*This story begins at the end of the summer after Harry's seventh-year. Canon events through OotP happened. Sixth and seventh-year are different from canon, and are vague in this story.

*Warnings: Sensitive topics, such as slavery and suicide, lots of angst and mush, potential OOC ness.

*Harry has very recently killed Voldemort. Severus almost died in the battle as well, but was resuscitated.

Chapter 1

Albus and Poppy were working over Harry when Severus tore into the infirmary, any thoughts of propriety long forgotten.

"I heard…the portraits were saying," the Potions Master gasped when he caught sight of Harry's bloodied form lying in the bed. "Harry!"

Severus would have lost his head completely and rushed to the bed, getting in Poppy's way except that Albus sensed his intentions and, deciding that the medi-witch could finish healing the boy on her own, intercepted him.

"Severus, he'll be all right. He's out of danger now," the headmaster said quietly, catching Severus by the arm and gently guiding him to a nearby chair. When Severus tried weakly to resist, the older wizard spoke more firmly, "You need to sit before you yourself collapse."

Severus glowered, but couldn't deny that the adrenaline-based strength which had propelled him to the infirmary was fading fast. He sank into the chair and watched in tense silence while Poppy continued to minister to Harry. Albus quietly conjured another chair and sat beside him.

Finally, after an interminable wait, Poppy vanished the last trace of Harry's blood and turned to them. "He's going to be all right, physically anyhow. I've given him enough blood-replenisher to boost him back into safety's range and healed the wounds on his arms as much as I can for now. He'll sleep for a while and he'll be weak when he does wake. He'll need to keep taking the replenisher at regular intervals for the next couple of days."

It was Poppy's caveat, physically anyhow, that triggered Severus' suspicions, though he had already suspected, hadn't he? It was why he'd been so uneasy ever since Harry had left that morning after learning that Severus' near death experience had not freed him from the slavery spell after all. It was why he'd been unable to settle down to rest and had finally left his rooms to search for the boy. Severus could only feel bitter guilt that he had not searched earlier, that he had let Harry go off on his own at all. But he just hadn't been able to believe that Harry would actually attempt suicide. He hadn't wanted to admit that the boy was in so much pain.

"He did this to himself, didn't he?" Severus asked in a dull voice.

"It appears so, yes." Poppy's voice was sad.

"How did you know?" Albus asked.

Severus looked at him with haunted eyes. "He's spoken of wanting to die. He said once that he hoped he would die in battle with Voldemort and that he didn't think he could bear to go on afterwards. But that was at the beginning of summer, right after we'd enacted the spell. He had seemed…better…lately. I thought he was accepting things. I've…I've tried to make him happy. I have."

"Of course you have." Poppy laid a hand on his shoulder in comfort.

Severus shook his head harshly. "But I should have known. I should have…" he stopped, unable to continue past the huge lump that had lodged in his throat.

"It isn't your fault, Severus," Albus reassured him.

Severus just looked from him to Poppy and back again. "What happened? How did you find him?"

Albus sighed. "I had gone into Hogsmeade for lunch and I was on my way back to the castle when some children raced out of the Shrieking Shack, screaming and saying that there was blood everywhere and a body. I ran inside and saw Harry lying on the floor. He had cut both of his wrists, his whole forearms actually, from the wrists up to the elbows, and he had sliced a chunk out of his upper left arm as well. I tried to heal the wounds as best I could, and then I grabbed him and Flooed here to the infirmary. Thank Heavens we put in that connection when Remus Lupin was a student."

Severus didn't respond. Instead he stood, ignoring the weakness in his legs, and went to Harry, lying down beside him and taking the boy in his arms. The thought flitted through his mind how at one time he had been so determined to hide his feelings for Harry, as if showing affection were a weakness. That seemed so foolish now.

"Call me when he wakes, Severus," Poppy said quietly as she slowly headed off to her office at the other end of the infirmary and closed the door behind her. Albus left too, murmuring about some paperwork that needed to be completed before school began, leaving Severus alone with Harry.

"Don't leave me, child. I need you," he whispered. There were so many other things he wanted to say, but his thoughts were a jumble and he could only repeat, "I need you, Harry."

For a time he just lay there, staring at the boy's pale wan face, the brilliant emerald eyes closed as if they would never open again. But no, Severus wouldn't let himself think that. Harry was going to be fine. Albus and Poppy had both said so.

But how could he be fine when he was so miserable that he had wanted to die and Severus didn't know how in the world to help him? There just wasn't much he could do about the root cause of Harry's unhappiness. Severus couldn't free him from the slavery spell. His gaze turned from the child's thin face to the thick bandages on his arms, and to the one on his upper left arm in particular. Albus would not understand why Harry had wounded himself there, unless he had guessed, but Severus knew. Harry had cut off the slavery mark.

An alarm went off in Severus' mind. He hated it, knowing that it hurt Harry so, but according to the dictates of the spell, Harry had to be marked in some way, permanently. If there were any way around it, Severus wouldn't do it again, but he was afraid that the spell itself would begin to punish Harry for violating its terms.

Perhaps if Harry couldn't see the mark, he wouldn't think about it. Probably a foolish hope, but Severus was desperate. And now was probably the best time to do it, too, before the spell decided to act and while Harry was still unconscious and would not be aware.

Severus thought for a few seconds and then very gently and cautiously rolled Harry over onto his side. He eased the blue pyjama top up and touched the tip of his wand to a spot on Harry's left shoulder blade. He numbed the skin first, then cast the mark. Like the first, it was a tiny dark circle. Anyone would think it was only a mole or a freckle. Anyone except Harry and Severus.

With a sigh, Severus laid his wand aside, re-adjusted the pyjama top and lay back on his own side, facing Harry and reaching to hold him again.

Harry woke in the evening, several hours after Albus had rushed him into the infirmary. Severus was still lying beside him, holding him in his arms, when he saw that Harry's eyes had opened, though they were disturbingly blank.

"Harry?" Severus asked softly. "How do you feel?"

There was no response and Severus felt both heartache and fear at the emptiness in the boy's green eyes.

"You're going to be all right," he murmured, reaching out to gently card his fingers through Harry's dark hair and then resting his hand against Harry's cheek. "Everything is going to be all right, I promise."

Slowly Severus sat up, leaning over to brush his lips against Harry's forehead. "I need to call Poppy." He raised his voice, calling for the medi-witch and sat on his edge of the bed as she bustled in from her office, carrying another vial of blood-replenisher.

"Harry, dear. How are you feeling?" Poppy already had her wand out, running through diagnostic spells.

Harry didn't respond to her either. He kept laying still, his eyes staring at nothing and gave no indication that he was aware of Poppy, Severus, or anything else.

Poppy and Severus exchanged concerned glances, but then Poppy quickly returned to examining her patient.

"You're going to be just fine, dear. Everything is going to be fine," she said, unknowingly echoing Severus. "Your blood level is rising, but I do need for you to take another dose of replenisher for me. Can you do that, Harry?"

She held the bottle of dark red liquid to his lips, but Harry made no move to open his mouth. Poppy bit her lip. "Well, I'll just spell it into your system this time, all right?"

She did so and then reached for a jar of salve that had been sitting on the bedside table. "Now your wounds are healing well, but we'll need to put dittany salve on every day for a week to make certain they don't scar."

She began to open the lid, but Severus held out his hand for it. "Let me, Poppy, please."

Poppy nodded and handed it over. She stood beside the bed uncertainly for a few seconds before asking, "Harry, can you tell us what happened?" She might as well have been speaking to a statue as to a living person. Harry seemed to have been turned to stone.

Severus suspected that Poppy knew exactly why Harry had attempted suicide, just as surely as he and Albus knew. Because of the spell, because living as a slave was just too painful for him, for all that Severus had tried to make it bearable, comfortable even.

But they needed to get through to Harry, to help him heal somehow, and talking about it was the first step. But Harry seemed to have closed himself off completely and Severus had a sinking feeling that getting through to him wasn't going to be easy.

After a moment of silence, Poppy repeated quietly, "Everything will work out, dear. We all care for you very much." She rested her hand against Harry's cheek as Severus had done earlier.

"I'll put the salve on, Poppy. Why don't you go to dinner?" Severus asked after another moment. He wanted to be alone with Harry.

Poppy glanced at him and nodded. "All right, Severus. I'll be back in about an hour."

When she had left, Severus went around to the other side of the bed so as to be better able to tend to Harry. He carefully removed the bandages from the boy's right forearm first and gently smoothed dittany salve over the long gash running from Harry's wrist to elbow, and then re-bandaged his arm in fresh gauze. Severus then did the same with the boy's left forearm, all the time talking softly.

"Oh, child, I'm so sorry. I should have known. I'm supposed to take care of you, and I failed. I'm so sorry. But I'm going to do better and we are going to make things all right. I meant what I said before, Harry. We can do anything you want to do. If you want to be an Auror or a Quidditch player or anything else, we'll find a way to make that happen. Or you don't have to have a career at all. You've certainly done more than enough. There's plenty of money and I'll take care of you. That's all I want, Harry, to take care of you and to give you everything you want."

Severus swallowed the lump that suddenly came to his throat because of course, he couldn't give Harry the one thing the boy truly wanted…his freedom. Only death could free Harry from the spell. But anything else…he would give Harry anything else in the world.

But would that be enough?

At one time Severus had thought so. He had thought that with time, with Severus loving him and treating him kindly and generously, that Harry could accept living as a slave. He'd even dared to hope that one day Harry would be happy.

Now he wasn't so sure.

But he instinctively sensed that Harry needed to hear reassurances now and Severus pushed his doubts away to the back of his mind.

He then turned his attention to the injury on the boy's upper left arm.

"Oh, child," he murmured as he unwrapped the bandage and saw the deep wound. It wasn't a cut. It looked as if Harry had actually carved a hole in his arm, almost down to the bone. Severus was not the sentimental type. At least he hadn't been before he'd opened his heart to Harry Potter, but his eyes filled with tears at the thought of the pain the child must have suffered…both the sheer physical pain and the emotional anguish that must have tormented him for some time now, to drive him to commit such an injury to himself.

With tender fingers Severus applied the salve and put on a clean bandage. Then he took Harry's hands in his own and said, "Harry, I know this is so hard for you…it would be for anyone. But this mark isn't anything to be ashamed of. It isn't. You sacrificed your freedom to save us all from Voldemort. That took an incredible amount of courage. It was such a brave and noble thing for you to do."

He swallowed hard before continuing, "You are a brave and noble person, Harry. I admire you so much. We all do."

Severus searched anxiously for any sign of awareness in the child's green eyes, but Harry remained as still and lifeless as a statue.

Severus touched his lips to the bandaged wound. "Thank you, Harry."

He went around the bed, lay back down, and gathered Harry into his arms, holding him to his chest, close to his heart.

When Poppy returned, she came over and asked quietly, "Any change?"

Severus shook his head. "No."

She summoned another vial of blood-replenisher and spelled it into Harry's system; then ran through another diagnostic spell.

"Physically, he's doing well. The wounds will take a few days to completely heal, perhaps a week, but they've already closed. His blood level is a little low, but not dangerously so." Poppy looked from Harry to Severus with grave eyes. "But I'm very concerned about Harry's emotional state."

"Yes," Severus agreed in a pain-laden whisper. He bowed his head to rest his lips against Harry's hair.

Poppy sighed and came around to lay her hand on Severus' arm. "And how are you doing, Severus? You should still be here as a patient yourself. I released you on the condition that you would rest and care for yourself at home. And instead you've been very upset and stressed, too."

Severus shook his head. "I'm fine."

Poppy insisted on performing a diagnostic spell on him, too, before she was satisfied. "You're still weak, Severus, so I want you to lie here with Harry and rest for the night."

Severus nodded. It was what he had intended to do anyway. A thought suddenly occurred to him and looked up. "Weasley and Granger. Someone should tell them what's happened. They will want to be here, too."

Poppy looked surprised, but she nodded. "Yes, you're right. Do you want me to have Albus notify them?"

There was a part of Severus that was reluctant to agree. He couldn't help feeling a bit jealous of the close comaraderie that Harry shared with his two best friends, their easy chatter and open affection for one another. Harry loved them, and that knowledge hurt Severus…not because he wanted to take it away from them, but because he wanted so badly for Harry to love him too.

He also dreaded having to face Weasley and Granger. They knew he was supposed to care for Harry, to protect him from harm, and they would see that he had obviously failed. Severus dreaded seeing the condemnation and anger in their eyes.

But Harry loved them, and they loved him, too. Severus couldn't deny them the chance to be together now at this dire time…especially if there was a possibility that his friends' presence might help Harry.

So he nodded again and answered Poppy. "Yes, I suppose so."

"I'll speak with him, and then I'm going to retire to my rooms for the night, but I've charmed them so all you have to do is call if you or Harry need me, and I'll hear you," she told him.

"Thank you, Poppy."

She left and Severus closed his eyes. He didn't mean to sleep. He wanted to watch over Harry for a while yet. But he was so tired; he just had to rest, just for a minute. That was all…just for a minute…

Severus was asleep within seconds.