The trial loomed large on everyone's mind the morning of Harry's fifteenth birthday. At breakfast, Harry picked at his food, moving it around on the plate as much as eating it. James wasn't doing much better with his. While the rational part of his brain said all this was only a technicality, and that Harry was sure to be let off seeing as there actually had been dementors, there was a part of him that couldn't help but fret. The ministry was no stranger to miscarriages of justice, unfortunately, and all his instincts screamed at him to find some way to make this all go away so Harry would be safe. It killed him to see his child under so much strain and know he was helpless to fix it.
It couldn't be said that he hadn't tried. Kingsley Shacklebolt had personally interviewed Harry and determined he was telling the truth. Mad-Eye Moody was going to come and testify that Harry was "a decent person," which was high praise indeed coming from him. Dumbledore was planning to come and most likely shred mile-wide holes in the case against Harry, and Sirius was going to pull whatever strings he could, though he'd been trying all summer to get the case dismissed out of hand and hadn't succeeded any better than James had when he tried the same thing, back when Harry blew up Vernon.
"Try not to worry," James said, watching Harry sympathetically.
Harry looked up and ran a hand through his hair. He'd combed it so many times this morning that his scalp still tingled, and yet it looked every bit as shaggy and unkempt as ever. "Easy for you to say. You're not the one in danger of being expelled."
"You won't be expelled," Sirius said. "Mafalda Hopkirk is fair. She'll hear you out, and when she finds out there were dementors, she'll let it go."
"What if she doesn't believe me?"
"Why wouldn't she believe you?"
"Because dementors don't generally just escape?"
"Not generally, but it isn't unheard of. If she doesn't believe you, we'll deal with that then. There's no reason to make trouble where none exists yet."
Harry shrugged and went back to picking at his eggs and toast. Sirius shrugged at James, who smiled gratefully, even though Sirius hadn't had any more luck than James had at trying to get Harry to stop destroying himself with worry. Just knowing Sirius had Harry's back made James feel better about things. He never would have admitted it, but Sirius had quite a lot of sway in ministry matters, being the head of The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.
An owl flew across the table and dropped a letter atop Sirius' plate. "No aim, must be a ministry owl," Sirius muttered as he pulled the deposited envelope out of his eggs and set about wiping off the yolk. James had long since stopped wondering how owls made it into Grimmauld Place. Sirius himself had said he had no idea, and he had asked his father once when he was eight, but he didn't know either. "Owls always find a way," he had said with a shrug. That was the first time Sirius ever heard his father say he didn't know something, which rather shattered the childhood illusion of the man's infallibility.
Sirius read the letter and swore loudly. James startled and spilled milk down his robes. He ignored it. "What is it?"
"They're trying Harry in front of the whole damn Wizengamot!"
"What?" James scoffed.
"What!" Harry cried.
"Read it for yourself." Sirius thrust the letter over.
James read out loud.
Dear Master Black,
Your presence is requested at eight o'clock this morning, 31 July, for an emergency session of the Wizengamot. The Wizengamot will be hearing the case of Mr. Harry James Potter, 15, who stands accused of violating the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction for Underage Sorcery and the International Confederation of Wizards' Statute of Secrecy. The ministry extends its sincerest apologies for the short notice of this letter, but we have full confidence that you will make every effort to be present.
Dolores Jane Umbridge,
Senior Undersecretary to the Minister
"Dolores Umbridge?" Remus said with a scowl. "Maudite vache." Harry gawked. When Remus slipped into French, things were serious indeed.
"Maudite what?" James asked.
Sirius translated absently. "Cow. He called her a cow." He reached for the letter and scanned it quickly. "This makes no sense. They never convene the Wizengamot for something so simple as underage magic."
"What does that mean?" Harry asked, his voice laced with worry.
"I'm not sure," Sirius replied. "But for now it means you have forty-five minutes to get to the ministry, so you'd better eat your eggs quickly."
Harry pushed them away. His face was white and pinched. "I'm done."
"Why would they do this?" James asked.
Sirius shrugged. "No idea."
"Because of Umbridge," Remus snapped angrily. "That woman is ruthless."
"Who's Umbridge?" Harry asked.
Sirius smiled darkly and brandished the letter. "Senior Undersecretary to the Minister. She's got the sweetest smile you ever saw, and she keeps smiling even while she's stabbing you in the dark. She climbed to power on the backs of people she betrayed or sold down the river, and now that she's got it, she's more than happy to abuse it if it means she gets more. She's no one to be trifled with, but it's not within her power to convene the Wizengamot. That order must have come from Fudge. No doubt he's trying to keep Dumbledore out of it, now that he's been removed as Chief Warlock."
"Who's it now?"
"No one. We haven't elected a new one yet."
"But what does it mean for me?" Harry asked.
"I don't know, Harry. I'll see what I can find out. I have to go soon, apparently."
"Why hasn't Harry received a letter telling him about this yet?" Remus asked.
Harry was beyond caring about that.
Sirius sighed. "I've no idea. I suppose I should go get ready." He left the kitchen without ceremony. The others could hear him stomping up the stairs.
Harry continued to pick at his eggs with the tip of his fork, to give his hands something to do as much as anything. "Try to eat something, champ," James said softly.
Harry looked at his dad's plate. "You haven't."
James looked down. "No, I suppose I haven't. I'm not particularly hungry, either."
"It's my birthday," Harry whinged, sounding much younger than fifteen.
"I know. We'll get this all settled, and tonight we'll have a real celebration."
Harry didn't feel like celebrating. He only felt like crawling into a hole. He fingered his wand in his pocket, trying not to imagine it being snapped. He comforted himself with the thought that he'd still be able to do magic. His mother's wand was around somewhere. He could find it and use it. It would have at least some affinity for him. It wouldn't be the same as his wand – nothing would – but it wouldn't be as bad as having no wand. Of course, he'd have to hide it from the Ministry, but that shouldn't be too hard, especially if he stayed here in Grimmauld Place. Security was so tight here; the Ministry would never find him. He could get himself a muggle job and marry Ginny and bring her here to stay. She seemed to like it here so far. Harry had been a bit worried about what she'd think when he moved here, but she said she liked a house with secrets.
Harry pushed his plate further away. "I said I'm done."
Remus stabbed angrily at the last vestiges of his eggs. "That woman!"
Harry frowned. "I thought this was just a minor formality. Why are they trying me in front of the whole Wizengamot?"
"Yes, politics. Fudge isn't happy with you right now because you're making his job difficult. My guess is that he was hoping you won't fare well in front of the Wizengamot. But you will, so there's nothing to worry about. Sirius will have your back, and his influence isn't small. Dumbledore will be there as well, and Kingsley and Moody." James went silent for a moment, and then sent out three patronuses.
"What was that for?"
"Making sure they all know about the time change just in case it was an attempt to get your witnesses to no-show."
"Can they do that? Just not tell them?"
Remus was the one to reply, darkly. "They're the ministry. They can do whatever they want. As long as they control the Daily Prophet, which they do, they can spin anything in the world any way they want to and have us all believing things that aren't even true."
Harry was about to ask, "Like what?" except that he realized he didn't need to ask. He'd already seen the way the Prophet was refusing to report Voldemort's return, and trying to discredit Harry and the Order. It was all a rotten mess.
"Umbridge is the one who got those laws passed last year about werewolves. It's been practically impossible for any of us to find work, which is making it nearly impossible now for me to convince any werewolves that they ought to fight for us. Keep a people down long enough and eventually they'll decide to team up with anybody, no matter how evil, just to get a little change."
Harry nodded. That made sense, he supposed. Desperation could lead people to do some nasty things.
"I'll never understand how an undersecretary got so much power to begin with. Sometimes I think Fudge is just a puppet, and she's really the one running the show."
"How many undersecretaries does Fudge have?" asked Harry.
"Three," James replied. "He used to have four, but he had to sack one last month. Budget cuts. Word around the office is that the woman who got sacked is Umbridge's cousin or something, so she's out for blood even more than usual."
"Can't he just get the money from the Malfoys?"
"No. They're not too happy with Fudge right now. They think he should be doing a better job of shutting you up."
"Yeah, you. Have you any idea how inconvenient it is for Voldemort that you came back and immediately told Dumbledore and the ministry and aurors and everybody that he's back? The fewer people believe it, the better off he is. His people are everywhere, trying to keep you and this story quiet."
"That Umbridge woman, is she a Death Eater?"
James shook his head. "Not that we know of. She's not in this for him. She's in it for herself, and for Fudge. She practically worships him, and once he goes his successors might not decide to keep her. She'll do anything she thinks she has to to keep him in power. She's a nasty piece of work, but she's not a Death Eater."
"The world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters," Sirius said softly. He'd arrived back so silently Harry never even knew he was there. "Might be simpler if it were. There are plenty of nasty people who aren't Death Eaters, and probably even a few Death Eaters who truly believe Voldemort will be good for society and that they're doing the right thing. I think Regulus believed that, at least at first." He sighed. "Most people do what they think is right, Pronglet. The problem is that none of us can ever agree on what right is, and we're not terribly good at compromise, or even trying to understand where anyone else is coming from, so we all just end up doing our own idea of what the right thing is and maybe pausing every once and again to scream at everyone else for doing it wrong. This is the basis of all politics."
James gave a small smile as he looked at Sirius. "I will never understand how you manage to actually look good in that outfit."
Harry turned to see that Sirius was now in horrid plum-colored robes made of crushed velvet, and a hat that would have looked ridiculous even as part of a Halloween costume. Sirius put his hands on his hips and stood proudly, as though convinced he cut a dashing figure. Then a smile broke his face and he deflated. "I've got to go. See you all soon." He went over to Harry and kissed the top of his head. "Try not to worry. It'll all work out. You'll see." Then with a swish of velvet and a roar of the fireplace he was gone. Only the faint smell of firewood and the empty chair next to a plate of half-eaten eggs remained. The kitchen seemed suddenly lonelier. No one else knew what to say.
Harry had nothing left to do but wait. They tried to play cards, but no one could concentrate. The seconds seemed to tick by too slowly as he waited for time to go. Finally, fifteen minutes later, James said, "I can't take this anymore. I think I'd rather wait there than here. What do you say, Harry?"
Harry croaked out, "okay," and stood. He paused. "Can I leave my wand here? Just in case?"
James shook his head. "They'll have to examine it when you arrive. It's procedure."
"But what if they snap it?"
"They won't. I promise." James grimaced. He shouldn't have said that. He couldn't promise something like that. He put a hand on Harry's shoulder. Harry tried to smile, but it didn't work. Remus went through the floo first. Then Harry. Then James.
"Are you testifying for me?" Harry asked softly while they were waiting for James.
Remus shook his head. "I'd be glad to, but it would probably do more harm than good, especially if Umbridge is running the show." He shook his head again. "Maudite vache."
"I wish Dad could testify."
"Me, too." And then James was there, leading them through the hustle and bustle of the ministry hall. At a desk at the end of the hall, a ministry witch sat doing about a million things at once.
"Good morning, Gwendolyn," James said. She beamed at him, a smile far too large for a simple greeting.
"Good morning, James!"
"My son Harry's here," James said, motioning Harry forward.
Gwendolyn frowned. "Yes, of course. The hearing. Nasty business." She looked around to be sure no one was listening and whispered, "I believe you, about You-Know-Who."
"Thanks," Harry replied glumly.
Gwendolyn went back to all business. "I'll need your wand, please." Haltingly, Harry handed it over. The inspection went quickly. She set the wand on a scale and a slip of paper popped out telling all about Harry's wand. She handed it back with an encouraging smile. "Everything seems in order."
A moment later, Harry was sporting a button that told the world he was a visitor there for a disciplinary hearing. He kept trying to hide it as she walked.
"Gwendolyn's still mad for you, I see," Remus teased.
James shrugged. "I can't help it. I don't lead her on. I swear."
"She fancies you?" Harry asked.
James nodded. "We were in school together. She's a year younger than I am. We actually dated for about ten minutes in my fifth year, but it didn't work out. She's not very bright, I'm afraid. That's why we haven't recruited her for the order, even though she believes You-Know-Who is back."
Harry looked back at her. She smiled at him. He smiled back. "I like her."
"That's not surprising. She's very likeable. I like her fine. I just don't want to date her. Here we are."
They stepped into a lift and rode deep underground. There was movement all about, but Harry was too lost in his own thoughts to pay much attention. At five minutes until the trial was to begin, a memo finally found Harry, informing him of the time change.
James muttered under his breath. "They were probably trying to make you late, or keep you from showing up at all." Harry took in that information silently. He wasn't sure what to think it. He wasn't sure what to think about any of this.
At eight o'clock on the dot, the large chamber door Harry had been staring at for the last twenty minutes opened, and Harry went in, along with his three witnesses and his dad and Remus. Witches and wizards, about fifty of them, in plum robes like Sirius', sat in rows above the circular area where the accused had to stand. Several of them waved at James when he came in. He was on the Wizengamot himself, but had had to recuse himself today. Fudge sat in the middle of the front row. Sirius was to his right, a few seats down. He gave Harry a wink.
"Mr. Potter," a sweet, girlish voice called out. It took Harry a moment to work out where it had come from and discovered it was from the small stubby woman who sat on Fudge's left. Percy Weasley sat on his right, scribbling furiously and wearing a sanctimonious look on his face. "So glad you made it. We do apologize for the short notice of the change. As we reviewed your case this morning, the Wizengamot decided that things were more serious than we had been led to believe. You stand accused not only of breaking the Reasonable Restriction for Underage Sorcery, but of doing so in full view of a muggle and with no good reason. Sit."
Harry sat in a metal chair with chains attached. He half expected the chains to bind him. He'd heard they did, when serious criminals were being tried, but they made no move. "I had a reason," he said.
"The accused will not speak without permission," the woman snapped. She introduced herself as Dolores Jane Umbridge. Harry briefly remember all he'd heard the Marauders say about her today and wondered how such a wretched woman could have such a sweet voice. She went through a few other formalities and finally decreed they were ready to begin.
She immediately started to speak, but Sirius talked over her. "Mr. Potter, you said you had a reason. Please tell us what it was."
Harry launched into the story, stopping every few moments when Umbridge interrupted him to poke a hole in it. After the third interruption, Sirius cleared his throat loudly and said, "Madam Umbridge, how do you expect him to tell us anything if you won't be quiet long enough to let him?"
She leaned forward to look down the row. "Mr. Black, the Wizengamot is still not in agreement in regards to your ability to be impartial for this case. Perhaps you ought not to push your luck?"
"And yet we voted by a three-to-one margin to let me stay. I've every right to speak, and so has the accused, if you'll kindly shut it long enough to allow him finish a sentence." He turned to Harry before she could retort. "Go on, Mr. Potter."
Umbridge interrupted much less after that. Harry had no way to know how the trial was going. Kingsley Shacklebolt tesitified to Harry's upright moral character and that he had no training in Occlumency, yet had passed an interview under veritaserum. Moody spoke of his bravery in the tournament last year and his insistence on helping the other contestants, despite the cutthroat nature of the competition. Finally Dumbledore came forward. He had brought Scott in and broken James' memory charm so that he could tell about the dementors. "Harry did something. He made a silver horse or something, and the awful feeling went away."
"It was a stag," Harry said.
"You can make a corporeal patronus?" a woman asked.
"Erm, I don't know what that means."
"It has a form?"
Harry nodded. "It's a stag. It's always a stag. Like my dad's. Remus, erm, Professor Lupin, he taught me how last year, when the dementors were everywhere. He reckons they affect me more, because of my mum and everything."
He hadn't done this on purpose, but that seemed to have been the right thing to say. The looks he got were suddenly much more sympathetic.
"Is this the same Professor Lupin who was removed for being a werewolf?" Umbridge asked triumphantly.
"I didn't know he was a werewolf at the time," Harry replied. "And whatever else he may have been, he's the best Defense teacher we've ever had." He blushed slightly when he remembered Moody was in the room, but James told him later that Moody didn't mind. He said he was glad to see Harry defending Remus to the likes of Umbridge, and that he'd expect no less.
"Are there any more witnesses?" Fudge asked suddenly.
Dumbledore shook his head. Fudge called for a vote. "All who find the accused guilty." He and Umbridge and a smattering of others raised their hands. Fudge looked around, clearly unhappy with this turn of events. "All who find him innocent." The vast majority raised their hands. Fudge, looking as though the words themselves were sour, decreed, "Harry James Potter, you are hereby cleared of all charges."
Harry breathed a sigh of relief. He looked around for his dad, not sure what to do now. James winked at him and mouthed, "Told you."
James stood around talking for what seemed like forever, but finally they were ready to go. James had taken the day off, and he and Harry decided to go to the zoo. Harry wasn't sure why he wanted to go, except that he wanted to be somewhere that reminded him of safer days. They ate hot dogs by the tiger enclosure. "Do you think Fudge will leave me alone now?" Harry asked.
"I hope so. Word on the street is that he's on the way out. He's cheesing off too many of the wrong people. No one's happy with him right now."
"I hope he gets sacked. Who will replace him if he does?"
"There will be an election. Most likely it'll be my boss, Rufus Scrimgeor. He's all right. At least he won't pander to Death Eaters."
Harry smiled. "Then maybe you could be head auror. That would be cool."
James looked at him out of the corner of his eye, smiling a half smile. "It might be, yes. But Kingsley Shacklebolt is the more likely candidate. I'm too hot-headed."
"That is true," Harry replied with a shrug.
James grinned. "Not as hot-headed as you."
"You're old. You've just mellowed with age, that's all."
James grunted. "How are your Occlumency lessons going?"
"Good, I think. I've been practicing clearing my head every night. Sirius says after a few weeks maybe I can try sleeping without potions. He's really good at Occlumency."
James nodded. "He always says he isn't, but that's only because he was comparing himself to Regulus and his dad, who both had a natural gift. When we were third years, Snape accidentally worked out how to use legilimency. A lot of people with a natural gift for it figure it out that way. One of the older students told him what it was and taught him the spell. For a couple of weeks, he was a terror, casting it on everybody and then broadcasting what he found out. Sirius was the one who finally stopped him. Snape tried casting it on him and Sirius put up a wall or whatever it is an Occlumens can do. Snape got so angry he let Sirius in, and he got to see all sorts of useful things."
James nodded. "He got quite a few humiliating bits of information that we Marauders were able to use to our advantage." Harry nodded as though he understood, even though he didn't. By this point in their lessons, Sirius had seen plenty of his embarrassing memories, and he'd seen plenty of Sirius'. He'd never dream of using any of them against him, and he trusted Sirius to do the same. But then, Harry reckoned Snape hadn't been trustworthy, so maybe it was different.
"Seems wrong to use someone's private memories against them."
James nodded once more. "It is. That's why we wanted to make him stop."
"But didn't you just turn around and do the same thing to him?"
"Yes, I suppose we did, but sometimes the best way to fight fire is with fire."
"Aren't you always telling me that there's no excuse to treat people badly?"
"Yes, but we were very young then and very frustrated. Snape was…" James shook his head, as though trying to search for the right words and coming up short. "Well, you've heard some of the stories. He enjoyed picking on the younger students, and the Marauders never did that no matter what else we may have done. We may have crossed the line into bullying a few times. Maybe more than a few times, but we did at least keep it confined to kids our own age or older, and ones who dished out as good as they got."
"He picks on students now. Hermione's front teeth got hit with an enlarging spell last year and he said he couldn't see any difference. They were past her chin. It was awful. She cried. She hardly ever cries."
James turned away from the tiger enclosure to look at the tawny lion across the way. "I wish I could say I'm surprised."
Harry turned as well, and rested his elbows against the top of the railing that lined the walkways. "Are you going to let me go back to Hogwarts?"
James twitched. "What makes you think I might not let you go back to Hogwarts?"
"He didn't tell me on purpose. I sort of saw it, in one of Sirius' memories, you two talking about it. He was really worried when I saw it because you'd asked him not to tell. He said he didn't think you really meant to keep me home." Harry looked up, trying to school his features so he wouldn't give anything away.
"I'm sorry you found out that way. That wouldn't have been my first choice. And the answer is that I don't know. Do you want to go back, with everything that happened last year?"
Harry nodded. "All my friends will be there."
James sighed. "I used to think Hogwarts was safe, you know? Dumbledore was there, and McGonagall, and Flitwick, but after last term I have to admit my faith in their ability to keep you safe is a bit rattled. If Voldemort can set out such an elaborate plan, imperius Sirius, and never once raise any suspicions, what's to say he can't get to you again?"
Harry remained silent for a moment. "What's to say he won't apparate right here and get me now?"
James gave a small nod. "Fair point. I'm just worried about you going back. There are too many balls in the air, too many variables unaccounted for. And now Dumbledore thinks… well, that doesn't matter."
"Dumbledore thinks what?"
James shook his head. "It's nothing. Besides that, Dumbledore can't seem to find a Defense professor and the ministry has given him an ultimatum. He has two weeks to find someone or they're going to appoint someone. Word around the office is that person will be Dolores Umbridge."
"Umbridge? The toad lady from the trial?"
"That's the one."
"But she's foul!"
"I know, but you reach a point where 'foul' takes a backseat to 'breathing'. Without a Defense professor, the curriculum at Hogwarts will be incomplete."
"But it would be better not to have one at all than to have her!"
"I agree, but there's not much I can do about it. The ministry has spoken, and it's an unfortunate truth in this particular political climate that Dolores Umbridge gets what Dolores Umbridge wants."
Harry pretended to gag until James chuckled and told him to knock it off. He grew serious. "So, what's your answer then? Can I go?"
"You still want to go, knowing she'll be there?"
Harry nodded again. "All right, then. You'll go. I wasn't really considering keeping you home. Only you have to check in with Sirius more often. You'll be meeting him every day for lessons anyway. Keep him up-to-speed on Snape, and Umbridge too, if she's there."
Harry grinned. "Kind of like a spy for the Order?"
James grinned back and laid a lazy arm around Harry's shoulder. "Yeah, kind of like that. Are you up to it?"
Harry nodded. "I'm up for anything the Order needs."
James smiled and pulled him in for a kiss that made him jerk away and say, "Dad! We're in public!"
"Careful, or I'll start kissing you on the cheek and calling you sweetums."
Harry's eyes widened. "You wouldn't!"
"You think not?"
Harry opened his mouth to retort, but decided against it. He'd seen his dad do more embarrassing things than that. "Okay, I give. No kissing. Can we go back to Grimmauld Place? I think I'm ready for all that celebrating I've been promised."
James smiled a smile that, for the first time in weeks, wasn't clouded by worry. "Yeah. There's a big pile of presents in my closet with your name on it. It's not every day you turn fifteen, you know."
Harry looked around to be sure no one was watching, and then hugged James fleetingly. "Can we get another hot dog before we go? I'm starving."
A/N: Happy Thanksgiving to all you American friends. Consider this chapter my gift to you, and proof that I haven't abandoned this story. I won't abandon it, no matter how hectic things get. Among other things going on in my life, my husband and I have just become foster parents. Last month a precious and precocious seven year old, who spends most of his time pretending to be a cat, joined our family. I love motherhood, but it keeps my busy! Hopefully my next update won't take quite as long as this one did. Thanks everyone for sticking with me. Love and hugs!