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

For a few minutes Phoebe scried for Cole, while Piper changed into clothes far better suited for demon-hunting and filled three stoppered vials with vanquishing potion. Paige orbed to Clara's office, picked up the circlet of Clara's hair, got the car and started driving it back to the Manor.

Then for a few minutes Piper scried for Cole, while Paige finished driving to the Manor. Phoebe called Cole's apartment, his law firm, a classy restaurant where he had once taken her, the police, and a couple of hospitals.

Then for a few minutes, using Clara's hair, Paige scried for Clara while Phoebe and Piper brainstormed about what "Quiet, and close to nature" might mean to Cole.

Then, constructively, Paige spent a few seconds banging her forehead with her hand. "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

"I went along with it," Piper said, fingering the small crucifix she was wearing.

"Wait a minute," Phoebe said, seizing the Book of Shadows. "What about – "

And that was when Leo orbed in.

The three rushed to him and started explaining the situation, but he held up his hands and they fell silent. "I know. The Elders know all about it. That was why they pulled me out of here when you asked me to take Clara someplace safe. They wanted to give Clara a chance with Cole."

"Suggesting that next week they'll leave a tricycle on the tracks to give it a chance with an oncoming train," Piper said.

"Do the Elders know where they are?" Phoebe asked.

Leo's expression was grave. "Yes. And they told me to get you there fast."

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Cole and Anders were sitting in fine leather chairs in the cabin, martini glasses on the coffee table in front of them, laughing. "She had no idea," Cole said.

"None! Went around telling people she was going to be the new Source's mistress!"

"Maleazar." Cole said it as if the name alone amused him. "He's always good for a laugh. What territory is he covering now?"

"None. Vanquished."

"Hmp," Cole said.

"You have no idea how badly you're needed, Your Majesty," Anders said earnestly. "Look what I'm reduced to."

He lifted the little lantern from the floor, and put it on the coffee table before Cole. Behind the glass panes, two tiny spheres of light, one teal and one a murky orange that Piper and Paige would have recognized, moved soddenly.

"Pretty pathetic specimens," Cole said.

"Tell me about it." Anders flicked a finger at the orange one. "Should've heard that one scream when I came for him, you'd have thought he was the Buddha. I said, hey, buddy, you made the deal with me and you injected the drugs. It was your choice, not mine."

There might have been the slightest shadow on Cole's face as he studied the captive souls. "So even a – human like this, had the power to choose his way."

Anders finished his martini. "Hell, yes. Let's not start buying into our own propaganda. Mind if I mix another?"

Cole looked at him without expression, and the smile on Anders' face flickered just a bit. "Of course," he said, standing and moving toward the bar, "they didn't have free will as to whether to be born human or not. Just as you didn't have free will as to whether to be born demonic."

"Half demonic," Cole said absently, "no, I didn't."

"And even if you could choose now, sir," Anders put his glass down and looked straight at Cole, "what kind of a lousy option do you have? That castrating slut out there, what was she trying to push you into? Groveling and fighting to fit into a world that can't handle you. Groveling and fighting to win the love of a woman who doesn't deserve you. That's free will?"

The Charmed Ones and Leo materialized in the forest at the opposite side of the clearing from the cabin. In the moment when they were getting their bearings, they saw Clara pulling herself up by the veranda railing, holding a hand to her head as if it hurt.

"Eternal pain," Anders said. "Or eternal power and unlimited pleasure. What other choice do you have?"

Cole stood, looking thoughtful. "You're right. Wait, I can think of one other. Eternal pain – " there was a fireball in his hand – "with occasional moments of satisfaction."

Phoebe, across the clearing, said, "Clara," and began running toward the cabin, followed by the others.

Then they all leaped back as a fireball screamed out of the cabin door. Actually it wasn't the fireball screaming; it was the demon being consumed by it, writhing and bellowing in pain and rage as he shot across the clearing like a comet.

The comet vanished suddenly. Nothing remained but a scorch mark on the forest floor, across which a squirrel skittered.

"What – " said Paige.

"That was the soul collector," said Phoebe.

Cole came out of the cabin door and went straight to Clara, saying something to her. Clara took her hand off her head and nodded.

Then Cole caught sight of the others standing across the clearing. He said something to Clara and she looked over at them too. She cocked her head as she spoke to Cole, seemed to be asking him a question. Then they both went into the cabin.

Mesmerized, Phoebe moved a few steps forward, the others picking up on her cue a moment later.

Cole came back out of the cabin with something in his hand, bent over the railing and put it on the ground. Then he stood back from the railing, just looking. From her position slightly in front of the others, Phoebe looked back.

The entire cabin began shimmering and disappeared, revealing a sunset-streaked sky, red and gold.

Leo ran for the object on the ground, and this time Phoebe was slightly behind the others.

"Two souls," Leo said, lifting the collector's lantern. "Jimmy and the drunk driver, I assume."

"Can you take them back with you?" Paige asked. "Aren't they, like, damned?"

"I can take them back," Leo said. "The ultimate decision on what to do with them will be made at much higher levels than mine."

Piper cleared her throat. "Leo. Is it possible that I'm wrong, and the Elders sometimes know what they're doing?"

"They always know something," Leo said. "They can't always make things come out the way they want – " he shrugged, as one stating an undebatable fact – "obviously, what with free will. But they always know something."

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Six weeks later Phoebe was in her bedroom watching "Bewitched" on TV, perched on the end of her bed, painting her toenails. Samantha had just realized that something magical had had unexpected effects, and Elizabeth Montgomery did a take that amused both the laugh track and Phoebe. Samantha twitched her nose, and vanished.

The Stevenses' empty living room stayed on the screen.

After a moment, it was eerie. Phoebe leaned forward, breathing fast.

Cole walked into the Stevenses' living room and smiled at her. "Hello, Phoebe."

She could only stare.

"I know you hate it when I do this," he continued, "but after this I promise –

"Well. I've made you promises.

"The fact is – " it was as though the words were having a hard time coming out of his mouth – "I may never see you again, and I had to see you once to say goodbye.

"I think Clara's right about one thing. At least." He smiled wryly. "I think you're an addiction for me. It can't be good for you, being the object of someone's addiction. I'm finally realizing that the addiction's not good for me. You dropped your polish."

Phoebe barely glanced at the red blob that Slave to Passion was leaving on her rug.

"Clara's fine, by the way. In spite of her difficult patient. If she knew I were doing this, she'd say hi. She expects to be back and resume her practice in the next couple of months.

"I don't know what the future holds for me. Let's be pragmatic." This sounded as if it were an ongoing discussion he was having with himself. "I could conjure a rap sheet and shimmer myself into prison, but I think the environment there would be – well, let's face it, eventually I'd be a danger to everyone there. Even if I managed to keep my sanity, when I'd been there 70 or 80 years without dying, it would be a tip-off to the reality of the magical realm. You know what that results in. Still, I have to do something –

"Well, Clara says I jump too far ahead. That I have to focus on making right choices in each present moment.

"Free will does exist, Phoebe. You always knew it. A lot of us sinners forget it, or we block it out for our own convenience. We have to keep reminding ourselves of it every day, every minute.

"The thing is – even with making right choices and pragmatism and soul-healing activities – " he rolled his eyes a bit and grinned – "a lot of listening to silence – even with all that, I still can't shake the feeling that you and I will be together someday."

He held up his hand. "I'm not banking on it, don't worry. It's not my goal." He grinned again. "Only recently have I come to the realization that there are other goals possible in the universe. But it's a feeling that persists with me. Call it a premonition."

The woman in her room and the man in the borrowed setting locked gazes for a moment, as they had across the forest clearing. Cole took a breath, as if to say something else.

Then he was gone, and the show went on as before.

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Author's Note: Thanks so much to the people who read and reviewed! It was TRULY appreciated! I think I've learned some things, which I hope to apply in my next story.