Disclaimer: I don't own the characters and I don't own this story.
LOUD AND CLEAR! I DO NOT, HAVE NOT AND WILL NOT EVER OWN THIS STORY!
This story is the property of Tang Guangzhen who was kind enough to give me permission to post this here. Any flames about that will be used to fry your ass.
He was…waking up? Waking up? He'd just gotten to sleep, damn it.
"It's all right. You're not waking up. And you didn't just fall asleep, actually; you simply haven't dreamed yet."
He could feel grass against his arm, rustling under the rest of him. His head and shoulders were resting on something warm, and textured like an afghan.
"Don't worry. If you aren't happy with the situation, I'll--how shall I phrase it--return you to your regularly scheduled dream. Though frankly, if I were you, I'd be avoiding that possibility like the black death. I had to bump something very unpleasant aside."
Harry's eyes blinked open. "Bob?"
"Hello." Bob sounded like he was smiling, but Harry couldn't see, because the "afghan" he was resting against was Bob in an Aran-knit sweater.
"Bob? What the…"
"It's all right, Harry, nobody's kidnapped you. You're asleep, and this is a dream. Well, except for me. I'm feeding your subconscious a few suggestions."
Harry pushed himself up; he found that the lethargy that had sent him to bed had gone. Bob was looking placidly at him, leaning against a tree, his hands now clasped over one knee; besides the sweater, he was wearing grey riding pants and black, English-style riding boots. Harry glanced down; he was wearing a sweater much like Bob's, but with jeans and his usual boots.
"Nice outfit," he muttered dazedly.
"I compromised. I didn't think you'd much like what you'd be wearing if I dressed you in the fashions current in Ireland the last time I was actually there in life."
"No, I probably…wouldn't have…" Harry was busy looking around. "Okay, so what the hell are you doing again? How are you…how are you doing this?"
"I'd thought of it before, but I doubted it would work. As it is…" a breeze caressed the top of the hill they were on, making the leaves of the yew tree whose trunk Bob was resting against susurrate. Bob braced a hand on the trunk and stood, idly brushing grass from his clothes as he spoke. "…it's only working because you're a wizard, and because you…trust me."
"Um…I get why the wizard part would make a difference--my brain and my mind are trained to accept ideas and processes most people's aren't--"
"I was referring to your natural gift, but that's probably part of it, too. If you didn't have the ability to organize and restructure, to order reality in your mind to suit your specifications, this would be impossible. However, usually, a wizard would trust no one enough to allow this to happen; your subconscious would have denied me entrance, just as it would have denied entrance to another living wizard. I'd've been tossed out on my ectoplasmic bum." Bob laughed briefly, softly. "I wouldn't have tried it if I expected consequences more malevolent than that, because I didn't expect it to work. I'm rather shocked, actually." He didn't sound entirely pleased, either; not disturbed, but speculative.
"You can probably only do this with another wizard, but another wizard…"
"Almost universally, another wizard would not have permitted it."
This was a nice dream. It seemed entirely real, completely sensory. He was in a beautiful place, feeling like he might be on some kind of trank or something--because nothing was truly bothering him, and nothing was even sore, which for him was quite a rarity.
And he could touch Bob, which was downright eerie. He lifted a hand and set it on Bob's shoulder, then stood there staring at it. Bob was just barely smiling at him; the expression on his face was almost doting. What am I, a puppy? Harry wondered, and then remembered that as far as age went, at least, he didn't even rate puppy, next to Bob. "…what exactly...and why?" He lifted the other hand and set that one on Bob's opposite shoulder, and squeezed both shoulders lightly, blinking slowly.
"To answer your first question, this is your dream. I can't dream, since sleep is something living brains do as part of their maintenance; but I can join you here. I waited until you entered the dream state on your own; there are a certain number of hours each night that humans dream as a part of a healthy sleep, and so long as I don't cause your dreaming time to trespass on any of the time you should be spending at other levels, this will do you no harm. But I'm…here, this is me. I'm not part of…what shall I call it…the dreamscape. Though I suppose I'm part of the aisling."
"I wish I could be more precise; but a mind without a brain is capable of certain things that a mind generated by a brain is not. I'm controlling what you dream, but the dream is yours. I'll stop, if you like--"
"No," Harry said, shaking his head; he smiled a little, looking around again, still holding Bob's shoulders like Bob might run away if Harry let go. "This is a lot better than the stuff I usually dream. And it's coherent, and everything."
"Just remember that you can ask me to take my leave at any time."
"I'm not asking you to, all right?"
"It doesn't…disturb you, in some fashion, at least, that I'm…inside your mind, in a way?"
"Are you mostly right here?"
"What's the rest of you doing?"
"Monitoring you, in case your sleep should become agitated, or you should enter an inappropriate sleep state. I'm also taking the occasional quick look around the apartment. I'm afraid I don't entirely trust our wards any more."
"I feel so violated," Harry said, rolling his eyes and leaning sarcastically against every other syllable. He let go of Bob's shoulders, resting his hands on his hips.
"Many would. Or threatened."
Harry shook his head, his expression indulgent. "Yeah, of course, usually--but come on, Bob. It's you. It's you, it's me. It's--okay--you're okay, right? 'Cause I'm okay. Really. Okay."
Bob didn't laugh. He just tilted his head and studied Harry a moment, then said quietly "Though I honestly didn't expect it…I'd still hoped--very much--that you'd feel that way about it." He lifted his hands to take Harry's, and held them loosely.
"Yeah, okay. So…um…wow," Harry said, laughing a little, squeezing Bob's fingers. "This is…it's…wow." He laughed again and pulled Bob into a tight hug. "And you can feel it? You've got all your senses?"
"More properly, at the moment, three of them are yours. Well--properly, at the moment, they're all yours, I'm--" Harry shook him slightly, making a growling sound, and Bob laughed. "Short answer--yes. I can sense everything you can."
"That's great, Bob, that's fantastic--you've finally stuck it to those overzealous guardians of the public morality that planted you in your skull. You can have--what'd you say? At least a few hours out of every day, at least, when you can--this is great!"
"It wasn't that simple, and you know it. Harry, listen--we'll have to be careful, not mention this to anyone. I don't want you to come under any sort of sweeping judgment yourself for interfering in mine. My transgressions were very great; but you don't deserve to have to pay for them simply because you trusted me enough to let me in, or because you're kindhearted enough to let me stay."
"Bob, you don't deserve to have to pay for them in perpetuity, until your skull finally rots to nothing!"
"It may be too late for that. I'm not sure what that carven thing is, any more, though at the moment I have an odd attachment to it besides the obvious one--"
"That's probably mine."
"Ah. Of course. In any event, however I may feel about my sentence and its propriety--" Bob backed up enough to look at him without going cross-eyed, "--and, more to the point, however you may feel about it--that's the price that any people must pay, who choose a rule of law for their own protection. If one sets up sanctions, one risks their being invoked against one, if unforeseen circumstances occur and one comes at odds with the same rules one helped to instigate."
"C'mon, Bob, I know what happened, and they clobbered you. You didn't get an appeal. You didn't even get to defend yourself. Unlike my uncle, you did do…what you did, for love. Summary justice isn't justice."
"Perhaps so. And perhaps I could have complained at the way the law worked before I found myself in the position of disobeying it, for what I saw as good reason; but I didn't. No one is likely to listen to the opinion of the already-convicted when it comes to issues like the impartiality of the law, or degree of punitive severity. And now I want you to drop the subject; this argument--yet again--is not how I want to remember the first time I ever touched you, even if it's a dream."
"You're right, you're right, you're right, sorry…" Harry leaned in and pulled Bob close again. "This is cool. This is so cool. Why haven't you ever tried it before?"
"When you were very young--it might have worked, but I was trying to teach you to be careful, to keep yourself defended. Asking you to let me into your mind wouldn't have brought that lesson home well. It wasn't something I wanted you to get used to; I had to teach you--for your own safety--to trust only to a certain point even those you loved. Later, I assumed it would be pointless; you are a very good wizard, and I know of no powerful magic workers who do not guard themselves and their power very jealously."
"I get you. We're a pretty assholish bunch, taken as a group. But tonight was different…why?"
"Earlier today, when I was about to leave, to enter the…darkness, I was distracted, but it was obvious even to me how much you were suffering for lack of the ability to touch me. You were frustrated almost past bearing. And afterward, when I returned..."
"Hell, I couldn't--I couldn't even…well, you know. When you came back, and you looked like all hell--"
"An apt description, under the circumstances. I was in quite a state, but I did notice your hands. You kept holding them out to me, or near me, as though you could protect me, hold me up if I were weak, like a living man." Bob smiled a little. "And a few minutes ago, I was watching you sleep, and thought of it--and wished there had been some way--and I wondered."
"So you thought, 'what the fuck, I'll give it a shot; if he doesn't like it he'll spin me out his subconscious's revolving door'."
"Something like that." Bob smiled again. "Less profanity was involved."
"Yeah." Henry grinned. "I'm glad you tried it."
"Believe me, I am as well."
His cheek resting against the soft firmness of Bob's sweater-covered shoulder, Harry squinted into the distance. "Is that the ocean?"
"Yes. Would you like to see it from closer on?"
Suddenly the rise of land they were standing on, yew tree and all, was a short cliff face overlooking deafeningly crashing breakers. Harry squeezed in startlement; Bob made a grfing noise as the wind whooshed out of him, and patted Harry. "Sorry. I suppose that was a little abrupt," he said, loud enough to be heard over the ocean.
Harry shaded his eyes, looking down, then up and around, the other arm still around Bob to help him keep his footing. "This is amazing. But warn me next time!"
"Of course. My apologies."
"That a beach down there? Don't zap us there, let's just walk it."
The beach was deep; they walked up to where the cove wall rose from the sand and the view across the beach and the water was unobstructed. Harry could very nearly hear himself think here.
"Surf's sure up."
"It'll be calmer after sunset." The sun shone horizontally into the cove, hovering just above the sea. "Or I could make it calmer now, if you like."
"No, I wanna see it the way you remember it. Where in Ireland are we?"
"In what's now Donegal, along the northwest coast."
"I didn't know Ireland had white sand beaches--and up the cliffs and around, it's so green…if you ignore how cold it is we could be in Hawaii."
"That's the crucial point, yes. Even now, the beaches are never crowded, because the water is cold enough to induce hypothermia in only a few moments."
"Are you cold? I can--"
"Not very. C'mere." Harry sat on a bark-stripped log, straddling it, then reached up and latched onto Bob's arm, pulling him over. "Here, get--yeah, in front of me." The log sloped downward toward the water; Bob straddled the log too, his back to Harry. With Bob ensconced in front of Harry and Harry's arms around him, Harry could see over his shoulder easily. "There. People with living bodies can keep each other warm."
"I do recall that," Bob chuckled.
"Did you spend a lot of time in Ireland when you were alive?"
"It wasn't a second home, but I was here fairly regularly."
"What brought you here? I mean, yeah, it's beautiful, but so was England, when you were alive. Where's Bainbridge, anyway?"
"North Yorkshire. As for Ireland, I was here researching druidical magic. Ireland, never having been occupied by Rome, maintained stronger traditions, even after the advent of Christianity. It's also wrapped in ley lines like a ball of string."
"Yeah, I remember somebody making me memorize a bunch of crap about that."
"'A bunch of crap'? Honestly. It's a wonder you ever became a wizard at all." Bob sniffed.
"I remember…the Romans were hell on the English druids, because they were secular authority figures as well as religious ones."
"Indeed. The Romans were notoriously tolerant of local religions. So long as Roman law was obeyed and Roman rule acknowledged, and taxes and tithes arrived on time, Roman acquisitions were largely allowed to worship whoever they liked, in whatever manner they preferred…unless their gods or their priesthood interfered in secular, civil obedience to Rome, as with the Druids. It wouldn't hurt you to make a trip to Ireland, Harry."
"People might wonder why I'm carrying a carven skull around."
"People in Chicago would wonder at it, for that matter, if you turned it into a bloody keychain fob. You can carry my skull in a satchel, like you always do. Of course, airport security might be a tad disapproving."
"You can't hijack a plane by waving a skull at the pilot, so all I'd get would be weird looks; you've obviously been dead a very long time--that skull couldn't hurt anybody except by tripping them. There's nothing illegal about owning a human skull, so long as you didn't swipe it or kill the original owner to get it…okay, there'd be serious paperwork, if I couldn't dodge it, but it's easy to fool an x-ray scanner. When did this conversation get so morbid?"
"Conversations with the dead tend to the morbid side."
"You don't feel dead right now." Harry squeezed gently around Bob's ribs. "I can even feel your heartbeat," he wondered softly. "It's incredible. You're alive."
"No, I'm not," Bob said gently. "But at the moment--I feel alive to myself, as well; thanks to you--to your life, your sharing it with me."
"Me? I'm not doing this."
"You're allowing me to. I couldn't, unless you were willing to let me. It's…it's a very great gift, Harry, far greater than you can imagine. Thank you."
"Bob…" Harry pressed his lips together, searching for words, and squeezed around Bob's middle again, resting his forehead on Bob's shoulder. "It's the least I can do. You gave up your own senses, went back to the…purgatory they've put you in, to wipe out my uncle and save my life. I know--it was all part of the plan. But it took a while to execute the plan, and I know how second thoughts can occur--I mean, after you actually had a mortal body, you were alive again--you could have been ten times as powerful a sorcerer as you ever were, with everything you've learned--and you gave it up--"
"Harry. Shh." Bob reached up and settled one hand in Harry's hair, his fingers moving soothingly in it. "Don't feel beholden for it, though telling you that is a waste of breath, I realize…but honestly, it was never so close a thing as you seem to think. My remaining alive would have been at the price of your death, and that was so far beyond what I was willing to endure to live again that I never truly considered it. My brief 'life', the one I had thanks to Justin's double, was…an aberration, a short fever dream in my usual existence."
"I dunno. I can imagine--"
"But I can't. I don't think you understand…well. I suppose I've never made it all that clear…"
"Made what all that clear?"
Bob sighed, sounding and feeling completely corporeal to Harry. "Being alive, and any ramifications thereof, weren't remotely enough to change my feeling for you one iota. It was never in my mind that I would remain alive, because I loved you too much for the necessary price…even to occur to me, let alone to be willing to pay it. When it did occur to me, it seemed like a joke--something ridiculously out of the realm of possibility."
Harry inhaled, and felt frozen for a moment, then exhaled in a rush. "Well shit, Bob."
"Ah, yes. Your sophisticated grasp of multiple ramifications comes to the fore."
Harry heard himself giggling into the nape of Bob's neck and fought for control. "What the hell do I say to…that?"
"Since you've already said 'thank you for giving up your life to save me and blow my thrice-damned uncle out of this plane of existence', I don't see the need to say anything at all," Bob told him comfortingly, patting his arm.
Harry began giggling again, more quietly this time. "Uh…can I say I love you, too?"
"You don't have to." Bob said softly. Harry knew by his tone that he was smiling.
"Maybe I want to," Harry said, smiling too.
"Say what you like, then. This is your dream."
"Yeah." Harry sighed. "Actually, I guess I've loved you for a long time."
"And I you."
"I don't think I ever loved my uncle. Admired him, and like that. He was…this figure, you know, this guy so far out of my orbit…I thought he must really be the shit, and I was grateful to him, taking me in, seeing I learned…but you were right there. This may sound weird, considering, but you were a lot realer to me than he was. You told great stories. You were my friend. I studied the boring parts and got them right to make you happy, not because there was anything you could do to me if I didn't. I liked you. I loved you and I wanted you to love me."
"I did. Very much. But I think you knew that, even then."
"Yeah, I did. Uncle Justin was…never really disapproving, but…there was that distance, and the weird semi-conditional thing going on. Not with you."
"Well." Bob considered the horizon, smiling a little. "You were a delightful child--intelligent, curious, sympathetic to the world. I'd have had to try very hard not to love you. If teaching you, spending time with you, were the most onerous service I'd ever provided your uncle, I'd have been far more interested in keeping him alive."
"You never lied to me about anything," Harry sighed, and lifted his head from Bob's shoulder. "You couldn't tell me everything, but you didn't lie. He never stopped, but you never did."
"Your uncle handled most of that," Bob said dryly.
"I just realized I've loved you for about twenty-five years and I don't think I've ever said it before now."
"As I told you, you don't need to say it," Bob said, stroking his arm again. "You've never needed to say it."
"I feel like I've taken you for granted for a quarter of a century."
"Of courseyou've taken me for granted. That's my whole purpose. But if it makes you feel better, what you're doing right now more than makes up for it."
"You keep saying that. I'm not doing anything."
Bob scooted around to sit sideways on the log so he could look at Harry. "You've welcomed me into your mind, into the very most sensitive levels of it. Do you have any idea what I could do here?"
"Um. Give me crappy dreams?"
"At the very least. Harry…you know this, but if I need to say it, I will. From here, I could get the foothold needed to possess even you, even a wizard. Or, considering the defenses usually present that prevent such a happening don't seem to respond to me, especially because you're a wizard. I could be one again, because you've already prepared this body for it with the right training, and by having the right aptitudes."
Harry shrugged. "You're not gonna do that."
"Of course not. But I could. And that's a long way from being all that I could do."
Harry had begun to feel thoughtful about the idea. "Of course, for all I know, it might be fun."
"If you did it, I mean. I wouldn't be in any danger then. You could give me back to…me. What do you think you'd do first if you borrowed my body for a while?"
"Slap myself in the face repeatedly until I stopped considering such a ridiculous notion. I am not going to possess you; neither is anyone else--no matter how trustworthy you may feel they are--so don't even think of it. Do you remember nothing of what I've taught you about how far to trust other members of magical society?"
"Yeah, you told me we're all a buncha skanks, pretty much; that even the honorable among us can be subverted, since the wages for it are so high; and in our world, the idea of 'right' is always so grey-area anyway. So don't trust any of us past a certain point, et cetera."
"I hope I was less vernacular and more inclusive than that, but yes, in short."
"You don't count, though. After what you did…Bob, I don't know if it's having been a ghost for centuries, but you are above reproach. All you had to do was leave me dead and find some other way to kill my uncle--alive, you could have done it, he was too arrogant to consider you a threat after you'd been his slave for so long, and…there's nothing you can't be trusted with. Okay, okay--there's nothing I wouldn't trust you with, including myself."
Harry grew still as Bob reached up and caressed his cheek. "And believe me, I feel appropriately blessed by that trust. But--for my peace of mind, if nothing else--don't even joke. You have the most generous heart of any wizard I've ever known in a long, and otherwise tedious, noncorporeal existence." His hand moved, stroking the hair back behind Harry's ear. "It makes you a fairly permanent target, it continually adds more complex dangers by distracting you with sympathetic entanglements, and it's the primary reason I have loved you so very dearly, for most of your life. Please be careful, my darling. Even of me."
Harry listened to that in his head a few times, eyes locked with Bob's pale ones, wondering what he was going to say in reply. He opened his mouth, and what came out was "The day I have to be careful of you that way is the day I give this racket up. Don't worry, Bob. I trust you that far, but just you. Even in my sleep, you're the only one I would have let in."
Bob searched his face for a moment, then sighed, looking back toward the water and the slowly-vanishing sun. "I hope I'm not endangering you by taking your word for that. It's true that I'm practically your…" he smirked. "Your familiar spirit. If there's anyone you'd--"
"Don't say that," Harry snapped, pointing angrily. "Do not say that. You're nobody's damn familiar. You're a human sorcerer, one of the most powerful that ever lived--"
"And now I'm the ghost of said sorcerer, my power summarily reduced--"
"You still have the knowledge. A lot more knowledge now, too. We're gonna find a way to free you one of these days."
Bob said nothing, pressing his lips together, and watching Harry speculatively.
Harry swung his leg over the log and got up, wandering away a few steps. "You know, my dreams--the ones I remember, at least--are largely depressing, confusing, and weird. This is one hell of a lot more fun, even if you do get a little cranky and overprotective on me." He was turning in a slow circle, taking in the view again. "Amazing." He held his hand up, sure for just a moment that he could feel sea spray on the breeze.
"It's due to your stringent practice at organized visualization and sense-memory that I can do this. Be glad you were such a good student, if for anything."
"Yeah…you zapped us to the shore--and since this is a dream…you oughta be able to create, to do, pretty much anything, right?"
"Yes, but dropping you into the middle of a completely unpredictable miasm of sense-imagery would hardly be the best way to maintain my welcome. 'Mundane but pleasant' is probably our best course."
"So no fish-tailed horses are gonna come splashing out of the seafoam?"
Bob dropped his head, snickering a little. "Not tonight, no."
"And we're not, at any point, gonna take off and fly."
"Once again, not this evening. Though we can change locales, if you like. It will get uncomfortably cool here soon, unless I raise the temperature."
"Nah, we can just go someplace else. I'd rather see the things you remember--the ones you feel like showing me--the way you actually remember them." He stopped turning, and lowered his gaze to Bob again, where he still sat on the log, facing Harry. "You look so different," he said quietly, "and it's not just the outfit. Which you look great in, by the way. Human. Comfortable. Those damn suits don't do anything for you, compared to…well, I guess it's not a fair comparison."
"I have no plans to participate in a fashion show. And I should hope I look at least a bit different."
"You're still the dictionary definition of 'blond'. I bet you got baked every summer until you learned how to keep that from happening."
"I did indeed." Bob made a moue.
"That never occurred to me, looking at your ghost. But like this…I know that's not your real body. But--" he returned to the log and leaned down, taking Bob's hand and squeezing it. "Here, I get everything from you that I ordinarily sense from living people."
"I'm creating that for you, with your passive assistance--much as I'm creating everything around us, from what exists in you. Fortunately you have a very broad and uninhibited imagination, and, as I said, you know how to use it."
Bob squeezed the hand he was holding. "And a natural aptitude." Steadying himself with the hand, he stood. "Close your eyes."
"Oh, are we going somewhere? I wanna see."
"Harry, just close your eyes," Bob sighed in annoyance. "Vertigo is uncomfortable. The transition will be easier if you don't look."
"Bob, come on, I'm not gonna get--"
"It's all right now--you can open them."
Harry chuckled and did so.
They were standing on a platform wrapped in darkness, broken only by the unnaturally bright spangles of stars overhead. The platform was crowded with tripods, quadrants, octants, drawing compasses, charts the size of bedsheets affixed to slanttables large enough to hold them, lensed scopes of various sizes and complexities--some collapsible, some far too large to be, some with separate sights, some without--geared, tubular machines encased in shining brass, bright enough that the starlight reflected from it. There were, around the perimeter of the porch/platform, up against the guardrails, smaller drawing tables covered with broad sheets of parchment that were fixed neatly under leather-padded clamps at the corners. Looking around, Harry could almost discern the shapes of trees several stories below, or at least of the subtle movement and rustling sound of the top branches. The sky, though, was visible around 360 degrees of the horizon, with no light pollution in sight. The air smelled like moisture, greenery, and woodsmoke; there was a barely discernible breeze.
"Let me guess. Your observatory?"
"No, Harry, it's the loo."
"That explains all the brass fixtures. Damn, it's dark out here." Harry was looking around, down, everywhere, but there was only starlight.
Bob chortled at him. "Yes, it's called 'night'. You don't have it in Chicago. I used to sleep out here in a cot, and have…someone wake me in a few hours. You should try it, if you're ever somewhere the night sky is truly dark." He smiled. "I'd love to see the look on your face when you see what even unenhanced human eyes can really see, once they've had a chance to adjust as far as they can."
"You wouldn't be able to laugh at me much; it'd be too dark to watch me goggle."
"I meant…well, I suppose it's the…dreaming situation that makes me so sentimental. I meant the look of wonder on your face. I'd…be very…I'd like to see it."
"Mm…" Harry tried really hard, but could come up with nothing to say but "I bet there'd be some wonder there, all right." Changing the subject, he took a chance on what he'd been squinting at--he could just make out, shifting glints here and there… ."Is that a river?"
"Indeed it is. East of Hawes--I'm telling you how the boundaries are set now, of course; they were rather flexible in my time--East of Hawes, the River Ure is joined from the south by the River Bain at Bainbridge. At one time, this was within the forest of Wensley."
"Yeah," Harry said softly, still looking down and around, careful to dodge the delicately balanced equipment. Since it was a dream, he wasn't sure why he cared, but hell, it was at least a reasonable facsimile of Bob's stuff. Knocking it over willy-nilly seemed rude.
"The Romans had a lookout station close to Bainbridge, on a hill at Addleborough--where this is. Further up the Bain is Semer Water, a small lake, which, according to legend, once drowned the village of Bainbridge after the village refused charity to a beggar."
Harry glanced back at him. "I've heard of revenge-seeking water before. You told me about the Shannon river--Sionan--I forget who she was or why she mattered--walked three times widdershins around the spring to show contempt, for what reason I also totally forget, and the spring reared up and she ran all the way to the seashore to escape, and it followed her….."
"…thus creating the river Shannon, yes. I'm surprised you remembered even as much of that as you do. I think I told it to you as a bedtime story."
"Like I said, you told good stories. They stuck with me."
"They were designed to; most of them contained useful information, couched in a fashion a child would more easily grasp. The hardest part was finding a way to give you the bedtime story you so plainly wanted without offending your growth-spurting voice-cracking pride. I had to work it into the conversation until you became interested. Since you'd rather have talked than gone to bed, I suppose it wasn't all that difficult, really."
"Um, yeah. Guess I was a little bit of an asshole even then."
"Harry, you were barely half-grown. People of that age ache to put childish things behind, even if they aren't ready to." Bob sighed, a wistful sound.
"I got news for you. Some childish things, you never really get ready to leave behind, even if you've gotta do it."
"Really," Bob drawled. "I never would have known."
"Okay then, I'll shut up and you tell me some more stuff. What did you do up here, exactly?"
"Much what it looks like. If one were going to compare me to a classical astronomer, I would be in the same category--though not at the same rank--as Tycho Brahe. Meticulous measurements of the movements of all the heavenly bodies, creating charts and timetables. Also, it's a help to more specialized astronomers, those studying the heavenly bodies themselves, to know exactly where to look for those bodies at any given time."
"Yeah, it'd be a bitch if you got hold of the most powerful telescope you could find, only to discover that what you wanted to observe would be below the equator from where you are for the next couple of months."
Bob was smiling; Harry could hear it. "I suppose it would. In any event, the ultimate purpose of the information was, in my case, quite different than that of Brahe's."
"Yeah, no shit," Harry muttered. Without touching it, he ran his hand over an armillary sphere, whose complex interlocking components, with the stand, reached higher than he could. "This looks...odd..."
"It is odd, compared to the ones you're used to seeing."
"Not only that, in your observatory, there shouldn't have been more than…--and shit, it's got another…oh, for--Bob, did you--there's another dwarf planet, Eris they call it, it was only discovered--you've got a ring built into this armillary for it! And one for Ceres, too…"
"The astronomers had no way of knowing Eris was there, but I did."
"Why the one for Ceres? It's the biggest lump of rock in the asteroid belt, but it's not even big enough to be spherical."
"I'm afraid I can't say."
"The astronomers now had no way of knowing Eris was there until a few years ago. It wasn't all that long ago they figured out Pluto was a double planet! Well, a double big rock. How did you…? How could you possibly…?"
"Harry, my darling, there are some things that I cannot reveal to anyone at all, not even you, whom I trust now more than anyone I have ever trusted." Bob sighed; he was close enough that Harry could see him leaning against the wooden guardrail around the platform, arms folded, staring up at the sky. He looked as melancholy as Harry had ever seen him; Bob didn't generally let on when he was feeling things like that. He had done so a bit more recently, but he still tended to cover his deeper emotions around Harry. "I will tell you this, though. Those who felt I needed to be killed for my acts of genuine resurrection and other black thaumaturgy…they did not trap me in my skull because they were squeamish about ending my life. Think about it. Does the White Council, any longstanding member of it--your uncle, Morgan, Ancient Mai, any others you'd care to name--strike you as the sort to shrink from acting as judge, jury and executioner?"
Harry leaned against the rail next to him. "No, they sure as hell don't. And they didn't…destroy you completely, they…"
"Killed me, yes. All other things considered, it's possible they didn't feel equal to the task of destroying me completely and being certain they had done so. And they knew merely killing me would not dispose of me, if I didn't wish to be disposed of. They sealed me to my skull--"
"As a first strike in their own defense. It wasn't punishment. You, and your aptitude with moving things, people, yourself, back and forth, over the line between life, living animation, and death. They couldn't be sure they wouldn't be letting themselves in for all kinds of revenge if they killed you. Dead is nothing to you, and it wasn't, even before you were a ghost. Dead and bound--that's a different story. Harry stood up, away from the railing, and wandered amidst the faintly gleaming brass and polished wood. "The sorceress who tried to use me in her insurance fraud scheme--they could have found her, they could have tracked her down and--shit, for that matter, they could have tracked me down when I conveniently vanished to Peru when my uncle died. It was--"
"That was inadvertent, Harry. If I hadn't shouted--"
"Then I'd be the dead guy, not my uncle. And despite what happened, here I still am, not on trial, not punished, though the Council watches me pretty close. They have to know something about how it went down; and there's a witness, namely you. You were bound to my uncle at the time, too, which would make you a hostile witness against me, but the council could bind you to tell the truth. The young wizards may like the story, but the ones with the power know I didn't do it intentionally if I did it at all; they just like having something to hold over me. Besides, I was…using Black. Just like you didn't want. Even if I didn't intend to do permanent harm with it. And that's why you were so desperate for me to leave it be, weren't you. Not to perpetuate the cycle." He turned and gazed at Bob.
From where Harry was, Bob was visible only as a shadow, head bowed. "Precisely, my darling. That's the way the Black works. You use it for what you think are good reasons, fair reasons, ultimately harmless reasons--and it ends up using you, to kill--to destroy in ways that can be even worse. That was why I wanted you not to seek vengeance, not to become involved with anything that had occurred by the Black. Not because I didn't understand your need for vengeance for your father, not even because I was concerned about your opinion of me. Which I was, but it wasn't even close to being the point. In any case, yes. The Black perpetuates itself, and I knew if it touched you..."
"Yeah. And it did. And I was an asshole, kind of off and on, to you, for a long time, and I'm sorry--"
"Please stop apologizing for that. It's entirely understandable."
"We'll have that fight some other time. My point here is, they didn't punish you for crimes, Bob. They killed you and bound you in order to defend themselves. You were too powerful; they were afraid of you. You fucking knew there was a planet beyond Pluto and Charon, bigger than either of 'em, and most people, even magic workers, didn't even know about anything past Saturn. But you have--had--a fucking armillary sphere--"
"And a couple of orreries."
"--that shows the solar system the way NASA is only starting to figure it out. How?"
"As I said, I dare not reveal that. I'm not trying to frustrate you, Harry. I'm protecting us both, especially you. I'm assuming you don't want to join me in this eternal non-existence."
"Bob, that's it. If they could have destroyed you, sent your soul on, they would have--that's how learning and development happen with humans. They didn't even try to kill you entirely, because they were too busy covering their own asses." He took the few steps necessary to reach Bob's side. "It's no wonder Morgan thinks you're so dangerous. Bob, they didn't do what they did because you did wrong. They did what they did because they were afraid of your power. You were something…something like they'd never seen."
Bob reached up and laid a hand on Harry's shoulder. "My transgressions were deserving of punishment, Harry, make no mistake. I disobeyed rules that are in place because the dangers are not apparent, and the motives won't matter once the line has been passed. One will be corrupted. I…the sorcerer I was at the time did need to be controlled, and, it being me, there was only one way to do it. You're quite right in that they could not have destroyed me. They did the next best thing, and called it…"
"They called it damning you, punishing you, but it was only the best they could manage against you. They knew that killing someone with your particular power with necromancy was no way to eliminate the threat they felt they were under--so, enter the skull. Enter the story about damning you for eternity." Harry was doing a slow boil, and he didn't really become aware of it until he felt Bob's other hand on his opposite shoulder.
"Harry. Please try to stay calm."
"This is BULLSHIT!"
"This is politics, if you like. They could have done worse to me, Harry. You know me, you know who I am now. The person who existed then…I will never know for certain, I had no thought of thusly using my considerable power--but I did do things I never thought I would have desire or reason to do, until I was enmeshed in the methods, in the power, and in the sources of that power. I was capable of things few others in the world could do; and yes, my abilities were vast, beyond any other sorcerous power known in this part of the world at the time--but that person, presented with the right stimulus, might very well have performed actions that are--or should be--out of the human sphere. Humans simply don't have the perspective for some of the things I had the option of doing."
"Bob…" Harry knew his expression was agonized, and he felt Bob pull him close, rocking him gently. "That's why, when my uncle's copy brought you back, and you died…"
"Correct. If I were ever unbound from the skull, if I ever truly died…I would be unfettered. It would do little good to inform anyone that there is no longer any need for such control--that the centuries I've been…here, have taught me more than anyone has ever learned, even more than Ancient Mai in some things, mostly because Mai is something of an immovable object."
Harry snorted into Bob's shoulder.
Bob chuckled. "They really only need to look at you, to see that even the powerful among us can be conscientious, loving, desperate to help any who need it--for as large as your heart is, it is still too small to hold all the caring you have to give. Frankly, though, I think they know it--I think that's why they don't trust you with my custody, and I think that's why Morgan and others think I should be bestowed upon a more ploddingly ordinary--and controllable--wizard. You are entirely unpredictable to them, and so am I--for completely different reasons; but, rather than a unique synergy, they see an explosive catalytic reaction in the making, as long as you have my skull."
"A very, very big boom."
"Very big indeed, my darling." Bob leaned up an inch or so to kiss Harry's forehead. "We are one of the wild cards that threaten the current order--and that order is very old and has lasted a very long time because--while sometimes summary, often harsh, and seldom sympathetic--it keeps a certain level of control; and that control is necessary, both for our kind and the rest of the world."
"I kinda like that," Harry muttered at his boots, almost inaudible as he rubbed his nose in nervousness.
"What? The idea of our possibly incendiary combination?"
"That nickname. Um, I heard you, I get what you're saying even if I don't like it and I'd rather argue if we weren't sorta busy here, but…"
"Um. Never mind, it's not important. And, uh, feel free to…you know. The forehead-kissing thing."
Bob smiled at this. "I had wanted to reassure you that way when you were young. I'm glad it's not too late."
Embarrassed as hell, Harry shook his head, staring down at the floorboards between them in the gloom. "It's not."
He felt a light caress across his hair--what there was left of it, he thought with a mental snort--and decided he'd better get his feet back under him. He chanted a calming cantrip--inaudibly, but it wasn't the sound that made it work--and said "Look, I'm being selfish. You're showing me these places and things that were important to you, for me, aren't you? You're showing me what you think I'd like, and wasting valuable time when you could be wallowing in the luxury of having a body. Sort of a body. Feeling, I mean. We can at least feed you, whattaya say? What sounds good?" He slung an arm around Bob's shoulders, with a little, slightly embarrassing childlike thrill at being able to do so, ready to lead him off--only to realize he had no idea how to get down from the observatory platform. This being a dream, he guessed he could fly, but he didn't want to screw up whatever Bob was doing by trying.
Bob saved him. "Frankly, Harry, I'm not sure I could deal with so much sensory stimulation in the space of only a few hours. It's been centuries, and I had no opportunity to exploit the fetch's dubious gift. You've been very generous with your touch, letting me get used to the feel and smell of another human, one that I love. It might be rather weak-livered of me, but I'm not sure I can take many more sorts of sensory stimulation in one night."
Harry blinked, and grinned. "That's right. Every time I dream--you can do this, right?"
"So long as you permit it. So long as you want me to."
"Well shit, Bob, it's not like I'd rather be dreamin' dissociated crap that's more like acid flashes than anything else, than be…" he squeezed the arm around Bob, but finished the sentence to the planks of the observatory platform. "…than be here."
"You are with me all day, most days, Harry. I'd have thought…"
"Well, you aren't around all the time unless I need you, usually. Days go by and I don't see you, or not more than you sticking your head in to say something snide, and vanishing again. And anyway I can't…um." he muttered the last bit very fast and to the floor planks again.
Bob smiled, his eyes soft.
Harry wasn't looking; he just went on "I want you here. Don't worry," and he was sure--almost just totally sure--that his voice didn't crack at all.
Bob looked at the floor himself a moment, taking a breath--taking a breath, one he could feel as a breath--and said "It's also possible for me to control your dreams--so long as it's with your willing cooperation--without manifesting myself in them. Well, I would be manifesting myself in the sense that the dreams would follow my direction--I'd take my cues from you; your lucid dreaming is at least fair-to-middling--"
Harry kicked Bob's ankle. "Asshole."
"Violence is the refuge of those whose position logic will not support, my darling."
"Oh, bag it, Bob, if I ever got sick of you you'd know about it. For one thing, the way you described it, you couldn't do this at all if I didn't want you to, right?"
"That's not quite it. I couldn't do it if you didn't trust me. Fearing that I might harm you in some way, and suffering crashing boredom at having me 'oh bloody hell underfoot yet again--'" Harry cracked up, leaning on Bob, as Bob, grinning, finished "--aren't quite the same."
Harry was still laughing, hanging onto Bob with one arm and the railing with the other. "If I get sick of you, we'll try what you mentioned--you can just make yourself inconspicuous. I won't take away the opportunity for you to have…have sensastion, weight and smell and, and corporeal life, again. I don't know how you're doing it--I'm good with visions, but dreams are a different animal. And believe me, I'd rather have this kind of dream than the kind where I get chased by Blue Meanies though a shopping mall with no pants on yelling banishments that don't work."
"You mean, you wouldn't have the pants on, or the--"
Harry gave him another token kick. "Shut up. Until such time as I say or do something that would indicate otherwise, you're welcome here, and I'd really kinda like you to shut the fuck up about it now 'cause I'm bored with the topic."
"I'm overwhelmed by such sentiment."
"Asshole," Harry said again, and suddenly squeezed Bob close in his arms. Bob, laughing too softly to hear but enough for Harry to feel, returned his embrace.
"I'm gonna say something mushy, here."
"I'll probably manage to endure it." Bob's voice was soft.
"I'm glad…I hate what happened to you, and I hate how you're trapped now, but I'm glad I got the chance to know you, and I'm glad I can help you out a little now. And, um, I have a confession to make."
They separated, still holding each other, enough to see each other easily. "My figurative loins are girded; confess away."
Harry gave him a smirk, then said "I, uh. I used to sneak your skull into bed with me sometimes."
Bob blinked at him, then smiled and shook his head, cocking it to the side a bit. He sighed. "Harry, my own darling, did you honestly think I didn't know that?"
"I knew. How could I not?"
"Well…you were helping my uncle. I always got the skull back sometime before he'd gone to bed; I only did it when I knew he planned to be doing some working or other that would take all night, and that he'd need you."
Bob stroked the side of Harry's face, and Harry turned his head toward Bob's hand a little, closing his eyes, embarrassed. Bob murmured "I always know where that skull is, to the angstrom. And I could feel you, holding it, too."
Harry's eyes got huge. "You what?"
"Not physically, but it was a deeply warming sensation. I never told you I knew, because I didn't want to send you into a teenaged spasm of humiliation. And I was enjoying it too much, and I knew you'd stop..."
"Okay, I gotta go kill myself now. I'd kill you too but I can't."
"Harry…" Bob rolled his eyes and shook his head, pulling Harry close again. "You were a frightened orphan, terribly alone in the world, in an unimaginably bizarre situation, without anything in the way of routine affection. Nevertheless, I was flattered; you know that wizardry of certain advanced calibers requires sacrifices be made in one's life, and it had never occurred to me that--in either life or death--I'd have the honor of a child's trust and affection. Especially a child such as you were. If it helped you at all, I'm very glad of it."
Harry was quiet for a few minutes, telling himself to suck it up and start acting like a guy old enough to be examining his hairline in the mirror every morning, and less like a suicidally embarrassed twelve-year-old. "Thanks. I mean that."
"Of course, your uncle would have taken exception if he'd known."
"Then you didn't tell him?" Yeah, Harry'd sure have known about it if Justin had found that out.
"Of course not." Bob shrugged. "Your uncle commanded my services, as a number of sorcerous types have, since my…call it 'execution'. But he did not command my affection or my voluntary loyalty." Bob smiled and rested a fingertip beneath Harry's chin. "You're the first to win those."
"I'm the first…?"
"You are the first master I've loved in any way, yes."
"Is that why…shit, if it is, I feel even worse. I…saw you flat-out disobey my uncle more than once. Even when I'm an asshole, you don't disobey me. Kind of an ugly word, but I guess it's what I mean. You argue with me, sure, but…"
"I obey you, on the rare occasions you give me a flat order, because I get my revenge. I don't even have to try. You always wander the place hangdog, feeling like a heel, until you find some way to apologize to me, usually without exactly apologizing." He smiled. "You take me out or do me some other pleasant turn to apologize, and sometimes, you actually apologize when you do it. You only do it when your temper gets the better of you, Harry, and rarely then. You don't like ordering me around, really. Instructions, directions--there's nothing upsetting or inappropriate about any of that. We do have a relationship aside from our friendship, and we can't simply ignore it."
"Yeah, I just want you to know that even if I crack and say go back to your skull, I don't…mind, I don't hate it when you argue with me, I mean, usually--we argue, we just…that's what we do. I need you for that. I can be a little…"
"Impulsive? I know. And usually, when we argue, you don't send me to my skull; one of us simply stomps off." Bob smiled. "Sometimes with especially bright lights and smoke."
Harry smirked. "Yeah. And, um, I love you too, by the way."
"I know, my darling," Bob said softly, and backed up enough to kiss his forehead again. "And now it's time to let you enter a less dream-saturated level of sleep."
"But it's only been a few--"
"Time is very fluid in dreams, you know that much. Too much of your sleep cycle spent in such an active dream state, and you'll feel it tomorrow, I promise you. Let's get you comfortable."
Harry decided to go for the mush, and squeezed Bob's ribs a little. "I'm pretty comfortable now," he said, smiling shyly.
Bob smiled back, but remained implacable. "Close your eyes, Harry."
Harry sighed and did so.
He felt the floor vanish under his feet, then his weight shiftng; it was slow and gentle. He simply turned, drifting.
"You can open your eyes now."
"You must think I got the weakest stomach in…whoa."
He was in pajama pants, lying on a wide bed in a room whose dimensions were hard to discern through the draperies that surrounded the mattress proper. They were almost transparent--basic netting-- fluttering a little in the wind from the opened casement windows he could see here and there through the shifting gaps. The mattress felt great; he wished he knew where to get one like this--his back would love him for it. Soft, colorless light, from no particular direction--it seemed there were windows on three sides of the room, at least, and a moon out--let him look around a bit, and see Bob sitting on the foot of the bed, on the corner opposite the side Harry was on.
"Um…so what do I do now?"
"Close your eyes and relax. You'll enter the next proper level of sleep."
"C'mere." Harry held his hand out.
"Come here, Hrothbert of Bainbridge, don't make me summon you," Harry grinned.
Bob gave him a sour look and moved up the mattress.
"Here. Come here." They thrashed and fumbled a bit. "No, like this--"
"Harry," Bob said softly, and there was something about Bob's voice that got to Harry sometimes, rich and infinitely gentle. "Let me."
They ended up with Harry's head on Bob's shoulder, Bob cradling him easily despite Harry's being a bit larger. "I thought it might be…nice," Bob explained haltingly, "in honor of…of those occasions when you had to make do with my skull." For once, he seemed as tongue-tied as Harry was about this sort of thing.
"Well, it's not much of a comparison," Harry sighed, sliding his topmost arm farther around Bob's torso. "This is incredible…" he barely murmured it, and drifted into dreamless sleep.