"I saw them, I saw them man!" the kid yelled, running into the store and into Harry's arms. "Monsters!"
"Whoa! Whoa…" said Harry, gently patting the kid on the back, unsure of how to react. "It's alright, 's alright."
Unseen by both of them was the look that Bob sent in their direction as he watched Harry comfort the boy. He'd said to Harry earlier not to dismiss the boy's claims, to not take the boy's money, but to take him at his word, and now the boy was asking for Harry's help yet again.
But all he could see was the fact that Harry was able to bring some sort of comfort to this boy, unlike him whenever Harry had been worried or scared.
How many times had he wanted to simply hold the boy when he was younger, to reassure him he would be alright?
And how many times had Harry been denied the comfort of reassurance from his mentor and only real friend?
What he would give to simply be corporeal for just a few scant seconds so he could simply draw the man into his arms and give him the reassurance that he had always needed…and the reassurance that Bob had always needed, as well. To know that he could care for someone again, and that it wasn't simply misplaced loyalty.
Just a touch…
"Where is the boy?"
Bob watched as Harry remained silent. For a brief moment, he thought she might actually be desisting…
…but then she stretched out her hand and Harry started to scream as the skin on the left side of his face started to distort, the skin attempting to pull itself from the muscle, while the Skinwalker simply smiled at his pain, a smug grin on her lips.
Bob could hear the tearing.
"Stop it," Bob whispered. "Stop it, stop it!"
She stopped, and Bob felt relief flood through him as she pulled back her hand.
"I'll tell you…the Ravens. The Ravens took him."
"Bob…no," he heard Harry mutter under his breath, not quite in full control of the left hand side of his mouth.
He was going to give her everything…it was the only thing that he could do to make sure that she didn't go after the man that he'd fallen in love with over the years that he'd held him in his care. It was the only thing that he could do.
"We thought, they were working for you."
"Where are they nesting?"
"We don't know; look, there's a feather on the floor taken from the crime scene. Use it to find them, torture someone else, just…get out."
The Skinwalker let an oily smile cross her lips and the words that came from her lips were just as disgustingly slick, "Oh, you're lucky Dresden. If it were up to me, I'd be wearing your skin right now…" She stood and gave Bob another slippery, mocking smile. "Thank you for being so helpful."
She walked out.
Harry groaned… " "If it were up to me"? She wasn't going to skin me."
Bob's eyes widened as he saw what the words meant. "She's working for somebody. Somebody who doesn't want you dead." He closed his eyes in shame for wearing his heart on his sleeve and for her having eyes wider than Harry's and seeing it. "Oh, Harry, I was suckered…"
His ghostly heart tore at the revelation, realizing that the only thing that he'd been thinking about was keeping Harry alive and safe, and that he'd even put the boy's safety below that of Harry's. He'd worn his heart on his non-corporeal sleeve, and the Skinwalker had taken shameless advantage of it. He prayed that Harry didn't realize what had truly occurred, that he didn't realize that Bob felt as deeply as he did…and he got lucky.
Harry simply sat up and they began to plan on what else they could do, and the incident was brushed under the rug.
He was lucky that Harry was ignorant of his true feelings.
Bob hadn't realized that he could feel as deeply as he had once before; as deeply as when he'd been alive and with Winifred, but apparently it was possible.
It was as though fate had a sense of irony. Here, it says, you get to live eternally in your skull until the end of time without your one love…oh, but wait! We'll give you a master that you end up falling in love with but cannot touch because of your curse which was brought on by…what was it again? Oh, right! Your love; twisted and demented as it was, he'd been cursed because of something that he'd done to save someone he loved completely out of love.
It was a no-win scenario, and he'd just shown part of his cards.
Harry, of course, was blind to it, and for that Bob was grateful.
But now he needed to focus on helping Harry find the boy.
Harry sat on the couch, trying to ignore the fact that he was utterly bored by the movie and was getting sick and tired of reading bad subtitles. The only reason why he was watching it was because of the fact that he'd promised her that she could choose the film this time.
Interestingly enough, he didn't need the subtitles, as Bob had insisted that he learn French in his early schooling, and the fact was that Harry was honestly just annoyed with the inaccurate translations.
Adjusting his arm behind that was lying on the back of the couch behind her, he reached down into the bag of popcorn and picked out a kernel, giving it a scrutinizing look.
He honestly didn't eat much food that was instant, though many other people believed otherwise because of the fact that he was a bachelor.
However, unlike other bachelors, they didn't have a little problem with electronics going haywire every single time they were near them; hence, he cooked most of his own meals using the fresh groceries that he bought at the local outdoor market around the corner.
He looked at the piece of popcorn a moment longer and then popped it into his mouth, trying not to grimace at the over-salted and buttered taste.
Then there was a knock at his door.
Never had he been more thankful to hear that sound.
"I should get that," he said, still chewing on the kernel, delaying the inevitable swallow, moving to get up.
His date, however, seemed torn between wanting to finish the movie and still wanting to be courteous.
"Should I press pause?"
"No, no, no," he said hastily. " 's alright."
Without a moment's hesitation, she turned her tear-stained, mascara-run eyes back to the small portable DVD player screen, once again enamored by the scenes enfolding in front of her, and Harry withheld the impulse to roll his eyes, heading toward the door…
…but then he saw Bob. Standing behind them.
He stopped in his steps and gave Bob a pointed look, gesturing with his head. What are you doing out here? Are you trying to get caught?
Bob looked at him and then Harry saw something glimmering on the ghost's cheeks. Were those…tears?
Bob returned the look and gave a motion of his head. But-
Harry cut him off and motioned his head towards the girl on the couch and raised his eyebrows. If she turns around, what are you going to do? You need to go!
His lifelong friend gave him a look, one of silent begging. But I just want to-
Harry silently cut him off a second time with a shake of his head, and risked making a sound and cleared his throat with another pointed look.
With that, Bob sighed and disappeared through the wall…and all Harry could think about at that point was the plotline of the movie that they'd been watching. If you ignored the horrendous subtitles, it truly was a beautiful and heart-wrenching love story.
And he wondered…
…how had he never known that ghosts could cry?
He'd never seen Bob so vulnerable before in his life; it was strange to see. And yet, at the same time, it was reassuring.
Bob could feel just as deeply as Harry could, even if he couldn't do anything about it. Harry felt a sudden stab of longing to hug the ghost, to reassure him in the only way that Harry ever could. He was no good with words, he was good with actions, which was why it was so hard to show Bob that he really cared for him.
Setting the feeling aside to dwell on later, he looked to see who was at the door.
Hell, meet hand-basket. His evening just got better and better.
"…Or a joyride? Stolen car, stolen body. You know," Bob said, a smirk crossing his lips. "Two entities occupying the same space."
He was suddenly standing exactly where Harry was, and Harry felt the sparks along his nervous system, causing a certain part of his anatomy to take a particular interest, the same thing that always happened whenever he happened to be in the same space as Bob.
He pulled out of it as quickly as he could, saying, "Ugh, would you please not do that? It gives me the heebie jeebies, and you know it!"
He retreated over to his desk, trying to keep his problem hidden and not obvious.
God…Bob would just be embarrassed if he knew the truth.
Harry had discovered it when he was a teenager. Whenever he would fall asleep during one of Bob's lectures, in order to wake him up Bob would simply walk straight through him, causing Harry to bolt awake as though he'd been doused with cold water…but, of course, that was what he told Bob and it was what kept Bob from doing it too often.
He remembered one particular time when he'd been asleep and then he'd felt that particular sparking sensation across his spine, that had then traveled down to his groin and he'd quickly woken up and been silently grateful that Bob insisted on him sitting at a desk even when he was at home. He was able to more easily hide his reaction to his mentor. At first, he'd been disgusted with himself, but then had been curious, and had done some private research and found it wasn't uncommon if the person in question had a personal relationship with the ghost in question.
He'd felt reassured after that, and simply decided to let it be, but this time…
…The tone of his voice, the slightly leering look, and then the quick jump into Harry's personal space; it had all been too much, and he felt himself taking too much of an interest.
He silently was ashamed of himself for reacting this way, but he'd learned to control himself over the years and he quickly schooled his expression into one of indifference and continued on with their postulating and theories.
However, his mind was still back on what had happened between the two of them.
He'd wondered several times if her would ever tell Bob about it…and then had decided, each and every time, that it would be a bad idea.
"Bob! Bob, let go!" Harry yelled as he pulled off the warded piece of cloth from around his mouth.
Suddenly, Morningway was gone in a flash of green and gold lightning…
…and Bob was collapsing.
Quickly, Harry ran to Bob's side. "Bob, Bob!" He caught him just before he hit the ground. He felt Bob's hand go around his shoulder, his eyes struggling to remain open.
"Is the…is that bastard gone?"
"Yeah, he's gone."
He saw Bob sigh in relief and though he knew Bob was most definitely physically injured as well as severely magically drained, he couldn't help but be amazed at the fact that he was holding him in his arms…that he was actually feeling him after years of not being able to.
"I thought, I thought that you'd just-"
"I would never betray you, Harry," he said emphatically, his eyes briefly closing. "I had to come this far in order to keep him dead, him and his double…he was…he would just keep coming back." He let out a low chuckle that became a cough, and Harry carefully cradled his head in his opposite hand.
"'S okay, 's okay, Bob, you're gonna be okay, please…"
As he held his head, he couldn't help but notice how silky the man's hair was, though he was also worried. His fingers gently caressed his hair.
Bob responded with, "If by okay you mean dead, then, yes…yes…"
"Bob…please don't die on me, Bob…"
And then his breath simply left him…and Harry felt his heart die.
Bob was gone.
Of course, moments later he was back in his usual non-corporeal form, but all Harry could see in his mind was his last friend in the world dying in his arms. It was easily the worst memory of his life…worse than when his father died, even.
With his father, he could have done nothing to save him…with Bob, he might have been able to do something, but he'd been so focused on feeling him in his arms, on the fact that after years of him being completely unreachable he was lying in his arms and he was feeling him against his body, that he'd done nothing. He felt horrible for not thinking about Bob. The first time the man was corporeal since his death and he'd had to pretend to betray Harry and then was forced to do the one thing that cursed him to his skull in the first place, and then he'd had to feel brutal, excruciating pain as he died in the arms of an ungrateful master who hadn't realized until that moment what the man meant to him.
He'd held back the tears at the time, but now he could not.
He was alone, Bob was in his skull down in the lab, and Harry was on his knees in his room, the front part of his body partially prostrate on the ground, letting the tears flow down his cheeks and letting the gasping sobs take him over; the sobs that had started when Harry had first thought Bob was gone forever.
He'd stopped them then, but could not stop them now. He could not stop them.
He'd never felt such pain before; never before had he felt such heart-wrenching agony.
It was a strange and unsettling feeling, and he wanted nothing more than to rip it out of his chest and burn it on the ground, but he couldn't, and that was what killed him. It was an inner demon that he could not truly face because all he could feel was shame when he thought about it.
He was in love with his mentor…who was a ghost. Permanently.
And he'd just lost his one chance.
He watched Bob walk into the Other Side. He turned towards Murphy.
"He'll be back," he said to her, but he realized that he was saying it more for his own benefit than he was for hers or for anyone else's.
He turned back towards the blackness, looking for any sign of Bob returning. It was just supposed to be a coating on the building, like a film of paint, so what was taking him so long? Why wasn't he back already? He rubbed his hand reassuringly over the brow ridge of Bob's skull, trying to draw comfort from it.
"Bob…?" He paused. "Bob…"
He looked back towards the two people in the room, trying once more to reassure himself, but his doubts were rising to the surface and threatening to show themselves.
Harry turned back to the darkness, his fingers still shifting restlessly over the bone, his stomach plummeting along with his heart, his body going cold from the painful possibility of what might happen to the last person in his life. The only person that he'd ever...that he'd ever…
"Hrothbert of Bainbridge, I summon you…"
"Hrothbert of Bainbridge, I summon-" He cut himself off, realizing that something was wrong. "…Summon you," he finished, his heart now feeling as though an icy fist had tightened around it.
Something was very wrong.
A little over an hour later, he was still looking for Bob, still trying to find any sign of him, desperate in his search, though limited it may be. Murphy approached him from the hallway and startled him, and the two of them talked for a brief moment, and then she said, "He's really important to you, isn't he?"
"I've known him since I was eleven, and since, everyone else in my life is gone, and, you know, if he doesn't…make it…"
He couldn't bring himself to finish the thought out loud.
He would never admit to anyone, let alone himself, about what would happen to him if Bob was gone.
He would not be able to go on. He would stop working for Murphy, he would become a recluse, he would make no money, he would become a hollow shell of the man that he was. Without Bob in his life, he had no one. No one.
Suddenly, Amber ran back to them and yelled, "Your ghost, Bob! He's back!"
Harry's heart suddenly surged in his throat and he ran to the front of the store, needing to see his friend's face.
He saw Bob standing there and he reached out with his hands, painfully aware of the fact that he could not touch the man in front of him, that he had no way to reassure him, and it was silently killing him that he could show the man no physical affection.
"Bob, Bob, are you alright?"
"Yes, yes," he said, sounding out of breath for a ghost. "As well as can be expected…"
" 'tch, I-I-I tried to summon you, b-b-but the connection-"
"Was gone, I know, I know, but it's back now, I can feel it."
Harry was quickly aware of what those few words meant, and how important they were.
"Were you free?" Bob said nothing, so he repeated himself, more emphatically. "Were you free?!"
Bob gave him a haunted look.
"Harry, there's no freedom in there, not for me." Harry's mind caught up with his ears as Bob said, "Listen; in my life my sins were considerable, but there are things…on the other side…presences…that love me not at all."
The last few words were harsh, and Harry felt a knife pierce through the heart in his throat, leaving him without words, and then Bob said…
"I was fortunate to have extricated myself."
Harry's ears caught on those words and his heart plummeted back down, realizing just how close he had nearly come to losing the man…the man…damnit, the man he loved! The only person that he'd ever loved!
And he was going to find a way to save him, damnit.
He would find a way.
THE END (...for now, at least!)