Note: Now, this is a very short piece (just one chapter, actually) that may not add much to the plotline, but I just had to write it. I needed it badly, and I'm afraid so did many of you, judging by the content of the latest reviews. The action and the demons and the vanquishes will be back in the next installment, but right now let's just relax and enjoy the moment.
"You evil son of a bitch," Paige said, glaring at Cole. She had just orbed into the living room of the penthouse, along with Leo and Piper.
Piper raised her hands towards Cole and he disintegrated into thousands of dark fragments which flew around in a circle, giving Paige the chance to start placing the crystals on the floor around him.
"Phoebe," Piper called out, "get out here and help us, damn it!"
Paige was about to place the last crystal on the floor when the fragments were pulled back together, and then Cole was standing there in the middle of the circle. He hit her and she was knocked across the room, dropping the crystal she was holding.
"Don't make me kill you," Cole said, looking at Piper.
Piper blew him up again without a word, while Leo healed Paige.
"Phoebe," Piper tried again, "you heard what he said, he's gonna kill us, help us!"
A door was opened and Phoebe went into the living room. When the fragments of Cole were pulled back together, he had a fireball in his hand. Phoebe picked up the crystal that had bounced across the floor and walked towards him.
"I'm sorry," he said, looking at her, "it's, it's for the best."
"I know it is," she quietly said, looking straight into his eyes.
Cole jolted awake, gasping for air like a drowning man. His body was covered with cold sweat and his heart was pounding furiously inside his chest. He blindly reached out for Phoebe's side of the bed, and experienced a moment of panic when his hand found only the cold sheets; he made a hoarse sound that was somewhere between a moan and a sob, still half caught in the nightmare. Then, as he franticly ran his eyes around the room, it was the sight of the little familiar things -- Phoebe's scarf hanging on the back of a chair, a stuffed animal resting on the nightstand, a little white sock lying on the floor -- that helped him put himself together again, taking long, deep breaths as he waited for his heartbeat to slow down. Still, when he heard a rustling sound coming from his side, Cole swirled his head to the left with a start, only to see Ben's pillow marked face emerge from under the comforter as the toddler sat up in his crib.
Ben gazed around with a drowsy "I've just woke up and I can't quite remember where I am" look on his face, blinked a few times, wrinkled his nose and raised a small hand to rub his eyes. Finally, he gave Cole a happy smile as he greeted:
"Hey, buddy," Cole uttered in a not so steady voice. He gave Ben a tentative smile that made his son cast him a slightly intrigued look.
"Hi!" Ben said again, raising his arms to be scooped up, and Cole got up and walked towards him. He took Ben out of the crib, and sighed and closed his eyes as the toddler threw his arms around his neck and nuzzled his face.
"It's good to see you, too," Cole whispered, kissing Ben's cheek affectionately. "Will you keep daddy company until mommy comes back?"
"Dada!" Ben lilted joyfully.
Cole smiled and carried his son to the double bed. He climbed on the bed and slipped his legs under the covers again, and Ben promptly scrambled from his arms and crawled to the middle of the bed, where he sat facing daddy with a contented smile on his face and proceeded to get rid of those all too annoying socks.
Despite the malaise he still felt, Cole chuckled slightly as he saw Ben start laboriously tugging on one of the socks.
"Fine," he said, smiling at his son. "No socks."
"No no," Ben stated, waving his head vigorously.
Cole's smile faltered as he thought of his dream again: it had felt so damn real! And, in a way, it had been more frightening than the nightmares that had haunted him after the Source was vanquished. He couldn't tell which idea made him feel worst: Phoebe and her sisters vanquishing him or they both killing Piper and Paige. He swallowed hard, the last remains of the smile fading away as he thought of the family that he had grown to love as his own.
"It was a nightmare," Cole muttered to himself, shuddering. "Just a stupid nightmare: it never happened."
"We're good," he said, softly, reaching out and fondling Ben's hair. "We're good, Ben. You, mommy and me. Don't you ever forget that."
Ben raised his head and looked at him.
"Dada," he said, smiling, then turned his attention back to his sock.
Cole watched Ben's efforts for a little while before proceeding:
"We'll never hurt Aunt Piper, or Aunt Paige, or Uncle Leo."
He thought a little then added:
"Because we love them."
Ben finally managed to take off the sock and showed it to Cole with a triumphant grin, and Cole took the sock from his hand with a smile and placed it on the nightstand.
"And," he proceeded, while Ben turned his attention to the other sock, "they won't hurt us, either. We're family."
He reached out and helped Ben get rid of the sock, making the toddler clap his hands in delight.
"We're good," he repeated, gently cupping his son's chin and making him look into his eyes. "Can you remember that, Ben? Good."
"Goo," Ben said, mindfully.
Cole sighed and pulled Ben for a hug, and the toddler cooed and reached out a chubby hand to pat his cheek affectionately. The nightmare didn't feel so vivid as he held his son tight in his arms, not the future Source of All Evil, but a little boy dressed in flannel pajamas covered with smiling clown faces. His son who would never kill innocents, would never resort to lies and deceit in order to achieve his goals, who would enjoy the innocence of his childhood as a happy, trusting little boy surrounded by love.
"We wouldn't have gone that far," he whispered, snuggling Ben. "It was just a stupid nightmare."
"Is this a private party?"
Cole and Ben both looked towards the door and saw Phoebe standing there, watching them with a smile. She was still wearing her pajamas, and placed her hands on her hips as she said, in mock disapproval:
"Why are you still in bed? It's Christmas morning, for God's sake! Everybody is downstairs, waiting for us to start opening the presents!"
She climbed on the bed with them and tickled Ben, making him laugh, trying to hide behind Cole. As she took a closer look at Cole's face, though, she frowned slightly and asked:
"Baby, is there something wrong?"
"No," Cole said. Phoebe raised an eyebrow and he added, shrugging: "I had a bad dream, that's all."
"Wanna talk about it?" she asked, touching his face.
"Nah." -- he leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips -- "I feel better already."
Cole looked into his wife's hazel brown eyes, and saw nothing but love there. Of the horrid nightmare that had struck them almost two years ago he found no trace: the Source was long gone, and with him all the lies and the pain he had brought into their lives.
"It was just a very, very silly dream, baby," he added, with a smile. "Not worth the time we'd spent talking about it."
A knock on the door made them look towards it.
"Come on in," Phoebe said, and Leo popped his head through the door.
"Piper sent me to tell you guys that she doesn't know for how long she'll be able to keep Paige away from the presents."
"See what I was saying?" Phoebe said, scooping Ben up and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. "Come on, it's Ben's first Christmas," she said, standing up and holding out her hand for Cole. "At least, the first one he's old enough to understand."
Cole stood up, too, quickly slipped his feet into his slippers and took the hand she was offering, following her through the door. He didn't change his clothes: he had done that last year, and had learned his lesson then. He smiled as he remembered the horrified looks on the faces of Piper, Phoebe and Paige as they had shooed him out of the living room and sent him upstairs to change into his pajamas again. "The only right way to spend Christmas morning," Phoebe had said then, "is sitting around the Christmas tree in your PJs, opening the presents and drinking eggnog."
Of course, in the house of Piper Halliwell it would never be just eggnog. There was also fruitcake, gingerbread men, pancakes covered with generous amounts of cranberry sauce and honey, several kinds of cookies, candy canes and more kinds of goodies than one could eat in just one morning -- not that Cole and Leo didn't try in earnest. Also, it was the one day of the year when Piper would let them eat in the living room without saying anything about breadcrumbs and jelly stains. Despite Phoebe's affirmation that "you don't know the joy of Christmas morning in all its glory until you have spent it with a child", Cole doubted this year's Christmas morning could top last year's.
About half an hour later, he was willing to admit that he had been wrong: this was indeed much better. For one, his relationships with Piper, Paige and Leo had greatly changed during the past year: he was no longer a guest among them, but a loved member of the family. Every present he gave and received spoke of love and thoughtfulness, of long hours spent thinking of a loved one and searching for the right present, the one that would make their eyes shine bright when they opened it. He watched with an amused smile as Paige shrieked, bouncing up and down, when she saw the boots that were just like the favorite pair that had been damaged beyond repair during a vanquish, and decided that the sight was worth the time he had spent at the crowded mall, showing the sole surviving boot to countless sales clerks until he finally found the right pair.
Also, Phoebe was right: some things could only be fully experienced by a toddler, and opening the presents on Christmas morning, tearing the wrapping paper off with eager little fingers, and lilting "my! my!" in great excitement, was one of them. Ben also loved delivering the presents to the grown ups, a task he performed with comic solemnness, looking absolutely adorable with his Santa's red hat.
Cole watched as he walked over to Phoebe and proudly handed her a beautifully wrapped package. Phoebe opened it and held up a colorful silk scarf so that everyone could see it, while Ben enthusiastically clapped his hands, then she turned to Paige and hugged her, saying:
"Thank you, sweetie: it's just beautiful."
"Now," Leo announced, reaching out for one of the remaining packages, "I think we had another one for Ben here!"
"My!" Ben exclaimed as he ran towards his uncle. He hastily tore the paper off, exposing a drum and two drumsticks. While Leo showed him how to use the drumsticks, Phoebe moved to Cole's lap and asked:
"Now, was I right or was I right?"
"You were absolutely right," he said, smiling as she took the glass from his hand and took a sip of eggnog. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by crumbled wrapping paper and empty boxes, and the love of his life was in his arms, drinking eggnog and giving him that all too Phoebe-ish "I can wrap you around my little finger and you know it" look. Paige was by their side, looking like a ten-year-old with her hair pulled up in a messy pony tail, her polka dot pajamas and the excited glint in her eyes as she looked at the packages still underneath the Christmas tree. Piper was, in her own words, "too pachydermicaly big to sit on the floor", so they had placed an armchair beside the Christmas tree, where she could be next to Leo, who was in charge of sorting out the presents and handing them to Ben.
"Hum... now, let's see..." Leo said, looking at the remaining presents.
"Piper?" Cole said. "That red one, next to you."
Piper reached out and picked up the package Cole was pointing at.
"Ben, there's one here for Uncle Leo," she said, after reading the label. "Do you wanna give it to him?"
Ben promptly stood up and walked happily towards Piper. He faltered halfway, and Leo caught him before he fell.
"Good reflexes, dad," Piper said, smiling at him as she handed the present to Ben.
Leo winked at her and received the package Ben was offering him. He checked the label and smiled as he saw Cole's name on it. Unlike the previous year, when all the presents had been from "Phoebe and Cole", this year Cole had made a point on buying his presents on his own. He seemed to have hit quite on the mark with the presents for Piper and Paige, and Leo quickly opened his, curious to see what his brother in law had bought him.
His smile widened up as a catcher's mitt and a baseball ball made their appearance.
"Hey, if we're gonna do it," Cole said, giving a somewhat embarrassed shrug as Leo looked at him, "let's do it right."
Leo had been a baseball enthusiast when he was alive, and as he and Cole became friends he had set his heart on eliciting Cole's interest for the game. For someone who had never played or watched a baseball game in his entire life -- what kind of games demon kids played, Leo would rather not know -- Cole had been a quick student, and the two once enemies had watched the 2003 Season games together, sipping beer and yelling at the umpire with great enthusiasm.
"I'm not gonna let you borrow my glove, you know," Leo teased.
"I bought myself one, too," Cole said, smirking. "And it's cooler than yours."
"Oh dear," Piper thought, while bravely keeping a smile on her face; she could tell her husband was foreseeing afternoons spent throwing pitches in the backyard, and images of broken windows flashed through her mind.
While the girls watched Leo and Cole, Ben had been looking at the Christmas tree, unsuccessfully trying to make the small figures that hung from it dance around a little. He blew and puffed to no avail; finally, he gave up and turned away from the tree without a second thought. Being a toddler, the fact that it hadn't worked out the way he had expected didn't upset Ben half as much as it would've a grown up. The way he saw it, summoning the wind was pretty much like walking: sometimes you managed to take several steps in a row, and sometimes you just swayed and fell on your butt after just a couple of steps. So what? You just got back to your feet and tried again. He'd get a grip on that wind thing eventually.
He looked at mommy and daddy and saw that they were kissing -- as usual. Ben giggled: he liked kisses, but grown ups' kisses were weird. He turned to Aunt Paige and saw that she had stood up to go get some more cookies. Cookies were good. Aunt Piper was saying something to Uncle Leo about balls and windows. Ben looked at the ball that rested in the glove by Uncle Leo's side. He liked balls: balls were fun. He considered reaching out for that one, then flicked his tongue, dismissing the idea. He could play with the ball later; now there were still a lot of presents waiting to be opened. He decided that the grown ups were taking too long to resume the gift game and, being the son of his parents, took the matter in his own hands and reached out for a colorful package that was next to him. He fumbled with it for a while, turned it upside down, shook it with no visible results, and finally glared at it. Bad present. Mean present. Ben grabbed the ribbon on the present and pulled forcefully on it, and he was pleasantly surprised to see that not only it came off easily, but it also tore the package open. Ha! That should teach it a lesson!
Meanwhile, Phoebe let out a contented sigh and turned around in Cole's arms, facing the Christmas tree. She was still sitting on his lap, feeling warm and cozy with his arms wrapped around her. "Life can't get any better than this," she thought as he leaned down and kissed her right temple. It was then that she caught sight of her son, who was fumbling with a lacy pink silk gown with a look of comic puzzlement on his face.
"My?" he asked the grown ups, intrigued.
"No, sweetie," Phoebe said, barely holding the laughter as she reached out for the gown. "This one is..."
"Not yours," Cole cut her off, pulling her back to his lap.
"It's not?" she asked, giving him a surprised look.
"Well, it's definitely not from me."
"It's Piper's," Leo said, blushing strongly and quickly taking the gown from Ben's hands. "And it was supposed to be upstairs, not here with the other presents," he muttered, embarrassed by the amused looks of Cole, Phoebe and Paige as he handed the present to Piper. "Merry Christmas, honey."
"Thank you, honey," Piper said, leaning down with some effort to kiss him on the lips. She, too, blushed slightly as she whispered to him: "Now, that's some great incentive for me to get back in shape after Melinda is born."
"Where have you been shopping, Leo?" Cole asked, giving the gown an appreciative look. He could just picture Phoebe in it... for a full ten seconds. Less, if the thing didn't have any tricky buckles for him to unclasp.
"Luscious Wear," Paige said, giggling. Cole gave her an inquisitive look, his eyebrows shooting up, and she added, smirking: "When he asked if he could borrow my credit card, I guess he didn't knew the name of the store would appear on the bill."
"You know what?" Leo said, reaching out for another package and avoiding eye contact with the others. "Let's open another present."
Luckily for him, there were indeed a lot of presents yet to open, presents from everyone and for everyone, even for unborn Melinda; enough presents to take his in law's attention off him. It was almost 10 a.m. when Paige looked around and said:
"Well, I think that was the last one."
"Next to last," Leo said, picking up a small package wrapped in white and blue paper that had almost disappeared under the mess of crumbled wrapping paper that covered the floor. "Ben, would you like to deliver one last present?"
"Hi!" Ben promptly said, reaching out for the present.
"It's for your dad," Leo told him, and Cole raised an intrigued eyebrow. He had already received gifts from everyone, including a huge black pointy hat that Paige had bought on behalf of Melinda.
"Thank you," he said, playfully unsettling Ben's hair and receiving the package the toddler was offering him.
Cole rolled the package in his hands: it had no labels and was the approximate size of a pocket book, yet so thin that one could think there was nothing inside it. He gave Leo an inquisitive look and the Whitelighter smiled.
"Your father wanted you to have this. Unfortunately the original isn't supposed to leave the Historical Society, so I had to settle with a copy."
Cole carefully opened the package, with Phoebe peering over his shoulder, and gasped when it saw its contents. It was a newspaper article dated October 22nd, 1887, about some charity event that had taken place in San Francisco: he didn't pay much attention to the text as his eyes were drawn to a picture of himself and his parents in the middle of the article. It clearly wasn't a posed photo, and the three of them looked unaware of the photographer's presence. He was looking at his mother, a happy two-year-old laughing heartedly as she gingerly wiped something from his face with a handkerchief. Cole stared, stunned, at her face, at the soft smile he didn't remember having ever seen there. She was saying something, maybe to him, maybe to his father, who stood there with an arm around her waist and the smile of a man who had everything he could possibly want in life.
"Thank you," Cole uttered, never taking his eyes off the picture. They looked like a real family there; what's more, they looked happy. It was not that he had doubted his father's words, but somehow this made all the difference: it was right there, before his eyes, a real proof of a past of happiness and love that he and his parents had shared.
Yet, as he put one arm around Phoebe's shoulders and pulled her to him, it dawned on Cole that his father's present for him didn't have as much to do with the past as it had with the future. It was a gift of hope. "Turners don't give up that easily". No, they didn't. They didn't, and God help those who tried to come between them and the women they loved.
Cole raised his eyes from the picture and let his gaze wander around the room, at his family gathered around the Christmas tree. Leo had his hand on Piper's belly, caressing it gently as they talked in a low voice, lost in their own blissful world. Paige had Ben on her lap and one of his brand new musical books in her hands; she was turning the pages and reading the names of the animals for him, and he pressed the buttons on the bottom of each page and squealed in delight as they heard each animal's sound. As Phoebe rested her head on his chest, Cole snuggled her and kissed the top of her head, and he looked at the picture in his hand again, gently running his finger along it.
"Here's to you, mother," he thought, raising his glass on a silent toast. "To us all. And to hope."
(Next installment: Cursed Be)