By the time we reached home Harry was clearly starting to flag. He got us parked safely and turned off the engine, then slumped in his seat. I got out and went around to help him out. He leaned on me, and I took the opportunity to try and transfer some more life energy to him. That earned me a glare.
"Don't!" he snapped. "We both know it's not giving me more than minutes now."
I nodded, the whip of guilt flaying me even harder. "I'm so--"
"And don't say you're sorry again, either," he growled. His voice gentled. "I know you had to say and do those things to lull my uncle's suspicions, and I--"
"What I did is killing you, Harry!" I said fiercely. "How can you forgive me?"
"Because you sent Justin to the hell he cheated his way out of five years ago."
He suddenly paled and sagged heavily against me. Bracing him up, I hurried him inside, a whispered word setting the candles in the living room alight. I got him out of his jacket and lying down on the couch, one of the throw pillows tucked under his head. He sighed when I removed his boots, wriggling his toes and settling deeper into the cushions. He let out a chuckle.
"What is it?" I asked, perching on the coffee table and laying a hand on his chest. His life force continued its slow, steady ebb; I would have him for perhaps a few hours more.
"I didn't expect dying to be this easy." He smiled up into my shocked face. "I always thought, when the end came, I'd be trapped in some godsforsaken hellhole, surrounded by enemies, my only hope to take as many of the bastards as possible with me before it happens..." His body tightened in a shudder, his eyes growing bleak and haunted. I rubbed my hand on his chest, the comforting motion hopefully distracting him from detecting the brief burst of soothing energy I sent into him.
"You're not there, Harry," I reassured him. "You're here, you're home."
"Home," he echoed. He then leveled another glare at me; my distraction had obviously been less than effective. But he was relaxed, his eyes clear of whatever horror they'd seen. "And pretty comfortable, at peace..." he placed a hand over mine "...and not alone." That, I understood, meant the most to him. He closed his eyes, and I felt tendrils of his power reach out to me. I blocked it, but so half-heartedly that I might as well not have bothered; perhaps, subconsciously, I wanted him to know.
"No," he gasped, and I knew he 'saw' the ragged wounds throughout my aura, my life force bleeding from them. Then I felt him trying to heal me, and this time I blocked him in earnest. He persisted, like a just-captured animal worrying the bars of its cage.
"Harry, stop!" I touched a fingertip to his forehead, prepared to force him into sleep if need be. "You've seen the damage; it can't be healed. Please."
I was readying my spell when he broke off his with a frustrated hiss, and lay there breathing heavily. Then his fingers curled around my hand, tears sliding from beneath his closed lids. "Damn you," he half-sobbed.
"Too late," I whispered. I brushed my fingers across his forehead lightly, soothingly, and after a few moments he calmed and opened his eyes, a sheen of tears still on them.
"I'll wait for you," he said simply.
I took out my handkerchief and gently dried his tears. "I'm sorry, Harry, but I won't be there."
Apprehension crept onto his face. "Why?"
I pulled my sleeve back from the rune-covered manacle about my wrist. "The curse is still binding me. When I die, I'll remain here, locked to my skull."
He drew a shaky breath. "That's not fair." A steely resolve replaced the fear. "You'll move on with me, Bob, I promise. You've been punished long enough."
I smiled at the thought of him storming the bastions of Heaven, or more likely, Hell, to fight for my soul, little though I deserved it. "Thank you," I said softly.
He smiled back, then tugged at my hand. "Sit with me." I helped him sit up enough to make room for me, pillowing his head and shoulders on my lap. I rested an arm across his chest, and he latched onto it with a sigh.
"Are you in pain?" I asked, gently stroking his hair.
He shook his head. "Just tired," he mumbled, his eyes drifting closed, and I settled down to keep vigil.
The gray light of dawn was filtering through the windows when Harry gripped my arm tighter. "Bob," he murmured.
"Yes, Harry, I'm here." He nodded slightly, a small smile touching his lips, then I felt his hold slacken, and the shallow movement of his chest beneath my arm stilled. Hot, stinging tears flooded my eyes as I leaned over and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Goodbye, Harry," I whispered, and let grief take me.
At Murphy's third knock on Harry's office-side door, the lock clicked and the door swung open slightly. Warily, Murphy drew her gun, pushed the door open wider, and stepped inside.
"Harry?" she called. "You here?"
No answer. She went through the office and down the hall to the living area, the tableau her eyes fell on bringing her up short. A long, lean body that could only be Harry's, though a black velvet jacket covered the upper torso and face, lay motionless on the couch. An armchair had been pulled near and in it, just as motionless, slumped a white-haired man, a stranger to Murphy.
Shaking off her initial shock, Murphy put her gun away, hurried over to the couch, and gently drew the jacket aside, revealing Harry's face. She felt for the pulse at his throat, though she knew it was futile; his skin was cool, indicating he'd died some hours ago. She lifted up the jacket and gave his body a quick once over. No blood. No obvious wounds. What the hell had happened?
She carefully replaced the jacket and turned to the stranger. Now that she was nearer, she could see him breathing; his pulse, when she checked it, beat shallowly beneath her fingers. She pulled out her cell, calling for an ambulance and the ME van. As she finished, the stranger's head lifted, his eyes opening, recognition filling them.
"Lieutenant Murphy," he whispered. "Nice to meet you at last." His voice was British-accented, with a faint echo of the resonance it would have had, if its owner weren't so weak.
"Try to keep still," she urged. "Help's on the way." She desperately wanted to question him, especially since he seemed to know her, but she didn't want to stress him.
"It'll arrive too late," he stated mildly. "I'm sorry I won't have time to answer the questions I know you have. All I can give you is this." He held out a small envelope to her. Automatically, she took it; it had her name on it in Harry's handwriting. She slipped it into her coat pocket to read later.
The stranger had turned his gaze toward the couch and its sad burden. Murphy knew she wouldn't get anything more out of him now, if ever; his breathing was slowing, and she could barely feel his pulse. "Dammit," she snapped, with an impatient glare toward the door. Where were the EMTs? She didn't want to lose this guy.
A tremor went through him. She looked down at him, and the utter joy that suffused his face had her blinking away sudden tears. "Harry," he murmured, stretching out his hand, fingers curling as though he held another's. At that same brief, eternal moment she heard a quiet voice on the air, reassuring, encouraging, and unmistakably Harry's.
"C'mon, Bob, you're free. Let go."
A feather-light touch brushed Murphy's cheek, then the moment passed; the man's - Bob's - arm flopped limply against the side of the chair, his head falling forward, with no pulse under her urgently searching fingers. A quick shove at the coffee table gave her room, then she muscled Bob onto the floor and began CPR. A fluttery heartbeat and faint breathing rewarded her efforts by the time the EMTs finally arrived. They took over smoothly, stabilizing Bob and readying him for transport.
"Keep me posted," Murphy told them, giving them her card as they left, through, realistically, she didn't hold out much hope.
The ambulance sped away, siren blaring, leaving Murphy alone, for the moment, with Harry. She took the jacket up and carefully folded it, laying it across the back of the armchair Bob had recently occupied. It must have belonged to him; it just wasn't Harry's style. What had they been to each other? She sighed; another question she'd never get answered.
Standing beside the couch, she studied Harry's still face, thinking about the might-have-beens, which now would never be. She bent and touched her lips to his forehead in farewell, straightening up and dashing a hand over her wet eyes as she heard a vehicle pull up outside. Doors slammed and heavy footsteps clumped into the apartment, a man's voice calling, "Where's the stiff?"
Murphy's face tightened in anger, even as she answered. "Back here."
The first man to enter took one look at her and visibly gulped. "Uh, hey, lieutenant," he said weakly. He'd stopped so abruptly that his partner ran into him.
"What's the holdup?" he complained, then he saw her, too, but said nothing, a sheepishly apologetic look on his face.
"The 'stiff'," she said crisply, folding her arms and raking them with furious eyes, "is Harry Dresden. He was my friend and he helped a lot of people during his life, me included. So I'd appreciate it if you handled him with at least a modicum of respect. If you're clear on that--" they hurriedly nodded "--I'll leave you to it."
She stepped back as they came in, with a good deal less noise, and set to work under her gimlet eye; she'd be willing to bet that no Ming vase had ever been handled as carefully.
Then they were gone, and she knew she should be too; there was the inevitable paperwork to get started. But she lingered, slowly turning in place as she took in, for perhaps the last time, the esoterica of Harry's life. When her eyes fell on his desk, she frowned. Where was the skull that had always sat there? She drew closer, and caught sight of a heap of yellowed bone shards; it looked like the old thing had simply fallen apart.
Her cell rang and she quickly answered it. "Murphy." She listened for a moment. "I see.... No, I just got his first name.... Bob.... Thanks." She hung up, shaking her head sadly. Bob hadn't made it to the hospital; he'd been pronounced DOA there, and now his body would join Harry's at the morgue.
As she put her cell away her fingers touched the envelope he'd given her. She slowly pulled it out, reluctant to read Harry's last words. But she made herself sit in the desk chair and open it, unfolding the single sheet of paper it held. It was undated. At the top, carefully printed, was a phone number. The rest of the missive was in Harry's usual graceless scrawl:
If you're reading this, well, I'm dead. If you're the one who found me, I'm sorry, and I hope it wasn't too messy.
When you call that number up top, you'll reach a guy named Morgan. He's a major asshole and none too fond of me, but there are things that need to be done and he'll see they are.
I'm not good at this last will and testament stuff, not that this is one, or I have a whole lot to leave. I just want you to know that your friendship meant a great deal to me, and I hope having mine wasn't too much of a pain in the ass.
Guess I'll end this now before you start bawling. Goodbye, Connie. Have a good life.
I'll miss you.
The paper crumpled in Murphy's fingers as her hands closed into fists. She grieved in eerie silence, tears streaming unchecked down her face and neck and wetting her collar. Gradually, the storm wound down, leaving her utterly drained and with the beginning of a monster headache. Shoving the balled-up note into her pocket, she pushed herself to her feet and made her way to the bathroom, splashing cool water over her hot face, rubbing it lightly with her fingertips.
Once she dried off, she headed for the kitchen and the large bottle of aspirin she recalled Harry kept there. She opened it and shook out a couple, downing them with some water. Then she sat down at the table, pulled the crumpled note from her pocket, carefully smoothed the wrinkles and read it again, fingers lingering over the spot on her cheek where she'd felt that soft touch. "I'll miss you, too, Harry."
She took out her cell and made the call.