Harry picked at his food the next morning, lacking appetite.
"You okay, Harry?" Draco asked.
"What do you think?" Harry snapped tiredly.
Draco frowned. "It's not so bad. You could win it, you know."
"Or I could get killed," Harry muttered darkly.
"I thought Snape coming would have cheered you up," Draco said in a disappointed tone.
"Nah, he wasn't very happy. And we didn't get to talk about anything really. Just worried about what's going to happen now."
"What is going to happen now?" Draco asked.
Harry shrugged. He was saved from answering by the arrival of Aris and Riker.
"Good morning," Draco said, adopting a friendly tone over the frustrated one that his conversation with Harry had incited.
"Good morning," Riker said jovially before turning to Harry. "Ah, the man of the hour."
Harry scowled and kept his eyes on his plate.
"Everyone's talking about you, you know," Riker said.
"You're not helping," Draco said, elbowing him.
Riker gave him a look of surprise. "Why not? They're all pretty impressed and excited to see Harry compete. You're more popular than you think," he told Harry.
"Shouldn't they be worried about Bennet?" Harry asked grumpily.
Both Riker and Aris had odd expressions at this comment. Riker seemed content to let Aris respond.
"Bennet is respected greatly but he, in no way, causes the excitement that one such as yourself does," Aris said, effectively closing the matter for discussion.
Harry huffed and raised his head to look around, As he did so, he saw the easily recognizable form of Krum storm down to the buffet line, looking dangerous. His face was marred with a scowl as he stepped to the front of the line. No one protested.
"What's up with him?" Harry asked.
"He's less than happy about the choice of champion. Wanted it really bad," Riker commented while shoveling food into his mouth.
"Hm," Harry replied. "He can have my spot."
"Come on," Riker cajoled, "you should be excited. Won't everyone from Hogwarts be proud of you?"
Harry replied quietly, "No one that matters."
"Snape will," Draco pointed out.
Harry swallowed and looked down again. From the corner of his eyes, Harry saw Riker shoot Draco a questioning look.
Harry sighed. "He told me that I shouldn't even try to win."
"What?" Riker demanded. "Who is this guy? He sounds like a right old downer. Very encouraging."
"My guardian," Harry replied. "My father," he amended quietly, feeling more of a need for such assertions when he was so far away from home.
Everyone was silent for a moment. Riker looked a little uncomfortable.
"Forgive me if I am out of line," Aris began, "but the common tale is that your parents died on the night you got that scar. Am I incorrect in this assumption?""No, you're right," Harry responded, rubbing the back of his neck. "Professor Snape is my adoptive father."
"It was in the paper," Draco said, trying to be helpful.
"Few get the news up here," Aris commented.
Feeling a strong need to change the subject, Harry asked, "Speaking of news, where are the owls?"Harry and Draco glanced at the desolately empty ceiling, devoid of the flying animals that they had become accustomed to.
"Beg your pardon?" Riker asked, raising a brow.
"At Hogwarts, the owls deliver mail at breakfast. How do you get yours?" Harry asked.
"You have to go up to the Owlery. It's charmed to recognize you and your mail comes down. Pretty neat, really."
"Oh, I should go up there then. I wondered why I hadn't gotten that package yet," Harry said, half to himself.
They all went back to eating for a moment until a catcall brought their sharp attention upward to the end of the table. Gregor and his friends sat laughing and looking up the aisle at a girl who walked hurriedly away from them. Her fierce blush was not very noticeable on her tanned skin and her face was partially covered by the long, thick black braid of hair that fell over one shoulder. She clutched her books tightly but, to her credit, did not hunch as she walked. Instead, she strode, straight backed and proud down the hall, refusing to be demeaned by Gregor and his mates. Harry admired that.
"Jerks," Harry muttered, looking down again and missing the furtive glance that Riker shot at Aris. Aris's face remained passive.
"You guys ready for another fun and engaging Defense class?" Riker asked brightly, distracting from whatever it was that had just happened.
"You won't go too hard on us, right?" Draco asked hopefully.
"Right," Riker said with a wink.
Draco muttered, "Great."
Riker laughed. "Nah, we'll go easy until agility training in a week or two. It was rough for us so we might as well make it rough for you. You play Quidditch?"
"I'm reserve for all positions. Harry's a pretty wicked Seeker," Draco supplied.
"Then agility training is right up your alley," Riker said with a meaningful look at Harry. "Help you catch that snitch. That is, if you need help."
Harry shrugged, still feeling glum that Quidditch was carrying on without him.
"Can you show me to the Owlery?" Harry asked, directed at either of the Durmstrang students.
Aris nodded while RIker said, "Sure."
Glad that moving would mean less conversation, Harry rose and followed them out of the hall. Harry focused on memorizing the route to the Owlery since it seemed that he would be making this trip a lot. As a result, he tuned out the discussion about the other competitors.
"What do you think, Harry?" Riker asked, jolting Harry to awareness.
"About what?" Harry asked.
Riker gave him an odd look. "Who do you think is going to win the tournament? My money's on Bennet, 'cause well..." he trailed off and glanced at Aris who did not comment. RIker cleared his throat. "So what do you think?"
Harry shrugged. "It certainly won't be me. I only caught a glimpse of Fleur and she didn't look very threatening. Cedric's pretty good but it seems like Bennet is too."
"Yeah," Riker said. "That's almost word for word what Draco said."
Harry shrugged again.
"Is he always like this?" Harry heard Riker mutter to Draco in a low voice. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Draco shake his head.
Uncaring, Harry sped up, increasing the distance between them.
When at last they reached the Owlery, Harry was surprised by several owls carrying letters and a package swooping down to meet him immediately.
"Wow," he breathed as he picked up the mail they dropped before him and Draco.
"Told you it was charmed," Riker stated.
"Right," Harry said, untying the package. As the twine and brown parcel paper fell away, Harry picked up a very nice black cloak lined with fur. "Wow," he said again. Swinging it over his shoulders, Harry buckled the silver snake clasp. That, more than anything, told him that Severus had picked it out himself. He always was partial to snakes. Harry didn't mind.
"Sharp," Riker commented with a sly grin.
"Thanks," Harry said, mood improving considerably. He scooped up his letters and leafed through them as Draco was doing beside him. He had received one from Severus, Hermione and even Ginny, which was rather unexpected. He put them in his pocket to read later.
"We will be late for Transfiguration if we do not hurry," Aris pointed out.
"Let's go," Harry said, leading the way out with his new cloak swishing behind him.
It was not until later that night that Harry got to read his letters. He opened the one from Severus first. It was short and written in a slanted hand.
I hope this letter arrives safely along with your cloak. I apologize for not realizing you would need one. I hope the lack of a winter cloak has not caused a problem. Things here are well, let me know how you are faring at Durmstrang.
Harry smiled lightly, recognizing the short, abrupt style of his guardian's personality within the letter. He assumed this was sent before they first spoke so Harry did not worry about a rely. After all, he would talk to Severus later. Harry moved on to the next letter from Hermione.
I really hope you are liking Durmstrang. What is it like? Are the people there nice? What kind of classes are you taking? Hogwarts is a much more boring without you and Draco around. The good part is that I have more time to pester Ron about his work; time that I usually divide amongst the three of you. With you gone, almost everyone forgot they were angry with you. Most of the Gryffindors are curious about Durmstrang and are bombarding me with questions. I tried to reason with Ron but you know how stubborn he can get. I'll keep trying. Finally the question everyone is really worried about: Who are the champions? We expect Headmistress McGonagall to make an announcement but she hasn't yet. It is to be decided later today right? Write back when you can. We all miss you (even Ron, though he won't admit it).
Harry swallowed and folded up the letter, figuring that Hermione had written this before it was decided, explaining the lack of announcement. By now, everyone would surely know. He sighed lightly, disappointed that Ron hadn't come around. He really didn't want this to be the end of their friendship. Setting that letter aside to reply to in a moment, Harry opened the one from Ginny.
I hope you don't mind me writing to you. I knew that Ron wasn't going to and I'm pretty sure Hermione won't give you any of the fun news. I'll thought I'd fill you in, if you want. Fred and George were named Quidditch captains! Well, technically, one is co-captain but they listed them as Gred and Forge, so they're interchangeable. Ron is planning on trying out, I'm not sure which position. I won't bother you with questions about Durmstrang because from what I hear, you'll be getting enough from Hermione. I hope you like it there, though I can't imagine why you would. Hermione and I are trying to bring Ron around, don't worry about him. Write back, but only if you want to.
The uncertainty with which Ginny wrote this letter was clear to Harry as he read it. She seemed worried that he would be angry with her for writing to him. Harry wondered what he had done to give her that impression. Spreading his letters out on his bed, Harry pulled over a text book on which to write. Harry had retreated to his room almost immediately upon returning to the dorm. The others seemed less than happy with him for his apparent attempt to steal Cedric's rightful title. Roger was more angry that he wasn't chosen, as were the girls. Harry had no desire to stick around the common room and listen to their complaints. He gathered a few sheets of parchment and his quill and inkwell in order to respond.
Durmstrang's okay, it's a little creepy at times and the people aren't always friendly. Some are nice, though, like our new friends Aris and Riker. There isn't Herbology, Astronomy, Divination or Care of Magical Creatures here. Instead, we take physical Defense, or are tutored by Aris and Riker because we're all so behind. They had us enrolled in Dark Arts but now we only have to take theory; we don't have to do practical anymore. It's really okay. Cold, though. Anyway, I'm sure you've heard by now that the champions are Fleur Delacour, Bennet Mubarak, Cedric Diggory, and me. I swear I didn't put my name in that cup. Please believe me. Snape was furious. He thinks someone is trying to do me in. I'm kind of concerned but right now, I really just wish I was back with you guys at Hogwarts. Do you think Ron will ever forgive me? I think I'll try to write to him. Keep me informed, please.
Harry set down his quill and folded up the letter. He stuffed it into an envelope and addressed it to Hermione. Harry set it aside and began another.
Ron, I am really sorry. I don't know what to say to make you forgive me. I swear I don't want any of this. Do you really think I would choose to go off into the arctic to some god-forsaken school and away from my family and friends? I hope you don't think that. Anyway, if you forgive me, which I hope you do, I thought I'd offer you the use of my broom. I heard Fred and George were made captains and I'm guessing you're trying out. Snape has my Firebolt, but he'll give it to you. I know you will take care of it as well as I would. Please forgive me.
Your best friend,
Hoping that would do the trick, Harry set it with Hermione's. He re-dipped his quill and began the final letter.
I don't mind you writing to me at all. In fact, it is good to hear some light hearted news. Give Fred and George my congratulations. Are you going to try out? You're pretty good, you should. Durmstrang isn't so bad but I do miss Hogwarts. Let me know if anything changes, especially with Ron.
Harry gathered his letters and used his wand to light the tip of a stick of wax. Dripping a few dots on the flap of each envelope, Harry picked up his seal and pressed it on each glossy pool. When he removed the heavy gold plated stamp, his initials in elegant filigree were raised in the deep red wax. He ran his finger over it absentmindedly. The kit had been his birthday gift from Severus. As Harry put his things away, he picked up the golden snitch inkwell. Lifting it to eye level, Harry remembered distinctly receiving it on his first real Christmas with Severus. He wondered if he would get to return for Christmas now that he was in the tournament. Swallowing through a thick throat, Harry set the inkwell down and picked up the mirror.
A familiar but tired looking face appeared in the mirror. A little of Harry's loneliness drained away.
"Harry," Severus greeted with a nod.
"Hi. You look tired," Harry commented.
"Sleep was hard to come by last night," Severus admitted, sighing softly.
"Sorry," Harry intoned.
Somewhat sharply, Severus replied, "Do not apologize."
"Are you feeling more optimistic today?" Harry asked hopefully.
"Oh," Harry said flatly. He looked away awkwardly. "I got your cloak today. Turns out the mail goes to the Owlery. I love it, thank you."
Severus merely nodded.
"You okay?" Harry asked in concern.
"That is yet to be determined," Severus said dryly. "When did you say the first task was?"
"November 24th," Harry said.
"That long..." Severus muttered.
"How should I prepare?" Harry asked, fearing his answer.
Severus hesitated. "I do not know. It would help if you got a clue of what it is to be."
"I'll keep an eye out, I guess."
"What do the others think of your inclusion in the tournament?" Snape asked in a flat voice.
"The Hogwarts students kind of hate me now but the Durmstrang ones are... fascinated I guess. Interested, to say the least. They don't seem to dislike me any more than before."
Severus sneered lightly. "In awe of the Boy Who Lived, are they?"
Harry rolled his eyes but, in truth, it seemed as if they were.
"I assume Mr. Malfoy was not included in hating you?"
"No," Harry assured him. "He's fine with it."
"How is he doing in Durmstrang?" Severus asked.
"I think he's off with some Durmstrang kids now. I'm not sure what they are doing," Harry admitted with a frown. "He seems okay though."
Severus looked distracted.
"I should go," Harry said. "There are a few letters I need to mail.""Goodbye, Harry."
"Bye, Severus," Harry replied.
Their feed was cut off and the mirror returned to normal. With a detached feeling, Harry set the mirror down and gathered up his letters. He stuffed them into the large pocket in his robes and headed off to the Owlery. With any luck, swift replies from his friends would keep him entertained over the next few days. Harry was especially hoping to read the one from Ron. As he headed up the stairs, Harry reflected that he honestly did not know what he would do if his best friend did not forgive him. He could only hope it did not come to that.