SUMMARY: Paige's job clash with her activities as a Charmed One, when she and her sisters hunt for a magical sword.
FEEDBACK: - Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: The Charmed Ones, Darryl Morris and other characters related to Charmed belong to Spelling Productions, Brad Kern and Constance Burge. The McNeill family and Cirhan are my creations.
NOTE: Takes place about a week-and-a-half following "Bride of Belthazor" AU Season 6.
TORN DUTIES by RFK
"Here you go." A smiling Paige Matthews handed over a bulging plastic bag to the customer. "Your Burdock Root and Mandrake. Please come back again."
The customer thanked Paige and left the herbal shop. The Charmed One glanced at the clock on Ostera's far wall. It read one twenty-two in the afternoon. Barbara McNeill, the shop's owner, should be returning from lunch soon. Paige heaved a contented sigh and returned her attention to the shop's inventory list on the counter.
The bell above the front door rang, signaling a new customer. Paige glanced up and to her surprise, her sister Piper entered - along with the Halliwells' new whitelighter, Chris Perry. Both looked slightly damp from the downpour outside.
"I don't see why we couldn't have orbed inside the shop," the young whitelighter complained. "Now, we're all wet and I might catch a cold."
Piper rolled her eyes and growled, "Put a sock in it, will you?" She turned to her younger sister. "Hey Paige, are you busy right now?"
"Uh . . . well, I am working on this inventory." The other two stared at her. Paige immediately added, "I'm not that busy. Why?"
"According to Chris . . ."
The whitelighter interrupted. "We have a job," he declared. "Actually, you do. The Elders have learned that a magical sword might turn up in the hands of some antiquity dealer, here in town." He paused to glance at Piper, who rolled her eyes in annoyance. "They believe that this antiquity dealer - named Michaels - might be a demon. And we have to . . . I mean, you have to prevent him from handing it over to any other demonic bad guys."
A dazed Paige merely stared at the newcomers. "Well, that's great," she finally said. "But couldn't this have waited until after work?" From the corner of her eye, she saw Maddy Oser, a witch, who also happened to be her fellow shop assistant, emerge from the stockroom.
"It can't wait!" Chris insisted. "We need to find that sword as soon as possible."
Paigre directed her gaze to Piper. "Is this about that Excalibur sword? The sword that Wyatt is destined to have?"
Piper shook her head. "No, this is an entirely different sword." She glanced at Maddy, who quickly looked away. "Uh . . . maybe we better wait until you get off from work."
"No!" Chris exclaimed. "We need to find that sword now."
Paige began, "But Chris . . ."
The whitelighter persisted in his argument. "Paige, this is serious!"
"Yeah, well so is my job!" Paige retorted. "Barbara got pissed off the last two times you had talked me out of leaving work in the middle of the day. I don't want to get into more trouble."
Concern lit up Piper's eyes. "Trouble? What do you mean?"
"I mean that Barbara is getting ticked off by my disappearances from work, whenever we go chasing after some demon."
Chris retorted, "She's a witch. She should understand."
Piper added, "Maybe we should hold off finding this sword until later."
But Chris refused to concede to Piper's suggestion. He insisted that it was imperative that they find this sword for the Elders Council. "Some witch in Belgium had tracked down the sword in Antwerp." He paused dramatically. "Before she and her whitelighter were killed. Before they both died, the whitelighter had informed the Council that the sword might be sold at some auction house owned by a demonic antiquity dealer, here in San Francisco. So, c'mon! Let's go."
Paige sighed. "Oh God." She turned to her colleague. "Say Maddy, I've got to step out for a few minutes. I'll be back. Okay?"
The other shop assistant - a personable-looking young witch with large brown eyes and chestnut hair - rushed toward the shop's front area. "Wait a minute!" she cried. "Barbara should be back, soon. What do I tell her?"
"Tell her that I had a family emergency," Paige replied. "What else?" She grabbed her raincoat and umbrella before she, Piper and Chris orbed out of the shop.
The bell over the shop's door rang for the umpteenth time. Ostera's owner, Barbara Bowen McNeill, rushed inside, dripping wet. She glanced at the young woman who stood behind the main counter. "Hey Maddy." Barbara paused. Her eyes quickly scanned the shop. "Where's Paige? In the back?"
Maddy's eyes flickered briefly. Her face turned pink. "Um . . . she . . . uh, Paige . . . had a family . . . emergency."
A spurt of anger flickered in the pit of Barbara's stomach. "What kind of family emergency?" she demanded quietly. "What happened?"
The shop assistant's cheeks turned red. "Uh . . . I don't really know, exactly. Paige wasn't . . . specific."
A frustrated sigh escaped from Barbara's mouth. She could easily imagine what kind of 'family emergency' had led Paige to leave in the middle of the afternoon without permission. Again.
"Look Barbara," Maddy added, "I know you're upset about . . ."
The blond witch held her hand. "Don't. Don't start making excuses for her, Maddy. When Paige gets back, send her to my office." Wearing a stony expression, Barbara marched toward the store's office in the back.
Paige, Piper and Chris entered the elegant showroom of an auction house on Montgomery Street. Various humans - some of them with odd traits - filled the rows of gilt-edged chairs. Several antiquities laid spread across long tables on each side of the podium up front. Larger antiquities were stacked against the wall behind the podium.
"Wow!" Paige declared. "Look at this place! I wonder what's the combined net worth of every person in this room."
Chris murmured, "There's a good chance that some of these . . . clientele are of the demonic persuasion."
"Always have to look at the 'bright' side of things, don't you?" Paige retorted tartly.
"I'm just doing my job!"
Piper added in a voice low enough for only her two companions to hear, "Enough young'uns! Let's get this show on the road."
The two women and their whitelighter sat down. A tall man with a pale complexion and thinning brown hair approached the podium. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. A. Michael's House would like to welcome you to its presentation and auction of the Bernard van de Weyer Collection."
"The who?" Paige murmured.
Chris hissed back, "Some guy we believe ended up with the sword. The Council thinks he might be a warlock."
The tall man continued, " We will begin with this exquisite headdress that once belonged to a 16th century Masai priest." An assistant picked up a cone-shaped and elaborately woven headdress and displayed it to the audience. "Shall we begin the bidding?"
Piper whispered to Chris, "Is that the demon, A. Michaels?" She nodded at the tall man behind the podium.
"I don't know!" Chris replied.
Eventually, a well-dressed, short black man purchased the headdress for nearly twenty-thousand dollars - much to Paige's shock. The next item on the agenda turned out to be an ancient Persian urn. Within a half hour, all fifteen items had been sold. Piper turned to Chris. "What happened to the sword?"
"I don't know," Chris said with a shrug. "The Council was told that it would probably be sold through . . ."
A caustic Paige interrupted, "The Council? I should have known they would screw up!" She glanced at her watch. "And I'm running late. Barbara might be back."
"You can't leave now!" Chris protested. "We need to find . . ." He glanced around and lowered his voice. ". . . that sword!"
Paige hissed back, "Well, next time, try to get the right information so that we don't end up wasting our time!" She sprung to her feet. "I'm out of here." And she marched out of the auction room.
Barbara heard the bell above the front door ring. The two female voices followed. One of them belonged to Paige. Slowly, she stood up and made her way to the store's showroom. Sure enough, the Charmed One stood in front of the counter, looking slightly flustered.
"So, you're back," Barbara coolly greeted. "Is the . . . family emergency over with?"
Paige's dark eyes blinked. "Oh, uh . . . yeah. Everyone's cool."
"Good." Barbara paused. "Exactly, what was the 'family emergency'?"
A long silent pause followed. Paige's eyes darted back and forth, until they settled upon a wide-eyed Maddy. The latter looked as if she longed to shrink back into herself. A sigh left Paige's mouth before she continued. "Okay, the family emergency had something to do with magic. Chris and Piper came by and told me about this magical sword . . ."
Curtly, Barbara interrupted. "You mean to say that you had disappeared from work to go chasing after some magical sword on behalf of the whitelighters?"
"It's called the Sword of Haldane," Paige added breathlessly. "It once belonged to this early 9th century French . . . I mean, Belgian sorcerer who . . ."
"Don't tell me. It has great power and the whitelighters fear it will end up in the hands of some daemon. Who might use it to become the next Source." Barbara rolled her eyes. "Did I get it right?"
Paige's mouth hung open. She finally replied in a small voice, "Uh . . . yeah. I guess. Chris didn't exactly go into . . ."
Barbara held up her hand and Paige fell silent. A sigh left the older woman's throat. "Paige, this is your last warning. With the exception of a real family emergency - the next time you leave the shop during working hours, I will dock your pay for the time you're missing."
Dark eyes grew wide with shock. "Wha . . .?"
"Would you prefer that I fire you? Now?"
Paige's slender shoulders slumped in defeat. "No. No, I don't."
With a sharp nod, Barbara said, "Good. Now, I need you to deliver a box of herbs to this coven in Sausalito, for me. You can use the van."
"Yeah," Paige murmured. "Sure."
Pity for the Charmed One welled within Barbara. She felt tempted to rescind her threat, but only for a moment. Paige needed to learn a lesson about job responsibilities. And hopefully, she might eventually learn to maintain a balance between different aspects of her life.
A slender male with pale blond hair and intense, wintergreen eyes entered the circular chamber of the Gimle Order Council. The Council's twelve members - especially one daemon with thick, graying hair - regarded him with anxious eyes.
"Well?" the Order's leader demanded. She happened to be an imposing female daemon named Rannveig. "What of Ulmund's sword?"
The blond daemon, whose named happened to be Cirhan, briefly cast his eyes downward. "It never appeared. The sword, I mean. It never appeared as an item at the auction."
The Council members reacted with consternation and anxiety. "That's impossible!" the gray-haired daemon named Ulmund exclaimed. He rose to his feet. "You mean to say that Belgian antiquity dealer had been wrong?"
Cirhan sighed. "Or lying." Ulmund's face nearly turned sheer white. "Or perhaps Loxias has not received the sword, yet."
Another member of the Council, the auburn-haired Marbus, asked, "Was there anyone of interest at the auction?"
After a brief hesitation, Cirhan answered, "I had recognized two daemons - Acrimonis and Milliam of the Varhol Order. I also recognized the wizard, Wilfrid Oldland." He paused as images of a trio of strangers flashed in his mind. "And there were these people . . . mortals, I think. Two females and one male. They didn't bid on any items. And when the auction ended without the sword's appearance, they seemed disappointed. One of them was definitely a mortal. The other two . . ." Cirhan broke off and shook his head.
"What?" Rannveig demanded.
The younger daemon continued, "I think they might be half-whitelighter. Their auras seemed to hint they were also part mortal. Like Marbus' nephew, Belthazor."
"Part mortal, part whitelighter?" Marbus frowned. "Describe the mortal."
Cirhan stared at the usually jovial Council member. "Well, she was in her early thirties - for a mortal that is. Short. Probably five-feet-two or three. Dark long hair and dark eyes. She had a slightly maternal air about her. Slightly thick in the waist. Not fat, just . . . thick."
Marbus inhaled sharply. "Sounds like Piper Halliwell, the oldest Charmed One." Again, he frowned at Cirhan. "And the other female? The one you believe to be half-whitelighter . . . was she slightly taller? Around five-feet-six?"
"Yes," Cirhan replied with a nod. "She had red hair, only I don't think it was her natural hair color. She had dark eyes and pale skin." He paused, as memories of the two women flashed in his mind. "You know, I think they were related."
Nodding, Marbus replied, "Of course they are. Half-sisters. Two of the Charmed Ones and Belthazor's former sisters-in-law. And the male was probably their new whitelighter. Belthazor had informed me that the Halliwells found out that he was also part-whitelighter."
"He also seemed related to them," Cirhan added.
Confusion whirled in Ulmund's gray eyes. "Wait a minute! Why would the Charmed Ones be after my sword?"
Marbus commented, "Perhaps they're after it on behalf of the Whitelighters. Don't forget that a former Source have been killed by non-daemons on three occasions - by the Charmed Ones nearly two years ago, by the wizard Liam Monaghan in 1311 and by Ulmund's mortal ancestor, the witch Griogair Haldane in 571. I can only assume that the Whitelighters' Elders desire another weapon to be used against any powerful magical being, in case something happens to the Charmed Ones. Or maybe use it as a weapon against my nephew."
Rannveig sighed. Long and hard. "I see that having new leaders has not changed the Whitelighters one bit." She turned her gaunt face at Cirhan. "If you find yourself facing the Charmed Ones, it would probably be best if you allow them to assist you in finding the sword. However . . . you must insist upon returning the sword to Ulmund if you do find it."
"And what if they and their whitelighter insist upon turning the sword over to their Elders?" an anxious Ulmund demanded.
Marbus provided the answer. "Ask for Belthazor's help." He paused, as a thought came to him. "Oh, wait a minute. He and Olivia are still on their honeymoon. Try the McNeills. Any one of them can help you retrieve the sword."
With a sigh, Cirhan nodded. "I understand." He understood, all right. Returning the Haldane Sword to Ulmund might prove to be more difficult than he had originally imagined.
"Barbara docked an hour from your paycheck?" Phoebe exclaimed. Believing that Piper and Paige might need help in their present assignment, Chris had recently orbed the middle Charmed One from the hotel suite that she shared with Jason to the Halliwell manor in San Francisco. Since Jason had undertaken a minor business trip to Taipei, Phoebe was free to join her sisters.
Paige reached for a carrot stick from one of the platters on the kitchen table. "I didn't say that. I said that she had threatened to dock my paycheck." A groan escaped from her mouth. "I think this afternoon had nearly broken the camel's back, if you know what I mean. Barbara was really pissed."
"Didn't she understand that you had a job to do?"
Piper, who was in the midst of dicing vegetables for a stew, commented, "I think that in Barbara's eyes, Paige's job was at the store."
Phoebe protested, "What about protecting innocents from evil? Granted, I'm not as crazy about it as I used to be. But still . . ."
"You do know that Barbara and the other McNeills don't view witchcraft the same way we do," Paige said, interrupting. "Harry once hinted that we might be nothing but glorified demon hunters."
Chris spoke up. "You're magical witches. Powerful witches. The McNeills might not understand . . ."
"They're also powerful witches, Chris," Paige said, interrupting. "Or have you forgotten?" She gave him a pointed look. "Frankly, I'm beginning to agree with Harry. I mean, why are we doing this? Hunting down demons and such like a bunch of vigilantes?"
Piper coolly remarked, "You and Phoebe were the ones who wanted to keep our powers. Remember? When the Angel of Destiny had offered to strip them from us."
Phoebe protested, "Hey, I only agreed to keep our powers, because I didn't want to feel unprotected."
Paige pressed her mouth together and turned away from her sisters. She had the oddest feeling that Phoebe and Piper - the latter especially - wanted to blame her for their continuing lives as witches. And she did not like it.
"I realize that you guys don't like it," Chris said, "but you did make the choice to continue protecting innocents. And if you give up now, who's going to protect the innocents of today . . . and the future?" When Paige and her sisters failed to respond, he added, "Thought so. And Paige, you can always get another job. You're not gonna work at that shop forever. But you'll always be a Charmed One. For the rest of your life." He sighed. "So, can we please talk about getting our hands on that sword?" Then he continued the discussion on their assignment.
Piper leaned toward Paige and whispered in the latter's ear, "You know, for one bizarre moment, Chris reminded me of Leo. Scary, huh?"
"No shit," Paige muttered back.
Bruce declared in a disbelieving voice, "You docked an hour from Paige's paycheck?"
"I didn't say that!" Barbara protested. "I only threatened to dock her pay if she disappeared from work, the next time." She and Bruce lay on their large four-poster bed, inside their bedroom. The blond witch glanced anxiously at her husband. "Do you think I went too far?"
"Of course not!" Bruce replied with a shake of his head. "I'm only surprised that it took you so long to finally react. You've been complaining about her absences for the past two months or so."
Sighing, Barbara added, "I really hated to threaten her like that. Believe or not, Paige has a talent for retailing. And the customers seemed to like her. But ever since - Whatshisname? The new whitelighter?"
"Chris," Bruce injected.
Barbara repeated darkly, "That's right. Chris. Ever since he became their whitelighter . . . What the hell is that guy's damage, anyway? He seemed to be dragging Paige and her sisters on some kind of . . . frenzied daemon hunt. And the odd thing is that they're still taking orders from the Whitelighters and Chris specifically, despite their dislike of the Elders . . . and their distrust of him. I just don't get it."
"It's that old idiom that they live by . . . 'protecting the innocent'."
Bruce's remark drew a frown from Barbara. "What on earth . . .?"
Her husband rolled his eyes in contempt. "C'mon Barbara! How many times have you heard Paige or her sisters talk about how they have to 'protect the innocents' or 'kick evil's ass'?"
"Oh God!" Barbara moaned. "God, I keep forgetting that they have this idea of a witch being some kind of daemon hunter. I thought they had finally learned otherwise, last summer."
"Which is why Paige probably have no qualms about skipping work to . . . fight evil. I think you did the right thing about issuing that warning to her."
Barbara sighed, as she snuggled into her husband's arms. "I hope you're right. Because I don't want to force her to quit. She's too good an assistant and I'd hate to lose her."
A slender, petite woman with shoulder-length honey-blond hair stepped out of one of the Carnahan Hotel's elevators. She briskly strode across the building's sixth floor, until she reached the fourth door on the right. After inserting the electronic key into the lock, she opened the door and strode into the hotel room.
The woman dumped her purse onto the hotel room's bed and sighed. She had returned to sanctuary. Using her telekinesis, she closed the room's curtains. A small white bag filled with Angelica's Root hung from the doorknob. Satisfied that the Angelica Root continued to protect the room from magical beings, the woman retrieved her cell phone from her purse and dialed a number. Seconds later, another female answered. "Oria Mundi speaking."
"Oria? It's me, Mira Novak. I'm here in San Francisco." She paused. "And I have the package."
Relief and delight filled the other woman's voice. "Mira, darling! You made it! But so late? It's almost midnight." She paused. "Have . . . Has . . . Do you think you have been followed by any of Loxias' people?" Oria snorted with derision. "People! If one can call them people."
Mira had originally planned to teleport from Antwerp to San Francisco. But her fears of being tracked by the very daemons who worked for the one called Loxias led her to travel across the Atlantic and the United States in mortal style - by airplane. "No, I don't think so. I had arrived in San Francisco, yesterday evening, by plane. Which is one of the reasons why I had 'failed' to appear at Loxias' auction. Although to be honest, he would have never sold the sword through auction, anyway. Just offer me a flat fee."
"Yes darling," Oria commented. "I must say that one million dollars seems like such a paltry sum for something so valuable. And powerful." A long pause followed. "I'm surprised that you don't plan to keep the sword for yourself. With the right spell, you could become the new Source or possibly leader of all the magical realms."
With a sigh, Mira explained, "I'm not interested in becoming the new Source or any other powerful leader. I don't want to spend the rest of my life waiting for someone to knock me off some throne." She flopped down on the bed. "I just want to collect a lot of money, buy an exclusive place where I can practice my magic in solitude. I didn't spend seven years as one of Ulmund's protégés, only to add more stress in my life by becoming the new Source or anything like that."
"Darling, being a powerful leader isn't all that bad," Oria drawled. "But you seem to know what's best for you. And that's what I admire about you, dear Mira. You're such an intelligent and sensible person. Especially realizing that you were going nowhere with that do-gooder, Ulmund. Now, about our transaction . . ."
The two females continued their conversation, as they made plans to meet.
END OF PART ONE