Neither the characters nor the situations are mine, and there is no profit except fun.
"Oh," Bob drawled, "that is not good, Harry. That is definitely not good."
He was right. I was looking at the same bright pink stream that he was, and while it wasn't unexpected, it was very not good. "You know, some people like a little privacy in the can."
"That is blood in your urine, Harry."
"I can see that." I flushed and turned away, hoping that would end this conversation.
"I'm so sorry. I should have stopped her sooner."
"Two hours ago you were sorry you gave in to her at all."
"You're right. Regret is a waste of energy. There's a flask of Bridi's Surcease in-
"Nope. Batch of bad cork, remember? The stopper went bad..." I'd been meaning to make some more since I'd discovered the problem almost two weeks ago, but I hadn't gotten around to it. In retrospect, my priorities might need a little work.
"So it did. Ah. Very...very well. Go into the lab and take out the spherical bells."
Instead, I plodded past the lab into the living room. Carefully. My hip throbbed-all the way up to my jaw-with each step. "Not now, Bob. I've had a rotten day and I feel like hell. I'm going to get some sleep. That okay by you?"
"No, it is not. Harry? Harry! Dresden! Don't be stubborn. You don't need sleep, you need a healing spell. Turn around."
"I need this couch," I corrected. It took me three tries before I could ease myself down without bending anything. Damn. Lying down, like standing up, was an agony. Now there was weight on my shoulders, too. Oh, and it turned out that lying down, I couldn't breathe. I heaved myself up enough to grab a pillow and shove it behind me.
I lay still, panting shallowly, watching the ceiling spin around for a few minutes. When my eyes focused again, Bob was glaring down at me. "Stubborn," he hissed bitterly. I thought he might evaporate in a huff, but instead he lifted a hand and stroked it through the top of my head.
Being touched by Bob is like having somebody walk over your grave. It was cold and disorienting. It also made my stomach heave and my vision blur again. I pressed backwards helplessly. Even that little movement made my lower back ache and burn.
Oblivious to-or ignoring-my misery, Bob announced, "No concussion. I'm surprised." His hand kept moving, passed through my throat, my chest. "Two cracked ribs and some swelling. And more swelling here. And more swelling here. Ah, and here is your left kidney-"
"All right," I groaned. "Just get out. I'll do whatever you want-"
At once the ethereal hand was withdrawn and Bob was crouching beside the sofa peering into my face. "You are very badly hurt, and you aren't up to any complicated spell work-"
"No shit," but maybe I didn't say that aloud.
"-so we're going to improvise. All right? So follow what I am doing with your eyes."
He began to draw in the air with both hands. "The linked spiral that draws in. Aurochs for strength. Isa to stop the bleeding-small, because we only want to stop the bleeding and not, for example, freeze your blood in your veins. A circle to make it whole."
"Getting' sloppy there, Bob," I muttered.
"It will do well enough. We aren't trying to turn you into an Olympic runner, we are just trying to give you a little help. All right? Are you looking at it, Harry?" It was hard; the shapes, laid over one another, were shifting from one form to another.
"Just a little magic, Harry. You have to do this, I cannot. Now, while it is in your mind-"
I pushed, and a sphere of light burst in my hand, splashing away. The effort exhausted me, but as I lay panting I realized that the pain had receded to a bearable level. Hey. Not bad. Not bad at all.
When I could finally hear Bob's voice over the pounding of my own heart, he was still nagging. "Very good. Very good, Harry. I'm so proud of you. But you need to do it again-"
"No prob'lem," I answered. I focused on the sigil Bob had made, watching the images flow from one to the other. I closed my eyes, picturing them all at once and released another, more coherent, burst of power.
"All right, Harry. Very good. That's enough. You can rest now."
I couldn't answer him. I could breathe, though. And the burning in my lower back was mostly gone. If I could drift off and sleep through the worst of this, I'd be much better off. I knew how to cope with a good beating. I'd certainly had enough of them.
For my first serious fight-well, the first one that hadn't just stopped with a bloody nose-I was sixteen. I had a falling out with Matt Chandler, the kind that starts with saying really nasty things you can't take back, gets interesting when somebody gets fed up and takes a swing, and ends with the entire baseball team taking sides.
Possibly-possibly-we might have been able to play the whole thing down, forgive and forget, keep out of trouble, except the whole "wizard thing" got away from me. I took out the picture window in the library. A rain of safety-glass pebbles is sure to get the attention of the administration.
It got me kicked out of Milford Academy.
Uncle Justin hadn't been nearly as angry as I had expected. He was very polite during the meeting with the headmaster. He didn't chew me out on the way home. By the time I felt guilty enough to start apologizing for getting my ass kicked out of the nicest prep school in town, he was still pretty mellow about the whole thing. "Harry, I admit, it would be convenient to graduate you from a respectable school and send you to an Ivy League University. But it isn't necessary. We don't have to play by mundane rules-we don't even have to play their game. If you don't have the temperament for a formal education, I'm not going to force it."
He wouldn't tolerate me being ignorant, though. He turned my non-magical education over to Bob, who was, by the way, a lot more demanding than the fancy schmancy private school. It was a quiet two years. For a start, I was too busy studying to get into fights.
Too bad that trend hadn't continued for very long. Before going into business for myself, I'd managed to limit it to one or two minor brawls a year. Now-actually, I'd lost count of how many fights I'd been in this year. They weren't usually this bad, of course, not by a long shot, but they were way too frequent. I wasn't thrilled about it and Bob was downright pissed off with me.
When I got up the next morning, Bob started in with his harangue as soon as I headed to the bathroom and continued while I heated water for coffee and swallowed a handful of dry cereal.
"Cut me a break, hey?" I said when I couldn't stand it any more. "This wasn't my fault. I didn't go looking for a skinwalker. Maybe I shouldn't have trusted Laura, but you didn't suspect anything either."
Bob was usually pretty smooth, but this time I could see the effort he spent halting his tirade on my recklessness and incompetence and whatever. He pressed his lips together and spent a moment looking out the window. "I apologize," he said stiffly.
I sat at the table, hunched forward, my arms wrapped tight around me. "I get that you're freaked. Our home got invaded by a really nasty booga-booga. We'll work on the wards."
Bob sighed. "How are you feeling?"
I shrugged and regretted the movement.
Bob stepped closer, his hands folded in front of him. "Harry-" He looked more worried than angry, now. I felt kind of bad about that, especially after all his help last night.
"No pink pee this morning. That's progress."
He nodded tightly. "Perhaps a hot shower? And perhaps we could throw together a little windward salve. It isn't the most powerful, but it is easy to make and it would sooth those bruises..."
"Or I could go back to sleep."
"You could," he agreed, inclining his head. "But I would advise against it. Continuously."
It took both arms and two tries to get up. "Nag, you mean," I gasped.
"If you prefer the term."
I started toward the bathroom. "I want some privacy, Bob. You can wait out here."
"Certainly, Harry. Whatever you wish." He smiled innocently as I shut the bathroom door in his face.
"Your handwriting is terrible." The boy nodded. He never took this particular complaint seriously. "In Latin, that is not how you make the letter 'U.' And this pronoun is reflexive; very effective, if you mean to banish yourself."
"Oh." Harry frowned, looking for the mistake. Bob waited. He had all day. He had all century, not that this wait was particularly long. Harry erased the pronoun and replaced it. "It wouldn't have banished me, the verb doesn't agree."
"That's true. I'm not entirely sure what it would have done...but you probably wouldn't enjoy it. Now, achieve the desired result using the Younger Futhark."
"The older one's better."
Always an argument. The young grew more disrespectful with each generation. "The Elder Futhark is easier, because you are more familiar." He gestured at the board. "Not better. Go ahead."
Harry wiped he board clean and began to lay out the angular figures. Not in order, Bob noticed.
"So what's it like, to be a ghost?"
"Don't change the subject, Harry."
He turned and looked up. "It's something I need to know, isn't it? Like this?" He tapped the chalk against the board.
Bob didn't answer.
"I'll meet other ghosts, won't I?"
An undisputable point. The curiosity was healthy, useful, even. And Bob had decided to tell Harry the truth. At least about those things it was safe for a boy to know. And at least...about things of which Bob was free to speak. "Very likely so. But you will not find a useful model in me."
He was paying more attention now than he had been to the lesson. "Why not? What's different?"
"A great deal. I am not confused. I do not have unfinished business. I did not die without warning. And I am not haunting anything." At Harry's surprised glance at the skull, he emphasized, "No. In addition, I my control over my appearance is very complete, I have full access to my memories, and I can be seen by anyone, regardless of magical talent or lack of it. A natural ghost may exhibit any of these traits. But no natural ghost will exhibit all of them."
"Oh," Harry said. His eyes strayed to the skull again.
"What has he told you?"
Harry didn't ask who "he" was. "That you're cursed, attached to that." Clearly the enchanted skull made Harry uncomfortable, but Bob wasn't sure if that was because he thought it was 'creepy' or if it embarrassed him, as though seeing the skull that used to lie beneath Bob's own skin was akin to seeing someone's undergarments.
"Technically speaking, I am a magical object. Quite rare and very, very valuable."
"But-you're not an object," he protested. "I mean, you think. Right? You have...feelings." He smiled a little. "You're way too grumpy to just be an object."
"I grumble, therefore I am," Bob murmured. "Or perhaps the idea for which you are searching is 'free will.'"
He nodded. "Okay, yeah. You've got that."
Bob hesitated. "It isn't so simple. My opinions are my own. And no man can command my emotions. I am even capable of desires, ambitions...but whatever will I may have, I am not free to act on it."
"You have to stay where it is." "It" being the yellowing bone prison.
Bob nodded. "And I am compelled to obey the skull's owner."
Harry was silent for a moment. His eyes strayed back to the blackboard, and Bob thought he might return to the lesson. But no. "You have to watch out with genies," he said. "In the stories they have to give you three whishes, but they give you what you ask for, not what you want."
"I am not a genie."
"Yeah, but...you have to do what you're told to do, but..."
Clever boy, for all that the 'genie' comparison was insulting. "That there might be room for creative interpretation?"
"You are correct. Yes. I can choose to obey the letter, rather than the spirit, of a command. And I have done so. But there were consequences."
"Like what? Wait-you were punished?"
Bob nodded. This truth, while personal, might someday be useful. And it was Bob's own truth to tell, when so many more significant truths were forbidden or too dangerous to speak of.
"But-how? I mean...you're already locked up. You don't have a body, so you can't be beaten, or starved, or...killed..." He glanced at the pile of school books at the back of the room, hastily abandoned in favor of the magic lesson. One of them was a history text. That's what slavery was to Harry, embarrassing history that didn't have anything to do with him. The boy came from a world without even servants, and 'employees' had protections and rights under law.
"No, I cannot be physically hurt," Bob agreed. "But for a sufficiently powerful wizard...there are ways to torment even a non-corporeal creature."
Bob shook his head. "It is not the existence I would have chosen. But it is hardly unbearable."
Harry's eyes got very round. "Has Uncle Justin ever...?"
Oh, clever, clever boy. Not 'Uncle Justin would never.' "No. Your uncle has never mistreated me." The anxious look didn't fade, and Bob continued. "I do not think he would. He is a very shrewd man. He knows that while obedience may be commanded, loyalty cannot be compelled. If he were to give me reason to despise him, or to treat me cruelly or unfairly, I would turn from an asset to a deadly liability."
"But-you can't do anything. I mean, you know a lot, but...you're..."
"Intangible and powerless, yes. Quite right. But some day, in some great, desperate matter, when he needed my talents most...I could choose the role of the genie. I could provide only the service that was explicitly commanded, and not the service that was needed. Do you see, Harry?"
"Yeah. You want me not to underestimate anyone. Even if they look helpless and obedient."
That was not, in fact, what Bob had meant. It was certainly not what he wished to say, the warning he was forbidden to even attempt. But. It was not a bad lesson. Bob pointed to the chalkboard. "A banishing ward, in runes," he commanded. "We have 'goofed off' enough."
This was going to hurt. It would make the stabbing pain of Bob shoving his sleep spell through my shields feel like a paper cut. This would hurt worse than any beating I'd ever had. This would hurt worse than any of the unfriendly magic I'd been hit with over the years. It would make me wish I was dead, and then it would kill me.
Some guys just can't get a break.
"I'm sorry it took this turn."
I was right. About the wishing I was dead long before it ended part, anyway. It felt like being ripped in half. Slowly. Bob yanked out my life force one heartbeat at a time, and I screamed and screamed...
But Bob didn't kill me all the way. Instead of sucking out every last drop of my life and energy and leaving a withered husk on the gurney, he stopped when I was just ravaged and dying. Conscious. Helpless. Thoroughly screwed.
Resurrection. Reanimation. But the name is not important. What is important is the power.
In the wake of the sundering, the pain drained away and left me with...nothing. An emptiness. A roar in my ears. A terrible cold. I tried to move. My snared hands and feet were too heavy to lift. My head-forget it.
And Bob-turns out that when he's actually three dimensional, he's one hell of a necromancer. While I was distracted by dying, Uncle Justin had climbed out of his coffin looking fit and chipper. He and Bob were greeting each other like old chums.
Two of a kind. Back from the dead and turned lose on an unsuspecting world. Probably it was my fault, somehow. I hadn't seen it coming. Had underestimated Justin Morningway. Hadn't protected Bob. Had trusted-
My dear, formerly dead uncle sauntered over to gloat at me. I was a "disgrace to my bloodline" a huge disappointment...Then he started in on my parents. Yammer, yammer. How had I ever trusted his man at all? How had I obeyed him? For years, ran his errands, lived in his house, sat across the table and eaten dinner...?
And he kept on and on. It would have made me want to puke, but I was numb from the cold that seeped out from my bones. He reached down to touch me. I found the strength to pull away, although the effort left me dizzy and sick. "I failed you, and for that I'm truly sorry," he said, playing up the melodramatic tragedy. I should get it over with and die already.
I found myself looking for Bob. He was standing to one side, just watching. The regret I wanted to see-or ambivalence or loss or something-just wasn't there. He hardly even looked interested.
Lovingly, gently, Uncle Justin was still gloating. He wasn't just going to take over the council or play in the Black until his heart's content. He was going to remake the world in his own image. I had learned a lot about my uncle in the last five years. I could imagine how bad that world would be.
Past his shoulder, I could still see Bob. His expression was the same perfect calm. His hands-
His hands spun my staff once, coalescing energy, warping reality just a little.
Uncle Justin had no idea. He was too enchanted by the sound of his own voice, by his victory over me. "I wish you could see what it was going to become, what I'm going to make of it."
Bob still looked calm and detached when he raised my staff and impaled Justin Morningway on a column of raw ether.
A flood of energy splashed down on me like water dumped out of a bucket. My own energy-and unlike having it ripped out, coming back didn't hurt. Coming back was, actually, a hell of a rush. The cold was gone. The emptiness was full. The inertia-that was gone, too, and I rolled sideways, now, while Justin was distracted and I had a chance-
Hitting the floor did hurt, but I ignored that and scrambled to my knees to find the morgue storage room was sundered by hellfire and lightening. Bob and my uncle were still linked by the staff, caught in a maelstrom of raw magic. A spell strong enough to bring back the dead was unraveling, and the feedback ripped up and down my staff like a short-circuiting transformer. Uncle Justin screamed. The firmament screamed louder.
Things need to be done, and I'm the only one who can do them.
"Bob?" I shouted through the gag. "Bob, let go!" His eyes were closed, and what with the silent, roaring pressure of the magical feedback and the weeping heavens, he probably couldn't hear me. The air was rippling now, and I could feel heat as Uncle Justin's revenant body began to sublimate. I yanked off the binding charms they'd tied around my hands and mouth and heaved to my feet. "Bob, let go!"
The wave of dissipation nearly tripped me as Justin Morningway's body finally imploded into elements-and then there was only a horrible, empty silence. Bob staggered backward and dropped my staff, which clattered to the floor. Flailing blindly, unable to steady himself, Bob began to fall as well. I managed-barely-to catch him on the way down. "Bob?"
He didn't answer me. He was conscious but gasping in pain. Magically-magically, he was hemorrhaging energy. His aura was torn in more places than I could count. "Bob..." I reached out for a healing spell. I discovered my own strength was way down, what with being nearly killed and all. Not, I realized, that that mattered. You couldn't fix this much magical damage by dumping more magic on it. Any spell I could cast would only tear Bob further and make the burns even worse.
He shuddered and opened his eyes. "Is that...is that bastard gone?"
"Yeah, he's gone..." And there, in Bob's eyes, was all the fury and sadness that hadn't been there before. Oh, gods. "I thought you just..." chosen your heart's desire, because, hell, how often did that come around? "Turned on me..."
Bob smiled up at me, one hand groping for my shoulder. "I would never betray you Harry." No. Never. I smiled back. I shouldn't have doubted. Wouldn't doubt him again, ever. But Bob's smile faded and he tried to pull me closer. "I had to come this far...In order to keep him dead..." He gasped, running out of words, his eyes pleading with me to understand. "Him and his double. It was...he would just keep coming back."
Another wave of agony hit and he writhed in my arms, gasping. "Easy. It's okay, Bob, it's okay," I murmured, gathering him closer, trying to brace him against the pain. "You're going to be okay." He pressed his face into my shoulder, panting. I closed my eyes and held on. "It's going to be okay," I promised. "It's going to be okay."
Sighing, he sagged at last and smiled at me again. "You're right, Harry...if by 'okay' you mean 'dead,' then yes..." He managed a small laugh. "Yes..."
For just a moment, I thought he might be kidding. But I could feel how badly hurt he was. I could see the light in him flicker and fade. "Please don't die on me, Bob," I begged. As though he had a choice. Another miracle waiting. Another trick up his sleeve. But he'd used them all for me, hadn't he? I began to weep.
For a moment his arms tightened, as though he were going to comfort me, but they trembled and fell away. Bob was dead weight in my arms, struggling to breathe, and then not moving at all.
The sob was as much rage as pain. Uncle Justin-I'd thought he had already taken everything from me. But 'everything' had just expanded, and it turned out I had had still more to lose. I had never imagined trying to manage without Bob. I had never-
He was gone-
Energy collected around my hands for a moment, gathering itself together. Even as it withdrew, the solid, warm body in my arms turned to mist and vanished. I put out my hands to catch my balance-
The manifestation was the same efficient ball of flame, although Bob himself looked a wan and a little sheepish. He smiled thinly. "That is really...touching," he said softly, looking at me crouched-weeping-on the floor.
I realized I was gaping and stumbled to my feet. Hastily, I scrubbed at my eyes, but it was a moment before I could force my voice to work. "Bob, that's not fair. You-you knew." I would have hugged him. If I could have.
Bob gave me a look that said I hadn't been paying attention to my lessons and passed an insubstantial hand through the enchanted skull still sitting on a table. "Once cursed, always cursed," he said wryly. Pleased with himself, but maybe he had a right. It was a hell of a thing he'd pulled off. He hadn't just succeeded in getting rid of him, he'd gotten both of us out intact. "My soul forever ensnared, forbidden to move on."
Sly old ghost. Easy to forget, when he's nagging about the dirty dishes or making raunchy comment about my clients...just how dangerous he is. He'd used his own liabilities to defeat one of the nastiest wizards in the world today. In the world recently, at any rate. I blinked the last of my tears back. "I guess I can live with that."
"Yes...I thought you might."
A hysterical laugh threatened to escape. I bit down on that, hard.
"Let's get out of here, Harry."
Wonderful idea. I would have snatched up the skull and walked out, but Bob softly pointed out the evidence we must not leave behind: the cane that had rolled under the gurney. The silk wards that had bound my hands and kept me helpless. My battered hockey stick. The keys for my jeep, which Justin's double had left parked in the lot of the library next door.
I didn't ask how they snuck me into the basement of the central police station. Uncle Justin would have left his duplicate with a bag of tricks and Bob...Bob knew every trick in the book.
I tried not to think of him, solid, in my arms. I tried not to think of him in pain. And I did not-could not-let myself be angry.
"Are you sure you're up to driving? You haven't had an easy night..."
"It's fine," I answered. That's all we said on the way home.
At home I bolted the door behind us and, laying my hands on the doorframe, amped up the power on the wards.
"Is that wise, Harry?" Bob my better judgment. Bob my conscience. Bob my bossy ghost pain in the ass. "You were ill used tonight. Your strength-"
"You know what, Bob? It's fine."
It was only 10:45. Not even midnight. It hadn't even taken a whole day. I went into the kitchen and pulled some left-over cube stake out of the fridge. And beer, I wanted a beer. My body seemed to buzz. Either I was flying high or I was about to crash, and I found I didn't much care which.
"Water would be better. Dehydration-"
Bob, my mother hen.
"Bob-" I had to swallow. An again. And again.
Bob at my shoulder, his reasonable voice in my ear. "Harry, I am sorry. You have to know, if there had been any other way, I would never...I know it was painful, but you were never in any real danger."
I tossed the unopened beer down on the table and spun around. "You died, Bob!"
Surprised, he pulled back slightly. "Yes, Harry. A very, very long time ago."
"Well, I'm not a thousand years old. And I have-I have glands and nerves and feelings. So pardon me if I get upset about things sometimes. Just back off, all right?"
He thought for a moment, letting the silence settle, letting me think-for a moment-that I'd won this one. Blame it on the adrenaline. Or the exhaustion. Anything. We could let this go.
Not Bob. He never let anything go. "Do you think I wasn't upset? Do you imagine the idea of being in the clutches of Justin Morningway-again-didn't make my skin crawl? Oh, wait. I don't have skin." His sarcasm could have peeled paint. "Never mind, then. It's not important."
"Bob, don't, I didn't mean-"
"I let that bastard touch you, Harry! Ironic, isn't it, after all those years I spent, when I would have given anything to protect you from him, and finely, when I was free to act, free to choose...when I had hands to stop him, I stood there and let him touch you."
I sat down heavily and buried my face in my hands. "Whatever you did when you were his property wasn't your fault."
"I should have been more of a genie..."
"Right. Because he got away with murder-for years-under the nose of the High Council, but you he left loopholes? Try again."
He wouldn't look at me. "I'm so...so sorry. I'm so sorry."
Somehow in the last five minutes this went from me having a very messy nervous breakdown to me comforting Bob. You're going to be okay. It's going to be all right. And I had no idea how. How do you comfort a ghost? You can't offer him tea, that's for sure. Or a beer. Or a pat on the shoulder. And what could I say to someone who had 'been there and done that' with everywhere and everything?
He had been every bit as much Bob's nightmare as mine. I knew what kind of cruel psycho my uncle was. I had figured out enough of what he had been doing to know how much Bob must have hated being his tool. "I know, okay? I know you weren't free. I know what you did when you had a choice."
A tight nod was the only answer.
"Looking back...I know you tried to protect me. I know you tried very hard."
"Ah." A swift grateful look. Then he said, "I am sorry for tonight, Harry. Seeing him again. I put you through that, and you have every reason to be upset-"
My dear uncle. "That wasn't the worst of it, actually."
"No, the worst of it was thinking you were..." not dead... "gone. See, I thought he'd already taken everything. That he'd ruined my life. That I'd never become more than the tool he tried to make me. That I'd always be tainted by killing him like that. That he'd messed everything up so badly I'd never get a break... And then he killed you, too, and...and then there really was nothing left."
"Harry, that's not true. You have-"
"I have my oldest, dearest friend. That's what I have. That's what I have."
His eyes pinned me. Bob has seen everything. Very little impresses him anymore, but I had his undivided, unconcealed attention. "Harry..."
"I love you, Bob. And I'm sorry it took...tonight...to get me to understand that."
"Then remember this. I will never leave you willingly. And for nothing would I betray you." The tears on his cheeks were hardly visible. They didn't shine. Like him, they couldn't reflect the light. He turned away. "You should drink some water."
I went to the sink and filled a glass. I drained it. Then I said, "And what can we do for you?"
"For me? I am forgiven."
I couldn't tell if it was a statement or a question, so I nodded firmly.
"Then that is all I could hope for, Harry." He managed a thin smile.
Okay. Good. Great. Squared away-
All I could hope for.
Um. No. Not 'all I could wish,' but 'all I could hope for.' He had been through hell tonight. "Bob? Should I be...looking for a way to free you? I mean, we know it's possible right?"
He was shaking his head. "It was. That route is not open to us now. I doubt it could be done at all, without destroying me completely. And no, my existence is not so onerous that I wish to pay that price."
"Not so onerous?" I asked, half-afraid of the answer.
He smiled then, his eyes creasing at the corners. "Not so onerous."
The two center shelves of the barrister bookcase were filled with a set of new encyclopedias. Much of the information in them I already knew. Some of their contents was erroneous. And, of course, much of it was boring. Still. That left thousands of pages, interesting pages, wonderful pages. People and places and technologies and creatures.
I remember a time when even a dozen new pages would be unspeakably precious. This set of new encyclopedias was a veritable treasure. As a gift it was well chosen, but I had no illusions. It pleased Morningway to be generous, but he felt no affection for me. Neither my boredom nor my diversions were of personal import to him.
I had just finished "llama" and was about to start "Llandaff" a neighborhood in Cardiff (yet another place I had never been) when I heard Mrs. Wallace's voice in the hall. Odd, since no one else was home. "-weren't expecting you until Friday. Mr. Morningway isn't home. And I'm afraid your room isn't ready."
For a moment my cohesion frayed. Harry? Who else! I waited, transfixed, for the second voice.
I wasn't disappointed. "I got a ride with a friend instead of taking the train. I wanted to surprise everybody. Oh, here. I brought you something from Hawaii. It's not much, but-"
"Oh, how sweet." A fluttering: she might have kissed his cheek. "Come down to the kitchen and I'll get you a snack. But I suppose you want to..." Victoria Wallace would not speak my name or enter a room where I resided. She knew, after a fashion, that she kept house for a wizard, but she avoided the little magics about the house and considered me unnatural and unclean.
I forced myself to stand quietly and wait while Harry spoke to her for a moment more and finally-finally-entered the study.
It astonished me, how much he had changed in six months. He'd left here looking his eighteen years-a neatly groomed boy with solemn eyes and a sweet nature. He returned in a leather jacket and a scruffy pony tail. The wisp of fluff on his chin was apparently meant to be a beard. A little taller. A little sharper. A little colder? A sigh escaped me. "Harry..."
"Hi, Bob. How 'ya doing?"
"The same." Obviously. Endlessly. I stayed the same while the world rushed by. Six months, and I hardly recognized him. But then, how many countless generations had I watched grow and age and pass into senescence before they died?
I spread my hands, glanced at the new books. "Your uncle has been generous."
He grinned. "You look great."
I smiled back. "A kinder compliment if I ever looked otherwise. How was your journey?"
"Fantastic! Oh, Bob. It was great. Hong Kong-the buildings, the ships, the food, the women. Man, you would not believe the women."
"You enjoyed yourself." A long slow journey, exotic sights, surprising delights. Justin was giving him a taste for pleasure. Teaching him to indulge. Expanding his appetites. No doubt this trip had been very tame, but Morningway was just beginning.
"Oh, you have no idea."
"And your mission?"
From his jacket pocket he produced a narrow, cloth-wrapped box. "Got it! The trade went off without a hitch." He shrugged. "Had a little trouble on the way home, you know. Nothing big. I handled it."
"I'm sure you did." I wondered if Morningway had arranged for some minor disturbances or if he had simply counted on the valuable package Harry was carrying attracting attention. Either way, the boy got a chance to defend himself, bolster his confidence, and get a taste for aggressive magic.
Before too long, he'd be nudged over the line, just a little, just once, no, not really Black magic, not quite, not yet...
"Your uncle will be pleased," said because I had to say something, and I could give no vent to the rage and grief that stormed inside me. Morningway had worded his orders very carefully. He was no fool. You feel some affection for the boy-no, I'm not disapproving. You've done very well for him, "Bob," and that kind of motivation you can't compel. But I won't let your soft heartedness interfere with my plans. So you will not divulge them, not by word or deed or expression, not in any way, not by any communication known to you.
"Brought you a present." He pulled some knotted chord out of his pocket and laid it on the table with a crumbled piece of paper marked in English and Chinese. "It's just a little ward. But I didn't think you knew any Chinese wards. I brought a translation...?" He looked at me hopefully, for a moment very much the little boy I'd had in my school room for so many years.
"Thank you, Harry." I tried to drag myself back from the abyss of my thoughts. I must not despair. I might, yet, find a way to end Morningway before his plans came to fruition. "You...you know I cannot keep it."
He rolled his eyes. "You can learn how to make it. What? Does knowledge not last forever anymore?"
I shook myself. "Oh. Of course. Certainly. That was a very thoughtful gift." I looked more closely at the knotted red silk. "It is a lovely little ward. Thank you."
"Bob? Are you okay?"
I could do nothing but smile and nod calmly. "One grows accustomed, even to chaos. Perhaps I have missed you. " Not as much as I yet would. My eager, earnest student was already gone, and with every passing year he would be more replaced with Morningway's creature. "But you had best run along. Mrs. Wallace will have cake."
The puzzled look he gave me made my geas tighten painfully. Not in any way, not by any communication known to you. My orders would not let me reveal the smallest trace of my grief, and they would not tolerate Harry's curiosity. I felt myself smile blandly and dismiss him with a nod.
When I got back from lunch, I paced block all around the building. Call me a perfectionist. Call me paranoid. Whatever. I wasn't taking any chances. There wasn't any trace of our little trip to the Other Side, though. Reality was intact, seamless. No sign that the building had slipped into another plane, no gaps or leaks around the edges. I made the circuit twice before returning to the front door and going in.
Bob wasn't around. I didn't blame him for lying low. He'd had a rotten morning. Heck, today probably set new records for bad mornings. I went to the workroom and started cleaning up the mess left from my little tantrum. There was broken glass all over the floor. Hen's bane and mistletoe were mingled together-not a good idea. The shopping list I'd been keeping was soaked with flying ointment. Bob had been right, that stuff was expensive to make. Iron filings had sifted into the floorboards, but at least that was easy to clean. The necromantic inversion distillate that had broken against the wall had hardened into a gently glowing shell. I couldn't leave it there, but I'd need either scarab tincture or liquid nitrogen to dissolve it.
While I was cleaning up the mess I had been grateful that Bob hadn't come in to kibitz. When I finally finished, though, it occurred to me that he might not be staying away out of some generous impulse to let me clean in peace. "Hey Bob?" I called, heading back into the living room. There was a mess to clean up in here, too. A table had been upended in the fight. My best chair was scorched, and that char wasn't coming out with a good wash. "Bob?"
It seemed to me that the manifestation was a little slower than usual. And maybe-maybe the apparition's colors weren't quite right. Bob was a ghost and light complexioned but now that I looked, even his clothes seemed a little...faded. "Bob?"
"Yes, Harry? You wanted something?"
"Um...I wanted to make sure you were okay. You know. After this morning."
"Ah. Yes. Well." He would not meet my eyes. He'd lost the frantic terror of his return, but he was subdued and uncertain, and I didn't like that any better. "I am not anxious to repeat the experience, I admit-"
"Bob-were you hurt? Are you okay?"
"There is nothing to worry about, dear boy."
Oh, really? "Why don't you let me take a look?" I asked. I lifted my left hand.
Bob stepped back. "What are you doing?"
"Making sure everything's all right. Okay?" I reached out my hand again. This time he only closed his eyes and turned his face away as I reached into his chest-
Bob isn't a natural ghost, but touching him feels pretty similar. It's creepy. My hand felt like it was plunging into one big heebie jeebie. I ignored the goose bumps that prickled across my skin and focused on the gossamer ebb of spectral energy. Trying to read Bob should be a lot easier than getting a line on a natural ghost. He could interact with the world. Okay, it was mainly on the level of molecules and auras, but it was powerful. If I focused, if I tried, maybe I could get a good connection-
A shiver ran down my spine and I closed my eyes briefly. It was hard to concentrate. How did Bob usually feel to me? I tried to remember. This kind of contact was something I usually avoided, but it was a small apartment-we'd bumped through each other plenty of times. I'd felt him before... And he should feel stronger than this, surely? More distinct than this? "Bob?"
"It's nothing, Harry. An encounter outside."
"What kind of encounter?"
He wouldn't look at me. I really, really hated that. "It had very large teeth," he said calmly. "I had to tear myself free..."
I managed to extricate myself.
"It's weakened you..."
"Nothing permanent, Harry, I promise you. The enchantments binding me were very well made. Thorough. Robust. It will take a...a little while, but I assure you I will recover."
"And how long is a 'little while' to the guy who's a thousand years old?"
He didn't answer that.
I nodded and slowly pulled my hand free. "Are you in pain?"
He shook his head once. "No."
"Are you telling me the truth?"
"Yes." I waited, and he repeated, "I'm not in pain, Harry. You needn't look at me like that. I'm...weary, nothing worse."
Weary. Right. Okay. Bob was weary. I collected his skull and carried it to the couch, turning the familiar weight in my hands. The sigils were smooth under my fingers. I knew them, had known them for years. I had been looking at these enchantments for most of my life. "Hrothbert of Bainbridge, I summon you," I whispered.
"Harry, I'm standing right here," he said impatiently. Now that I was looking for it, I could hear his weariness.
"Hrothbert of Bainbridge," I repeated, speaking more softly, putting more pull behind it. "I summon you. Hrothbert of Bainbridge, I summon you..."
"Harry, what are you doing?" he was standing at my knees. "I know that look. It never bodes well."
Over the left temple was a series of six sigils, the enchantment that set the terms of the apparition's manifestation. In my left palm I formed a tiny blue flame, hardly bigger than a pinpoint. I thought of Bob, standing just inside the doorway, returned from the Darkness. Magic is fueled by emotion, I would power this with relief and joy, not my terror at sending Bob out alone, into death.
I guided the tiny light onto the series' first sigil and gently traced the shape of it. Lightly. Carefully. Alert for any feedback or disharmony.
"Harry," Bob gasped. "What are you doing?"
I looked up. "Am I hurting you?"
He closed his eyes. "No..."
"Can you use this?"
He nodded unsteadily.
I shifted to the second symbol. Gently. It wasn't like this morning, poring out healing energy as fast as Mai could take it. Bob wasn't a living wizard, and the enchantments on the skull were very carefully balanced. The third. The forth. Not too quickly. The fifth, the sixth. "You okay, Bob?"
"It's ...warm, Harry. I didn't realize how...how very chill I'd become...how tired."
I took a breath and began again. The power was building, a pressure caught behind the tiny light I offered to the carved symbols. I held back. As strongly as I felt, as difficult as such delicate work was for me, I knew that the spell I was manipulating had never been designed for this purpose.
Hang in there.
I traced the spell again and again, letting magic trickle in. Gently.
It had very large teeth. I had to tear myself free. Something on the Other Side had bitten a chunk out of him. "How you doin' there, buddy?" I asked.
"I don't think I can hold much more, Harry, but don't stop in the middle of an iteration. It would leave me...unbalanced. Open." His voice was calm and even, but when I looked up from the working I saw that Bob's edges were unusually sharp and his image was brighter than the ambient light in the room. Oh, yeah, he was done.
I came to the end, gently brought it to a close. Shut the connection between us. Bob sighed.
"Can I do...anything else for you?" I asked.
His eyes reminded me of stars. He looked at me, but didn't speak. Slowly, after a moment, he shook his head.
I had to squeeze sideways to get around him and stand up. I was starving. How long ago had lunch been, anyway? It was dark outside, but the clock had stopped again.
I had nothing but slightly moldy chili in the fridge, so dinner was going to be canned soup and stale crackers. I didn't care.
Bob hadn't moved by the time the soup was hot. "You all right?" I called over. It hadn't felt like I'd messed up the spell, but on the off chance I was wrong...
He was suddenly standing beside the stove, staring down at the soup. "It was well done, Harry. And creative. It would never have occurred to me to, ah..."
I looked him up and down. "Good."
"Harry...you have been very kind. Kinder than anyone has been to me since I lived-"
"Bob!" I said sharply. I didn't like the sound of this, Bob casting me in the role of a 'kind' and generous owner.
He continued as though I hadn't tried to interrupt. "It would be unconscionable of me not to return your gift...but I have so much less to offer."
"Okay, stop right there-" I gestured sharply, and the spoon I was holding flung a drop of alphabet soup through him.
"Do you need to talk about what happened today, Harry?"
"What, our little trip to hell? I don't think so." I snatched the soup off the stove and stomped over to the table. Turning your back on Bob never works, though, because he always gets where you're going ahead of you. "What do you want to talk about-the people who are sure that I am scum showing up and taking over my home? Dragging me into, oh, looky, hell, and not trusting me enough to actually tell me why? Or maybe you'd like to talk about the hour I spent thinking you were lost in some kind of endless...You know what? Let's not."
"Harry, I have never tried to comfort you. It was a loss I knew I could never fill. And even now, I am fairly certain I am not equal to the task...But how can I refuse even to try? In the face of what you have given me today, what right have I not to even offer my support?"
I dug into the soup. "What the hell are you talking about?" I had a guess. I hoped I was wrong.
"Harry, today your father-"
It was just what I had been hoping not to hear. "No."
"Harry...your burdens are too great to carry alone. I am inadequate, I know, but...I am the only confidant you have. Your father-"
"Shut up," I shouted. I lowered my voice, "It wasn't him."
"So there's nothing to talk about."
"As you say," he whispered. His expression told me he didn't believe me. And he was worried. And he was heartbroken on my behalf.
I looked away. "It wasn't him, Bob. Do you...know what he told me, when we were alone? That we'd been betrayed from the inside. That the person who'd pulled us into the Other Side was in the apartment with us."
"We already knew that."
"He told me the only way I'd be safe was to kill everybody else. The guilty and the innocent."
"Oh. And you believe your father would not-"
"He was some kind of illusion. Don't you get it? Ancient Mai was keeping back the darkness. If I'd killed her...you, me, Morgan, all of us..." I calmly crushed a handful of crackers into the soup. I calmly took a spoonful. I managed to swallow.
"You want to help me? Teach me how not to be manipulated like some...My buttons are just too damn easy to find..." I pushed the soup away, held my breath, and clamped a hand over my mouth until I was sure the next sound I made wasn't going to be a sob. "If it just wouldn't hurt so much, I could-"
Bob shook his head. "No. Oh, no. If you are waiting for the pain to go away...you will wait forever."
"You bear it. You accept the fact that you can bear it. You forgive yourself for bearing it. And go on."
Because Bob never got to move on. He just had to keep living with his past. Forever.
"You, um..." I glanced at him and had to look away.
"'Winifred,' Harry. It is all right to say the name."
"So-what? You're okay?" I knew better, didn't I? "Bearing it?"
He smiled, then. "Some days are better than others. Some days are very good, in fact. And it would be wrong let the good days be diminished by the...burdens I carry from past times."
"I'll...think about it," I said. I put the bowl of soup in the sink and went up to bed.