jealous type.' Harry hesitated, deep in thought, and gazed candidly into Ginny's eyes. Ginny looked serious and waited in silence.

'Because you did,' he announced. 'Me.'

He felt a rush of relief as he finally admitted the truth, more to himself than to her.

'It's just … I wanted you safe … I decided … at Dumbledore's funeral … that no one could know … not even you... I … we … should…'

Harry's incoherent confession was interrupted because Ginny kissed him, and the cameras flashed again. 'I did know, Harry. I almost knew at Dumbledore's funeral. You didn't say anything when we next met, but you showed me that I was right from almost the moment you arrived at The Burrow. When we stood in the yard, holding hands, waiting for the others to arrive … I needed you, and you needed me. Then, when we kissed on your birthday, I was absolutely certain! And so were you, weren't you?'

Harry nodded in silence. The memories came flooding back. 'Yes, I was certain. But that was a different time, a different life, Ginny. I knew, but … Voldemort … I didn't dare hope … us … we…'

Ginny silenced him by placing a finger on his lips.

'So, I knew, and you knew, too. No one else needed to know, because no one else mattered, Harry,' she told him.

Their whispered conversation was interrupted by Andromeda Tonks.

'Goodbye, Harry. Goodbye, Miss Weasley. I have to get this young man home to bed,' Andromeda announced as she cradled Teddy in her arms. 'Will we see you before Christmas?'

'Ginny and I will come to see you both on Christmas Eve, if that's all right,' said Harry. 'But, before you go, would you like to dance?'

Andromeda looked astonished, and then chuckled. 'Why not? It would amuse Ted and Dora, and probably Remus. I'm sure that they are watching.'

Ginny volunteered to look after Teddy and Andromeda Tonks firmly steered Harry around the dance floor, once again accompanied by a photographer.

After the dance, Harry and Ginny said their goodbyes to Andromeda and her grandson before returning to the dance floor. As they continued to dance, they discussed possible partners for Harry.

'I really don't mind, provided you don't mind me dancing with other blokes, if they ask me,' Ginny assured him.

'You'll be fighting them off,' Harry assured her. 'You're the most beautiful girl here.' Ginny rewarded him with her most radiant smile.

Harry danced with Katie, who was so pleased that she kissed him. He danced with Hermione, who said that he was almost as good a dancer as Ron. Harry wasn't entirely certain that her remark was meant as a compliment. As they danced, Hermione had suggested that he ask her mum to dance too, so he did. He danced with Professor McGonagall, winning a five Galleon bet with Ron, who had been convinced that their Head of House would turn him down.

Every time he stopped dancing, Harry found himself surrounded by hopeful-looking girls, businessmen and Ministry officials who wanted to "help" him, or a peculiar mix of the three.

The hours flew by. The evening was drawing to a close, and it hadn't been as bad as Harry had expected. Perhaps, Harry thought, he could dance after all. He was once again with Ginny when another possible partner passed by, arms flailing wildly. Harry made the suggestion, Ginny laughed and agreed.

After that particularly peculiar dance, Harry slumped in a chair, sipped a Butterbeer, and looked warily around the hall. It was late, and his feet were sore. The crowds had thinned slightly, but only slightly. This time, however, no one was approaching him. Harry chuckled, but continued to watch the hall carefully. No one came close.

Now, as he sat next to his last partner, Luna, whose conversation he was ignoring, he relaxed by watching Ginny. Luna's unheard words washed over him like a babbling stream, or streaming babble, but the sing-song sound of her voice was somehow comforting. Sitting next to Luna was rather like dancing, but more restful on the feet. No one was approaching him; presumably they were worried that Luna might begin a conversation with them.

Ginny was dancing with George, who was wearing both his and Fred's medals, and getting very drunk. George was veering between maudlin and obnoxious, and no one was sure what to do about it. Only Ginny seemed able to control him, so she had temporarily abandoned Harry to try to help her brother.

'Hi, Harry, hi, Luna,' a voice said. Harry took his eyes from Ginny to see who had dared approach. He was relieved to see that it was only Dennis Creevey.

'How are you, Dennis?' Harry asked.

'Better than George, I think,' Dennis said. 'I'll speak to him later. Fred wouldn't be happy with him. When we were at the Hog's Head, George told me that I should try to imagine what Colin would say, what Colin would want me to do. It was good advice, and it helped me a lot. George should follow his own advice, because he's definitely not listening to Fred now! But that's not why I'm here.'

The urgency in Dennis's voice caught Harry's attention. Harry observed the young wizard carefully; he looked dejected and sad, but that wasn't surprising.

'Is it because of that girl who wouldn't come to the Ball with you, Dennis?' Luna asked.

Dennis nodded. 'Are you sure that Wylde is a Death Eater, Harry?' asked Dennis. 'His… I … I asked his daughter, Zoë, to be … my guest … here. She refused, said that a Death Eater's daughter wouldn't be welcome. But she also said that she was certain her dad wasn't a Death Eater.'

'He's got the mark, Dennis, and he's confessed,' Harry said. 'I wasn't sure myself until we caught him, I was sure that there was something more going on. But everything we know points to Wilberforce Wylde being the head of the slavery racket, I'm sorry.'

'That's what Trudi Pepperill told me on the train,' said Dennis. 'Trudi also said that Zoë, her brother, and Fenella Gray were scheming in the Slytherin common room. She overheard them saying something about Zoë's dad, and a break in. She thinks that they are going to try to break him out of Azkaban.'

'Now that the goblins are guarding Azkaban, there's even less chance of anyone escaping, Dennis,' said Harry.

'But Trudi is certain that Fenella is up to something, Harry,' said Dennis. 'I don't know what to do. I don't want Fenella to drag Zoë into trouble.'

'Fenella helped Colin, Dennis,' Harry reminded the earnest and serious sixteen-year-old. 'Why would she try to free a Death Eater? And how would she do it? Fenella's not exactly daring and adventurous, is she?'

'Yeah, I really can't see Fenella doing anything brave,' said Ron breathlessly as he and Hermione joined the group. Harry looked up hopefully, but Ginny wasn't with them, she was dragging George over to speak to Mr and Mrs Weasley.

'Fenella's a Pureblood, and her parents never let her mix with Muggles, but last summer she caught a Muggle bus, by herself and went to meet Colin,' Dennis told them. 'And she warned Colin about the Muggle-born Registration Commission too. That's how we escaped. She was brave for Colin; wouldn't she be brave for her family?'

'Fenella made a statement to the Auror Office, and persuaded her dad to cooperate with us. Sending a few messages and supplies to Colin was a little risky for her, but not really dangerous,' said Harry.

'Colin thought she was brave. He was really impressed with her when he got back after their … date. He said that she was a bit nervous, because she was wearing Muggle clothes, but she was beautiful and determined, too. I think he really fancied her,' said Dennis.

Ron snorted with laughter.

'I really don't think that Fenella would organise a prison break, Dennis,' said Harry. 'She's a Slytherin.'

'I think that you're wrong, Harry,' said Luna, firmly. 'Slytherin is just a word, like Mudblood. You are compartmentalising, stereotyping. That's silly. Simply thinking of Fenella, of anyone, as a Slytherin will cloud your judgement. She iis/i a Slytherin, but that's just her House, it isn't her. She's cunning and really quite clever. I'm a Ravenclaw, we're supposed to be the intelligent ones, but Hermione is very intelligent, too.'

'Thanks, Luna,' said Hermione, startled.

'Well, you are! You're a little limited in your thinking, but you retain knowledge.' Luna waved her hand dismissively. Ron stifled a snort.

'When we all broke into the Ministry, years ago,' Luna continued. 'Everyone said that we were "six brave youngsters", because most of us, everyone but me, were Gryffindors. Had we been Slytherins they'd have said we were cunning.'

Ron grunted dismissively; Luna stared at him.

'You want to do something, Ron, like becoming an Auror, and you decide to achieve it, why are you doing it? Are you doing it because you are brave, or cunning, or clever, or simply hard-working? It's easy to add the House-label afterwards. If a Ravenclaw can be brave, why can't a Slytherin? Fenella has been acting oddly. She was asking Ginny a lot of questions about you, Harry, and about the Ministry,' said Luna. 'I noticed, and so did Ginny. She told me on the train.'

'She certainly took some very strange photographs when we visited the Ministry,' Hermione added, suddenly suspicious. 'She photographed the usual things, the Atrium, the students, and various Ministry officials and offices. She tried to take photographs in the Auror Office, but Williamson stopped her. But she photographed lots of corridors, and the Magical Law Enforcement filing room, and the Department of International Magical Cooperation filing room too. I thought it was odd, photographing corridors and filing rooms.'

'What on earth are you talking about?' Ginny asked forcing her way to Harry's side. 'I thought it must be something exciting, the way you were all huddled together, but you're talking about corridors and filing!'

Harry looked quickly around the room. People were beginning to watch them.

'I'll tell you later, Ginny,' Harry said. He was suddenly uneasy; perhaps there really was something going on. 'We'll talk about this properly tomorrow, at my place. I finish my shift at four o'clock tomorrow. Can everyone make it then?'

'Earlier or much later would be better, Harry, around noon or after ten, if possible,' suggested Hermione. 'Mum's invited my Uncle George and his family over for dinner tomorrow; Ron's supposed to be there at five, to meet my relatives.'

'I'm working from seven until four, Hermione,' said Harry.

'And so am I,' Ron added.

'And Harry and I are going out again tomorrow night. If we meet at four, it won't interrupt our date,' said Ginny forcefully. 'You know how little time we're going to have together, Hermione. What time is the meal at your parent's house, Hermione?'

'Six-thirty,' Hermione admitted.

'Then you'll be back in plenty of time,' announced Ginny. 'What about you, Luna?'

'Oh, am I invited? That's nice, thank you, Ginny,' Luna beamed.

'I'll collect you from your place, Dennis,' said Harry. 'We should let Neville know, and probably Terry and Susan, too.'

'Tell Nev not to say anything to Romilda,' Ginny murmured.

'Why…' Harry got no further. He was interrupted by the Master of Ceremonies.

'Ladies and Gentlemen, midnight approaches. Please take your partners for the last dance.'

'It's settled, four o'clock tomorrow,' Ginny announced. Harry expected Hermione to argue, but she didn't have the opportunity, as Ron grabbed her hand and dragged her onto the dance floor. Harry took Ginny's hand and followed.

'We should dance, too, Dennis,' Luna announced, pulling a protesting Dennis Creevey to his feet.

'I need to speak to George, sorry, Luna,' apologised Dennis, breaking free and dashing across the dance floor. Luna looked around the room, and marched purposefully towards Terry Boot.

'I wonder…' Harry began, as he held Ginny close and they moved slowly around the dance floor.

'If you're wondering about Fenella, or about whatever Dennis has been saying, or Luna, don't,' Ginny said forcefully. 'That's for tomorrow. This is the last dance; you should be concentrating on me.'

Harry did as he was told, and discovered that it was possible to kiss and dance at the same time. Or at least kiss and sway in time to the music.