In the last chapter of this, I told you I'd see you soon. That didn't happen. I don't know how long it's been since I last updated this, and I'm ashamed. But I haven't abandoned the story. It's going all the way to the bitter end, even if it takes six months per chapter. Sorry for trying your patience, and I hope someone will stay with this until it finishes, even if I don't deserve it. So enjoy.

Chapter 16: Will and Spirit

Severus looked around him warily, taking in the faces that surrounded him. Poppy, as always, was a steadfast presence by his side, glowing with vindicated fury at the judgement. Hermione stared in shock at the place the dark spirit had occupied, disbelieving, tentatively hopeful, as if she hoped Lucius would never return, but still harboured the fear that he might. Potter and her boyfriend stood close, watching her anxiously, their twin presences a warm wall of support at her back. She turned to them, tears springing to her eyes, and ran to them. They caught her up, wrapping her between them, the trinity made whole again. It stung Severus' heart, a sudden prick of wonder, that at least here he'd succeeded in easing the damage done. Then he turned to face the final shade.

Albus stared at him, utter horror in his ghostly face. His gaze flicked from Severus to the spot where Lucius had been and back, desperate and horrified. He knew now some of the things Severus had kept from him. They all did, but it struck his once-master harder. Severus knew what he would be feeling. Albus was, in many ways, an innocent soul, and the thought of such depravity being visited on someone under his care wouldn't be long in driving him to guilt. Severus wouldn't allow that.

"Albus?" He walked over to stand beneath the distressed spirit. "What's wrong?" He knew well enough, but Albus must speak of it himself for it to be of any use. He reached out gently, taking the transparent hand and easing the ghost down to ground-level. Albus didn't break his tormented stare.

"Severus ..." he choked, striving to explain. "What he ... was it ... when? What he said, about ... a summer. When? Did he ...? You ... Severus?" The dark man put a shushing finger to his lips, and Albus stopped, seeking reassurance.

"Yes, it was true," Severus murmured. "The summer of Draco's eighth birthday. But that doesn't matter. It's alright."

"Alright?" Albus gasped. "How can it be alright? You were ... hurt, badly, right under my nose, and I knew nothing! How could I not see? He said you were almost dead, and you came in and did the usual things, and I never noticed! I never noticed that you were hurt, and I did nothing to help you! That year ... I remember the start of that year. I argued with you! I had a terrible row with you, I remember, and Filius snapped at me for being so hard on you when you had a point, and you were hurt. I did that, and you were hurt! How can this be alright?"

Severus put his hands on his hips in his best imitation of Molly Weasley when dealing with a recalcitrant son. He raised an eyebrow, and knew his eyes would be glittering coldly. He'd had many years of practice with dressing people down, and truth be told he was rather proud of his intimidating facade. Albus had to be snapped out of his guilt trip, and fast.

"Are you done?" he asked coolly. Albus' eyebrows shot up, but Severus continued anyway, edging his tone with that particular mix of mockery and disappointment that had consistently driven two generations of Gryffindors up the wall. "I thought better of you, Albus. I had hoped you wouldn't succumb, and indulge such a Gryffindorish display of misplaced emotion. But that would be too much to ask, wouldn't it? You can take the man out of Gryffindor, and all that. This is why I much prefer dealing with anyone else. Slytherins and Ravenclaws at least usually realise that what must be done, must be done. Gryffs and Puffs have to cloud the issue with all this excess feeling. It's frankly annoying."

He had Albus' attention. And everyone else's. He smirked, warming to his subject. Though he'd always had much more pressing concerns than house rivalries, it amused him to play on others' desperate alliegances and ideals.

"Allow me to make this clear, then. Your bleeding Gryffindor heart has no bearing on what happened, and never would have changed anything. Lucius commanded me not to reveal my condition to you, but likely I would have done that on my own anyway. You'd be surprised how many wounds I concealed from you, of my own free will. And do you know why?" He paused, to emphasise his next point, and watched Albus closely.

" I never told you, because I will not tolerate your pity. I would never tolerate to be treated like some damaged tool, to be tiptoed around and handled as if I were fragile. And do not deny that that is what you would have done. If you'd known how often and how much I was hurt, you would never have allowed me to do what had to be done. You would never have allowed me to spy, to put myself in the position I needed to destroy Lucius. Your misguided attempt to shield me from something you could not change would have ruined my chance at victory, and I would not allow that! So you should forget this martyred, bleeding-heart complex you've got, because you and Lucius may have been my masters, but you danced to my tune, and I refuse to apologise for it! Understand?"

He glared fiercely at the ghost's stunned expression, conscious of the air of wary tension around them. He bristled, furious that he'd gotten so upset, but meaning every word, and daring anyone to deny him. They stayed like that for a long moment, silent and watchful. Then Albus smiled sightly, a watery effort, but it broke the tension.

"I'm sorry," he said ruefully, smiling at Severus.

"For what?"

"I'm sorry for, yet again, underestimating you. I'm sorry for insulting your pride, and capabilities. Forgive me?"

Severus sighed. "Of course. I didn't mean to be so ... adamant. You touched a sore spot, that's all. I ..."

Dobby burst into the room, with Minerva on his heels, interrupting him. They looked absolutely frantic. Minerva opened her mouth, struggling to draw breath to explain, but Dobby's high pitched squeal beat her to it. "Severus! Harry Potter! Master Dumbledore! They is here! They is here, they is here, they is here! What is we doing? What is we going to do? They is here!"

"Who is here, Dobby?" Harry cut across, crouching down to try and calm the panicky elf. Minerva, her breath now recovered, strode over to Albus to fill them in.

"Albus, there is an army of Dementors outside! There's a couple of werewolves and a troll, too, but about thirty odd of those soul-eating beasts are sitting at our front door! There are students here, Albus! Not many, over the holidays, but still! We can't let them be hurt, but what do we do? Even with the staff, and the members of the Order we can get through the Floo, how do we stop an army of them? Patronus is for repulsion, not evisceration. We didn't expect such an attack, of such a scale, anytime soon. What do we do?"

Albus hurriedly laid calming hands on her shoulder. They went through, intangible, but the sudden cold was just as effective. She calmed. "Hush, Minerva. We'll think of something. It only requires calm thought."

"It doesn't even require that," Severus stated calmly. "I can deal with them."

Silence. Everyone stared at him in shock, save Poppy, who simply folded her arms and rolled her eyes in exasperation. Albus and Minerva looked skepticle, the Golden Trio outright disbelieving. Severus sighed heavily, and looked reprovingly at Albus.

"Did you forget so quickly? I escaped by destroying the Dementors he set against myself and Remus. It was an instinctive action, but I am well capable of a repeat performance. I merely require someone to guard my body. I'd rather not come back to find myself in their hands again, for obvious reasons. So. No panic."

Albus looked uncertain. "Severus, I know what you did. You separated your spirit from your body to form a soul-beast. It worked, yes. You destroyed the Dementors. But the cost may be too high. A soul-beast is a most dangerous and unpredictable magic. Few have ever managed to master it, and there have been stories, that some separated from and never rejoined their flesh. The danger is very real, and more so for you ..."

Severus raised an eyebrow warningly. "Oh? And why would that be?"

Albus swallowed. "Severus," he said gently, warily. "You ... have little to attach you to your body. I know, too well, that it has been little more than a tool, and rarely one you commanded. Your strength has always been focused in your mind and spirit, in your will and wit. I fear, for you, the temptation to abandon your 'damaged tool' and live as pure, safe spirit, may be too much to resist. If you spend too much time in your soul-beast form, I fear you may never return to us."

Severus stared, finally brought to disbelief himself. Had they so little faith in him, in his ability to control himself, in his dedication to the cause? Had everything he'd done and survived and managed so far warranted nothing but doubt? White fury eclipsed his reason, but before he could fly at them, Poppy decided to throw her spanner in.

"Stop this! You fools, they are at the door. They are here! We don't have time to argue this. Severus has offered a solution, and we haven't time to debate it. There is no way you'll argue him down, because when it comes to self-sacrificing acts of desperation, he's worse than any Gryffindor. And because of that, because there is danger, I will be coming with him." This was said with such calm finality that it took Severus a minute to realise what she'd said.

"No!" he commanded stridently. "You've never tried before. I won't risk you!" It was the wrong thing to say, he knew. Her chin firmed and a combative light appeared in her eyes. She wouldn't back down. "Besides," he added desperately, "someone must watch my body. I do intend to return, and it would be nice to find it in one piece." He braced for arguement, that they really didn't have time for.

"We will do that," Dobby said brightly. Everyone turned to him in surprise. At them. Somehow, another six elves had popped into existence around their cheery spokesperson. Dobby smiled cheerfully at Severus.

"We will guard you, Severus. We will watch over our prince."

"Prince? Dobby, the Halfblood Prince was ... a joke. A way to keep my sanity. I'm no prince." Strange. Dobby, for all he seemed slightly dim, wasn't usually so obtuse. But the grin on the tiny elf's face didn't fade.

"We will protect our prince, Severus. But you must do what you promised now. We will explain after. Work first, yes?"

Work first. The house elf edict. And with thirty odd Dementors attacking the castle, the most pointed thing said yet. Severus looked at Albus. The old man sighed, looking every one of his years, but he nodded. The Trio were already battle-ready. They'd grown tough, and powerful. At a guess, they'd be on the ground, dealing with the werewolves and troll. Finally, he looked to his wife. She glared back, braced and ready, and more than willing to chew his head off if he fought her now. And suddenly, he smiled.

"Okay. Work first. But we'll talk later, Dobby."

He lay down, folding gracefully onto the floor, ignoring the strange glances he recieved. The last time he'd done this, he'd been in the air, and it hadn't ended well. Better safe than sorry. Poppy slipped down beside him, her hand touching his. He turned his head to look at her, smiling at the strange intimacy. And he remembered the Patronus that had become his soul-beast, and the light of joining that had showed him hers. He closed his eyes, and knew she did the same. And he felt the memories flow, and the light build.

He opened different eyes, to a world filled with the ebbs and flows of aura that phoenix song showed, but here his own eyes saw. He felt light, and free, and powerful. He turned to see her, a beautiful silver owl, flowing silent and glorious beside him. He felt whole here, silent and free with his wife at his side.

And he felt them. The dark shadow of their presence clouded the landscape, spreading fear and despair that tugged at their spirit forms. He glanced at her, saw her own power rise to match his, and a thrill of exhileration flooded through him. He turned his raptor's gaze to his prey, to the abominations that dared threaten what was his, and with Poppy at his side he flew to meet them.

Well? I was hoping for more action this chapter, but I guess that'll have to wait for the next chapter, along with Dobby's secret. Next chapter will come faster than this one. I hope. R&R, if anyone's still reading. Thanks.