Chapter Five

Harry awoke from a dream about the rape, the first in a while. It had been fragmented and incoherent, the details fading as soon as he opened his eyes, but it made more sleep impossible. He dressed in the grey dawn and tiptoed quietly out of the dorm, though he knew his caution was probably wasted. Given the state the others had been in when they'd returned from their night of firewhisky, they weren't likely to wake for anything short of a Weasleys' Wildfire Whiz-Bang.

Hogwarts was dark and silent; Harry made his way to the lawn without seeing person, ghost, or poltergeist. He felt the need for a long broom ride, something to clear his brain and lift him out of the world. Soon he was flying lazily over the edge of the forest and the now-icy lake, soothed by the pristine white frost that turned the entire landscape into a place apart. If only he'd never have to come down, he thought. . .

On the grounds far below, the whiteness was broken by a figure heading toward the gates. Even from above, Harry could tell that it was too small to be Hagrid. Curious, he circled a bit lower and soon recognized Professor McGonagall. His first thought was to fly off before she noticed him, but something about the white morning made him reconsider. Maybe he'd be able to talk to her now, in this world that was not quite itself. Before he could let himself back out, he swooped down to land in front of her.

"Hi, Professor," he said.

He had startled her, he could tell; she half-raised her wand. But when she spoke, her voice was steady. "Good morning, Potter," she said. "You're up early. Your young friends still sleeping it off?"

"Er," said Harry.

McGonagall's lips twitched. "Never mind."

"Um . . .where are you going?" Harry asked and immediately felt, to use Ron's words, like a right berk. What a stupid thing to say. . .

He waited for a sharp comment about the difference between his business and hers. But she just seemed amused.

"In case there's some reason this information is actually necessary to you," she answered, "I am going to the road so that I can Apparate. I have plans for the holiday."

Harry blinked; she'd never volunteered anything personal before. Visiting an old friend, that's what Dumbledore had said she was doing. A friend. . .maybe one of the "girlfriends" that Voldemort had sneered about? Suddenly, Harry hoped so.

McGonagall was looking at him. "Any other questions, Potter?"

"Professor, um. . .about last autumn. . . I know I should have come talk to you sooner, but. . ."

"Nonsense, Harry," she said, her voice softening. "There's no timetable for situations like this." Then in her usual dry tones, she went on, "Not that either of us has much experience with situations like this. It's hard to know what's best. . ."

She trailed off, and all at once Harry understood that she wasn't sure what to say next. He was taken aback; he had never considered that she might be at a loss. . .not McGonagall. . .

"Well," she said, more briskly. "We do what we can. For what it's worth, Potter, I think you've coped admirably. I'm just sorry you had to be put through this."

"No!" He couldn't stand to have her feel bad for him, she wouldn't, not if she knew. . .

"Professor, listen," he said, "that night. . .I didn't just see what happened. I felt it. I felt what Voldemort felt. He. . .it was me, do you understand?"

"What are you talking about, Harry? Of course it wasn't you; it was --"

"Would you listen? Just listen to me!" He knew he was shouting at her, but he was beyond caring. Why couldn't she get it, why couldn't Dumbledore get it? He tried again. "Voldemort hurt you, and he liked it, and I felt him and. . .and I liked. . ."

He stopped, breathing hard, the cold air burning his lungs. The hem of her cloak was dark against the white ground, and he stared at it, willing himself not to cry, furious with himself, furious with her. "Fuck it," he muttered and turned away blindly, wanting to head off somewhere, anywhere. . .

"Stop right there, Potter!" McGonagall's voice, harder than the frost, was an Impediment jinx all on its own. Harry stopped dead, his back to her.

"Now you listen to me," she commanded, returning to high McGonagall form with a vengeance. "Hard as it may be to understand at age sixteen, not everything is about you. What happened that night is between Tom Riddle and me. It started a long time ago. The fact that you had to be present for the end of it is unfortunate, and it's something I would have given a great deal to spare you, but none of it was your doing."

She took a deep breath and went on, more quietly but no less intensely. "Now, I have no doubt that Voldemort enjoyed himself, whatever enjoyment means to a creature like him. Did you feel some sort of thrill along with him? Yes, maybe you did. It doesn't matter. We all feel dark things, Potter. It doesn't make us monsters; it just makes us human. What matters is how you respond. You could give in, you could mope about and and let some so-called 'Dark Lord' define you, but if you did. . .well, then you wouldn't be the Gryffindor I take you for. But you are, like it or not, because I'm never mistaken about that. Am I being clear?"

"Yes, Professor," Harry whispered.

"Good."

When she spoke again, her anger, or whatever it had been, had disappeared, and she seemed almost as mild as Dumbledore. "Can you look at me, Harry?" she asked.

It was a genuine question, he realised -- of course she'd noticed that he'd been avoiding her eye for months, and she wasn't going to force him.

Slowly, Harry turned to face her. For the first time in a long time, he was looking at her without seeing tangled, loose hair superimposed over the neat bun, without seeing her bare shoulders instead of her green robes, without feeling himself moving atop her. . .

He looked and saw only the concerned face of his Head of House, her eyes holding questions but no blame, her smooth hair topped rather rakishly by an elegant black witch's hat tipped with feathers.

She raised her brows enquiringly. "All right?"

"Yes." And it was. Or if not completely all right, at least better. She hadn't tried to make him deny what he'd felt that night; she hadn't been shocked or disgusted or repulsed. Harry felt lighter than he had in weeks and suddenly found himself grinning widely.

He ducked his head, but she'd seen. "What?" she asked.

"I'm sorry, Professor, it's just. . ." He started to snicker. "I can't help it. . .you. . .you called Voldemort a limp dick. . ."

"Potter!" McGonagall began, but then, to Harry's surprise, she threw her head back and laughed until tears came. With a start, he realised that he'd never really heard her laugh before. The occasional dry chuckle, yes -- but never this full-throated, joyous abandonment. It occurred to him that her friend, whoever it was, was probably going to have a fun holiday.

"Yes, well," she said at last, wiping her eyes. "We all say a good many things, Potter."

She started toward the gates, and Harry fell into step with her. They walked in silence for a few minutes, their feet crunching on the frost, until she became serious again. "At least we've learned something, Harry. Voldemort is powerful; we'd be mad to deny it. But so are we. Deep down, he's very much what he's always been -- just Tom Riddle, a jumped-up prick. I've found it helps to think of that."

Harry started to grin again, until he realised what her choice of these words meant: out here, on what seemed like the frozen edge of the world, she wasn't talking to him as his teacher, but as an equal. As a fellow survivor.

Harry opened his mouth. He wanted to say that he understood; he wanted to say that he thought she'd "coped admirably," too; he wanted to say that he was glad she had a friend to visit -- and that he very much hoped they were more than friends.

Instead, he said, "Thanks, Professor."

This time when she rested her hand briefly on his shoulder, he didn't mind.

They reached the gates, and McGonagall stepped through with a crisp nod. "I'll leave you here, then, Potter. A merry Christmas to you." With a crack, she was gone.

Harry stood for a moment, looking at the space where she'd been, and then he climbed onto his broom and soared into the silvery winter sky.

~~the end~~