Chapter XV – Search and Rescue

It was a strange sensation, orbing out of someone's mind. He wasn't even sure if it was possible. One minute, Cole had been orbing and the next, he was waking up suddenly in the sisters' attic with a cold sweat on his brow. It was not pleasant.

"What happened?" Piper's voice demanded instantly, breaking through the calm quiet in his head.

"I think she's back," Cole replied simply, sitting up. Piper's eyes widened, perhaps in relief, perhaps in shock that he had actually managed to do it.

"For good?"

"I hope so," he muttered, pulling himself to his feet. His sense of balance was completely off, and he almost fell down again. "I don't think I could go through that again."

"Well?" Paige asked after a beat of silence.

"Well what?"

"Where is she?"

They exchanged a worried glance.

"I don't know," Cole began. "I assumed she'd come back with me."

"No," Piper interrupted, shaking her head. She walked past Cole towards the attic door. "She'll have returned to her own body. Like I did after you guys did the same with me. Well," she cast them each a look, "almost the same."

"Oh," Paige said dejectedly. "So... we still have to find her?"

Cole and Piper arrived at the same thought simultaneously.

"The potion!"

It didn't take any more thought. The three of them rushed down the stairs, practically tripping as they went. If it had been a cartoon, there would have been movement smoke left behind them.

Paige and Cole waited with baited breath as Piper poured the contents of the – now rather cold – saucepan in to a vial. However, once she'd capped it and shaken it, she wasn't quite sure what to do.

"So... I just throw this? At us?" she asked hesitantly.

"Well, I assume so," replied Cole with a shrug.

"You assume so? It was your idea!"

"Well, I've never used it before!" he half shouted, anger and voice rising. The little voice in his head shot him a warning and, despite the temptation, he bit his tongue.

"Save now, argue later," Paige reminded meaningfully. "If the potion doesn't work, one of us can orb."

Piper shrugged, stepped over to the other two and let the potion drop to the floor. The glass shattered with a crash and smoke rose up from the mess, practically devouring the trio in its wake.

The transportation didn't take long. Within seconds, coughing and spluttering, the three of them were standing in the Underworld. With Phoebe. Surrounded by demons. Paige swore under her breath at the sight. There must have been at least twenty demons around them.

"Phoebe!" Piper shouted, rushing up to her younger sister. Phoebe didn't turn around. She didn't move; her eyes, her entire body, were fixed on the demons in front of her. "Phoebe!" Piper repeated, more force behind her voice. She took her sister by the arm and shook her. Phoebe made no response.

It was not the only strange thing going on. The circle of demons were standing stock-still too, their eyes all set on Phoebe. None of them stirred. In fact, not one of them seemed to have even noticed the three intruders, despite the racket. If Piper didn't know better, she would have wondered if she'd frozen the scene.

"Phoebe!"

Cole's voice was loud and commanding. He came up to her other side, grabbed her forearm and tried to pull her away. But she wouldn't budge. Cole shot a questioning look over at Piper, who merely shrugged. But it was Paige who alerted their attention.

"Uh guys?"

They turned around, and as soon as they did, their eyes widened.

"The Book's... uh... doing something."

Paige backed away to her sisters and Cole and watched with a mingle of horror and fear as the Book of Shadows began to rise into the air. A loud, heavy roaring sound erupted from its pages, and then something that looked like a mini tornado spun outwards from the spine, circling as it went. The noise was deafening.

The tornado rose and swelled, spreading up in to the air. It then swerved and suddenly surrounded a nearby demon, engulfed it, then pulled it back into its depth. The demon didn't even cry out. The tornado receded completely for mere seconds, but then returned, repeating this process with the next demon in line.

"What the hell's going on?" Piper shouted above the din of the roaring wind.

"Looks like some sort of weird ritual," Paige shouted back, glancing around them and taking note of the demons' chests – each one had some sort of ancient rune gouged in to them. "Look at the markings of their wounds!"

Something inside Cole clicked. Ritual... Summoning... Could this be what Phoebe had tried to warn him about when he was in her mind?

"We have to get out of here!" he yelled. The tornado had already made fast work of more than half of the demons.

"We can't just leave!"

"Well, we can't stand around and wait for that thing to kill us, either," Cole replied to the eldest sister. But then something happened that made the decision for them. The tornado, as if picking up on their thoughts, suddenly split and hurled several long jets of air out to the remaining demons. It pulled them all into its pages simultaneously, like a huge monster licking its lips after a satisfying meal. The only people left were the three sisters and Cole, who still had his hand held firmly on Phoebe's arm. A deadly and eerie silence came over the cave and the Book floated back down to the podium of rocks it had previously been resting on. Like an undisturbed child.

And with it, Phoebe suddenly sucked in a huge, long breath of air, like she had been under water longer than was safe. Piper jumped and Cole's hand dropped reluctantly to his side.

"What happened?" Phoebe choked. "The demons – where did they go?"

"You tell us."

Piper's voice was cold. Phoebe wheeled around and the joy that entered her eyes at the sight of her family was overwhelming. Any doubt in Piper or Paige's minds that this was their sister were shattered when she embraced them both in a warm hug.

"You have no idea how I pleased I am to see you guys," she sighed, fighting back the tears. She felt her sisters hug her back. Only Cole was left to the side, hands in his pockets and an awkward feeling in his stomach.

The sisters pulled back and gazes at each other for a minute or two.

"What happened?" Piper questioned eventually.

"Do you want the cut version, or the long and boring one?" Phoebe laughed. Piper raised an eyebrow; she doubted very much whether anything about her story would be boring.

"We need to get back to the house," Cole interrupted gravely, averting all their eyes. He still wasn't sure how Phoebe – the real Phoebe – felt towards their previous meeting. He didn't even know how he felt. But surprisingly, she agreed.

"Cole's right. It's much too dangerous down here."

She gave him a warm look, but he pretended not to notice. She frowned.

Paige didn't need telling twice. In one swift movement she picked up the Book of Shadows, noting happily that it appeared not to be evil anymore, and returned them all to the manor via a complicated orb. Cole had to hand it to her, as they arrived in the living room: she was a fine whitelighter.

"I'll go put this back where it belongs," Paige said, clutching the Book of Shadows defensively to her chest. She trotted up the stairs. Phoebe collapsed heavily in to the sofa whilst Piper perched on the arm of the armchair in the corner by the window. Cole remained standing.

"What a day," Phoebe breathed up to ceiling, her eyes closed.

"Yeah," Piper agreed, smiling. "Fancy the same tomorrow?"

Phoebe giggled in response. Cole trembled slightly, though nobody noticed; that laugh of hers could always make him weak at the knees.

"So, what did happen?" Piper asked after a while, her voice more serious.

"Yeah, Pheebs, we all want to know," added Paige, bounding down the stairs. She sat in the armchair Piper was at, though leant forwards with her elbows on her knees.

"I'm not really sure," Phoebe replied honestly. "One minute, I was thinking about how ganged up on I felt and how much I wanted to be left alone, and the next thing I know I'm shouting and screaming as if it were the only thing I knew how to do. It was as if everything bad I had ever thought or felt suddenly ganged up on me at once, y'know?"

Cole knew. Only too well. But he kept silent.

"It was almost as if I were dreaming," Phoebe continued, "like I was someone else but in my own head. All I wanted to do was get out of there. Here. The manor. And the next thing I know..."

She faltered at this and glanced to Cole. Rather than look away, as his instincts told him to, he obeyed the voice in his head and kept eye contact. Phoebe smiled momentarily, but it faded quickly.

"Then... what?" Paige asked, her eyes shining. Phoebe sighed lightly before going on, but did not take her eyes off Cole.

"The next thing I know, I wake up in the Underworld with nothing but a demon called Mack for company."

Cole released the breath he had been holding and Phoebe looked away to her sisters. A small part in him had wondered if she was going to bring up how he had tried to save her, how she had begged him for help. But it supposed it wasn't important. It didn't matter. He didn't matter. The bitter thoughts stung his mind more than he liked it to, so he concentrated on what Phoebe was saying, if only as a distraction.

She explained how Mack had told her of his plan to make her evil. It was long and time consuming to explain to them, but she had to. The threat was still out there, after all. By the end of the entire discussion, each of them piecing together the little snippets they had learned, this is what they came up with.

Mackenzie had blackmailed someone – and Elder, according to Cole – to release Cole from limbo and back in to the living world. His memory had been wiped, which the sisters had restored, and he had lost his powers, which ironically enough had been returned to him, so it speak, in the form of whitelighter powers. This had shocked Phoebe, and she only really believed it when he orbed from one end of the room to the other. Later, she could easily recognise the change in him, for was completely different in the way he held himself.

Cole being brought back to the world had apparently instigated an entire shift in the cosmic balance. That was why Phoebe had been more susceptible to turning evil; the balance was trying to restore itself. Coupled with the magic that Mack had been working on Phoebe – dream control, added doubts, et cetera – it was only a matter of time before she gave in to a darkness that each of them had. It was the hidden temptation to give up and become evil, and it was always there. For the most part, the sisters were completely oblivious to it, as resisting it was easy to do when you were used to it. But just occasionally, they would give in to it and be completely succumbed by its powers. All of them, in the past, had.

Phoebe then did some more explaining, of her plan to bind the demons to create an unstoppable killing force. As it turned out, Cole had saved Phoebe in her mind just in time, for when she awoke from her daze and became herself in her body again, she had been able to change the spell she was chanting and banish the demons away; it was then that Piper, Paige and Cole had found her in the Underworld.

"Something doesn't add up," Paige said at last. "This Elder. I mean... he couldn't have been able to take Cole out of limbo that easily. Not on his own. It would take a massive amount of power to do that."

At this, Cole coughed loudly.

"I believe I can answer that," he said, finally sitting in the second armchair. All the while, he had been careful not to look at Phoebe. "I think it comes down to me," he continued guiltily. "About what I did for Phoebe in the void. I helped Drake become human. I helped Piper find her love for Leo. But... all I wanted to do was help you, Phoebe."

His voice was soft and as she looked at him, he added quietly, "That's all I've ever wanted to do."

"I'd hardly call sending thorn demons after me 'help'," Piper snorted. But, despite herself, she could see that he had meant well.

"What does this have to do with the Elder?" asked Paige.

"I was getting to that, before I was interrupted." Cole shot Piper a look, which she ignored. "I was banished there for eternity for what I had done to you guys. It was punishment of the worst kind, for the worst kind. I had to sit back and watch your lives continue while mine was defeated. It was whilst I was in the void that I learned how badly I hut you." He was talking to Phoebe again. "I saw how I had made you suffer, the fear and pain I put you through. I learned what you had been trying to teach me, that we were not meant to be. But I still wanted to help. Yet, neither could I tell you nor comfort you when you woke in the night crying over a broken heart."

Phoebe's cheeks were tinged with two streaks of coloured embarrassment. She swallowed down a lump in her throat, and Cole had to remind himself that the time of pouring his heart out of Phoebe had passed, years ago, and that he didn't have the right to talk to her like that anymore. He cleared his throat, as if to cough down all of his thoughts.

"You get the idea," he continued, bravely stealing a glance at the other two sisters. Paige was watching Phoebe with sorrow in her eyes, but Piper's were watching him like a hawk. "It restored the balance. My being sent there was to balance out all the terrible things I'd done. And so it went on for at least a year, maybe two. But when I offered my help to Piper and changed destiny, – I wasn't supposed to help her like I did, and she was supposed to die – when I saved a 'Charmed One', the scales were tipped again. There was a weakness in the balance, which meant that less power could be used to tip it back again. Mack, no doubt, sensed this, and used it to his advantage. But the bottom line is that if I had now come back here, back in to your life Phoebe, then you would not have turned to evil. You wouldn't have had the last push to do so."

He finished, looking at Phoebe sadly. She knew it was true; she had felt it on his return.

"So now what?" Piper asked, getting up. "What about the balance? It must still be thrown off: Phoebe's not evil anymore."

Cole shrugged and looked to the floor. He had told them what he knew, and they could make of it whatever they liked.

"I suppose the only way to be sure," Phoebe said, sitting up, "is to ask the Elders. They're the forces of Good, they have to know."

"But it was an Elder who took Cole out of limbo in the first place," Piper sighed. "How do we know it wasn't a group effort?"

"Unlikely," Cole answered. "They may be pompous bags, but not even the Elders would be stupid enough to do something like that. I'm pretty sure the Elder was working alone."

There was silence as each of them began to think of their own, uncertain answers.

"What about the Angel of Destiny?" Paige piped up. All eyes swung to her. "If it's destiny that's been messed up, surely he's the best person to ask?"

"You can't simply 'summon' an Angel of destiny," Cole half mocked. "They're beyond simple magic like that. And there's more than one Angel, just as there's more than one whitelighter."

He had no idea where that knowledge had burst from; he supposed that being a whitelighter offered more than just powers.

"Thank you, mister fountain-of-knowledge," Paige muttered sarcastically. "Got any better ideas?"

Cole suddenly started and stood up. His eyes became slightly glazed, as though he was seeing something that wasn't quite there.

"I have to go," he said abruptly.

"Go?" Piper asked, crossing her arms. "Where?"

"Leo wants to see me."

With that, he orbed out, leaving a trail of blue lights to follow him. Phoebe jumped.

"You know, I'm never going to get used to him doing that," she said.

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Cole was back just minutes later with, to Piper's relief, Leo at his side. She smiled, then grinned, then threw her arms around her husband's neck, letting her fingers tickle his shoulder blades. He bent his head down, kissed her softly on the lips, the squeezed her tight.

"You know I wasn't in any real danger," he murmured softly. Piper pulled back from him slightly, resting her hands just below his jaw line.

"No more than usual anyway," she replied silkily. Then, she stepped back all together, though she dropped her hand to his side and linked their fingers.

"Good to have you back Leo," greeted Paige warmly, a smile rising inside her. It was still strange to think that they had won. Again.

"Yeah," Phoebe said coyly, getting up from the sofa and holding her arms out in an apologetic hug. "Sorry I made you evil."

Her voice was innocent, like a child's, but Leo knew she meant it nonetheless and soon they were all laughing and joking together again; it felt good to have the family back.

Cole had slunk off to the kitchen. Absently, he had brewed some coffee, though he didn't really want any. He didn't know what he did want, either. There had been little time to think about what was going on, to sit down and try and understand how he felt. Being a whitelighter, being back, himself, Phoebe being evil, Phoebe being good... He reached up to the cupboard for a mug. Everything had been acted on impulse and instinct; there had been no time to consider the consequences of their actions and it was pure luck that had stopped any of them from getting killed when they had rescued Phoebe. The plans had worked, of course. But one day, what if they didn't?

Cole shook his head with irritation as he decanted the coffee from the machine into the mug. He was scolding himself for the whitelighter thoughts, but amused at how it was so unlike is his past character. And how well it seemed to fit.

He leant against the counter and took a small sip of his black coffee, enjoying the spicy flavours on his tongue. This was strange: helping himself to the sisters' coffee in the aftermath of one of the most bizarre days of his life. But it felt strangely natural and familiar; he missed it.

Cole was half way down his mug, sipping contentedly at its contents and letting thoughts meander around his head, when someone else joined him. His eyes hovered to the familiar form of Phoebe in the doorframe, before falling back to their regular position on the floor.

"Can't even look at me now, can you?" she commented, though her voice was not without warmth. Cole smiled into his mug, but was quick to hide it. He said nothing.

"They're all talking about going to bed," Phoebe continued, walking forwards, her shoes tapping on the tile floor. "Probably think it's best to approach things tomorrow."

Tomorrow... it would arrive after a good night's sleep, probably best had in his own little dingy flat. There was nothing to do about anything tonight, after all. And it was nice to be free to do as he wished. But he still said nothing.

"What do you think?" Phoebe asked, putting the breakfast counter between her and Cole. She wanted to run away and hide in the comforts of her room. She wanted to pretend that he didn't exist, that he was just a bad nightmare that wouldn't go away. But part of her needed this time alone with Cole. Besides, if her time when she was evil had taught her anything, it was that she couldn't hide her feelings away for long. Not in this family, at least.

Cole swallowed his mouthful of coffee.

"I think they're probably right, and that we can sort out everything tomorrow. It's been a long day, and I for one will be pleased to get back to my bed and sleep on it."

"About what to do next, you mean?"

Cole nodded.

"And what about the rest?"

"The rest?" he asked, putting his coffee mug down on the surface.

"This. You. Me." Phoebe refrained from adding 'us' to the end of her explanation; there wasn't an 'us', after all. Not any more. But Cole was clever, and knew her well, and as their eyes met, he knew the word she wasn't saying. He had been thinking about it himself.

"I think it's a dream," he admitted, nearly laughing. "That any moment I'm going to wake up and still be trapped without yo– er..." he faltered, having caught himself just in time. "...Without this freedom. I think it's all too crazy to be real."

Cole didn't know why he hadn't lied. It would make things so much easier to pretend as if nothing mattered. But it did, and it was Phoebe. How could he lie about that?

"It's real all right, Cole," she replied, her voice sterner than she mean it to be. She crossed her arms. But then, softly, she added, "Though maybe it's not; you've no idea how often I've dreamed this."

He raised an eyebrow. If her sleep talking was anything to go by, he feared he might know exactly how often she dreamed about it. But he wasn't going to admit to watching her sleep. It wasn't often that he did; just when he felt that need to be around her. The same need he was feeling now...

"I wanted to... thank you."

"What for?" Cole queried. Phoebe looked to the floor.

"For everything. Just... everything."

Cole understood, and smiled to her with a look that told her so. And that she was welcome. And that he'd do it all over again, just to see that glorious smile light up her face.

Silence grew between the two again as each wondered what to say; was there even anything to say? So much had happened in such a short space of time, so many emotions and feelings, so many unwanted memories, so many wounds re-opened. It was almost too much to bear. And yet, here they were. Together, again. Phoebe, recently returned from the brink of evil, and Cole, the one who'd brought her back. It was usually the other way around. Damn it, he couldn't hide it. He was proud.

"This is really awkward," Cole offered, smiling, trying to make a light-hearted joke. "Kind of makes you wish for the good old days."

Phoebe let out a small, single laugh, and her smile did not fade afterwards.

"Yeah. A lot's come out about all of us in the last twenty-four hours."

"Do you regret it?"

Phoebe considered Cole's question. Being evil was hardly something she wanted to repeat, but she had learned things about herself that he wouldn't otherwise have known. She could at least be honest with him; he deserved that.

"No."

"Me neither," he replied, his eyes shining. Then, after a pause, "And I'm not just talking about today."

She smiled at him, but it was the sort of smile a mother gives their child when they're not really paying attention.

"I wish I could change – "

"Don't," Phoebe interrupted sharply, her eyes melancholy. "Don't wish for things. Especially not in this house." Then, as if to explain her outburst, "They might come true. Mine did."

"You wished for something?" Cole asked, his body and curiosity stirring.

"Yes. But not for a long time now."

Even so, he was still intrigued. He leaned forward, inquisitiveness gleaming in his eye.

"What did you wish for?"

Her eyes darted nervously up to his. She reminded him of a timid woodland dear. But her answer was nevertheless strong.

"You."

Her answer swept him off his feet, and she knew it would. Still, it had been long ago, when she had been convinced that he was the only man that could numb the ache in her heart. She was less foolish now. Or so she told herself.

"Well, I'm here now," Cole replied, his voice soft but steady. He edged around the counter until he was standing in front of her, looking down in to her soft, beautiful eyes. God, those eyes. Even that look was enough to make his heart race and his knees go weak. She was so close to him now, closer than they had been in years, that the temptation to sweep her into his arms and claim her as his own burned brighter and stronger than the sun. But he knew he wouldn't.

Phoebe could see the passion blazing in his eyes. She looked up in to his strong, handsome face, his features well defined, as if someone had carved him out of stone. She let out a breath. How could she have let him grow this close to her so quickly? She knew what she was feeling was the remnants of the love she had felt a long time ago, a love she had been trying to re-capture and re-tame almost since his vanquish nearly two years ago. But, she didn't love him. She couldn't. There was just too much.

She wanted to tell him what she was thinking, that they were being like two stupid teenagers on a first date. But as she opened her mouth to speak, his forefinger grazed her lips to silence her. Like a willing slave, she obeyed.

It was only to help her, he told himself. It was to stop her needlessly explaining what he already knew, to spare her the pain of finding words that wouldn't express the feelings very well. It was partly true. But he wasn't going to admit that seeing her again, like this, had driven him as wild as it used to when they had first met. He wasn't going to admit that he desperately wanted to feel his skin on hers. And as he looked at her, his eyes searching hers, he knew that she was fighting the same feelings. His head swam with confused passion for the woman he used to love. He could take her in his arms and she wouldn't object. He could carry her up to her bedroom and lay her down, and she would want it just as much as he did. He could kiss her lips, face and neck and smother in the kisses she deserved, tearing away their clothes to bear their souls to each other as they became one, happily and passionately, just like they used to; all those years ago.

Cole shivered with those thoughts, his head and his heart pounding. His vision nearly clouded and he could practically feel the blood running through his veins. He looked at her, hard, and the hand on her lips dropped carefully to her shoulder. She quivered, but didn't move away. He began to bend his head towards hers, and could feel her curling in towards him; but then he stepped back against the counter, releasing her, and cast his eyes elsewhere.

Phoebe hovered briefly where he'd left her, still feeling the warmth of his hand through her blouse even though it had moved. She let out a shuddered breath. Nothing had happened, and she was pleased for his strength to walk away. He had been feeling what she was feeling, right down to the last heartbeat, and she was pleased by the fact that Cole had given her exactly what she had needed – the time to think and heal and forget about their past. It couldn't have been easy, backing off in the way he had. She wouldn't have been able to. But at least he understood as much as her, and she was thankful for that. She wouldn't forget it.

Phoebe smiled weakly, attempting to reveal her thanks in a simple look. Then she turned and left the kitchen.

Cole let out a long, loud breath. There was still chemistry between them, no doubt about that. But, Cole thought sadly, it was just as well they could no longer act on their desires. Whatever satisfaction, physical or emotional, Cole would have gained from making love to Phoebe, he knew that it would have been the same for both of them in the end: simple closure. Two years of self-questioning and self-doubt was enough to make anyone want that.

They would have been magnificent, like two dancers reunited for a final show, gracing themselves with the pleasure of tending to each other's wounds. But it would be no more than reliving history, as if the ghosts of their old selves would have possessed them. They were different people now. They couldn't make each other tick as they once could, for the moment had long past. Their bodies, souls and minds were just not made for one another's anymore.

He had to believe it, Cole told himself as he downed the last of his coffee. A mistake; it tasted like seaweed in pond water.

Cole shrugged and started out of the kitchen, and knew that he was heading for home. He had to believe he and Phoebe weren't compatible. It was easy enough to dig up an old memory and play it out in their minds; hell, even in real life if it came to that. But there would not be a future for either of them there: not in the past. It would only be a desperate attempt to reclaim a little of what they had lost.

Cole vowed he would never again put himself in that position with Phoebe. He could tell that it was not what she had wanted – not in the long run. It wasn't good for either of them. But if it happened again, no matter how much fighting against his own emotions he would do, no matter how much he would try to stop it, he would not be able to resist her for a second time. He just wasn't strong enough.