Disclaimer: Harry Potter is not mine. Good, because he might object to this.

Warning: While there is nothing explicit, this story does heavily imply and reference underage drinking, delinquency, torture, death, dubious consent, non consensual, and not-pretty imagery. Depending on how you look at it, pedophilia as well. While I might be going over the top by spelling it out (it is rated M), I don't want to have flames berating me for dark themes.

Have fun, campers.

Steps Far From Paradise

"…the trouble is, humans have a knack for choosing precisely the worst things for themselves…." -Albus Dumbledore

The portrait was of a tall, black-haired, grey-eyed man. Still and lifeless, Harry wondered that the Blacks owned the painting: while the man could pass for a relative of Sirius, and probably was, it was the only non-wizarding portrait in the house. She knew; she'd looked.

Harry preferred the portrait still. There also wasn't another portrait in the entire house that didn't sneer at her or drawl snide remarks about her being a 'filthy half-blood' and a 'disgrace to proper Wizarding stock.'

"Like they know anything about proper Wizarding stock," the witch spat darkly to the empty room. "The only thing they know is how to kiss someone's bum. A half-blood's bum at that. Hypocrites!"

Her words didn't help her. They only made her madder - they reminded her of that horrible graveyard where Voldemort had risen again, where she'd seen Cedric die and barely escaped with her life. They reminded her that despite doing all of that and coming back and warning everyone, that the Ministry was instead making her out to be a madwoman and Dumbledore, the one who had listened, wasn't telling her anything.

Sirius wouldn't tell her anything, Ron and Hermione had cozied up and ignored her all summer, and - and -

"Ugh!" Harry punched the floor, only to yelp in pain as the wiry carpet cut bloody furrows into her fingers. Eyes watering, she massaged the offended digits, trying not to cry. She had already cried too much this summer.

Although the man in the portrait didn't move, he was frozen in a perpetual smirk, and Harry glared at him for lack of anyone else to glare at.

"Asshole," she said. Of course, there was no response, but she didn't mind. Harry wasn't really talking to the portrait; it was just a stand-in. For who, she wasn't sure. Dumbledore? Fudge? Ron or Hermione? Or maybe even Sirius. "You really think you know so much - you wouldn't know a damn thing if it hadn't been for me getting back. If it hadn't been for me, he'd already be back. Years ago!"

The witch realized she was beginning to yell, and so strangled the rest of her complaint: 'And you still won't tell me anything!'

The grey eyes were contemptuous, and he only made her want to punch him, bloody knuckles or no bloody knuckles. To hell with decorum, she decided roughly a second later, and Harry hesitated only a moment before pulling back and landing a punch solidly on that maddening smirk.

Some kind of magical force-field caught her fist and shoved back, blasting her clear across the room and painfully against the opposite wall. Thwarted, Harry slumped to the floor a second time, fury subsiding from towering rage to its normal dull throb of anger.

I'm going to feel that tomorrow, Harry grumbled, rubbing her back where it had hit the wall. And the back of her head: she could already feel the knot forming. Okay, maybe attacking a portrait wasn't too….

She froze.

The man in the portrait was moving. At his mouth, where blood from her hand had pooled, a silvery mist was rising, spreading from the point of impact to the furthest reaches of the man's body. And where the mist passed there was skin. Not still paint, not animated portraiture, but pale, smooth, living skin.

Harry swallowed hard. Part of her mind was screaming to get up and run but she couldn't even get to her feet. It was like all of her strength was being stolen out of her to give life to this cursed portrait.

The grey eyes blinked several times before they focused on her and narrowed; the smirk faded and then reappeared, half a sneer and filled with scorn. As the mist dissipated entirely, the man fell out of the frame with a peculiar sort of grace and stalked over to her.

He said something, and though she couldn't understand it, the tone chilled her beyond anything Voldemort had ever said. The tone - and the wand he withdrew from the folds of his black wizard robes, dark wood he handled lovingly.

Harry fought to find her voice, gathering all the bravery Gryffindors were known for. "Who are you?"

The wizard said something else. Seeing her blank look, he spat something that was obviously an expletive and leveled the wand at her face.

Strength surged back into Harry's body, and she leaped at him, forcing the wand away before he threw her off. There was a bang like a gunshot, and she crashed against the wall for a second time. Praying that someone had heard, she fumbled for her wand. Harry didn't think she could hold him long… if at all.

"Subdue her," she heard, and she rolled right into the face of a viper.

"Leave me alone!" she demanded, breathless, and twisted around to cast a spell, only for the holly shaft to be torn from her hand.

The wizard caught it neatly, flicking his wand again; ropes bound her arms and legs. He knelt down, looking her over more curiously now. "Perhaps you aren't so useless after all," he murmured.

His scrutiny was making Harry sick at her stomach. And - the snake. The wizard was a Parselmouth? What luck. "Who are you?" she repeated, careful to keep her eyes on the now quiescent serpent lest she slip out of Parseltongue.

He looked poisonously amused: even in Parseltongue, her voice had wavered. Sadist.

"You freed me, not even knowing who I am?" The wizard's laugh was full and infectious, and more frightening that the humor seemed genuine, if malicious. "The Blacks must be neglecting their history, then."

"I'm not a Black," said Harry instantly, before it occurred to her to wonder if telling this wizard anything was a good idea.

His easy countenance darkened instantly. Acidly, he drawled, "Only a Black could have countered the curse that had me imprisoned. Lie better." Brandishing the dark wand, he intoned an unfamiliar incantation.

Harry tried to roll out of the spell's path but couldn't; molten bronze bit into her spine, and she screamed. For one timeless instant, she found the plane the Cruciatus bore: her blood was boiling, her skin burned and tore and shredded and all over, she felt molten metal knifing into her skin -

The curse didn't last long, however, leaving her with the impression that she was being scolded. Lie better.

"But I'm not a Black. I'm not," Harry argued faintly, feeling her traitorous eyes fill with tears. She tried to blink them back to no avail. "Just Sirius - he's the only one left…"

Sirius. He'll be coming. No one could have missed that scream. Ron had told her she screamed like a banshee; she had never thought she'd be using it to summon help. Harry tried to use the thought to cheer her up, but more than anything, she just felt tired. Worn.

The wizard - dark wizard, that was a torture spell - considered her. He didn't seem inclined to believe her, but nor to believe she was lying, thankfully. The grey eyes found hers and she felt a vaguely familiar feeling of intrusion, before a memory of Sirius swam to the forefront of her mind.

'I don't know if you know,' Sirius said softly, still gaunt and haunted from Azkaban, 'but Lily and James named me your godfather, should anything happen to them…'

The memory faded, and Harry snapped back to the present to see a terrifying enigmatic smile settle on the wizard's lips as he looked her over again, much more thoroughly this time. Had he read her mind somehow? But he didn't seem to know English…

"In that case, then…" There was something terribly polite in his tone, matching the terrifying smile, and Harry knew it could mean nothing good. "…My name is Salazar. Salazar Slytherin."

If the door hadn't chose that moment to explode inward, showering both witch and wizard with fragments of wood, Harry knew she would have fainted.

Tied up and at wand-point, Harry tried not to meet Sirius' eyes. Her godfather was frantic, terrified, and more than a little guilty: his initial attempt to take her from the serpent's grasp had resulted in the casting of yet another unfamiliar torture spell, one she could still feel the aftershocks of.

Oddly, Harry didn't recall the Cruciatus doing the same.

But it wasn't only Sirius whose gaze she was trying to avoid. Mrs. Weasley was there, hovering worriedly, and so was Lupin. Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and the twins had been there but had been forced to leave. It was a small mercy; she would have given all the gold in Gringotts for this to just be some sort of horrid nightmare.

"When will this Dumbledore arrive?"

Harry shuddered, not looking up. With her vision swimming in the way that foretold tears, she had no difficulty in speaking Parseltongue, even without the presence of a snake. "I don't know. He's a busy man." And he wants nothing to do with me, she could have added, but it meant little in the face of recent events.

The dark wood of Slytherin's wand tapped once at the base of her neck. "If he does not arrive soon, you will translate. I have no desire to dawdle while Black decides how best to curse me again."

Keep threatening me and he'll use the first to come to mind, Harry wanted to say, but didn't think it prudent. She had already bypassed her stupidity quota for the day.

Thankfully, she was spared a reply, because just then there was a light crack! of Apparition and Albus Dumbledore appeared across from Slytherin and her, on the opposite side of the table.

"That's him," she explained quickly, when the grip on her arm grew painful and the wand-tip touched her skin again. "Albus Dumbledore."

"That is a Lord of Light magic," Slytherin snarled, not relaxing his hold. It was cutting off the blood flow to her arm. "I would do better to trust your word than his!"

While Harry worked out whether or not she'd been insulted, Dumbledore's twinkling blue eyes swept the scene, falling on Slytherin and his captive. For a very short instant, the headmaster's face showed his surprise and even confusion, and then it was gone.

"Sirius," he said mildly. "You weren't very clear on the details. What is this emergency of yours?"

"I'm not very clear on it myself," Sirius admitted, visibly upset. "Only that Harry's somehow found a Dark wizard where there shouldn't be one, and one that can't speak English but can speak Parseltongue, and he must want something, because-"

Dumbledore held a hand up and Sirius trailed off. The old wizard smiled wryly. "That's twice in two months you've been privy to the resurrection of a Dark Lord, Miss Potter," he said lightly. "It seems like you're proving adept at Dark wizard detection."

Harry felt heat rising in her cheeks, something Dumbledore thoughtfully failed to mention.

"But it also seems we're in somewhat of a quandary," he added. "Has our guest provided you with a name?"

Both Sirius and Mrs. Weasley opened the mouths to contest the headmaster's appellation of 'guest', and both reluctantly subsided after receiving pointed looks. Harry nodded slowly, wholly aware of the wand positioned to blow her head off.

"He - he says he's Salazar Slytherin, professor," she said quietly.

"What?" A trio of hands dove for wands, only to draw back, empty-handed when the Dark wizard flicked his own, sending jagged waves of agony down Harry's spine and eliciting a howl. Sirius flinched as though the curse had affected him as well.

Dumbledore, to her surprise, merely nodded. "I assume Latin will do?"

She swallowed. "Latin?"

"No. You will do."

"Um, no," said Harry, feeling miserable. "I think - I don't think he trusts you not to twist his words. He wants me to translate."

"Unsurprising," said Dumbledore, almost to himself. "Has he informed you of his demands?" She shook her head, again slowly. "Then, please ask."

"Dumbledore wants to know what you want," Harry told Slytherin haltingly, judging by the expression on her godfather's face that her captor's face was something less than impassive. She pictured that horrible smile and was glad she couldn't see it.

"Restitution," was all he said, and confused, Harry repeated it to the headmaster.

Dumbledore nodded, but there was a hard glint in his eyes that said he was very unhappy. "Revenge on the Blacks, I presume?"

Before Harry deliver the translation, Lupin spoke up. "Headmaster, if I may ask… what restitution? What have the Blacks done to put Sirius in debt to Salazar Slytherin?"

"And what does it have to do with Harry?" Mrs. Weasley demanded.

This Harry wanted to know, too. Was she just a convenient hostage or was there something worse in store? With her luck, the latter.

"Sirius can answer both of your questions," Dumbledore deferred, not taking his eyes from Slytherin.

Lupin and Mrs. Weasley glanced inquiringly at Sirius; the Weasley matriarch looked at though she wanted to ream him, but thought better of it seeing his hunched shoulders and tense posture.

"It's a family myth," Sirius ground out, the words physically painful. "They say when Slytherin organized the assault on Hogwarts, Prometheus Black pretended to go along with it and cursed him into some sort of hibernation, to win the hand of Lavina Slytherin, his sister. I never believed it."

"What are they plotting?" Slytherin demanded, and Sirius fell silent.

"They aren't," Harry was quick to assure. "Sirius is talking about why you're…demanding restitution." She felt that vague intrusive feeling a second time, less blatant.

When it faded, Slytherin spoke again, and while his suspicion seemed allayed, he was no more patient. "Make them hurry."

"He wants you to hurry up," she translated. Harry did too, now that she thought about it. Her arm was completely numb.

"What kind of payback is he asking for, Harry?" Sirius asked plaintively, taking his cue. "Money doesn't make sense, and neither does land." He hesitated. "Is it me he's asking for? To kill me?"

Harry forgot to breathe. No. No! Her stupidity couldn't get Sirius killed! "What - what kind of restitution?" she inquired, chest constricting painfully in a way that had nothing to do with a curse.

Slytherin didn't reply verbally, but Harry felt the brush of fingers in her long black hair.

Sirius blanched, looking utterly horrorstruck. "No. No…" Shaking his head uncomprehendingly, he repeated, "You can't… not Harry. You can't…."

Mrs. Weasley and Professor Lupin shared baffled looks.

"Actually," Dumbledore murmured, "he can."

"She's not mine!" Sirius shrieked, jerked out of his daze. She hadn't seen him like this since that night in the Shrieking Shack. "He can't claim what's not mine to take!"

"What…?" Harry whispered, utterly lost and consumed with worry.

"I'd rather die than force Harry into that snake bastard's bed!"

Behind her, Slytherin laughed. He might not have been able to understand the words, but the tone was telling enough. He wanted a Black to suffer, and Sirius already was.

Shivering, Harry pulled her cloak more tightly around her body, knowing full well it wouldn't help. The tremors the wracked her body had nothing to do with the cold.

She wondered if Dumbledore blamed her for not preventing Pettigrew from taking her blood for Voldemort's resurrection ritual. There was no other reason she could imagine that justified what the headmaster had done.

He sold her off. He sold her off.

Harry had never felt so betrayed.

Hermione patted her on the back awkwardly, unable to manage a hug; with Harry spasming like she was, the bushy-haired Muggle-born would probably end up with a bruise for her kindness.

"What happened?" asked Hermione quietly.

"I've never seen Sirius that mad," said Ron. He sounded awed. "I thought he was going to rip Dumbledore into tiny little pieces."

Harry laughed, but it must have sounded a little hysterical, because both of her friends looked at her in concern. She said, "He gave me away."

"He - what?"

"Dumbledore! He sold me off." Harry swallowed a sob. To think that only hours before he had complained about Dumbledore not deigning to pay her any mind. She wanted that back. "The wizard - Slytherin - he wanted payback for one of Sirius' ancestors cursing him. He…"

"No." Hermione had gone pale. "Dumbledore wouldn't. And surely, he couldn't anyway-"

A snort from Harry cut her off. "He's only subject to his own laws, Hermione. Slytherin, that is. That's how they did it back then - life for life."

"Wait," Ron interrupted slowly. His eyes went from Harry to Hermione and back again. "I don't get it. How'd Dumbledore sell you off?"

"Slytherin wanted me," said Harry, each word an agony. "He thought it'd hurt Sirius more if he asked for me. And Dumbledore went along with it, wouldn't let Sirius say anything, wouldn't let me say anything." A swallow. "And that's not the worst. Said that so long as he didn't kill me and helped win the war, Slytherin could use me any way he liked!"

Hermione's expression had fixed into outraged disbelief, and she seemed to have lost her voice; Ron spoke instead.

"You can't be serious," he breathed. "Slytherin's a Dark wizard - and you… you're, uh…." Flustered, he changed tacks. "He couldn't have meant anything. Not really."

"He did, didn't he." Hermione finally found her voice, except it was a bizarre, emotion-choked monotone. "That's why Sirius is so angry."

Sirius and Lupin and Mrs. Weasley. All three were in a towering rage with the headmaster - even Lupin, who was generally mild-tempered. Harry nodded, gathering the scraps of her courage to ask Ron a question she had never dreamed she'd ask.

"Ron…" The redhead looked askance at her, and Harry took another breath. "Tonight, if there's a chance - will… you…?"

Ron drew a blank for a second before his mind supplied the rest of her sentence, and then he flushed so deeply he resembled a radish with a sunburn. But he still nodded.

It said something for how much a Dark wizard could do with a virgin that even Hermione raised no objections.

Harry had no chance to slip away that night, however. Slytherin's narrow-eyed gaze rarely left her, a brooding dark in the gray that promised nothing good. He was quiet, listening intently to the few voices brave enough to speak up around him even if he couldn't have understood, since he asked for no translation.

Which was good, Harry thought, considering a great deal of what was said consisted of a collection of expletives and would be difficult to translate. At least Ron didn't try and hex him. The redhead looked mightily tempted, but the day had already been horrid enough. Harry didn't want to have to bury a friend on top of everything else.

An awkward, stilted conversation with Ginny was concluded roughly when the door to Grimmauld's kitchen burst open on the floor below. A glance over the railing met the eyes of several witches and wizards looking back up at her, and Harry would have pulled back, had a hand not appeared on her shoulder, grasping it firmly.

Slytherin watched the corridor below long enough to see Sirius exit, clawing his way through the crowd, before he smiled thinly. "Come with me."

"Harry?" said Ginny, voice higher than natural as Slytherin's hand dropped to Harry's upper arm, the better to pull her along behind him, but the Dark wizard ignored her. He gave Harry's arm a yank, and when the witch made no move to follow, twisted it painfully.

Harry followed the twist, stumbling after the older wizard without meaning to. Ginny tried to the follow, frightened, only for a door to slam in her face.

He dragged her to a bedroom done in dark red and violet, overbearing and unsettling as terror shot through Harry's mind and she began to panic. Anything, anything, Dumbledore had said, but surely Slytherin wouldn't -

But that protest found no fertile ground, and she thought instead, Surely the other founders wouldn't work alongside a….

"Stop struggling," said the wizard in question, and she thought she detected a note of mirth underneath the hissing. "I have no intention of taking you." A second later, before she could feel relieved: "I have other things in mind tonight."

Her stomach turned to ice. Doubling her efforts to get away, Harry tore free of his grip, but Slytherin had her bound in conjured ropes before she could make it two steps.

"Your Light Lord was quite clear that I would have free reign with you," said Slytherin a second, dropping her on the bed. The amusement was gone now; the tone was inscrutable. "I find it strange that he should be so eager. Would you know why?"

Harry wasn't sure she was meant to reply, but she shook her head nonetheless. The ropes binding her from waist-down were uncoiling, like snakes, slithering around her legs, parting them and securing them to the bedposts. She hardly noticed, in her unease, that the ones on her arms had done the same to the headboard.

"Why am I tied up like this - what are you going to do?" she asked, feeling profoundly anxious. Whatever it is, I doubt I'll like it…

Slytherin stepped in front of her spread legs, considering her. "Something you will not enjoy," he replied with false lightness. His eyes narrowed. "But something quite necessary, given your plans with that redhead …"

How does he know about that? Harry wondered desperately. "W-what plans?" It's like he knows everything that goes through my head….

"Your plans to let him bed you," Slytherin rejoined, sounding disgusted. He swished his wand and Harry made a strangled noise as her baggy trousers vanished, baring legs that really needed a shave. Another swish and she whimpered, stripped of underwear. Just what did the crazy Dark wizard have in mind?

He leaned over, splaying himself across the length of a leg, changing the grip on his wand minutely.

Then Slytherin jerked his arm, and Harry let out a piercing scream. Another jerk, another scream, and then he withdrew the length of dark wood from her vagina, covered in vaginal fluid and tissue and not a little blood.

The Dark wizard had jabbed his wand into her - not just a poke, but an outright stab that forced the dark wood into her vagina and tore apart the hymen: that was the tissue painting the wand.

While she was still gasping from the pain, Slytherin pointed the tip over her navel and intoned an incantation. An inky scarlet jet, not unlike the trim of the bedcovers and the wallpaper, gathered at the end of the wand and then shot out like a laser. For a second, her whole insides burned, and then there was nothing.

Harry breathed in and out, whimpering as the slight movement caused the dull ache to spike; then her mind caught up with events, and she snarled, "What the hell did you do?"

"Dealt with your potential infidelity," he replied shortly. Slytherin smiled, darkly satisfied. "Do proceed with your plans. The results should be quite humorous."

She froze, and then forced her tone to something resulting politeness. "What… results?" The Dark wizard knew she wouldn't do anything to harm her friend - even if it'd be in her best interest… damn him. How'd he know her so well, so quickly?

Slytherin appeared to contemplate whether telling her or leaving her in the dark would torture her more. "Your friend is a Weasley, is he not?" he said, relenting. It wasn't a comfort. "A family of families. Should you decide to 'shed your vulnerability' - well, he will swiftly discover that he, at least, will never have one of his own."

Stricken, Harry buried her head in one of the bed's pillows, so that Slytherin couldn't see her face. The feeling of intrusion nudged into her mind, and she tiredly swatted at it, not that it helped.

Appearing pleased by her response, Slytherin vanished the shirt and bra out from under her robe, locking the door and warding for sound with a few negligent waves of his wand.

"Sit up and look at me," he commanded sharply, forcing the issue when Harry tried instead of cover herself. Her robes weren't closed.

It sounded petulant, but the witch thought she was entirely entitled. "Why?"

A smile. Slytherin replied, "To see what use I can get from you."

Aside from a shock at the Welcoming Feast that nearly took her appetite and over half of the student population thinking she was raving, Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts started out okay. It would have been much more okay if Slytherin hadn't followed her to the castle.

Okay, granted, Dumbledore could hardly deny the man access to the school he had founded, even if he'd been summarily kicked out after only a decade. Especially seeing as the Ministry had seen fit to deem his 'return' authentic.

Of course, although the Ministry immediately believes a Dark wizard that's supposed to have been dead for a thousand years is back, the chance of a Dark wizard that only fell from power fourteen years ago doing the same is inconceivable.

Sometimes, Harry really wished the damn Ministry would just burn. Right now, however, she would be satisfied with some sort of Slytherin-repelling curse, because it was taking all her wits, the Invisibility Cloak, the Marauder's Map, much diversion on the part of her friends, and a hefty amount of Fred and George's Weasley Wizard Wheezes to keep away from the man. It was like the bloody castle had turned against her… which, given the situation, it probably had.

Neville had warned her after Defense that Slytherin had asked after her. Harry didn't know why, but she had ignored several of the wizard's summons already, and had no intention of answering this one. If she could just get to the second floor - raise a ruckus, and give McGonagall an excuse to give her detention….

McGonagall was an angel. The professor's actions this year made Harry regret every bad word she had ever said about the woman, and she swore never to do so again.

Harry settled into an alcove, slipping out the Map again after a careful search for watchers. "I solemnly swear I am up to no good," she murmured, and studied the blossoming ink for the dot labeled 'Snake Bastard' (courtesy of Sirius).

The dot was currently stationed in the blank portion under the third floor girl's bathroom, representative of the Chamber of Secrets (also courtesy of Sirius), which was worrisome. She had killed the man's murderous basilisk, after all. But he didn't actually seem overly fond of snakes; they were just another breed of weapon to him.

Odd, though… he's not moving around any… Harry frowned as she blanked out the Map, stepping out from the alcove to take the corridor back to the staircase. She stepped off the platform, just in time for the stairs to break away and fall several stories. Exiting on the fourth floor landing, she located the tapestry of Rosalind the Romantic and ducked behind it, whispering a password. The wall she was leaning against disappeared, and Harry tumbled down the slide left in its place.

It led past other openings, emptying her out on the first floor.

"Why, hello, Harry," a voice spoke softly.

Oh shit… and right at the feet of the man she was trying to avoid. But he was in the Chamber -

Slytherin reached down, grasping her upper arm, and pulled her to her feet. A furtive glance at his face didn't relieve Harry in the slightest: it was worked into a practiced look of geniality, and combined with his politeness…. Slytherin never bothered to be polite with her. Or genial. He didn't have to; she was not a threat, but a tool. A toy, even.

Which meant he was mad. Oh shit, oh shit oh shit oh shit…

"I was going to see Professor McGonagall," said Harry faintly, floundering for an excuse. Anything to get away.

"And I'm sure she would have gladly provided you an escape," Slytherin replied glacially. It was not lost on him that no professor short of Snape would let him have his way with Harry. While the headmaster may have approved the deal, there were few who condoned it. "Gryffindors do protect their own."

He jerked on her arm, the same way he had in Grimmauld Place when he wanted her to follow; this time, Harry trotted after him obediently, knowing the only alternative was to have him twist her arm painfully and drag her behind him.

There was no point in asking for pain. Not to mention that Harry just knew she was in for it already.

The stairway to the third floor was already in position, and Slytherin took them without a word, her stumbling after him. She heard the mumbling of the portraits as they passed: "What's she done?" said one, and another, "Furious, he is."

A third, ominously: "No matter. I remember that look, he's satisfied. Always got that look when he was about to torture someone…"

Harry paled. Maybe ignoring those summons was stupider than I thought… At least he couldn't kill her. That would violate the 'life for life' agreement - even if it'd probably be preferable to spending a thousand years as property.

Slytherin had led her past the empty Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom down toward Moaning Myrtle's bathroom before it occurred to her where he was taking her. He didn't do anything so undignified as slide down the pipe, however.

"Descend," he hissed, and a glyph concealed by the patterns on the floor glowed blue.

A haze of magic cleared to reveal a place she didn't recognize. The stone was the same as in the Chamber, yellowed but unworn by time, but it lacked the distinctive serpentine filigree and the floor was covered in a tangled mess of glyphs, runes, and repeating patterns in a dizzying circle. Harry couldn't name any of them, or even make them out, which made her really wish she'd taken Ancient Runes instead of Divination.

Slytherin released her arm so suddenly she swayed, nearly losing her balance. Taking several steps toward the center of the rune mass, and still looking away, he stated, "I trust you are unfamiliar with one of these."

You know everything I know, Harry griped, remembering with a mental grimace the clawing, searching pain of Slytherin's knowledge-transfer spell. There was a doorway not far from where she stood, and every muscle in her body was tensed to make for it and escape. She was fast; she probably could get away. Assuming she didn't get lost.

But - the situation just felt contrived. Slytherin wasn't that careless. And frankly, Harry didn't want to deal with even worse of a temper than she already would be. She stayed put.

There was a pause.

Realizing the Dark wizard meant for her to speak, Harry asked, "What is it?"

"A ritual room," he replied, tone almost dry. "Come here."

A ritual room right underneath Hogwarts, Dumbledore's 'bastion of light'. Running was really looking like a more sensible option now, but Harry's legs wouldn't cooperate. She crossed the room slowly, joining him in the center.

"You would have done better to run, Harry," said the wizard with dark humor, seizing her wrist and twisting it so the forearm was visible. He placed his wand tip to the pale skin, and intoned, "Macula ut mei."

The spell took to her skin like fire, burning, burning, but it was over quickly. Slytherin didn't fight as she tore her arm out of his grip to stare at her arm in disbelief; emblazoned there in glittering silver was a winged serpent, its sinuous length uncoiling to wrap around her forearm - a tattoo acting like a bracelet.

It was neither. Harry looked from the mark to Slytherin and back again. She knew the other place she had seen such a mark - on Snape's forearm after Voldemort's return.

"You… you Marked me!" she said dumbly.

Slytherin arched a brow, catching the implied capital. "Yes, I did," he admitted casually, before he smiled thinly, taking hold of her arm again before she could pull it away. His hand folded over the Mark. "It has become apparent that it is the only way to ascertain that you will come when called."


She didn't return to Gryffindor Tower that night.

It was a while before Harry truly understood what bearing Slytherin's Mark meant. Sure, the paralyzing, mind-numbing pain made one hell of a convincing summons, but that wasn't all.

Any Dark witch or wizard could Mark a person. It wasn't some special power or obscure magic Slytherin and Voldemort knew. But the sticking point in using it was that it required permission. The person to be Marked had to allow it, if not want it.

She would have done better to run. Harry had recognized a trap, just not the right one.

It was also a symbol. It told anyone who understood its significance that Slytherin owned Harry Potter.

After Harry discovered that, she tried her hardest to keep it covered, thankful for the long sleeves of her witch's robes. To her dismay, however, the serpent seemed almost vain, and it was hard to keep her peers from seeing a glimpse, here and there, of silver peeking out from beneath black robes.

It was a windy day in Hogsmeade, so Harry was cautious. She hadn't originally intended to go, but Ron and Hermione had put their feet down, saying she had to get out and have fun.

"If you stop doing anything you enjoy because of him, you're letting Slytherin beat you," Hermione had said fiercely, cornering her in the dormitory. "You'll let him make you into a slave of your own accord!"

The realization that she was doing exactly that woke Harry up. Running and hiding and trying to stay out of his way at all costs, keeping to herself unless he called for her and forced her to come out - looking back on her actions just about made Harry sick. It was the Dursleys all over again, only worse, and Harry had sworn she would never be the little girl locked away in the cupboard ever again.

Even if she couldn't fight back properly, she wasn't defenseless.

Harry was determined to enjoy her trip to Hogsmeade.

"So. Where first?"

"I need a new quill," said Hermione. "Scrivenshafts?"

"No! Honeydukes!" Ron said instantly. "We can get proper quills later… I'm out of Sugar Quills. What'll I do in Defense now?"

Harry winced. She did not want to think about Defense Against the Dark Arts. This was going to be a good day and that would only ruin it.

"I don't know, take notes?" offered Hermione, but her tone wasn't nearly as sour as it would have been concerning any other class. "Something other than petty insubordination?"

"How about the Three Broomsticks?" Harry suggested, trying to change the subject. "I could really do for a butterbeer right now."

Her friends went with the compromise, thankfully dropping the topic as well, and they chatted aimlessly as they walked down Hogsmeade High Street. As they approached the pub, a poster affixed to the window drew their attention.

A group of about a dozen witches and wizards stared out of the front of a newspaper clipping, looking bored and bedraggled. Despite the damage of Azkaban, Harry recognized a few: the heavy-lidded countenance of Bellatrix Lestrange, the wasted aristocratic features of her husband Rodolphus and brother-in-law Rabastan. These were Death Eaters.

"There's been another break-out?" she asked, not really surprised. Voldemort had returned, after all.

"On Halloween," Hermione verified. "The Ministry's pinning it on Sirius Black, of course."

"Of course."

"They should've pinned it on Slytherin," said Ron. "Seriously, the wizard their master worshipped. Even if the Ministry won't believe You-Know-Who is back, they could admit the bastard's a Dark Lord."

Harry rolled her eyes, agreeing with the redhead. She'd been tortured often enough in full view of other students that even the Ministry should be able to get it through their collective brain that he was not just 'misunderstood'. Just because one of his own stooges had cursed him while his back was turned didn't make him a good person.

"That would make sense, Ron," Hermione countered disparagingly. "Since when does the Fudge administration do things sensibly?"

"Since never," Harry murmured, following the two out of the wind and into the pub.

Ron volunteered to get the drinks while she and Hermione found a free table, cheerfully badmouthing the Ministry for it's overall ignorance, insensibility, and corruption.

She was happily drinking her butterbeer when Harry noticed the table across from them had acquired some new occupants. Slytherins - they acted unobtrusive and disinterested, but she could feel the searching glances they sent her way when they thought she wasn't looking, and Harry panicked a little. If there was one thing about Slytherins - honorary or genuine article - it was that they were observant, barring Crabbe and Goyle.

Then the mark began to burn.

Harry cursed, jerking as the pain radiating from the mark set her whole body afire, and nearly spilled butterbeer all down her front.

"He's not," said Ron in disbelief.

"He is," Hermione voiced, in that bizarre monotone.

Harry sucked in a harsh breath. "I've got to go," she managed, and slipped out of the pub as quickly as she could. Once she was out, she broke into a run, feeling cheated.

Was a single afternoon too much to ask?

Then again, she hadn't. Asked. And she wasn't going to start asking for his permission to go out and have fun with her friends, wasn't. She was her own person, damn it!

And damn that stupid urge to cry….

The pain from the mark usually faded when Harry began to comply with a summons, but this time it redoubled about the time she reentered the boundary of the Hogwarts wards. Even at a run, it took ten minutes to reach the castle from the village, longer than she'd ever taken to answer - except for that first time, when Harry had tried to ignore the summons.

Bad idea. Harry winced at the memory - or it may have been at the stitch in her side that had formed from so much running. She hadn't run this much since those episodes of Harry Hunting Dudley had indulged in before she discovered magic.

Joy. Harry stumbled up the front steps and nearly keeled over in the Entrance Hall, panting hard and clutching her side. Aren't athletes supposed to be in shape? she whined inwardly. Damn Quidditch doesn't exercise you at all… There was nothing like flying, but flying didn't help her when her feet were on the ground.

For the third time, the mark began to burn, this time with enough intensity to nearly bring her to the ground. All the power of the Cruciatus, focused in on one single point and spreading from there: Harry wanted to drop to the floor and die.

Instead, the witch soldiered on, darting across the Hall toward the Grand Staircase.

By the time Harry made it to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, her breath was short and her legs were shaking in a way that had nothing to do with pain and everything to do with exhaustion. She barely managed the activating word for the transportation rune, and upon landing, her knees finally gave out.

Slytherin, to his credit, actually looked surprised at her condition, if the arching of a brow was any indication. "I wouldn't think a leisurely walk from Gryffindor Tower would affect you so," he drawled, tone giving away nothing.

"It wouldn't," Harry snarled back between gasps, "if I'd been in Gryffindor Tower. I was in Hogsmeade, you… you-"


The delicate inflection was enough to jar the witch out of her pique and back to her senses, and she fell silent. Slytherin nodded, satisfied - and then, to her utter disbelief, offered a hand to help her stand.

What's he going to do, crush my hand? Harry wondered, eyeing the dark wizard suspiciously, but took it anyway; she didn't think she could stand on her own yet. He pulled her to her feet and across the patterns of the ritual room's floor.

"Lie down here," he directed quietly, and Harry collapsed a second time, oddly feeling grateful despite the fact she was probably about to be used again. Slytherin arranged her limbs carefully, commenting that perhaps her exhaustion would prove advantageous, and warned, "If you value your life, girl, do not move."

As he began to briefly overview the ritual he intended to enact, Harry decided she rather thought she agreed.

Harry wasn't sure whether she considered Potions or Defense Against the Dark Arts her least favorite class. Both professors took great satisfaction in humiliating her, particularly in front of Slytherin House, both were experts at their subject (loath as she was to admit), and both held the other in contempt - which was rather funny, considering one was the Head of Slytherin House and the other was the house's bloody founder.

There was a certain irony to a Dark wizard teaching how to defend against Dark magic, Harry thought, but one couldn't argue that he didn't know what he was talking about.

Not that that helps me, she groused. Slytherin was a master at torture, and though few curses could compare to the fury of the Mark when the Dark wizard felt malicious, he never failed to make her scream when he wanted to.


Harry didn't like that.

Or actually, that was an understatement. She hated it: hated being humiliated, hated it when the agony had her sobbing, hated the taunts and the jeers she got because Slytherin had free reign over her. Irony again, but though she hated Slytherin, especially during those lessons, it never came close to the depths of her hatred for Dumbledore, the man who had sold her off and even now refused to look her in the eye.

She could deal with Dark wizards - did it on a regular basis, once yearly and now daily - but unabashed betrayal was too far.

"Oi, Potter!"

"What?" snapped Harry, wheeling on the speaker. Malfoy, flanked by his goons, Crabbe and Goyle. How did they get in Slytherin anyway?

Malfoy smirked coolly at her. "I was just talking with my friends, Potter," he drawled, indicating his troll bodyguards, "and we were wondering how long you'd scream today. Crabbe thinks fifteen minutes, but I really think that's giving you far too much credit."

Last lesson, a demonstration of Extensor variations of spells, she had passed out halfway through class. Her jaw tightened. We'll see who's screaming… "It's more than you could manage, Malfoy," she rejoined. "You'd piss yourself before the spell was cast."

"It's a wonder you don't piss yourself at the sight of Slytherin," the blond said, eyes narrowing to slits in his pale, pointed face. "After all, it's as if he owns you… sainted Dumbledore doesn't seem inclined to intervene, does he?" Another smirk blossomed. "I wonder just how much Slytherin takes advantage of you, Potter. He have you warming his bed?"

Before Harry could reply, a red-topped blur dived past her, tackling Malfoy to the ground roughly and landing a blow to the blond's face. Unfortunately, that single blow was all Ron managed before a flash of spell-glow flung the two apart.

"Weasley. Detention." Slytherin stepped in between the two on his way up to the front of the room, not sparing either a glance; Ron was red with fury and Malfoy was sporting a nosebleed, and it was likely the latter had a broken nose from the crunch that had resounded. "Take your seats."

Harry sat as far from the front as she could, which meant the second row, since the Slytherins filled up the back rows on purpose. Opening the assigned textbook to a random page, she pretended to be absorbed to avoid the teacher's eye.

"Excube me, Profebber?" Malfoy was cradling his nose, eyes watering from the pain, and Harry cheered at Ron inwardly.

"You will not be going to the hospital wing," said Slytherin, anticipating his request with his back still turned. "Those who invite conflict would do better to be prepared for which they desire."

Another of Slytherin's words of wisdom. Or excuses; the first, "The one who turns a battle of wits into one of weapons has already lost," served conveniently to justify giving Ron a detention of the first day of term when it was Malfoy, again, who was maligning Ron's family.

Bastard. At least Ron had made certain that Malfoy wouldn't get off without some form of retribution. Serve the ferret right if his nose healed into a beak like Snape's.

Harry turned a page idly. On the page was a depiction of a woman under the Cruciatus. Though there was no sound, Harry's mind readily supplied the audio to go with the writhing, screaming woman's torment, and her lips thinned. The woman looked quite mad. Harry wondered if that was what she looked to the class, when Slytherin was demonstrating on her.

They were going over Category Two torture spells today, of which the Cruciatus was part.

Slytherin explained, "Category Two consists of psyche-bound curses. There is no damage done to the body, no nerve stimulation, and thus the brain will not shut down the body; there is no escape through unconsciousness. What pain the spells deliver is tailored to the victim's pain tolerance: Cruciatus, for one, will always be just beyond. Tormentus, exactly just. Lesser spells, like Adflictus, range from irritating to debilitating, but have no long-term effects."

There's something to be said for having a Dark wizard teach Defense, Harry thought dryly. They speak from experience.

"While there are certain advantages to psyche-bound spells, their very nature is their weakness," continued Slytherin. He looked around the room. "Can anyone identify it?"

There were no hands raised. Not even Hermione's; Hermione knew and Ron knew as well as Harry did, but none of them were going to speak up. Not this time.

The Dark wizard looked unsurprised. His eyes fell on Harry.

Recognizing the unspoken command, Harry shut her book and proceeded to the front of the room with less reluctance than usual, ignoring the sniggers from the back of the class. She took her place five feet from Slytherin, in an area of the room clear of things for her thrashing limbs to impact, and gathered her wits. If she wanted this to work…

"There is no 'overcoming' a psyche-bound spell," said Slytherin, withdrawing his wand. "The spell will always tax a percentage of your pain threshold. No more or no less. The more you tolerate, the more you suffer."

She bore the Adflictus without a word and hardly a wince. A headache.

"Roughly five percent," the Dark wizard remarked. He cast again.

This spell took her to her knees and tore a howl from her, but no more.

"About fifty percent." A third spell.

She dropped to the ground and screamed.

"Tormentus," said Slytherin. "Full pain threshold. It is possible to break a mind with it, but only during an extended cast - if the mind is given time to degrade in the duration of the curse. It does not tailor itself to fit outside of the initial casting."

Slytherin flicked his wand a fourth time, and this time Harry acted.

She rode the currents of the spell, focused on the pain until what was already unbearable was too much, and then thought about Slytherin, imagined him feeling this.

It was wonderful, and what escaped her mouth was not a shriek of pain but a delighted laugh, and the spell disengaged. It was not engineered to induce pleasure. But the spell was still in her system, and it needed to go somewhere - so she pictured grasping the magic with both hands and throwing it back.

There was a shout and an explosion, a backwash of the deflected magic that teased over her skin like dew.

And there was silence.

Slytherin looked down at his hand, bloodied and charred, raised a brow at her, and smiled. "Deflection of a psyche-bound curse," he told the class quietly, "is possible through exploitation of its weakness… which is, Miss Potter?"

It was the first time he had referred to her so politely. That, combined with the sudden look of interest in his usually impassive gray eyes, took her off-guard.

"It's a torture spell," she replied, reluctantly. "It's meant to cause pain. If you can fool your mind into believing it's not pain but pleasure, the spell doesn't work."

"And to deflect it?"

This was unnerving. Why was he looking at her like that?

She said, "Unless you want to drive yourself insane, you have to get rid of the spell somehow. Give it a new target."

"Exactly," said Slytherin. He glanced back toward the rest of the class. "Any questions?"

"I have one," Seamus Finnegan spoke up, a queer look on his face. "You mean to say… that to throw off the Cruciatus… we have to get off to being tortured?"

"No." Slytherin shook his head while Harry flushed. "Merely that one must convince him or herself that that there is no pain… or that the pain is worth it."

"How'd Potter do it, then?" spoke up Malfoy, who had apparently plugged up his nosebleed.

The flush drained out of her face. Oh no, Merlin no. If Slytherin made her say to the entire class that she'd made the Cruciatus pleasing by imagining she was torturing Slytherin with it….

"That is of her own concern," Slytherin said delicately, and Harry choked, hardly daring to believe it. Judging by the various expressions in the room, no one else could, either.

The Dark wizard paused, sweeping the classroom again. "Perhaps we should end this here," he said, and fixed Harry with a look. "Dismissed."

"Why is it you fight?"

The question hovered in the air, taking on the same ghostly significance as Riddle's anagram had years before, and Harry looked up from the sigil she was replicating to stare at Slytherin in consternation.

The Dark wizard hadn't looked up from his own work. His wand traced long arcs on the floor of the ritual room, elevating particular branches of the floor glyph for use in whichever ritual he intended to enact next. She still wasn't sure what the rituals were for, only that he found a new one to complete every few weeks.

"This war," Slytherin clarified. His tone was unbothered at having to repeat himself; two weeks later it was still bizarre, considering he had been as bad as the Dursleys concerning unnecessary questions. "Why is it you fight?"

If she had known it just took a little torture to give that man an attitude adjustment, she would have done it sooner.

"Well…" Harry frowned and ducked her head, unsure how to answer. 'I don't have much of a choice' won't work - I don't want the options lecture a second time… "Well, he killed my parents," she said quietly. "That was mostly why I went after the Stone in first year. He killed my Mum and Dad, and he would have killed me… if I could do anything to get in his way, I was going to."

"Vengeance?" offered Slytherin, favoring her with a wryly amused glance. His wand traced another arc with mechanical precision.

Harry ignored him. She studied the sigil she was working with and blinked as she realized she knew it. 'Ehwaz' - partnership. Odd. "I had to compete in the Tournament last year, since Crouch Jr. put my name in the Goblet," she said, squelching her curiosity, "and when I ended up in the graveyard, it was fight or die."

He was looking directly at her now, but Harry didn't notice, recalling the mockery of her duel with Voldemort.

"No, it wasn't even that," the witch amended bitterly. "It was just die. Die fighting or die begging. Die on your feet or die on your knees. I chose to die fighting. I just haven't managed it yet."

The last time she had allowed herself to vent like this, Harry had freed a Dark wizard from a portrait and been sold off. Freed this Dark wizard, she reminded herself, old anger flaring up in her chest.

"You will not die." Slytherin said it like a foregone conclusion.

She snorted. "What's to keep me from it? You?"

The Dark wizard paused, but didn't look up. "A wizard or witch that accepts death is a powerful one. Someone who, instead, clings to life by any means will never achieve their full potential."

Harry didn't know how to reply to that. Dumbledore supported that viewpoint, but Voldemort made a rousing argument otherwise. Not to mention he avoided my question. "Why?" she asked instead. "Why does the reason matter? You either do or you don't."

Slytherin appeared to be amused by the inquiry. "When casting a Patronus, what does the memory matter?" Tracing one final arc, he inspected his work and nodded in approval. "You will find that with magic, everything matters."

Harry wondered why that simple statement felt so prophetic.

Grimmauld Place was as close to cheery as it ever could be that Christmas. Once the Healers at St. Mungo's confirmed that Arthur would recover, Sirius attacked the house in a festive mood unlike Harry had ever seen him in; the stairs were decked with streamers, the portraits overlaid with holly, and the doorways were rigged with sprigs of mistletoe that transferred from threshold to threshold, making them impossible to identify and avoid. Harry knew he did it to get under her skin: thus far she had kissed Fred, George, Ron, Lupin, and Sirius himself several times apiece. The mistletoe stalked her.

There was another reason for Sirius' good humor, and that made her reluctant to complain. Sirius had conveniently 'made a mistake' in directing the wards, and had blocked Slytherin off the property, temporarily rescuing his goddaughter from the Dark wizard's clutches.

Harry smiled as he once again described, in detail, just what would happen if the founder attempted to force his way through the wards, and neglected to inform her godfather that if Slytherin honestly wanted her somewhere, she would be there, on threat of debilitating agony. There was no need to ruin Sirius' cheer. It was infectious, and almost made her feel cheerful herself.

Almost. The conversation she had eavesdropped on earlier that day lingered in her mind, and she excused herself and slipped off to bed long before the imposed bedtime.

"Moody seemed to think you were possessed," said Ginny later in their shared room, referring to the conversation they had overheard the ex-Auror have with Mr. Weasley.

Harry burrowed further into the covers of her bed, feeling cold. "I don't," she replied, equally quietly. "You forgot, didn't you? I remember everything." The chill of the floor on her belly, the surprise, irritation that the place was guarded, the decision to dispose of the threat, the sensation of sinking fangs into warm flesh and the feeling of blood in her mouth… Shivering, Harry tried to distract herself with the memory of Sirius' huge grin as he welcomed her 'back to the hellhole.'

Ginny was silent for a minute. "I don't think you were either, and I think Dumbledore's an idiot for suggesting it. I think-"

"Don't." Harry turned away from her, suddenly angry. 'Dumbledore thinks Slytherin's curses might have weakened her mind to the Dark Lord's influence, Weasley…' As if she could help dreaming.

She was not weak-minded. The weak-minded couldn't overcome the Imperius Curse, the weak-minded couldn't throw off psyche-bound torture spells - the weak-minded didn't survive use as a ritual ingredient. Especially not multiple uses. Not with the psychological damage most evoked. Harry remembered the paralyzing terror and voracious, desperate need that was the least of her reactions, and shuddered again.

What is it with this house making me think dark thoughts?

"Ginny," said Harry very softly, "do you… do you ever think there's something wrong with me?"

Why was she wondering this? She hadn't before…

Ginny was obviously taken off-guard by the question, and she sputtered some. Bedcovers and sheets rustled. "I don't think there's anything wrong with you," the redhead replied finally. Harry stiffened; there was a 'but' coming up. "You are different, though, Harry. You always have been… and it's been more obvious ever since Slytherin appeared."

I never wanted to be different, Harry protested to herself. If she hadn't been different, her parents might not have been targeted. If she hadn't been different, the Dursleys might have treated her better than human refuse. If she hadn't been different, things might have been so much better.

Might have been. Slytherin's little words of wisdom had mentioned that once. 'Might-have-beens are only such because they can never be.' It was absurd she should find that consoling.

"But I like different, Harry," Ginny added. The redhead was probably smiling. "To think, that everyone could be the same! That'd be awful. Different means special."

Harry had never wanted to be special, either, and she didn't particularly think she was. Lucky and obstinate, maybe. Her lips upturned nonetheless.

And then, she felt the serpent Mark on her forearm squirm, and a tide of euphoria bore her mind away.

She looked down at the cage in disbelief. The rat-like man within cowered, Silenced to end his whimpering and bound to prevent transformation. The bars glowed with the warm, canary-yellow light of a Containment Spell, and Peter Pettigrew looked up at her with his small, watery eyes, completely at her mercy.

Harry was fairly sure she had dreamed about this, once. Her hand twitched toward her wand pocket unconsciously. One spell, two words, and the rat would pay for what he did to her parents and Sirius.

"Where did you catch him?" she whispered instead, meeting Slytherin's eyes just so she could give herself time to convince herself not to kill the bastard. Alive, he can free Sirius

"He was part of a group attempting to court the Lycantar werewolves," the Dark wizard drawled, arching a brow at her non-reaction. "The others are dead. Perhaps they were unwarned that breed is especially violent." His eyes flashed with a moment of malicious amusement, before they sharpened. "Strangely, this one appears to believe he would be given mercy…"

Unfamiliar with particular werewolf breeds, it took Harry a second for Slytherin's last comment to register. When it did, it was with great incredulity and later, anger. Mercy? For this? After what he had done after her stupidity of sparing him in the Shrieking Shack?

"I learned better than that years ago," Harry snarled, taking a certain vindictive pleasure when the rat scrambled backward as quickly as he could manage, obviously terrified. Cool, polished wood met her fingers.

"So I see." Slytherin sounded bemused, but only for a second. He said, with studied disinterest, "It must have been quite the lesson."

"Yeah," Harry replied darkly, clenching her fist around her wand. Two words… or maybe just one. Mercy my ass. "When a misplaced sense of honor leaves your godfather on the run and ends up resurrecting a Dark Lord, you learn fast."

The Dark wizard absorbed this, and smiled. "So this is the servant," he murmured, grey eyes contemplative. "Odd of your Voldemort to send him in harm's way…"

Harry wondered what was so odd, as Slytherin didn't explain. Voldemort, best she could tell, held a special hatred for Pettigrew, different from the possessive contempt he held for most of the rest of his servants. There were a few - like the Lestranges and Rookwood, who had escaped from Azkaban - he held a bizarre sense of pride for, like one would for a particularly obedient pet. Wormtail was the opposite. The Dark Lord would gladly see him dead, it was just that killing the servant that had enabled him to be resurrected wouldn't be promotionally prudent.

She thought about telling Slytherin that, before common sense pointed out that she had little but 'gut feeling' to support her hypothesis. And it was Slytherin that was the Dark magic expert, not her, anyway.

"Wormtail has a habit of betraying his friends for the new bully on the playground," she said acidly. Like my parents. Like Sirius and Professor Lupin. "If it means it keeps his worthless hide intact, he'll do anything. Voldemort knows that."

Pettigrew flinched, sniffling soundlessly. The rat seemed to gather what scraps of courage his Gryffindor years had fostered, and crawled over to her side of the cage, reaching out with a trembling hand to grasp a bar and look at her pleadingly, pathetically.

"Help me," he mouthed. "Please, Harry, please…"

Harry kicked him through the bars, and he fell over backward, mouthing wordless pleas for mercy, and she thought he was lucky he was Silenced because if she had heard him invoke the names of her parents the witch wouldn't have stopped at a kick.

"You want so badly to hurt him, don't you," Slytherin remarked softly, watching her. She shivered, unwilling to admit it. "And you can. Why won't you?"

Her wand hand was trembling. She could, oh she could. Another side effect of having a Dark wizard for a Defense teacher.

"My cousin always took advantage of being larger than me," said Harry finally, with bitter honesty. Ron or Hermione in her place would just say 'it's wrong!' "Until I got fast enough to run away, he and his gang would tie me down and beat me up. Causing pain just because it made him feel good-" She shook her head in disgust. "I never wanted to become that."

Slytherin observed her a second longer. "This man has betrayed your parents to their deaths, sentenced your godfather to twelve years in the most feared Wizarding prison in Europe, and resurrected your enemy, placing yourself and all those you care for in grave danger," he said, voice low, almost hypnotic. "Does he not deserve to be punished? Is it not justice that he should feel the pain he caused you to suffer?"

The words struck hard. Harry shook, staring into Wormtail's fear-filled watery eyes - eyes that shouldn't be. He might have spent twelve years as a rat, but he had lived a peaceful, happy life during them, growing fat and perfectly content despite that Lily and James were dead and Sirius was being tortured on his account-

"I assure you," said Slytherin in that same tone, "if it is fear that holds you back… no one will know."

She snapped her head around to stare at him, her breath coming in jagged gasps, and he merely met her gaze calmly. There was no lie there.

Her eyes snapped back to Pettigrew's petrified form. There was an odd horror in his eyes when he looked at her that hadn't been there before, and he mouthed, "Harry... what would Lily and James say?"

Mum and Dad…! Finally losing it, Harry spat, "I'll never know - thanks to you!"

Idly removing the Silencing Charm with a flick of dark wood, Slytherin smiled as the first screams tore free from Pettigrew's throat.

It was a dream come true. Pettigrew had been turned in and put on trial, Sirius was pardoned and now a free man, the front of the war was blown wide open, the Ministry was gearing up for action. If only Voldemort were dead as well, and all would be perfect.

Harry watched, silently, as the dementor glided in, coming to a stop beside the chained Animagus.

"Peter Pettigrew, if you have any last words, speak them now."

Wormtail swallowed at Madam Bones' solemn command, breathing hard and fast. His eyes darted around the audience, landing on Dumbledore, on Ron, on Sirius, on Slytherin, coming to a stop and resting on her. There was no plea in his watery gaze, only the horror that made her stomach twist and knot in something that could not be guilt.

It was a dream come true… but the rat left a discordant note.

He opened his mouth and closed it, and then repeated the action. Shaking his head harshly, Pettigrew tried again, and managed, "Harry… I - I hope you're satisfied!"

Madam Bones' mouth tightened, and she made a sharp gesture with her hand. The dementor ducked down on the signal, lowering its hood to expose the wasted, leathery scalp and gaping mouth; ragged, rotten hands took hold of Pettigrew's neck and jaw, forcing him to look up. It was over before Harry really had a chance to comprehend it.

Sirius put a comforting hand on her shoulder and squeezed. "Satisfied, Peter?" he murmured, observing with a vicious smile Pettigrew's limp, inanimate form, "You bet I am. And you are too, aren't you Harry? Finally, justice served."

Justice. Harry forced a smile. "Yeah. Justice."

Her godfather didn't notice, turning to pull Remus Lupin into a huge manly hug. The two true Marauders shared exultant grins.

Harry slipped out of the seat row, looking around. The execution (there was no other word) was relatively low-key, as were all implementations of the Dementor's Kiss. The Weasleys had huddled up in a corner, and she saw Ron and Ginny holding on to each other, shivering as though cold. Dumbledore was exchanging words with Madam Bones, both serious-faced; probably concerning how best to proceed now that Voldemort had no reason to conceal his movements.

A short, wispy-looking witch was stumbling down the steps to where Pettigrew was chained. Her wrinkled white face was streaked with tears, and she fell to her knees beside the soulless husk, reaching out with a trembling hand to stroke his expressionless face.

Is that… his mother? Harry thought, thunderstruck. They shared a similar jawline, the same small, pert nose, and what little of her hair wasn't gray echoed Wormtail's dull brown. It hadn't occurred to the younger witch that Peter Pettigrew might have surviving family.

Mrs. Pettigrew stroked her son's locks lovingly, not looking away from she was joined by an officer from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. She and the Ministry wizard exchanged a few words; the man nodded once and tapped the chair with his wand, the manacles springing open. Mrs. Pettigrew gathered Wormtail into her arms and started for the exit.

'There will always be those willing to pardon sins out of sentimentality.' Slytherin's words from a few nights past echoed in her mind. 'For this reason, if no other, it is left to us to ensure they do not go unpunished.'

Peter Pettigrew had not gone unpunished. She should be satisfied.

Satisfied… am I satisfied…?

"Miss Potter!"

Harry looked away from the exit at the sound of her name. "Yes?"

A blond, bespectacled witch of average height smiled widely at her, revealing clean white teeth and took her arm, steering her none too gently toward a corner where Slytherin stood talking with Cornelius Fudge and a squat, simpering woman in a fluffy pink cardigan.

Well, talking was probably the wrong word. Maybe playing. That expression was reserved for idiots.

"I'm Rosaline Richardson, Miss Potter," the blond witch gushed, smiling sweetly. "I'm with the Daily Prophet. If I could just have a word?" One last tug nearly pulled Harry from her feet. "Lord Slytherin, Minister, if I could have a moment?"

"Certainly, Ms. Richardson," Fudge replied, smiling at the reporter.

"Oh, Minister, you're too kind," Richardson cooed. A second later, she was all professional. "This business with Peter Pettigrew - quite a situation, isn't it? Lord Slytherin, how was it you discovered Pettigrew?"

"Investigating the state of my affairs," the Dark wizard said without fluttering an eyelid. "The Lycantar nested on what was once Slytherin land."

Only because the Slytherins let them live there, Harry added to herself. A pack of bloodthirsty werewolves would succeed in keeping unwanted callers away.

Richardson asked Slytherin a few more questions before targeting Harry. "Miss Potter, the ruling at Pettigrew's trial didn't seem to be a surprise for you. Did you know beforehand about his crimes?"

"I've known since I was thirteen," Harry admitted. "At the end of term, Sirius tried to capture Pettigrew, who Ron had with him in his Animagus form. Hermione and I ended up getting involved, and Lupin came in later. We all saw Pettigrew, and he admitted to committing everything Sirius was accused of."

"That's when Black himself was captured at Hogwarts, wasn't it?" Fudge mentioned.

"But he escaped, thankfully," said Harry, throwing the Minister a dark look.

Richardson arched a brow in interest. "Oh?"

I shouldn't've said that… "Pettigrew escaped when Professor Lupin transformed," she added quickly. "Without Pettigrew, there was no evidence Sirius wasn't the murderer he was framed as."

"I see," the reporter murmured. "Wasn't Professor Severus Snape involved somehow?"

"He was." Harry paused. Snape's fate could depend on what she said here, and she felt a heady rush of power, knowing she could ruin the hateful bastard with a few well-chosen words if she so desired. But she shouldn't… Dumbledore insisted Snape was a good guy, insisted he was a spy.

Slytherin was watching her curiously, and his words repeated again in her head. She made up her mind.

To hell with Dumbledore.

"Professor Snape burst into the Shrieking Shack after Professor Lupin and Sirius had begun to explain the truth," she said, careful to appear reluctant. "He had made himself invisible and listened until Sirius began to explain the switch, when he attacked both Sirius and Lupin. He threatened both them and Ron, Hermione, and me, and told us that we were obviously Confunded if we thought there was any chance Sirius Black was anything but a ruthless murderer and Lupin his accomplice.

"I suppose, knowing the details," Harry added, "his caution was understandable… but he refused even to listen. He simply wanted Sirius Kissed, and he wouldn't listen to reason at all."

"Monstrous," said Richardson, and her face was lit with a glow of excitement. She was getting quite a scoop; certainly more than she had expected. "And this is a Hogwarts teacher… I'm sure Lord Slytherin wouldn't approve of such immaturity on the part of his staff…?"

"Naturally not," Slytherin replied lightly. "In a institution of magical learning, both reason and maturity are required. Someone who allows a decades-old grudge to interfere with their behavior and treatment of children cannot be trusted to react rationally in extenuating circumstances."

The interview continued from there. When it was finished, Slytherin bestowed on her a satisfied smile and a nod, and left Harry wondering if she had unintentionally done the older wizard a favor.

Well, he cleared Sirius, she thought to herself. I can live with helping him out some.

"Hem, hem."

Snape slowly, slowly lowered his hand from the blackboard, the slight tremble of the limb the only thing that gave away how close the Potions professor was to exploding. "Yes, Madam Umbridge?" he said without turning around, his voice impressively void of emotion.

"Shouldn't you be identifying some of the easiest mistakes to make and explaining how to avoid them?" the toad-like woman said with sugary sweetness, marking something down on her clipboard. "With a volatile subject like Potions, you really should take preemptory measures to ensure the students' safety."

Harry could almost hear Snape gnashing his teeth together in boiling irritation, and struggled to master her composure before the git turned around and saw her grinning like a maniac. Potions class had never been more fun than it had been since Dolores Jane Umbridge had been assigned to investigate Snape's behavior and teaching. The Ministry witch, the Undersecretary to Cornelius Fudge, was to 'evaluate the caliber of education and determine if suspension until certification under the International Wizarding Education Confederation proves necessary.' From the looks of things, Snape wouldn't be here much longer.

Good riddance. Umbridge was much loved in Gryffindor.

"Given that these students have over four years of experience in brewing," Snape ground out, "I would believe they could identify danger zones on their own, Madam Umbridge."

"The Potions syllabus for O.W.L. years is much more difficult than anything they have previously studied," the Undersecretary said, all honey. "Really, Professor Snape… not only that, but knowing the nuances of these potions could significantly aid them in their Ordinary Wizarding Level examination. Given that there has never been a N.E.W.T. class of more than a dozen in all your teaching years, I would think that is reason enough."

Go Umbridge! Harry inwardly cheered. She wasn't quick enough to banish her wolfish smile before Snape turned around, and he leveled her a hateful glare that promised retribution.

The witch smirked at him. 'Bring it on,' she goaded inwardly. 'Get your revenge - or try - and Slytherin'll have your ass out of here before you can say Avada Kedavra.'

It probably wasn't wise to trust her life against Slytherin's motives, but for now, Harry didn't care. Snape knew that acting out against anyone, particularly her, would give the Ministry ammunition to toss him in Azkaban where he belonged, and if he went to Voldemort… well, the Blacks had taken care to preserve Slytherin's portrait rather than let it be destroyed, and she was fairly confident Slytherin would relish the excuse to disembowel the bastard.

Snape's eyes narrowed, probably reading her thought, before he turned away. Tight-lipped, he rattled off a series of common mistakes.

"Much better," Umbridge praised, sounding like an indulgent primary teacher catering to a particularly thick child. "Continue on."

Harry shared a grin with the Undersecretary. Dumbledore hadn't been pleased, and Snape was probably plotting vengeance, but turning over Snape to the dogs was probably one decision she didn't think she'd ever regret.

The sun was hot and high in the sky, and Harry was thankful for the cooling charm Hermione had had the foresight to tell them to cast on their robes. A few younger students were fanning themselves desperately as they crossed the street, hair pasted to their heads in a lanky, oily mess, and she almost thought she smelled the rankness of their sweat as they passed by.

"Merlin," Ron complained, "did someone screw up a weather spell? It's never been this hot!"

"It's not that hot, Ron," said Hermione patiently. Her cooling charm was a great deal more effective than the redhead's. "I'll admit it's unusual… it's only March - but it was hotter last summer."

"Yeah," the redhead drawled. "Last summer."

"Blame it on global warming," Hermione drawled right back.

Harry couldn't help but laugh. She hadn't been to Hogsmeade since that horrid day in early November, and the freedom made her feel somewhat giddy. "Can we go to the Three Broomsticks?" she asked. "It's been too long since I could actually finish my butterbeer." She was actually proud of that piece of work; it'd taken a week, but Harry had managed to wheedle a promise out of Slytherin to leave her alone for the day.

"I don't know how you managed that without getting tortured," said Hermione dryly, as they shifted course for the pub. "If it'd been me you were irritating, I don't know what I would've done, and I'm not a Dark witch."

"Know when to back off," Harry chirped. "I've had loads of practice."

Ron played the gentleman and opened the door for them. Hermione smiled widely at him, making him blush. Her insistence on courtesy was apparently paying off.

Harry hid an amused smile at her friends' expense. Glancing around, she found a secluded table and shooed them toward it while she headed for the bar, where Madam Rosmerta was mixing drinks. The witch eyed the bottle of Wizarding Vineyards covetously, but knew better than to ask. Slytherin's indifference toward underage drinking was one of his more enjoyable personality quirks. "Three butterbeers please."

"Miss Potter!" Rosmerta exclaimed, looking surprised to see her. The older woman smiled. "After you ran out that time, I wondered if you weren't coming back. Three butterbeers?"

"I'll always be back, Madam." Harry grinned, taking the three mugs the barmaid produced. "What I'd do without butterbeer…"

Rosmerta rolled her eyes, amused. "Watch it, Harry. With that attitude, you'll end up an alcoholic once you're of age."

"Then you'll see me everyday."

"And I don't want that, Harry." Rosmerta waved her off. "Now leave me be. I've got work to do."

Harry left the bar with a smile. She had always been rather attached to Madam Rosmerta, who had been a sympathetic ear during the disaster that had been her unwilling participation in the Triwizard Tournament, when everyone had decided she was a glory-hound. Ron in particular was still making up to the barmaid for some of his more hurtful words.

"On me today," she pronounced, handing out the butterbeers.

"Knew there was a reason you're my friend," said Ron, snatching his away, only to yelp when Hermione elbowed him none too gently. "That is - I mean, thanks, Harry."

Hermione gave him a reproachful look and rolled her eyes. "Thanks, Harry."

Harry just snickered. The Muggle-born witch's training might have been paying off, but only in increments. She tipped her mug, wordlessly toasting her glorious day of freedom, and drank. As usual, delicious. Not Wizarding Vineyards by a long shot, she remarked to herself, but she wasn't nearly as likely to regret waking up in the morning.

But there was something odd about the texture. Harry couldn't remember butterbeer being quite so thick, almost like honey. She frowned at her glass. "Is it just me, or does this taste a little… off to you?"

Hermione and Ron shared a look of confusion, before both took another sip.

"No," said Hermione after a second.

"It's a little thicker than it should be," Ron offered unexpectedly. "Probably older stock. I've heard butterbeer thickens if it's left long enough."

Hermione stared at the redhead in surprise, and tested her mug again. "You might be right."

Harry frowned doubtfully before letting it go. "Older stock," she repeated softly, and took a long draw from the mug, nearly emptying it. Unfortunately, her stomach turned, and Harry rushed to the bathroom.

Ron shook his head after her. "You know, Hermione? Harry has no luck."

Though the nausea that followed her episode in the Three Broomsticks persisted, Harry was determined not to go back to the castle. Ron, Hermione, and she went to Honeydukes next and spent an hour among the towers of sweets. The sweet shop was even having a promotion for several new varieties of fudge, including a flavor jokingly named 'Special Delivery' that looked almost exactly like owl droppings but tasted delicious.

By the time they had made the rounds to Zonko's and Scrivenshafts, both Ron and Hermione were looking strangely tired, and they headed up to the Shrieking Shack with Harry rather reluctantly to meet Sirius.

"It's hard to believe he's an Auror," Harry reflected.

"After fourteen years of being a convicted felon, you mean?" said Ron, plopping down on the ground to wait. It wasn't quite noon. "Think I'd tell the Ministry where to stick it, if I were him."

"Ron, be polite," said Hermione, and she transfigured a large stone into a misshapen armchair. The witch frowned at her result, but shook her head and sank into it gratefully. "Anyway, he probably will once the war is over."

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Harry agreed. "I think he's going to ditch England-"

At that moment there was a crack of Apparation, and Harry wheeled around in surprise. Sirius was early.

But it wasn't Sirius, something that didn't sink in until after instinct had her on the ground, ducking a jet of violet spell-glow. She pulled up a shield posthaste, and rolling to her feet again snapped out a blasting curse.

Cold brown eyes met hers for a split second as he blocked the curse and slashed his wand at the ground. Vines tore out of the earth and went for her legs; Harry leaped to the side, shouting, "Ignis Infernus!"

Hungry black fire poured from her wand's tip. Wisely her attacker dodged the hellfire, countering with another jet of violet light and a thick grey mist that he tossed off the end of his wand toward the only place she could dodge.

Harry couldn't back away, because Ron and Hermione had yet to even move, and backing away would leave them defenseless. So she traced a complicated figure with her wand and hoped her spell would be enough. "Caelum praesidium!"

A golden square of energy caught the violet light, but the mist sank right in, corrupting the shield; it was then she recognized the curse from Defense Against the Dark Arts. The Curse of the Crawling Death - Harry prayed her godfather would arrive soon. She didn't stand a chance in hell against magic of that caliber.

Those that are forced to the defensive lay the foundation for their own destruction.

She had to hold him until Sirius came.

"Tendere," she cast, slicing holly through the air. The Stretching Spell bounced off a deflecting shield but she had already moved. "Ignis Infernus - Accio feet!"

The attacker managed to cast another shield before her summoning charm landed him on his back, but Harry dived in close, not letting him get the distance required for area-of-effect spellcasting.

"Clades Flagellatus!"

At this range, there was no way for her opponent to dodge. Instead, he Disapparated.

Harry toppled over with the force of her own momentum and lay panting on the ground, staring at her wand as though it betrayed her as the curse withered away.

"Harry," said Hermione, quiet with shock. "That spell… what were you thinking? That spell is so illegal it's sickening!"

Harry ducked her head, guilt making her earlier nausea return in force. It wasn't the first time she had used that spell, even if Hermione didn't know. "I don't know," she whispered. But the attacker wasn't Pettigrew; she had no excuse. No justification. Why hadn't she used a Stunning Spell? Why a Scourging Curse? "I don't know."

Hellfire crackled in the background, and that was the scene when Sirius finally arrived, five minutes later.

Did anyone get the registration number of the hippogriff that trampled me?

She awoke feeling as though someone had taken grave offense to her existence and tried to end it as painfully as possible. Would that they had succeeded; her head in particular ached and throbbed in the assurance that she was very, very hung over.

Just what did I do last night? Harry tried to think back, but the thrumming in her temples was very distracting. Obviously she'd gotten drunk, so that meant she'd been with Slytherin… Why had she been with Slytherin?

Drawing a blank.

wait, wait - the spell… That was it, Harry had come to ask him about the spell. There was dark magic and then there was Dark Magic, and she had been under the impression the Scourging Curse was non-addictive. It all was to an extent, but even the most staunch Light wizard used lesser dark arts in battle magic.

The illegality of the Scourging Curse was due to its effects. The magical cat-o'-nine-tails… Wasn't that what Slytherin had said…?

Ah, to hell with it. Harry allowed her eyes to open ever so slightly, relieved to find the room she was in was dimly lit.

"Awake at last?"

Harry whimpered pathetically as the abnormally loud voice pierced her poor, abused head, and tried to roll over, only to discover something else. The rustle of the sheets as she moved wasn't muffled, and they were extremely soft and smooth on her naked skin. Where's my clothes?

She felt the first stirring of unease, but tamped it down mercilessly. Slytherin must've taken advantage of her state of inebriation to enact another ritual.

That decided, Harry wondered if it was worth the effort to beg Slytherin for a hangover potion. She had been hung over before, but Merlin forbid, it'd never been this bad. Her head was pounding.

"Get up, Harlas. Now."

Did he just call me Harlas? thought Harry, stupefied. She had long wondered if her father had overdid it on the Firewhiskey the night she was born. Or if her name was the result of a bet. No one called her by her proper name, not even the Dursleys, who held that Harry was an entirely male nickname. Where did the founder even hear it?

Slytherin was probably getting annoyed, she realized, and the hung over witch tried to formulate a reply, which came out as a unintelligible groan. Her stomach heaved once, twice, and despite the torture it caused her head, Harry threw herself over the edge of the bed so that she vomited on the floor instead of the sheets.


"Disgusting," Slytherin remarked, but the dry humor in the tone softened the word somewhat as he Vanished the mess.

It didn't keep her from blushing madly, though, when Harry looked up blearily to realize she had been sick right at the Dark wizard's feet, which were bare.

"You will find your spectacles, your wand, and a fresh robe over there," he said, pointing to a nightstand off to her right. "I trust you can clothe yourself?"

Harry flushed darker, scrambling over to the indicated place. It didn't hurt her head so much, thankfully. Despite the nasty aftertaste, she always felt better after barfing. If only she weren't so sore, she could call it a good night's work. The witch frowned in the midst of shrugging on the robe; it felt odd to wear it without even her underwear or bra.

"Professor?" she ventured, careful to form each word. "…Where are my clothes?"

"I burned them," Slytherin replied. A pause. "Not that there remained much to dispose of. Everything was ripped to tatters."

Harry swallowed, her earlier flicker of unease turning to alarm. Just a ritual, just a ritual… Although her head was clearing some, she didn't dare search her memories of the previous night. Harry put her free arm through the robe's empty sleeve and fastened it closed, pretending it didn't hang too loose and that the bottom didn't trail on the floor.

There were footsteps, and then a hand appeared on her shoulder. Slytherin's: he was too close, too intimate. She could smell him, and the smell was too familiar.

"But you know that," he hissed into her ear, making her shiver. His other arm encircled her waist and pulled her against his chest. "Don't you."

Harry moaned wordlessly as he nuzzled her neck, leaning into him without realizing it.

"Feel free to come to me for anything," he murmured. "Be it in my power, I will deliver."

Slytherin released her and stepped away, and for a second Harry thought she was going to follow. Her willpower lasted until the Dark wizard left the room, and she collapsed to her knees, coming to terms with the dirty certainty that at some point she would be coming back.

Not even Sirius would ever forgive her for this, after all. And Harry was afraid her friendship with Ron and Hermione was already as good as gone.

Harry shifted her weight from foot to foot in anxiety the threatened to turn to full-out panic. She could think of several reasons that Dumbledore had finally deigned to summon her to his office, none of which boded well for her: the Scourging Curse, her benders with Slytherin, or, if she was lucky, Snape's suspension. Harry could state her case against the greasy bastard, but she had no excuse for the others. She could be expelled. Probably would be.

Or worse. The Scourging Curse was right up there with the Unforgivables in severity. She could die in Azkaban.

Maybe he doesn't know, maybe Ron and Hermione didn't tell him… They hadn't corrected her when she'd left it out of her description of her duel with the assassin. Maybe he doesn't know…

Harry would have to pray that was the case. She couldn't trust Dumbledore at all.

"You asked for me, Professor?" she asked.

Dumbledore gazed at her, silent, for a long moment, as though waiting for her to burst. When she didn't, he replied, "I did, Miss Potter. I called Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley to my office yesterday to hear their accounts of your assault in Hogsmeade. I found their descriptions were quite illuminating."

Oh shit. Oh shit, oh shit…. Harry struggled to retain her composure. "Illuminating, Professor?"

"Yes." The headmaster frowned slightly, meeting her eyes squarely for the first time all year, and she felt a very familiar soft probing. Angrily, Harry countered with a mental swat that caused the probe to cease. "Illuminating," he continued, skillfully masking his surprise. "Sirius' retelling of your version of events bore no explanation for your friends' lack of assistance in driving off the attacker."

Relief flooded into the witch. So Ron and Hermione had covered for her after all? Perhaps their friendship was not lost. "I wondered about that myself," Harry offered. "We weren't in Hogsmeade long, but they seemed really worn out."

He nodded, his expression still inscrutable. "Madam Pomfrey performed a scan once you and your friends were situated in the Hospital Wing. Both Miss Granger's and Mr. Weasley's blood showed high quantities of Sedation Solution. There were traces of the potion in your bloodstream as well."

"The butterbeer," said Harry at once. Sedation Solution! Restricted, it was generally used on the mentally disabled to prevent magical accidents, and the main side effect was lethargy. "We went to the Three Broomsticks first, and the butterbeer was thicker than it should have been… Ron said that it was probably aged, that butterbeer did that if it sat too long."

"And it does," Dumbledore verified. "But for future reference, Harry, you can rest assured that Madam Rosmerta is careful to see that stock does not get that old. It takes several years."

"It still tasted good," the witch argued, feeling her face heat, "even if I must have drunk it too fast. I ended up barfing it back up."

The headmaster didn't answer, preferring to study his interlocked fingers. The look on his face had turned pensive. "Miss Potter," he murmured at length, "if I may be so brazen as to ask… Lord Slytherin has used you several times in various rituals, has he not?"

Harry blinked and frowned, taken off-guard at the uncomfortable change in topic. "…yes, he has. Why?"

"Many rituals enacted by Dark wizards are engineered to protect the wizard from worldly ills, such as sickness and poisons. Or, as the case may be, debilitating potions." Dumbledore nodded at her look of dawning comprehension. "Most of these rituals are difficult to perform on oneself, however. I find it likely Lord Slytherin is using you as the intermediary for his protections."

That would explain why I vomited that butterbeer. That's never happened before, and I always drink fast… Harry nodded vaguely. Strange, she hadn't expected being Slytherin's guinea pig could actually have benefit.

"Harry…" Dumbledore paused, choosing his words with great care. "I realize you may have lost a great deal of faith in me, and for that, I apologize. I must entreat you to be careful, however… any ritual with its roots in Dark magic is a powerful seducer. If you feel any urge to cast Dark magic, please come to me. I will deal with it."

Deal with it. Harry didn't like the sound of that at all. "Deal with it how?" she hedged.

Dumbledore didn't want to answer. "Dark magic corrupts," he rejoined cryptically. "It would be a matter of removing the corruption."

"Something that would doubtless be excruciatingly painful." Harry didn't mean to say it, but the headmaster's minute wince alarmed her. She was probably closer to the truth than she had thought.

"Yes, it would be painful," he admitted reluctantly. "But less painful than the knowledge that you have fallen to the level of those that killed your parents and endanger your friends."

Harry summarized, "A sacrifice for the greater good."

Relieved she seemed to understand, Dumbledore nodded at her, favoring her with a small smile.

Oh, I understand, Harry thought, all her earlier nervousness replaced by seething fury. You think I'll sacrifice myself for you? After everything else you've done?

Not a chance in hell.

Nursing a glass of Wizarding Vineyards, Harry stared unseeingly at the wall. Slytherin had left her hours ago - to grieve, in her own way. She hadn't known Bill well, but Bill was a Weasley, and the Weasleys were her family, even if they weren't. Their loss was her loss, and Bill's loss could be felt keenly. It wasn't that he was dead; he had survived the attack. It was just that he might have preferred not to.

Werewolves, after all, were not permitted to have children.

And he was going to be married. Harry remembered Fleur. The part-veela had pronounced her a 'desperate little girl' and they had never gotten along, even after she had rescued Gabrielle from the lake. That didn't matter, though. Bill had been engaged to be married, and now he was a werewolf.

Harry took a long swallow from her glass, thankful that the Room of Requirement refilled it for her. How much had she drunk? The witch didn't know. Too much, probably.

"Well look what I've found," an irritatingly familiar drawl cut in. "Scarhead, drinking."

Yeah, too much. How'd he sneak up on me?

"You'll be in trouble now, Potter. Indulging in-" He broke off. "Is that Wizarding Vineyards?"

Harry snorted, choking on a swallow and nearly spilling wine down her front. That would have been such a waste. "Yup, Malfoy. Old stuff. Good stuff, too, you know. Nothing like it." She turned to look at him and snickered again; his expression was so incredulous it was hilarious.

"No shit, Potter," Malfoy sputtered. "You're going on a bender with Wizarding Vineyards? Do you know how rare that stuff is?"

"Worth more 'n your first-born son," Harry rejoined, snickering again. "Not that any Malfoy's worth much…." The blond gritted his teeth in anger as she knocked back another glass. "An' no Malfoy'd taste half as good."

He choked, blood rushing to his cheeks. She wasn't sure just what she had said had been so embarrassing, which was too bad, because it would have been good ammunition in the future. When she wasn't… tipsy. When she wasn't grieving for Bill's loss.

Remembering just what had provoked her drinking spree sobered Harry some. She muttered, not intending for Malfoy to hear, "Worth more than any first born son. He'll never have one, never have one now…"

Damn Malfoy, he's ruining my mood.

The pureblood's eyes gleamed at her comment, seeing a venue of attack. "'Never have one'?" he repeated, and laughed. "You're getting drunk over Weasley, aren't you? I heard the oldest one got turned by Greyback - that's one Weasel that won't be allowed to breed, thank Merlin. There's too many of them."

Harry's eyes narrowed, the alcohol serving no buffer against the words. "I happen ta think there's too many Malfoys 'n the world," the witch replied, and then paused as something occurred to her. She could stop that, end them. Couldn't she? "No more Malfoys…?"

"You'll be long dead before-" Malfoy started to say, only for Harry to cut him off with a sloppy kiss that didn't quite land on the lips. He tried to pull away, obviously alarmed, but she relayed a mental request to the Room and knocked him off balance, landing on top of him on a large bed.

Slytherin had destroyed any chance of her having a proper family. It was about time she made use of that.

Harry rushed through the corridors of Hogwarts, worry twined with anger boiling in her gut. Hopefully Slytherin would be in his office; she didn't have time to go to Gryffindor Tower and retrieve the Map to find him. Sirius didn't have the time.

Damn Dumbledore! The arrogant old bastard!

She had gone to old man first with her vision. Slytherin hated Sirius, and Harry didn't think it likely she would find much help there. But no, Sirius was investigating something, yes we would know if he'd been captured, no we can't contact him… bastard. She bloody well knew what mental contamination felt like, having been on the receiving end of it from Slytherin, Dumbledore, and to a lesser extent Voldemort all year.

Voldemort had given her that vision on purpose. Because it was true.

I have to save him… Harry couldn't let Sirius die. Her godfather had gone through too much, lost too much already. She couldn't stand aside and let him be tortured. Or worse - Harry couldn't identify the purpose of the raised patterns in the ritual room floor in the vision, but she knew few rituals meant well for the sacrifice.

Steeling her nerve, Harry prepared to hammer on the office door, only to have it open before her fist could make contact. She lowered her fist and shut her mouth, everything she'd planned to say somehow getting stuck in her throat.

"Is there something you need?" Slytherin inquired, arching an eyebrow at her.

Harry swallowed, averting her eyes. It was hard looking at him in class, when uncomfortable mental pictures popped into her head at the worst of times, but when he used that tone, soft with a deeply buried note of dark humor… She could feel herself blushing, but it wasn't enough to distract her entirely. "Voldemort's captured Sirius," the witch said, because that was all she could manage.

The dark wizard just looked at her, not replying, an unspoken 'and I should care, why?' apparent in his posture. She sucked in another breath.

"I… I -" don't want him to die! -she stopped. A different tact. He wouldn't help unless he got something, and there was only one card she could pull. "You said… to come here, if I ever needed anything."

There was a pause, and his gray eyes flickered with something malicious.

"I did." Slytherin nodded at her slowly, stepping back from the threshold to allow her entrance. As she did so, he closed it behind her and took her arm, closing his fingers over the agitated serpent brand as though claiming her all over again. Speaking over her shoulder so that the warmth of his breath tickled her ear, he murmured, "You wish for me to help you rescue your godfather?"

"Yes," Harry said shakily, wondering at the strange knot that seemed to be forming in her chest. It hurt. 'Your godfather' now? Not 'Black'?

His other hand passed through her hair to circle her neck, and Harry felt the familiar phantom touch drift into her mind, sifting through her memories. The panicked rush through the halls, her fruitless waste of time that was her talk with Dumbledore - earlier, the waking dream, Sirius bloodied and haggard and defiant, Voldemort taunting and torturing, the Lestrange woman torturing and touching, and the slight elevated arches on the rune floor….

The touch broke away so abruptly it was painful, and Harry swayed, falling back on Slytherin's chest.

"Voldemort is in Ergyllshire," he said. His voice was tight; obviously he recognized the rune pattern - and didn't like the implications. "Arrange for the Light Lord's Order and your Ministry to be informed. I will take you there myself."

"Point me Sirius Black!" Breathlessly, Harry waited for her wand to top circling in her hand. For some reason, it took longer than it should to get a lock on her godfather's location, here in Voldemort's stronghold - or maybe it was just her perception. The sounds of Reductor and Concussion Curses mingled with yelled incantations and screams of pain were faded in the background, but they spurred her on. The Ministry and the Order had already taken casualties, and neither knew what they had been told was a "strategic assault" was actually a rescue mission. Or that they were nothing but a convincing distraction.

Her job, Slytherin had said, was to make sure it didn't last long enough that they began to figure it out. People were less inclined to follow a person if they knew he or she would throw them away for someone else.

The wand settled, pointing ahead and to the right, and Harry dashed off again. Not long now… Hold on, Sirius…

The walls flew by. Curiously, whatever material they were contracted of wasn't stone, but a dark tan mineral, too dark to be some sort of reinforced sandstone (even had building a fortress out of sandstone been plausible), but lighter than anything else she knew, which, admittedly, wasn't a lot. Actually, it was the same material that Slytherin's ritual room rune was carved into, a "rare mineral used to amplify magical effects."

Rare. Constructing a bleeding fortress.

…Why did that sound like something Slytherin would do?

Harry turned a corner and stopped before a fork in the corridor, recasting the locator spell and waiting impatiently for it to complete itself. Right.

The halls had begun to run together in her head by the time she came to a section she recognized from her vision. The walls gained a divider of faintly carved runes, half-worn away and impossible to recognize; the floor, a walkway of gleaming grey metal that sent tingles up her legs whenever her feet touched ground. A doorway one might call a deathtrap, with no door but a force field that shimmered with a rainbow of magic when disturbed by her breath. Above it, a warning: enter ye not those who respect not the power.

She could see Sirius lying spread-eagled in the middle of the floor rune, limp and lifeless, head lolled to the side and eyes closed. Not dead, thought the witch, and stepped through the doorway.

For one unending second, Harry felt. Pain - burning stabbing pulling grabbing screaming in your ear crying make it stop - the Cruciatus but not, but not Tormenta, not Dustatio, not Clades Flagullatus. Pain beyond pain, pain beyond recognition, comprehension… possession.

Then it was gone, and Harry stumbled through the other side, shivering and panting like she had run a marathon in a very cold place. It took a second to regain her equilibrium, and then she dashed over to her godfather's side, feeling for a pulse and steady, deep respiration.

Too shallow, Harry decided, and far too pale. A ritual of malintent. Must have interrupted it just it time, otherwise he'd be dead…

"Well, well." A high, taunting, distantly familiar voice intruded on her diagnosis. "Sirius' baby Potter, who would've thought? My cousin deserves more credit than I gave him."

Harry twisted around to meet the eyes of the speaking, and then swallowed hard against a tide of anger that welled up in her chest. "Bellatrix Lestrange." The dark witch that had touched her godfather in so-wrong ways. Disgusting bitch.

Bellatrix eyed her with open interest, like how a spoiled child would look over a toy that didn't work quite how she had thought it would. The ebony shaft of wood that was her wand she idly turned in her fingers. "My master left me here to collect your body," she informed Harry, almost curiously. "You shouldn't have been able to cross the threshold. It should have killed you."

"Well, it didn't," Harry replied, and then mentally kicked herself to stating something so inane. That was Ron's forte.

"That's not possible," said Bellatrix, sounding more like a pouty child by the minute. "Master said so."

"Then your 'Master' was wrong." Harry tried her best to sneer, debating whether she dared to lower her wand those fractions of inches required to cast a Rejuvenation Charm on Sirius. Compromising, she pulled his body onto her lap and voiced a question she had often wondered to distract the female Death Eater. "You know, I thought Wormtail was the only trash who would actually, repeatedly called someone their Master. Do you know how degrading that is?"

Bellatrix's wasted, once pretty face hardened. "There is no shame in calling the Dark Lord Master," the dark witch said sharply, losing the childish voice. "That is who he is - the master of our souls, the master of bodies. The master we serve now, knowing he will give us mastery over others as we have given ourselves to him."

Does she honestly believe that? Harry thought, incredulous and almost amused. "Dark lords don't give. Or share. And you're an idiot if you think Voldemort will."

"The Dark Lord holds me high in his confidence," said Bellatrix quietly, masking anger. She had stopped twirling her wand and now held it tightly. "He promises, and my master has not failed one word of his good promises!"

Harry couldn't think of a reply to that. Obsessed, disgusting bitch.

"And do you not obey the rules your master sets-?" Bellatrix asked.

"My master?" Harry sputtered, indignant. "I don't have a master!" Sirius twitched and shifted as she dropped him to the ground when she jumped to her feet.

"Oh you don't, do you?" The dark witch taunted. "Then what's that mark on your forearm, if not a Dark Mark? How do you know the Dark power, if you have no master to teach you? Why does Slytherin claim you if you're not his? Then how-"

"Shut up!" Harry shouted. The witch could feel Slytherin touches all over again like they weren't figments of her imagination, and the fresher memories of that morning made a knot in her chest tighten painfully and the nausea in her gut roil anew. "Just shut up!"

Her wand was up and pointed at Bellatrix, whose half-mad violet eyes were laughing laughing at her. The holly shaft burned under her fingertips, sharp and satisfying and screaming for her to shut the bitch up herself.

As if reading her thoughts, Bellatrix whispered, "Shut me up. If you can…"

Harry snarled, and the curse she spat was an incantation. Bellatrix dodged aside and incanted a counterspell, and the duel was on.

Neither of them noticed that Sirius had finally awoken.

Sirius wasn't looking at Harry.

The witch knew, even though she wasn't looking at Sirius either. Sirius hadn't looked at her since that one time when Slytherin had stepped in and saved them when Bellatrix was about to tear her apart, the betrayed 'How could you?' apparent in his eyes. How could she… what? Save their lives?

'That's not what you were doing…' her conscience whispered at her, but Harry shoved it ruthlessly down. She had saved their lives, held off Bellatrix until Slytherin arrived, and if the force-field had settled into a comfortable caress instead of a timeless instant of jagged pain and then nothing, it meant nothing.

…And it was too quiet. Dumbledore was looking at her, trying to meet her eyes, but she glanced around the room as though she had never been there before, alighting on this, on that, but never over there, because that's where Sirius was. Slytherin stood impassively nearby; the witch wished he was closer. Harry was wryly amused that the one person who, a year ago, she had hated beyond measure was the only one who felt safe.

The tableau continued for what seemed like hours; it was probably only minutes, but the tension coiled and coiled and no one was eager to break it. Finally, it was Dumbledore that broke the silence.

"It was quite the valiant rescue you arranged, Miss Potter," he said genially, but there was something flinty buried deep in his tone. "Sirius has been recovered and is unharmed. Sadly, the same cannot be said of many others who were involved in the operation - however unknowingly."

There had been casualties. No Weasleys, no Tonks, no Remus or Sirius, however, so Harry confessed herself satisfied. "Maybe there would have been fewer casualties if you hadn't refused to listen to me in the first place, Professor," she replied sharply.

A rustle of filthy robes alerted her to Sirius shifting uncomfortably.

"Perhaps if you hadn't rushed in so unwisely thirteen good witches and wizards wouldn't have died for one man," Dumbledore countered, obviously angry.

"Thirteen good witches and wizards died for what they believed in," Slytherin slid in quietly. The subtle note of malicious amusement made Harry hide a smile. "Do not make light of that sacrifice, Dumbledore."

Sirius jumped in at that, apparently unable to hold his tongue any longer. "Died for what they believed in?" he demanded. "They died as a distraction! You just threw their lives away!"

"For you," Harry murmured, and he went silent, glaring over her head.

"Selfish people," said Slytherin with a negligent shake of the head. "They died in battle against their enemy, Voldemort, Black; that is what they would believe. What you believe is irrelevant, unless you wish only to cheapen their deaths."

Dumbledore said, "They need not have died." He closed his eyes. "Loath as I am to admit it, one person cannot be valued as equal to many."

The Greater Good Doctrine. Harry rolled her eyes and argued, "I know. We've had this sort of situation before, haven't we? But if the many can't stand up and fight for themselves, then they don't matter much, do they?"

"Harry!" Sirius shouted.

"It's logic," the witch snapped, as though she hadn't heard her godfather. "The majority of people just do what they're told, and they'll live fine either way! It's the important people we have to keep alive, to fight another day!"

"Those that accept passively the changes in their world need not fear," said Slytherin philosophically. "It is those who fight change, or fight to instill it, that must grasp every wizard of similar belief as friend."

"Yes!" Harry exclaimed. She dimly realized she'd risen to her feet. "Exactly!"

Sirius exchanged a hopeless look with Dumbledore. Harry didn't notice, but Slytherin did, and he smiled.

"It seems your plan backfired, Sirius," Dumbledore murmured. His eyes were downcast, and he looked every bit the haggard old wizard of one hundred-fifty years. "In seeking to overturn the life debt, you have tied Harry more surely to Slytherin than ever. This time by choice."

There was no reply; the portraits were quiet and the office empty save himself and Fawkes, whose sorrow at the whole affair was made apparent by the pearly tears glistening from his eyes.

Dumbledore hastened to collect them in a vial. The healing power of phoenix tears justified their legends, and while the Battle of Ergyllshire had proved a decisive if costly victory, he had a feeling they would be needed. Soon.

The Light Lord sighed at the small bottle as he put it away. Yes, soon - because while they had won a battle in the war against Voldemort, they had lost a far more important one in a much older and far bloodier war, stretching back to the beginning of time.