Harry and his Hogwarts comrades sat in the assigned room on padded floors. Harry and Draco were a little removed from the rest of the group who chatted familiarly.
"This place is pretty neat," Roger said. "Some of my new friends offered to show me the dungeons tomorrow."
"Can I come?" Lane asked, Slytherin glint in her eye.
"'Course," Roger replied.
"I kinda think it's a little creepy here sometimes," Jeremiah said. "Their classes seem much more advanced than Hogwarts in some respects, though. But I'm not sure how I'm going to pass by Herbology and Astronomy N.E.W.T.s."
"You'll be fine, you're a Ravenclaw," Sandra said. "I'm not worried about it," she pointed out, seeing as she was a Ravenclaw as well.
"I, for one, am glad we don't have to take that Dark Arts practical class anymore," Cedric commented. "When the Durmstrang kids cast curses..."
"Freaky," Clara agreed. "I think they enjoy it. The girls even."
"Who's to say girls are any nicer than guys?" Lane demanded, oddly offended.
Clara shrugged, saved from answering as the door opened behind them. Everyone scrambled to their feet, eager to meet their new tutors.
"Aris?" Harry asked as the dark skinned boy stepped in. He nodded to Harry and another boy stepped in behind him.
"You know him?" Lane asked of Harry. Both Harry and Draco nodded.
"He's a fourth year."
She scoffed loudly. "Great, we're supposed to take direction from a fourth year."
Aris stepped up to her, leaving the other boy looking over them appraisingly from near the doorway.
"Hit me," he challenged.
Lane's eyes narrowed at him. As a Slytherin, it would be ludicrous to think she would deny. Only about a foot and a half away, Lane lowered into a fighting stance and punched toward his gut. In three swift moves, Aris knocked her hand away, spun and swept her legs out from under her. Her small fame fell with a soft thump. Aris sauntered away as Lane pushed herself up, looking dangerous.
Aris rejoined the other boy and stood facing them. The other boy waved his hand dismissively.
"Now that Aris here is done showing off..." he grinned lightly at his friend. Aris shot him a look, seeming more open than Harry had ever seen him. "I'm Riker Raskin, fifth year." He looked them over. "They figured that we could stand to miss a year of Defense because we're just that good," he said with easy arrogance.
Clara bit her lip, looking a little nervous.
Riker clapped his hands. "Right, so, how 'bout your names?"
They went around the circle, each announcing their names.
"Cedric Diggory," said the boy on the end.
"Jeremiah Jenkins," the Ravenclaw next to him said.
A tall girl with long brown hair was next. "Sandra Beckenridge."
"Clara Higgs," the sweet looking Hufflepuff announced.
"Roger Lutrell," barked the Slytherin.
"Lane Ramilla," Lane said, still looking a little miffed at getting knocked down.
"Harry Potter," Harry finished.
Riker tilted his head at Harry and glanced back at Aris. "Is he for real?"
Aris nodded sharply.
"Huh, I thought they were lying saying you were here," Riker admitted. "Well, it's a pleasure, all of you." He paused, noting their attention. "So what do you know of combat art?"
They all looked at each other rather than answer.
"That little, eh?" he asked, rubbing his neck. "Well if what we saw from Ms. Ramilla, here- can I call you Lane?"
She gave him a dark look at the first part of the comment. "I am certainly not going to refer to you as 'Mr. Raskin', so I suppose."
"Anyone else have a problem with first names?" he asked, surveying the group. No one objected. "Great. You guys aren't very talkative are you? Kinda like my friend Aris here. I'll guess I'll do the talking but he'll do the demonstrations. I consider myself pretty good at Defense but I still wouldn't pick a fight with him."
Aris was silent, standing with effortless posture. For whatever reason, that made him seem even more menacing.
"Let's get started then," Riker said, stepping forward. "How about we begin with showing exactly what Lane did wrong?" he asked seriously.
Harry wondered if, for Riker's own safety, he should point out that she was a Slytherin and inform him of what that meant. Lane shot daggers from her eyes.
"Aris, if you would," Riker said, gesturing for him to come forward.
Aris stepped forward and Riker assumed the position that Lane had taken earlier.
"First of all, while it is good to lower your center of balance, you went about it wrong. You squatted, leaving both of your legs fairly close together. When fearing a sweep, it is better to take a stance like this," he said. Demonstrating, he moved into a position similar to a lunge. His right leg was bent at a ninety degree angle with his left leg extending straight back, heel and bottom of the foot flat on the floor. His feet were bare, Harry noticed, and gripped the mat well.
"Next, you punched like this," he said, demonstrating on Aris without actually touching him. "You went underhand for the gut. While that can be very effective, the solar plexus is a better target. It will knock the breath out of a two hundred pound man. If you can't breathe, it's pretty hard to fight."
Riker rotated and moved his fist to aim at the spot directly below Aris's sternum. Then, he pulled his fist back into a ready position.
"Now I'm going to punch him and see if he can knock me down as easily as he knocked you down."
Looking a bit like he was taking his life in his own hands, Riker's arm struck forward only to be knocked away by Aris, who looked relaxed. As soon as the hit was deflected, Riker's other arm pulled back and managed a light tap on Aris. After acknowledging the hit, Aris spun with deliberate slowness and kicked at Riker's outstretched leg. Rather than causing him to fall, his left leg simply buckled at the knee and he essentially knelt, remaining stable. He twisted and knocked Aris's legs out from under him. After Aris fell, Riker righted himself and offered a hand to his friend who pulled himself up passively.
"And that's how you do it," RIker said with a touch of smugness. "Though I expect he let me do that for demonstration. Who's first?"
"Hi, everyone," Sirius said after gaining the attention of the Gryffindor common room. "Being that Headmistress McGonagall has far too many duties than any sane person would be able to handle, I have been assigned as you Head of House for the year."
A few people clapped and one even cheered. Sirius gave a tentative grin.
"So, I just wanted to come and say that you can come to me if you need anything, I'll do my best to help. And for goodness sake, let's beat those Slytherins for the House cup this year!" More cheering came from the gathered students. Sirius went to leave, then turned back. "Oh, I need to see Fred and George Weasley."
They shared a look and rose to follow him out of the portrait hole. A few students snickered, figuring they were in trouble already.
"Shut it," Fred snapped.
The portrait hole closed behind him and Sirius turned to the twins.
"Are we in trouble?" George asked.
"Because whatever happened, we didn't do it," Fred insisted.
Sirius smiled. "No, you're not in trouble. That is, unless you did something...?"
"No, no," George said hurriedly.
"Didn't think so," Sirius commented wryly. "Actually I came to ask if one of you would be interested in being the captain of the Quidditch team."
"Really? One of us?" they asked excitedly, then looked at each other. "Which one?"
Sirius shrugged. "That's for you to decide. One of you could be co-captain; no one would mind. We weren't planning on having Quidditch this year but McGonagall decided that we could go on even with people missing."
"Which one of us would co-captain?" Fred mused aloud.
"You'll do it then?" Sirius asked. "I wouldn't want it to interrupt your studies..."
In the casual atmosphere, they favored him with a dark look. Sirius smiled, recognizing qualities of his younger self in the two that stood before him.
"Sure, we'll do it!" George said excitedly. "Does this mean we can kick off the ones we don't like?"
"As long as we beat Slytherin, I don't care what you do," Sirius said.
"Right," Fred said. "We'll do that, then."
"I've got to put your names down as captain and co-captain for the records and registration and whatnot," Sirius said in a long suffering tone. "Who's going to be in which position?"
They shared a look. "Captain: Forge Weasley and co-captain: Gred Weasley."
Sirius looked between the two of them, trying to determine if they were being serious. They seemed to be. "Alright," he said easily, grinning lightly.
The twins shared his grin.
"Harry told us you were cool," Fred said.
Sirius's eyebrow lifted slightly and his smile got wider. "You guys can go now. Don't let me catch you playing pranks."
George put on a horrified face. "We thought you were cool!"
"Don't tell us your another Snape on the inside," Fred said in a disappointed tone.
"Professor Snape," Sirius corrected. "And I didn't say you couldn't play pranks, I just said not to let me catch you," he said with a wink.
The twins grinned mischievously and Sirius wondered if that had been the right thing to say.
"Yeah, can you believe it?" Fred asked, surrounded by a group of Gryffindors in the common room.
"Tryouts next week, Fred?" George asked.
"Sure," Fred replied.
"Can I be on the team?" Ron asked eagerly.
"Come to tryouts," Fred said.
"But I'm your brother!" Ron said indignantly. "We've played together for years."
George shrugged. "Don't come to tryouts then. See how that works out for you."
Ron scowled as George smirked.
Fred looked towards the ceiling and counted on his fingers. "So we'll need a new Chaser, new Seeker and reserve."
"I'd try out for Seeker but I don't have a broom," Ginny pouted.
"You can use one of ours for tryouts," Fred offered. "Then if you get in, we'll try to find you one."
"What, her and not me?" Ron demanded.
Fred shrugged. "You didn't ask." Ron looked to be preparing an angry retort when Fred cut him off. "Relax, I'm just messing with you. Same goes for you."
"And me too?" Neville asked with mock hopefulness. Everyone laughed.
"What time is it?" Ginny asked idly.
"Almost four," George replied.
"I think I'll go write a letter before dinner," she stated, disappearing up the stairs.
Severus's quill scratched harshly across the paper as he corrected the second years' tests. After pausing to flip the paper, Severus noticed the mirror light up. He glanced at the time and realized that, while a little early, it was Harry. He picked it up.
"Hel- Albus?" Severus asked in surprise.
"Severus," Albus said, a touch grimly. "I think it best if you come over here."
"Come...over there?" Severus asked, mouth going dry. "What happened? Is Harry alright?"
"Harry is fine for the time being," Albus replied. "I will explain when you get here. Mr. Crouch has arranged a special circumstances long distance Floo connection for you, just Floo to 'Durmstrang'," Albus told him.
"I'll be right there," Severus said, standing hurriedly.
He laid the mirror upon his desk and briskly entered his chambers, heading straight for the Floo.
"Durmstrang," he snapped. In a burst of flame, Severus disappeared. He stepped out into a dim room where several people were gathered. In his rush to find Harry, he barely spared a dark glare for Karkaroff. "What's going on?" he demanded.
"I'd like to know the same thing," Madam Maxime stated darkly.
"It seems that Mr. Potter," Karkaroff put a large amount of contempt into that name, "cheated. He has been selected for the tournament and will now be forced to compete."
Severus's chest seized up. He did not let on, however, as he turned slowly to Harry.
"Did you put your name in the Goblet?" he asked, searching Harry's green eyes.
"No," Harry said in a small but firm voice.
Harry's eyes and thoughts were open and Severus knew he wasn't lying.
"I believe him," Severus stated.
"Of course you do," Karkaroff snapped. He seemed to want to say more but held back.
Severus stepped forward. "Has it not occurred to you that someone could have put his name in the Goblet because they want him to compete? Because they want to get him killed?""Who here would do that?" Madam Maxime asked in protest.
Severus's eyes narrowed on Karkaroff. "I could think of a few."
Dumbledore moved closer to him. "Severus-"
"Do not think you are blameless in this, Albus," Severus stated darkly, his emotions churning within.
"Severus, he has to compete," Albus said. "It, like the other drawing, is binding. Correct, Mr. Crouch?"
"That is correct," the sickly man affirmed. Severus stiffened and froze as he was, trying to comprehend what was happening.
Dumbledore turned to the assembled. "It seems there will be four champions this year. If you will all return to your rooms, that would be best. Harry, you stay." Dumbledore turned back to Severus and Karkaroff. "Headmaster Karkaroff, I hate to inconvenience you, but may we have a moment alone?"
Karkaroff gave the three of them a narrow look, then nodded once, exiting with a slam of the door.
Dumbledore lowered his voice and laid a gnarled hand on Severus's arm.
Snape still didn't move from his position. He continued to stare at the floor, face blank. Harry stepped directly in front of him so that there was no way that Severus could avoid seeing him.
Severus's eyes remained downcast.
"Severus," Harry tried to no avail. After a moment, Harry switched tactics. "Dad."
At this, Severus's dark eyes jerked to Harry's and an odd expression stole over his face.
"I fixed him," Harry said, an attempt at lightness. It fell flat.
Abruptly, Severus shook his head. "I apologize. This must be worse for you than for anyone else."
"It'll be alright," Harry said with a little uncertainty. He tried to put on a brave face for his guardian but Snape saw right through it. He stepped over to Harry and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.
"I apologize to both of you," Dumbledore said. "There is, however, nothing that we can do."
"Even though it violates the rules?" Severus asked sharply.
"Even so," Dumbledore said sadly. "I hope Harry has the skill to complete."
Severus looked down at Harry. "Do not bother with winning. Survival is the main objective."
Harry gulped conspicuously. "This coming from a Slytherin? That's when you know it's bad," Harry muttered.
Severus's dark gaze did not leave his face.
"Will you help him, Albus?" Severus asked.
"I cannot," Dumbledore said. "It is against the rules."
Severus turned his head towards the older man. "You know as well as I that Karkaroff is not going to leave his champion to his own devices. Who is the Durmstrang champion? Krum?"
"Bennet Mubarak from Durmstang, as well as Fleur Delacour and Cedric Diggory," Albus said. "And even so, I will not have it suspected that I was the one to have tampered with the Goblet so that I have two students who, after having received help, will have an increased chance of winning."
Severus scowled deeply. "This is not acceptable."
"There is nothing we can do."
Harry had never heard Dumbledore sound so helpless.
"It's okay, Severus. Really," Harry insisted. "I'll be fine; don't worry about me."
Severus looked down at him and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I am finding it near impossible to do so."
"You'll be here for all of the tasks, right?" Harry asked, needing reassurance more than he would care to admit.
"Most definitely," Severus said. "Especially now."
"Then I'll be fine."
"It still does not seem right," Severus said with a frown. "You must be exceedingly careful, Harry."
"I will be," Harry promised.
"If I go two days without hearing from you, I will assume something horrific has happened."
Harry swallowed. "That seems like a safe bet."
"I will be here to watch over Harry," Dumbledore pointed out.
Severus nodded and gave Harry a long look. He shook his head. "Why is it always you?"
Harry shrugged. "I'd like to know the same thing."
"I must go now, as much as I hate to."
Harry nodded. "I know."
Severus pulled him into a full hug, then stepped to the Floo.
"Goodbye, Harry. As I said before, be safe," Severus said.
"Bye, Severus," Harry said quietly. Severus nodded to Dumbledore then took a handful of Floo powder.
Watching Severus leave was almost as bad as leaving Hogwarts. Harry yearned to call out for him to stay, if only for a few more minutes. He swallowed the thought and pushed down the watery feeling that rose in his eyes. Drawing in a deep breath, Harry met Severus's eyes which were studying him in silence. It was too late to cover up his emotions with Occlumency, so Harry did not try.
"Bye," Harry said.
Severus gave him a soft look before throwing down the powder and saying in an ever so slightly unsteady voice, "Hogwarts, Snape's chambers."As his guardian disappeared, Harry felt oddly adrift. The castle seemed different as Harry turned away from the fireplace, and he could not escape the feeling that while the others were celebrating their victory, he had lost.