Minerva awoke to a pounding on her office door. “Professor McGonagall!” she heard someone yell. “Wake up, please, Professor!”
Quickly she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and got out of bed, fumbling in the dark for her dressing gown and slippers.
“I’m coming!” she called. Drawing her dressing gown tighter against the cold, she hurried through her office. Irritation fought with concern as she pulled the door open. “Longbottom!” she exclaimed, surprised. “What is it?”
Neville Longbottom stood before her, pajama-clad and barefoot, trembling and exceptionally pale. “It’s – it’s Harry, Professor, he’s not well,” he said in a rush. “He’s yelling in his sleep, he won’t wake up, I – I think he’s really ill.”
Any trace of annoyance vanished as Minerva realized how genuinely scared Neville was. She stepped into the corridor and gestured for Neville to follow her as she set off briskly for Gryffindor tower. “The others are awake as well, I presume?” she asked as they walked.
“Yes,” said Neville. “Ron’s been trying to wake him, shaking him and shouting and things – but nothing’s worked – and I’m sorry to wake you, Professor, but we – none of us knew –”
“Somnum exterreri,” she said sharply to the Fat Lady, and then climbed through the portrait hole – ignoring Neville’s offered hand – and swept through the common room and up the stairs to the boys’ dormitory. As she approached the fifth years’ room she could hear muffled voices within.
Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan, standing between their own beds and staring across at Harry’s, both looked up as she entered, but Ron Weasley paid her no notice. He was standing over Harry, one hand on his shoulder, apparently trying to keep him from thrashing too hard. “…You’re okay, mate, come on, you’re just dreaming,” he was saying shakily. “Just wake –” He was interrupted by a cry from Harry, and the sound made Minerva’s blood run cold: he sounded nothing short of agonized.
She hurried to his bed. “Potter!” she yelled. “Wake up!”
His eyes snapped open and she barely had time to wonder what had finally done it – perhaps it was simply that her voice was so unexpected – before he rolled over and vomited over the side of the bed. Ron jumped back to avoid being splattered with sick and Minerva stepped up to take his place. Angling herself away from Harry’s trajectory, she sat on the edge of the bed and put her hand on his back, holding him on his side so that he would not choke. He was radiating heat through his sweat-soaked T-shirt and trembling so violently she felt her whole arm vibrating from the contact.
“You’re all right, Potter,” she said in a low voice that she kept carefully calm despite the worry racing through her. “All right, that’s it…” She doubted he was even really aware of her presence as he continued to retch, just barely managing to hold his head up. She gripped his arm tightly and began to move the hand on his back in slow, soothing circles.
Finally the retching subsided, but Harry stayed in the same position, still shaking violently. He kept his head bent low over the side of the bed. It took Minerva only a moment to realize that it was to hide his face: he was weeping quietly, in a choked, muffled way that told her he was doing his best to hold it in. She released his arm and pulled out her wand. “Evanesco,” she said quietly, and the pool of sick vanished, as did the accompanying smell. Without turning to look at the four boys standing behind her, she said firmly, “Please go down to the common room.”
She heard three of them depart without a word. When they had gone, she looked up to see Ron still standing uncertainly at the foot of the bed. He was pale and looked deeply shaken. “You too, Weasley,” she said in a softer voice. After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded jerkily and left, glancing back over his shoulder at Harry several times before he reached the door.
There was a half-full glass of water on the corner of the windowsill nearest Harry’s bed and Minerva stood to fetch it before silently conjuring a chair. His humiliation was obvious, and she felt that she was doing him no good by crowding the limited space on his bed. He tensed when he heard the light scraping of the chair against the floor.
“Can you sit up?”
Very slowly, Harry managed to push himself upright, wincing in pain as he did so. He leaned shakily back against the headboard. Minerva thought she had never seen such a young person look so weary: in his puffy, red-rimmed eyes was an expression of absolute defeat. He gazed up at the ceiling, jaw set. She pressed the glass of water wordlessly into his hands and for a moment he just stared at it, as if unable to recognize what it was. Then he raised it to his lips and managed only a single sip, his hands shaking so badly that he risked sloshing the water everywhere. As soon as he began to lower it Minerva rescued it from his unsteady grip and returned it safely to the windowsill.
“Potter,” she said, “can you tell me what happened?”
Harry did not answer, but his chin wobbled almost imperceptibly and he tensed his jaw further. She could see the fresh tears threatening to spill from his eyes. His breathing was slow and even, but shaky, as if the air kept getting caught somewhere in his throat.
“Take as much time as you need,” she said gently.
A tear slipped out to join the ones already drying on Harry’s face and he wiped it away with the heel of his hand. After a very long while, he muttered, voice raw and quavering, “You don’t need to stay here.”
“Nonsense,” said Minerva.
“Forgive me, Potter, but I would not be fulfilling my duties as your Head of House if I believed you.”
At these words Harry let out a short huff; had it not been paired with such a look of devastation, Minerva could have mistaken it for a laugh. “I had a – a bad dream, is all,” he said. He still was avoiding eye contact with her, staring up at the ceiling.
He was such a typical Gryffindor, Minerva thought, brave well beyond his years but so afraid of being vulnerable. “It might help to talk about it,” she suggested.
He did not respond, but she could tell that he was not ignoring her: he was genuinely contemplating whether he wanted to. Eventually, he shook his head.
It was not the response Minerva had hoped for, but it was what she had expected. For a while there was silence except for Harry’s shaky breathing. Finally she said, “It has been a relief to see that Gryffindor’s success in Quidditch was not entirely due to Mr. Wood.” The abrupt change of subject startled Harry into looking at her for the first time. The depth of the pain in his eyes made her chest ache, but she continued calmly. “Miss Johnson appears to be doing an admirable job.”
Harry nodded mutely.
“I shall fully expect a championship this spring, Potter. I would hate to relinquish the Cup back to Professor Snape so quickly.” The corner of his mouth twitched into something that might have been a smile, but the expression was so short-lived that Minerva thought possibly she had imagined it. “Remind me who the next match is against.”
She knew, of course, and Harry probably knew that she knew, but he answered her nonetheless. “Hufflepuff.”
His voice broke on the word and Minerva realized suddenly that she had mis-stepped in her attempt at distracting him: the last time he had played Hufflepuff, Cedric Diggory had been their Seeker. She knew without a doubt that it was this thought that had caused a fresh wave of pain to play across Harry’s face. He took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling, and she could see him willing himself to remain calm.
“It’s okay to feel like this,” she said softly. “You have been through things most people your age can hardly imagine.”
Another tear slid slowly down his cheek and she was overcome suddenly with an almost unbearable desire to reach out and take him into her arms, to comfort him in the way he needed, the way he deserved, but she restrained herself. She was, after all, still his teacher, and she knew that any such display would only make him embarrassed and uncomfortable. So she settled for saying, “If you ever feel the need to talk, Potter, I will always listen. And I know that your friends would say the same, as would Sirius and Professor Dumbledore.”
He nodded without looking at her and she got the sense that he was agreeing more to hasten an end to the conversation than anything else, but she supposed it would have to be enough for now. She stood. “Do you think you can sleep?” He responded with another nod that she saw through straight away, knowing full well that he would likely stay huddled in this exact position until it was light enough to drag himself out of bed. She let it go, though. As much as a Dreamless Sleep draught might benefit him tonight, its potentially addictive side effects were too serious to justify its use.
She vanished her chair and grasped the curtain of his four-poster to pull it shut for him, but before she did so, she hesitated. As certain as she was that he would, if asked, claim to want privacy, it seemed almost cruel to leave this boy alone in such a state. He had not yet stopped trembling, his knees still pulled up to his chest, and he was still staring determinedly at the ceiling and fighting back tears. She put a hand lightly on his shoulder. “Good night, Harry,” she murmured, and she could see in his face that he, too, registered that this was the first time she had ever addressed him by his first name.
“Good night,” he whispered shakily. Minerva gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and then withdrew, pulling the hangings shut around him.
The common room was empty but for the four boys who had been evicted from their dormitory. Dean’s head had dropped onto Seamus’ shoulder as he dozed, and Seamus appeared to be in some sort of half-asleep stupor. Neville sat across from them, looking as exhausted as he did wide-awake and anxious. Only Ron stood, pacing in front of the long-extinguished fire. He looked up as soon as Minerva had emerged from the stairs. “Is Harry okay?” he asked, and she did not miss the trace of panic in his voice.
“You may all return to your dormitory,” she said instead of answering him right away. “Please do not make any commotion or conversation up there. Potter needs rest. I must also ask that you do not question him about what happened, tonight or ever. It will do no good to have you badgering him.”
Dean and Seamus, having woken as soon as she spoke, stood with much stretching and yawning to make their way back up the stairs. Neville followed suit. As Ron started to go, though, she stopped him.
“A moment, Weasley.” She waited until the others had disappeared up the stairs before continuing quietly. “Mr. Weasley, I will not ask whether Potter has confided in you or anyone since the events of last year. That is not my business. But I must impress upon you how important it is that you are there for him.”
“Of course, Professor,” he said, sounding slightly indignant at the suggestion that he might not be.
“I don’t mean to imply that you have been a bad friend, Weasley,” she assured him. “I simply mean that Potter is in a difficult position, and he should not have to bear it alone.”
Ron nodded, and then repeated his original question. “Is he okay? I mean,” he amended, “I know he isn’t, not really, but…” Ron did not have to finish the sentence for Minerva to know what he meant.
“He will be alright,” she said gently.
Ron breathed a sigh of relief inconsistent with the worry still evident in his expression.
“Go on up to bed,” Minerva urged him. “It is very late.”
“Yes, Professor,” said Ron quietly. Minerva watched him as he crossed the common room to return to the dormitory. When he was out of sight, she allowed herself to sink into the armchair that Neville had just vacated.
It pained her terribly to see any of her students so upset, but Harry’s situation was, to her, uniquely heartbreaking. The boy had been through so much already by the time he arrived at school, orphaned and abused; that he should continue to suffer so much unnecessary trauma seemed exceptionally cruel. She wished desperately that she could do something to stop it, but she knew that it was a hopeless thought. If Voldemort was determined to hunt Harry as long as he lived, there was little she could do to stop him.
She could, though, be there to support Harry, and she vowed to herself that she would be, even if she could take away only the tiniest fraction of his burden. To the rest of the world, he was the Boy who Lived, the distant and almost mythical savior, but to her, he was just one of her students – and it was that, she thought, more than anything else, that awoke in her such a fierce desire to keep him safe at any cost.