The television show "Charmed," including the characters of Piper Halliwell, Phoebe Halliwell, Paige Matthew, Leo Wyatt, Darryl Morris, and Cole Turner, is copyrighted by Spelling Television, Inc., a subsidiary of Spelling Entertainment Group, Inc.

This story takes place after the "Happily Ever After" episode; Piper is pregnant but not showing, Phoebe still has her power of premonition, Cole is back from vanquishment with more power than he had before, and Leo is still a whitelighter. Seeing that Julian McMahon got another TV series, it was inevitable that Cole had to be written out of the show. This is a way they could have done it without saying that Cole, because of his demon half, would eventually have to turn evil and insane.

The office was in a funky, arty district of San Francisco, and while the New Age bookstore next door had closed, several of the area psychics were apparently doing a roaring business. A well dressed middle-aged man, slightly balding, looked over the signs posted on shop windows and doors as he walked down the street – "Aromatherapy," "Jingle's Original Jewelry," "Take Control of Your Future!" – occasionally giving a quick flicker of a smile.

He stopped at a glass door with the words "Healing of Souls" in large letters at eye level, and below, in smaller lettering, "Clara Karnes. Walk-Ins Welcome."

The man smiled quickly again and walked in. A bell inside the door jangled, and he smelled a very faint odor of incense.

Clara's office was as small inside as it looked outside, but good lighting and a cunning use of mirrors kept it from feeling cramped. It was crowded with a hodgepodge of objects – desk, filing cabinet, sofa, CD player, bookshelves filled with recreational and artistic objects, wind chimes, novels, textbooks, blue ceremonial candles in candle holders. On a card table in the middle of the room was a crude house made of modeling clay. No healer of souls to be seen, but water was running in a back room.

"Hello?"

"Come on in, I'll be out in a moment!"

The man was standing very still, letting his gaze move over the room quickly. "You take walk-ins, right?"

"I have an appointment coming in a moment, but we can talk until she gets here. Have a seat!"

He remained standing. "If I'm your patient, do I get Play-Doh too?"

Clara laughed. "A lot of people find it healing to work with their hands." She snapped off the bathroom light, but paused at the back wall, adjusting the thermostat, before turning to face her guest. She was a slender, attractive woman, simply dressed, with gray in her hair and smile lines around her eyes. "Particularly men. Is that the first thing that – "

She turned, the question choked off in her throat, and her smile froze.

"What's the matter?" asked the man.

She stumbled forward a step, looking at him with terror and fascination. "What – what – "

"You know something."

"What are you?"

"Good, we'll cut to the chase." The man smiled again, and his eyes glowed an inhuman red. "Business going well, is it? Good word of mouth? The problem is that you're bad for other business around here. My business, for one. And the people I work for don't like it. They don't like you at all, Clara. And they know where to find you."

He glanced around casually. Books flew off their shelves, the wind chimes made hideous discordant sounds, the candles melted, the mirrors cracked, the clay house re-formed itself into a dagger.

"Close up shop, Clara." His voice was surprisingly gentle. "You're a good woman, and a smart one. What's the point in sacrificing yourself when no one will ever know or care why it happened? Get an office job somewhere. You can do a lot of good for your co-workers. The money's better, too."

He smiled again, his eyes went back to normal. The clay dagger flew off the table and struck Clara in the stomach. She stepped back with a gasp.

"I'm very practical," he said in the same persuasive tone. "If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone. Close up shop, you can live completely without fear. Keep the office open, your life expectancy is hours. Don't make me do it. It would be pointless."

She didn't say a word; probably couldn't have. Still he looked into her eyes and seemed to respond to them. "No? Too dedicated to your human trash bins?" He shook his head. "Too bad, Clara."

He turned and slammed the door open. The beautiful young woman on the other side, her hand on the handle, was yanked through the door, and the bell above the door was torn from its mooring, hitting the floor with a clank.

"Whoa!" the young woman said, finding her footing as the man rushed by her. "Nice manners, buddy!" She turned ruefully to Clara. "If that was your nine o'clock – Are you all right?"

Clara was shaking, a glaze over her face. "It – it – I – "

"You'd better sit down." The young woman crossed the shop, spotted a chair, put her hand under Clara's elbow. Then she went stiff herself, her head jerked back, her eyes slammed closed, and she saw

This same shop, this same proprietor. A man enters, one of those whose scrawniness bespeaks too many drugs and too little nourishment. He raises his hand, a gun in it. Clara only has time to say "Who are you?" before the gunshot spins her like a top, blood

The young woman opened her eyes, and discovered that the older woman was now supporting her.

"You're in great pain," Clara Karnes said.

"You're in mortal danger," said Phoebe Halliwell.

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Piper loaded a plate on the kitchen counter with her home-baked oatmeal cookies while Phoebe poured glasses of apple juice. "So," Piper murmured quietly, "you thought your soul needed healing?"

Phoebe glanced at the kitchen door, and seeing no one, she said with equal quiet, "You know how things have been. My premonition today was my first in months. And sometimes I still wake up with this – cold feeling inside, like I've driven away everyone I've ever loved and I'll never get them back."

"Didn't happen. Wouldn't happen."

Phoebe nodded, her face still troubled. Then she smiled. "And for professional reasons, too. A couple of my regular readers wrote me about Clara, said she'd helped them a lot." There was a slight baby-talk inflection to, "I need to see if she's going to drive Dear Phoebe out of business!"

Piper chuckled, and they carried the refreshments into the parlor, sitting by the coffee table where Paige was talking to Clara. "Well, if Phoebe says that the creep who threatened you and the creep who's planning to shoot you are two different creeps, that's the way it is, but it doesn't make sense. Yesterday, as far as you know, you had no enemies, and now you have two?"

"Apparently," Clara said. She still looked shaken, but was dealing with it well.

"How did you know that the guy who came in today was a demon?"

"I didn't. I just knew – there was something wrong. Even before he did anything."

"How?"

Clara hesitated, and Phoebe leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. "Clara, you've dodged this question a couple of times now, but it's important that you tell us. Don't worry about sounding – unusual. We're pretty unusual ourselves around here."

Clara smiled a little. "I guessed that when you said, 'You've been attacked by an upper-level demon.'" She took a breath. "All right. I can see souls."

"See?" Paige said. "Like – "

"Like a visual image, only not exactly."

"What do they look like?"

"Oh – like – " Clara closed her eyes. "This really is like explaining sight to the blind. When I was little I thought everyone could do it, you know. As I got older I learned to keep quiet about it, and for years I tried to deny it altogether. I only opened the office recently. But I'll try to explain.

"A soul looks, to me, like a – being, a living creature, made out of light. There's a certain straight, flowing energy to the purest souls, almost as though they were traveling somewhere even when the body is still. But all of them have different qualities and different burdens. Fear is the most common, and it takes many forms – sometimes it looks like growths on the soul, sometimes it bloats the soul, sometimes shrinks it. Addictions look like – weights, crushing and distorting. Anger looks like a burn. Pride is like – a shell, is the best way I can put it, something resistant to contact and to movement. Guilt and defeat – " she looked at Phoebe – "they're hard to work out of a soul. They're like stains. You're not a person who is normally a defeatist, but you're in despair about something, and you feel guilty about something."

"Wow." Phoebe barely voiced the syllable.

"It's an amazing gift," Piper said.

"It's a mixed blessing. You might look at someone very deformed or disabled, and feel pity or fear, because we all fear things like that happening to us. But I might look at the same person and, if there's a strong healthy soul there, I would relate to him more easily, knowing that, even if the temporary part of him has great struggles, the permanent part of him will be fine. But I've met people who, everyone thought they were, oh, funny or sexy or dynamic, and I could barely stand to look at them, their souls were so malformed."

At that moment, Leo orbed into the room.

Piper leaped to her feet, a wild mix of distress covered by feigned amusement in her face and voice. "LEO! Ah – you silly, hah-hah, doing your – magic tricks again IN FRONT OF COMPANY – "

"It's all right," Leo said with a grin. "The Elders sent me. They said I could orb in, that we can tell Ms. Karnes everything. They told me what her gift is and what happened today."

"They gave you information without being asked? What, are they up to something?"

"Maybe. All I know is, they're very excited about something related to her." Leo turned his gaze from Piper to Clara. "Ms. Karnes, I'm Leo Wyatt – "

Halfway through the sentence his voice faded, and they all looked at Clara.

She was staring at Leo with a smile that didn't dare to believe its own joy, her eyes wet. It was the look of a mother whose child had flatlined and then been revived.

"What are you?" she asked, in a completely different tone than she'd used earlier that morning.

"I'm a lower-level angel, sort of. And I'm Piper's husband."

"Perfect soul, huh?" Phoebe asked with more than a shade of envy.

"Not perfect. No. But I've never seen one so undamaged. It's so beautiful." She blinked, and tears rolled out of her eyes. "Are all the souls like yours, where you come from?"

Leo was looking embarrassed. "Most are better."

"Oh. Oh, my. That's something to look forward to."

"Clara? The guy in your office this morning?" Paige's verbal nudging finally diverted Clara's attention. "I take it that his soul looked nothing like Leo's?"

"He didn't have one. I've never seen that before."

"Never?" Paige exploded. "We see demons a couple of times a week!"

"You live extraordinary lives," Leo reminded her.

"Ye-ah, lucky us," Piper said. "Still, it seems odd."

"Once or twice, in crowded rooms or passing on a street, I thought I saw – but it's – Suppose you thought you saw someone at a party, moving around, a drink in his hand, but he had no head. You literally wouldn't believe your eyes. I always thought I must have just been mistaken, until one of them was looking straight at me, and there was no mistake. It was terrifying."

"Demons are terrifying, but usually without using guns," Paige said. "Who do you suppose the guy in Phoebe's premonition is?"

"Some dupe, some tool," said Leo.

"A lower-level demon or a screwed-up human doing the demon's dirty work for him," Phoebe said. "And soon. Within a couple of hours. I could tell."

"Then if I just wait here a couple of hours – " Clara began hopefully.

"Then the demon will send someone else when you don't know it's coming," Paige said. "Right now is our best shot. Let's grab the agent and see if he leads us to the principal."