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The Education of an Heir

Chapter Text

As Chris entered the classroom on a Saturday morning, he heard his brother's scornful voice.

"Come on," Wyatt said. "If threats against my life meant anything, I would have been dead a hundred times over before I was two years old."

"But you weren't, because your parents took those threats seriously," Wyatt's tutor, the wizard Merlin, replied.

"Have you already told my mom and dad about this?"

"No."

"Well, don't. They'll just get all wound up for no reason, and I can handle this myself. None of my family needs to know."

Merlin raised his eyebrows and glanced toward the door with a small smile. Wyatt looked to see Chris waiting there.

"Oh, shit. You heard nothing," he growled in warning to Chris. Before his younger brother could reply, Wyatt turned back to Merlin. "Are you going to tell them?"

"I will keep it to myself -- for now. Only because the warning I received came from a less-than-reliable source. If I start to have reason to believe the threat is credible --"

"You'll tell them; okay, fine, I get it." Wyatt was hoisting his bag on his shoulder. "Time's up. I gotta go."

Chris followed him out of the classroom into the hall of Magic School.

"What are you doing here?" Wyatt asked.

"I was meeting Vincenta at the library; we've got a big project due for Professor Franklin on Monday. Mom told me to stop by and remind you that Aunt Phoebe and Penelope are coming over for early dinner, so you should be there." He studied Wyatt's grim, distant expression, then asked, "What's going on? What did Merlin tell you?"

"Nothing important."

"I can help."

"Right. A thirteen-year-old's really gonna scare a professional assassin."

"You've got assassins after you?"

"Just one assassin, and it's just a rumor -- and no, you can't help." He stopped walking. "And don't follow me."

"What?" But Wyatt had already vanished in a swirl of blue orb lights. Chris heaved a sigh and continued on to the library. One thing was certain. Wyatt would kill him if he told Mom and Dad. But would it matter much if Chris told his best friend? Wyatt may not have thought he needed help, but he could be wrong. He was probably wrong. And Vincenta was good at the research end of things. If it wasn't in the Book of Shadows, she'd know where to go next.

He found Vincenta sitting in the library as expected, but he did not quite anticipate her immediate reaction to his proposal.

"If he wants to ignore it, or deal with it on his own, let him, then."

"My brother's life is threatened, and this is your attitude!"

"I've got this real research project -- and so do you -- due Monday."

"We need to blow it off. This is important."

"All right, say we do try to help. What the heck are we supposed to look up? An assassin? That's nice and vague."

"We'll go talk to Merlin, see if he'll tell us anything more." He gestured at the pile of books spread over the table in front of her. "Why'd you leave all this to the last minute anyway? I'm close enough that I can finish up my paper tomorrow."

"I've been working on it all along; there was just lots of interesting stuff to read."

"If we don't get finished, we can ask Merlin to write excuse notes for us. Plus, you know Franklin will give you an extension. Especially if you tell him it's because you're such a dork that you couldn't stop reading."

Resigned, she flipped the book shut. "If I'm a dork, it's only because I caught it by hanging around with you."

* * * *

Some professors at Magic School affected a bookish, academic air that was reflected in their stuffy, dim offices. Others, the younger ones like Max Franklin and Chris's Aunt Paige, had offices that were almost determinedly modern and bright, as if to bring magic into the current age. Neither style of room fit Chris's idea of a place where magic was made. That place, to his mind, was the Halliwell attic, quaint and homey, with its cozy furniture, antiques and dusty, delicate vials of potion ingredients -- and at its center, a very old book, each page written by his ancestors, most long-dead. Of the dead ones, he had only met three: Penny, Patty and Prue -- his great-grandmother, grandmother and aunt, respectively. His strongest impression was that try as anyone might, the attic would always bear the mark of the elder of those three, Grams, as she was called even by Chris and Wyatt. And neither stuffiness nor sharp modernity of Magic School professors would have suited the formidable Grams.

They didn't seem to suit Merlin, either, Chris thought as he looked around the old wizard's office. Despite his age and fame, Merlin was a new addition to the faculty, brought in by Chris's Aunt Phoebe, in fact, to tutor fifteen-year-old Wyatt, known to be the new heir of Excalibur. Merlin agreed to accept his traditional role with respect to Wyatt, but also graciously offered to earn his keep with a few classes for all students. Headmaster Gideon had seemed reluctant, so Paige had said, but parents were enthused at the idea of a celebrity professor -- even if some grumbled at the special attention being given the powerful Halliwell boy.

Concerned with neither academic propriety nor modern style, Merlin had carted into his office all manner of unidentifiable, but presumably magical, objects, as well as a small menagerie of pets. There was an ant farm, various rodent-like creatures, and a dignified owl who stood on a perch making messes in the corner. And on this Saturday morning, after Wyatt quit his lesson early, Merlin apparently had returned to work on a potion of some kind: A cauldron over a small burner sat on a table surrounded by ingredients that somehow looked even viler than what Chris had ever seen go into the Charmed Ones' concoctions.

It was among this distracting clutter that Chris pleaded his case. Merlin politely stopped his potion-making to listen. Vincenta stayed in the background, looking reluctant to be there.

"It's not like you're telling Mom and Dad," Chris said. "I already know. I just want you to tell us a few more details."

"I don't have any more details."

"You have to." When Merlin just smiled, Chris added, exasperated, "Where'd you find this out, anyway?"

"As I told your brother, not a very reliable source. A lower demon, by the name of Penka, who happens to owe me some favors. He pays in information, but I know well enough to take his information with a grain of salt. As should you."

Chris was deeply shocked. "A demon? Does my mom know you're friends with a demon?"

For some reason, this earned a derisive snort from Vincenta, and a smile from Merlin, who said, "Hardly friends."

"Work with, whatever."

"He's essentially harmless. Too scared to make a move, usually, even if he had much in the way of powers. Sometimes you have to be willing to weigh the good you can accomplish by keeping some less-than-savory acquaintances."

It dawned on Chris what the old wizard was getting at. If they were going to find out more, they'd have to seek it out themselves. But as teacher, Merlin couldn't very well directly send them to a demon, of course, no matter how harmless this Penka was. Chris was going to have to take the initiative there, too.

"So, just, um, for my education, what kind of demon is he?" Chris asked.

"In the interest of your education, he's a Mero Demon."

Chris glanced at the impatient Vincenta. "Okay," he said to Merlin. "Thanks. We'd better go … leave you to …" He gestured awkwardly at the half-finished potion. Then Vincenta pointedly cleared her throat. "Oh! And can you please tell Professor Franklin that we were working a special project for you this weekend?"

"Special project?"

"We kind of are, aren't we? Isn't this a learning experience? Because we probably aren't going to get our homework for Franklin done this weekend."

"It could be a learning experience," Merlin conceded. "But perhaps you should at least try to get that homework done. I'd hate to be an excuse for sheer truancy."

"We'll try. Really."

"I will if Chris will let me," Vincenta said as her friend pulled her out the door. "So," she said when they were out of the office, "we need a spell to locate this demon. I'll go to the library; you go to the Book of Shadows. Be listening for when I call you, because I'm going to find something first."

"What makes you so sure?"

"First of all, if he's as harmless as Merlin says, what's the chance anyone in your family made an entry about him? Secondly, I'm going to the library. While you, you're going to a great big handwritten book with no index."

She smirked at his lack of reply and walked off in the direction of the library. Chris shook his head and orbed back home.

He appeared in the attic, which was empty, he was relieved to see. If anyone caught him up here, he could claim he was looking at the Book of Shadows for homework, but it was better to avoid explanations altogether -- especially if the questioner was Piper. His dad and aunts were easy to lie to, but his mom ... Chris would feel guilty lying to her, and he always had the feeling she could tell when he wasn't being honest. Aunt Phoebe may have had the empathy power, but his mother had some special power that applied to Chris alone. Evasiveness, rather than a direct untruth, was always his better course when it came to her.

He could faintly hear people downstairs, but he seemed in no danger of being found out as he flipped through the Book of Shadows for some fifteen minutes -- but to no avail. Finally, he said aloud in frustration, "You know, if Wyatt's really in danger, I could use a little help here! Anyone?"

He broke into a grin as an invisible force began to move the pages rapidly, stopping on an entry that not only was about the lackluster reputation of Meros -- but there was Penka himself. "Who needs indexes when you're a Halliwell?" he asked in triumphant undertone.

He recognized the entry as one of his great-grandmother's, and Grams was just as dismissive of the creature as Merlin had been. But there was more than just a locator spell. There was a summoning spell, with a note about his dubious usefulness as an informant. Perfect.

Chris knew that summoning a demon to the attic was a bad idea on many levels. And Magic School was protected; no demon could get in even if he were summoned. Chris would fetch Vincenta, gloat a little, and then they'd have to find a spot to recite the simple spell, which he scribbled down on a pad of rather girlie stationery he knew had to be Phoebe's.

He tore the sheet off and was about to leave when he was interrupted by the orbing arrival of … oh, good. Only his dad.

"Chris? What are you doing up here?"

"Homework," he replied easily. "I'm meeting 'Centa at the library. Mom knows." That last part wasn't a lie, really. That morning, Chris had told Piper he was going to the school to meet his friend at the library, back when that had indeed been his destination.

Leo accepted it all. "Just don't lose track of time, okay? Remember Aunt Phoebe and Penelope will be over this afternoon."

"Sure." Chris barely finished the word before orbing away.

His younger son gone, Leo moved over to the book himself. Before he closed it, he noted the open page. What kind of homework would involve a demon informant? he wondered idly. But he dismissed the thought as he headed back downstairs to his wife with the book. There were other problems needing attention.

Chapter Text

Wyatt wondered if it was such a good idea to go ahead with his plans for the day. Unfortunately, when he took a moment to sense the whereabouts of the friend he was meeting, he could tell Mark was already there waiting. Wyatt wasn't worried about the danger -- he could take all comers, and would welcome them -- but he wasn't going to give Mark the chance to get in harm's way.

So when Wyatt found him at the mall outside a music store, leaning back on a bench, watching the crowds go by, Wyatt said without preamble: "I'm showing up here just to tell you that I can't hang out today."

"Your family?"

"No. Turns out I've got someone out to kill me, and I'm going to find out who."

Despite his half-demon heritage, Mark had grown up rather sheltered from any kind of life in which death threats even existed, let alone were regarded with such careless confidence. But he had now been around Wyatt long enough that he had ceased to be surprised by it. So he skipped the expressions of shock to ask only, "How can I help?"

"You don't get to," Wyatt said.

"Says who?"

"Me."

"I want to help. And I have powers."

"No offense, but you're not really in control of them."

"And how am I supposed to learn? It's not like my dad can teach me. They won't let me in Magic School. If you won't let me take a chance ..."

Even though Mark had remained amicable throughout this dispute, he did know which nerve to strike. It had outraged Wyatt when he had learned from Mark that the headmaster of Magic School had excluded him because he was half-demon.

"Comparing me to that asshole Gideon," Wyatt said, "that's low."

"I didn't say anything about Gideon," Mark said innocently.

"You didn't have to."

For as long as Wyatt could remember, the headmaster had filled him with an unexplainable seething anger, and as he hit his teenage years, it had more than once threatened to turn into all-out war. After Wyatt had befriended Mark, and learned of the half-Manticore kid's ban from Magic School, it had just provided one more reason to despise Gideon.

And then Gideon had hired Merlin, a wizard who was reputed to be half-demon himself. Merlin's heritage made no difference to Wyatt, but it did prove that Gideon was a fucking hypocrite. And a coward, too -- Wyatt suspected the elder was more than a little afraid of Merlin. For that reason alone, Wyatt liked his tutor, even if he couldn't help but show his appreciation by being an intractable, rebellious pupil. Merlin seemed to take it in stride.

Meanwhile, the friendship with Mark gave Wyatt some satisfaction with the thought that he was thumbing his nose at Gideon's prejudices. It would have been more effective, of course, had Gideon actually known about it, but Mark insisted it be kept a secret. He worried that Wyatt would get into that much more trouble. If Mark had personal reasons beyond that, he kept them to himself, although Wyatt knew Mark's human father had become averse to his son's involvement in the magical world since Gideon's rejection.

The irony was that if Mark constituted the "wrong crowd," the kind of friend you don't let your parents meet -- and the Halliwell family had never met him either -- Wyatt couldn't have found a more well-behaved, respectful kid. Between the two of them, Wyatt was the disreputable one, the thorn in everyone's side. But despite their different temperaments, they had formed a bond over a shared sense of being a freak: Wyatt with the heavy expectations placed on him because of his unusual powers and destiny; Mark who imperfectly "passed" in the mortal world and could not find a place in the magical one.

And today of all days, Mark now wanted to tag along to get a glimpse of the darker side of his heritage. He looked as though he would insist on it.

"So, what are you going to do?" Mark asked.

"All right," Wyatt relented. "I'm going below. To the Underworld. See who I see, what I come across. You think you can handle that?"

"Hey, my ancestral home -- sort of. And if anyone tries to mess with me, I can do the claw thing." Grinning, Mark curled his human fingers to approximate the Manticore claws they could transform into. "Maybe I'll pass. I could pretend you're my prisoner."

"Yeah, right. I'll keep that in mind as a back-up plan."

Mark didn't seem to resent the touch of derision in his friend's voice. Wyatt was certain he needed no help defending himself in the Underworld. But Mark was right about needing to learn how to use his demon powers, so all the better if Wyatt was along to look out for him.

Having come to an agreement, they headed off through the mall to look for a side hallway to make a magical exit out of view.

In the dark world below, Wyatt was unfailingly vigilant. But perhaps it was more difficult to see in the brightness above. Whatever the cause, as he and Mark made their way past shops, Wyatt had missed the figure that kept pace behind them. And when the two boys found an empty hallway to orb and shimmer away, respectively, they were witnessed. Wyatt's pursuer paused a moment, held out a round, dark blue and slightly glowing object, and muttered something low. The object brightened almost imperceptibly, but it seemed to provide an answer. With a look of fierce determination, the figure shimmered out as well.

* * * *

In the alley behind P3, Chris recited his great-grandmother's spell to summon Penka: "Creature low, vile and base, come right now to this place."

"That's it?" Vincenta asked, but she had scarcely spoken when a short, scrawny man -- at least, he was mostly human-looking -- half-shimmered, half-blew in. He made a few disoriented turns, his battered satchel flopping around him, before he noticed the two thirteen-year-olds.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me!" he spat out. "Go home, kids. Leave me alone and stick to playing with Ouija boards."

"We're not playing," Chris said. "We're friends of Merlin's."

Penka made a scornful noise. "I really doubt that."

"Okay. Try this. You knew my great-grandmother. Penny Halliwell."

That name gave the demon pause. With a little less assurance, he said, "You're not her," and made to walk off.

He was impeded by the flight of several trash cans that came hurtling into him, knocking him to the ground. He looked up to see the boy smiling slightly, his hand still poised in midair.

"No, I'm not her. But I inherited her power."

Penka strugged to his feet, eyeing the boy warily. "All right. What do you want?"

"Merlin said you told him that someone was after my brother. I want to know everything you know."

"Wyatt Halliwell? Wyatt is your brother? Huh. Well, pleased to meet someone else who got the short end of the stick, powers-wise."

The boy who just a moment before had been preening over being the heir of Penny Halliwell looked crestfallen at Penka's words, but the demon did not appear to notice.

"I mean," he nattered on, "look at me, I'm a demon; my raison d'être is to make humans miserable, right? How am I supposed to do that when my only power is to read the minds of other demons?"

"Is that how you found out that someone is after Wyatt?" Vincenta broke in.

It took a second for Penka to come back to the point of this encounter. "Yes," he said. "But I don't know much. I just 'heard' that some demon has hired an assassin."

"And you don't know who that demon is?" Chris asked.

"No. No, really, I don't," he insisted. "I would've told Merlin if I did."

"Well, whose mind did you read then?"

"Just another lower-level demon who had heard a rumor about the job. But I owe her, so I wasn't about to hang around to learn more."

"You don't know anything, do you?"

"I know," Penka said smugly, "that your brother is in the Underworld as we speak. I came across him before you called, but I got away quick. Although, it's weird: He was actually in the company of a demon. I got a look into his mind -- the demon's, that is. They seemed quite chummy."

Chris stared, open-mouthed, then found his voice. "Do you know where Wyatt is down there?"

"No. But if I was in the Underworld, I could probably pick up on that demon he was with."

"Can you get me there?"

Vincenta had been following the conversation as if she were observing a tennis match, but her eyes widened at Chris's question. Penka, meanwhile, looked unhappy at the prospect, but asked, "Then I can go?"

"Once we find Wyatt, sure."

"All right. Hang on."

He put his hand on Chris's shoulder, and just before they shimmered out, Vincenta yelped, "Wait!" She grabbed Penka's arm just in time, and the three disappeared from the alley.

The first thing Chris noticed about the Underworld was the smell, like rotting garbage with a faint whiff of burning chemicals that stung his eyes and nostrils. It was not overwhelming so much as insidious, seeping into his very skin.

Vincenta looked slightly sickened herself, and Penka seemed to notice. "I know," he said. "I try to be down here as little as I can."

Chris ignored him and said to his friend, who started peering curiously around the dark cavern in which they found themselves, "Just to be safe, maybe you should ..."

"Right," she said. She squeezed her eyes shut and promptly vanished.

"Hey!" Penka said, startled. "Is she still there?"

They heard Vincenta's voice reply: "Yes."

"That's a neat trick."

"It would be neater," Chris said, "if she could vanish other people along with her. Like I can do with orbing."

Vincenta had heard this argument before, and said disinterestedly, "That's not part of the power." From the sound, she was already wandering several paces away from them.

"Hold on," Chris said. "We don't know where we're going yet."

But their guide's attention had evidently jumped to other matters again. "You know," Penka said, "I was just thinking. I can read Merlin."

"Huh? So?" Chris responded. "And ... how?"

"Well, he's half-demon."

Chris didn't know quite what to think of this. Did anyone else know? Or was Penka lying? "Okay ... he's half-demon. What's your point?"

"My point is, wouldn't you love to know what's going on in his mind, let me tell you."

"What do you know?"

"I meant 'Let me tell you' as a figure of speech. I'm not actually telling you without some compensation." He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.

"Money? I don't have any money."

"But your family does, don't they?"

"But ... money? You're a demon!"

"A demon who finds money useful. What, do you think I want your stupid book? Even if your family would trade that, or anything of magical worth, which they wouldn't, I don't care. My ambitions are small to nonexistent. But somehow I've managed to create trouble for myself, and I want out of this city. And it occurs to me your family could help me that way."

"And why would we believe anything you told us?"

"You have no idea how Merlin is playing you. Or what's in store for you. He can read the future, and I can read his mind."

"But he's only half-demon. Doesn't that mean you can only half read him?"

"I know enough."

"So you're helping me right now because you owe Merlin, but you're willing to betray him for money."

"I'm evil. At least, I aspire to be. On a modest level."

"Fine," Chris sighed. "Forget that for now. Where's Wyatt?"

Chris's expression was dubious as Penka scrunched his face in apparent concentration.

"What are you doing?" he asked the demon.

"Shush. You're asking me to pick one mind out of thousands ..." Suddenly, his eyes widened, his mouth gaped, and he scrambled in his bag and produced a small glass container that looked almost like a salt shaker. Just then, a voice came from behind:

"Penka, you cheating weasel. I've been looking for you."

Chris and Penka whirled around to see an alarmingly burly demon stomping in their direction. Then a rock came flying out of nowhere, barely grazing the demon's head. Vincenta had missed, but the distraction gave Penka time to make a move. He shook the glass container in a complicated series of movements that scattered its dusty contents in a cloud around himself and Chris. The newcomer's menacing expression vanished, replaced by one of confusion. Shaking his head as he rubbed the spot where the rock had made contact, he turned and wandered away.

With a sigh of satisfaction, Penka returned the shaker to his satchel.

"What was that?" Chris demanded. "Are we invisible now, too?"

"I can still see you," Vincenta volunteered.

"It's something Merlin gave me to protect me from my enemies," Penka said. "It's more like a mind-wipe thing ... Don't ask me, I don't how it works. Now, what were we doing?"

"You were trying to read and locate the demon who's with my brother."

"Right. Oh. That's a problem."

"What problem?"

"Merlin's little gift here is kind of a two-way street. It blocks demons from detecting me but it also blocks me from detecting them -- mentally, that is."

Chris gave a cry of frustration. "You can't help me?"

"Relax. It wears off."

"In how long?"

"About an hour or so."

"Terrific. Just terrific. Well, guess what. You're going to help us look for him, physically, until the pixie dust, or whatever it was, wears off."

"Now that you're here, can't you sense him or something? Aren't you part Whitelighter?"

"I don't have that power yet, okay? Besides, who knows if I could even do that down here. So were you able to read anything before you -- got distracted?"

Penka looked uncertain. "Anywhere within an hour's walk from here."

"In which direction?"

"Maybe ..." Penka turned in a few circles and finally stopped and pointed. "That way."

Chris rolled his eyes, but decided to accept it. "Let's get walking."

Chapter Text

Wyatt and Mark's wanderings were unimpeded by any trace of an assassin, to Wyatt's frustration. Mark, on the other hand, was perfectly content to encounter no one, save for the occasional rustle that came from a hollow or a shadow yards in front of them. Wyatt would tense, alert, then would relax again, shaking his head as though he had been able to see, or sense, that the phantom was not worth the trouble. Mark wondered how Wyatt knew. Was it some kind of Whitelighter power? A sense that belonged to Wyatt alone? Whatever the case, it seemed to guide him true -- never once did the phantoms do anything but scurry away before them. There seemed to be no danger in this place at all.

Not in the company of Wyatt, anyway. And as Mark watched his friend expertly navigate the corridors -- a few times warning of some precipitous drop or other obstacle ahead before it was in view -- a question preyed on his mind, a question he finally voiced:

"How often do you come down here?"

"Hold it," Wyatt said, putting out a restraining hand in Mark's path. He orbed a near-boulder-sized stone into an archway in front of them, and it was immediately charred by a burst of flame. "Booby trap," Wyatt said. "It's clear now."

"How do you know?"

But Wyatt was already stepping over the rock, to no ill effects, and so Mark followed, and tried to ask again, "I was wondering, you know your way around so well..."

"I come here once or twice a month."

"Your mom and dad let you?"

"They don't know."

"And why --"

"Why do you think? Because they'd freak."

"No, I mean, why do you come here?"

Wyatt stopped walking. The question had thrown him.

"Because my family vanquishes demons. Why not find them where they're at? But Dad and Mom think I can't handle myself. They're scared. It's stupid, because I've been more powerful than any of them since I was a baby."

"But why go after the demons here? I mean, here, they're not causing any trouble for humans, not until they go above ground, right?"

"And why wait until they're above ground to make them understand who has the power here? Not the demons. Me."

He hardly recognized the anger in his voice until he saw how disconcerted his friend looked.

"I don't mean you, obviously," Wyatt said.

"That wasn't what I was thinking. Though," Mark added with a wan smile, "that's good to know."

"Then what?"

"It's only ..." Mark struggled to find the words. "Just because you have all this power, it doesn't make it all on your shoulders. You can't protect everyone. And no one protects you and ..." He threw up his hands. "I'm not making any sense."

"Not really. But don't worry about it. I can take care of myself, no matter what you may think. Trust me. I've done it all my life."

Wyatt resumed walking, and he heard Mark sigh and follow after.

He couldn't understand, Wyatt thought. But how could he, when Wyatt couldn't really understand it himself?

He had first found a way here when he was twelve. It was a venture born of curiosity, rebellion, restlessness. What he found there had been unexpected, and profoundly unsettling.

It was familiar.

He had been here before, he knew it. He prowled its gloomy depths, implacable, easily vanquishing every demon he encountered until he no longer encountered more. Word of his presence must have spread, and all the dwelling creatures had cleared out before his path. The terror within him had been appeased.

A few days later, word had reached his family of a "rampage" through the Underworld, with numerous demons wiped out. It had been treated as a curiosity, no more, but Wyatt had realized he had to be less obvious if he wanted to go back. He needed to go back.

And he had, whenever he thought he could get away with it, when his family's attentions were elsewhere. That was not as often as he felt the instinct to go below, drawing him down, out of the light, until his knowledge of its corridors was conscious. He would kill one or two demons each visit, and silence his soul's clamor for unnamed retribution. Until the next time, and the next irresistible call to return, to conquer it once again.

* * * *

"Hey, everybody!" Phoebe called as she entered the Manor. "I'm here!"

"In the kitchen," she heard a voice call.

She found Piper there, cooking. "Sorry I'm late," she told her sister.

"And yet," Piper said, "you're the first one here. Where's Penelope?"

"Uh ... she had an invitation to spend the night at a friend's house, and I let her go. You know, if we're going to be talking over demons, threats to Excalibur, whatever, she'd just be bored anyway, right?"

Phoebe could feel herself babbling. Piper just looked at her skeptically and said, "Right."

They both knew the truth: Phoebe's daughter, Penelope, was avoiding family gatherings that included Wyatt. Although Phoebe had for the most part dragged Penelope along anyway, in some way she could hardly blame her. It stemmed back to a few months ago, an incident at school. It had been an accident, but Wyatt had gotten angry, and in the course of venting that anger, bystander Penelope had been hurt -- a broken wrist. Leo had healed it in no time, of course, but Penelope would complain it still hurt, and she would not forgive her cousin. For her part, Phoebe was trying. Her nephew had apologized. But he had hurt her baby, accident or not.

Today she had not felt like insisting that Penelope join them, especially when the girl had somewhere else to spend the evening.

Piper looked poised to argue about it, when fortuitously, Paige orbed in.

"Hey, sorry I'm late, but I got caught by the school librarian. She always has something new to complain about, and for some reason, I'm her favorite confidante."

"You were at the library?" Piper asked. "Did you see Chris there?"

"Nope."

"He was supposed to be there with Vincenta. Some big project for Max's class."

"I didn't see either of them."

Piper looked at the clock. "Leo!" she called and, after turning a burner on the stove to low, she charged out of the kitchen to the living room.

Paige laughed as they followed her. "Leo the Teenager Detector," Paige said. "God, I am so grateful neither of my parents could find me this easily when I was that age."

"You're telling me," Phoebe said.

Leo was sitting in the living room, flipping through the Book of Shadows.

"It's time to get your sons home," Piper told him. "Chris is not, in fact, at the library with Vincenta. And Wyatt's ... Wyatt's just not here."

"Piper, I don't like to ..."

"Forget that. You said someone seems to be after Excalibur, which means that someone may be after Wyatt, too. Where are they?"

Leo closed his eyes briefly, then frowned. "I can't sense them."

"What?"

"To be honest ..." Leo said reluctantly, "more and more lately I can't sense Wyatt's location. I'm not sure why; maybe he's learned to block me. But Chris -- I've never had a problem before now. Of course, it hasn't come up as much, trying to find him."

"What about Vincenta?" Paige asked.

After a moment, Leo shook his head, but he said thoughtfully, "When I saw Chris in the attic earlier today, he was looking through the Book -- a spell to summon a demon. He said it was for his school project."

"That's doubtful," Paige said. "He told me yesterday his paper for Max was on goblins. I guess it depends on what demon the spell was for ..."

Leo was already flipping through the pages, trying to find the page Chris had left open.

"Here," he said finally. "This was it."

"It's a start," Piper said, reading what Grams had written there. "I guess we're inviting a demon to dinner."

* * * *

Meanwhile, in their corner of the Underworld, Chris and Vincenta walked aimlessly with Penka, never coming upon Wyatt, or indeed, any living thing. It was becoming increasingly clear that the demon had no idea where he was leading them.

"This isn't working," Chris finally said in frustration. "Is that stuff wearing off yet?"

"It should have by now," Penka answered. "Maybe I used too much."

"Maybe," Vincenta said, "we need to give up for now and go above again."

Penka looked relieved at the suggestion. "I think your friend is --" Then he interrupted himself with a startled cry: "Whoa!" The air seemed to be disturbed around him, and he began to flicker from their sight. "Oh, sh--" he said, before the same whirling breeze that had brought him to them sucked him away, leaving Chris and Vincenta behind, alone in the Underworld.

Chapter Text

"--it!" Penka finished, before adding an inarticulate cry of disgust as he took in the three witches who had just summoned him, and the crystal cage that immediately sprung up around him. "Oh, not again. This is getting ridiculous!"

"Again?" Piper asked with asperity. "Has someone else summoned you recently?"

Penka's eyes darted around the room. He recognized the Manor, back from his acquaintance with Penny Halliwell. This must be the kid's mother, he thought. And, yeah, the Charmed Ones. Well, I am not going to be taken advantage of anymore today.

"As a matter of fact, yes," he said, affecting nonchalance. "A boy, about thirteen, brown hair, about so high, and a girl, black hair, a little shorter ... ringing any bells?"

"Where are they?" Piper demanded.

"I'm sorry, it's a little fuzzy. Or, maybe it's a little fuzzy because I have no idea why you think I'd help you."

"Because you'll be vanquished if you don't."

"Not likely, as long as I know where the kids are and you don't. And the other one too -- Wyatt, right?"

"What do you want?" Leo stepped forward to ask.

"Payment. In cash. And I want to see Merlin first. I want a guarantee I won't be vanquished as soon as I open my mouth. I want to talk to Merlin." He folded his arms, stared at the ceiling, and hoped he looked convincingly stubborn.

"Merlin," Piper echoed, looking at Phoebe with annoyance. It had been Phoebe, after Penelope's injury, who had called upon the wizard in the first place, with the thought that Wyatt needed some guidance from an old expert on heirs of Excalibur. She had not consulted Wyatt's parents about this beforehand. Piper had only grudgingly allowed it, but she did not completely trust her son's tutor, and a demon calling on Merlin for help -- that was not inspiring confidence.

"Okay," Phoebe said placatingly. "We need to go to the school, get Merlin, and we'll sort this out. If Chris and Vincenta are with Wyatt, they're safer than they would be alone, wherever they are. Piper, go turn off the stove in the kitchen; we don't want to burn the house down. Leo, can we get this demon into Magic School?"

"I think I can bring him along."

"Great," Phoebe said, waving her arms in an attempt to herd them all on their way. "Let's go."

* * * *

There had been a moment of echoing silence after Penka had disappeared, as Chris and Vincenta stood speechless at their predicament.

Vincenta spoke first. "Uh, can you orb us out of here?"

"I can try." Chris held out a hand in the direction from which his friend's voice had come. After he felt her grab it, he orbed them both up -- and seemingly hit a mystical ceiling. They were knocked right back down again, a disorienting sensation to say the least.

"Okay," said Vincenta, her voice shaking a little, "we have to find Wyatt."

It made sense that moving back and forth between the Underworld and above would have been nothing anyone would have taught Chris at his age, but he found himself fervently wishing his dad had given him some instruction on sensing someone's location. Wyatt seemed to learn everything without being taught, including, of course, the Whitelighter stuff. Chris supposed that Leo assumed his younger son could do the same, and he could, mostly ... eventually. And if help wasn't offered, Chris refused to ask. Just now, he was regretting that.

"It's no good here," Vincenta was saying. "It's completely deserted. Let's head back where we came from and --"

"Hang on," Chris said. "I'm going to try to sense him."

"I thought you couldn't do that."

"Well, this seems like a good time to learn."

Chris figured the best chance was to imitate his father and see what happened. As he closed his eyes, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and tried to feel peaceful, which he sort of assumed was Dad's state of mind when he did this. Chris thought of Wyatt, pictured his brother in his mind and ... nothing.

It was hard to be peaceful. He could feel a lump rising in his throat and he berated himself for not knowing how to do this, not learning, never asking ...

His eyes were now squeezed shut to stop the tears.

"Chris, it's okay; we can find another way. Or," Vincenta added, changing her tone, "you can do this. You can sense him."

"I can't," Chris said, opening his eyes, giving in to the futility.

"Yes, you can. You just need to ... well, I don't know how you do it, because I'm not part Whitelighter, but you are, so you can do it because you just can. You were born with it, just like orbing, or telekinesis, or, heck, breathing or sneezing, or rolling your eyes and complaining a lot -- these are all things you can do!"

"Your pep talks suck, you know that?" Chris said, smiling in spite of himself.

"Where's Wyatt?"

Chris made a determined effort not to roll his eyes before he closed them again. He almost immediately reopened them with astonishment.

"Hey, wow, I found him!" After a second more of that sensation, he added with new alarm, "And I think he's in trouble."

* * * *

The "trouble" had begun for Wyatt and Mark as they were walking along a narrow path overlooking yet another dark pit below. Mark had been following when he passed a dark hollow in the cliff wall to his left -- and he felt a brush against his arm.

He gasped and turned sharply, a movement that caused him to lose his footing. As he slipped off the ledge, he wildly grabbed for whatever he could -- and it was someone's arm. An unknown voice yelped in pain and surprise, and the arm was jerked away, but it was too late: They were both tumbling into the depths as Mark could hear Wyatt yell his name from above.

"Oof!" Mark exclaimed as he hit the ground a few seconds later, followed by a rueful, barely articulated, "Ow." That was an understatement. Mark was pretty sure his leg was broken.

The stranger, on the other hand, seemed unscathed, at least enough to roll with the landing and disappear into the darkness just as Wyatt orbed down next to Mark.

"Are you okay?"

"No. My leg, but ... Wyatt, there's someone else here. Someone fell with me."

Wyatt stayed crouched on the ground as he looked around them. "All right," he said. "It's time to show yourself. It's what you want anyway, right?"

There was a silence, and Wyatt muttered, "Mark, get out of here."

"I'm not sure I can --"

He stopped. Wyatt's pursuer was coming forward. She was a girl, attempting a confident swagger rather offset by an injured arm: In the fear and shock of the moment, Mark's hands had taken the form of Manticore claws, and he had slashed at what he had tried to grab to stop his fall.

Even Mark was more perplexed than alarmed by her appearance, and Wyatt frankly burst out laughing.

"You're it?" he said. "The assassin?"

Wyatt was aware that appearances could be deceiving, but still, this girl -- possibly a witch, but only a witch -- could barely be three years older than him. And he knew that look in her eyes: She thought she was tough -- no, she hoped she was tough, but she was wrong. And that, she knew at heart was true. She was inexperienced, and she was terrified.

She came at him fighting all the same.

The girl was better than Wyatt initially gave her credit for, despite her injured arm. If Mark had been fully Manticore, she would probably be dead by now, but the venom of Manticore claws was either weakened or made slower-acting by Mark's human half, or perhaps it was nonexistent. She was bleeding, but not incapacitated.

But soon Wyatt could read her moves and counteract them, and the one moment she got the upper hand, she gave herself away completely. She plunged her hand toward Wyatt's chest; he dodged her, but now he knew that whatever her power was, it would come through that method of attack. And knowing that, Wyatt could easily thwart her as she tried to get close enough to try again. As a result, he finally landed a kick on her that sent her flying into a wall, where she fell, apparently unconscious.

Wyatt turned back to Mark, and held his hands over the broken leg. The healing light glowed, but Wyatt could tell it wasn't completely working.

"It feels a little better," Mark offered, though still wincing.

Wyatt answered, frustrated, "I can't totally concentrate when she might come to at any moment."

"Or it could be the demon half --"

"No! Damn it, that shouldn't matter with you!"

He put the girl from his mind and fiercely told himself, his powers, and the universe and its stupid rules that he would simply will it to work.

"Hey," Mark said as he started to move his leg, "I think it's fixed! Oh -- we've got company."

Wyatt looked up to see two figures forming in a swirl of blue lights. One materialized into nothing: The lights dissipated, and no one appeared. The other materialized into ...

"Chris?"

Thus distracted, Wyatt didn't see the girl rising to her feet. But Chris did, and he asked, "Who's that?" just as the girl got a gleam in her eye of someone who had just seen the battle turn in her favor. An athame shimmered into her hand, and she expertly hurled it at the younger boy.

When Chris would look back on this moment later, in his imagination it would seem to last forever -- the split second in which he did absolutely nothing but stare in shock as the weapon flew toward him. Inches away from his chest, it was orbed out of the air by Wyatt, who sent it instead spinning at the girl. She shimmered out of its way, and it hit the wall and fell to the ground with a clatter.

"What the hell -- she can shimmer?" Wyatt said.

They waited, tense, for her to reappear, but she did not. Although he seemed satisfied that she was gone, Wyatt was still vigilant, barely glancing at his younger brother as he hurled words that Chris had already been thinking:

"Do you have telekinesis or not? Why are you down here if you can't fucking take care of yourself?"

Behind Wyatt, Mark had brought himself to his feet, and he contemplated his claws transform into human hands. He looked up to see Chris, still visibly shaken, stare aghast.

Mark said to Wyatt, voice subdued, "I gotta go."

"Your leg's better?"

"Yeah. Thanks. I'd hate to have to come up with some story to explain a broken leg to Dad. I'll see you." And he shimmered out.

Wyatt turned his attention back to his brother. "I can't believe you. I told you not to follow me --"

"I was trying to help."

"I don't need your help. Or Vincenta's either, and yeah, I know she's here; the extra orb lights made that pretty obvious. So just make yourself visible again, and I'll get you out of here."

Vincenta reappeared, arms crossed, looking at Wyatt coolly. "I have to go back to the library. My mom's picking me up there."

"Fine." Wyatt took each of them by the arm, and the three orbed out on his power.

They arrived in the middle of the library, drawing some attention from the few students scattered around. All three of them were looking well-worn and dirty, and Wyatt now noticed that he had blood on his hands and clothing from his fight with the wounded girl.

Chris and Wyatt left Vincenta behind with the books she had stashed away in a corner when Chris had come to get her to summon Penka. The brothers walked out into the hallway unspeaking.

Wyatt finally broke the silence. "We probably shouldn't tell Mom and Dad about all this."

"Probably not," Chris replied. Then he added tentatively, "Wyatt?"

"Yeah."

"Who was that you were with?"

"A friend. I don't want to hear about it, Chris. You won't tell anyone about him either."

Chris did not look convinced that his brother having a demon friend was such a good idea, but all he said was, "No, I won't. I promise."

"Thanks."

They had barely noticed a small gathering of adults at the end of the hall, outside Merlin's office. But they certainly noticed when their mother broke away from the group, charging in their direction, her voice, both angry and relieved, echoing down the hall:

"Where have you two been?"

Chapter Text

The sisters and Leo had scarcely begun their interrogation of Merlin and Penka; mostly, they had again been subjected to Penka's demands for money and protection. The demon's face had fallen with disappointment and relief when he spotted Chris and Wyatt down the hall.

The two boys stopped in their tracks as Piper stormed toward them, the others following behind.

Chris could find no voice. He had agreed to keep everything a secret, but he couldn't get away with lying to Mom. It was impossible. He did the only thing he could do: He looked to Wyatt. Fortunately, so did everyone else.

"We were out --" Wyatt started.

"Don't even try to lie to me, Mister," Piper cut him off. "We've got a demon here who claimed to know where you were, and apparently you" -- Chris jumped as she turned to him -- "summoned it, and you," she said, returning to Wyatt, "should have been looking out for him, and oh my God, is that blood on your shirt?"

"It's not mine," Wyatt answered. "And it wasn't even a fatal wound. We were attacked."

"This is supposed to make me feel better? Who or what was it?"

"Some girl. A witch, I think."

"Ah," Penka said. "That's probably why I couldn't read her."

"That's what you knew?" Paige asked the demon. "That someone had attacked them?"

"I knew that someone was planning on it ... Hey! I'm not telling you anything until --"

"Penka," Merlin interrupted. "I will guarantee your safety, but you are getting nothing else from these people. You're agreed he can go free?" he asked the Halliwells. After the grudging nods, Merlin said to the demon, "So tell them what you know."

Penka looked put-upon, but complied. "I saw what I thought were two demons ending a conversation, but I could only read one of them, so the other must have been the witch. I just caught a little bit before the demon took off, but they had been talking about this plan to kill the Charmed One's son, and the demon was thinking about how that was impossible, 'cause Wyatt's in the Underworld all the time and no one ever hurts him. He just vanquishes some demons and everyone else gets out of his way ..."

"Excuse me?" It was Phoebe who spoke.

"You don't know about ..." Penka stopped, finally noticing the glare from the older Halliwell boy. "Sorry," he squeaked.

"You've been going to the Underworld," Phoebe said to Wyatt, "and that's why Leo hasn't been able to sense you."

"Yes, he can," Wyatt said indignantly. "I'm not down there twenty-four hours a day!"

A voice of studied detachment intruded: "May I ask what's going on here?"

"Gideon," Leo greeted his mentor.

The headmaster seemed to skirt the edge of the group to avoid Wyatt as he walked to Leo, who seemed hesitant to explain. "I must admit," Gideon said, "I heard the last part of the conversation. Have you encouraged these activities?" The question was directed at Merlin.

"Excursions to the Underworld? I wasn't even aware," Merlin replied.

Phoebe inwardly cringed at the hostility she felt from the Elder, despite his aloof demeanor. She sensed fear as well, but she wasn't sure if it was Merlin provoking that. The wizard, on the other hand -- it was as usual impossible to divine his feelings and ...

Her train of thought was halted when she noticed Penka, whose gaze was darting between the Elder and Merlin with confusion, until his eyes widened with dawning realization.

"Oh!" he blurted out, and stared with consternation at Gideon. Penka looked away almost as quickly -- trying to look anywhere else, in fact, and he caught Phoebe's eye. He gave her an apprehensive grimace and Phoebe couldn't help but respond with a sympathetic shrug and half-smile. She didn't know what he had read – she could only get feelings, not thoughts -- but she still knew what it felt like to get more information than you wanted.

Gideon, meanwhile, said, looking at Penka, "Who is that?"

Piper gave no one a chance to respond. "Look, it doesn't matter. We've got all we're getting out of him, haven't we?" Penka nodded vigorously as she continued, "The boys are safe. And I'm sorry we came here and disrupted your school, but this is a family matter, Gideon."

"Leo," Gideon said, "I'm concerned ..."

"I know," Leo said as he held out a quieting hand towards his older son, who seemed on the verge of an explosion. "But Piper's right. It's our responsibility, no one else's."

"I think," Piper said to her sisters, "that dinner is canceled. Paige, can you take Phoebe home?"

"Sure," Paige said.

To her sons, Piper said, "We're not finished with this. So -- home. Now. To the living room."

Parents and children orbed away, leaving the aunts with Gideon, Merlin, and a cowering Penka.

"I must say," Gideon said, "this is troubling."

Gideon was still calm by all outward signs, but Phoebe again felt that fear from him. She herself feared for her nephew -- for his safety, for his emotional well-being, and yes, what he could inadvertently do to others. But like hell this Elder had the right to fear Wyatt himself, and though sensing the emotions of an Elder as controlled as Gideon was always a hazy exercise, she was near certain this was what she was getting from him now.

"I know it's not the wisest thing Wyatt could have done," she said sharply, "but guess what, he's fifteen. Kids do stupid things, and I ought to know."

"But repeated visits to the Underworld -- I fear it may be a sign of ..."

"Of what?"

"Of more profound problems."

"He's been vanquishing demons, and pretty successfully, right?" Paige said. "Isn't that what you Elders want?"

"I understand that you want to defend your nephew, but you are also a teacher at this school, Paige, and you have a responsibility to protect your students as well."

"From Wyatt?"

"It's dangerous to have exposure to that kind of darkness, especially at his age. And especially considering what he went through -- we don't know what kind of latent influence that might have had on his mind."

"I've heard enough," Phoebe declared. Gideon's mind had by now effectively shut her out, which left her with the demon Penka, whose agitation had been growing throughout the argument and was by now screaming in her head.

"Merlin," she said, "can you get Penka out of here? There's no reason to keep him, is there?"

"No," Penka said gratefully. "I've told you all I know."

"Find out more," Merlin said.

Penka groaned. "What?"

"Report back to me if you learn anything new." Merlin waved his hand and the demon vanished. "I'll let you know what I find out," the wizard assured the sisters, pointedly ignoring Gideon, before he disappeared into his office, shutting the door behind him.

* * * *

Feeling lightheaded and with her arm in increasing pain, Wyatt's erstwhile pursuer had shimmered directly to her bedroom at home. She didn't want to talk to her mother yet, but her wound needed cleaning and she didn't keep first aid supplies in her bedroom. Maybe from now on I ought to, she thought. You never know.

For now she had no choice but to sneak across the hall to the bathroom. She turned the water on low and began to dab gently at the scratches with a washcloth.

Her stealth was no use. Within a minute there was a knock at the door.

"Bianca? Why are you home so soon? What happened?"

The girl wanted to reply to her mother, snap back with something along the lines of "Leave me alone," but she found herself voiceless. Her throat felt constricted and the bright white bathroom was dimming before her eyes ...

She fell to the floor, knocking down the first aid box in a noisy clatter as her mother, in sudden alarm, pushed open the door.

* * * *

In the living room of the Halliwell Manor, it was Piper who started in with the boys. "In case we haven't made it clear," she said, enunciating every word, "let me make it clear now: It is not acceptable for you to go to the Underworld, under any circumstances."

"Especially not on a regular basis," Leo added, his voice subdued.

This was a new wrinkle. Chris was guessing that he might come off easily in this situation if his parents focused on what Penka had let slip about Wyatt.

The older boy did not respond to his father's comment, and merely said, "Merlin told me he heard a rumor that someone was after me. He didn't think it was that serious, but I went down there to check it out."

"Why didn't you tell us?" Leo asked.

Piper added, "Why didn't Merlin tell us?"

"Because I asked him not to! I didn't think it was a big deal --"

"Someone attacking you is a big deal, Wyatt," his father said.

"I didn't think I would be attacked. And we don't even know what that girl was really up to. She was hardly some professional assassin. She couldn't even hurt Chris."

"And that's another thing," Piper broke in. "You brought your little brother along?"

"I didn't bring him along – he just showed up!"

Even though he knew it was better not to draw attention to himself, Chris interjected, "He didn't make me come along. I wanted to help."

Not taking his eyes off Wyatt, Leo said, "Chris, I think I need to talk to Wyatt alone."

"What are you trying to protect him from?" Wyatt scoffed. "Me?"

Leo looked not accusatory, but pained, as he said, "Do I need to?"

A moment of stunned silence from mother and sons followed, and Chris felt suddenly cold. A moan escaped in a voice that was barely a whisper: "No..." It was unheard as Leo and Wyatt began speaking simultaneously.

"I'm sorry ..."

"I can't believe you just said that. I saved his ass down there. I didn't invite him along, but I did save his life, because he couldn't think to use his powers to save his own. You want to worry about someone, worry about him. It's not safe being a member of this family, and left to his own devices -- he would have been dead if not for me."

"He wouldn't have been in danger if he hadn't been following your example," Leo said.

"Tell him to stop following me then."

Piper cut in, her voice strained. "We don't need to worry about that, because you are not going to the Underworld again. And neither are you, Chris. Do I make myself clear?"

Both boys nodded, and Chris wondered how sincere Wyatt's grim assent was, but his mother seemed to accept it. Not that she has a choice, an unbidden thought told Chris.

"Fine," she was saying. "I'm going to go to the kitchen and try to resurrect dinner. I want you all in the dining room in a half an hour." And she left.

Leo said, "Chris, why don't you go help your mother."

There was no point in arguing: His father wanted him out of the room. Chris heaved himself off the couch morosely, and left without even the glance of sympathy he might usually have thrown his brother's way.

Wyatt waited. But instead of further accusations, Leo only closed his eyes, his fingers pressed to his temples as if in pain. When he opened his eyes again, he said only one word.

"Why?"

Wyatt's reply was uncharacteristically small. "I don't know."

Leo nodded slightly and gazed at the ceiling for a moment before looking his son in the eye again. "It's not ... good, Wyatt."

"I vanquish demons there."

"I realize that. But will you please just stop ... can you stop?"

"Can I? Of course."

"Then will you? For our peace of mind. For your own peace of mind."

For my peace of mind. He has no idea what's good for my peace of mind ...

"I already told Mom I'd stop," Wyatt said aloud. "I meant it."

"Okay. Thanks. Why don't you go change -- clean up -- for your mom's dinner?"

There was the gentle voice that Wyatt couldn't countenance. Leo wouldn't yell, wouldn't even act disappointed. Just saddened. And Wyatt was unable to argue with that voice, unable to shoot it down. It was all he could do to convince himself that his father was wrong.

It felt like flight when Wyatt retreated to his room.

* * * *

Chris hovered outside the kitchen door, watching his mother fight back tears as she fiercely banged pots and utensils while trying to revive the half-cooked meal. He awkwardly announced his presence: "I'm sorry. Are you really mad at me?"

"Yes. Yes, I am, Chris. Your father and I work hard to keep you safe, to stop the demons and danger from touching your lives, and you two go and seek it out!"

"I was trying to help Wyatt," he said for what felt like the thousandth time.

"And that's where you should have come to us and let us deal with it. That's our job -- we're your parents. You're too young. You both are."

"Okay," Chris sighed. "Can I help with dinner?"

Piper softened a little. "You can cut up the vegetables for the salad."

They worked in silence, and Chris brooded over all that had gone wrong. He was vividly reliving one moment: the girl, the athame, and his utter failure to defend himself.

Chris's own powers were so limited compared to his older brother's. But Mom had told him about Aunt Prue, and Grams, and how proud Chris should be to share their power of telekinesis. That was special, she said, and it was his. He had met Grams and Aunt Prue a few times. They could both be a little intimidating, but Prue was kind, not mocking, when he was moody or tongue-tied in her presence.

And Grams ... Grams was always intimidating. But when they had told her that Chris could use telekinesis, she had said, "My darling boy. You see, I knew he would take after me." She had never made any such prediction that Chris knew of, but now she stated it as inarguable fact. She would ask how his control of the power was coming along, and would tell him, "You are going to do great things." She could make him believe it. He would live up to that somehow.

But the first time he was put to the test in a life-or-death situation, he had choked. He had let Grams down, let Aunt Prue down.

He did not feel his mother's eye on him, taking in his gloomy expression as he chopped vegetables and carelessly threw them into the salad bowl. So it seemed out of the blue when she asked:

"Have I ever told you about when I first got the power to blow things up?"

"No."

"I had no control over it at all," she said. "I was scared to death. I was blowing up furniture, fruit, random appliances -- you name it. I was terrified I would blow up your dad -- and if he had given me one more of his "It'll all work out; you'll get a handle on it" speeches, I just might have on purpose." Chris laughed in spite of himself, and she continued, "But he was right. It takes time to learn to use any power, let alone while you're under attack, needing to think on your feet. Now you, of course, need to stay out of those situations -- I mean it, Chris. But the control will come when it's necessary. When you're older. Got it?"

"I got it, Mom." He couldn't completely forgive himself, but his heart felt a little lighter. Light enough to remember something good: "Hey! Guess what I did: I sensed where Wyatt was and was able to go right to him."

"Sweetie, that's wonderful! Now that's a terrific power to have. Did you tell your dad?"

Chris ignored the question. "Hold on," he said, and closed his eyes and aimed for Phoebe. "Oh! Aunt Phoebe's home. And ... Aunt Paige is back at Magic School, in her office."

"That's good to know," Piper said wryly. "But you can work on sensing the location of every relative, friend and distant acquaintance after dinner. Come on, help me set the table."

Chapter Text

"Ah, see, she is reviving."

Bianca opened her eyes and realized she was in her own bed. Standing over her in the night-darkened room were her mother and the person who had been speaking. Using "person" loosely -- she was not sure what exactly this craggy, squinting creature was.

"How do you feel?" her mother asked.

"Better." Bianca looked at her bandaged arm and wrinkled her nose. Whatever medicine had been applied, it smelled foul.

The creature said, "You can remove the bandages and wash off the potion in twelve hours."

"Good," her mother said. They moved away to the door and Bianca could see her mother pay the creature, who then seemed to dissolve into the air. "According to the shaman," her mother said, "you were poisoned by a low-level amount of Manticore venom. What happened?"

Bianca sat up on the edge of the bed; she wished she had had time to come up with a lie. She had been told to track Wyatt Halliwell, not engage him. Though he had called her out, she knew very well she could have shimmered away, leaving him and his companion in that pit. Bianca decided it would be better to come off as incompetent than as disobedient, so she said:

"He found me out. It was because of an accident. The demon he was with -- the one who did this to me -- slipped while I was hidden nearby and he took me down with him. I was exposed, and Wyatt attacked."

"And you fought back. You didn't try to escape."

"It kept him occupied for a little bit," she protested. "I thought that's what you wanted."

"All I wanted was for you to alert me if the target was in Wyatt's presence. Do you know why?" Bianca nodded with barely concealed impatience, but her mother continued: "Because I'm not sure I can take on Wyatt Halliwell if he is there to protect his brother. I doubt you could either, which is why you were supposed to stay safely out of his sight."

"The target did show up," Bianca offered. She immediately regretted it, by the look on her mother's face. She added hastily, "But I tried to take advantage of the situation. I tried to get him, I conjured an athame, but ..." She realized she was proving her mother's point. "Wyatt orbed it away and the younger one was unharmed. That's when I left," she ended lamely.

"So, not only did you not do what you were asked, you attacked Chris Halliwell, which will put his family on the alert that he may be threatened -- making my job that much more difficult! No, don't make any more excuses. Stay here in your room while I go to see if I can talk my way out of this mess with my employer."

With that her mother shimmered out.

Bianca's head was still spinning a little. Was that the venom? Or maybe just the stench of the medicine. With a groan, she flopped back on the bed, and waited for her mother to return.

* * * *

Not long after, Bianca's mother was escorted into her employer's study, where he stood, pensive and grim, staring out a window at the city lights. His residence was slightly less well-appointed than what she was used to seeing with demons who had chosen to live above ground -- but only slightly. What he lacked in opulence he made up for with carefully subdued tastefulness.

He didn't turn to her when he spoke. "Don't bother to explain. I already know about this afternoon's debacle."

"I promise you this can be fixed. The family may be extra protective of the younger boy now, but ..."

"They may indeed," he said. "I can only hope that the disinformation I've spread -- that Wyatt was the target -- will be believed."

"If I may say, I can't understand why you are concerned with the younger one," she said. "He's certainly weaker, while Wyatt -- well, you know, the Twice-Blessed Child, Heir of Excalibur ..."

She trailed off as he finally turned toward her, frowning as if he were not entirely sure she was speaking English.

"It's unusual, that's all," she added.

"Of course," he said, almost to himself. "You may be right. I've been going about this the wrong way altogether." He left his reverie and said, "I have to give this some thought. In the meantime, your services are no longer needed. Your job is canceled. Leave the younger boy alone. Consider him under my protection, even. I may need him alive."

"Of course. I understand."

"I would strongly suggest that you not use a job for me as a training opportunity for your daughter again. Do that on your own time. When I want to hire her, I will."

The woman could hardly believe what he was saying. She had come fully prepared to plead for her daughter's life, taking on her own shoulders whatever punishment came. But no punishment, aside from this mere firing, was meted.

She realized she had been gingerly backing toward the door to freedom when her employer -- now former -- said with annoyance, "Leave me."

He returned to the window, as she quickly, gratefully, obeyed.

* * * *

Piper crept down the hall past the boys' rooms. The days' events -- or the boredom of an enforced Saturday night at home -- had apparently wiped them out, and they were sleeping. The light shone from under Chris's door, but when Piper checked on him, he was asleep with the books and papers for his school project scattered around him on the bed. She picked them up, stacking them on the night table, and turned out the light as she closed the door behind her.

She went to join her husband in their bedroom.

"Your younger son," she told him, "was able to sense Wyatt and find him when they were down there."

"That's good."

"No, Leo -- for the first time."

He looked mildly surprised. "I thought ... I guess I supposed he already knew how."

"Please don't say that to him."

"What? He didn't tell me."

"Did you ask?" she lightly scolded him.

"I ask him things, I do, and I get monosyllabic answers. Besides, when it comes to asking him about his powers or trying to help him with anything magical ..."

"I know, he thinks we're comparing him to Wyatt."

"No, he thinks I'm comparing him to Wyatt. How do you get off the hook?"

"Believe me, I don't. Okay, maybe more than you do. But he's thirteen. It'll pass."

After a moment of silence, Leo spoke again, more somber, "And what about Wyatt? I wonder, will whatever is happening with him pass?"

"What do you think is happening with him?" Piper demanded, though less of her husband than of the universe at large. "He was held in the Underworld for months by a demon, which we don't think he can remember, but now he's going down there vanquishing anything that moves." Her throat was tight, and it was an effort to keep her voice low. "We are not going to lose him, Leo," she said fiercely. "It is not going to happen. If I have to resurrect the demon that did this to him and kill it again to put this rest, I will do it."

* * * *

Early the next morning, Merlin entered Penka's lair to find the demon even more petrified than usual.

"You've got to protect me from him," Penka said without preamble. "He knows I know."

"Who knows you know what?"

"The Elder! I read your thoughts about him, and he saw."

"Not even an Elder can 'see' you read someone's mind, Penka."

"Maybe not, but he could see my expression. It was a bit difficult to keep a poker face when I realized what you know."

"And what do you think I know?"

"That the Elder kidnapped that kid when he was a toddler and held him for months in the Underworld, trying to kill him. That the family thinks it was some unknown demon, but it was the Elder, and he got away with it, and now he knows that I know!"

"Penka, calm yourself ..."

"No! I won't be calm until you do something to protect me!"

"I'll see what I can come up with. But you have little cause for worry. I sincerely doubt that Gideon was drawing any conclusions about you other than distaste for having a demon in his school."

"Yeah," Penka said, "and here I am, never actually having tortured a two-year-old. Why do I have to be the one running scared?"

"It's sometimes dangerous, being on the side of good."

Penka shot the wizard a deeply offended look. "Excuse me! I am not. I'm evil."

"Of course," Merlin said, failing to suppress a smile.

"You claim to be on the side of good -- what I don't get is why don't you tell them what you know? Especially when you know what happens to them in the future. It's nothing good, not for them, or for any of us, for that matter."

"Penka, you have said yourself that you find it difficult to fully comprehend my thoughts, because of my human half. I will only say that suspicions are not facts, and unlike you -- or the Halliwell family -- I can see the bigger picture. Now, I need to know what you have learned."

"They're not after the Halliwell boy anymore. I mean, you know, aside from the usual 'I'm gonna kill the Charmed One's son' bluster that I hear all the time. But the assassin has been called off."

"Who hired her in the first place?"

Penka sighed and shrugged an apology. "I never found out."

* * * *

Leo had been called away in the morning, and had spent a good part of the day with one of his other charges, those never-met people who were the Whitelighter duties that took him away. For how much time -- that went in phases, it seemed to Chris, whenever the Elders decided to load his father's docket up. Over the past week or so, Chris had wondered if another phase of absence was starting up.

To finish his paper for Professor Franklin's class, Chris had commandeered the dining room table. He was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel -- he would get this done by the deadline after all -- when he heard the sound of orbing from the kitchen. Moments later, his dad walked into the dining room.

"How's the project going?"

Chris barely looked up, tapping at the laptop in front of him. "Almost done," he said.

Leo smiled awkwardly and nodded. He made a move to walk out -- then stopped.

"Hey, your mom told me you were able to sense Wyatt in the Underworld."

"Yeah," Chris admitted.

"And you figured it out on your own?"

Leo didn't seem to be leaving. Chris sighed and stopped typing. "Yes. I kinda had to, once you guys summoned our guide away."

"Sorry about that. We were trying to find you, not leave you stranded."

"How'd you find out about Penka anyway?"

"You left the Book of Shadows open to that page."

"Oh." Chris almost returned to work, but his dad kept talking.

"So, you didn't need him. You found Wyatt on your own. How did you do it?"

"Uh, tried to act peaceful, think about Wyatt. That didn't really work at all. Then I just ... somehow knew, you know?"

Leo smiled. "I know. I'm not sure I could have taught you how to do that, Chris, but if there's anything you ever need to learn --"

"Okay," Chris cut him off, then again, more kindly, "Okay." He added sheepishly, "I probably won't think of anything until I'm in trouble again."

"Well, if you're in trouble again, you just call for me, and I'll be able to hear you, because you won't be in the Underworld -- right?"

"Man, I hope I won't have to go down there again. Ugh. The smell. It was disgusting."

"It's actually not like that everywhere. Not that you should check it out --"

"Got it," Chris emphasized, but with some humor. "I guess it's true the smell wasn't so strong when I moved to wherever Wyatt was."

"Do you have any idea what part of the Underworld you were in? What was it like?"

"The deserted part? I mean, that's where Penka took us. I don't think he knew where he was going. That is the last time I ask a demon for help, I swear. Even if Grams used him to get information, I ..."

Chris was interrupted by another ring of orbing: His aunt Paige materialized, holding a small old book, her finger marking a page. She said brightly, "Hey! I found a possibility on that rumor about somebody being after Excalibur -- and consequently, maybe after Wyatt, too. Check it out."

She flipped the book open on the counter and pointed to a yellowing page with a drawing of an imperious, robed female. " 'The Fortalice.' It says here that in Arthur's time, this demon made numerous attempts to gain possession of the sword, to keep it out of the hands of its rightful heir."

"Did you show this to Merlin?" Leo asked.

"Yes. He said he had never heard of her," she admitted. "Then he got huffy because the book says he's a myth."

"We know that's not true, so how accurate is anything else in here?"

"It's not like we haven't heard the 'Merlin's a myth' thing before -- like from that Mordaunt guy."

"Who was evil and trying to get Excalibur for himself, so he had reason to lie."

"All right, all right. I'm not saying we should ignore all other suspects. I'm just putting this one out there, okay?" She stopped, finally noticing that Chris had snapped the laptop shut and started stacking his papers on top of it. "Oops. Sorry, Chris, we are kind of intruding here. Didn't mean to barge in while you're trying to work."

Her nephew paused before replying, looking from his aunt to his father, whose expression was mildly expectant. Chris picked up his things and said, "No, it's fine; I was finished anyway." And he walked out.

"Okay," Paige said dubiously, then was startled by Leo's inarticulate sound of self-recrimination.

"Damn it!" he said in an undertone.

"What? What did I miss?"

"Oh, before you got here, Chris and I were talking -- actually having a real conversation for once, and you showed up and I ... got distracted. It's not your fault; you didn't know. But I should have let him finish talking, and now ..." He gestured rather helplessly at the door where his son had departed.

"Well, Dad, you can't be perfect all the time. But give yourself a break. You've had to deal with a lot lately, with these rumors about Excalibur, with what happened yesterday. Which, by the way, how did that all work out?"

"According to Merlin, it's all fine," Leo said. One problem to the next. "He told us this morning that his sources said the threat to Wyatt has been called off for now."

"And Wyatt?"

"He said he wouldn't go to the Underworld any more."

"Do you think he will?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. He made a promise, and I believe him when he says he means to keep it."

* * * *

If he never heard the word Excalibur again, it would be too soon. Let the demons take it, part of Chris wished.

After carelessly depositing his laptop and papers on his bed, Chris decided to leave his still-unfinished work behind. He was annoyed enough to be too distracted to think or write about goblins now, and he orbed up to his favorite spot to be alone, get away from his family and clear his head: a corner of the Manor's roof, overlooking the backyard.

The wind made him shiver a little and pull his jacket around him, but the afternoon was clear and beautiful, and he could take the cold for the view and the solitude.

Until it was interrupted. Sort of. On the ground below, Wyatt walked out of the back door, carrying a basketball. A few years back, Leo had set up a hoop on one end of the patio, creating something like a court, which just now was cluttered with a table and chairs, a few planters, and other evidence of summer left behind. Wyatt stood in the middle of it all, seeming to consider it before orbing everything to the sidelines, clearing the "court."

"Personal gain," Chris muttered.

Wyatt shot a few baskets before he paused, holding the ball, and said without looking up, "Why don't you come down and play, Chris?"

Chris orbed down, appearing in front of his brother, arms crossed, with only one thing to say: "I thought you didn't want me around."

"That's not what I said."

"That's what you meant."

"No, it's not."

Wyatt's evident amusement only aggravated Chris further. "Whatever," he said, but before he could orb back up, he was forced to catch the basketball that Wyatt suddenly tossed at him.

"Get over it. If I didn't want you here I wouldn't have asked you to get down off the roof. Besides, you still need practice for the day when you're actually tall enough to have a chance against me in this game."

With a look that clearly said he wouldn't be forced into enjoying it, Chris began to dribble the ball and try to make his way toward the hoop. It was too low now; they were both outgrowing it, even Chris. At least playing against each other offered some challenge. Wyatt secretly went a little bit easy on his brother -- just a little. Not so much that Chris didn't have to work for it. But this afternoon, Wyatt had a different plan in mind.

From the opposite end of the patio, he made as if to try a long shot to the hoop -- but then unexpectedly threw the ball straight up into the air. With a wordless gesture, Wyatt orbed it out of its flight path, sending it directly above the hoop.

"Hey!" Chris shouted indignantly as he ran down the "court" toward the hoop. He flicked his own hand in an upward gesture, and the ball skittered against the rim before falling outside it. Chris caught it, jumped, and made the basket through nonmagical means. "Yes!"

Wyatt grinned at his brother's triumph. "See, it turns out you can use your powers on the fly. Don't think -- act. That's what it takes."

"I got it, Yoda. Any other lessons you want to teach me by cheating?" But Chris was laughing as he spoke, and they took up their one-on-one again as Wyatt replied.

"I wasn't cheating. I was inventing a new game: Halliwell Magic Basketball." He dribbled down the right, stopped short for a jump shot and continued: "Paige and I could do the orbing TK thing, and you can use the regular kind. Phoebe can make the baskets pretty easily if she levitates ..."

"... and she can tell us how we all feel about every point scored," Chris snickered, trying to fake out his brother with a double pump -- which Wyatt handily blocked.

Chris growled at being thwarted, and Wyatt said, "I can feel that you're very frustrated."

After that remark, they were not only breathless with exercise, but with laughter, too.

"I want Mom on my team," Chris declared, "because we could make a good freeze-then-TK play. Plus, if Dad was on your team, she could freeze him if he was just about to score a point."

"Talk about cheating. But I'm wondering how blowing things up will come in handy?"

"Um ... not sure. Maybe just to get our revenge if we lose."

"Which you would."

"Which we wouldn't. We would so kick your ass."

For tonight, there would be no supernatural moves in this Halliwell Magic Basketball game. Just arms darting and legs jumping, laughter and the sound of sneakers on the flagstones. The twilight deepened until they could barely see the hoop and their mother turned on the porch light and called them inside.


End of Part One

Chapter Text

"It's a bit flashy for your mom, isn't it?" Vincenta said to Chris, who stood before a display, letting a silky, brightly colored scarf slip through his fingers.

"It's not that flashy," he answered, without much conviction.

"I'm just saying, she doesn't normally wear things that bright."

"I guess not." He looked at the price tag. "Whoa. It doesn't matter anyway, because I think I'm in the wrong store. If I buy something for Mom here, no one else will get anything for Christmas, because I'll be out of money."

"I was thinking the same thing. I'm done here."

They emerged from the shop and ambled down the sidewalk, glancing in windows, until they reached a small, tidy alley, almost like a hallway for this outdoor strip of stores, with a restroom sign.

"Oh, gotta go," Vincenta announced. "That soda is catching up with me."

"I'm going to check out this shop. You'll catch up with me?"

They parted ways. Chris roamed the shop and lighted upon the perfect pair of earrings. At least, he thought so. Were they too flashy? No, they weren't; they were just right, and Vincenta wouldn't be able to convince him otherwise. He paid for them -- then noticed his friend was still gone.

He exited and retraced his steps -- and when he heard a slight yelp from the direction of the bathrooms, he began running. He skidded around the corner and saw, at the far end, Vincenta -- seemingly paralyzed. Facing her, a man held out an object Chris couldn't quite see. A beam of bluish light emanated from it, connecting to the girl.

Chris bolted toward them, and just as the man's head snapped around to see who was intruding, Chris flicked his hand, sending the attacker crashing into a wall, where he slumped, unconscious. His device clattered to the pavement beside him, its beam of light extinguished.

"Vincenta! Are you okay?"

She had dropped to the pavement herself when the beam had broken its hold, and Chris knelt down beside her.

"I guess so," she said, rather dazed.

He helped her to her unsteady feet, and they turned to the attacker -- and saw no one.

"But I knocked him out!" Chris cried.

"Maybe he recovered really quickly and shimmered out?"

Chris groaned in frustration, and asked, "What did he do to you?"

"I don't know. It didn't hurt; it just felt ... weird."

"How do you feel now?"

"Still weird, actually. Drained."

"Drained ..."

She caught his unsettled tone and her own alarm sharpened her focus. Without even checking to see who might be in the vicinity -- like the gaggle of package-laden shoppers who were just headed for the bathrooms -- she squeezed her eyes shut and ... nothing happened.

"He stole my power!" she gasped.

"Maybe you're just too upset right now ..."

"No, it doesn't work that way -- I've been upset and been able to turn invisible."

Chris stared at the spot where the assailant had fell, as if to will him to reappear. That clearly wasn't going to work, so he asked, "What do you want to do?"

"Go home."

Chris grabbed her hand and, checking for observers first, orbed them to her house.

They weren't there long. As soon as they explained to her parents what had happened, her mother and father insisted they all immediately head for Magic School to report the matter to an authority -- in this case, Gideon. And so Chris found himself awkwardly on the sidelines as Vincenta related the story and the Elder somehow divined that she was right -- her active power was gone.

Ever since the incident in the Underworld two months ago, Chris had gotten the feeling that Mr. and Mrs. Barraza were now less than thrilled by his friendship with their daughter. But this misadventure wasn't his fault, unless it proved he was just some kind of bad luck charm, attracting danger. All they had been doing some Christmas shopping, he argued silently, and she was the one who had gone off on her own.

"I fear this may mean someone is targeting our students," Gideon was saying.

"Isn't it obvious why she was targeted?" Mr. Barraza said. "She used her power in the Underworld, and some demon observed it and decided to take advantage."

Oh, okay. So it is my fault, Chris realized.

"What about that demon you two summoned?" Mrs. Barraza asked.

"Mom, I saw this guy," Vincenta said. "He wasn't the same demon. He looked nothing like him. He was a lot taller, better dressed ..." She shrugged. "Better looking."

"Vincenta should go home and rest," Gideon said. "I will make inquiries and keep you informed." He added dismissively, "Thank you, Chris."

With commiseration and a wave goodbye for his friend, Chris escaped. Classes had finished a couple of hours ago, but there were still students around, coming from various after-school activities. He acknowledged a few classmates as he wandered down the hall, before deciding on a destination.

He doubted Penka had anything to do with this, but he wondered if the demon knew something. He had promised Mom. But he himself would not deal with Penka or any demon again. He just hoped that maybe Merlin could find something out.

The door to the wizard's office was ajar, and Chris peered around without knocking. Merlin was in -- and so was Wyatt, who noticed the newcomer first. At Wyatt's questioning look, Merlin turned, smiling.

"Chris, how can we help you?" he asked.

"Um, I wanted to talk to you about something, but I can come back."

"No need. If you want to wait, very soon Wyatt will be occupied, and I'll be twiddling my thumbs. We can talk then." He asked Wyatt, "As long as you don't mind."

Settling in a cushioned chair, Wyatt said, "He can stay; I don't care."

"Then, Chris, if you can take a seat ..."

The younger boy hopped up on a long, wooden cabinet and took a seat cross-legged. Despite his concerns, he couldn't help but be entertained to have a front row seat to whatever was going to happen.

Wyatt returned Chris's smug look with a glare, and then gave his attention to Merlin, who resumed:

"As I was saying, the spell will allow you to observe through the eyes of your past self, but not change the events. You will have no control over what you say or do. It will all play out as it did before."

"Will I have powers?"

"If you had powers in that past life. You may also recognize people whom you know again in this life."

"And they'll look the same as they do now."

"You mind will perceive them as such, yes," Merlin replied.

"Hey," Chris chimed in, "didn't Aunt Phoebe do this once?"

Wyatt said, "This was her idea. She said it helped her, and she thought it might help me. With ... whatever. Who knows."

"Didn't she actually switch places -- her old self came here when she went to her past life?"

"She did both," Merlin said. "But Wyatt is only going to experience the observer spell. To us, he will look like he is merely sleeping, and you and I can talk then."

"Oh. Okay. I'll be quiet."

The wizard turned back to Wyatt. "Ready?"

"Whenever."

Merlin recited:

Remove the chains of time and space
Send him to days of yore
Bring forth to him the hidden face
Of what he was before

Wyatt watched as a glow came toward him, but then it went astray -- and instead hit Chris, who swayed back slightly as if hit by a gust of wind. He did not fall asleep, but stared, first, at himself -- at his clothes, to be exact -- before looking up, plainly bewildered, to see two pairs of eyes fixed on him.

"Merlin?" he said. "What ... how did I get here? I was just in --"

The wizard jumped up and ordered, "Not another word!" Startled, Chris raised his eyebrows but he obeyed, to Wyatt's amused surprise. Meanwhile, Merlin rapidly muttered something in a language Wyatt could not understand. Chris crumpled to the side, knocking a few nearby knick-knacks on the shelf to the floor.

"Hey!" Wyatt protested as he ran over to catch his brother. "What'd you do to him?"

"Knocked him out," Merlin said easily.

"Why?"

"The spell obviously went wrong. Help me get him to the chair." He continued speaking as they did so: "Not only did the spell hit the wrong person, but it seems to have switched Chris with his past self."

"That wasn't supposed to happen."

"I know. In any case, it won't do for his past self to have a good look at the future, so we will just keep him peacefully asleep until I find the spell to send him back, and bring our Chris here."

"You have to find the spell to bring him back, huh?" Wyatt chuckled. "You do realize just how much my mother is going to kill you, right?"

* * * *

One second ago, he had been warm, indoors, sitting comfortably, and now ...

Chris found himself in mid-stride -- but not for long. Caught off guard, hardly aware of what he was doing, he stumbled and fell face-first into deep snow.

Spluttering, he pushed himself up by his hands -- in mittens, he noticed -- and sat back on his heels. He wanted to take in his surroundings, but his view was unexpectedly blocked by an enormous, shaggy brown dog that began enthusiastically licking snow off his face. He toppled back in the opposite direction.

"Get off me!" He pushed the dog back with some difficulty, and struggled to his feet

Aside from the sounds of the animal shuffling in the snow around him, stillness enveloped him. There was nothing but himself, the dog and endless snow-covered trees.

He began to brush the snow off his clothes, and halted. Oh, wow -- his clothes. Where he had been wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a jacket, he now sported a green woolen cloak, twisted askew in his fall to reveal ... yet more wool. A kind of shirt, he supposed, nearly reached his knees, and he wore fitted trousers. Leather boots where sneakers had once been completed the look.

"Oh no." The air was so empty that he expected an echo, but all sound was caught and softened by the snow. He shook his head and told the dog, "This can't be good."

Chapter Text

Chris stood still, wondering -- against all evidence so far -- if his past self would take over. Assuming that the spell meant for Wyatt had hit him instead, he should just be observing, right? He hoped his past self knew where he was going.

Unfortunately, even if his past self did know, Chris suspected he wasn't around to move these feet where they were supposed to go. So it was time to make some decisions on his own. He looked behind him, and saw his own and the dog's tracks through the snow. There was no path that he could see. The best course seemed to be to follow the direction he had been headed when he fell. He started to plod through the snow, wondering if orbing "outside the forest" was a specific enough destination. He could end up in the middle of the ocean or in a volcano -- after all, those would be outside the forest ...

His thoughts were interrupted by the dog, who froze and began to growl, then to bark fiercely, teeth bared. Chris whipped around. He could hear it before he saw it -- rustling and an answering growl.

He'd risk the volcano. He grabbed the dog by the scruff and tried to orb.

Nothing happened.

Running it was then. And whatever was behind him was gaining ... and gaining. He was not going to outrun it. Still running, he looked behind him and saw two creatures he could not identify, a flurry of fur, teeth and claws. He flicked his hand at them, but no telekinesis sent them back. Even though he knew it was futile -- clearly he had no magical powers in this lifetime -- he tried again.

He gave up, and they were closing on him when, as if in a delayed reaction, the creatures were sailing backwards. The source of the telekinesis became apparent: A woman stepped between an astonished Chris and the creatures. Her back to him, she threw something -- potions, he imagined, because the creatures vanished in flame and smoke.

She turned to face him. "Hellbeasts," she informed him. "Warlocks have been breeding them."

Chris gaped at her. She wore a long woolen dress and cloak, and her hair was covered, but he recognized her face. "Aunt Prue?" he blurted.

"I'm sorry, no. I'm no one's aunt and that's not my name. Are you all right?"

"Yeah ..." His heart rate and breathing were beginning to calm, and he smiled with relief. She didn't know it, but she was Aunt Prue, and maybe this trip would not be so bad after all. "You look like someone I know," he said, adding, "Thanks for saving my life. Lucky you showed up."

"I was here looking for you, actually."

"Really? Do you know me?"

She looked torn between amusement and suspicion. "No," she replied. "I received a message, asking me to find a boy wandering in the woods with a dog, and to guide him to the wizard Merlin."

"Merlin's here? Where is he?"

"Too far away to reach before it gets dark. I will take you there in the morning. You need to spend the night at my home, so come along, follow me."

It was certainly better than standing in the snow waiting to be attacked by hellbeasts. He followed in her footsteps, which diverted from the direction he had been headed.

"What is your name?" she asked.

He had no idea, and not knowing what else to say, he answered, "Chris." Was that too strange? So he added: "Christopher."

She chuckled. "Christopher -- that's fitting."

"What do you mean?"

"The patron saint of travelers. Then again, if Saint Christopher were looking after you, you may not have lost your way. Where were you headed?"

"I ... uh ... I'm not sure. I was really lost. Can I ask -- what's your name?"

"Aldith," she answered, then added with a smile: "Unless you want to call me Prue. Was that the name you called me?"

"That's okay. I can use your real name. Do you work with Merlin?"

"Not usually, but once or twice Merlin has called on me for help."

Chris wanted to tell her that he normally had powers like she did, and was a Whitelighter at that, but it would raise more questions than he was sure he should answer. But still, he found himself saying as they walked along: "Actually, I got here because of a spell. That's why I was lost. Merlin did a spell and it went wrong and I ended up in the middle of nowhere."

"Ah, that explains a lot."

"What do you mean?"

"Merlin and I do not see eye-to-eye on some things. He likes to experiment, and then he ends up stranding you in the woods with hellbeasts bearing down on you. Magic has a purpose -- to protect innocents."

Chris ventured, "Do you think he's evil? With the demon half and everything?"

"No. But I think he's careless. His powers of divination are unparalleled -- and he uses them for good, I'll grant that -- but he's not as adept at spells as he'd like to think."

"Today, I definitely agree. I mean, the spell was meant for my brother. I was just an innocent bystander."

Chris jumped nervously as the dog began barking and running ahead.

"It's all right," Aldith said. "We've arrived."

In moments they walked into a clearing, where the dog was greeting a bemused man whom Chris did not recognize.

"Is this the boy?" the man asked as he approached them. "And the dog, too, I assume."

"Yes," Aldith replied. "His name is Christopher. The boy, that is. Does the dog have a name?"

"I don't know," Chris admitted.

He couldn't tell if Prue -- Aldith, he reminded himself -- thought he was stupid or nuts, or if she was just blaming Merlin's spell for his addled state of mind. She shook her head, but didn't pursue the matter. "This is my husband, Robert," she said.

"Hey," Chris said. "I mean, hello. It's good to meet you."

Robert responded with a tight smile and curt nod. "He's spending the night here?" he asked his wife.

"There wasn't much choice. I'll take him to Merlin tomorrow."

"I understand." He seemed to accept the situation and when he spoke to Chris, while he couldn't be called warm, he was gentler. "It's getting dark, and you must be hungry. Let's get inside."

"Inside" was a thatched, one-room cottage. Chris looked around wide-eyed as they entered, trying to see what he could. Daylight was fading rapidly, and scarcely any light could enter through the single tiny window looking out over the clearing. Aldith moved immediately to a hearth in the center of the room, and tended a cauldron that hung over it. From the smell of it, Chris guessed it was dinner, not a potion.

"Have a seat," she said, gesturing toward the small wooden table and stools. "We'll eat soon."

A stool wasn't exactly comfortable, but it felt good to sit down. As Aldith began to serve the food -- some rough, dark bread and a thick vegetable stew -- Robert eyed the gathering dark outside the door.

Aldith said to her husband as he came to the table, "I hope he has stopped at an inn for the night."

"He can take care of himself."

"In normal times, yes, of course. But Alaric has heard it reported that ordinary bandits -- men -- have banded with the demon powers."

"Alaric," Robert repeated, and in the candlelight, Chris could see the displeasure on his face. "How does he know this?"

"He doesn't, for certain. He said it is only a rumor."

"My cousin can certainly defend himself against bandits," Robert said. "And he knows to avoid the evil quarters in the forest."

"As much as he is able. He can't get here without passing through some of those areas."

Chris was used to better food, but he was famished, and ate all he was given quickly. Not long after they finished the meal, Aldith spread out some blankets on the floor near the fire. "You can sleep here," she told him.

The dog, who seemed to take up half the space of the cramped room, immediately stretched out on the blankets.

"And you may have company," Aldith laughed. "Unless you want him put outside."

"No, that's okay," Chris said as he sunk to his makeshift bed. The dog amiably moved aside for his master -- for Chris supposed that's what he was.

Despite the dark, it was early, and he didn't feel the least bit sleepy, but he couldn't think of anything else to do. Plus, pretending to sleep was the closest he could get to some time alone.

He removed his cloak and bunched it up to form a pillow. He had not realized how weary he was until he lay back and pulled up the blanket around him -- more wool, but far scratchier and rougher than the clothing he wore. The dog let Chris have the warm side facing the hearth, and made a sighing groan as he arranged himself nearby. Chris stared into the fire, hearing, but barely heeding, Aldith and Robert murmuring across the room. He gazed at the pin that had held his cloak fastened, seeing its complicated, intertwining design glint in the firelight; it was not fancy or jeweled, but he still guessed it represented more wealth than Robert and Aldith possessed.

Maybe Christopher, the patron of travelers, was occupied looking after his past self, Chris mused, recalling Aldith's words. He had never heard that about his name, and it definitely didn't say much about him. The idea was appealing: He liked traveling, and in theory could go anywhere in the world in seconds if he were allowed. But his mom wasn't keen on her son taking daytrips to foreign lands, and she pointed out that he had never orbed himself outside San Francisco before, so better not to jump from that to across the planet.

Orbed himself was the key point of course. One of his earliest memories was of a day that Wyatt had orbed Chris to a desert somewhere. The Sahara, maybe. Chris remembered lots of sand, heat, and no people. As his surprise was beginning to turn to fear, Aunt Paige had shown up to fetch him.

"The fastest scrying we have ever done, let me tell you," Paige would recall.

And now, once again, he had been uprooted, flung far afield, not of his own accord, but in his place as a side player to Wyatt's destiny. This time it would be different, though. He would make this adventure his own no matter how he had landed in it.

He wondered how far in the past he was. He had paid attention in history class enough to guess at least a thousand years, probably more. He also wondered what his counterpart was doing in the twenty-first century. He won't have history class to help him figure it out ...

That was his last thought before he drifted far away into sleep, and when someone else came in from the starry, frigid night, the dog looked up to see who had arrived, but Chris did not stir.

* * * *

Chris woke up as early sunlight was valiantly trying to enter the cottage through the tiny window. He blearily tried to orient himself, remembering where -- and when -- he was, when he saw him. His father had come for him. Leo was sitting at the table alone, working intently on something, objects in front of him that Chris could not identify from his angle on the floor.

"How did you get here?" Chris asked, sitting up.

Leo looked up from his work. "On foot. Much as you did."

"On foot ..." Chris stood and moved over to the table, which held what Chris recognized as an archer's bow. It was unstrung, and Leo was expertly coating the bowstring with wax. Obviously, this wasn't his father, not his dad from his own lifetime anyway. "Where did you come from?" Chris asked.

Aldith's voice came from the door. "From too far away to make the journey in the time he did. You should not have been traveling in the dark."

"I arrived safely, didn't I?"

"You were fortunate. I see you two have made your introductions?"

"No, in fact," he answered with humor. "The boy just woke and started interrogating me."

"Well, Christopher, this is Leo -- my husband's cousin."

"Leo? Really?" Chris exclaimed. "Sorry. I just, uh ..." Seeing no harm in the truth, he said, "That's my father's name."

"I see," Aldith said. "Let's get you back home to him then, shall we? Eat some food -- you'll need the strength for the journey -- and then we'll be on our way. I'll be outside."

Leo had returned to working as Chris sat down across from him and pulled over a plate of bread. It was dry and more difficult to eat when he was less ravenous than he had been the night before.

"Do you live here with Aldith and Robert?"

"Yes, when I'm not away working."

Chris eyed the weapon. "Are you a knight or something?"

He immediately regretted asking what was apparently a stupid question, so amused did Leo look.

"I'm merely an archer. I had gone to assist in the manor hunt."

Outside came the sound of a dog barking. "Is someone else coming?" Chris asked.

"I hear a horse," Leo said. "That probably means it's Alaric."

Chris recalled the name from Aldith and Robert's dinner conversation. More interested in the new arrival than breakfast, Chris moved to the window, through which he could indeed see a horse, led by a man who was conversing with Aldith. And as they moved closer to the house, Chris recognized a third familiar face since arriving here. This time, however, he did not feel relieved or pleased. Instead a chill of fear overcame him.

Chris had seen that man just the day before -- when he had stolen Vincenta's power.

Chapter Text

Chris barreled towards the door -- right into Leo, who had risen to step outside. He caught Chris by the shoulders.

"Where are you going? What's wrong?"

"Who is that?"

"As I said, Alaric. He's a stone mason from the village -- and a witch, like Aldith."

"A witch? He is not. He's a demon, or maybe a warlock. Or an evil witch at least."

This was clearly nothing that had ever entered Leo's mind. He frowned. "I don't see how that could be. He and Aldith have worked together for several years, battling demons, saving innocents ..."

"Then he's fooling you. I know he's evil. I saw him attack one of my friends."

"I'm not certain you have the right man ... Christopher!" Leo followed after as Chris charged outside and over to Aldith and the newcomer. The dog, who had been some yards away keeping company with Robert, bounded over to meet Chris and bark briefly at Leo. The commotion the dog created and the boy's determined march drew Robert away from his work.

"Without active powers," Alaric was telling Aldith as his eyes flickered in the direction of Chris and the others approaching, "there's no possibility that I can defeat this demon. You must join me, and we must leave for the mill quickly."

"Could I defeat the demon alone?" Aldith asked him.

"Possibly. Probably, why?"

"Because I have another mission already. Perhaps you can take on that task. Meet Christopher -- he needs to be escorted to Merlin."

"No!" Chris interjected with horror. Everyone -- even Robert, whose own dislike of Alaric was evident to Chris -- looked taken aback. "I won't go with him. I'll only go with you," Chris told Aldith. "I don't trust him."

"You know him?"

"I haven't really met him but --"

"Christopher, I don't have time to explain this, but there is an innocent person in danger who needs my help. You would be safe with Alaric."

Leo said to Alaric, "He thinks he's seen you before -- attacking someone."

"There must be some mistake. I don't know this boy. I've seen Merlin a few times, so perhaps --"

Chris interrupted, "Leo -- why can't Leo take me?"

Leo said nothing, but Chris was surprised to hear Robert back him up. "That's not a bad idea."

"If bandits were all to concern us," Aldith said, "then Leo would be a fine guardian for you. But these woods are infested with evil -- a demon band that we have been warring all this winter. Leo cannot fight them. Alaric can."

"He just said he doesn't have any powers. What use would he be?"

"He can still use potions and spells. There's a reason Merlin called on me."

"Right. He called on you. Not him."

"Aldith, this is a pressing matter ..." Alaric said in an undertone.

"I won't go with him," Chris declared. "I'll go alone first."

"What if I went along as well?" Leo asked. "With you and Alaric. Would you accept that?"

Leo was only a mortal at this time, and had no magical powers to call on. But he had regular weapons at least, and undoubtedly knew how to use them. Chris hesitated, but he saw little choice if he wanted to get to Merlin and get home. He reluctantly conceded. "I'll go if Leo goes too."

"Thank you," Aldith said tartly.

Great, Chris mused, now past Prue hates me.

Alaric, on the other hand, was not showing hostility or even irritation -- only bewilderment. To Aldith, he said, "The three of us can hardly travel on one horse, so you take her. You'll arrive more quickly." He handed a vial to her. "Here is the vanquishing potion you'll need."

"I'll go gather my gear," Leo said, and headed back to the cottage, Chris at his heels.

As Leo collected his weaponry, Chris noticed among the equipment a crossbow and reflexively recoiled, conditioned since he was small to recognize the weapon of choice of Darklighters. When it was something that could kill her husband, sons and sister, Piper was always hyper-aware of their presence anywhere near. But Leo was no Darklighter, and Chris reminded himself that these arrows were unlikely to be infected with a slow, painful and fatal magical poison. And in any case, he wasn't a Whitelighter just now.

He looked out the window again. As Alaric stood alone, Aldith and Robert were sharing private words as she mounted the horse.

"Your cousin doesn't seem to trust Alaric either. Why?"

"Robert is not entirely comfortable with this magical calling of hers," Leo answered. "And Alaric is part of that."

It had to be more than that, Chris was sure. Robert had expressed no dislike when Chris had shown up, delivered by Merlin. But Chris only asked Leo: "Does it bother you? I mean, the magic stuff?"

"She's not my wife."

"But you live here. You're taking me, so I guess you're okay with helping her out."

"We both help with what we can. Robert knows that her calling is a worthy one, but it is also very dangerous. Especially now."

"Why now?"

"They're not certain yet, but they believe she is with child."

"She's going to have a baby? Cool." Would the baby be my cousin? Kind of, in a way? He must have looked as puzzled as he felt, judging by Leo's amusement. Chris changed the subject. "How come you're not married? Did you even want to? Get married, have kids?"

He was gentler, quieter as he replied. "I was married. She died in childbirth -- the baby too -- fourteen years ago."

Chris inwardly winced; he couldn't have asked anything more wrong. "I'm sorry ..."

Leo just shook his head and gave a comforting, melancholy smile as he shouldered his archery equipment. "Are you ready?"

Now that it was fully light, Chris took a moment as they walked outside to look around the muddy clearing. It was mostly taken up with plots of gardens, now dormant in the winter. Aldith was gone, and Robert had returned to his work, repairing some kind of farm equipment.

Alaric approached Leo and Chris. "Shall we go?"

"Hang on," Chris said, feeling embarrassed that he had almost forgotten. He ran over to Robert. "Thanks for letting me stay here."

Robert looked slightly surprised, and once again Chris felt aware of the difference in their garb – he wondered if Robert was unaccustomed to thanks from someone who appeared to be of a station above him.

"You're welcome any time," Robert said.

Chris gestured sheepishly to the equipment -- a plow? -- that Robert had been repairing. "Sorry I didn't help out much. At all."

"Come back in spring or summer," Robert chuckled, "and you can work all you want."

"Maybe I will." It wasn't a promise he could keep, but he could hope his past self might. "And tell Aldith thanks, too. I don't know what would have happened to me if she hadn't found me in the woods."

"You would have been eaten by a hellbeast, according to her."

Chris laughed in agreement, and then followed Robert's gaze to see Alaric emerge from the house, carrying a knapsack, and begin to chat with Leo. Alaric, Chris now noted, was dressed as well as Chris, maybe even finer.

Watching his cousin and Alaric, Robert nodded grimly to himself. "Christopher, you will be safe with Leo. You made the right decision."

He knows something is wrong about Alaric, Chris thought. He knows. There was nothing either of them could do about it, but it was comforting to have an understanding with someone. Chris found himself wishing Robert were back in Chris's own time, in the future. Someone to back him up there, when he got home.

Leo waved Chris over. With calls of farewell to Robert, the trio, with the dog trotting alongside, headed into the woods.

Chapter Text

The morning wore on. Alaric walked ahead, while Chris kept his distance and stuck with Leo, who seemed to realize that the boy wanted him near and did not quicken his own pace. Words were rarely exchanged, save for the occasional alert from Alaric, thrown back to Leo, of some natural obstacle ahead.

In his mind, Chris rehearsed a conversation he knew he could not have: telling Leo everything, as if being his son would make this Leo more real, his protection stronger. But he was a mortal and was not going to understand that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds -- how many hundreds? -- of years from now, Chris would be his son.

Speaking of Dad, it would be really nice if I could orb right now, Chris grumbled in the part of his mind anchored in the reality of cold, numb feet.

He was also regretting slighting breakfast before they set off. By the time the winter sun was high, he was so hungry he even felt a sliver of gratitude toward Alaric when he stopped at a clearing in the thicket, swung his pack off his shoulders and addressed Leo: "Are you hungry? This would be a good place to stop and eat."

"Agreed. Christopher?"

Chris realized his opinion was not being sought; he was being told to sit down. At first, he eagerly obeyed, brushing snow off a boulder and sitting, but he tensed when he saw Alaric taking the food from his bag. Chris glanced at Leo, who was watching him.

"We'll all be eating the same food that Aldith packed," Leo said.

Resentment was beginning to show on Alaric's face as he handed out the bread -- torn from the same dark loaf Chris had eaten the night before -- and hunks of pungent cheese that he cut off a larger block. Chris would have to accept that it was likely not poisoned, hexed or whatever. He grudgingly took his share.

"Perhaps if you explain to me what it is you believe I did, then I could exonerate myself," Alaric said.

Leo looked as expectant of an answer as Alaric. Chris stalled by feeding the dog some scraps of bread, mentally casting about for what to say, or how to say it. The truth would just convince them he was insane. And as for a lie, or half-truth anyway, pretending that the attack had happened here, he was hamstrung by his complete ignorance of his own life in this time. He didn't know who he was, where he had been going out in the woods, how he knew Merlin -- or in this time did he even know Merlin, really? The wizard had powers of precognition; maybe he just foresaw that Chris would be accidentally sent to the past and would need rescuing.

What was most frustrating, what had been weighing on his mind all morning, was that it seemed impossible to do anything that would prevent Alaric's future attack on Vincenta. If Alaric was a demon, Chris now would have to convince Leo of it, then Leo in turn would have to convince Aldith, who could vanquish him. But Chris had the sinking feeling the others were right about one thing: that Alaric was human, at least in this past. So even if he dropped dead today, he'd still be around in the future, living a new lifetime, just like Chris himself, and Leo, and -- for a while there -- Prue.

It all made his head hurt. And it made it very difficult to explain his unthinking outburst, spilling all kinds of senseless -- to his listeners, anyway -- information when he saw Alaric in the farmyard. Now, with a clearer head, Chris decided on some modified, cagier version of the truth.

"I can't explain what I know. I saw you using magic to ... for personal gain."

"Once again, I'd note that our paths have never crossed until today. But I will not claim to have never given into the temptation of 'personal gain,' as you call it."

"It was in a way that harmed someone else. And it wasn't accidental. You had to know what you were doing."

"You are mistaking me for someone else," he said with finality, then turned to Leo. "How was the hunt? Any troubles?"

"No, I was able to convince the master huntsman to restrain the party to the safer areas of the woods. It made for some frustration among the men, to be reined in like that, but in the end we brought back enough game to satisfy the cook at the manor. They will have their Yuletide feast."

"Is that what you do?" Chris asked. "You're a hunter?"

"Sometimes. I'm an archer, usually employed during the manor hunts. On other occasions, when the Lord or the King have need of bowmen in battle."

Alaric, who had finished off the last of his bread, stood up as he said, "He's being modest. His skills are envied by manor households not as fortunate to have him."

"I'm hardly renowned."

"But you are well-appreciated in this shire, to be sure."

"Can you show me?" Chris asked Leo. "I mean, what you can do?"

"We should get moving soon ..."

Alaric dismissed that. "Go on and show him. I want to do a reconnaissance in the area ahead; there has been talk of Grimlocks roaming the stretch of forest we are moving into. Wait here. I'll return for you."

He soon disappeared into the trees as Leo picked up his bow and chose an arrow.

"Pick a target for me."

How about Alaric? Chris joked -- sort of -- to himself. But he thought better of saying that aloud, figuring that Leo would not find it especially funny. "How far away?" he asked instead.

"I can certainly shoot farther than this clearing, but I do have to be able to see the target."

"How about that knot in the tree over there? Is that too small?"

But Leo had already pulled an arrow and was taking aim. Chris grabbed the dog to keep him out of the way, and the arrow flew. With a whoop of admiration, Chris ran over to inspect the hit more closely. The knot was wider than he had thought from across the clearing, but the arrow was easily within its center. He yanked it out and returned to Leo.

"What else?" Chris enthused. "Let's see ..." They repeated the exercise a few times, Chris finding some challenging target and Leo hitting each mark. Chris only slipped up once; as he ran back after retrieving an arrow that had knocked a pine cone and a glittering shower of snow off a tree, Chris suggested, "If we could spot a bird or something, we could have something to eat besides bread."

"If you'd like me to be hanged for poaching, yes, we could," Leo replied. "I have another idea. I'd like to see what you can do."

"What I can do? I can't ... I don't know how."

"You've never studied archery at all?"

"No." Of course, it was very possible that he had, if that was the normal way of things. From Leo's surprise, Chris supposed it could be. Unfortunately, the person who may have taken these lessons recently was not in his own head right now. And Chris had forgotten over the course of the thousand or more years that had passed since then.

Not that he could tell all that to Leo, who said, "Here, let me show you."

The bow, Leo told him, was too large for someone Chris's age, and as such, he warned, it would be more difficult than it ought to be. Chris tried to imitate Leo's stance, but evidently not well, as the archer repositioned Chris's hands on the bow and on the arrow that he tried to draw back. No conscious knowledge of how to do this came to Chris. But as the arrow's feather brushed past his cold cheek as he drew the bow, guided by Leo, he felt certain that his past self did indeed know how to do this -- he could literally feel it in his bones, in his muscles that felt unstrained, natural. No matter how foreign the action seemed to Chris's mind, this body knew it as familiar as orbing was to Chris.

"Aim for that tree," Leo said, pointing Chris in the direction of the trunk of a large oak, "and when you're ready, just relax your hand and let the arrow go."

His brow furrowed in concentration, Chris tried to find his mark, and let go, snapping his fingers away more than relaxing them. The bowstring hit Chris's arm through the wool and soon the projectile fell unceremoniously to the ground, just short and to the left of the tree. The mind's resistance had won out over the body's memory.

Chris's shoulders sagged, but Leo said, "An excellent first try." He seemed sincere.

"What about the crossbow?" Chris asked. "Are you as good with that?"

"The crossbow is easier to use; it doesn't require as much training, but it is less accurate," Leo said, picking up the weapon. "Did you want to try it?"

Chris traded the bow for the crossbow, experiencing a reckless thrill. He told Leo conspiratorially, "My mother would kill me."

Leo laughed. "Is that why you haven't studied archery? Your mother has forbidden it?"

"No, not really. I've just been busy studying ... other things." He lifted the unloaded crossbow and looked down its sights -- to have his high spirits deflate to see Alaric's return.

Looking askance at the boy scowling and holding a weapon pointed, however inadvertently, in his direction, Alaric said to Leo, "Our way should be clear. We must set off again if we're to make it by nightfall."

* * * *

As the men were gathering their things to begin their trek again, in another part of the forest, Aldith vanquished the last demon that had confronted her at the mill. It had not been a simple job, but the combination of her telekinesis and the potions Alaric had given her were sufficient to win the battle.

The miller himself, a small man with wispy gray hair, came cringing from a corner to offer profuse thanks. "Bless you, you saved my life! Will those ... those creatures, are there more? Will they be back?"

"I couldn't say without knowing what they wanted from you."

"Nothing! They asked for nothing. Most mysterious. Thank you so much. Can I offer you something to eat?"

Aldith had rarely encountered the miller before, so she had little point of comparison, but his behavior, his words today struck her as peculiar. Like play-acting ... play-acting as human. And there was another thing --

"Where is your wife?"

"Wife? Oh ..." He adopted a mournful expression. "They killed her ..." He trailed off, as if he were thinking about how to be sad. It was enough.

With a burst of telekinesis, Aldith threw the miller into some shelves. As he fell to the floor, his form altered back to its original state -- larger, more youthful, with scraggly long blonde hair and glittering red eyes. Before the stupefied demon could recover, she dug into her bag for a set of crystals, and confined him magically.

She finished just in time, as he roused himself, saw her outside his glowing cage, and gave a sarcastic sigh. "You found me out. I did want to keep you here a while -- maybe kill you, too. But at least I have diverted you. I have fulfilled my mission."

"Diverted me from what?"

"It's too late for you to do anything about it now."

"Then you'll have no need to keep it a secret. And if you don't speak -- I've been working on ways to employ vanquishing potions in slow and painful ways. Should I make a test of you?"

His smirking bravado quickly faded. It did not take long to convince him to give up his fellows. In short order Aldith had vanquished him, and, back on horseback, she tore toward the part of the woods where she now knew that Leo, Alaric and Christopher were walking into imminent catastrophe, the potential ruin of them all.

Chapter Text

The longer they marched along without incident, the more concerned Alaric had become. "It's strange to encounter no resistance whatsoever," he said to Leo.

"You don't believe it's just good fortune?"

"No."

His worry was contagious, the deceptive peace making all three of them jumpy, even the seemingly unflappable Leo, but it was not until late afternoon that their fears were vindicated.

Alaric halted and put his hand out to stop Leo and Chris as well. "Shhh! Do you hear that?"

They stood in silence, the sun lengthening the shadows. Even the dog was still, ears pricked. Chris could hear something -- a faint, low drone. In his peripheral vision, he could perceive Leo pulling an arrow from his quiver; he did not fully raise the bow, but waited, prepared.

In a split second, Chris heard a whoosh and saw something fly by, narrowly missing Alaric's ear, and embedding itself in a nearby tree. The trio involuntarily turned in the direction from whence the arrow had come. Leo, bow now fully drawn, shouted, "Christopher, down!" Chris dropped as if the words themselves had pushed him to the ground. The dog began a low, steady growl.

Alaric, meanwhile, had armed himself with a potion vial, and the two men carefully scanned the surrounding trees.

"Is it a demon?" Chris asked. "A Darklighter?"

"A what?" Leo said.

Alaric had his own theory. "Bandits. They've been aiding the demons."

A second arrow zoomed by. Leo barely dodged it; then, eyes narrowed, he shot his own weapon into the trees. He wasted no time drawing another one, but he had hit something, or someone, who cried out, a sound followed by a crash of underbrush.

They waited and watched again. The drone filled their ears in menacing underscore and became clearer as it grew almost imperceptibly louder: It was chanting.

"Stay close behind me, Christopher," Leo said, and they crept together toward where Leo had fired.

"You finally got me," Chris heard someone wheeze before he saw him: A grimacing man was prone with an arrow in his chest. "I knew if I were ever caught, it would be you."

"Don't make it sound as if we had some sort of great personal rivalry, Godwin. My only care has been protecting innocent travelers in this forest. But tormenting them wasn't enough? You had to join with evil itself?"

"When evil itself will soon have dominion over these woods, yes. By sundown, you will have lost."

"Sundown ..." Alaric murmured.

"You will be bowing down, and I'll be in favor with the greatest power this land has ever seen."

"You won't live to reap your reward," said Leo.

"So you think." The bandit's voice was getting weaker. "Who can say what their powers can do for me?"

Alaric grabbed Leo's arm. "The chanting, sundown nearing, a power rising -- Leo, whatever is happening, we can't chance it. We have to put a stop to it if we can."

"I know. But the boy -- I can't leave him unprotected."

Chris broke in: "I can help fight!"

Both men looked at him, and Leo said gently, "With what?"

He was right. For a moment Chris had forgotten he had no magic here, and no weapons he knew how to use. "I don't have anything," he sighed. "But you don't have to stay with me. I can hide."

"All right. Let's get away from anyone who could give you away" -- said with a nod in the bandit's direction -- "and find a spot."

The chanting continued to increase in volume as they left the dying Godwin behind and retraced their steps. Once they were out of his earshot, Alaric said in a low voice, "Some yards back, there is a place. I had noted it as a spot a demon could have hidden. It's not completely concealed, but it may have to do."

He quickly led them there, where a ways off the path a boulder and a fallen tree created a nook low to the ground. Chris made a move toward it, but Alaric pulled him back.

"You can't walk directly to it," he hissed.

"Go down the path and approach from behind," Leo said. "The underbrush is thick enough that your footprints in the snow won't be quite so obvious." Leo took his crossbow and beckoned Chris over. "This," he demonstrated, "is how you pull the trigger. I'm going to load it, but I don't have time to show you how to do that yourself -- so save the shot until it counts. And remember, these things aren't very accurate at long range even for someone accustomed to using it, so let your target get as close as you can allow it." He handed the loaded crossbow to Chris. "Are you ready?"

Chris nodded solemnly.

"Keep the dog for protection, but try to keep him silent. Stay hidden. I'll be back for you."

"Good luck," Chris said, and was surprised to find he meant that for Alaric too. Then the two men left, and Chris and the dog were alone in the forest again.

Macabre chanting rang in the air as Chris led the unleashed dog as best he could and made his way to his hiding spot. He crouched under cover, pushing the dog down with him, and waited. Then faintly through the trees a light flared in the twilight, spreading outward before fading. The drone gave way to shouts that scattered, accompanied now by the sounds of running through the thick woods. Chris glimpsed two demons -- he supposed -- crash past, not even paying enough attention to notice the marks in the snow Leo and Alaric had so feared would give Chris away. Indeed, their pell-mell escape partially obliterated Chris's footprints.

Others had evidently stayed in place to fight. Chris could still hear the chaos and even glimpsed flames -- either demonic fireballs or the effects of Alaric's potions. The dog kept up a low growl, but stayed put, Chris awkwardly securing him with one hand as he held the crossbow in the other.

Their safety was bound to come to an end. And that was heralded by the panicked rush of a scruffy man who was coming straight for them. The dog jerked upward, Chris barely restraining him, when the runner slipped in the snow. He seemed to be looking beyond them at first, but then his eyes met Chris's, and a wolfish grin came over his face. He stood up, and began striding to the hiding spot.

Chris had to let go of the dog to aim the crossbow. The animal lunged forward with a snarl, catching the man off guard. But Chris was caught off guard as well: Before he could find his mark, an armed wrapped around his neck from behind.

"The demons may have lost their battle," a voice said, "but you ought to bring a good ransom."

Chris lost his grip on his weapon, which fell in the snow. He struggled as the bandit dragged him to his feet, and then cried out in pain. The bandit, he realized, was holding a knife, and it had cut through his clothing to nick his arm.

The bandit growled, "I will kill you if force me to it."

"Let him go."

Both captor and captive craned their necks to see Leo poised with an arrow aimed at the bandit's head.

Leo continued, "If that knife moves toward the boy's neck, you will be dead before he would ever be endangered. Godwin is dead, your demon masters have been routed -- and your friend is being run off by a hound." The first man was in fact gone already, and the dog was bounding back. "Take your chance now to run and join him, or join your leader in the grave."

The bandit wasted no more time. He released Chris, and scrambled off into the trees. Leo kept him in his sights until he vanished.

"Thanks," Chris said breathlessly. "Is it over? You won?"

"We stopped the ceremony," Leo said, relaxing his hold on the bow and arrow and helping Chris out of his hiding spot. "Alaric should be here soon. Then we can get you home."

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris spied Alaric coming toward them -- running, which couldn't be good. Leo tensed, but before he moved to shooting position again, a fireball struck him.

His expression, stunned and in agony, seared itself in Chris's mind. "Dad!" he screamed as the flames consumed Leo and vanished, leaving emptiness behind.

Chris's chest felt tight and the acrid smell stung. Dimly he perceived the demon about to hurl another fireball at Chris, and then the potion thrown by Alaric that vanquished the attacker.

Then, there was silence. Alaric turned in a slow circle, peering into the trees, but all was abandoned. Completing his rotation, his eyes fell again on Chris, who was staring in a trance at the space where Leo had been.

"Dad." Alaric repeated Chris's word flatly. He seemed almost as dazed as the boy. "Interesting."

These words snapped Chris into action, as if he were himself a bowstring released. He dove for the crossbow, and half-lying in the snow, he shakily pointed it at Alaric.

"You -- you killed him."

"What? You saw that demon --"

"Maybe you were working with him."

"Christopher," Alaric said carefully, "you are still a good half hour from home, and night is coming. I cannot protect you if you murder me."

"I don't think you're here to protect me. You made sure Aldith didn't come along."

"We were both tricked! If you believe my intent is to harm you, why haven't I done it yet?"

"Maybe you want to hold me for ransom."

"Ransom? Child, I don't even know who you are or if you have any family from whom I could demand ransom. And from what I just heard, I have an idea that you don't."

Chris couldn't help but protest, "I have a family!"

"It does appear that someone is providing for you. But I have no interest in trading you for money; I just want to get you home, as Aldith asked me to do. Believe me, I truly mourn the loss of Leo. I did not wish for his death or conspire to cause it." He held out his hand, apparently hoping Chris would hand over the crossbow. "Please."

"I won't shoot you," Chris said as he got to his feet unsteadily. "But I am not putting this down, and I'm definitely not giving it to you."

At that moment, they both heard a horse galloping toward them. Standing on the path, Alaric looked down and Chris could see some of the tension leave him. Soon Chris could see for himself Alaric's own horse, carrying Aldith.

She pulled the horse to a halt, and said to Alaric, "The mill -- it was only a diversion."

"I know. It's over," he responded wearily and inclined his head in Chris's direction.

"Christopher? What is going on here?"

Alaric answered, "Leo was killed. The boy blames me."

She swung off the horse, and said to Chris, "You know that I could just magically knock that crossbow out of your hands if I had to." Her intent gaze was Aunt Prue's. He knew that he could trust her, and that she would know that was the reason he was willing to give in -- not for Alaric's sake. He lowered the crossbow and held it out to her.

She took it and asked, "What happened to Leo?"

"It was a demon -- a fireball," Alaric answered. "He's gone."

She looked pained but carried on her questioning: "Are we safe now? Is it over?"

"I believe so. There was some kind of ceremony that we stopped."

"It had to happen today, at the winter solstice. That's what I learned -- it was a ritual that needed to be performed before sundown by five upper-level demons. It would have created a circle of protection for evil throughout these woods."

"We -- Leo and I -- broke it up before they could complete the ritual. And as you see, sundown is here. There were bandits in their employ, providing a defensive perimeter."

"And taking the boy home led you right into it. The diversion was meant to keep both of us, practitioners of good magic, well away from the ceremony. The errand to return Christopher may well have saved this entire forest."

"It wouldn't have been possible without Leo," Alaric said. "Even if he couldn't kill demons with his arrows, he could certainly slow them down. It afforded me enough time to perform a spell that disrupted the circle from the start."

Despite the victory, they were a dispirited group trudging down the path, Alaric leading his horse while Chris and the dog fell in close to Aldith. They were still in the woods when through the gloom, they saw a swinging light -- soon revealed to be Merlin, carrying a lamp.

"Aldith? And Alaric, I see."

Aldith spoke: "We have the boy."

"Excellent. You've not far to go, and of course you shall both need to spend the night here. But if you can wait a moment, I need a word with the boy."

Merlin drew Chris aside and said quietly, "It is time to send you home."

Chris only said in a choked voice, "Leo is dead."

"I know."

"He came with me and he got killed."

"It's not your fault."

"You don't understand. I asked him to come with me."

"He would have come in any case, because you needed the protection. If he had not been here, you would have died, and it was not your time. Some things cannot be altered. It is always difficult to know what may be an aberration in time that should not have been, and can possibly be changed, and what, like this, could not be avoided."

"I don't understand."

"Perhaps one day you will. But now, you must go."

"Merlin, wait. Alaric--"

But the wizard was already muttering a spell, and before Chris could speak further, he was whisked out of the past, to his own time, where he jolted awake in Merlin's office at Magic School.

Chapter Text

Wyatt had stood over the dozing Chris while Merlin shuffled through books and papers in search of the spell to reverse the accidental switch. This was good grounds to refuse another attempt at this past life therapy Aunt Phoebe had proposed for Wyatt. He had no use for the soul-searching -- literally -- that she thought he so needed. The person he was today was quite enough, and all that mattered. He was powerful, he was in control of his future -- who cared about the past? It was more suited to Chris, his little brother who cultivated past hurts, cherished them. Wyatt didn't let that sort of thing control him.

He went along with Phoebe's idea, because what harm could it do him? He would show her that it wouldn't touch him for good or ill. Nevertheless, he felt nothing but relief when the spell veered its way to Chris. That way Wyatt wouldn't have to put up with it, and then the spell going wrong in every possible way doomed the possibility of trying again.

Chris had been sleeping for ten minutes when Merlin announced he had found what he needed. He wielded a hefty old book, and waved a fragile piece of parchment he had pulled from between its pages. "It can be difficult to remember where you've stored something when you've had it for a millennium or more." He stepped in front of Chris and read:

A straying spell was the cause
Of one soul's quest throughout time
Now let all be as it was
Restore them both with this rhyme

A light glowed around Chris and faded. First he stirred, then started as if awakened by a loud noise.

Before Wyatt or Merlin could speak, Chris called out, "Dad! Dad!" He waited but there was no answer. A little more desperately: "Dad! Why doesn't he answer?"

"Chris, first of all, chill," Wyatt said. "Secondly, you know he's been gone with a charge all this week."

"I need to see him. Dad!"

"Dad," Wyatt said almost simultaneously, and Leo appeared a moment later. Wyatt inwardly groaned. Better to have kept his mouth shut -- he knew how Chris was going to interpret this. And would he be right? Wyatt could feel their father's attention subtly focused on his older son, even though Leo asked:

"What do you two need?"

"Chris," Wyatt emphasized, "needed to see you."

"Forget it," Chris said. "It's not important."

"I'm sorry, but I was with a charge, and it was something of a crisis."

"Well, maybe I had 'something of a crisis' too. But I said forget it. I don't need your help. I need to talk to Merlin."

"Tell me what's going on."

It was Leo's best conciliatory Whitelighter tone. Condescending, Wyatt thought. Oh, that's going to help, Dad.

"Nothing important," Chris snapped. "I mean it. Go back to your charge."

Wyatt guessed that their father was warring between the fact that he needed to get back to that charge, and the fact that Chris had managed to maneuver it so that he had ordered his dad to leave.

As usual, Leo compromised. "I'm going to check to make sure he's okay. Then I'll be back."

"Great. Whatever you need to do."

Once Leo had orbed away, Chris said to Merlin, "I know who stole Vincenta's power."

"Someone stole Vincenta's power?" Wyatt asked.

"Oh yeah, that's right, I never got a chance to tell you. This guy, yesterday, did something to her and now she can't turn invisible. Then I saw him in the past -- Alaric."

Merlin considered this. "You're sure?"

Leo returned at that moment. Chris marked the arrival with an aggrieved glance, and answered Merlin: "No question."

"I must say, I knew him for many, many years back then and he certainly showed no evil intentions. But who knows what can happen in over the centuries? Leo, do you remember Alaric?"

"Who?"

"You would have known him in one of your past lives. As a Whitelighter, you have those memories, I presume? Alaric was a witch – he worked with your cousin Robert's wife."

"Robert? Yes, I remember him. But Alaric -- I think I met him a few times. And he was there the day I ..." Leo trailed off, looking at Chris, the memory dawning, the connection made. "The boy Aldith found in the woods ..."

"Yes," Merlin said, "Chris has just had his own little glimpse of a past life, but he's here safe and sound, and now he sees that you are as well."

"I just wanted to make sure he was okay," Chris said in a low voice. "I saw him killed by a demon right in front of me."

"But if he wasn't okay now," Wyatt scoffed, "you wouldn't have a present life to come back to."

"Wyatt," Leo chided, as Chris snapped:

"I didn't think about that! He died on a rescue mission to get me back to my own time."

Merlin intervened. "He died on a mission to bring your past counterpart back home after he got lost with his dog in some rather treacherous woods. Nothing significantly changed by your presence."

"How do you know?" Wyatt asked. "Wouldn't your memory of the events change too?"

Merlin shrugged and affected an air of mystery. Wyatt was dubious, but dropped the point.

"The important thing is," the wizard continued, "we now have this information about Alaric, who is evidently alive in this time and not quite as trustworthy as he once was. In the meantime, I suggest you boys go home with your father, and you can fill him in on what happened. I trust," he turned to Wyatt, "that your mother will not kill me for Chris being incapacitated for ten minutes or so?"

"Wait," Chris said. "I was gone how long?"

Wyatt answered, "Like he said, about ten minutes. He knocked your past self out. I never got to talk to him."

"But I was there a whole day!"

"You were there until you could get to me so that I could perform the spell to switch you back," Merlin explained. "It took you almost twenty-four hours to get to me. Whereas your past self was already in my presence, thank goodness. I expected he might have had a more difficult time adjusting to the twenty-first century than you would in the past. You at least had history to go by. So, they merely thought you were peculiar rather than insane. And believe me, Aldith would never let your past self live that down. She would insist on teasing you with 'Christopher, the traveler' for the rest of that lifetime. Of course, you didn't know what she was talking about. I explained that you had been under the effects of a spell that went wrong."

"So, Aldith and I, we met again?" Chris asked.

"Oh yes. She -- and Alaric as well, it must be said -- they were of great assistance to you on a number of occasions."

"Like how?"

"Ah, I've said too much. If you were meant to see that, you would have," Merlin said. "That's how the spell works."

"Right," Wyatt said. "The spell that went completely and totally wrong."

The wizard said unapologetically as he ushered them out of the office, "Nevertheless, I'd prefer not to risk it."

* * * *

"Between Phoebe's great ideas and Merlin's spells--" Piper stopped, exasperation momentarily leaving her speechless after she heard the whole story later that evening. "I mean, did my sister not remember how the whole past life spell thing worked out for her? We were stuck here with evil past Phoebe running around with a demon while our Phoebe almost got killed. And Merlin can't even get the spell to hit the right person!"

"I'm not so sure that was an accident," Wyatt said. "I wouldn't put it past him. Especially since the exact thing that brought Chris to the office in the first place was what he found in the past."

"This Alaric."

"I just wish that I could have done something to stop him, to stop that from ever happening," Chris said. "But I called Vincenta, and nothing's changed. Her power is still gone."

"Do you remember this guy?" Piper asked her husband.

"I do. But I didn't know him well at all, and it's been a really long time."

"Why don't we summon Prue and ask her?" Chris suggested. "Or Robert, you remembered him. Can we summon him?"

"Who's Robert?" Piper asked.

"Prue's husband back then," Chris answered. "I didn't recognize him, like I recognized Aunt Prue and Dad. But he seemed like a good person, and smart, and he didn't trust Alaric, no matter how great everyone else thought he was way back then."

"You never met Robert in this lifetime," Leo said, "so you wouldn't recognize him. But your mother would have."

"Really? As who?"

"Andy."

Chris didn't know the name, but he guessed Andy was someone good, judging by his mother's fond smile.

"Prue's husband, huh?"

Leo grinned. "Yeah, go figure. Anyway, Chris, it wouldn't do any good to question either of them about Alaric, unless they had met him in their most recent lifetime. It's only when you're made a Whitelighter that you get to remember all your past lives."

"Did you remember me?"

Leo hesitated. "I do now. You have to understand, I only met you that one day, and it was so long ago. What matters is the life we've got now, right, buddy?"

And in this life he couldn't get his dad to respond to his calls without Wyatt backing him up, Chris reminded himself bitterly.

"Look, I'm tired. I know that physically I was only sleeping in Merlin's office for ten minutes, but I feel like I've been tromping through the woods and dodging demons and bandits for days. I'm going to bed."

Wyatt stopped Chris on his way up the stairs. "Hey, kid, don't worry. Now that we know him, we're gonna get this Alaric guy. Make him reverse what he did -- make him pay, sooner or later."

Chris could see their mother over Wyatt's shoulder, listening, and he knew she was ready to tell her older son that it wasn't his job to take on that fight. Chris would leave them to that argument -- Wyatt was used to it.

"Thanks," Chris said, and went upstairs, grateful to shut himself in his own room and collapse on his own blissfully comfortable and warm twenty-first-century bed.

End of Part 2

Chapter Text

There would be days in the future, times when Mark would wonder if he had tried harder, if things might have been better. If he had stood his ground, he might not have lost his friend.

He would watch Wyatt from afar in years to come, watch his former friend's power grow, while the family that had once surrounded him disappeared: the Charmed Ones dead, Wyatt's father -- well, Mark would never hear of his whereabouts -- and Chris's break with his brother would be public knowledge in magical circles.

Mark would see all this, and think that had he been given the chance, he would not have turned away. He would have stuck by Wyatt, and he could have slowed the downward spiral. He could have been the listening presence who knew the darkness but knew you didn't have to walk into it. That's what he was when they were friends. That's what he could have been, if that day had not gone so bewilderingly wrong.

Everyone else that day had been angry. But not Mark. He had just wanted whatever Wyatt wanted.

But maybe he should have been angry, Mark would sometimes think. Would that have helped?

* * * *

But such thoughts lay in the distant future. On the day in question, the sixteen-year-old half-Manticore couldn't imagine the future's chaos. On that day, he only thought about how he had inexplicably enraged his friend. He wanted to apologize, if he could figure out where he had gone wrong.

And so, on that spring afternoon, Mark found himself where he had never been: on the street outside Wyatt's house. "The Manor," the Halliwells called it. Imposing, it sat atop a hill, and sitting on one of the stairs leading up to it was the younger brother. Mark had seen Chris once, that day months before in the Underworld, but they had never spoken.

Strangely, Chris was speaking to a demon. They both turned their eyes to Mark as he approached, the demon squinting in concentration. After a few words were exchanged between the two, the demon shimmered away, and Chris rose to walk down the stairs toward Mark, who tentatively took steps up to meet him.

Chris's stare was morose. "You're looking for Wyatt."

"Yeah."

"He's not here. He took off after he got expelled from school."

"Expelled?" That news was hardly surprising, considering what had happened that day, but it still caught Mark off guard. Then he began to ask, "Can you tell him--"

Chris interrupted. "He said he didn't have any demon friends. Wyatt said that, today. I don't think you're welcome here."

Mark believed him. Chris only confirmed what he already knew. "Okay. I get the message. You can tell him that, I guess."

Defeated, Mark returned to the street below. Before ducking behind a van to shimmer home, he glanced back to see Chris enter the Manor, shutting the door behind him.

* * * *

Twelve hours earlier

The hallway was brightly lit, but silent, not yet full of the day's bustle. Paige had orbed herself and her sisters in before the start of business. Phoebe moved rapidly to a door, gently twisted the knob and peered in.

"Piper! Piper!" she hissed. "They're both in there."

She moved aside and briskly gestured to her older sister, who had already moved forward. Opening the door wider, Piper froze the room's occupants with a snap of her hands before the three walked in.

In the motionless tableau, a well-groomed, smartly suited young man stood over a long table spread with tagged art and antiques that he had been logging on an electronic pad. Behind him, a menacing figure loomed over the unsuspecting worker. Piper took stock of the demon and then blew him up. One problem solved.

Phoebe set herself to solving the other.

"Do you see it?" Paige asked as her sister moved along the table, scanning the items.

Phoebe picked up a small but weighty metal object -- half of a sphere, with notches that suggested it might interlock with a missing half. "Yep, this is what I saw in my premonition. It's kind of pretty, with the designs on it. What were they trying to sell it as? A paperweight?"

"Buckland's," Piper scoffed as they moved to the door to leave. "Of all the companies in San Francisco, you think they'd know not to traffic in demonic artifacts." In the empty hallway again, she leaned in and added, "For God's sake, people, put it in the employee handbook!"

With a careless flick of her hand, she unfroze the auction house employee before Paige orbed them back to the Manor, where the orange light of sunrise was beginning to glow through the windows.

Once there, Phoebe went up to the attic to get the Book of Shadows, which she found already in use: Her nephew Chris was standing over it, still clad in his pajamas, and talking on the phone.

"I think something like this could work." He began copying something on a notepad. "Yeah, I know. But now if we do find him, we could actually have a plan for what to do about it." He looked up and saw Phoebe waiting, arms crossed. "Hey, my aunt's here. I gotta go. See you at school."

"What are you doing?" Phoebe asked after he hung up.

Chris waved the sheet he tore off the notepad. "I remembered seeing this spell once -- making the invisible visible. I got the idea when I woke up this morning that maybe we could tweak it or something, so that if we find Alaric, we could say it to force him to return Vincenta's power."

"And who is this 'we'?" she teased.

"Whoever finds him, I guess. Don't worry, I won't be hunting him down."

"That's good to know, because if nothing else, your mom would kill you, and I like my nephews alive, you know? Now, if it's okay with you, we kind of need that book."

* * * *

Within an hour, the Manor was alive with the chaos of the boys getting ready for school. Arguments with their mother and with each other -- mostly good-natured -- created a babble of noise to which Phoebe added as she talked to her own daughter on the phone.

Paige had found in the Book of Shadows the object they had recovered at Buckland Auction House. It was indeed one of a pair, and the demon who had tried to take it that morning had likely been a member of the Cult of Dalzior -- Dalzior being their powerful, long-vanquished master. "The object can't be destroyed," Paige had read aloud, "but if the two pieces are brought together, it can be used to resurrect Dalzior."

Now, amid the morning bustle, she used one half to scry for the other and soon hit upon an unexpected location.

"Golden Gate Park?" Phoebe, now off the phone, looked over her sister's shoulder at the map.

"Oh, I think I get it," Paige said. "The demonic market, remember? It's on some kind of other plane, but the park is more or less where it is."

"It won't be easy to get in there."

"Try impossible," Piper said. "We're too well-known; there's no way we could pass ourselves off as demons. Look, it seems our best move right now is to get the half we have as far away from here as possible, then we'll worry about getting our hands on the other half. It won't work by itself anyway."

"Maybe Leo can orb it to a volcano or something?" Phoebe suggested.

"He's gone again -- the Elders have saddled him with some other Whitelighter's charges, and it's kept him even more busy than usual."

Paige looked on the verge of volunteering for the volcano job, when Phoebe perked at the sight of her older nephew listening at the door. "Wyatt!"

"Phoebe --" Piper warned.

"Come on, it's a harmless errand, and there's time before school starts." Piper had scarcely relented when Phoebe handed the object to Wyatt. "How does a trip to a volcano sound?"

"Hot," he replied, inspecting the artifact. "But sure, I can do it."

Just then, a short, dilapidated demon -- regrettably familiar to them -- shimmered in the room, threw up his hands and yelped, "Don't blow me up! I'm here to help!"

Piper refrained -- for now -- from blowing Penka up, but raised a caustic eyebrow. "People who come to help are usually polite enough to use the door."

"Do you want me to do that? I can --"

"No, it's too late. What do you want?"

"Like I said, to help. I have information."

"Why don't you go to Merlin?" Phoebe asked. "Aren't you two in league or something?"

"In league? No. Really, I'm just never sure what he actually tells you. And if I'm giving information, I should at least get to be on your good side. Plus, Merlin's sometimes hard to get hold of. Even if I could get into Magic School, I'm sort of afraid to go there. That Elder, Gideon is it?" Penka gave an exaggerated shudder and then addressed Wyatt directly: "He's just creepy. You know what I mean?"

"He's got a point there," Wyatt said.

By this time, the scene had drawn Chris to the room as well, and Penka said cheerfully: "Hey, hi, kid!"

"Uh, hi."

"Stop talking to my children," Piper said, coldly enunciating each word, and Penka snapped his attention back to her. "What are you here to tell us?" she asked.

"Okay, well, understand -- I hear rumors all the time, demons' thoughts about this or that wicked plan. So much bluster, you have no idea. Anyway, this is different. There are these widespread rumors about one demon who's determined to do one thing: get her hands on Excalibur. She's supposedly called the Fortalice."

"Aha!" Paige exclaimed. "I know that one. I found her in a book at Magic School. Is she here in town?"

"I don't think so. Not yet. The rumblings are more that she may be coming here, or even that she's just waking up or reviving after being dormant for centuries, just like the sword. Now she's coming back to make a play for it again."

Paige explained, "The description said Excalibur is the only thing that can kill her. And what better way to avoid being killed by Excalibur ..."

"... than to be the one controlling it, yeah," Penka finished.

"Why should we believe you?" Piper asked. "I don't get why you're telling us this. What's in it for you?"

"I admit, I'm thinking of what's best for me. But unlike other demons, I take the long view of what's best for me. I mean, sure, the sword getting into the hands of evil sounds great and all, but then I start to think about it: Do I really want an invincible tyrant ruling everyone with an iron fist? Or sword, whatever. Then I start to worry about it constantly. I don't want to be noticed, I don't want to be someone's minion, I just want --"

"To be evil on your own terms?" Piper chirped.

"Exactly! Um, I mean, yeah?"

Piper sighed. "Is there anything else? Is that all you know?"

"That's it. I told you, it's just rumors. But a lot of rumors."

"Great. That's all we ever seem to get. In the meantime, we've already got one magical problem to deal with today, so ..."

"You want me to leave?"

"Yes."

After Penka shimmered out, Wyatt spoke up: "I don't know why we care about Excalibur. I don't. It's not like I need it."

Part of Piper wanted to agree -- the sword was just one more magical complication in an already over-complicated life. No one knew exactly what it meant for Wyatt to be its heir, and if Wyatt didn't feel a great attachment to the thing, if Wyatt didn't believe he needed it, why undergo the hassle of trying to keep it safe for him until he was old enough to take possession?

Unfortunately -- or fortunately, Piper grudgingly admitted -- her sisters were ready to remind them of why they had to care.

"Whether you need it or not," Phoebe said, "it's part of your destiny, Wyatt."

"More importantly, it's not part of the destiny of this Fortalice, or anyone else," Paige added. "We've seen for ourselves what can happen when the sword gets into the hands of someone it doesn't belong to."

"What do you mean, you're seen it for yourselves?" Chris asked. "When? Who?"

As Piper rolled her eyes at her sisters' matching smirks, Paige answered, "Oh, when we first found the sword, your mom went a little crazy with the power trip."

Wyatt gave an incredulous laugh as Chris exclaimed, "What? You never told us that!"

"Hey," Piper said with mock irritation, "if we told you the story of every time someone in this family has been evil under the influence, we'd never leave the house. But you," she said to Chris, "need to finish getting ready and go to school, and you" -- to Wyatt -- "need to go to a volcano and then get to school yourself. So get moving!"

They hustled. Piper assumed Paige would head to Magic School herself after orbing Phoebe home, but instead her youngest sister reappeared in the sunroom as Piper was picking up the Book of Shadows to return it to the attic.

"Hold on," Paige said. "I have an idea." Taking the book, she flipped through it until she found what she needed. She recited Grams's spell: "Creature low, vile and base, come right now to this place."

An annoyed and offended Penka reappeared the Manor. "Well -- that was rude!"

"You want to get on our good side?" Paige asked. "What are you doing this afternoon? I'm going to need a little demonic assistance."

Chapter Text

Chris's first period was a study hall, run in a relaxed fashion by Professor Max Franklin. So when Chris ducked in late and scurried to his seat next to Vincenta, he got a mild "That's a warning, Chris" and no more. Chris knew that if he made it a chronic offense, Franklin would eventually take action, but, nearing the end of the school year, there was hardly time left to make tardiness a habit. He wasn't worried. And though Chris was sure it wasn't favoritism -- all students got the same leeway -- there was no denying the teacher had extra affection for a Halliwell. Back when Franklin had been a kid himself, Aunt Prue had saved his life.

"You will not believe what's going on here," Vincenta whispered as Chris slid into his seat.

It became clear that even if Franklin had been concerned about Chris's late arrival, he was too occupied to pay much attention just now. For up at the front of the classroom, looking very pleased with himself, was Joe Lasota.

For a span of time last fall, Joe had been the bane of Chris's school existence, targeting him for humiliation and abuse. The means included everything from a rather serious attempt to bind Chris's Whitelighter powers to the trivial but very public spell that raised Chris's voice to a squeak. Chris had not told his family what was going on, though the couple times he had to ask his mother to reverse a spell certainly raised suspicions. He had begun to get very skilled at the art of avoidance when the incident occurred that put a stop to it: Joe dared to try something with Wyatt present.

In retrospect, Chris wondered if he had been only bait. Joe had wanted to take on Wyatt. Wyatt, who was more than a year older than Joe and was more powerful than any witch alive. So Joe was an idiot -- and a coward, as Wyatt said: "He wouldn't take me on face-to-face." Instead, he had been taking Chris on, always using surprise-attack spells -- but that last time, Wyatt had been nearby.

That spell -- whatever it was, Chris never found out -- caused physical pain, knocking him to the ground, where he was only partially aware of the ruckus that followed. A crowd gathered; Wyatt used orbing telekinesis to send Joe flying into a wall. And like a nearby bowling pin, Phoebe's daughter Penelope fell too, breaking her wrist.

It was an accident, but Phoebe called it an overreaction on Wyatt's part. She got herself so worked up about it that she called in Merlin. So that had all started there.

But Joe's torment of Chris had ended. He really was a coward, and an open confrontation with Wyatt, as opposed to his subterfuge attacks on Chris, had taught him to back off.

This morning, however, Joe had the look of someone with newfound confidence.

"Turns out," Vincenta told Chris, "he's developed an active power."

"As if Joe with passive powers wasn't bad enough."

"Exactly."

"So what's the power?"

Vincenta rolled her eyes. "We don't know yet. He's going for the big reveal, I think."

Joe wasn't immediately successful at that. Chris guessed he was trying to use the power while looking cool, and that wasn't how it worked. Suspicions were confirmed when Joe grimaced with noticeable frustration, and that finally produced results. Voices in the class shrieked and gasped as a wall display caught fire. Franklin jumped up, ripped off his academic robe and beat the fire out.

With more annoyance than Chris had ever heard from him, Franklin said, "That's the kind of power you don't play around with, Joe. You should have warned me." He took a deep breath. "How did this happen? Firestarters normally show that ability as young children -- but you just developed this?"

"I don't understand it myself, Professor."

"Why don't you take the study period, go report this to the Headmaster."

He left, but returned before the period ended -- apparently just to be sure he could accost Chris in the hallway.

"Watch yourself, Chris."

"What, are you going to set me on fire?"

"Would I do something like that? That would be dangerous. All I'm saying is that your brother might find me less easy to take on. And then baby brother will be left without any protection." Joe sauntered away, laughing with some friends.

"Oh please," Vincenta said. "Whatever you want to say about Wyatt, the last thing that would intimidate him is that little squirt."

* * * *

And hour later, Wyatt's term was more direct.

"That little shit."

Chris hadn't gone running to his brother. The school rumor mill -- and Joe's hubris -- had spread the word effectively.

"He needs to be taught a lesson," Wyatt growled, "since the first one obviously didn't take."

"Wyatt, I can handle him."

"I'm not saying you can't, little brother. But he's going around yakking about how he can take me. With one pathetic power he doesn't even know how to control? This has nothing to do with you -- it's my reputation. Okay, it's got a little to do with you. But we can both handle him. Keep alert, give him one good TK and he'll be running scared from you too." As a demonstration, Wyatt flicked his hand in a playful imitation of his brother, before walking off.

Wyatt did not immediately go to his next class. Instead, he ducked into an empty room and pulled out his cell phone (a recent benefit of his mother wanting him reachable) and placed a call. He had concocted a plan earlier that morning, but this new business with Joe could make it more interesting. Either way, for once, he was going to need some help for the plan to work.

Just before lunchtime, Wyatt cornered Joe alone.

"You've been telling everyone about your new power. Showing it off."

Joe squared his shoulders and tried to look imposing -- an impossible feat next to Wyatt, who was large for his age and whose confidence was effortless. But Joe tried. "Are you here to test me out?" he asked.

"Not in the way you think. You're going to help me."

Joe snorted with scorn and made a move to leave, but Wyatt blocked his way.

"So you have a new power. You want to prove to me what a big man you are. Try proving that you can use that power the way witches are supposed to. Against demons."

As Wyatt had guessed, curiosity and lure of competition were quickly overcoming Joe's good sense, if he had any to overcome.

"You see this?" From a pocket, Wyatt pulled the ornate half-sphere Phoebe had given him, and lightly tossed and caught it before holding it in front of Joe's face. "It has a mate. If demons get hold of them, and put them together, bad things happen. We have to recover the other half. I have a general idea of where it is. We can go together, and once we're there, whoever finds it first ..."

"Gets what?"

"The reward of a job well done. For you, a little evidence that you're not just a schoolyard braggart who couldn't win a fair fight if he tried. Do you just want to stick to beating up Whitelighters, or do you think you can handle a demon or two?"

Joe made a show of distrust, but Wyatt could see he was willingly walking into the trap.

"Okay, you're on."

So easy, Wyatt thought.

Joe continued, "So when are we --"

Wyatt grabbed the other boy's arm and said just before orbing him along to Golden Gate Park: "Now."

Chapter Text

Mark sat underneath a tree in the park, where Wyatt had asked him to wait. He caught sight of orb lights in his peripheral vision, and turned to see Wyatt and someone Mark didn't know materialize about ten yards away.

The unfamiliar boy yanked his arm out of Wyatt's grip. "I can't believe you did that!"

"Are you afraid you'll miss class? Never knew you were such a good student, Joe. Or are you just not prepared? Sorry, demons won't change their plans to fit your schedule. But you can go back if you want," Wyatt said as he started striding away.

"How?" Joe demanded, jogging to catch up.

"Take a cab." Wyatt then called out to Mark, who was pulling himself to his feet: "How long have you been waiting?"

"Not long. About a half hour."

"Since I called you."

Mark smiled and shrugged.

Joe was suspicious again. "Who is this?"

"The guy who's getting us where we need to be." Wyatt's tone toward Joe was one of unwavering contempt.

"I hope I can," Mark said. "I've never been to this market before. But you know, even with me here, I don't see how they'll ever let you in, Wyatt. They all know you."

"Yeah, I thought of that. I've got it covered." And in an instant he transformed his appearance, glamoured into a look he had dreamt up from observation of far too many examples -- "generic demon minion," he'd call them. Dark clothes, unkempt, human-like appearance, neither youthful nor old. "How do you like it?" he asked Mark.

"Scary."

"Time to get scary yourself."

Joe, who had merely looked annoyed by Wyatt's Whitelighter tricks, stepped back, repulsed, as Mark's hands developed claws. "What the hell -- and his tongue, too, don't think I didn't see that. What is he?"

"Not an asshole like you," Wyatt replied. "Let's go."

Mark stepped forward tentatively, then jumped when a wide portal opened in front of him. It was flanked by two burly guards, who stared at Mark as he attempted to look nonchalant and kept walking forward. Wyatt, unconcerned, passed his friend, and Joe brought up the rear, eyes darting between the glowering guards. Once all three were through, the portal and guards alike appeared to vanish behind them.

"That was easy," Mark muttered.

"I told you if it sensed demon blood, it would open right up." Wyatt turned to Joe. "Have at it. Good luck hunting."

"Hey! You have help -- demon help."

"Yeah, and why don't you announce to everyone around us that that's unusual. Tough -- life isn't always fair, and fighting demons never is." With that, Wyatt moved on, into the dirty lanes of the market. Mark trailed after his friend, and Joe wandered off in a different direction.

"So that's the big, bad Joe, huh?" Mark asked as they browsed the stalls' clutter of weapons, amulets, books and potion ingredients.

"Yeah. Not too impressive, is he?" Wyatt spoke offhandedly, his attention captured by a row of jars with strange, vile contents. Mark didn't know much about potions, but he guessed some of the more suspect creature parts -- eyeballs, delicate wings, bones -- would not be allowed in the Halliwell household.

Finally, Wyatt returned his gaze to displays of magical knickknacks that might be more likely to have the object they were looking for, and continued: "He doesn't have any active powers -- or he didn't until today -- and it just drives him nuts that other people do. And since we're half-Whitelighter, that's even more power that he's jealous of."

"He's got an active power now?"

"Right, this mysterious new Firestarter ability, as of this morning. He needs to learn right away that doesn't give him a license to come after us. I can handle him, but Chris? Chris doesn't realize that you have to break some rules when it comes to someone like this. Otherwise, you just get taken advantage of."

Mark asked with a smile, "Are you sure you're not just mad at him for getting you into trouble before?"

"I'd do it all over again. Penelope was fine, even if Aunt Phoebe freaked out about it. So I got saddled with a tutor -- the point was, Joe backed off. He has to get that point again."

Mark spotted the boy in question, who never seemed very far, an aisle or two over, failing to look as if he were casually inspecting the merchandise.

Of course, Wyatt spotted the object first. It sat in a case of several evidently prized objects. Mark expected Wyatt to orb it into his hand, but then he considered that the case's slight glow might be a shield against magical theft. Instaed, Wyatt swaggered up to the proprietor, a Hawker demon, and pointed at the case.

"That half-sphere thing. What do you want for it?"

The Hawker raised his eyebrows. "More than you can afford."

"You think so? I've got a trade to make, and you'll find it more than fair."

"Really. What are you offering?"

Wyatt's smile was vindictive, conspiratorial. "How would you like a Firestarter?"

Mark stood blankly stunned by this offer, and the skeptical Hawker nodded toward him. "This demon?" the seller asked.

"Of course not. It's a human. But he is here."

"Where?"

"You want me to tell you, so that one of your thugs can seize him? Like hell. Once you give me what I want, I'll point him out."

"And I'm supposed to believe you won't just take what you want, and send me off chasing someone who'd be worthless."

"Leave one of your thugs here, and I'll stay until you get him, even until you test him out."

The Hawker considered, then said, "Agreed." When he touched the case, the glow vanished, and he removed the item. As he handed it to Wyatt, an imposing demon, towering over both boys, stepped forward as well. Wyatt glanced at him with indifference.

This must be the moment he has a plan, Mark thought. But Wyatt's plan seemed to be straightforward: make a fair trade.

"He's the kid four booths down, wearing a jean jacket, he's got light brown hair -- do you see him?"

"Looking at crossbows?"

Wyatt narrowed his eyes at that, and seemed to take pleasure in affirming, "That's the one."

With a tilt of his head, the Hawker beckoned another assistant to follow. The pair moved down and handily grabbed Joe, who shouted and struggled to no avail. Passersby barely paid mind to the scene, and Wyatt wasn't watching. He was occupied examining his purchase as he stood in the shadow of the Hawker's thug.

Joe was dragged to the entrance of a room behind the seller's stall. Just before he disappeared inside he noticed Wyatt, and a note of indignation was added to his terrified protests, which were muffled when the Hawker closed the door.

"This shouldn't take long," Wyatt said flatly to Mark and their guard. "Anger, fear, stress -- it's triggered by some powerful emotion, which I'm guessing he's feeling right now."

Wyatt was right. Within a few minutes, the Hawker re-emerged, smiling and coughing, waving away smoke. To the thug, he said, "Let him go. I'm satisfied." He looked at Wyatt with a new appraisal. "He said something quite interesting about you. But I don't care who you are. I don't care why you want that thing. What I got is better."

"No tricks?"

"As long as you don't play any on me. It's how I stay in business -- and alive."

"Great. Thanks."

Wyatt sauntered off down the pathway; Mark followed, stumbling a little as he looked back at the Hawker's stall where Joe had been abandoned. Traded away. Wyatt put the artifact in a pocket, and resumed browsing.

"Wyatt?"

Mark had barely spoken above a whisper, but Wyatt warned, "Watch it!"

"Sorry. You, um ... What's going on?"

"We got what we were after, and Joe's being taught a lesson."

"A lesson about ..."

"Not messing with me or my family." He finally looked at Mark, and in response to his friend's disconcerted expression, Wyatt said, "We'll rescue him. In a bit."

"What if something happens to him?"

"There's no way the Hawker will hurt him. Firestarters are too valuable. Joe should know that too. But I'll give him a little time to imagine his lifetime of servitude to demons."

* * * *

"Stop acting so jumpy," Paige said to Penka. At his scowl, she amended herself: "On second thought, you kind of always look jumpy, don't you? Carry on then."

"Thanks, I guess."

Not too long after the three boys had entered the market, Paige and Penka had followed through the same portal, Penka's demon blood providing the passkey, while Paige had glamoured into a crone.

"Are you picking anything up?" she asked him when they were well into the thick of the marketplace.

"Stop asking me that. It's hard enough to pick out one thought about one little object in all this crowd. Especially when they may not even be thinking about -- oh. Oh, oh!"

"What is it?"

Penka had whipped around in the direction of a booth where Paige saw two male demons, one casually looking through items for sale, the other more distracted, looking around worriedly. Penka turned his back to them and muttered, "The younger-looking one, the one with the claws, he knows about the -- your thingamajig. They just traded a Firestarter to get it. The other one, the taller guy, has what you're looking for."

"They traded a Firestarter for it?" Paige said, horrified.

"Yeah, so?"

"So Firestarters are human, and I'm not about to let one be sold into slavery if I can help it."

"Oh. I didn't think of that."

"No kidding."

"Hey, I'm new at this helping the side of good," Penka said, with a nervous look around for eavesdroppers. "I can't think of everything. So what are you going to do?"

"Do you know where the Firestarter is?"

Penka concentrated, and then said, "Oh yeah. It's that Hawker demon, the one about five booths down, under the red awning. He's quite happy with the trade."

"Good for him. Well, I can't go after the artifact and risk exposing myself before I get a chance to save the Firestarter." Paige paused, frustrated, then asked, "What about the tall guy, the one who has the artifact?"

Penka shrugged. "I get nothing from him. He's not a demon."

"Really? He looks like a demon."

"So do you."

"Point taken. Okay, just keep on eye on those two. I'm going to go talk to the Hawker."

Penka caught her before she walked away. "He's already got a buyer."

"Great. Look, I may have to just orb the Firestarter out the second I get the chance. I'll definitely be exposed then, so if that happens, just get out while you still can."

Her demon assistant actually looked touched, and said with awkward stalwartness, "I'll stick it out as long as I can."

Paige's wry smile was somewhere in the sour crone face she had adopted as a disguise. "Well, we've got our jobs to do." With an encouraging nod, she left Penka and headed for the Hawker's booth.

She didn't really have a plan. If time was running out, the best approach could be the direct one. If she could get the Hawker to bring out the "merchandise," she could try to get close enough to orb the Firestarter out and then get out herself.

"I heard you had a Firestarter for sale," she said. "Can I have a look at it?"

The Hawker looked her over with disdain. "It's not available to you. It's an exclusive item, and I already have a buyer arriving, ah, now. Good."

At a flip of the Hawker's hand, a large henchman seized Paige and pulled her across the pathway as a cloaked new arrival blazed in out of thin air.

"Thank you for coming," the Hawker was saying smoothly. "I've tested him myself; you won't be disappointed."

Another of the Hawker's thugs came out of the shack behind the booth. Paige immediately recognized his captive -- a Magic School student.

Joe Lasota? He's a Firestarter? Paige wondered before a deafening, prolonged screech temporarily drove away all rational thought or action. All she could do was clamp her hands on her ears and hope the pain-inducing noise would stop.

* * * *

Wyatt himself was thrown off-kilter by the racket, even though he knew its source -- right next to him. He had been engrossed in his mental inventory of the sorts of useful things that could be found the market, when Mark, trailing behind, half-forgotten, let loose an unearthly Manticore scream and took off running.

Wyatt saw his friend, in the chaos and distraction his scream had caused, plunge through the crowd, nearly knock Joe down as he shoved him out of a thug's grip, and shimmer out, Joe in tow.

The Hawker, once he had recovered his senses, began furiously apologizing to a menacing cloaked figure, before he spotted Wyatt, and hollered at his thugs to go after him.

It was then Wyatt realized someone else was taking advantage of the situation: He saw her, a crone, staring at him, hand outstretched, saying something he could not hear from that distance. But he knew her intent. He got a firm grip on the artifact, which he could feel being somehow magically tugged away. His own effort was blocking the theft attempt, for now, but the thugs were closing on him, diverting his concentration.

Nothing left to lose, he resorted to the orbing telekinesis that would give him away. A jar expertly aimed at the crone's head knocked her down as it shattered, then he sent barrels flying at the thugs, impeding their progress. Then he orbed away, instinctively heading for the spot in the park where Mark had already landed with Joe.

* * * *

The crowd left behind began to return to business, chattering about the curious scene they had witnessed. The aftermath briefly caught their attention again when the cloaked customer concluded his tirade by dispatching the luckless Hawker with a fireball.

Paige was ignored as she struggled to her feet, gingerly touching a wound on her head, and brushing from her hair some broken glass and tiny, glittery wings -- what remained of the jar and its contents. Penka -- who had apparently fled -- had said the taller "demon" wasn't a demon at all. And he was right. Paige knew of only one other who shared her power of orbing telekinesis. In a fury, she stomped off to find a less public place to make her exit and then track down her nephew.

Chapter Text

Mark and Joe landed back in the same area of the park where they had first met. Joe staggered away and spat, "Get the hell away from me! What are you two freaks going to do to me now?"

"What? I just saved you."

"Yeah, right." Joe looked around. "Looks like maybe you lost Wyatt. Maybe he got into more trouble than he could handle."

His smug satisfaction was fleeting: Wyatt orbed in, reverting to his own appearance as he did so. He showed no interest in any fresh torment for Joe; in fact, he ignored Joe completely and rounded on Mark.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Again, having to explain what seemed self-evident, Mark said, "Getting him out of there."

"I told you I was on it. I told you that he needed to rot there a while to get the point --"

"He was being led away."

"You did it because you didn't think that I would."

Mark wondered how he had given that impression; it hadn't been his thought at all. "I saw a chance --"

"You didn't trust me to take care of it. It was not your decision. Not your business!"

"You're the one who brought me into this, and you didn't tell me what was going on."

Joe overrode him, fed up with having his own grievance disregarded: "You weren't even going to try to get me out of there. You sold me and --"

"Shut the fuck up," Wyatt said. "No one cares."

At that, another voice was heard: "Maybe I do."

The three boys turned to see the figure who had shown up nearby as Wyatt had been speaking -- a crone whose appearance soon took the form of Paige.

"Oh, shit," Wyatt said.

"He tried to sell me into slavery!" Joe cried.

"I know everything that happened. I was there. You're both going back to school, to Gideon, now." Paige looked at Mark. "What's your role in all this?"

"Nothing," Wyatt emphasized. "He's nobody."

As Mark stood silent, Joe volunteered his own answer. "He's a demon who was helping Wyatt with all this -- until maybe he saw how valuable I was and was trying to kidnap me."

"Really?" Paige said. "From where I was standing, it looked like he rescued you."

"You know, forget it. You're Wyatt's aunt -- no way am I getting justice with you. I'm out of here."

As Joe started to stalk away, Paige waved her hand in his direction, saying, "Magic School," which orbed him out of the park.

Once again, she faced off with her nephew.

"You think you can do that to me?" he asked.

"I don't know. But do you really want us to come to that?"

With no reply, he orbed out in front of her. She made no attempt to stop him.

"Wyatt said he would rescue him," Mark said, even as he wondered if he believed it anymore.

Paige sighed, and he could see a flash of sympathy in her eyes. "Maybe you should go home now. You have a home?"

He nodded, and shimmered away, leaving Paige to follow her nephew.

* * * *

"I just thought," Chris said to Piper in the kitchen, "that this spell might be the best one to adjust to get Vincenta's power back. Will you look at it?"

"I will, later. P3 has a band tonight, and I've got to get to work pretty soon. But you know, there are probably other spells that deal with lost or stolen powers. The real problem is that it's been months and we still haven't found Alaric." Piper turned from putting groceries away back to her son, who was scribbling on the back of the used grocery list.

"It's your copy of the invisibility spell." He handed it to her and stuffed his original copy into his backpack, which he shouldered as he followed his mother out of the kitchen. "Maybe we could tweak it to make it work no matter where Alaric is."

As they entered the foyer, they were both stopped short by the sight of Wyatt, who stood still, facing the door, with an unpleasant smile.

"Wyatt, you're home from school ..." Piper trailed off. "What are you doing?"

"Waiting for Paige to track me down."

As if on cue, Paige orbed in, disheveled, with a cut drying at her hairline. She stood face-to face with Wyatt. "What are you, two years old? Are you going to make me chase you all over like a toddler?"

"I'll talk to you, Paige; I'm just not going to that school."

"Give me the artifact."

Chris watched Wyatt, after a condescending pause, pull from a pocket the object he had been asked to orb to a volcano that morning. Wyatt tossed it to Paige, who added icily, "Both of them."

"Okay," Piper snapped. "What the hell is going on? Why do you have either of those things, Wyatt?"

"You know so much," Wyatt said to his aunt as he gave her the matching half-sphere, "you tell her."

"Obviously," Paige said, "he didn't dispose of the artifact this morning. Then when I went myself to the Demon Market to find the other half, it turned out I had competition. Your son."

That was all? Chris felt an uncertain relief. Skipping school was bad, and Wyatt was in a constant battle with Mom's restrictions against her sons going into dangerous magical situations. Wyatt had promised never to go to the Underworld again -- did going to this market count as breaking that promise? Certainly it broke the spirit of it, if not the letter. Still, it didn't seem to justify how outraged Aunt Paige was.

Piper bypassed commenting on Wyatt's disobedience to raise another alarm: "Do you realize how dangerous it is to get these two things in proximity to each other? There was a reason we asked you to get rid of one half before we found the other."

"So it will raise some demon," Wyatt said. "So what."

"So what? What were you thinking?"

"That I'd raise the thing and then vanquish it, getting rid of the problem."

"It was already vanquished," Paige emphasized. "The only thing this is meant for is to undo that."

"Then I'd vanquish it in a better, more final way, so some damn artifact can't reverse it."

Piper shook her head. "You have no way of knowing that would work. Maybe resurrecting him makes him stronger -- even unkillable, did you think of that?"

"Nothing is unkillable. You think too small, too cautious, and you're trying to shove me into that, and I don't need it."

"And I've been at this longer than you, Wyatt, and I have seen what can happen --"

"I know, your mother died, Prue died -- I've heard it a thousand times. It doesn't apply to me. I'm not them."

"It's that kind of thinking that's going to get you killed!"

"No, it's that kind of thinking that makes me powerful enough that I don't have to be ruled by your fears."

Piper stared, open-mouthed with shock. Before she could find her voice again, Leo and Gideon materialized together in the foyer.

"What the hell is he doing here?" Wyatt snarled at the sight of Gideon.

"Wyatt," Leo said quietly, "this is serious."

Piper burst out, "What's serious? We know he skipped school, but that's hardly reason for a personal home visit from the headmaster -- and anything else is our business alone."

"Not when it concerns another student," Gideon intoned.

Piper looked at Wyatt, then to Leo. "Another student? What's he talking about?"

Leo answered, "A boy, Joe Lasota, is saying that Wyatt, with the help of a demon friend --"

"I don't have any demon friends," Wyatt interrupted. A lie, Chris knew -- at least, last fall Wyatt had had one.

"That's hardly what's most troubling here," Gideon said. "Joe said that you sold him to a Hawker demon in exchange for some magical object. He said that Paige could verify this, that she had witnessed it."

"Yeah, she did, most of it," Wyatt said before Paige could speak. "It's true. The artifact wasn't for me -- it was for the Charmed Ones. Paige has it now."

"It wasn't so important that you could trade a human being for it," Piper protested. "But I'd think that should have been a given."

"I was going to rescue him!"

"But you didn't," Paige said. "You never made a move to try."

"Even if he had," Gideon said, "it doesn't matter. He endangered a fellow student. This is not the first time that has happened, but it has escalated to knowingly putting a student's very life in peril. I'm sorry, Leo, Piper, but Wyatt cannot be allowed back into Magic School. As of right now, he is expelled."

Wyatt stepped forward to the Elder, who seemed to be finding it difficult to hold his ground. "Great," Wyatt said. "That means I don't have to deal with you anymore. So get the fuck out of my house."

"Wyatt --" Leo tried to step in, but his older son barely acknowledged him.

"I mean it. Don't ever step foot in this place again, or there will be consequences."

"Stop it!" Piper shouted. "It's not your decision to make, Wyatt."

"Come on, Mom. You feel the same way about the Elders. And this one --" Gideon's terror was by now unconcealed as Wyatt warned, "I know what you are. I'm the only one who can see it. Don't cross my path again if you know what's good for you."

Wyatt jerked his arm upward, and at that command, Gideon involuntarily disappeared in a swirl of orb lights.

"Where did you send him?" Paige demanded.

"Back to the school," Wyatt said. "Far better than he deserves."

"Paige?" Piper's voice was strained. "Is there any more we need to know about what happened today?"

"No, I think you got the gist of it." Seeming to take her cue from Piper's expression, she said, "I'd better get back to school."

"Hold on," Wyatt said. "Tell Merlin that I won't be studying with him anymore. We'll stop wasting his time and mine. This being expelled -- I feel freed. I don't need any of this crap -- people trying to teach me magic, how to control my powers, when they have no idea what I can do."

Paige looked to Piper and Leo for direction. Piper looked torn -- the wizard was a sore point that represented Phoebe's interference, but she couldn't be too happy with the way the tutorship would end here. Leo sighed, "Tell Merlin we'll take a break. But if he's willing, we'll call him when things settle down."

Piper added, "Please check to see that Gideon is okay."

Paige nodded and orbed away, as Wyatt glared at his mother.

"You don't trust me."

"No, at this moment, I don't. How can I, when you seemed to have missed the lesson that selling someone into slavery is wrong?"

"I did what I had to do to get that artifact for you, and I'm not going to say it again --"

"It doesn't matter if you planned to rescue him later."

"I would have protected him!" It was not a defense. Somehow, it was an accusation. "I'm not sticking around for any more of this."

"Wyatt!" But he was already gone. Piper turned to Leo. "Where is he?"

Leo shook his head. "I can't sense him. He's probably in the Underworld."

"Then let's go find him."

"I'm not sure now is the best time."

"And it will be a better time after he gets himself killed down there?"

"You know he won't. Look, wherever he is, let's just give him a little time -- I'm talking a half an hour, an hour -- to simmer down. Then he might be more willing to listen. In the meantime, I think I ought to go to the Elders." Before Piper could object, he said, "Gideon is seriously disturbed by this, and he won't be alone. Better to talk to them first to get an idea of what they intend to do, if anything. I'll be back soon."

After Leo left, Piper stood in the foyer, head in her hand. Her shoulders were starting to shake when a voice came from behind.

"Mom?"

Forgotten by the adults, Chris now came forward from the corner where he had observed the clash.

"What's going to happen?" he asked his mother.

She brushed his brown hair from his face. "Sweetie," she called him, and pulled him to her in a fierce embrace.

When she let him go, he asked, "Will Wyatt go to a regular school?"

Piper laughed a kind of half-sob. "That might be difficult. I don't know. I just don't know."

Chris didn't know what to say, so he said, "You said you needed to get to work; there's a band."

Piper looked at her watch. "Oh God, I have to. I can't. I ... I'm going to my room to call Aunt Phoebe, see if she can be there tonight." She touched his face again. "Will you be okay?"

He wasn't too sure of that. But he guessed she wanted to be alone to cry, or wait for Dad to come back so they could go chasing down Wyatt. So he nodded, and when she went upstairs, he walked out the front door, but he did not stray far. He sat on one of the porch steps, alone with his gloomy thoughts.

* * * *

After Paige had spoken to him, Gideon went to see Merlin in the wizard's office. The headmaster knew his motive was rather ingloriously gloating, propping up his own tattered dignity.

He should have been feeling the satisfaction of being vindicated today: He had foreseen the danger posed by the older Halliwell boy years ago and had tried to cut it off then. Now, perhaps, there was no stopping it. Expelling Wyatt, letting the boy loose, was risky, but he had students to protect.

Then the boy had faced the Elder down, threatened him, and forcibly orbed him back to Magic School, where Gideon had materialized violently in the middle of the common hall. In front of students still studying there, Gideon was thrown into a table; Wyatt's orbing telekinesis evidently could reach far beyond the room he was in, across dimensions to the school.

In all, a humiliating end that marred Gideon's sense of triumph and relief to have Wyatt gone. Watching Merlin leave -- on Wyatt's order, apparently -- was all the Elder had left.

In his office, the wizard was calmly moving scattered papers, books, cages and archaic occult items into untidy piles.

"Fleeing your duty so easily?" Gideon asked by way of greeting.

"My duty?"

"You are charged to educate the one who wields Excalibur, yes?"

"I am? By whom? The Elders? Your sort has never dealt with me -- it must be the half-demon business." Merlin shrugged. "Contrary to popular belief, keeping watch over that sword and its heir is not my duty for all eternity. I've had centuries of a full, useful existence, carrying on work that has had nothing to do with Excalibur."

"Why did you come here then?"

Merlin clearly thought the question was stupid. "Because Phoebe Halliwell asked me to. But if the family no longer requires my services, I will return to other work, of which there is plenty."

"Let us hope you are more successful at that than you were with Wyatt. Unless it was your intention to see him head down the path to darkness."

Merlin stopped futzing with his disorganized piles of belongings, and looked the headmaster in the eye. For the second time that day, Gideon found himself struggling to hold his position, however much he knew himself to be in the right.

"If it needs to be said," Merlin answered, "that was not my intention. What has been yours? Today, you have removed one more restraint from Wyatt. If that was your aim -- well done."

"I had to think of the welfare of the entire school."

"I don't doubt it. But you lack a view of the bigger picture."

"How so?"

"What will happen to those students once they leave school? What is the future of the wider magical world? Who will be leading it? Or," Merlin added, "look back for a moment. We both know that I, the Halliwells, even you are combating the effects of terrible trauma in Wyatt's earliest years. It is not easy to overcome." The wizard paused, thoughtful. "Still, I see justice being done one day."

Was that a threat? Gideon barely resisted those words escaping his mouth.

Without another word, Merlin gave a sweeping wave of both arms, and he and his tottering stacks vanished, leaving Gideon behind to fret in a deserted, echoing office.

* * * *

Solitude was always a temporary thing at the Halliwell Manor. Chris's ended when Penka shimmered in on the porch and knocked on the front door. From his seat on the stairs, Chris twisted around to see the demon trying to peer through the stained glass windows.

"What are you doing?"

"Oh, hello. I'm knocking. Your mom told me this morning it was rude to show up inside the house."

"No one's home except for me." Mom might actually still be in there, but Chris wasn't about to let Penka disturb her.

"Paige isn't here?"

"No, Paige is at school. It's just me. What do you want?"

"I have some new information."

"Tell me. I'll pass it along."

Penka had moved down the stairs to face the boy. "I don't know. I shouldn't be here at all. I could be in a world of trouble."

"Look, tell me or don't. Or come back later."

"Okay, okay. Just tell them that it's not a rumor anymore. The Fortalice is here."

"Where is 'here'? At the Manor? Now?"

"No, no -- in town, planning her attack, to make her move on Excalibur. Everyone down there is talking or thinking about it. Lots of excitement."

"Terrific. So, do you know what day?"

Penka shrugged. "Soon?"

"My birthday's in two days," Chris sighed. "That would be just perfect."

"Sorry about that." Penka abruptly turned to the street and announced, "Hey, there's another demon here."

Chris jumped to his feet. "Where?"

"Right at the foot of the stairs."

After Penka moved aside, Chris saw what looked like a teenage boy. After a brief scrutiny, he placed the newcomer: It was Wyatt's "demon friend" that Chris had seen only once, many months ago in the Underworld.

"He doesn't mean any harm," Penka volunteered. "He's looking for Wyatt. To apologize."

"Apologize?"

"They were together today, at the market. I saw them."

"Really," Chris said darkly. "Thanks. And I'll tell Mom about the Fortalice."

Once Penka had shimmered out, Chris began to walk down the stairs, which the demon kid took as a cue to approach from below. They met halfway.

"You're looking for Wyatt."

"Yeah."

The demon's voice was almost meek, hopeful, but Chris wasn't yielding any ground. This was it. Someone had to step between Wyatt and the forces dragging him away from his family, from the light, from being the person Chris knew his brother was. Chris would have to take a stand. For Wyatt.

"He's not here," Chris said. "He took off after he got expelled from school."

"Expelled? Can you tell him--"

"He said he didn't have any demon friends. Wyatt said that, today. I don't think you're welcome here."

The kid looked dejected, but not surprised. "Okay, I get the message. You can tell him that, I guess."

After watching him descend to the street, Chris trudged up to the house. He heard voices when he reached the porch -- his parents. And Wyatt had come home. He hesitated with a hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath to calm the sick feeling in his stomach, and walked in, shutting the door behind him with a wave of telekinesis.

End of Part Three

Chapter Text

On his fourteenth birthday, Chris awoke early with the strangest feeling -- an irresistible call to go to the Manor attic. For a few minutes, he lay in bed, thinking about it, and when it was clear he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep, he decided to answer the mysterious summons.

Still in an old T-shirt and pajama bottoms, he headed upstairs, noticing the smell of potion-making wafting from the first floor. Mom had called her sisters the night before, insisting they come over early to make a potion that could be a possible defense against the Fortalice. "We're getting it out of the way," Piper had declared. "We're going to minimize the chances of any magical distractions on Chris's birthday."

It seemed to be her way of doing what she could to make this a better birthday than it promised to be, given the emotional strain that had settled over the Manor since Wyatt had been expelled two days ago. Nothing big had been planned anyway, but the family dinner was to go ahead and some friends from school were invited for some movies and a sleepover. No one seemed too scared of Wyatt to come; he even had sympathy from those who had been the subject of bullying by Joe or his gang.

"It's not like Wyatt's going to do anything bad to me," as Vincenta said. "I didn't do anything to deserve it."

Chris reached the attic, opened the door and found ...

No one. Nothing unusual or new. He checked out the open Book of Shadows on its stand, but it was only open to the page Mom had found for the potion being currently concocted downstairs. It wasn't an entry for the Fortalice of course -- she wasn't in there -- but for some other creature obsessed with Excalibur. The sisters were hoping the potion's effects might apply to the Fortalice as well.

With a sigh, Chris settled on the sofa. It was stupid of him to come up here. He wasn't Phoebe; he didn't have her power of premonition. There was nothing in the attic to justify the intuition that had drawn him here.

His thoughts drifted to his brother as he leaned back in lazy morning meditation. If Vincenta didn't think Wyatt had gone off the deep end, maybe it would all work out. Maybe once all the grown-ups calmed down, Wyatt would be let back into school again. Things would be normal next fall. Maybe if Chris hoped for that enough, he could believe it.

It will all be all right. It will all be all right.

He didn't believe it.

A distant crash from below diverted him from inner conversation. He leapt to his feet, only to watch, in awe and dread, a golden glow descend over the attic's window like a sheet of water. Chris bolted for the door and ran downstairs.

On a landing, he met his mother and Wyatt, who was emerging from his room fully dressed for the day.

"What's going on?" Wyatt asked, his voice raised above the unexplained clamor and scuffling down on the first floor.

Piper did not answer. "Paige!" she called.

His sister orbed in beside them, holding two potion vials. She handed one to Piper. "That's as done as it's going to get."

"Is that ...?"

"The Fortalice? Yeah, from what I saw. She looks same as she looked in that book. Don't know what the racket's about."

Chris glimpsed Phoebe crossing the entryway, toward the sun room, where the noise was coming from.

"You two!" Piper ordered her sons. "Get out now. To Magic School. Paige, get upstairs and orb the sword and stone -- anywhere. The school, up to the Elders, wherever, just out of here. Then come back."

Paige nodded as she orbed up to the attic, and Piper, grasping the potion vial, headed downstairs, turning to shout once more to Wyatt and Chris: "Out!"

They stood there on the landing, listening to the shouts and commotion. Chris looked to his brother, who simply said, "No way."

* * * *

The scene that Piper rushed into was chaos. The tall, robed female in the center of the room -- presumably the Fortalice -- appeared to be using telekinesis, as darting movements of her head and wide, forceful gestures produced barely visible charges of light through the air, followed by upended furniture. The room seemed to be swirling from the energy, and an odd, intense golden glow coated the glass doors that led outside.

From behind a couch, Phoebe called out, "The potion had no effect!"

Nevertheless, Piper flung hers, in hopes that doubling it up couldn't hurt, but the Fortalice barely acknowledged the blow and the vial that shattered at her feet.

The demon's attention was quickly drawn, though, when Paige came plummeting into the room in a cloud of orb lights -- sword, stone and all, her leg barely escaping being pinned.

"Paige? What happened?" Piper called over the din, ducking behind some shelves that had been knocked out from the wall.

"There's some kind of shield around the house! I couldn't get out -- it bounced me back down here."

Piper scarcely had a moment to realize her sons would also be trapped inside when, on cue, both boys orbed in.

Chris landed right next to the stone. Piper saw him almost immediately go down, as if his legs had been knocked out from under him, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Fortalice's arm follow Chris's trajectory as he skittered across the floor on his back, where he collided with one of the glass doors. There he lay stunned -- or unconscious. Paige, who was nearest, began to crawl over to him.

With a growl, Piper moved from behind her cover and let loose the full strength of her own power.

It had little effect. The Fortalice did not explode, but staggered slightly and turned in Piper's direction, her expression stern. The demon threw her arm out in a determined push in Piper's direction, a faint pattern of gold light shot out.

It was as though Piper had been run through with knives. Shuddering, she looked down at her own torso to see two gaping wounds, before she collapsed and darkness came over her.

* * * *

Chris was not unconscious. From across the room, he had seen the blood appear at the demon's command; he had seen his mother fall.

His brother had seen as well. With an inarticulate roar, he held out a hand.

"Excalibur!"

Chris and Paige covered their heads as an explosion rocked the room. The sword orbed into Wyatt's hand -- but the force of his rage shattered the stone around it, sending its shrapnel around the room, breaking one of the doors, showering them with rocks, dust and glass.

Wyatt did not hesitate. Only one thing would kill this Fortalice. He strode over and ran Excalibur through her.

Unlike Piper, her final victim, the Fortalice did not collapse. She froze in shock before dissolving in a kind of mist. There wasn't even blood on the sword left behind in Wyatt's hands. As she dissolved, so did the golden shield covering the Manor. A final flurry like a light breeze stirred the debris, then at last the room was still.

"Oh God," Phoebe moaned in the sudden silence, and crossed the room to kneel by Piper, passing Wyatt, who stood staring mesmerized at Excalibur. Chris dimly perceived Paige's shaking arm wrapped across the front of his shoulders, holding him tightly.

"Wyatt!" Phoebe choked out. "Heal her! Wyatt!"

He had just begun slowly to heed his aunt's words, when Phoebe, frustrated, called for another.

"Leo!"

Chris watched his father orb into the Manor, and his face fill with shock as he took in the destruction, Wyatt holding the sword, and Piper on the floor.

"Heal her! Heal her!" Phoebe insisted, but Leo was already beside his wife.

It felt to Chris to be an eternity as his dad tried to heal her, before he finally faltered, "I can't. She's already--"

"No!" Wyatt, shaken out of his trance, shoved Leo out of the way as he knelt -- finally putting the sword down -- and held his hands over his mother. Chris almost dared to feel hope.

But just as it had been with Leo, the seconds turned to minutes, with no response, no cry of joy from the son, husband or sister who surrounded Piper's bloody form. Wyatt was failing.

"Damn it! This will work!"

Chris thought his brother would never give up, but he did, when Leo seized his hands and pulled him back. Wyatt stood abruptly, stumbling back a little, and swept the room with glowering eyes, as if he hoped more killers might still lurk for him to exact revenge.

Finally shaking off Paige's hold, Chris rose and moved nearer to the place where his father was holding Piper, weeping. Chris saw nothing but his mother. Something was building inside him. He was going to sob or scream, or both.

It will all be all right. No. It would never be all right again.

"Chris." He heard Phoebe's voice, gentle, reaching out to him, but she sounded so far away. "Chris..."

* * * *

Paige took charge, fiercely clearheaded: She cleaned up the room's destruction with her "Object of Objection" spell, then staged the appearance of a robbery. A lesser mess was created to imply signs of struggle, some valuables were taken away to Magic School -- as was Excalibur, so that it wouldn't be mistaken for the murder weapon -- and Chris and Wyatt were sent to the care of Vincenta's parents (the less people who had to maintain the made-up story, the better, Paige said). When the lie had all been arranged, the police were called.

At the Barraza's, Chris moved through the scene in a catatonic daze. Mr. Barraza's grave expression, Mrs. Barraza's anxious care could not touch him. It was only after a morning of excruciatingly slow and shrouded hours that Vincenta broke through.

She came to the room where he was sitting alone, knelt beside him and laid a tentative hand on his arm.

"Chris," she said in a small voice, "um, do you want your birthday present?"

He looked at the box she offered, and the bright colors of the wrapping began to blur before his eyes. "Thanks," he managed to choke out before he broke down in sobs.

When the boys were brought home, after the police had cleared out, he clutched the still-unopened gift as he retreated to his room, withdrawn again.

Phoebe had gone home to take care of her daughter, while Paige stayed, still handling practical details like dinner, which no one, not even her, wanted to eat. Wyatt had asked that Excalibur be brought back to him, and Paige had obliged. Now, after sitting with Leo in the living room before leaving him alone with his grief, Paige found her older nephew in the dining room, staring at the sword that he had placed on the table in front of him.

"I could have saved her," he said without looking up.

"You shouldn't blame yourself."

"I don't. I blame her. And Dad." He broke his gaze from the sword and, meeting her eyes, he said, "They're the ones that wouldn't let me take possession of Excalibur until they thought I was 'of age,' whatever that was supposed to mean. If I had already had the sword, she wouldn't have been killed."

After the endless day, Paige could feel herself on the verge of disintegrating, but she was determined to hold on. At least until she got home. She said, "Or you might have been killed instead."

Wyatt returned his eyes to the sword. "Not likely," he said grimly. "Not likely."

Chapter Text

"That's Chris," Phoebe told Piper. "He's from the future."

"Yeah, but just like twenty years or so," Chris assured her. As if that made it normal or acceptable.

"Uh huh." Rather deliberately not looking at him, Piper asked her sister, "Friend or foe?"

"Not so sure yet."

And now they had left him in the attic. His parents -- no, Piper and Leo -- had scurried downstairs with Phoebe to check out the noise that Chris guessed would be the hordes of magical creatures seeking safe haven at the Manor. And so, except for the stone statue of Paige, he was alone, and could take stock of his first encounter with these strangers, his family.

All things considered, it hadn't gone that badly. He had heard his own childish affront as he protested their understandable suspicion, but at least he had refrained from the emotional crack-up he feared upon seeing Piper alive after almost eight years.

The sight of her and of his aunts, talking to them when they had so long been dead to him, younger in this time than he had ever remembered them -- it was all so dreamlike that playing the role of a stranger came more easily than he expected. He had rehearsed his story about the future, the lies he would tell them, over and over in his mind, and the conversation that had just ended had felt no more real than the imagined ones.

Chris had felt his mask slip a little when Leo had shown up at his wife's call. Whereas the sisters seemed strange and new to him, he had only seen his father just a week or so before this time-traveling journey, and Leo looked and acted exactly the same.

They had not parted on good terms.

With Wyatt and all the chaos he caused occupying their dad's attention, when Leo could be bothered with his younger son, he urged conciliation far past the point when Chris had given up on talking or reasoning with his brother. Whatever Leo had done to stop Wyatt's rise to power, Chris firmly believed that it was not enough. While Chris moved to open defiance, collecting a band of like-minded resisters with him, his father hid behind the Whitelighter role, hunkering down with his other charges and staying out of the fray.

But then Leo had sent his younger son a letter: He wanted to help. At first, Chris wondered if Leo had been shocked into action by the recent slaughter of the Gypsy community; they had been close allies in the fight against Wyatt. But soon after, new intelligence clarified the motivation behind the letter: Chris learned that several Elders had been killed. Among them, Wyatt had finally made good on his threats against Gideon. So Dad's mentor was dead, and it was likely that the complacent Elders had been driven to take a stand at last, thinking that sending Leo to his "good" son to offer the support for the resistance was the best move. But Chris wasn't having it.

"Too little, too late," he seethed.

Bianca, his fiancée, backed Chris up. "How long has he let Wyatt go without doing a damn thing? He can't be trusted."

In his heart, Chris knew that there was no way that his father supported Wyatt's reign of terror, however futile his methods to bring him back from evil were. And so Chris grudgingly recognized Vincenta was right when she argued for accepting Leo's overture.

"Chris, you're working with demons now, for god's sake -- anyone who'll fight against Wyatt. And now you're going to stand on principle and not let your dad join? He could be a big help, especially if you're right and this means the Elders finally might do more than stand by and let the world go to hell."

What Chris didn't tell his old friend -- what he had told no one but Bianca -- was of his daring idea that could make this all moot. A way to change the entire situation, the entire world. A way to change Wyatt. Go back to the past, back to the beginning, and change the path before it veered off into darkness.

But even as he and Bianca worked out the details of that plan -- the how's, the when's -- Chris knew better than to invest all his hopes in it, neglecting the reality that faced them today. So he reluctantly agreed to meet his father.

If there was anything worse than Leo's inattention, it was his sincere and awkward attempts to make up for it, usually in the form of those damn letters, but occasionally in person, as on that day. Dad was all care and concern; Chris was obstinate and surly. Then it became clear that, yes, the Elders were offering their support. Chris found himself shaking with barely suppressed rage.

What did I expect? he scoffed at himself later. That this was about me?

But he merely said to Leo, "I'll tell the others. Someone will let you know."

"If there's anything you need, Chris, anything at all--"

"Yeah, I got it."

His father's voice broke a little as he said, "Please take care, stay safe--"

Chris had orbed out before he heard any more of the empty sentiment.

Now here they were, together in the safe past, Titan threat notwithstanding -- but Chris expected that would work out fine, just as it had the first time around. He just needed to make it look like that was a result of his help. And, he hoped, maneuver it so that Leo was out of the way for a while, clearing the field for Chris to take care of his mission to save Wyatt.

But until then, here Leo was, clueless, by the side of the woman who, had she lived, would not have allowed her younger son to be abandoned. His aunts had tried to be there, but they had their own concerns and had not lived all that long, just for a few years after Piper's death. In the end, it had been Grandpa Victor upon whom Chris had thrown his reliance. His non-magical grandfather, of all people, turned out to be the strongest support he had.

Phoebe -- before she had been killed by a demon in an unnecessary battle that Wyatt had incited -- used to try to convince Chris that his dad's grief had overwhelmed him, made it difficult for him to be a father for a while, blinded him to Wyatt's disintegration. "But he loves you, Chris, he does. And you know that I know it."

As far as Chris was concerned, what Phoebe hadn't understood was how Leo's absence during Chris's teen years merely compounded his childhood of playing a distant second place to Wyatt. It just became more noticeable after Chris lost his mother, when he lost his only champion. Now that she was gone, he could see clearly how things had been with Leo all along, and Mom's death was no excuse for that.

Chris suddenly noticed that, lost in his memories, he had been staring blankly at a toy left behind in a corner, its primary colors glaring amid the attic's muted shades. Wyatt. He felt a jolt of nerves. When would he see his brother?

With a sigh, he shook it off as best he could and moved to the Book of Shadows. As he had heard the story, Paige was eventually revived from being turned to stone by the efforts of some of the magical houseguests. But he might as well make it look like he was trying to help with that. Any little bit to gain the sisters' trust.

Soon, if all went as before, one of the surviving Elders would give the Charmed Ones the power to defeat the Titans, turning them -- temporarily -- into goddesses. Chris allowed a small smile to cross his face. It was a good time to come here, to see that happen. To see Mom -- Piper get to be a goddess. She deserved it.

He had just begun to flip though the book when she stormed in again, freshly annoyed by the crowd downstairs, ready to direct her frustration at the stranger in her attic who dared touch the family's precious legacy.

"What are you doing?"

Piper, he told himself. Call her Piper.

And he carried on the charade.

* * * *

This was what he wanted. A world in upheaval, the Elders' neat, orderly universe in ruins, out of their hands.

Himself, free.

Not quite.

If he was honest with himself -- and sometimes he was -- he remembered his hope that when all fell into place, he would hold that position that Merlin had had centuries ago, the source of the wizard's fame. Advisor to the Excalibur's master, in some ways more renowned than the one who wielded the sword. The very cliché of the power behind the throne, whether that reputation was deserved or not.

This time, that will be me, he had hoped. In his hearts of hearts, believed. Dreamed of how it would be.

He had shared with Wyatt a carefully censored version of his life as Alaric, and Wyatt took to calling him by that name. He accepted that, and even fully re-adopted the name himself -- it was all too appropriate, hearkening back to those days, with Merlin, with Aldith. History, though, was not repeating itself. Not at all.

Wyatt craved the power for himself alone and repudiated all advisors. Anyone beneath him -- everyone, in effect -- was a mere servant. Alaric had been a useful servant for a while, but it was only a matter of time before the skills he offered, Wyatt learned to acquire himself. Indeed, Wyatt had made sure that Alaric's services could not be extended to anyone else, destroying the magical device that only Alaric could work. Now his aid was unneeded, and he was left on the sidelines to watch the destruction. And while he took satisfaction in watching the Elders scatter and panic, utterly ineffectual, after time he felt himself floundering.

He considered joining the resistance. They received no help from the Elders, who were true to form, distrusting what they could not control. This ragtag band -- an unlikely alliance of witches light and dark, various magical creatures and disgruntled demons -- had had little success, but they had a purpose, a fierce determination that drove Wyatt to a fury. Of course it would, when the younger Halliwell brother was its de facto leader.

And that was where Alaric hesitated. Working for Wyatt -- or mostly not working for him, but just waiting for rare orders -- was bad enough. He balked at working for Chris. The resistance movement's chain of command was not that formalized, he realized that, but he still could not do it.

In any case, it was too late now. Chris had disappeared, gone for months now. Wyatt had captured Bianca, Chris's partner in the fight, and appeared to have brought her back under his thumb. Chris was probably dead, and it was a matter of time before the resistance was dead as well.

Nothing for Alaric to do but watch it happen.

But today, he had been summoned.

Alaric recognized one of the two flunkies who delivered the message. Not all witches were fighting against Wyatt: This one was a Firestarter -- but not by birth -- and one with an instinct to follow the winning side. Alaric had known Joe Lasota for years, and heartily disliked him.

"I hope you're not busy," Joe said in a tone that indicated he could not care less how Alaric was occupying his time. "The command is to bring you to him right now."

The other minion sent to fetch him was a demon, there to provide the instantaneous transportation of shimmering. Alaric shrugged him off irritably. "I don't need a ride." He jerked his head toward Joe. "You can carry him along."

So he found himself outside headquarters; Joe and the demon thug escorted him in on foot. Not into the Halliwell Manor -- that had been turned into some kind of museum that Alaric had never bothered to visit -- but a posh office complex that had been commandeered.

Wyatt was waiting in a shadowy, echoing hall. "I want to show you something," he said as Joe and the demon took Alaric to the center of the room, where stood a sheet-covered slab: There was clearly a body underneath. "You're dismissed, Lasota," Wyatt said, and after Joe made his rapid retreat, Wyatt gave a nod to the demon escort, who moved forward and pulled the sheet off the slab.

Alaric reeled. He heard himself ask, "What happened to him?" He supposed it was a "him." He hoped so.

"What do you think?" Wyatt asked evenly.

Exactly. Wyatt had happened to the creature.

"What did he do?" Usually you had to do something, however small. Not always, but usually. And for this degree of attention, it was not likely a small offense.

Wyatt said, "I believe you know him."

"I ... I don't think so." It was difficult to tell.

"He was the recipient of your services, back in the day."

As if stitching together the pieces of the creature's ruined face, Alaric could now recognize the whole. He could feel himself begin to shake, from the core of his being, and steeled himself to stop it from reaching the surface. The effort made him feel nauseated.

Wyatt was watching. Then he answered Alaric's question: "He killed my mother."

"I thought that was the Fortalice. You said--"

"Yes, I saw it with my own eyes, but you can't always trust what you see." Wyatt lifted one of the corpse's hands; it was strangely unmarred. He dropped it and continued: "This one did the actual killing. But he was working for someone else."

Alaric was entranced by that perfect hand. The rest of the body was too bloody to see, but the right hand was turning blue. Dead and blue.

He could try to protest, to deny everything, but what would be the use? He could try to escape, but beyond doubt Wyatt would have shielded this place from magical entrances and exits. There was nothing else to do. He raised his head, and met Wyatt's eyes. Dead and blue eyes.

Wyatt nodded slightly, as though he had attained a victory barely worth marking.

"One thing I regret is that my brother isn't here for this. For once, we would have found common ground." He gestured to his thug. "Take this thing away."

The demon laid a hand on the body and shimmered out, leaving behind an empty, stained slab. A deathbed waiting for the next to die.

"Before we start," Wyatt said, "I want to get an explanation. No -- you don't need to speak. I've recently acquired the means to find out for myself." He laid his heavy hand on Alaric's forehead.

It was not a gentle sensation. It seemed as though every brain cell were being sucked dry. This would be his death right now -- if he were lucky.

But Wyatt removed his hand and Alaric's pain ceased. He was still standing, still alive.

Astonishment had brought life to Wyatt's eyes, and he breathed, "Chris..." But he quickly recovered. "I've got to say, Alaric, you've surprised me, and that's hard to do. My brother ... that never, never crossed my mind. Not that it makes any difference now. When I find Chris, when I bring him back, I may have to kill him. But if it comes to that, I'll do it quickly -- put him out of his eternal misery as painlessly as I can. You, on the other hand, don't deserve that consideration. Your death will be neither quick nor painless."

Alaric already felt as though he were floating outside his body. Then Wyatt began.

* * * *

It's not what I came here to change. Chris told himself that relentlessly; he had to focus on Wyatt. It would do no good -- and likely do a great deal of harm -- to change that day so that Excalibur ended in the hands of the demon who killed Piper. Chris fought the creeping doubt that weakened his resolve: Could the Fortalice have been any worse than Wyatt?

Yes, she could have. The sword in the hands of a good Wyatt, that was what needed to happen.

But he had blown it today. Grandpa Victor had drawn it out of him, the painful admission: "She doesn't exist in my future."

And then Grandpa had almost immediately let that slip to Piper. He was usually better at secrets than that. Maybe he hadn't had enough practice yet.

"Chris?" said Piper. "Is that what you've been living with, knowing that something happens to me?"

Chris was silent, but he knew his expression gave his unwilling answer.

"I see," she said. "Well, does it happen soon?"

"I can't tell you that. It could change the future in even worse ways."

"Right. But isn't that why you came here in the first place, to make the future better? How do you know you haven't already changed mine?"

"She's got a point," Grandpa said.

No, she doesn't. And Chris had said too much to his grandfather, who in turn had said too much to Piper, adding one more burden on her shoulders.

Of course she looked thrown, but she said briskly, "Well, whatever it is, it obviously doesn't happen until you're born, so save it. Got it?"

The words just came out, a long-suppressed response: "I got it, Mom."

He hadn't uttered those words in so many, many years.

"Huh?" The surprised smile that filled her face broke something open in him. The aching distance between them, the distance he had forced upon himself from the moment he arrived, from her words -- Friend or foe? -- it dissolved, and for a few brief, precious seconds, so had the time without her.

Earlier, Grandpa had insisted, "Maybe that's all the more reason to get close to her."

Chris couldn't change her future. He had to focus on Wyatt. She didn't have a point, but it was possible that Grandpa did. And it was possible, if he had her back, if she was on his side again, the work of his could be done.

End of Part Four

Chapter Text

Just shy of fourteen years old, Chris Halliwell was half-witch, half-Whitelighter. Or was it half-Elder? No one ever put it that way, he supposed because he had never shown any particular powers beyond what a Whitelighter would have. But for a time -- around the time he was born -- his father had been an Elder, promoted from Whitelighter for saving the world or something. Chris didn't know the details much. The Titans had been defeated, his father had helped, and his mom and aunts had temporarily been goddesses. But Mom wasn't a goddess when she had him. Just a witch. Well, "just" a Charmed One, if there could be such a thing.

Later, something had gone wrong, and his father had been demoted down past Whitelighter to mortal. He didn't seem to mind or resent the change, and Chris's mother seemed to like it better. It was enough, she said, to deal with her half-Whitelighter sons, who didn't have to take the demotion along with their father.

There were some strange things about Chris's life -- no, not the magic, that was normal in his family. Often it was in odd things people would say. Once, Chris wasn't even sure what he had said or done, but his aunt Paige shook her head in mock irritation, the way she would when he was peevish, but this time, she started to say, "I swear, just like --"

Then Mom cut her sister off with a quelling glance. Chris wondered who or what he was like. Like his mom? A half-Whitelighter? A half-Elder? He couldn't think of any answer that explained his mother's reaction.

Another time it was Aunt Phoebe. Chris's dad was in one of his occasional over-attentive moods with his younger son, and Phoebe, noticing, joked, "Jeez, Leo, overcompensate much?" She immediately regretted her offhand remark and apologized, so profoundly hurt, even saddened, did Leo look. Chris felt guilty himself that he had been about to brush his dad off.

Thinking about it later, Chris could come up with an explanation for the "overcompensating": Dad felt sorry for him, because he had to be ever in the shadow of his older, far more powerful brother, Wyatt. And, yeah, that was hard to deal with, but being the object of pity rankled more.

He expressed this to his mother, but she rather sharply objected. "It's not that, Chris. It's not that all."

"What is it then?"

"Your father loves you and wants to spend time with you. End of story, okay?"

End of story. Unless the story is retold.

* * * *

"Hey!"

The indignant exclamation that Chris began as he was standing near his brother in the Demon Market ended as he was involuntarily orbed in front of a startled Vincenta in the common hall of Magic School.

"Oh," she said. "There you are."

There was some muffled laughter from other scattered students, including, Chris saw, the insufferable Joe Lasota. Even Vincenta looked amused, and she tilted her head toward something past Chris's shoulder.

He turned and gave a groan at the sight of the headmaster looking at him expectantly from the entryway. "Great," he muttered. "Thanks, Wyatt, this is just perfect."

But a moment later, he knew at least that Wyatt would be sharing in the downfall. His brother materialized, closely followed by his friend Mark. The half-Manticore boy's claws were out and he was winded, but Wyatt was triumphant -- if slightly singed -- and carrying the artifact they had been seeking at the market.

"Looks like all three of you are coming to my office."

At that, Wyatt and Mark noticed the headmaster as well.

"Oh shit," Wyatt growled, then added with a wry grin, "Hi, Dad."

* * * *

Between the three of them, the full story came out: After disposing of half the Dalzior artifact in a volcano as Phoebe had requested, Wyatt got the idea that his half-demon friend Mark could get him into the Demon Market to retrieve the other half. Wyatt "made the mistake" (as he put it) of telling Chris, who insisted on going along. Once there, they found the other half of the artifact on display at a Hawker demon's stall. Wyatt tried to orb it to him, which set off a raucous alarm system. At some point, he decided the situation had become too dangerous for his little brother, whom he orbed back to the school before dodging a fireball, grabbing the artifact by hand -- while Mark fended off an attacker -- and heading back to school.

"Oh yeah," Wyatt added. "I think I saw Paige there. Someone needs to tell her we've got it."

"Your intentions were good, but that was far too dangerous," Leo said, claiming the artifact from his older son. "And unnecessary, since you obviously know that your aunt Paige was taking care of it. For leaving during school hours, you all get detention. As for what you were doing off school grounds, that's a matter for parents. So Mark, your father will hear about this, and you two -- we'll talk tonight. With your mother."

Chris glanced at Wyatt; they both knew that Mom would care far less than Dad about good intentions when it came to her sons putting themselves in danger.

The school day was over by now, and Leo ordered them to get their stuff and go straight home.

"I'm predicting a grounding," Mark said with affable resignation as they walked down the hallway to the empty classroom where they had stashed their book bags. "Maybe for the whole summer."

Chris finally had his chance to take Wyatt to task. "If you were going to let me come along, you should have let me stay and help. You didn't have to send me back here."

"I didn't have time to think about your feelings, Chris. There was a fireball headed right for you."

"I could've ducked. And you needed my help. All your orbing TK did was set off the alarm, but I was the one who was able to knock the stand down and break it with my plain old TK, and that's why you were able to grab the artifact. 'Cause otherwise, knowing you, you probably would have stuck around fighting for it, and got killed. And you being dead -- that would have ruined my birthday."

"Aw, I'm touched, little brother."

"Well, it wouldn't have ruined it a lot. Being grounded on my birthday, on the other hand, that really sucks."

Wyatt laughed. "But was it worth it?"

"Totally," Chris admitted.

They were interrupted by the approach of their cousin, Penelope, who said eagerly, "I heard you got in trouble. That idiot Joe was talking about it."

"What a surprise," Wyatt said.

"Yeah, he took a break from yakking about his, oooh, great new power."

It still had taken Penelope weeks to forgive Wyatt after he accidentally broke her wrist in a confrontation with Joe -- defending Chris. Eventually, though, she had thawed, and had decided to blame Joe instead.

"Anyway," she said as she followed along, "I'm supposed to go home with you. Mom and Dad both have to work late, and Mom's going to pick me up at the Manor after an interview she has to do." She held out her hand to Wyatt and said, "Orb me there?"

"You ready to watch Aunt Piper yell at us a lot?"

The little girl narrowed her eyes at her cousin. "Do you deserve it?"

"Probably," he said.

Just then, Wyatt's tutor, Merlin, peered around his office door.

"I thought I heard your voice," the wizard said. "We were supposed to be meeting today -- an hour ago."

"You're right," Wyatt said. "But I was too busy getting into trouble."

"So I've heard," he chuckled. "Next time, then."

"Hold on. You ought to know that your friend, that demon Penka, stopped by this morning. He wanted to tell us that something called 'the Fortalice' is after Excalibur."

"Yes, that's the one your aunt Paige found in a book somewhere. As I told her then, I've never heard of the Fortalice. Of course, the information came from a book that said I was a myth -- and I do know that's wrong."

"So you don't know anything about her powers, how to fight her?"

"As far as I know, she's the one who's a myth."

Wyatt shrugged, and said, "Thanks anyway." They trailed away as Merlin closed his office door.

After the boys fetched their book bags, Wyatt took Penelope's hand, and said before orbing to the Manor, "See you later, Mark -- good luck with your dad. Chris, ready to face the music?"

* * * *

First Wyatt and now, more and more lately, Chris had developed a desire to get more involved in the demon-fighting side of magic than Piper appreciated, but they had never quite gone this far -- walking right into demon territory and -- big surprise -- getting fireballs thrown at them. After the obligatory lecture about skipping school and putting themselves in danger, Piper and Leo settled on three weeks' grounding (with an exemption for Chris's birthday); the rest of the summer would be on probation. Of course, grounding with sons that could orb was on the honor system anyway, but Piper remembered Phoebe sneaking out the window by more traditional means, and realized that if kids wanted to escape, they would -- her sons could just do it more quickly than most.

The former teenage terror that was Phoebe showed up shortly before dinner to pick up her daughter. "Look who I found on the street!" she told Piper, who answered the door.

"Dad," Piper said as she hugged Victor. "This is unexpected. What are you and Phoebe up to?"

"We just met on the doorstep, that's all," Phoebe said, and added brightly, "I heard my brilliant nephews did our work for us today."

"When it's Penelope, you won't be so chipper about that, believe me."

"What happened?" Victor asked.

"Ugh, long story," Piper said. "Dad, not that I'm not happy to see you, but you do remember that Chris's birthday dinner is two days from now, not tonight, right?"

"Actually, that's what I'm here to talk to you about," Victor said. "Are the kids around?"

"I think they're upstairs."

"Good, I need to talk to you alone. Phoebe, you don't have to go but just -- not the boys."

Piper led them to the living room, where there were no children, but Leo sat reading. Victor accepted his presence.

"You might as well all hear at once," he said, and took a deep breath before letting it all spill out: "I made a promise to Chris, and I've kept it for a long time, but now that it's come down to it, I can't. Wherever he may be, I hope he can forgive me, but I'm going to have to break my promise. You know what he told me about Piper. Because he asked me not to, I never told you the one detail he gave me. But I'm telling it to you now. Chris said Piper died when he turned fourteen."

"Two days from now," Phoebe said.

"That's all I know," Victor added a little helplessly.

"It's not a lot to go on," Piper said levelly. She was surprised to find herself so calm, but she had lived fourteen years herself knowing this -- that in the original future, she had died sometime before Chris had come back to the past.

" 'Turned fourteen' -- those were his words?" Leo asked Victor, who nodded. "How precise is that, really? That's not necessarily his birthday; it could be sometime around the day."

"If it's all we've got to go on," Phoebe said, "then we have to act as if that was exactly what he meant. We've got to do something."

"Do what?" Piper said. "We don't even know what happened. I mean, right now the Fortalice demon is supposed to be here in town."

"Wait, she's here?" Phoebe asked. "Do you know something new that I don't?"

Piper sighed, "That demon Penka came by again this afternoon, and told me that's what he heard. I don't completely trust him--"

"But we should be on the lookout. What if this is it?"

"But if it is, we don't know what to do differently. And maybe it's not her at all; it could be what's-his-name, Dalzior -- maybe his followers will go volcano diving and retrieve that artifact. Or it could be something else that will catch us completely off guard."

Leo said, "You could just be extra careful."

"I can't go second-guessing my every move, or live in a box until Chris turns fifteen."

"We'll figure something out," Phoebe declared, pulling her sister into a determined embrace. "I am not going to let you die. None of us will."

* * * *

While Piper and Phoebe discussed how best to prepare for dealing with the Fortalice at least, Leo saw Victor out. They had decided not to let the kids see their grandfather; best to avoid coming up with excuses for his short, unexpected visit. They would get to see him in two days.

From the front porch, Leo watched Victor go to his car, but when he turned to go back inside, Wyatt was standing in the doorway. So much for avoidance.

"Was that Grandpa?"

"Yeah, he stopped by to talk to your mother," Leo said as they came back inside.

"And not talk to anyone else?"

"He was in a hurry."

The worry that Victor's revelation had inspired must have shown on Leo's face as Wyatt's eyes moved from his father to the glimpse of Piper and Phoebe wrapped in intense conversation in the next room. "What's going on?"

"Nothing you need to worry about." Wyatt was obviously about to argue, but Leo cut him off, with a touch of humor, but firm: "The last time we let you know what was going on, you took an excursion to the Demon Market."

"Okay, okay, two points to Dad."

Leo added more seriously, "And to bring your brother along, too--"

"Is that what you're maddest about? I don't even have to ask Mom; I know that's what pissed her off the most. Like I said, it was Chris's idea. And he needs to learn to take care of himself too, you know."

"I know. And he will. But ..." Memories revived by Victor's visit were overtaking the conversation in Leo's mind. "No need to rush it. For either of you."

Wyatt gazed again at the sisters talking in low voices, but this time they noticed him and changed their demeanor, standing up, undoubtedly changing the subject to more mundane matters, even though husband and son could not make out the exact words.

Before they came over, Wyatt asked Leo, "Whatever's going on, is it serious?"

"You already know about the Fortalice and the threat to Excalibur. That's what they're talking about."

Wyatt clearly was skeptical of that partial truth, but he changed the subject: "All this over a damn sword. Let's make this easy. I'm betting all this is because Excalibur is just 'in limbo,' no one's in charge of it -- so I just take possession of it, then all this crap will stop."

It was Piper who responded as she walked with Phoebe into the foyer. "We've told you, Wyatt, not until you're eighteen. And," his mother added before he could object further, "you're picking the wrong day to press me on it, if you get my drift."

"Yeah, mister," Phoebe lightly scolded, "I stood up for you this morning, gave you a chance to be involved, and--"

"And I appreciated it."

"And you took advantage of it!"

"C'mon, Aunt Phoebe. I helped, didn't I?"

She was still playful as she tapped him on the chest -- at sixteen, he was definitely taller than her now. "Just don't worry your mom like that."

Once Penelope came rushing down the stairs, Phoebe promised Piper again before leaving, "We'll work something out. I'll call Paige, and we'll figure out a potion, a vanquishing spell, something. Don't worry."

Unless it is something completely unknown, out of the blue. There was so little time, and Leo found himself fervently wishing that Victor had broken his promise to Chris years earlier.

Chapter Text

Early on the morning of his birthday, Chris woke up with an unexplainable intuition that called him to the attic. It was not even a feeling that he had forgotten something up there; he knew he hadn't. He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what it meant.

Any chance of sleeping in was gone -- now he was irreversibly wide awake. Might as well give in. Getting out of bed, not pausing to change out of his nightclothes, he headed for the attic as the smell of potion-making filled the stairway from the first floor.

There was somebody already there when he walked in: Aunt Phoebe, who at first didn't notice him. She sat on the sofa with an old box at her side and an article of clothing in her lap, her eyes closed, her face a mix of concentration and attempted calm. It didn't seem to be working for her; she opened her eyes, and started almost guiltily upon seeing her nephew.

"Hey, big guy, happy birthday! Uh, what are you doing up so early?"

Chris watched, a little perplexed, as she shoved the shirt -- for that was what she was holding -- into the box.

"What are you doing here so early?" he asked.

"Oh, you know, stuff. Charmed Ones stuff. Don't worry about it. Did you need something up here?"

"I guess not. I just ... It's stupid."

"Sweetie, what is it?"

He shrugged with embarrassment. "I just had a feeling like I should come up here, but ..." He gestured to the placid room. "Sorry."

He turned to go, but Phoebe stopped him. "Wait! Actually, maybe you can help me. It's worth a try."

"Help you with what?"

She patted the couch next to her, and as he settled there, she said, "I'm trying to get a premonition."

"I don't have that power."

"I know. But this is a special case, and I could use an extra boost, you know?" She retrieved the light blue shirt she had been holding; Chris leaned over and saw the box contained a few other pieces of clothing and a couple objects he couldn't identify before Phoebe closed the lid -- quickly, but suspiciously trying to make it look casual, like she wasn't hiding its contents. She continued: "This stuff was left behind by, uh, an innocent we helped, a long time ago. What we're working on now may be connected to what happened then, so I'm trying to see that connection."

Phoebe was a terrible liar, Chris reflected, but what in all that she was lying about, he couldn't tell. "Okay," he merely said. "But why would I be able to help?"

"Well, what happened before, that was just around the time you were born, and you might have a strong connection to it because of that. Plus, something called you up here, right?"

No matter what the story was, she was right about that. "What do I do?" he asked.

Across the top of the box, she held out to him the shirt; decorated with a big, white "2," it was musty from storage, but not well-worn.

"Let's just hold this at the same time," she said, "and see what we get."

The second he touched the shirt, if felt as if the breath were knocked out of him. Pictures, the colors drained out of them, flashed before his eyes: an innocuous alleyway in a shopping center; Vincenta, paralyzed as a beam of light drew out her power; the intent frown of the perpetrator. Alaric ...

As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Phoebe gasped, still clutching the shirt. "Was that...?"

"I saw that in real life -- Vincenta getting her power stolen. But that was last winter. I thought we were supposed to see the future."

"There must be a connection. But what is it?"

"It has something to do with Alaric?"

"Well, that's something to go on. We just need more time."

Phoebe and Chris jumped, startled by a crash downstairs. Standing up from the couch, they gaped as a shimmering golden light descended over the attic windows. Phoebe dropped the shirt on the box and together they bolted for the door and ran down to the second floor.

Piper was there, already putting a hand out to stop Wyatt from rushing downstairs as she yelled, "Paige!"

The youngest sister orbed in front of them, holding three vials, which she handed to Piper and Phoebe. "Here you go, potions. It's the best we've got. Hope they work."

"What is all that noise?" Phoebe asked.

"The Fortalice is here, but I have no idea what the racket is."

Piper said, "All right. Paige, get to the attic and orb that stone and sword out of here. Anywhere -- the school, up to the Elders if you have to -- just far away, then come back and help us." As Paige orbed upstairs, Piper turned to her sons. "You two -- out. Get to Magic School, now."

She and Phoebe made their way down the stairs, with Piper turning back one more time to repeat, "Now," before she was out of sight.

The boys didn't leave.

"Where's Dad?" Chris asked his brother.

"Out to get the paper, I think."

"Are you going to the school?"

There was another loud crash, and Wyatt answered, "No way."

Chris nodded, and as Wyatt disappeared in orb lights, he followed, heading for the sunroom, right into the fray.

Chris landed next to Paige, to his surprise -- she was supposed to be gone with the sword. Instead, she was on the floor in the sunroom, next to the boulder holding Excalibur. Before she could react, Chris felt as if his feet were knocked out from under him. He landed heavily on the floor, and felt a powerful grip dragging him toward the glass doors. He hit them with a painful thud, knocking aside his own backpack, which he had dumped there the night before. Wincing, he sat up to see his mother step out from behind a set of shelves and raise her hands to strike.

At the same moment, a realization hit Chris with a force like the premonition he had just shared. He hollered, "Mom, freeze the room! Freeze the whole room!"

She did so, and there was sudden silence. The Fortalice was still; the destruction whirling about the room had died.

Chris caught Phoebe's eye and saw puzzlement changing to a look of dawning understanding. "The premonition ..." she said.

"What premonition?" Piper exclaimed. "What's going on?"

Chris was scrambling over to his backpack. He pulled from it the spell he had copied two days ago, when he hoped it could be tweaked to restore Vincenta's power. For this, though, he only needed the original, unaltered version, which he read:

Hidden from eyes, unseen to sight
It only seems that we are blind
Bring what's invisible to light
Lift these shadows, the truth to find

Piper yelped and jumped back from the sudden appearance of two athames inches away from her abdomen. A scowling demon held the weapons -- a demon that just before had been unseen. Another one crouched near the sword and stone. The one bearing down on her with deadly blades, Piper blew up.

Standing, Chris pointed to a far corner of the room. "Mom, look."

The two demons were not the only invisible figures revealed by the spell. There, standing apart in observation, also frozen by Piper's hands, was a tall, dark-haired man.

"Who is that?" Piper asked.

"It's Alaric," Chris replied. "The one who stole Vincenta's power ..."

"... and gave it to demons," Phoebe finished.

"Hold on." Paige was moving toward Alaric. "I know this guy. Where have I seen--" Her eyes widened. "He's a Whitelighter!"

"How do you know?" Wyatt asked.

"Because I've met him. You know, Up There. It was, maybe, six or seven years ago, with other Whitelighters. I'm almost positive it was him. I remember we talked for a while -- and come to think of it, he was very interested in our family."

"He did know Dad and Prue in that past life I went to," Chris said.

"Yeah, funny thing, he never mentioned that."

"Well, we have to figure out what's going on," Piper said, "but I'm not going to risk unfreezing either Alaric or the Fortalice. This one" -- she pointed to the crouching demon -- "and the one I blew up, I'll bet they're the flunkies in this. Presumably his."

She dispatched the remaining "flunkie" with a toss of her hands, leaving only Alaric and the Fortalice now. "Wyatt, can you go upstairs and --"

"Get crystals -- yeah, sure."

Wyatt returned in a minute, and the suspects were soon confined.

"One at a time," Piper said. "Who do we talk to first?"

"Him," Chris said.

With a smile for her younger son, Piper unfroze Alaric. His eyes took in the room, the crystals at his feet -- his situation as it stood.

"Whatever it is you're doing," Piper said, "I'm guessing you haven't succeeded?"

"Actually" -- he spoke slowly, as if choosing his words carefully, his restrained voice remarkably as Chris remembered it from that past life visit -- "it looks like I haven't failed so far."

Wyatt stepped forward. "Haven't failed at what? What the hell do you think you're doing here?"

"Assuring that the sword gets into your hands, and not into the hands of the Fortalice. I am only here to protect Excalibur and its heir."

"With your demons helping out?" Wyatt demanded, outraged. "One of them almost killed my mother."

"And I'm sorry it almost came to that. I truly am. I had to make a judgment about using them, and I determined in the face of this threat, the sword was most important. It was for the greater good."

Piper scoffed, "Oh, mister, you picked the wrong woman if you want to play that card."

"Besides," Phoebe said, "you're lying."

They turned to her as she came up to the circle of crystals and looked Alaric in the eye. "I can feel what you want, and it has nothing to do with the 'greater good.' You want revenge. Against whom? This family? The Fortalice?" He pressed his lips together, apparently struggling to keep his composure as she continued, "You feel like you've been cheated, slighted, ignored -- and you want everyone pay, is that it? Why? And also -- grow up!"

"Why do my motives matter if the end we want is the same?"

"Because," Piper said, "I don't know if we really do want the same thing, and I'm starting to think that if you want something to happen, we don't."

"Piper!" Paige called, drawing their attention to the Fortalice, who was beginning to break through the freeze, her movements almost imperceptible, pushing against an enormous force.

"The crystals won't hold her!" Alaric warned. "The only way to stop her is with Excalibur. If you don't use it, she will take it, since Paige has so helpfully dropped it in her lap. And then forget about what I could do -- she will kill everyone in this room."

"Shut up!" Piper snapped as she tried to freeze the Fortalice again. This time it barely held for five seconds before the movements started again.

This imminent threat seemed not to concern Wyatt, Chris saw. His brow furrowed in thought, Wyatt was scrutinizing at Alaric, until the Whitelighter met his eyes.

Alaric said in a low, urgent voice, "You have to do it, Wyatt."

First Wyatt narrowed his eyes. But then his troubled expression cleared and a small, surprised smile played across his features, the satisfaction of someone who has hit upon the solution to a longstanding dilemma. "I understand," he said. "I get it now. Thanks."

The dismay that was growing on Alaric's face showed he comprehended Wyatt's words far better than Chris did.

"Mom," Wyatt said, drawing the sisters' attention away from the barely contained Fortalice, "I know you think it's too soon, but the sword has to be claimed. Trust me." He cut off the beginning of her argument with a simple word: "Please."

With a glance back to the Fortalice, Piper sighed and silently gave assent. But Wyatt didn't move toward the stone.

"Chris," he said. "Try it."

"What? Why?"

"Because it's not mine."

Chris looked over at his mother; he wondered if he looked as disbelieving as she did. No, wait, she just looked shocked. "It was supposed to be ..." She raised her hand to her mouth, so that her words were muffled, but he thought he heard, "... the son of a Charmed One."

"Uh, Chris?" Wyatt jerked his head toward the Fortalice.

"Okay," he muttered, and walked a few steps over to the sword and stone. Shaking his head, he took a deep breath, and pulled at the hilt.

It came out effortlessly, and a shiver went through him like an electrical charge. He stared, astonished, at the sword in his hands, until he jumped -- they all jumped -- at the sound of a strange woman's voice:

"Ah, I see this time things have all worked out as they should. Excellent."

The Fortalice was now completely free of the freeze. Piper did not try to restrain her again, but said, "Excuse me?"

"In the other time this happened, Excalibur got into the hands of the wrong person, despite my best efforts. And I died. That was not pleasant."

"You were trying to get Excalibur into the right hands?"

"Yes," she said as if it were the natural assumption. "Word reached me that the sword was in danger. I'm always so very busy, I couldn't get here until now, but when I arrived this morning I was attacked by this one" -- she gestured toward Alaric and then waved a hand as if to indicate the missing demons -- "and his minions. I determined they wished to steal the sword, so I sealed the house until they could be taken care of. I see you have taken care of the minions."

Paige threw a glance to the glass doors, still covered in shimmering gold. "You were fighting them?"

"Of course. I was perplexed when you seemed to be trying to fight me, when I was here to help."

"We couldn't see the demons," Chris said. "They were invisible."

"Were they? Oh, I forget how limited your perceptions are in this dimension."

"Dimension?" Piper shook her head at the Fortalice's complacency, and decided not to follow up on that matter. "So, you're some kind of protector for Excalibur?"

"Hardly. But it is the only thing that can kill me, and so I have an interest in assuring it ends up in the right hands, so that it will be used for good, not evil -- seeing as how it will corrupt anyone else."

"So what do you do?" Wyatt asked.

She smiled indulgently. "My goodness, child, you wouldn't understand. Nevertheless, even though I've only been here a few hours, I'm sure the force of good is falling apart without me. I must go. I leave you to deal with that one" -- again she indicated Alaric -- "however you see fit down here."

Then she gave Chris a cordial, if condescending, nod. "The best of luck to you. And to your brother as well. I don't much pay attention to the goings-on in this dimension, but as I understand it, you will both have quite a role to play."

With that, the gold encasing the Manor seemed to gather to her, coalesce, and she vanished in a flare of the light.

Piper had just begun to turn her interrogatory glare back to Alaric, when they heard the front door burst open.

"Is everyone okay?" Leo called.

"Yeah, honey, we're in here."

"I couldn't get inside, there was something ..." Leo's voice died as he surveyed the room, taking in first Alaric, held behind crystals, and then Chris.

Chris was still holding Excalibur, wondering that it felt astonishingly familiar, natural. But now, as his father's eyes lighted on him, he began to feel awkward, too aware of it.

"You've missed a lot," Wyatt said.

Leo looked confused, but a grin was rising to the surface. "It looks like I have."

Chapter Text

After the distraction of Leo's arrival, when attention returned to Alaric, he clammed up, refusing to answer any questions, to explain or defend himself. He didn't look at Leo, who, not yet completely filled in on the morning's events, stood aside to let the sisters handle the situation.

Alaric said only one thing, addressing Paige: "Go on up and talk to the Elders. That's what you know you're supposed to do."

Giving up in frustration, Piper froze Alaric again so that Paige could orb him to the basement, where they set him up with a chair, pinned in by crystals, a makeshift cell to hold him. Then Paige, admitting that Alaric was right about the logical next move, left to find out what the Elders wanted to do with their errant Whitelighter, while the others explained to Leo the whole story of what had happened.

They had scarcely finished the tale when Paige returned with information that gave them a little more of the picture.

"His real name," she reported, "or rather his current name, the one he had when he was made a Whitelighter, is Gavin Ludlow. He wasn't a witch when he graduated to Whitelighter, but Chris is right, that was in his history. But in a past life during one of the witch persecutions, he turned to using his powers for personal gain -- teetering on the edge of using them for evil. Maybe he was fed up with being persecuted, which is understandable, but I guess his actions made the danger for all witches where he lived that much worse. So, his powers were taken away and he lived a couple centuries of lifetimes as a mortal. Then he died saving someone's life and the Elders made him a Whitelighter."

Piper rolled her eyes. "That decision worked out well."

"It did, for about a hundred years. Then, a few years back, one of his charges was killed under suspicious circumstances, and he kind of lost it and dropped off the radar. Or maybe he lost it before she was killed -- you know the Elders, they wouldn't give me much in the way of details. But they did say he had been acting more and more erratic for a few years before that. Going back to when he met me -- go figure. Or, more to the point, when he pumped me for information about this family."

"The question is, why?" Piper asked.

"They don't know."

Phoebe shrugged. "Revenge. That's what I got from him."

"And that's why he'll tell me," Leo said. "I know it was a long time ago, but he does know me, so maybe he'll be more likely to talk. But more importantly, no one who wants revenge wants to keep it a secret in the end. He wants the world to know how he's been wronged."

* * * *

So Leo was the one who delivered the Elders' verdict. Chris, who had left Excalibur behind upstairs, accompanied his father, but hung back at the foot of the wooden stairs as Leo approached the Whitelighter.

This time, Alaric -- for that was the name Leo could not help but think of -- greeted him with a resigned half-smile, after his eyes flickered over to Chris on the stairs. "Leo," he said. "It's been an age."

"Paige spoke to the Elders. I expect you know what's in store."

"My soul will be sent back down for recycling." He did not sound like he feared the punishment.

"Yes. But before they do that, they allowed us some time to talk to you. They're not much concerned about your reasons; they never really care. But I want to know. What did we do to you?"

"You? I have no quarrel with you or your family."

"My sister-in-law is an empath. She said you wanted revenge. Are you telling me she read you wrong?"

Alaric considered Leo for a moment, and mused, "I suppose you, of all people, might understand. I know your story: what that Elder, Gideon, did to Wyatt; how they punished you for protecting your family..."

"So it's the Elders you want revenge on."

"You also know what a thankless job being a Whitelighter is, and how they can be if you step out of line." He began to warm to his grievance. "And before that, I was a witch. I didn't know I was working for them then; we were pretty much in the dark in those days. But it all came back to me once I gained my past life memories as a Whitelighter: the struggle, the work of using those powers for good ... then how quickly what powers I had were stripped away when I slipped up."

"And when this all dawned on you, how you'd been mistreated, you began your revenge scheme by killing your charge?"

"What?" He seemed genuinely horrified. "Is that what they told you?"

"No, they just told Paige that you lost a charge under suspicious circumstances -- and then you disappeared."

"If anyone is responsible for her 'suspicious' death, it's them. I wanted to help her, but they thought I shouldn't; they thought I was encouraging ... her unorthodox methods. Maybe I was, but she did a lot of good. But the Elders took me off her case, and within days, she was attacked by some demon and killed. They hadn't yet assigned her a new Whitelighter. She could have been healed. I could have healed her, but they kept me away. I'd finally just had it, being at their disposal, getting nothing but grief in return for my service."

"So you vanished."

"That's right."

"I know what it's like to lose a charge," said Leo. "And you're right, I also know what it's like to have a quarrel with the Elders. But what I still don't understand is, why us? What did we have to do with any of this?"

"I told you, I have no grudge against your family. But understand, despite all the legendary glory that's gone to Merlin, Aldith and I were just as dedicated in our magical service to Arthur. We just missed out on the historical fame. When I heard Paige talk about Excalibur, and then I saw him," Alaric said, glancing again Chris's direction, "I knew he was back. Imagine my surprise to learn that you all believed the heir was the older son. When I learned about the Fortalice, I saw my chance: I spread the rumors that she was after Excalibur, hoping it would drive Wyatt to take possession before you figured out who it really belonged to. It helped that she had somehow acquired this false reputation that she was after it for herself."

"If you had nothing against Chris, or Wyatt for that matter, why would you want Wyatt to claim the sword? Excalibur in the wrong hands..."

"I know. That was the point. I knew Wyatt's abilities. Give Wyatt the sword, make sure it gets into his hands, and it would create a power that would wreak havoc with the Elders' orderly universe."

"In other words, my sons were just pawns. You were using them to teach the Elders a lesson?" Leo took Alaric's silence as assent, and added, "You can consider that the Elders have done you one favor."

"And that is?"

"They stripped me of my powers. If I still had them, you might be suffering more than just a soul-recycling."

Alaric finally spoke to Chris, who was still sitting on the basement stairs. "And what are you going to do? You've got your own magical powers now."

Chris shook his head. "Nothing. Your big plan failed anyway. I'm not sure you're worth it."

"I see. Regardless, let me give you this caution: I wouldn't get too big of an idea of the importance of Excalibur. That's the funny thing about legends. Arthur ended up being a side player in his own story. Merlin took center stage as the star, but even Lancelot gets more attention, and he's the one ... Well, you know the story. But then again, the Round Table was a failure in the end, wasn't it? Better luck to you this time around -- but you may be overshadowed yet again."

Leo looked at his son, who seemed less crushed than contemptuous, even amused by Alaric's words.

"Whatever," Chris said. "I've got better things to worry about than stuff that happened over a thousand years ago."

The truth was, Leo contemplated, the older Chris, the one who had traveled back from a different future, he had certainly been overshadowed by his powerful older brother -- and had felt a burning resentment for it that he had taken no trouble to hide. Yet despite his feelings, he had moved time itself to save Wyatt, and in the end, had given his life for his brother.

And now this fourteen-year-old Chris had been known to show flashes of the same envy -- not as deep or severe, Leo believed, but it was there all the same.

"The difference is ..." Leo murmured -- and realized he had said that aloud. So he continued, addressing Alaric directly: "He may or may not be overshadowed, who knows. The difference is that my son has a more generous soul than you seem to have ever had, Alaric. And I have confidence in him, because I know what he is capable of."

Excalibur itself had not provoked the jumble of emotions that crossed Chris's face -- amazement, pleasure, pride -- and Leo was gratified to see it. As he gestured for Chris to come forward, he said to Alaric, "You have a chance to redeem yourself a little before we turn you over to the Elders."

Chris walked up and produced a small device they had confiscated from Alaric's pocket when he was frozen. "I want you to give my friend Vincenta her invisibility power back. How do you work this?"

Alaric hesitated, then sighed, "I made it so that I'm the only one who can use it. If you give it to me, I'll reverse everything it's done." Reacting to their skeptical looks, he said, "No tricks. Honestly, I'm ready for this to be over."

Leo believed him, but they still weren't going to take any chances. Before they did anything, Alaric acquired two more guards: Piper and Wyatt, ready to take forceful action if he tried anything suspicious. Only then did they take a crystal away and handed Alaric the device.

He muttered something under his breath as he held it, and at his words, multicolored strings of light strayed up through the basement ceiling. "That should do it," he said, and gave the device to Leo, after which Piper, glaring, replaced the crystal.

"Chris?" she said. "You want to go check?"

He orbed away, and returned, jubilant, in a minute or two: "It worked! She can turn invisible again!"

Then it was Paige's turn to play messenger once more. She left to give the Elders the go-ahead, and had scarcely been gone a minute when their sentence was executed, and Alaric disappeared in a final swirl of orb lights.

* * * *

Phoebe took it upon herself to go to the school and fill Merlin in on what had happened. He greeted the news about Alaric with equanimity.

"It's not as though I expected this from the man I once knew, but nor does it surprise me," the wizard said. "I'm glad to hear that Vincenta Barraza has her power back. An interesting coincidence: I spoke with the father of Joe Lasota this afternoon. Joe's recently acquired Firestarter abilities seem to have vanished, as of today. His parents actually saw a kind of light shoot out of him, and his father dragged Joe here, demanding an explanation, or a diagnosis, or a hunt for the demon responsible. In Leo's absence, I dealt with them, but I couldn't offer an explanation -- especially since Joe, though obviously furious, was very reluctant to talk."

"Because he knows he didn't acquire that power legitimately in the first place," Phoebe guessed.

"It seems likely, given what you've told me."

"If it really was Alaric's doing, and if provoking Wyatt was part of his master plan, that kid was a good person to use." Phoebe squinted at Merlin. "You know," she said, "you don't seem very surprised by any of this. You knew about Chris, didn't you?"

"I suspected. Then after his visit to that past life, I was certain. But to tell you the truth, my mystical vision, if you want to call it that, has been a bit scrambled in this situation, and I think you know why. It took me some time to unravel one timeline from the other."

"You know about the other future? Details?"

"A few, yes. I know that Wyatt took possession of the sword before."

"And you knew what it could do to him ... and you didn't say anything then, either?" She could see by his expression that she was right. "Why?"

"Let's say I had the intuition that everything would turn out all right in the end."

"All right? One of my nephews died. In his father's arms, and I know Leo still suffers from it. And Wyatt turned evil!"

"I said, 'in the end.' "

"Fine. But if you first 'suspected,' and then knew that the sword was meant for Chris, then why are you teaching Wyatt?"

"Because you asked me to," he reminded her with a smile. "Excalibur doesn't have to be in the job description for me to help when my help is requested." Then he added more seriously, "Don't think I haven't struggled with this. But from what I could foresee of both futures, I believed that all of you -- but most especially, Wyatt -- needed to come to discover the truth for yourselves. In that other time, it wouldn't have mattered what I said. Wyatt was ... troubled. And he would not have been capable of comprehending or accepting that the power wasn't his."

"Saving Wyatt from Gideon made a difference."

"More than you know. I would also say that I'm not sure the rest of you would have taken my word for it either. And from all the changes, large and small, that sprung from Chris's trip to the past, it came down to this: Wyatt gave up Excalibur. It was his decision, and this time, he made the right one."

Phoebe made a move to take her leave, but then paused. "If you can see some of the original time -- Chris, the other Chris, told his grandfather that Piper died when he was fourteen. Do you know anything about that?"

"To the best of my knowledge, she was killed when the Fortalice attacked the Manor."

"So this morning ... we stopped it!"

"It would appear so," Merlin answered, smiling in response to Phoebe's elated grin.

* * * *

The party went on as planned. Paige had declared this one of those occasions when it was okay to use her "Object of Objection" spell. "It's not our fault, this huge mess," she said, "and we've got guests coming!"

Excalibur was not the topic of conversation during dinner or anytime throughout the evening, and Chris was glad of it. It was nice to have a -- to use Mom's word -- normal birthday (at least the second half of it), with presents, family, friends, food, and then the kids left to themselves to watch movies late into the night.

But finally the younger birthday party guests had conked out in the wee hours, scattered throughout the living room in sleeping bags. The house was silent, but Chris was still awake, the events of the first half of the day creeping back into his thoughts. He lay on his side, shielded by his own sleeping bag, shuffling through the tarot cards that Vincenta had given him for his birthday. He could just barely see them in the dark as he pulled out three at random: Six of Swords, Wheel of Fortune ...

The sound and glow of orbing suddenly diverted his attention. He twisted around to see, and where Wyatt had been curled up in a chair, now there were only blankets.

Where had he gone? Chris concentrated and detected where Wyatt was, but he waited a little while before following after. He boxed up the cards and set them on an end table before quietly getting up; he had to step over Mark and negotiate a couple more lumps under sleeping bags before he got out of the room and orbed to the Manor's roof. There, as expected, he found Wyatt, who was lying back, eyes open, staring at the night sky.

"Am I bugging you?"

"Right at this moment? Not yet."

Knowing his brother would have told him to go away if that were what he wanted, Chris settled down a few feet away, sitting cross-legged and looking out over the city.

So far, Wyatt had shown no anger or disappointment over this revelation about Excalibur, but Chris was worried all the same. So after a few minutes of silence, he had to ask: "Are you mad?"

"Mad?"

"About, you know, losing Excalibur."

Wyatt kept his eyes on the sky, seeming to think it over. Then he said, "I'm not mad at you, if that's what you're worried about. It's not like you went and shoved me out of the way. It was my choice."

"Okay, it was, but everyone thought the sword was yours. You're not mad it's not?"

Wyatt sat up, and he now had to turn around to look up at his brother on the slope of the roof. "No. If it's not mine, it's not mine. So everyone was wrong. I never thought I needed it anyway."

There was no denying that Chris had heard his brother say that more than once -- usually during an argument, or when he was trying to sound tough. But if Wyatt said it, it must be true.

"When you thought it was yours for so long, what did you think you would do? What am I supposed to do?"

"I never gave Exalibur much thought at all, not really. Sorry."

"They don't even have kings anymore. So what's the big deal? What's the use of it?"

"That's up to you. Maybe you'll decide you don't need it either. You've got lots of time to think it over. I really doubt Mom's going to let you set up a throne in the living room."

"Your bedroom," Chris teased. "I think I'll make your bedroom my throne room. You can sleep in the basement."

"Don't push it. I can just orb you, your throne and your sword into the middle of the Bay. Try me."

They stifled their laughter, unlikely though it was that there was anyone on the street, or that someone inside the house could hear them. They were over the attic; no one was going to be up there, even if the night's darkness was already lightening to a bluish-gray.

"Wyatt?"

"Yeah."

"You'll ... Whatever it is I have to do, or decide to do, you'll help, right?"

Wyatt snorted, "Like you'd be able to get along without me."

"I'm serious."

"So am I. You think I'd let you be stranded out there on your own? I won't. You know that."

Chris knew. He should have realized that Wyatt wasn't about to abandon him to figure it out on his own.

"I mean, you're still the 'Twice-Blessed Child,' or whatever, right? And what the heck does that mean?"

"You think too much, you know that? It means whatever I make of it."

"Just like Excalibur."

"Right." Wyatt returned his gaze to the neighborhood stretching out to the city beyond, the streetlamps fading with the approaching morning.

It also wasn't like Wyatt to step aside for someone else. But he had done exactly that, almost twenty-four hours ago now. Chris didn't expect his brother to make it a habit, and he found that somehow comforting. It was okay; Chris was willing to share the stage.

"Still," Chris said, "someone's got to do some thinking around here." He returned Wyatt's mock glare with a smirk, but conceded, "Okay, I guess we can make it up as we go along, too."

Then Wyatt tensed at a sound in the Manor below them; suddenly Chris felt like he had been talking really loudly. Could they still get back inside undetected? Was this breaking the rules of grounding anyway? They weren't in the house, but they were on it, after all.

There was a scrape of a window raised, and their mother's voice, at once amused and exasperated: "Boys?"

Wyatt looked back at Chris with a conspiratorial grin. They were caught, but they could try to orb to the living room before Mom actually saw them.

"Together?" Chris whispered, and at Wyatt's nod, they made a break for it.

The End