It's dark. I'm tired.
I don't know where I am.
I can't feel the tips of my fingers, and everything that can be skinned on the sidewalk or the brick walls probably has been. I can't feel that either, thank God. (Thank Manon.) It'll hurt later. If there is a later.
I can feel the warmth coming from behind the door. Big wooden doors, glass in the front, dusty glass. The sign says 'Wizard' and I have to smile. Most people probably walk on by. The warmth coming from the door is like the warmth at Liriel's place.
I go inside.
My shields come up against his wards and crackle, and it feels like being electrocuted, like being burned from underneath my skin. Right before I pass out I can hear a voice, deep and British, good singing voice, I hear myself thinking even though it's absolutely the last thing that should be on my mind right now.
Then again, I'm passing out. Even if I could think straight there wouldn't be much I could do about it.
The last thing I see before I pass out is an older, white-haired man. Kind of handsome. Dressed up and to the nines. I try to focus my eyes. He's leaning over me but he isn't touching me, instead he's shouting for someone named Harry.
I manage to fix his face in my mind just before everything goes black. Then I realize what's wrong.
"You're... a ghost."
"She really is quite lovely."
"Shut up, Bob."
The banter was more for the sake of form and the reassurance of both men than because the ghost was feeling lecherous. The young woman who had stumbled into Harry's establishment didn't seem like a wizard of any kind, and yet whatever warding spells that had been around her had interacted most spectacularly with Harry's. The end result being a good-sized patch of his floor and the wards on the walls themselves had burnt freckles in them, now, and the girl herself was unconscious. Neither of which boded well.
Trouble did have a tendency to turn up at Harry's door with alarming frequency.
So, now he was giving Harry a hard time about having a pretty girl unconscious in his home, in his bed, to make them both feel a little better. It would have done Harry no good to have him address the gravity of the situation straight off. They had to walk around it a little to get its measure, first.
Harry, well-trained by both the ghost himself and Harry's uncle, grumbled something and went down to the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. And one for the girl, no doubt, when she woke up. If she woke up.
"But, there's one thing I don't understand..."
Harry glared at Bob over the steeping tea. "What kind of magic was that? If it was hers, I should... I don't know, sensed her coming, somehow. If it was something somebody put on her, she should have some kind of... of scarring, shouldn't she? Some kind of mark or talisman where they'd tie it in to..."
"Not necessarily. If the magician or sorcerer who put those protective wards on her was very good, there would be very few traces left, even I couldn't necessarily see them. And it is worth noting that whoever put those wards on her did not intend to do her harm."
"Huh." Harry tipped his head back a bit, thinking. "Yeah, I noticed that."
They stood in silence, Harry with one hand absurdly large around the tiny cup, Bob with his thinking face on and his arms folded over his chest. They had an unconscious girl on the couch. Who had magic about her, whether hers or someone else's. And an unknown amount of trouble following in her wake.
"This is a bit mysterious, even for you," Bob commented.
Harry snorted over his cup of tea. "I noticed."
"Do you think maybe she was... part of a cult?" It was the best guess he could think of. Harry shook his head.
"She doesn't..." Harry made a face, shook his head. "She doesn't look or act like she carries the kind of baggage that comes from being part of a cult. I don't know, she got her power from somewhere, I just can't..."
Wizard and ghost spun around. Neither of them had heard her coming down the stairs in her stocking feet, and, looking at her, Bob thought it was rather a miracle that she hadn't fallen down them. She looked as though a stiff breeze would knock her over. What he said was rather less polite, and he could only blame the surprise.
"Harry, you'd better get her somewhere soft before she keels over, she looks like a consumptive at death's door."
"Thank you so much."
Harry rolled his eyes at them both and did scoop her up into his arms.
It wasn't far to the couch, and she was light as a feather, by the way Harry was holding her. Too thin, Bob noted, looking at her wrists where they poked out of the light coat and the hollows in her cheeks, the way her hair seemed brittle and uneven. Too undernourished, though it was a recent development. And still, once he had gotten her on the couch and tucked her under one of his ratty old throws, Harry jerked his head in the direction of the lab.
"What?" Bob pretended not to know what he meant.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Don't you have work to do?"
"It's okay," the girl -- young woman -- smiled a little. She looked exhausted even lying down; Bob would have gone to make her a cup of tea himself if he'd been able. Instead he mimicked Harry's head-jerking gesture at the kitchen and the tea kettle.
"Harry, she called me a ghost when she first saw me, right before she fainted, hmm? I think that ship is well over the horizon."
Harry shut his mouth in mid explanation. Or mid retort, it was hard to tell.
"I know..." She coughed. It didn't sound like consumption, at least, like she'd caught cold from being out in the snow dressed for an early autumn. "... sorry. I know what you are. Both of you," she added, her eyes flicking to Harry and back to Bob. "I'm a witch."
As though that explained everything. Or rather, it explained why and how she knew that he was a ghost and Harry was a real wizard, and not someone who painted 'Wizard' on his door for kicks. It didn't explain why she was out in the snow in a light coat, skirt and stockings, and Mary Janes. They weren't called Mary Janes now, though.
"A witch?" Harry sounded skeptical. Bob didn't think Harry had any right to sound skeptical about someone calling themselves a witch.
"It would explain the protective wards, Harry."
He made a thoughtful face over that while he went to go re-start the kettle for tea. Good man. "I don't suppose you have a name, then?" he called over his shoulder. Bob hovered, hands clasped behind his back, because there really wasn't much else he could do.
"Sarah," she pushed herself up against the side of the couch. "My name is Sarah."
Bob rolled his eyes a bit at Harry. The man meant well, but sometimes he despaired of Dresden ever learning civilized manners. "The great lump over there making tea is Harry," he introduced them both, ignoring the mild sneer from the great lump. "And I am called..."
"Bob," she smiled. "I heard him, um..."
"Yelling. It's all right, you can say it. He does it all the time."
"I do not," Harry muttered.
Sarah smiled more. It was a lovely sight on a face so careworn and drained a few minutes ago.
"So, Sarah," Harry pulled one of the rickety old chairs over and perched on it next to the couch, most likely so he wouldn't loom over her. "What brings you to my door?"
She wrapped her hands around her tea and took a long sip, then another, before she spoke. Bob noted that she was shivering again for all the warmth of the teacup and Harry's apartment. "There's this girl. Nancy. We were in school together, I had just transferred in when my Dad moved... She and her two friends had formed this coven..."
Bit by bit, sip of tea by slow sip, the story came out.
"That's not possible."
"Actually..." Bob was doing that tapping one finger against his chin fingers curled underneath thing again.
Harry turned and gave Bob a different look. "Please don't tell me..."
Bob shrugged. "It was a smallish following, but Manon had his share of devotees even when I was still alive. It doesn't surprise me that he endured, what surprises me..." His eyes flickered over to the woman on the couch. She seemed aware that she was being spoken of, but whether or not she cared was another matter. "What surprises me is that she or any other young woman her age learned of the deity and had the strength to call him forth."
Harry frowned. "So this is possible."
"Oh, very. It's not a route to power that's commonly taken, anymore, not with most of the powers inclined to give that sort of favor having fallen into obscurity, but it used to be quite popular, once upon a time." Bob couldn't quite stop watching Sarah, though he didn't make a point of it. His eyes flickered that way now and again, that was all.
"Are we all right having her here?"
"Of course," Bob shrugged, "As long as we don't offend her patron deity. The same as with any servitor of a higher power."
The living wizard spent a little more time pacing up and down away from the woman on the couch before going back and crouching down in front of her. The dead one took a couple of steps closer and then hovered, staying out of it.
"All right. Here's what we're going to do." He took a breath and held it until the pause was drawn out to almost anticlimactic lengths. "You're going to stay here for a couple of days. You're going to get on your feet, get back from that nasty cold you're probably going to have after being out in the weather like that. Make sure you don't have pneumonia, that sort of thing."
She nodded. Apparently being tucked away in a strange man's apartment didn't bother her. Or she was secure in her perceived abilities to defend herself. Either way, Bob found it interesting. "And then?"
"And then... I'll have figured out something."
They exchanged a smile. Bob rolled his eyes with reluctant affection.
Sarah was combing her fingers through her hair. "I don't know how it happened, or why it happened," she was saying. "It just did."
Bob's arms were folded over his chest as he watched her. Harry would have said he was being a lech, and all right, yes, he was, a little. But she didn't seem to mind him being there while she was in her night-clothes, such as they were. Underwear and one of Harry's old t-shirts. She didn't want to use his hairbrush so she was using her fingers, which seemed to reassure her. He supposed it was the illusion of human contact that did it.
"That would be the blood loss," he commented, going off of her story, at least what he knew of it. What she had remembered well enough to tell him. "From what I understand it plays havoc with the mind."
She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled a little. The young woman really did have a lovely smile.
"I don't know how it happened because Nancy was supposed to be the only one who could summon Manon. Or why it happened, because..." Sarah looked down and plucked at her t-shirt, a gesture Bob took to mean that she was a plain and ordinary young girl who certainly should not have been chosen by a power to be the avatar of his abilities and his will.
Which, really, was one of the things everyone went through. Harry had thought that none of that magic stuff applied to him when he was young, that his tricks were just tricks. Perhaps not out loud, but the old Sorcerer had seen in the boy's eyes that doubt that he belonged to this world. The disconnect between reality as he had known it before his father died and reality as it was taught to him after. He had been raised to magic, raised to the awareness that it existed and one day he would be obligated to his bloodline, but he had also trained many young witches, wizards, and sorcerers who had to adjust their entire world view to accommodate the fact that they could bend reality in strange ways. It took years of getting used to. As young as she was, it was likely that she didn't know that.
"It's a shock, the first time." He saw her head come up as he shattered the warm silence, but he was halfway lost in his own thoughts by now and only rambling. "The first time you realize the power is there, it's in your hands, to do whatever you want. It doesn't seem like a part of you, it feels..."
"... like you've been given the world on a plate for nothing."
He turned to look at her, thoughtful. So many ways she could go with that simple idea. "Yes. Exactly."
One finger twirled around a lock of her hair, her other hand now still on her knee. Putting her leg up like that, heel on her chair, showed a generous expanse of thigh to the curve of her hip. "Nancy thought that. She thought that she could have everything she ever wanted. Because she had magic. Bonnie and Rochelle thought that too."
Ah. He hadn't heard the other names before, but Nancy was the one who had gotten her into this. It gave him a clearer picture of this Nancy. "Well, yes. Having the world for nothing can be ... greatly tempting." He hoped that was diplomatic enough, in case the two heretofore unmentioned young ladies were still her friends.
Sarah looked up at him, though. "Then why wasn't I tempted? I mean, yeah... it'd be nice if I had unlimited wealth or something, but I can't get that just out of the air. Someone would have to... it would have to come from somewhere."
"You are wise beyond your years," he chuckled. And she looked at him with the patient smile that a child might use to an adult who was being patronizing, but it was true. And slowly, her smile both faded and turned more real, warming her face.
"You mean that, don't you?"
Oh, children. Children of the world, how they became so jaded so quickly. "Of course." Wry snort, there. "When I was your age I hadn't half the wisdom that you just displayed. I thought that I was entitled to have everything I worked for, and that included casting spells I had no business even thinking on." Like death spells. Life and death in his hands. Not that she needed to know that, but the shadow was there on his mind for a moment before he shook it away. "You have made far better decisions than I would have."
Sarah still looked skeptical, but less as though she thought he might be lying to her to sooth her feelings. "Maybe..." She looked over at him. Smiled, tugging her finger out of her hair. "I don't know anything about you."
His mouth twisted in something that would have looked like a smile except for the electric, hectic gleam in his eyes. They felt hot towards the back, even if he had no eyes to speak of any longer. "Let's keep it that way for now, hmm? I wouldn't want to be a bad influence."
"You're already a bad influence, Bob." And there was Harry, right on cue, leaning in the doorway. With a look that said he knew exactly what he had interrupted, and Bob was grateful for it. Not that he'd ever say so in words. "And you, young lady, should be getting in bed."
She did, spoiling Bob's view of her leg. "I'm not that much younger than you, I'd bet," she pointed out though.
Harry chuckled in that pained way he did when he was trying not to be embarrassed. Ridiculous; she wasn't hiding or self-conscious, but he looked away anyway. "You'd be surprised. Bob, can I talk to you for a minute?"
If this was a lecture on not being a lecherous spirit he was going to be very annoyed.
It was not.
"I think I found her." Bob didn't look around at Sarah only by virtue of long experience at not looking around at the subjects under discussion when involved in clandestine talks; Harry did look over Bob's shoulder for a moment. "I think I found Nancy."
"Where is she? Is she coming..."
"Not yet, I don't think so."
At least that was something. "Right. Then we haven't much time. I've been talking with Sarah, and..."
"I noticed." Harry's eyebrows shot up. "While she was in her nightclothes. And she doesn't mind a thousand year old sorcerer ogling her..."
"Not important, Harry. The important part is I've been discussing the extent of her powers with her, and Nancy's, and I think there is real reason for concern. What she describes, how she is being followed, these are not things that a young woman stripped of her deity's favor could do."
They moved away from the door by mutual agreement not to upset Sarah unless it was absolutely necessary. She needed the sleep, at the very least. "I'd been wondering about that." Harry asked, then headed down towards the lab. "I've been looking for her using a reverse trace on that thing she told us about, the power..."
"Manon, Old World deity..."
"Yeah, him." Harry shook his head, evidently not interested in the history lesson. The door creaked shut and sealed with a thud. "There aren't that many practitioners in the city, and two of them aren't strong enough to be ..." he shrugged, threw a hand at the map. Two small scorch marks were placed in what Bob presumed to be residential sections, in what he understood from news reports and Harry's ramblings to be good areas of town. A third scorch mark, almost burned through the paper, was over Harry's home.
The fourth one was two streets down. Table was visible through the char.
And now Bob heard the tension in his voice. "Yeah, like I said... I thought she was supposed to be de-powered."
"I've no idea... although I suppose she could have gained the favor of some other power, though that doesn't explain how you were able to find her using that sort of a tracking spell, and either way, I..."
Outside the lab, something went thump. An aphorism about thumps in the night flickered through Bob's mind. "Are you sure she was going to sleep?" Harry asked.
Neither of them waited around for Bob to answer, and especially not the old ghost. Harry had to open the door and close it behind him; he simply charged through the wall and straight into the after effects of a blast of force that was already sliding around Harry's wards.
"I see it!"
Harry would have to deal with the wards himself; Bob was concentrating more on the type of spells she was throwing, the words she was saying. They sounded suspiciously like 'revenge' and 'death,' and other things he did not want to hear from someone who was in possession of as much power as she was.
"Harry!" he called, more because it made him feel better as Harry really was working on the wards as fast as he could. "You might want to pay attention to..."
He wasn't sure what happened next but he thought he heard Harry say something about 'that earth-shattering ka-boom.'
The workshop was not nearly as comfortable as Harry's bedroom.
That didn't seem to stop Sarah. Safety was what made her comfortable right now, and he couldn't fault her for that. She had been running from her former friend for a long time now.
Harry had at least managed to chase her away, and was now attending to the wards on the building. Bob thought about reassuring Sarah by explaining to her what he was doing, but he didn't think she had the theory to understand enough to comfort her and Harry had already told her he was strengthening his protections on the building.
"He's very good at what he does," Bob offered, hovering at her shoulder as though he would reach out and lay a hand there to comfort her. Not that he could, but the thought was there, and he had the idea she understood. "This house will be safe."
"For now." Sarah mustered up a wan smile from somewhere, her face still pale and her eyes now even more bloodshot. She needed rest, and he didn't know how to give it to her. He didn't think Harry did, either, but that was a secondary thought in the back of his mind by now.
"For good," Harry said, pretending a bravado Bob could tell he didn't feel. His eyes were too pinched, his smile too fleeting. But it seemed to work on Sarah. "I bolstered up the wards, she won't be able to get in, now."
Sarah smiled back at him, but shook her head. "For now. What happens in a few days? I can't stay here the rest of my life, and I won't ..."
"You won't have to," Harry interrupted.
Bob looked at his young charge. No, not so young anymore, not as young as the woman they were now protecting. And yet gallantry was a young man's game. "We will find some way of de-powering her," he added to Harry's reassurance. "Between the two of us we have centuries of experience in dealing with sorcerers of various kinds. Even those who are favored by gods."
"Assuming she is."
Bob nodded at Harry. He was right; there was more than one way to regain the favor of the gods, or the power once held by those favored. "Assuming she is."
Sarah nodded. "Thank you, guys... Seriously, I don't even..." Her arms wrapped around her knees where she was perched on Harry's chair and held on tight enough to leave the outlines of pale flesh where she pressed her fingertips into her leg. "Thank you."
"We should never have meddled in this kind of thing. Never have messed with it."
Sarah hadn't unwrapped her arms from around herself, not really. She'd pulled herself up out of the chair and her hands had shifted from the sides of her knees to her elbows, but that was it. Harry was taking an awfully long time out there, talking to Murphy about getting lists of recent citations of young women. Bob didn't think it would come to anything, but he agreed they had to track Nancy any way they could.
"What do you mean?"
She looked through him rather than at him, looking at some event in her past to do with the manifestation of her powers. "It was Nancy's idea, to begin with, but we all wanted to do it. They wanted a fourth, and I was the fourth..."
Four to provide a balance. Many things in nature came in fours. Earth, air, fire, water. Solid, liquid, gas, plasma.
"It was Nancy's idea to do the spell, to summon... She wanted it so much, she actually bought the book." Sarah's laugh held no humor to it. "She never bought things. None of them did, they just slipped them into their pockets. Called it the five finger discount. That should have been my first clue, right?"
Still he said nothing, though he didn't disagree. The sorts of people who stole because they could, because they wanted something and did not want to work for it or pay for it, rather than because they had to, those weren't the sorts who ever came to anything but the black, in his opinion. Up to and including himself, at times.
"I thought there were good parts to them, though. I wanted to believe that they weren't always like that, weren't really so... into the power, to get whatever they wanted. I wanted... I thought..."
Bob quirked a bit of a smile. "You wanted to believe the best of them. There's no harm in that." He crossed his arms in front of him, one hand clasping the other wrist. "Many a wise young woman has done a great deal of good by believing the best of someone who was, let us say, less than upright and good."
The corner of her mouth twitched up a little. "You're talking about someone specific?"
"Yes." He hadn't meant for her to latch onto that, although he supposed she would, if only to avoid talking about her own past. "I knew a sorceress, once. Not so different from you. She tried, very much, for as long as she could to believe the best in the young man she loved. It... ended badly, but she did try. And she did help." His voice had sunk to a whisper before he raised his head again, cleared his throat. "For a time."
Sarah watched him, looked right at him this time. He looked back at her. She was going to ask him what he was talking about, and he wouldn't answer, and as fragile as she was he wondered if it would destroy the trust between them. He could always lie. But a lie would ring false in her ears, after he had already spoken so intimately and well of Wyn...
"I don't know what I could have done to help," she said instead, looking down at her hands, arms falling down to mimic his posture. He didn't know if that was on purpose or not. She took a couple steps closer and he took a step back and to one side on instinct, to avoid her passing through him. That never helped. "I don't know if there was anything. We were in high school..."
"When I was born you would have been married by then." Bob smiled a little. "As the world passes, the age at which young men and women are grown increases more and more."
Sarah gave him a look that said clearly he wasn't making his meaning understood.
"You were young women exploring the limits of your power in every way you could. It's no surprise that you, and they, pushed at the boundaries of what was permissible by your Manon as well. It was not your job to impose limits; that should have been left to the magic users in the area."
"Liriel did the best she could." Just a bit defensive there. He held up his hands.
"Certainly, I don't mean any disrespect to your teacher, but someone should have taken control. Where Harry is concerned, such people are called Wardens. They guard against uses of magic that are... less than morally upright." In the old days he would have been more certain of the words to use, but these days it was so hard to tell what was a safe phrase for 'bloody murderous and insane' that he wasn't sure what would work for her.
Sarah seemed less concerned about the kind of word he chose, at least. "Liriel did the best she could," she repeated. "She wasn't that kind of witch. She was... peaceful. She didn't deal in hard magic, vengeful... not the kind of thing that Nancy was using."
Bob nodded, though he had very little idea of this woman Liriel. "But she wasn't the only practitioner in the whole of the city, surely."
"I don't know. I don't know who else I could have gone to."
Gone to. It wasn't, or it shouldn't have been a matter of going to anyone, someone should have noticed. Now, of course, there was a mad sorceress on the loose and Sarah was paying the price for someone's negligence. It made him livid, a promising young woman driven nearly to her death because the Wardens had not been on the ball about things. She would have been driven to her death, too, had Harry not been there. Bob would have Harry talk to the regional commander for that area, if he could manage it. In the meantime, they had to come up with something that would stop this witch in her tracks.
"This is a bad plan."
Harry Dresden says it this time. Someone always said it, but I can't disagree. It's a bad plan. It's also the only plan we had.
Harry looks out into the dark-and-light patches in the park. I know he's looking for Nancy. I'm looking at how awfully tall he was. I could have told him there was no point in looking for Nancy; she would make her presence known when she was good and ready, which was usually five seconds after she entered the room.
His hand comes down on my shoulder. He has big hands, too. One of them covers my entire shoulder. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Oh, Harry. "I don't have a choice. I won't run for the rest of my life, and she won't give up." I look up at him and give him my best, most confident superheroine smile. "With you around, at least, I'll know I won't take anyone with me."
From the look on his face he doesn't think that was a rousing endorsement. "And you're clear on what Bob told you to do?"
"Yes." We'd discussed it pretty thoroughly before I came out here.
Harry doesn't look so sure. "What did Bob tell you to do?"
"He didn't tell you?" That surprises me. A little bit; I have the feeling Bob doesn't tell Harry some things simply because he doesn't want to worry him. Whether or not this is a good thing I don't know. I'm not so wise yet. "He told me..."
No, of course I don't get time to explain it fully, although I wanted to. Nancy comes out before I finished.
"Isn't this nice? You've found yourself a champion."
I can imagine her clasping her hands together under her chin like some kind of demented anime schoolgirl. Her eyes would be bright. They are bright, as she steps out under the lights in the park and Harry steps back into the shadows.
"He's not my champion, Nancy."
I want to hate her. I want to be righteous, to strike her down with the full force of my wrath or something dramatic like that. But I'm just too tired to do it. Tired of running, of listening to her, dealing with her bullshit. All I want is for this to be over.
"Is he your new boyfriend? Does he fly as well as the last one?"
"He's not a part of this, Nancy. He doesn't matter." I make my voice tired, too. If she doesn't think I care about him she won't go after him, and even though I knew Harry could defend himself, I don't want to see her aiming for him. I shouldn't have worried. She has eyes only for me.
Bob couldn't see very much of what was going on, not with Harry hanging back far enough to stay out of the range of the more lethal shots. It was infuriating.
"I know, Bob."
It was the third or maybe the fourth time he'd tried to convince Harry to move in closer, each time Harry growing increasingly snappish and shutting him down sooner. Both men were getting irritable, but Bob made himself be quiet. The last thing he wanted was for Harry to lock him back up in his skull while the young women fought.
One would think that after centuries of life he would have more patience. A fact that he was glad Harry didn't point out.
"What did you tell her to do?"
Bob was distracted. Harry had to ask him twice before he heard. "I gave her a few specific formulae, nothing fancy. Nancy is used to the power she's given by her deity, she won't be expecting Sarah to come up with something more ... hermetic." Which wasn't as accurate a word as he might have used but he was distracted.
Bright lights did not fill the sky, though he half expected them to. Instead he felt the wind of rapid movements, concussive force sliding through the air. It was a bit strange to see magic performed without the formulas and effects he was used to.
The effect of Sarah's body hitting the mid-way branches of a tree was one they could all see.
"I see it, I see her!" The taller man was already in motion, heading towards the still-moving form on the ground.
Sarah lifted her head. Bob could see the outline against the lights behind her, and the tree. "No, stop!"
Too much shouting. He heard Harry say something, couldn't make out what it was between all the shouting. He did see the shield bracelet activate, ruts of churned dirt appearing in the grass where he was pushed back by the force of whatever Nancy was throwing at him.
Then it stopped. He saw Sarah get up, and both she and Nancy disappeared on the green.
"What... where did they go?"
"I don't know!" Harry was pushing himself to his feet. "You're the expert, you're the one who spent all that time talking to her, you tell me!"
Bob looked around as many ways as he could, but saw nothing. "I didn't..."
Something had happened. Something had not gone according to plan. Had gone incredibly wrong. If he had a heart still it would be having palpitations. Minutes slid by while Harry searched and Bob turned in circles and still neither of the girls reappeared. If he breathed he would be holding his breath.
"Harry..." Finally he was still, shoulders dropping, hands spread and helpless. "I don't know..."
Two bodies landed on the ground in front of them.
One of them was still breathing.
It was all Harry's idea. Or so he told himself.
The truth was they had both come up with it at roughly the same time. Sarah's body was breathing shallowly under the blanket on Harry's bed. No need to protect her now that Nancy was most assuredly dead, but Sarah wouldn't wake up. There was some debate, some heated debate over whether or not Harry should take her to the hospital, ending in the conclusion that it wouldn't do any good.
Going in after her, so to speak, was still a fool's errand. The landscape of the mind was strange at best and with someone who had recently been through so much, it could be violent and distorted and all manner of unpleasant things.
Bob took a metaphysical breath and dove in anyway. Perhaps it was Harry's ridiculous sense of chivalry infecting him.
Her mental landscape was profoundly tidy, almost surprisingly so. A wide open house with bright, open rooms, wind blowing through pale-colored curtains, everything in adobe browns and reds. Not blood red. It was nice to be in someone's mind who didn't have a turn for the dramatic.
"Sarah?" He ducked under the doorway, despite it not being very short. Force of habit, perhaps. "Sarah?"
Something clattered. He looked around and he was at the source of the sound, Sarah, sitting on her bed, wrists crossed in front of her up-bent knees. It reminded him of how she had been sitting in Harry's house.
"Sarah." He sat down at the foot of her bed, facing her, not that she looked up. "Do you know who I am?"
"No," she said to her knees, but then she looked up at him. "I don't think even Harry knows who you are."
Well, that was a direct and blunt answer to a question he hadn't meant to be that intimate. "Perhaps not. But he's learned a lot from me, and I, from him."
Sarah picked a little at the hem of her blouse and said nothing.
"It wasn't your fault, you know." That was the usual question when it came to young practitioners, when things became this serious. "Nancy's problems were Nancy's problems. They had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with her..."
"Being crazy. I know." That didn't make her look up. It didn't seem to make her any happier, or feel any better about what had happened. Well, perhaps it shouldn't. Harry was who he was because he felt bad about bad things happening to people whether he liked them or not. And Justin had been Justin because he didn't care what happened to anyone.
Maybe he should tell her that.
"Sarah..." He moved up to sit beside her, ignoring most of his usual applications. "Are you hurt? In... some way other than this."
"No." But the smell of blood was in the air, giving lie to her words.
He reached around her arms, still crossed over her knees, and turned them up so he could see the wounds he had already known were there. "You know..." he told her, and thanked the powers and providence that Harry wasn't around to hear this. "My ... wife. Did something similar, once. I was... stubborn. Willful. I didn't listen." But now Sarah was listening, her head upraised, and the blood had stopped. "We were young. We were extremely powerful. Magically speaking. I thought that I could bend time and reclaim life because I wished it."
Sarah was smart, perceptive for a young woman of these days. "You brought her back."
"Mm. Repeatedly. Bringing a person back from death, once the soul has crossed, is... not advised. She came back. And in the end, she hated me for it. I was caught. Tried, condemned. To exist, trapped in my skull for all eternity, while she found peace in the beyond. At least..." Faint twitch of a smile, for her, at least, if nothing else. "I hope she did."
She watched him. The bleeding had stopped under his fingers, the blood had disappeared from her sleeves and the shins of her trousers now that he had distracted her. And better for her that he had, really; this was not the sort of moment in which a young woman should be dwelling. He wondered if this had come before or after Nancy.
"I don't..." she looked back down. "I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to become like Nancy, I don't want this power. I don't know if I ever really did. Everything that I did that I like about myself didn't have anything to do with power."
Another faint smile, but this one lasted longer than a twitch. "And that is exactly why you deserve it. My dear, I have been around many, many magic users in my lifetime. And of all those hundreds of folk, in hundreds of years, the ones who never craved the power as I did," one finger lightly tapped her nose. "So I do know whereof I speak, those are the ones who made the best wizards, the best sorceresses. She would have liked you..."
Sarah blinked at him, startled. So was he.
"... I believe. You share the same sort of kindness and steel, and the heartfelt belief that there are things that are simply right and simply wrong..."
He had meant to say more but she had put her arms around him, and was hugging him, her head resting on his shoulder. It had been so long since anyone had rested their head on his shoulder, since he had touched anyone, a few stolen hours thanks to Morningway's machinations nonwithstanding, that he froze for a moment. And then he remembered where he was and what he was about long enough to slide an arm around her shoulders and gently hug her back.
It was enough. It seemed like enough, at any rate, to send her face scrunching up against the tears, curling into him further. The ghost of a sorcerer she barely knew, and she was crying on his shoulder. It reminded him even more of things he didn't mean to think about. Didn't want to think about. No, best not to go back to those days, best to just hold her and give her what comfort he could, and hope it was enough.
It had to be enough.
I didn't want to say good-bye, after all that.
I'm still not comfortable with what I've done. With what Nancy and I had done, with everything that I had done with the girls. Talking with Bob had helped. He had a perspective not unique but different, and maybe there was something in his voice that made everything seem real, or normal. That rich singing voice. He'd sung me a couple of lullabies and made me promise not to tell Harry. That made me laugh.
I was going to walk out of Dresden's place feeling a lot more normal than I had when I walked in, and I didn't know how to thank him for that.
"Don't worry about it," Harry smiles, and I have the feeling he's uncomfortable with being thanked. I can relate.
I smile up at him. "Well, maybe someday I'll come back and get to return the favor," I tell him, making it light and casual so that it's easier on both of us.
"I'd like that," he says, and smiles more. "I think Bob would, too."
"Good. And tell him thank you, for me, too, would you? What he said... it really helped."
I hadn't seen him since we'd had that conversation in my dream world, I think maybe because a lot of what he'd said had been pretty personal. He was avoiding having to face me knowing about it. Which is okay, really. Harry nods. I haven't told him what Bob had said. "I will. I'm glad... well, I'm glad you're all right."
"So am I."
And then it's time for me to go. I hug him, because I can, and he bends down to hug me because he has to and because he's very tall. We say our last awkward good-byes, and I take one last look around in case Bob decided to come out. He didn't.
I square my shoulders and hold my head high anyway, just in case he might be watching.
I'm pretty sure he is.