"Who are you," asked Leo, immediately standing up and sheltering Piper behind him.
"Clarence," asked Piper, stepping out from behind her charmingly overprotective husband. She eyed the dear man she'd hired nearly a year ago, but couldn't quite make herself take a defensive position. Something told her that she didn't need to. His eyes still radiated kindness, despite his random appearance in her home. "I don't understand. What are you doing here?"
"Let's just say that I'm more of a family friend than you think," said Clarence. The gentleman gestured the parents to the sofa with a sweep of his hand. "Please, sit down. We have a lot to discuss, if you'll only give me a moment."
A snap of his fingers echoed on the walls while five bodies flashed into the room: Phoebe, Paige, and Victor, who was holding his grandsons. The adults all looked around confusedly until they saw Piper and Leo. Seeing no defensive posturing, Victor only shrugged.
"That was different," the grandfather said.
Paige eyed the janitor up and down before asking her eldest living sister, "What's going on?"
With a twinkle in his eye, Clarence smiled at the new arrivals. "If you would take a seat, I can explain."
Phoebe interrupted the man, stepping forward to stand between the parents and the janitor. "How — how — how did you get in here? How did we get here? Who are you?"
"It's all right, Phoebe," said Clarence. "I had some business to take care of before I could show myself, but now it's time we had a bit of a family meeting."
Stubbornly, Phoebe refused to move and asked, "What kind of family meeting?"
Even with the inquisitorial tone of all of their voices, Clarence kept a very even, quiet calm about him. He gave up offering to the family to make themselves comfortable for the duration; he had expected them to have a hard time with his appearance. He'd had enough warning over the last few weeks and years on what it would be like to deal with the Halliwell clan as a whole. This was going exactly as expected, exactly as it had throughout the generations. Gently, he tried to keep that essence of calm and explained, "One that, now that the details are all in place, required my immediate attention and that you all need to be present for."
Having found his way back in front of his wife on the sofa in a futile effort to be her protector for once, Leo eyed the gentleman, his eyes going wide with realization. The deaths of his children could be the only explanation for things finally clicking into any place, especially after the man's cryptic greeting. Leo didn't like it one bit. "You're an angel of death?"
Paige sat down in the squishy chair, hard, all of the circumstances coming together for her in one big bang. "You're the Clarence Grams was talking about yesterday? I can't believe I didn't put the two together. You're the one who took Chris. You're the one he told us about when he almost didn't make it the day of Wyatt's birthday party."
"I came for him, yes, as well as for Christopher and Wyatt today," said the angel. "Time was, I came for you once upon a time as well. I'm glad to see Chris got all of that to work out with the Titans this time around. You weren't meant to be on my list that day. But yes, your nephews are what we need to talk about now, all of us."
Another wave of his hand and the room flashed a bluish white. As soon as it appeared, the light was gone. In its wake, a grinning Chris was left sitting on the arm of the sofa. "Isn't it a beautiful day to die," asked the ghost with mock incredulity. "Clarence, man, you need a new shtick. Seriously." To his stunned and battle-weary family, he grinned, "Hi, guys!"
No one said anything for the briefest of seconds, their eyes all popping wide doing it for them. Then, with a tear-streaked face colored with apology, Piper said, "No offense, kiddo, I love you, but I think I really need to sit down."
Chris scrunched up his face in an 'I Hate to Point Out the Obvious But . . .' kind of look and said, "You are sitting down."
"Besides the point," she said back, her voice cloudy. She looked up at her husband, feeling her hand unconsciously wriggling into his. "This is too much," she said brokenly. "It's — "
"It's why I'm here," said Clarence, interrupting once again. "I know a lot has happened . . . "
The angel had intended to look at each of the family members to make sure that they were on the same page as him, but caught something else. Hearing his words, Piper and Leo were both fixated on the spot from where he had moments before taken first Wyatt then Christopher. From his perch on the sofa, Chris was fixated on the spot where he had fallen a few short weeks before. Phoebe, too, was seeing the same place, living it out in her own memory, her hand automatically going to her side where the blade had plunged into Chris's gut. Only Paige and Victor met his eyes, waiting for the all-important meeting to begin so that they could get through it and mourn their respective nephews and grandsons.
Thoughtfully, Clarence suggested, "Why don't we move this to someplace a little less loaded for the time being? Leo, would you mind?" With barely a nod, Leo orbed them all down to the living room, placing them all on the furniture in pretty much the same positions they had been in the attic, leaving only Clarence standing. With a grateful smile, Clarence said, "Now, let's try this again. A great deal has happened to you all over the last thirty years, give or take, depending on your vantage point in history. It has taken a lot of work, but we have finally put it all back the way it was meant to be. It's been messy, and not everything has happened exactly as it should have, but the important thing is that Paige, Wyatt, and Chris are now all safe again."
The proverbial light bulb that went off in Chris's head was blinding to him so that he blurted, "You're the one who sent Wyatt in the first place!"
"It was the one piece to all of this that I asked him not to tell you before sending you back," the angel agreed. "After what had happened when I sent Wyatt back the first time to Octavius, I couldn't risk you knowing that it was Destiny and I who had sent him. After he was thrust back into the future, we sent him to you, knowing that if he told you enough, you could figure things out for yourself. Still, if things didn't work out for you, I needed to be able to try again. Those who I have been working with to put this right have been very careful to keep our efforts concealed from even you so that we couldn't be thwarted by Octavius or any others. If he had been even remotely tipped off, all of this might have been lost. We couldn't take that chance."
Angrily, Piper asked, "You manipulated my children?"
"No, Piper, of course not," said Clarence. "We simply gave your boys the chance to right their own lives. Destiny never intended anything but good for your sons. When the Elders changed their futures, we knew that we were going to be unable to fix things from the outside. We had to let the boys do it themselves."
"Did you know they were going to die like this," asked Piper, still not believing the angel she had trusted. God, she had let him watch over Chris when he was staying in the office. She had trusted him to keep an eye on Chris. How could she have been so blind? "Did you know what Gideon was going to do to him?"
From his position on the sofa, Chris's eyes fell to the carpet, suddenly very interested in the pattern on his great-grandmother's least favorite rug.
"No, we didn't. We never imagined that it would go beyond Chris. That all of this had to come down to Christopher, Lucy, and Wyatt was completely unexpected." With a teasing but approving grin, the angel directed a jibe at Chris. "If someone had gone where he was supposed to go . . . "
"Now he tells me," said Chris with a roll of his eyes.
Confused, Piper asked, "What do you mean, 'where he was supposed to go'? Freya said he was given a choice."
"Only because he stormed off Up There before I could take him to where he was meant to go. Instead, Christopher's soul had to be released so that the baby could be born. No matter what was happening, we couldn't very well let the baby be born without a soul. Things were chaotic enough as it was. It is an easy enough fix now, but it certainly gave those of us involved quite a headache in the meantime."
Chris saw the snide comment about his uncanny ability to mess things up about to fall off Phoebe's lips and quickly shut it down. "Don't even think about saying it. I totally saved your ass — from beyond the grave, even."
"Not anymore," said Clarence, beaming.
All eyes in the room flew to the janitor, an entire range of looks on their owners' faces. Confusion. Shock. Excitement. Only Chris looked at him with wariness, but he kept his seat and remained carefully guarded. He had to at least hear the man out. The old ghost had helped him this far. Maybe he still had one more trick up his sleeve.
The janitor held his hands straight out in front of him, palms up. From out of thin air, a very ancient looking wooden sepulcher appeared on top of them. It was small, barely a foot on either side, but it looked monstrously heavy. With a wave of his hand, it took its place in the middle of the circle the family had made, and floated there as if held up by invisible strings.
Leo had heard of such chests, although he'd never actually seen one. "Is that what I think it is?"
A sly smile played on Clarence's face as his arm swept out. "Come on out, kids."
From the corner of the room, the transparent figures of both Christopher and Wyatt appeared, beaming with arms slung over each other's shoulders. Butch and Sundance had most definitely been reunited. They started forward to join their family once again, only to both stop and look back. They looked at each other then reached into the middle of nowhere and together pulled at something that none of the others could see.
Clarence's voice was gentle as he urged, "It's all right, Sweetheart. You can come out."
Shyly, a third body started to form although it stayed a tad more transparent than the others. Even though Leo had already guessed who his sons had turned back for, it was a relief to see her standing between them now . . . or rather, at least partially see her. He felt Piper hold his hand a little tighter, a low gasp in her throat. Suddenly Victor's jibe from a week ago seemed to be even more accurate than it had been before. I'm sorry, Honey, but I swear, this house sees more dead people than a graveyard. Oh, so true. Oh, so very true.
As if Victor knew what his son-in-law was thinking, the man had to chuckle, if for no other reason than that it would make all of this magical wackiness seem a little more normal than it could ever possibly be. He looked mostly at his three boys as he said, "You kids don't stay dead long, do you?"
"Family practice," said Wyatt wryly, absently scratching at his no longer wounded chest. Standing in between his two Chrises, he added, "Some of us more than others."
"Can we not talk about that, please," Lucy said. "This is supposed to be a happy occasion. You know, big battle won, puppies and prizes to follow?"
At the same time, both Wyatt and Christopher said, "You're allergic to dogs."
Leo saw his daughter roll her eyes and could have sworn he'd just seen his mother do it. Eerie as it was, it gave him a kind of hope that he knew had to come from outside of this mess. Granted, Lucy wasn't exactly outside the mess, but she also wasn't either of her brothers. She was someone new, someone who, even if Wyatt hadn't been saved, would still represent a newer, better future for their family. Her existence alone was something of hope for him and his wife. Some things were going to work out. Now, with any luck, all of it would.
With that hope, he squeezed his wife's hand and asked of all of his children, "Is she right? Is this a happy occasion?"
Quickly, Lucy said with a shrug, "I think it is. They might not, but I do."
"Which I'm sure we're all glad to hear," said Paige with a cringe. She hated to put it this way, but she asked anyway, "Except that we don't know who you are."
Chris gave his counterpart and his brother The Look. With a chuckle, he said, "For old time's sake?"
Together, the four of them said, "Future consequences!"
While all of the "adults" rolled their eyes, Wyatt and Christopher flanked their sister. Wyatt said by way of introduction, "She's with us."
Lucy swept her hand in a wide-circled Howdy Doody wave, embarrassed smile on her face. She looked down at her feet the entire time. She knew her identity had been long divulged to her father and Phoebe, but she wasn't entirely sure how she felt about them or the others knowing or not. Not that there was much to do. She had died after all. It wasn't until she felt her brothers at her sides, guarding her against any and all reaction, that she let her stiffened shoulders relax to only half stiff. Shyly, she said, "Hi."
"It's good to see you," said Leo with a smile. "I was worried."
The woman pishawed her father, "Don't be. I don't exist yet. There's nothing to worry about, so to speak."
Piper looked hopefully on the girl who she had been told would one day be her daughter and said, "But one day you will. That's good enough for the two of us."
"Exist, yes," said Clarence. "How she will exist is not yet determined."
Both parents threw their eyes on the angel of Death, immediately concerned. "What does that mean?"
Surprisingly calm in her voice, Lucy told them (and her brothers who had yet to hear the explanation she had been given), "It's okay. I was given a job to do. I did my job. When it really is my time, I'll come along. Whether that's as your daughter or in a future generation, we don't know. At least, Clarence isn't telling us. Same for my Christopher. Until then, I'm perfectly content knowing that I did what I was supposed to do."
"We went to a lot of trouble to get things on track from what had been done. Once Chris chose to remain here to continue his work, Lucy became as much a part of our efforts on the other end of the timeline as Chris and Christopher's separation."
"See," she said with a perky cocking of her head. "Puppies and prizes."
Thoughtfully from his perch on the arm of the sofa, Chris said to his aunt, "You remember what I told you, Phoebe? That from this point on, you need to start living in the present instead of the future? This is your chance to do that. That's the reward here for all of you. No more worrying about the future. Period. The four of us are all safe. Wyatt is no longer at risk. It's safe to be normal again."
Worriedly, Victor glanced at all of his grandchildren — dead, alive, or otherwise — and said, "Hold on. That doesn't sound right. It can't be that easy. What's going on here?"
Christopher waved his excited grandfather down. "It's okay, Grandpa. We're here to say 'goodbye'."
"'Goodbye' how," asked Paige. "I don't like how that sounds either."
Clarence gestured at the three other kids from the future to come out from behind the sofa and join them as he said, "Which is why you are all here. There has been a great deal of cost to this family in order to fix what went wrong. I won't deny that. But now that things are indeed settled and back on the track that they were meant to be, I don't want anyone trying to fix anything out of a mistaken need to save anyone or to stop anything else from happening. Things are now as they were meant to be. Are we clear?"
Chris could practically feel the angel's gaze leveled on him. He held his quiet for as long as he could until he broke out laughing under the heat. "Okay, okay, I get it. No more. You wanna drop an anvil on my head just to make sure?"
Carefully, Piper asked, "What does that mean?"
"It means that all of these kids are now going to go to their rightful places — " Clarence stopped for a moment and looked at Chris. The younger man met the angel's eyes head on, sensing where this was going. " — depending on what Chris decides their rightful places are."
"Clarence, man, I can't decide that," argued Chris. "I can't decide that for them."
Piper grabbed one of the little decorative pillows from the sofa and threw it at the younger of her two future Chrises. "Yeah, hi, remember us? Explain please."
Wyatt looked down on his smaller self with a huge, beaming smile. "We get a Do Over."
"Clarence is a special division angel of Death, right," asked Leo, looking at the janitor for confirmation at his guess. When he got an affirmative nod, Leo said, "He's a Keeper."
The ghostly janitor nodded, "Among other things. Even if that weren't my job, this would have been a special case. Between Freya and I, we certainly had our work cut out for us over the next twenty-five years." The angel directed a fond but teasing grin at Chris and said, "In three thousand years, I have never had so much trouble with one soul as I have with this one. It was kind of fun."
Even in his death, Wyatt had been unable to let go of all of the guilt he carried for what had been done in his name for so long. The trickery of that fateful day in the snow gardens was right up there in his Top Five Most Horrible Moments list. His eyes bounced between Chris and Clarence, now needing to be sure of one thing. "So it was really Chris that day? We were right?"
The angel didn't offer a direct answer, but instead said carefully, "When Freya came to me once the snow gardens were complete, we both knew there was only person capable of being a guardian to you as children. It wasn't even a decision. He belonged there with you. I was happy to let him go."
As per usual, all of the talk of time and Here and There was giving Phoebe a massive confusion headache. She raised her hand from under her chin and waved it around in a sarcastic flip flop. "Okay, see, am I the only one that none of this is making sense for? How could you even know what's happened in their future? You talk like you've been there."
Leo stepped in to explain, knowing that it would probably sound better (for her) coming from him instead of the virtual stranger in front of them. "As a Keeper, Clarence has the ability to travel back and forth through time in regards to the souls under his care. That's why he was able to get Chris to the snow gardens — "
"And to Lu, right," asked Christopher. He was pretty sure he had been right, but he wanted to know for sure. The idea that Chris's soul would have found peace after Lucy's death had been one of the few comforts that he and Wyatt had afforded themselves in this mess of the last few days. He had to know that they hadn't been wrong and left him to something worse.
Chris, however, wasn't going to let him have an answer. He crinkled up his face and said, "No offence, Lucy, I'm sure you would have and will one day be a great mom, but I really don't want to know if that little brain child was right or not. It's a little too creepy for me to want to know that one."
Lucy eyed the man who was an identical copy of her brother, the one who had stepped in and tried to treat her like a sister from the moment he'd come to get her with their ghostly cruise director. Immediately she had to agree. She'd heard what Christopher's idea had been about Chris being her baby just to give her the memory of him and Wyatt. Having spent time now with Chris, she didn't think she wanted the answer either. It was a little too weird, even for this family. With a scrunchy face, she seconded the motion. "Same here. No, thank you."
Quickly changing the direction, Clarence added, "It's how I was able to work with first Wyatt and then, through him, Chris to get him back here to the past in the first place. I work for both Death and Destiny. When things need fixing, like they did here, I'm the one they call. Between Bob and myself, we — "
"Bob," asked Paige incredulously. "The angel of Destiny is named Bob? Seriously?"
"It's what we call him around the office," laughed Clarence. "None of us really want to have to call him by his real name all the time. Trust me. It makes German sound like a pretty language when put up against his name. But anyway. The point is, between the two of us, we were able to get things back on track. This is the last piece we need to do. While I'm sure that you would all like to prolong this moment for as long as possible, I'm afraid that Destiny does need to get back to work. You have lives to lead."
Volunteering to get things moving along, Chris stood up from the arm of the sofa and asked, "What do we need to do?"
"That's up to you," said Clarence. "You have a few choices. The first is how you want to spend the next eighty years or so of your existence, I suppose. If you want, you can come back with me. I can take you to Freya. Or, if you choose, you have a childhood to experience with your family the way you were meant to experience it, free of the kind of loss that stunted all of your futures."
Chris's eyes immediately flew to Christopher's, wide with confusion and concern. "That . . . That can't be right. What about him? He — "
"Christopher's options are the same. If he wants, he can come with me or to Valhalla. Freya has already agreed to it. However, Christopher, if you so choose, you have the option to stay with your brother and sister, ready to emerge into the world when your time has truly come. Lucy and Wyatt will be returning with me. They will be safe until their times have arrived. It's the two of you who are the concern."
Chris shook his head. He couldn't believe this. He had already resigned himself to spending the rest of his existence on the ghostly plane. He had already formed a relationship with his aunt Prue and his great-grandmother and grandmother. He had met so many people that he never would have known otherwise, like his great-grandfather Alan. So much had been decided. It had taken everything he had to realize that he wasn't going back to the future he had worked for. He wasn't going to see his brother again. He was going to have to accept that he was gone and in a place that wasn't his to begin with. How could that change on him now? He had wanted to believe that Clarence was on his side and was going to make this as easy on him as possible. That's what he'd said that very first time he'd come. How could he go back on that now? This wasn't fair. This was more than just a cruel carrot. This was . . .This was . . . Yeah, it was horribly cruel.
"No," said Christopher quietly. He could imagine what his counterpart was thinking, mostly because he knew he would probably be thinking exactly the same thing. Christopher put a staying hand on his counterpart's forearm. "It's okay, Chris," he said. "You don't have to decide anything." With a look at his brother and sister, he spoke for all of them, "I think we just want to stay together."
Softly, Lucy said, "We've earned it."
"But that's — "
"What we want," interrupted Wyatt. "It's what we want for you, and it's what we want for us."
"It's what I want for you, too," added Christopher.
"But — "
Sensing that a decision had been made and wanting to keep it that way before Chris could try to tell any of them otherwise, Leo asked Clarence, "What happens now?"
Clarence smiled at Chris as if what he was about to say was meant specifically for him, but addressed them all. "Now you go back to your lives and try to live them instead of forgetting that there is a world out there beyond the future."
"It was a beautiful night to die," said Wyatt, strange smile in his eyes.
Chris immediately agreed, "It was a beautiful day to die."
Lucy reached down and took her brothers' hands in hers, squeezed, then stepped forward, the first to volunteer. A bright smile lit her face as she nodded at Clarence. "It's a good day to start over." She quickly turned to her mother and said, "It was really good to see you, even if just for a minute." To her father she said, "It was so nice to meet you. I believed you when you said you would come. It wasn't how you'd probably planned it, but you came for me anyway. So thanks."
Behind her, Wyatt said, "We'll be right behind you."
The girl — this time, Leo thought, she was a girl, his girl — smiled at them all, looking at her family for what was probably the only time she would ever see them whole and hers. Her face never faltered, but as Clarence raised his hands to commence, she hollered, "Wait!" She dashed to Chris's side, throwing her arms around his neck. Chris flinched back for the quickest second before grinning himself and pulling her tight. "Thank you," she whispered to him.
Chris didn't have any idea what to say back to her, so he just squeezed her tighter. He hoped that that would be enough. When she giggled in his ear, he knew it was.
Lucy held Chris's hand this time as she turned back to Clarence. "Okay. Hit me."
The Keeper raised both hands out in front of himself, palms up again. He swept his right hand around in a small circle. With the motion, Lucy's body spun apart until it formed a small, golden orb. It hovered in the air just above the wooden casket, bouncing with anticipation.
"She always is the first one into everything," said Christopher with a fond smile. "It makes us look like such losers," he laughed. He cocked an eyebrow at his brother and held out his fist. Immediately knowing what was going on, Wyatt followed suit. After three rounds of 'Rock, Paper, Scissors', Wyatt was the next to go. Christopher shrugged and explained further, "And I always win." He kicked his foot backward into his brother's ass, just like they had done so many times when they were kids. He couldn't help it. He felt like a little kid again. Giddy as could be, he taunted his brother, "Putz."
Wyatt kicked him back. "Right back at you." He didn't know what to say to the others. It had been such a strange couple of days and one very long one that, thankfully, was over. Trying to keep the moment light, he shrugged at them all. "Try to keep me out of trouble, would you?"
The man's parents took turns hugging him and telling him to be safe, but they otherwise kept the Goodbyes short and to the point. It wasn't really Goodbye, not anymore. In two days, he had become theirs again, but it was still only two days. Goodbye and Thank You were really all there could be. There was love, but it wasn't what it would one day be. So for now, it was more like a See You Later. They had an entire lifetime of trying to fix this now, and Wyatt in particular was ready to get there. Piper strangely thought as Wyatt swirled into his golden ball of light that Freya had been right, not just about Chris, but about all of her kids. They had all had enough Goodbye. This way was much, much better.
When it was Christopher's turn, he was nothing but smiles. After saying his farewells to his aunts, he gave his father a secret smile. "Thanks for not letting me screw this up too badly."
"Any time. That's what Dads do."
"I'm learning that," said Christopher. He then gave up fighting the urge and hugged his father for the first time in so many years that he couldn't remember the last time he had actually done it. Into the angel's shoulder, he said, "You be careful."
"Find that baseball, Dad. He'll like that. I did." Before they could say anything else or get too syrupy like Clyde had pointed out, Christopher turned to his mother. He didn't say anything at first, not knowing what he could say. So much had happened in just the week he'd been there.
Piper, too, didn't know exactly what to say. Well, she knew what she wanted to say, but she also knew that he didn't want to hear it. She'd tried that before. Instead, all she could tell him was "We'll see each other again."
"I love you, Mom."
"I love you, too. Take care of them."
Christopher stepped back and offered a hand to his other self, relief washing over the both of them when Chris took it. At the same time, they both said, "Thanks. No, thank you. I said it first. Jinx."
"Freaks," said Paige, wide grin plastered on her face. The two of them made identical sarcastic faces right back at her. When she saw the looks, she added, "Of sideshow proportions."
Lovingly, Christopher flipped his aunt the bird as he nodded to Clarence and became another bouncing ball of glimmering light. The three sibling orbs danced happily together, taking one last turn around the family members, circling their heads in a glorious little jig until they settled themselves in front of the box that reappeared in the Keeper's hands.
Clarence opened the lid of the ancient box and, with a sweeping gesture of his hand, the three orbs of light flew into the safety of the velvet-lined sanctuary. He closed the lid gently then let his hands leave the sides of the box so that it hovered mid-air. Another twist of his wrist and the box collapsed on itself into a ball of light that extinguished in his other open palm. With a satisfied smile, he told the family, "They will be safe now. The boys will both be given a fresh start when it is truly meant to be their time. I give you my word: they will be safe."
"Thank you," Piper said gratefully, squeezing Leo's arms around her just a little tighter.
"The only question then is you, Chris," said Clarence. "I can give you one of two choices."
"To remember all of this and everything you've been through . . . " Clarence carefully watched his charge as he offered up his first option. He wasn't too surprised to find that the young witch didn't flinch once. He didn't even look uncomfortable with it. "Or peace. If you want, you can have that new beginning that you wanted and gave to your brother. No memories, no pain, no nightmares. Just the opportunity to get to know your brother and the rest of your family the way you were meant to, without the interference of outside forces."
Chris glanced at Phoebe, the second option flickering in his head for all of a second. When he saw her face, though, and remembered the sight of the bruises and cuts on her cheek, the remnants of her transplanted fight with his brother, he knew immediately that he couldn't do it. Those were his memories. She may have them, but they were his to have and deal with, for better or worse.
His mind pretty much already made up, Chris asked, "If I choose to remember, how would that work? What would happen to me?"
"Exactly what would have happened to you before if you hadn't caused so much trouble when you died. Your soul will be put back into your body, the infant one over there. You'll grow up, you'll live your life. Somewhere along the line, memories of your past life will come to you, almost like déjà vu. I can help your family write a spell for you that will keep them from ever coming to you all at once, just to make sure. We could even arrange a particular day for you to start to get them, if you want. Whatever we have to do to make it easier for you. But in the end, you'll remember, but you won't."
Confused, Chris asked, "But if I'm going to go back into that body, what's going to happen to the soul that's in there?"
Clarence gave Chris a little smile. "That little soul came out of the box about twenty-five years too early. He needed to keep your place so that you could do other things for a while. Let's just say that Christopher had a few ideas that were startlingly accurate. We had to go to an awful lot of trouble to fix Octavius and Gideon's mess, but it has all worked out in the end. The little guy in there will be coming with me and join with Christopher again, ready to take the world by storm when his time comes. But, when you're ready here, he's ready to let you take your rightful place in the world and to take his when his time comes."
No one was all that surprised by Chris's answer, but none of them really liked it. Phoebe absolutely hated it. She went over to her nephew and took him by the hand, hoping that feeling her hand would remind him that she was in fact on his side, even if she hadn't always seemed to be. Sadly, she said, "You don't have to do this. You're in my head now, remember? I'll know what to look for. You and Wyatt would be safe. You don't have to live with that anymore. Give yourself that Do Over that you gave them. Let us all take care of you kids now. It's our job, not yours."
Chris seemed to think about the offer for a moment, but when he spoke, he sounded more than sure of what he wanted anyway. "I know I don't have to, but I want to. Not everything about my life before was bad. I had parents and a brother and an aunt who loved me. I had a lot of good. If I give all of that up, I'd be giving them up, too. And while the time I had here wasn't the easiest thing I've ever done, we had some good times here, too. I don't want to forget sitting up all night with you the night you found out about me or sitting up with Mom when she was having morning sickness. I don't want to forget hanging out with any of you."
Paige looked at her nephew curiously. "We kicked you out of the house. Your dad damned near put your head through a wall. We — "
"You did what you thought was right for Wyatt. I have never been mad at you for that. You think I don't know where I get my stubbornness from? You think I don't know how I ended up being the workaholic that I am? I never blamed any of you for how things happened when I was here before. It isn't in our nature to trust those on the outside. For all you knew, I was the threat. It was okay then and it's okay now."
Leo turned to Clarence protectively. "How about we do it like this? We wait until his eighteenth birthday. The spell will hold until then. We can all sit down together and tell Chris what happened. After he's heard it all, then we can give him the option to remember it or not. It doesn't have to be a decision made today, does it?"
Clarence asked, "Chris?"
"Yeah, that works," he said gratefully. "As long as Wyatt stays safe, yeah." Suddenly, his eyes flashed open with concern. He was in no way taking any chances with his brother's or anyone else's safety. He wasn't agreeing to anything until all of their bases were covered. "Wait a minute. What about the snow gardens? Who's going to take care of them if I'm one of them? I can't exactly be in two places at once."
"I'm sure Freya and I can come up with a suitable replacement," said Leo. "I can think of three witches Over There who would probably volunteer without a second thought."
"But they wouldn't know what to look for. I didn't get enough time with them to tell them every — "
"Chris," started Piper. She stood so that she could look her son in the eyes, those beautiful eyes, and held his hands tightly in hers. "Baby, listen to what we're all trying to tell you. It's done. You don't have to worry about Wyatt anymore, not like that. You are free now to just be a kid again. You get to let him look out for you for once. It really is okay."
A certain sadness for so many things crunched Chris's eyes into near slits as he said, "I don't know how to do that."
Piper looked over to where Little Wyatt was once again orchestrating an orb symphony for his little counterpart. "You have an entire childhood ahead of you to figure out how. He's going to make sure of that."
"But — "
"But nothing," the mother said. "Please, Chris. This is your chance. This is everything you worked for. Twenty years from now when you and I are standing here like this again, I want you to be able to smile at me like you actually know how. I want you to look at me and not be sad. When I think back on it, I realize that I can't remember a time when you looked at me with anything but sadness. I want that look gone. I want my son to grow up happy. That's all any of us want for you. We want you happy. Take this chance, please. I don't want our lives together to be about regret."
Surprised, Chris said, "Mom, I don't regret any of this."
"But I do," said Piper. Involuntarily, the mother's throat clenched. She coughed around it then asked, even though she knew it would make no sense to anyone but her, "What's your favorite color?"
Chris bit his lip in both surprise and absolute giddiness. He'd wanted so badly for her to ask him something about himself. It was one of the few times he thought about himself the entire time he was there. He had wanted her to want to know him for something besides his mission. It hadn't happened often, mostly when he was falling asleep into fitful dreams that he would want it, but he did want it. Maybe it was coming a little bit later than he'd wanted, but she had finally asked, and that was all that mattered. "Blue. My favorite color is blue."
"The Usual Suspects."
"Stairway to the Stars. You're going to sing it to me on a very special occasion, just you and me. Otherwise, it's something that you aren't going to hear for a very long time. You didn't like it, by the way. You bought me earphones just so that you wouldn't have to hear it anymore."
The smile Chris now had on his face hadn't gone unnoticed. Remembering the conversation she'd had with Piper about this very idea just last week, Paige told her nephew, "We're sorry we didn't ask sooner."
"I didn't expect you to, and it wasn't like I was offering up the information either," said Chris all too quickly. He knew it was a gut reaction to make it all better — he saw now that he was his father's son in so many ways — but he still secretly relished the apology. It was small, but it was enough. Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw Clarence tap his wrist at a non-existent watch and sighed. It was harder than he'd thought it would be, but it was getting to be time. Pushing hope into his voice, he said, "And we have plenty of time to figure that out over the next twenty years."
A dark silence followed, leaving everyone feeling awkward and sad. They had done this before, but this time, it felt both better and worse. This was really it, and none of them seemed to know where they were going to go from that point on.
Awkwardly, Chris said, "Okay, somebody say something. Please."
"Is anyone else feeling a little déjà vu here," asked Paige in an attempt to lighten the mood. She looked around at the sad faces in the living room and smiled brightly, as if there was absolutely nothing wrong at all with what was about to happen. Then again, if everything they had been through in the last two years was turning out the way it was supposed to, finally, there really wasn't anything wrong. "C'mon, people. This is a good thing. We got it right. This is Chris's reward. We should be happy here."
Grateful for the effort, Chris offered his aunt a sparkling smile in return. With everything that had happened in the last few weeks, part of him knew that his father and his aunt had paid the biggest price. They would always have the memory of what the three of them had been through that day, no matter how things turned out in the future. He couldn't change that for them. But if she was okay with this, if she was the one telling everyone else to relax, then it really was time to be okay. They were all going to be okay now.
Hesitant to agree with his almost-daughter, Victor looked to Chris and Clarence for reassurance. "This is real now, right? All of my grandchildren are safe. No catches, no hijacked souls, no dying?"
"Yep, this is it," Chris said happily. He really did look so happy, happy in a way that no one in the family had ever seen him look before. He was right. This really was it. "I don't know exactly where it is that we're going from here, but it's someplace that I've never been before. I get the feeling it's going to be a good place to be. I've got my big brother looking out for me. How bad a place can that be?"
"Bite your tongue," Phoebe said, sort of jokingly with a shudder. "No tempting the wrath of the whatever high atop the thing."
"For the first time in my life, Phoebe, I mean that as a good thing. I'm not worried, so I don't want you to be either. This really is going to be okay."
Chris bent over from his position on the couch and pulled his brother up off the floor to sit in his lap. He hugged Wyatt close, almost to the point of suffocating the kid, as if hugging him could grant him a lifetime of safety and protection. He knew that nothing was guaranteed until he got to the future, but somehow he had to have hope for them this time. He had died for his brother and Wyatt had sacrificed himself for him. He knew that his baby self was going to be protected. That was a start.
As everyone else watched with looks of bittersweet happiness, Chris whispered into the toddler's ear, "You're going to be okay now, Wyatt. Mom and Dad can do the rest. But I promise, I'll be watching anyway. I will see you in a few years. I promise."
The toddler Wyatt hugged his brother back, giggling happily as if he had some comprehension of what the real Chris was saying to him. He pointed a finger up at Chris's nose and softly said, "'e good."
"Yeah," Chris laughed. "Be good."
Piper's hand curled into Leo's as they watched their sons say goodbye again. She tried not to cry, really she did, but somehow seeing Wyatt talk to Chris made her so happy. It was her right as their mother to cry when they made her happy. Happy tears were a good thing in this family. Anyone who didn't understand that, well . . . They knew what they could go do to themselves.
Chris set his little big brother down and grinned wildly at him. "And you better be nice to me, you bum, or I'll tell Grandpa."
Victor regarded his grandson with amazement and a skeptically cocked eyebrow. "You really think I have any power over either of you?"
"You have a lot more than you think," said Chris.
" 'Cause I'm awesome?"
"None better, Grandpa."
For only the second time in their lives, Piper and Phoebe saw their father break down in tears. He still had a smile for his grandson, but there was no hiding the man's fear and sadness. Phoebe gave Piper a half a shrug, as if to say Did you really expect anything less? Piper bit her lip to cover her teeth as she smiled happily back. It had taken several lifetimes, but they really were whole again.
Laughing and crying at the same time, Victor's request came out a clogged, "Come here, kid."
Chris let his grandfather pull him into his arms, wanting to feel the man's realness. Lucy had told him about them losing Victor. It was the one blessing he'd had in his life, never having to face that loss. He may have lost everything else, but his grandfather had always been there. To imagine anything else, at least in the midst of all of the rest of it, was too much. He felt his grandfather's hand at the back of his head, hugging him so tight. It was everything he had always needed and got from the man. He just wished he could tell him that.
All of the death going around was apparently too much for the other man as well because Victor said tearfully into his grandson's ear, "Don't you ever do that to me again, you hear me?"
"It's going to be okay, Grandpa," said Chris, patting his grandfather on the back.
"I get to go first," Victor argued, not accepting the boy's answer. "You promise me that."
Chris couldn't promise that. He knew better, especially in the family's line of work. What he would promise, however, that he would do his best. He put that promise into his tone as he told his grandfather, "We have a lot of talking to do, I promise."
A tired yawn that started with little Chris and was quickly seconded by his big brother let them all know that what remained of the night was growing very, very long. Little Wyatt started waving and sing-songing at them, "Nuh-nigh, nuh-nigh."
"I guess that's our cue," Chris said to Clarence. Still, there was one more loose end that Chris wanted to tie up before he was unable to influence the situation any longer. Looking both nervous and mischievous, Chris asked over his shoulder, "Hey, Dad? That question I asked you that day? Do you have a new answer for me yet?"
The Elder thought about it for a moment, then saw the confused look on his wife's face. Knowing then what question Chris was asking about, he gave his son a wink. "Your future is safe in that regard, I think."
"Good. That's the way it was meant to be, you know," said Chris, the last vestiges of the guilt over his parents' situation finally leaving him. He'd always known that they would find their way back to one another; it just took a little longer than he'd planned. Then again, nothing had worked out as planned. At least it still worked out. That thought in mind, Chris said, "Don't let this drive you too crazy on us, okay? I know you're never going to trust the Elders again, and I don't blame you, but don't let this take over your life. We're all safe now, okay?"
"Chris — "
"No, Dad. I may have been wrong about a lot of things and I may have been manipulated into being wrong about a lot of things, but I am not wrong about this. This goes for all of you. In a few minutes, I won't be dead anymore. All of this is over now. Don't let this take over your lives. Please. Find Barbas. Do what you gotta do. And I really wouldn't care if it was incredibly painful when you do. Do what you want to with the Elders. Shut them out or let them in; it's up to you. But let it end there. Don't make the rest of our lives be about what has happened now. There's no point in it. Let it go. We have lives to lead. This needs to be a home again."
When no one said anything reassuring back to him, Chris took his turn with each of them. First, to Paige, he said, "It's going to come back on you, you know. You're half Them, too. Zola was right. There is still a lot of good that this family can do, especially those of us genetically predisposed to it, you know? Don't let this keep you from doing that good, okay?"
Sensing that this was their semi-private Goodbye, Paige stepped close up to Chris and hugged him, this time without any sarcastic attempt to lighten her heart. Into his ear, she whispered her request, "As long as you promise you'll never die on me like that again."
"Right back at you," he said into her shoulder. With a light chuckle, he asked, "Is SuperWitch going to make a comeback any time here soon?"
"I think SuperAunt needs to have her chance first, if that's okay with you."
"I'd like that," he said then kissed her atop the head.
Chris would have said more, but Phoebe pulled him by the elbow away from her sister and into her own arms. "Hey," she said. "Share the boy now." With a big smile over her shoulder at her sister, she then turned into her nephew and stood on her tipped toes. Into his ear, she said, "You did good, kiddo. Thank you, for everything."
"Stay out of trouble now, right?"
With a wry smile, Phoebe said, "That goes for the both of us." She then gave her nephew a loving, tearful punch on the shoulder and pushed him away. "Now go, tell your parents you love them, then get the hell out of here. You have a life to live and so do we."
Unlike the last time they'd tried to say Goodbye, Piper, Leo, and Chris didn't bother trying to come up with the right words or try to make it easy on themselves at all. The parents surged forward and pulled their son in between them, burying him in a hug. Muffled tears could be heard outside the threesome, sniffles and clogged chuckles escaped, and even a few distorted words. No one asked what was being said between the three. This was their moment, one that didn't require invasion or eavesdropping. It was theirs as he was theirs. And it always would be.
When they emerged, it was only to allow them room to breathe without suffocating on the humidity of the tears in the huddle. Piper swiped at tears with the back of her hand while Leo just sniffed them back all too loudly. Chris would have done something about his own, but his hands were a little tied up entwined with theirs. No one said anything, but Chris sort of grunted permission to Clarence to get things over and done with.
After a wave of the Keeper's hand, one golden orb flew out of the box and hovered in the air like a bouncing ball. A moment later, a much smaller but just as brilliant globe of light escaped Baby Christopher's mouth. With a twirl of his index finger, the two globes swirled around one another, faster and faster, until, in a flash of golden light, they became one. The angel gave the orb a gentle smile, then beckoned it back home into the box. It bounced happily along the way, into a sanctuary that would one day open the world to new possibilities.
The angel had a gentle happiness in his voice as he backed up away from the family. "Okay, Chris. Your turn."
Almost as giddy as a kid on the last day of school once the bell rings, Chris stepped into the space left between his family and his caretaker. There were no signs of fear as he waved at them. "See you soon."
The young witch nodded at his caretaker, who nodded back proudly. Another wave of his hand turned Chris into a tornado of golden orbs that swirled just as the others had until they came together as one. With a zig and a zag, the globe continued its giddy bounce until it settled near the sleeping infant in Piper's arms. It gave one last swirl, flying up to circle around their heads and dive right into the baby. A wave of gold passed over the baby, warming his color and bringing a grin to his face, long before he should have been able to do so.
Finally, after everything, Chris Halliwell was home.
It well may be That we will never meet again In this lifetime,
So let me say before we part,
So much of me Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end,
I know you have re-written mine By being my friend...
And now that this catastrophe is over . . . Boys?
Waldorf: Hey, that wasn't half bad.
Statler: Nope. It was ALL bad!
Thanks, fellas! I knew I could count on you!
Okay, that now catches us up with canon. Leo is free to have a nutty and kill Zola and become an avatar and all. Piper is free to have a nutty and lock the kids up until after the wedding. Everything is as it should be to begin series seven. It also makes their craziness make a little more sense than it did in the season premiere. Leo was a little too crazy. Now he can be anti-Elder all he wants. I would. There was originally going to be a second part to this last chapter that would fast forward and let us know that it all worked out, but after writing three versions and not liking any of them, I decided this was a good enough place to stop. Hope that works for you all.
Here are some little tidbits and things you may or may not want to know . . .
For anyone interested, once it's been edited, The Snow Gardens: An Interlude will be available to read soon. It's the story of the night in the attic between our first Chris and his brother the night they formulated their plan to send him to the past. It's the first thing I wrote in all of this, actually, but there never seemed to be a good place to put it. So keep an eye out if you want to know more. It's a stand-alone, so no big waits once it's up.
So with all of the fighting that has now come to pass in this thing, I have to know: did anyone else break out in song like I did? Just curious. Please Mister Linesman, let the players fight. Please Mister Linesman, let the players fight. Let them fight, let them fight, let them fight, LET THEM FIGHT! . . . It was just me, huh? Oh, well. Funny.
Okay, now that I've got that out of my system . . .
For posterity's sake, this story was begun 24 June 2004 and completed 28 May 2007 with a year off in between chapters six and seven. It is 400 pages long in 9 point Georgia. It's been a wild, wacky, and sometimes shiny ride. Hope you enjoyed. So who'da'thunkit that I'd manage to actually get this done? My goal has been to finish a novel by my thirtieth birthday. It isn't the novel I imagined, but it's still a novel and it's still done. Yay me!
Regarding Plot Device #32 (known to you as Lucy), I hope she didn't come off as too much of a MarySue. To be honest, I don't know whether I believe that there will be a sister or brother or whatever for the two kids. The fact is, I really don't care any which way. I know some people have very adamant opinions about it that may have even turned them off this story just because she's there. As you can see, now that you've reached the end, she was never more than a plot device for me to 1) get Wyatt to the past, 2) get the sword to the past, and 3) put Christopher and Wyatt on the right track. If her character is annoying, I apologize. She just came out that way. Little sisters often do (I have one, I should know).
Special thanks to the guy who knows who this is about. I won't make him blush by putting his name in the credits. He knows who he is. He made this fun, encouraged me when it wasn't, and is a terrific guy. He deserves big, big credit for what you've read. Lots of credit. He should have enough to buy his entire dorm setup next fall. Love you, little brother. I most definitely have been changed for good because of you.
Last but certainly not least, Thank You to all of you who have read this entire monstrosity. I have had as many praises as complaints, so that makes me pretty happy. I know it isn't the easiest fic out there to trudge through, so good on you for making it through. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed at least parts if not all. You guys are my happy dance. I've got my something blue, two dollars off my other blue thing, and I'm on the table doing My Boogie Shoes. Thank you all!
The title of the story, The Snow Gardens, was inspired by Christopher Rice's novel of the same name. I can tell you that that's as far the resemblance goes, however. Let's just say that the snow garden that is described at the end of his book is nowhere near as peaceful a place as the Halliwells' sanctuary. Theirs is a place of safety and happiness. His is, well, not. It's twisted, though, if you ever get the chance to read it, I would recommend it.
The lyrics at the top of the first chapter and in the epilogue are from the song For Good from the musical Wicked. They're appropriate to the story, I think. Whenever I needed inspiration to write the story of Chris and Wyatt, I listened to two songs from that show, Defying Gravity and For Good. Listen sometime and you'll understand why. And when that didn't work, Bruce Springsteen's You're Missing from his The Rising album was always a big, big help.
About the snow gardens: For those of you who don't know me, I grew up in the fantastic and lovely state of Minnesota and lived there my entire life until I was twenty-three. Every year since 1886, there is indeed a winter carnival like Piper and Leo describe in the Cities which boasts a fully functioning ice castle, along with ice sculptures and other wintry things everywhere. And for the golf enthusiast, there is even a mini golf course of snow and ice. It's one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. There are only five cities in the world that build the ice palaces, St Paul being one of them. If you ever get the chance, I would totally recommend visiting. You won't regret it. I'd also suggest visiting winter-carnival dot com to see pictures so that you can see what I imagine for the snowglobe on Piper's shelf.
Because I've been asked ... In chapter ten, the comment "Wanna find a corner and make out?" is a question that gets thrown around in an episode of Sports Night, which is probably my favorite show of all time next to Buffy. The question is asked by Natalie to both Jeremy (her boyfriend) and Dana (her best friend and boss). It isn't a serious question toward Dana.
Anything else you may recognize (Butch and Sundance, etc.) is pretty much credited within the text. Thanks!
And there you have it. If you had half as much fun reading this as I had writing it, well then I had twice as much fun writing it as you did reading it. No animals or Chrises were harmed (really) in the writing of this story. Many, many brain cells were.