***Remember the OOC and mushiness warning at the beginning of the story? Well, I think this chapter lives up to those warnings!

Chapter 7

Severus worked steadily, efficiently, through the hours of the night. Lighting the flames under the cauldron, grinding up the hemlock, measuring the dragon's scales, stirring the mixture…his hands went through the motions swiftly with a detached ease, which left his mind free to consider other matters.

He did not doubt his decision. Harry needed to be free and death was the only way to destroy the slavery spell. Severus would not allow Harry to die. No, Harry deserved to live, really live, and to be happy. Therefore, Severus had to be the one to die. There was no other way.

But he had to make plans. Severus did not know if Harry would sense the slavery spell breaking when he died, if the boy would understand that he was free again, and if it would immediately rouse him from his catatonia. But Severus did not want Harry or Dobby to unknowingly come upon his own dead body.

He did not want Harry to be alone to deal with the aftereffects, either, if the boy were to come back to awareness. Severus would need to send news of his death to Ron and Hermione. They were the only other people who currently had access through the wards. But they could bring others with them. Severus decided that he would instruct them to bring the Weasley parents and Albus. After all, though Ron and Hermione were strong and clever, they were still very young themselves. It wouldn't really be fair to place the burden of handling his death onto their shoulders.

He would send them each a letter, Severus decided, a letter with a timed charm upon it so that it would appear in their homes at the instant he died, and if neither Ron or Hermione happened to be at their homes when the letters arrived, surely at least someone in the Weasley household would notice and would be able to reach them. Surely someone would come to be with Harry within a few minutes.

Severus had already re-written his will earlier in the summer, appointing Harry as his heir. They had always known that the death of either of them would break the slavery spell, and Severus had wanted to be certain that the boy would regain ownership of all his possessions assuming that Severus pre-deceased him. He had also wanted to leave his own belongings to Harry once he'd grown to think of the child as his son.

So Harry would be free again and would own everything once Severus drank the poison he was concocting. The villa could still be his home, if Harry wished to live there. If not, then he could sell it and return to Britain. Harry would be all right. He would have plenty of money to live on. He would have his friends, and Albus would be certain to watch out for him too.

Yes, Harry would be fine, once he was free.

Severus finished brewing just before sunrise. The poison was perfect. It was a lovely shade of silver with frothy bubbles on the surface, its appearance belying its deadly nature. Severus placed a stasis spell over the cauldron and then summoned a stimulant elixir as he left his laboratory and climbed the stairs to the ground level floor.

He stepped outside on the terrace and sipped the elixir as he watched the sun slip above the eastern horizon. He had decided that he would drink the poison that evening, after dinner. Perhaps it was selfish, but he wanted one more day with Harry. And if this were going to be his last day, he did not want to waste one minute of it sleeping, hence the stimulant elixir.

The sun's rays sparkled across the water, turning the waves gold and silver for a moment before it rose into the sky, leaving the sea a deep crystal blue. A few wispy clouds floated across the otherwise clear sky, and a seagull's rough caw broke the stillness.

Severus turned around and went inside to wake Harry.

It was an odd day for Severus, even though he and Harry followed the now-routine pattern of activities…bathing, dressing, eating meals on the loggia, going out to the beach, sitting together in the library while Severus read aloud to Harry. The minutes seemed to alternately drag and fly. There would be a period where Severus thought the time would never end, and then all of a sudden it would seem as if hours had flown by. He tried to savor every second, and he kept hoping desperately that there would be some response, some sign of awareness from Harry, but the child was as remote as ever.

After dinner Severus sat with Harry on the loggia for a long time, holding the boy in his arms as he rocked them back and forth in the small rocking sofa. Severus watched the sun set…his last sunset...in equal beauty to the sunrise at the beginning of that day and he wondered where the time had gone. He told Harry all the old fairy tales he could remember and then they sat in silence for a while as the sky turned dark and the stars came out.

The moon was high in the sky when Severus finally set Harry back in his wheelchair and took him inside to his room. He changed Harry into pyjamas, settled him into bed, and laid his spectacles on the night table. Then Severus perched on the edge of the bed and reached to hold Harry's hands.

"Harry, I want to thank you for the past few months," he said softly. "I know that it has been difficult for you, and I am so sorry for that, but having you live with me, getting to know you and to care for you…well, that has been a very special experience for me."

"You've made me into a better person and I'm grateful to you for that. I'm grateful to you for so many things, especially for saving me and all of us from Voldemort. I'm sorry that it took a slavery spell to do it. I wish that it could have all happened in a different way so that you could be happy too."

Severus drew a ragged breath. "I wanted you to be happy, Harry. I've tried so hard to make you happy, but I've failed and I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry that it took me so long to see who you really are. I'm sorry for all the mistakes I've made and for all the things I've said and done that have hurt you. You said once that you forgave me for all of that, but I do still feel very badly over it all. I only hope that through my actions tonight I can make it up to you and that you can be happy again."

Severus brushed his fingers through Harry's hair and then let his hand rest against Harry's cheek. He leaned over and kissed Harry's forehead. Then he stared into the child's eyes and caught his breath. For the first time in weeks, it almost seemed as if there were some awareness there, as if Harry might actually be seeing him.

"Harry?" He whispered, scarcely daring to breathe.

But there was no answer and if there was a spark of life in Harry's eyes, it faded. Severus sighed. He must have only imagined it. He wanted Harry to come back so badly, he was seeing things that weren't there.

"I have loved you as if you were my own son, Harry. Remember that," he finally said, gently squeezing the boy's hands. Then Severus stood and made himself walk out of the room without looking back.

If he had, he would have seen that Harry's head turned ever so slightly and his green eyes gazed after Severus as he left.

Down in his cellar-laboratory, Severus resolutely filled a glass with the deadly silver liquid. He held it up and studied it a moment. He held his own death in his hand. For the first time he felt a trickle of fear.

But Severus had never been one to shy away from his duty, no matter how terrible or frightening. And after all, he had never expected to survive the war anyway. He had always known his days were numbered. He had accepted it long ago. Over the past few weeks, he had dared to think that he had somehow beaten the odds, but it simply was not meant to be.

He could accept death if it would heal his son.

Severus sent a silent prayer up, asking for forgiveness for his own sins and for healing and happiness for his child. Then he took a deep breath and swallowed the poison in one long drink.

It tasted sweet. He had time to think wryly that that was an unexpected surprise, and then a wave of dizziness swept over him. He felt light-headed and somehow empty inside. He swayed and thought he was falling.

Then everything went black.

"Swallow it! Please swallow it!" The voice was so hoarse and cracked the words were almost indistinguishable.

Severus was just barely aware of the voice coming through the darkness like a lifeline, anchoring him, and then he gagged on something that was caught in the back of his throat. Fingers stroked his throat frantically and then Severus swallowed.

At once the blackness vanished though his vision was blurry for a few seconds. Severus saw a pale blob hovering over him, which then sharpened into Harry's face. He was lying on the floor of his laboratory, feeling cold and aching all over as if he had been trampled by a herd of hippogryffs.

Harry was there, kneeling by him, holding Severus in his arms and cradling him to his thin chest as Severus had held Harry so often these past weeks, speaking to him, seeing him. The sight was so miraculous that Severus wondered if he had died and was in some sort of afterlife. But no…he probably wouldn't be cold and stiff and sore if that were the case.

"Harry…what?" Severus' own voice was so weak and reedy it shocked him into silence.

"Followed you," Harry said, his voice scratchy from long disuse. "I saw you…drink that stuff…and collapse." His fingers tightened convulsively on Severus' robes as he spoke.

"How…am I still alive?" Severus whispered.

"I summoned…a bezoar," Harry told him. His eyes were bright with tears, but in spite of everything the corners of his mouth lifted slightly in a tiny smile. "Didn't know…I could do…wandless magic."

"How did you know…about bezoars?" Severus had to ask.

Harry gave him a quizzical look. "You…taught us…in sixth-year. Don't you…remember?"

"Yes…but I didn't think…you ever paid any attention," Severus had to say.

"More than you think." Harry actually laughed a little for a second, but then his voice choked and he bowed his head.

Severus reached up and touched Harry's cheek with a trembling hand. If he had not been so caught up in the miraculous events of the past few minutes, he might have been disturbed at his own physical weakness, but right now that was nothing. He was alive! And Harry was awake!

But Harry was supposed to be free. He couldn't be happy otherwise.

"I wanted to set you free," he said softly, looking up earnestly into Harry's face.

Tears rolled down Harry's cheeks, but he shook his head fiercely. "Not like that! I don't want you…to die. I never wanted that."

"Harry, I know you would never…want me to die," Severus answered. "I was at the final battle. I saw you fight through five Death Eaters to save me."

He brushed at Harry's tears with his thumb. "But the way you've been the past weeks…I can't bear to see you like that. I would rather die myself than to know that you're in such pain."

Harry didn't answer but just bowed his head again, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs. Severus sat up and gathered Harry into his arms.

"Shh," he murmured, feathering his fingers through Harry's hair. "It will be all right."

Harry still didn't make any sound, but he continued to tremble and weep quietly. He shook his head against Severus' shoulder.

"It will," Severus insisted, but inside he had to wonder. How were they going to work things out? How could it possibly be all right?

For a long time they stayed, kneeling on the stone floor, holding onto one another, but eventually Severus decided that they should go upstairs. They needed to talk and the cold laboratory was not the most comfortable place for a discussion.

"Harry, why don't we go upstairs?" He suggested.

Harry nodded and together they stood, helping one another to their feet. Severus swayed slightly and immediately Harry looked at him in concern.

"Severus? Are you all right? Should we send for Madame Pomfrey or a healer?"

The irony struck Severus…all those weeks he had been so anxious for Harry's well-being, and now for the boy to worry over him. But there was really nothing for Harry to worry about now.

He shook his head. "I am fine. The bezoar banished all traces of poison from my system and healed any damage it might have done. There is some residual weakness for a few hours, but I am perfectly healthy."

It also occurred to Severus that if he had in fact needed medical attention, it might have been a bit tricky since they would have first had to contact Ron or Hermione and have them bring someone through. If he were going to live, and they remained at the villa, it might be wise to adjust the wards to allow a few others in.

"However, I do think perhaps we should use the Floo. I am not sure I am up to climbing two flights of stairs just yet," Severus said.

They helped one another over to the great fireplace. They were both still shaky, Severus from his near-death experience and Harry from weeks of not walking. In fact, now that he could see how unsteady Harry's legs were, Severus was amazed that he had been able to follow him all the way down to the laboratory.

Severus brought them up to Harry's bedroom and, still leaning against each other, they made their way over to the bed and practically collapsed onto it. After a moment Severus managed to plump up the pillows and prop himself into a half-sitting, half-reclining position against the headboard. Then he held out an arm to Harry.

Harry snuggled close to him, resting his head on Severus' shoulder and twining an arm around his chest. In spite of the dire circumstances, Severus couldn't help but feel a little thrill of joy that Harry was finally responding to him and seemed to feel some affection for him.

"How in the world did you manage to walk all the way down to my laboratory?" He had to ask.

Harry considered; then gave a small shrug. "Gryffindor pig-headedness, I guess."

"But why? I mean, why now? What happened to bring you out of that state you were in?" Severus wanted to know. "I'm…overjoyed to have you back. All this time I've prayed…and hoped…and tried so hard to reach you. But I don't understand how you knew to come tonight?"

Harry hesitated before speaking slowly, as if he were still puzzling it out himself as he talked. "I don't know exactly. You just seemed a little different today. I can't explain exactly, but somehow I knew you were going to do something, especially tonight. You said…you said you loved me. You said I was like…" he stopped and bit his lip, looking up at Severus uncertainly. "Like your son. Did you really mean it?"

Severus found it hard to speak around the lump that appeared in his throat. "Do you really have to ask?"

His voice came out a bit gruffer than he had intended, but he reached to brush his fingertips against Harry's tear-stained cheeks with loving tenderness.

Harry gave him a wobbly smile. "And then…you were speaking in the past tense. Somehow I just knew I needed to follow. I was so worried about you."

All the fear and anguish he'd experienced lately swelled in Severus' chest. "How do you think I've been feeling for the past month?" The words burst from him like flooded waters escaping a dam. "When you tried to kill yourself? When you wouldn't speak or look at me or respond in any way, no matter what I did? How do you think I felt?"

Harry gave him an agonized look and turned his head away, weeping again.

Severus reached to cup Harry's chin and turn his face back towards himself. His hand slid around to the back of the child's head and he gently guided Harry's head down to his shoulder again. He cuddled Harry close and murmured, "Shh, I'm sorry. I'm not angry with you. I just…don't understand. Obviously you were aware of what was going on around you. Couldn't you see how upset I was? And Ron and Hermione, too? Why did you go away from us like that?"

Harry just lay against him, crying, for a while before he managed to say, "I don't…think I can explain it."

"Try. Please. I need to understand." Severus said in a hoarse whisper.

Harry was silent a moment before giving a tiny nod and speaking in such a soft, low voice that Severus had to listen intently to hear him.

"All along I'd thought about maybe killing myself once Voldemort was gone. I'm sorry, Severus. I know you tried to help me, and you're wonderful. Really, you are. It isn't your fault at all. But you don't know what it's like to be a slave. I'm not worth anything. I'm not even a person anymore."

"Harry James Potter! How can you believe that?" Severus could not keep quiet. Once again he tilted Harry's chin so that his son had to meet his gaze. But while his voice and expression were fierce, Severus' touch was infinitely tender.

"I love you with all my heart," the Potions Master spoke in a pained voice. "I'm willing to die for you. Ron and Hermione feel the same way. Harry, you are so generous and noble and compassionate. I've never known anyone like you. Don't ever say that you're worthless. You are a wonderful person, the best person I've ever met. And you are most definitely a person. Anyone who says any differently will have to answer to me, and that includes you, Mr. Potter." Severus softened the admonishment by dropping a kiss on Harry's forehead again, touching his lips to the lightning-bolt scar.

Harry's face crumpled and he buried his face against Severus' shoulder again. Severus let him cry for a while, holding him and gently rubbing circles on his back to comfort him, before speaking again.

"Harry? Can you tell me the rest of it?"

Harry took a shaky breath. "And then, when you almost died in the battle and Madame Pomfrey resuscitated you, for just a minute I thought I might be free again."

He looked up at Severus, suddenly anxious. "I meant what I said before, Severus. I never wanted you to die. Not ever."

"I know." Severus nodded.

"But when Madame Pomfrey saved you, for a minute I thought it would be perfect. I would be free and you would still be alive, and Voldemort was gone. It would have been perfect."

"But then we found out I was still a slave," Harry's voice shook, but he kept going. "And it was…even worse than before, cause I'd had that moment to hope. I wanted to die so bad. I just wanted everything to end."

He sniffed and was quiet again for a time. Severus was silent too, his own heart breaking inside. He kept his arms around Harry and kept patting his back and after a little while Harry went on.

"When I woke up in the infirmary and realized that I was still alive, it was like…" his voice trailed off and he shook his head helplessly. "I don't know. The best way I can describe it is to say it was like this thick heavy black cloud surrounded me. Sometimes I wasn't really aware of things. Sometimes I would just sort of…go away in my mind. I'd think about my parents and Sirius or about things I did with my friends in the past."

"Sometimes I did know what was going on, and I felt really bad for hurting all of you. I wanted to speak or reach out in some way, but I just couldn't. The cloud was so heavy and it pressed on me. I couldn't break through it. It was so much stronger than I was." Harry sighed. "I guess that doesn't really make sense, but it's the best I can explain it."

"But you did break through it tonight," Severus pointed out.

Harry nodded. "I was so worried about you."

He looked straight into Severus' eyes. "I love you, too, Severus."

Tears filled Severus' own eyes and slid down his cheeks, the first tears he had shed in many years. He could not speak right away, but he hugged Harry close.

And even through his pain, he felt hope stirring again. If he and Harry loved one another, there had to be a way to make things better.

There had to be.