"What's this, Mr. Potter?" Professor McGonegall was in her nightgown and scowled at the lot of them.
Harry suspected that one of the painting had alerted her that something was happening outside the entrance to the Gryffindor common room. She had barely spent the time to throw on a robe and she didn't look pleased.
"This is Sirius Black, ma'am," one of the aurors said. "And he says that Peter Pettigrew is inside with one of your students."
"He's a rat!" Black shouted. "A rat!"
The man looked positively unhinged; enraged and disheveled, it would be difficult to believe anything he said. Harry certainly wouldn't think so.
"He's obviously quite mad," McGonagall said. "Why are you listening to him?"
The aurors glanced at each other then at Harry. They knew Harry wouldn't want his map revealed, and it surprised Harry that they were leaving it up to him to reveal it.
Harry frowned. "Black is an animagus. I think he's saying that Pettigrew is in the form of a rat. Specifically Ronald Weasley's rat."
He knew Ron had a rat; Hermione had complained about it often enough. Ron had been arguing with her for weeks, claiming that the rat had been eaten by her Kneasel. The rat had vanished for a time only to turn up later much to Hermione's satisfaction.
Harry had to wonder just what Pettigrew had been doing during the time he was missing. If he really was the one who had betrayed Harry's parent;s to the Death Eaters, then he was in league with Voldemort and he'd had the run of the castle.
Being an animagus was starting to sound like a very useful skill, especially if it would enable an escape from Azkaban.
McGonagall stared at them for a long moment.
"It's important," Harry said. "A man's life hangs in the balance."
She snorted, then turned and murmured a password to the painting that guarded the Gryffindor common room. Harry strained to listen to what it was, but he couldn't hear what she had said.
Five minutes later she returned, Ronald Weasley in tow, levitating a rat.
"We'll see if there is anything to this," she said. She pointed her wand and murmured what Harry assumed was the counter spell to the animagus transformation.
She shrieked as the rat began to writhe and shift, transforming into a man.
"My heavens...it IS Pettigrew!" she cried.
Ron Weasley stared at the rat he'd had in his bed for years and he turned white as a ghost.
"Maybe you'd better call the Headmaster," Harry said.
It was a long night for everyone; Sirius Black was taken to the Ministry to be held over for trial.
Having learned that the man hadn't even had a trial the first time around before being held in Azkaban for twelve years, Harry was annoyed.
He explained to the aurors that he would be even more annoyed if the man was killed in transit or Kissed before he ever saw a courtroom in an effort to avoid embarrassment for the Ministry. Obviously the Ministry couldn't be trusted any farther than he could throw them if they wouldn't even follow their own rules.
Harry began to wonder what would happen to him if he actually killed Voldemort. Would the Ministry start thinking he was a liability and make him disappear? Maybe Voldemort wasn't his only enemy.
Even worse, his ability to reset might vanish if he actually defeated Voldemort. It was something to think about.
He almost expected to have one or the other of the men 'escape' in transit, but the next morning the Daily Prophet had headlines screaming that Black had been caught. There wasn't much about his not being the killer, though.
Harry expected there to be some sort of mock trial as a result, but Dumbledore assured him that he would do his best to get the man a real, fair trial.
He seemed surprised at Harry's cynicism. Harry had talked to the new Minister, however, and the man had seemed more concerned about the appearances of safety than actually keeping people safe.
Minister Scrimgeour had been angry at Harry for refusing to have his picture taken, and Harry suspected that if he'd stepped outside the Ministry the man would have had his picture in every paper, Death Eaters be damned.
Still, he'd gotten out of the whole thing without a detention or even any house points taken, and the aurors were removed the next day, so all in all it was a win. He'd claimed that he'd thought Black would come for him and would assume he was in Gryffindor since his parents had been. It was as good a lie as any.
He'd miss the extra training from the aurors, but he wouldn't miss having his time in the loo timed. It had made him enormously self conscious.
Harry arranged to have another meeting with Scrimgeour, and this time his meeting was taken immediately.
He explained to the man how they could blame Black's incarceration on a previous administration which Hermione had told him was headed by Millicent Bagnold, and show generosity by releasing Black.
For once, the man had listened to him instead of treating him as though he was a child with nothing valuable to say.
The gavel fell, and the crowd gasped.
Sirius Black was innocent. Testimony had been forced from Peter Pettigrew, and everything Black had said had been corroborated.
Some had still judged Black guilty, based on the idea that Pettigrew could be confunded, but the fact that Pettigrew had been living in the beds of a succession of underage boys had weighed heavily against him.
Black looked as though he didn't understand what had just happened. Harry suspected that his rage against Pettigrew had been all that had supported him throughout these long years and now that was gone there wasn't much left.
The prosecutor cleared his throat. "There are also the matters of his being an unregistered animagi, and for escaping from Azkaban."
The crowd began muttering, and Black began to look anxious again.
"Is twelve years not enough?" Dumbledore asked, standing suddenly. His voice rang out into the chamber. "An innocent man placed in the worst conditions imaginable. His escape was to protect the boy-who-lived from an admitted ally of Voldemort."
The crowd gasped at the mention of Voldemort's name.
"Protecting the Boy who lived is protecting us all, given the nature of the prophecy," Dumbledore said. "Punishing him for doing so would be a travesty of justice!"
His voice was powerful and compelling. Harry stared at the man; he hadn't realized just how powerful an orator the man could be, given his doddering old man routine at the school. He obviously knew how to play the political game as well.
"What of being an unregistered animagi?" the prosecutor asked.
"Hasn't he been punished enough?" Dumbledore asked. "Is twelve years not enough of a sentence? I say he has served his time and he should go free."
The crowd broke out into loud arguments and it was a full five minutes before order could be called.
"Are there any more witnesses?''
Harry stood. It wasn't his nature to stick his neck out for anyone without something to gain from it, but it irritated him and angered him that the Ministry had railroaded this man. It reminded him a little of being bullied during first year simply because he'd been sorted into Slytherin.
The one thing Harry was learning was that he hated bullies.
He'd been assured that there weren't going to be cameras in the courtroom, although there would be some outside. He knew how to avoid those. The real risk was in letting the members of the Wizengamot see him, since some of them were certainly Death Eaters.
However, it was only a matter of time until he was seen anyway. The Minister wanted his picture out in public so that Harry would agree to engage in propaganda for the Ministry; he'd told him as much in both of his meetings.
It had been difficult getting into the courtroom without being seen by the reporters. Harry had been forced to use every method at his disposal, most of which included his invisibility cloak and the help of auror Tonks.
"Sirius Black is my Godfather," Harry began. "The last living link I have to the parents who gave their lives for me and by extension for all of you. He tried his best to save me, and I'd ask that you do the merciful thing...the right thing and give him his freedom."
Dumbledore had coached him on the kind of things that would likely sway the members, and Harry did his best to look utterly sincere.
Harry had been tempted to imply a threat, but Dumbledore had assured him that would be a bad idea. No one threatened the Wizagamot, much less a thirteen year old boy. Harry's best bet was to look humble and contrite.
Umbridge stood. "After twelve years in Azkaban, isn't it likely that this man isn't quite sane? He may have been innocent before, but he may be a threat to the Boy-Who-Lived now even if he doesn't want to be."
She smiled in Harry's direction, although it didn't reach her eyes. "This esteemed chamber shouldn't be listening to children who don't know how to be silent when around their betters."
"Like you didn't listen to me when I told you that dementors were likely to attack and wipe out a good portion of the next generation of Britain's wizardkind?" Harry asked.
Umbridge's face turned red and she turned a look of undisguised rage toward Harry. Harry wouldn't have wanted to be in a dark alleyway with her without his wand out.
"I won't talk about who should actually be up here on trial," Harry continued. "As the esteemed Chamber has determined that some things were simply the result of incompetence rather than malice."
This made her turn an even darker red. Harry couldn't help but wonder if he continued would be be able to badger her into a heart attack. Part of him wanted to try.
However he was here for a purpose and getting sidetracked wouldn't do Black any good.
"The muggles have a saying...out of the mouths of babes," Harry said. "Sometimes a child will say things that no adult will. I am saying this...what happened to Sirius Black was an injustice. It wasn't an injustice done by this esteemed body...you never even had him brought before you. But sending him back will compound the injustice that has already been done...and that will be on your own souls."
Harry sat down, ignoring the grateful look black was giving him. He didn't know the man and wasn't sure he wanted to know him, although hearing stories about his parents from someone who was their friend instead of just a teacher did sound inviting.
Harry sat back and watched closely as the vote was called. The result would be whatever it was; he'd done his best to make sure the man got a fair trial. From what he understood, the wizarding court system was corrupt and injust. However, they liked having the appearance of being fair and impartial.
The speeches would be reported in the wizarding newspaper, and he and Dumbledore had backed them into a corner. Whatever bribes they had taken, they weren't willing for the common wizard to realize that the game was rigged.
Sure enough, the vote was for freedom, although it was closer than Harry had expected. Harry tried to take note of the men who had voted against freedom. Those were likely his enemies in one form or another.
He'd try to get a copy of the court report. If he could get a list of his enemies, things might get easier in the future. If he could cross reference them with known Death Eaters, he might even be able to learn something important.
No one might threaten the Wizangamot to their faces, but no one said Harry couldn't make them pay in the long run.
Black looked stunned, as though the very concept of freedom was more than he could understand.
Dumbledore leaned down and murmured in his ear.
It finally seemed to sink in, and the man began to smile, which made him look like more than a shell of a man. Black turned and smiled widely at Harry.
Harry smiled weakly back at the man. Dumbledore had arranged for him to be washed and groomed, but he still looked like a dog that had been starved half to death. The smile helped a little, but it would require months of good meals and good treatment to return him to a semblance of his former self.
The chains on Black were removed and he rose and walked over toward Harry. Harry resisted the urge to go for his wand' just because the man was walking a little faster than he was comfortable with didn't mean that he was coming to attack him.
"Harry...you saved me," Black said.
The man reached out to hug him, and Harry flinched.
It was an involuntary response; Harry hadn't been touched much in his life and he was uncomfortable with someone wrapping their arms around him. The other man was enough larger than he was that he wouldn't be able to defend himself if he did.
"Sorry," Harry said. "Force of habit."
He offered his hand.
Black stared at him for a moment before shaking his hand.
Harry saw a flash out of the corner of his eye and he cursed, turning. He saw a reporter rapidly moving away.
Scrimgeour looked smug. Apparently he'd given the reporter special dispensation to take photographs inside the court. It was telling that the only picture he took was over Harry shaking hands with Sirius.
It had only been a matter of time before someone had gotten his picture. Harry had known that, but this was going to make disguising himself both harder and even more necessary in public.
"Maybe we should have done this somewhere else?" Black asked sheepishly at the look on Harry's face.
"I can't believe you thought I was shagging an adult man!" Weasley said, confronting him.
Harry shrugged. "How was I to know you weren't? For all I know Gryffindors are engaged in all kinds of weird things behind closed doors."
Beside him, Hermione stiffened.
Harry suspected that he'd pay for the comment later, but it was worth it to see Weasley's face turn red. Apparently the twins had told Ron about the map, and he'd rushed to confront Harry immediately.
"Didn't seem like any of my business," Harry said. "Besides, you'd have thought your brothers might have noticed it, considering that they had the Map for two years before I did."
"Did you have to tell the whole world that I had a grown man staring at me for the last three years?"
"Yes," Harry said. "Yes I did."
Weasley's face turned even redder. There had been speculation in the paper about what the wizard might have done to Ron and his brother.
Although Harry suspected that Pettigrew would have been too afraid of being found out to try anything, the papers brought up the point that Ron and his brother might have been obliviated, and thus not even know if anything had happened.
This thought had apparently bothered Ron enough that the twins weren't even teasing him about it, although other students weren't so careful.
"I don't think anything happened," Harry said. "Pettigrew was a coward, and they asked him under Veritaserum if he'd done anything to you. He said he hadn't."
That much hadn't made it into the paper. Apparently the Wizarding paper loved making salacious allegations without anything to back it up, just as the courts threw men in prison without evidence.
Ron stared at him, looking relieved but still angry.
"A man's life was on the line," Harry said.
Weasley didn't look completely satisfied, but he stalked off in a better mood than when he'd started.
"You really should have told someone," Hermione chided. "Someone our age shouldn't be doing anything with anyone else. It's a crime."
"If I'd told anyone, they'd have wanted to know how I knew," Harry said. "Besides, Ron didn't look particularly upset, so I thought he was OK with whatever it was."
Hermione stared at him. "There's something wrong with you, you know that?"
Harry smirked. "You're only figuring that out now? Besides, if I told about everyone I saw in a broom closet or on the astronomy tower, I wouldn't have time to get my studies done."
Hermione looked conflicted. "Do I really want to know?"
"You really don't," Harry said.
Sometimes knowledge was a burden.
Harry spent the next three months waiting for an attack that never came. Voldemort had made a habit of attacking every year, and Harry reasoned that just because someone else was suspected of attacking him didn't mean that his plans had to change.
It made him a little uncomfortable, actually. If Voldemort wasn't attacking him, what was he doing. Was he building up an army in secret, planning attacks, regaining a body?
The man was working from the shadows, and Harry had no way of knowing what was going to happen next.
One good thing to come of everything was that Black started sending him letters. Harry was happy to see them, after he learned a number of detection spells to check for curses. Sending a letter supposedly from one person would be a good way to kill, assuming a deadly curse or poison was in the letter or on the envelope.
Black was apparently in the care of Dumbledore's organization. He was being treated by a Squib psychologist; apparently his time in Azkaban had given him a severe case of post traumatic stress, as had things he'd been forced to do in the war.
He was getting the care he needed, and he would share a story from his time with Harry's parents each time he sent a letter. Harry soon found himself looking forward to the weekly letters despite the effort it took to check them for traps.
Although he'd told Black that he wouldn't go and live with him until the blood wards on his aunt and uncle's home failed, he did leave open the possibility of living with him later. He encouraged him to get better quickly.
It seemed like no time at all before the term was over and he was heading home.
He'd hardly died at all this year, and he felt this was a massive improvement over previous years. The stronger he got, the harder he was to kill. Maybe he would become Voldemort's equal and then hardly anyone would be able to kill him.
All he could hope for was that the next year was uneventful.