Gasping for breath, Harry suddenly realized that he was leaning against a wall of feathers. He looked up to see an eye the size of his fist staring down at him, and a beak that looked like it could snap his head off.
He carefully stepped back. Hippogriffs were dangerous at the best of times, and now wasn't the time to reset his life only seconds after he'd just revived.
Everyone else was busy with their own hippogriffs; no one was foolish enough to fool around, except for Draco, who looked like he was about to be an idiot again.
Harry pulled out his wand and a moment later Draco went flying.
Still unable to breathe, Harry gestured for Hagrid. His heart was racing and his hands were shaking. It felt as though his heart was going to come out of his chest.
"I'm not feeling well," Harry said. "I might need to go to see Madam Pomprey."
He had to get away from everyone, to calm down and think. He was still panicking after what had happened.
Harry had been so smug and self assured, assuming that he'd always be the target of everything. It hadn't occurred to him that he'd just be a helpless bystander, trapped in the middle of the crowd.
This had to be stopped, or it would happen again. He hadn't seen what had happened to Hermione or Neville. He hoped they survived.
"Malfoy can take yeh," Hagrid said. He gave Malfoy a stern look. "Don't think I didn't see what ye were doin with Buckbeak."
As they staggered off, Malfoy looked at Harry. "Th...thanks Potter."
The first time Harry had come up with some sort of line, but now he didn't have the energy. It was all he could do to keep focused on the slope back up to the school.
Harry shook his head. "I can make it on my own. You don't have to go."
The last think he needed was a Malfoy seeing him in his moment of weakness. If Malfoy communicated this to his father, they'd find a way to use it against him.
"What's wrong with you, Potter?" Malfoy demanded. "You look white as a ghost."
Glancing back at the group inside the corral, Harry realized that in two months time many of them would be dead if he didn't do something. People he thought of as friends, acquaintances...even enemies. Even the people he wanted dead he didn't want to have their souls destroyed.
Maybe Voldemort, but that was just because otherwise he suspected he'd even find a way to come back from the grave just to make Harry's life more difficult.
Harry's heart was slowing down and his breathing was getting easier. Apparently not focusing on the images of the entire student body of Hogwarts being attacked was the right thing to do.
"I'm feeling better," Harry said. "I'll be all right."
They were moving out of sight of the class; the castle looming up ahead. Harry's head still pounded and he could feel a phantom pain in his chest, but he knew it would pass if he just gave it time.
"But what was it?" Malfoy asked.
Harry shook his head. "It doesn't matter now. I'm going to make sure it doesn't matter."
No one else was going to die on his watch.
The first step was finding out who exactly was responsible for placing the dementors in the first place. Harry began making inquiries with the Slytherins who were secretly seeking his favor, and they sent notes back to their families.
The results which came back were clear. Releasing a hundred dementors could have only been authorized by the Minister for Magic himself Cornelius Fudge. No one else had enough political power to even attempt to do that.
The second step was to attempt to contact the man.
Harry sent several owls over the next two weeks, but they always were returned unopened. They smelled of a nauseating perfume, which Harry interpreted as meaning that his letters were being intercepted by a female flunky somewhere.
In the long term, if he found Black on Halloween night it would all go away on its own. However, Harry wasn't willing to bank the lives and souls of all his friends and classmates on the chance that he could somehow subdue a full grown wizard.
He had to be like Voldemort or Dumbledore and have plans within plans. If he didn't everyone would die.
Going to Lupin was his next step.
"It won't involve much more effort than trying to teach me," Harry said. "And it just might save their lives and their souls."
"Most of them probably won't be able to do it," Lupin said.
"But the ones who can will be able to protect their classmates," Harry said. "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to cast a patronus, but if my friends can, I'll at least have a chance."
If half the class had been able to cast patronuses, then the disaster wouldn't have happened.
"This situation with the dementors is a disaster waiting to happen. They aren't feeding them and its only a matter of time before a Hogsmeade weekend turns into a feeding frenzy."
Lupin looked troubled. "There might be something to what you say."
"Give people the option and I'll bet that a lot of them will take you up on it, even if it's not mandatory," Harry said. "You don't even have to meet any more often than you are meeting with me."
"I doubt that anyone your age can learn it," Lupin said. "I only tried with you because of your reputation."
"Let them try," Harry said. "If they can't learn it they aren't any worse off, but if they can...it'll make all the difference in the world."
Lupin reluctantly agreed.
Lupin stared out at the sea of faces in front of him. "I didn't think there would be this many."
Harry had gotten Hermione and Neville to talk to the Gryffindors and he'd talked to the Slytherins. He'd reminded them about how they'd had one of their own snatched away from their doorstep the year before, less than fifty feet from them and how they'd been helpless.
The Hufflepuffs had been easy to convince; they were generally afraid of things anyway and the Ravenclaws were interested in an academic sense. He'd made it a challenge, and the Ravenclaws loved intellectual challenges.
Almost two hundred people were waiting for them.
"We're going to have a bigger venue," Lupin muttered. He began casting an expansion charm to expand the classroom he'd planned to use.
He'd seemingly only expected twenty or thirty students to come, but he'd underestimated the uneasiness the entire class had toward the dementors.
Harry didn't participate. Instead he stood near the boggart, helping to hold it in its dementor shape. Apparently Lupin had a spell that kept the boggart focused on one person instead of multiple people.
Lupin claimed that Harry had already mastered the spell, and Harry did help the other students with their wandwork and pronunciation.
Harry practiced focusing on all his anger and rage, his obsession with survival while standing near the dementor-boggart. While the boggart wasn't able to produce as powerful an effect as a real dementor, he still felt drained and exhausted by the end.
It wasn't until the third class that the first patronus was created, unsurprisingly by Hermione. Hers was an otter.
Surprisingly, the second to master the spell was Malfoy. His patronus was a ferret.
The other students began to succeed one after the other once they saw that it could be done, and eventually three quarters of the class had managed to produce patronuses, although few of them could produce full, corporeal patronuses.
Those, mostly were the students in the upper years, fifth year and above.
It was a sign of Lupin's skill as a teacher, and the urgency that Harry put into the entire proceedings that the students did as well as they did.
Harry could only hope that it would be enough.
"I'd like to see the Minister please," Harry said.
He had purchased a nice set of robes and had used the Weasleys' magical comb just so he looked presentable.
"Do you have an appointment?"
Harry shook his head. "I'm Harry Potter; he'll want to see me."
He'd tried to get an appointment through every means he knew how, but his letter had always been returned with the same sickening sweet perfume on them.
Escaping Hogwarts hadn't been difficult; he'd slipped through one of the secret passages on the map to Hogsmeade, then entered the floo network from Zonkos while under his invisibility cloak.
He'd taken the floo network directly to the Ministry.
"There's a killer after you," the representative frowned. "Where is your escort?"
Harry shrugged. "They're around here somewhere. I need to see the Minister."
He'd never been to the Ministry before and it was much more crowded than he thought it would be. He hadn't realized that there were this many people working in government.
"He's in a conference. I can let you see his second in command, though."
Harry nodded shortly. If that was the best he could do, it would have to do.
He was escorted through a series of halls to a door. According to the plaque on the outside of the door he was about to speak to the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic.
As the door opened, his eyes were overwhelmed by pinkness. The walls were of pinkish grey porcelain tiles. Pink lace drapes and doilies covered every available surface that wasn't covered in dried flowers. The walls were covered in plates that had paintings of cats on them; cats of every conceivable type.
In the center of the room, behind a highly polished desk sat the closest approximation to a human toad Harry had ever seen.
The woman was wearing a pink tweed outfit that wasn't flattering at all.
Harry stepped into the room uneasily. This wasn't what he had expected from a ministry official, not at all.
"Mr. Potter," the woman began. Her voice was simpering and high pitched. "What could have possibly brought you here during a school day?"
"I'm here to talk about the dementors," Harry began. "They aren't being fed and it's only a matter of time before they are a danger to the students."
"The Ministry has full control of the dementors," the woman said. "A child like you shouldn't be meddling in things he knows nothing about."
Harry stepped closer and he suddenly smelled her perfume. It was cloying and it was the same as had been on his returned letters.
"I know that the Ministry is putting the lives and souls of the children at Hogwarts at risk," Harry said. "All because one murder is targeting one person."
"Ah, but you aren't just any person, are you," the woman said, leaning forward. "You are the hope of the Wizarding world."
Harry scowled. "I'm not that important."
"The Ministry doesn't have the resources to protect you through conventional means, so they have to resort to unconventional means."
Harry took that to mean that dementors didn't ask to be paid.
"Then can you arrange for the dementors to get fed? It's a disaster waiting to happen leaving unfed dementors around children."
Although the woman smiled, it didn't reach her eyes.
Although Harry attempted every argument he could think of over the next half hour, he couldn't get the woman to agree to even one of his demands.
She had him escorted back to school, and he received several detentions from Snape, who didn't look as though he particularly disagreed with what Harry had tried to do. It felt as though the detentions were just a way to placate the Ministry.
Harry decided that enough was enough. He had one more option.
"I can't believe you did this," Hermione was saying. "Aren't you afraid of making an enemy of the Ministry?"
Harry shook his head. "It's too important to worry about that."
Hermione was staring down at the Daily Prophet.
Harry had slipped out again and found his way to the newspaper. He'd met another unpleasant woman, Ms. Skeeter, who'd seemed very interested in what he'd had to say.
He'd given an interview, although he'd refused to allow a picture. She'd been disappointed by that and had tried to get one anyway. He'd almost broken her camera.
"If the Ministry believes in the prophecy, then I am in no danger from Black at all. I am destined to face Voldemort and no one else is going to kill me before then. If the prophecy is not correct, then I am not that important. Why then is the Ministry endangering every child at Hogwarts, body and soul for one child?" Hermione read out loud.
She turned to him and said, "You don't really think you are immortal until you face You-Know-Who, do you?"
Harry shrugged. "It was just an argument to convince the public."
If she only knew, he thought.
"The muggles have a saying, 'Letting the fox guard the hen house,' which is exactly what is happening here. The dementors are not being fed and inside the school is the largest concentration of food that they could ever wish for. It's not a matter of if a disaster will happen, but when." Hermione read out loud.
Hermione continued. "You know who has attacked the school several times; by doing this the Ministry is doing the work of the Death Eaters for them."
Perhaps the language had been a little harsh, but Harry had been adamant. This was too important and if he had to shock people into doing the right thing, so be it.
"This is going to cause problems, Harry," Hermione said. "Confronting the Ministry like this. Governments don't like to be threatened."
"What else could I do?" Harry asked. "Nobody was listening."
His hope was that if enough parents were outraged that the government might be pressured into withdrawing the dementors.
He'd made the point in the article that assigning a couple of aurors to watch him full time would be much safer for the public than removing a hundred dementors from Azkaban, making it more likely that even more prisoners would escape.
Pointing out Senior Undersecretary Umbridge had possibly been a mistake, but Harry had resented her and her obstructionism that he hadn't been able to help himself.
Harry looked up from where he was sitting in the library. Snape was standing over him.
Snape nodded, although for once there was a slight glimmer of humor in his eyes. Apparently Snape had no more love for the Ministry than Harry did.
The rain and wind were just as bad as Harry had remembered, although by now he'd made sure to learn the charm that kept the rain off his face and clothes. It didn't help the chill wind that kept blowing through.
Harry had learned the warming charm as well, and periodically he would cast it inside his robes, causing a gust of warm air that would inevitably be blown away by the next strong wind that would blow right through his robes.
Despite everything he'd tried, the Minstry hadn't done anything. They'd reassured the public that the children were safer with the dementors than without and they'd painted Harry as being paranoid.
Worse, Harry had spent Halloween eve huddled under his invisibility cloak outside the Gryffindor common room waiting for Sirius Black to show. He never did. Something Harry had done had changed things.
Although Harry had done everything he could to avoid coming today, none of the teachers had been willing to allow him to stay in the castle. He hadn't even managed to get an aisle seat. His protestations that Dumbledore should stay at the Quidditch game in case of an attack were ignored.
After all, if Snape and McGonegall and Lupin weren't enough to deal with Black, they were all in trouble.
Harry had tried to make the best of it. He had managed to get a seat on the top row.
His only hope was that his constant exposure to the boggart dementor left him able to act when the real dementors came. Unknown to the prefects who had escorted him here forcibly, underneath his robes he was wearing the Weasleys' suction cup shoes.
Their products had gotten a lot more reliable over the past two years. If the worst came to worst he planned to go over the back and run down the wall so he could escape. If the shoes failed and he fell, well maybe he'd get another chance to do it over again.
Still, the misery of waiting was worse this time, even if he was physically a little more comfortable. He'd warned Hermione and Neville that he was afraid something might happen. Although they were clearly humoring him, they had stayed near the aisles and close to the top in a part that was less crowded.
Harry had cast strengthening charms on the stands when he had realized that he was going to be forced to come. He didn't know whether they would help much; the spells hadn't been meant to withstand tens of thousands of pounds of panicked children but at least he felt he had done what he can.
As the silence began, Harry closed his eyes.
He'd never prayed before, but all he could do now was pray that things wouldn't turn out the way they had the last time.
People began screaming as the dementors approached.
Harry stood and put his wand to his throat.
"EXPECTO PATRONUM, EXPECTO PATRONUM. STAND AND FIGHT! FIGHT FOR YOUR SOULS AND THOSE OF YOUR FRIENDS! EXPECTO PATRONUM, EXPECTO PATRONUM."
Those closest to the bottom were panicking still, but Harry saw a bright light as a silvery otter burst forth from the stands across the way.
Bless you, Hermione, Harry thought.
"THIS IS WHAT YOU'VE PRACTICED FOR. PROTECT YOUR FRIENDS, PROTECT YOURSELVES! EXPECTO PATRONUM, EXPECTO PATRONUM!"
Silvery light began to emerge from wand after wand. Many of the children, even those who'd managed a solid patronus in the class weren't able to create more than a mist under the influence of the dementors collected aura.
However, as more and more of the mist coalesced, the dementors slowed and stopped.
Seeing this, some of the students who had begun to flee to the to the stands stopped and pulled out their wands.
Harry saw a swan made of silvery light emerge, followed by a shimmering fox. A hare, a doe, and a glittering lynx.
Inspired by the success of their fellows, more and more of the students were turning and trying the spell which would save their lives.
Even the Slytherins, initially more fearful were following suit. Harry saw shimmering snakes flying through the air, interposing themselves between the students and the children.
He saw badgers and dogs and even an aardvark emerge through the wall of shimmering mist generated by those who couldn't manage the full spell.
The dementors began to draw back, a rattling sound in their collected throats.
"THIS IS HOGWARTS AND THIS IS OUR HOME. YOU WILL NOT HAVE US!" Harry shouted, his voice amplified by the spell.
The dementors wailed a frustrated wail and began to fall back, away from the pitch altogether.
Harry felt an unfamiliar feeling busting inside his chest. He'd done it. He'd managed to save everyone and no one had died.
He'd saved them. He'd saved them all.
It was unlike anything he'd ever experienced, and it took him a moment to realize what it was. In his entire life he hadn't ever experienced a single moment like this. This wasn't just happiness, it was joy.
Unbelieving, he pointed his wand and shouted, "EXPECTO PATRONUM."
A silvery, shimmering mongoose emerged from his wand.
It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.