- Of Battles and Belligerence -

"Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even."
Muhammad Ali

The next afternoon, Chris skipped the bus ride home and stopped off at Jake's house. In a flurry of orbs, he arrived in his charge's bedroom to find the boy already hard at work. Hunched over his desk, he pored over a book the teacher had assigned a week before. When Chris knocked on the wall, announcing his presence, Jake looked up, grinned, and discarded the novel into his knapsack.

"Hi, Chris," he said brightly.

It took very little cajoling on Chris's part to get Jake out of the house. With his knapsack slung over one shoulder, he dragged Jake over to the park three blocks down, where the after-school crowd had already begun to gather. Jake raced off to join a classmate who waved him over, leaving Chris behind to find himself a seat amidst the hoards of parents and nannies. They hovered around the benches, conversing in nasally voices, discussion things like tuition and after-school clubs.

"My daughter practices her flute every night for half an hour before supper," one woman said imperiously.

Distinctly uncomfortable in the crowd, he glided away. A few feet away, he found a seat in the dirt by a naked tree, its branches extended above him in a crisscross of bark. He settled himself there, dumping his knapsack at his side and leaning back against the tree's thick trunk.

At some point, noticing him sitting alone, Jake scampered over.

"Come play with us!" he begged, but Chris shook his head, smiling at the invitation.

"No, I'd ruin the game," he countered. "I'm too big to play hide-and-seek. There's nowhere for me to hide—No, don't stay here," he insisted when Jake, disheartened, moved to sit beside him. "You go on and play. I don't need any company. Trust me, we angels have plenty to keep us busy."

Jake looked at him askance, nibbling at his bottom lip as he considered his whitelighter through half-lidded eyes. After a pause, he said, very slowly, "All right…" and returned to the game at a trot. He did play, but another fifteen minutes later he came back and collapsed beside Chris, grinning.

"You wanna go back home?" Chris asked.

"No, not yet," the boy replied. He lay there, content just not moving, and started up at the pockets of sky within the canopy of branches. After a few minutes, he finally sat up and squeezed beside Chris to claim a space against the tree trunk. They spent the remainder of their time watching all the bizarre varieties of people who passed through with their kids, dogs, and bicycles.

Meanwhile, Chris's thoughts spun. He glanced at the boy, who, to all appearances, seemed like any other bright-eyed face at the park. How he carried such resilience within him, Chris didn't know. He also had no idea how long this impossible strength would last. A child could only take so much in one lifetime.

This is as good a time as any, Chris thought to himself, and then, sucking in a breath, steeled himself for an argument. Jake still hadn't noticed him staring. Good. Chris didn't want this to sound rehearsed.

In a deliberately casual tone, he remarked, "You ever heard of a thing called social services?"

Jake stiffened. The muscles in his arms stilled, instantly cautious. William Hool had gotten involved with stuff like that. One day, he'd been in class; the next—gone. They never saw him again. Everyone said he'd been taken away from his mom and dad, sent to live with other people, complete strangers. Social services took him, they said. When Jake glanced over, Chris was still watching the passersby, looking blithely unaware of the importance of his inquiry.

Lips tight, Jake nodded.

"I was just thinking…" Chris said, treading slowly, still not looking at his charge. "I mean, you could—tell—if they knew about what your mom does—"

Furious, Jake jerked away. "No!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. In one fluid motion, he lunged to his feet and began to storm toward the street. At first too stunned by the fervor displayed, Chris forced himself to recover. Sighing, he collected his knapsack and hurried to catch up.

"Jake!" he called. "Jake, I didn't mean to—"

Jake spun back around, red splotches blooming on his cheeks, hate etched into his forehead. "Shut up, Chris!" he shouted. "Just leave me 'lone! I don't wanna talk to you anymore!" He stomped all the way to the curb but there was forced to stop—his mom didn't let him cross big streets by himself.

Across the park, heads turned. Offering a sheepish smile, Chris shrugged and followed the boy. One woman in done-up hair and a conservative gray suit turned back to her friends with a snigg, "If that were my son's babysitter, I'd fire him." Another, a full-breasted nanny in jeans and a t-shirt, snorted, "I'd'a spanked that boy."

At the end of the sidewalk, Chris tried to calm down Jake, who—one his part—did all he could to ignore Chris completely. "Jake, look—" Chris tried, but Jake turned away, mouth set in a firm, thin line. "Jake…"

"I wanna go home," the boy said stubbornly. "I gotta finish my homework." He folded his arms, mimicking what he'd seen his teacher do. With her it always seemed to get what she wanted, but it wasn't doing a great job now. The angel was still standing there.

"Jake, I'm sorry…" When his charge didn't respond, Chris sighed, resigned. "We'll have to find an enclosed place," he said, "so no one will see us orb." Without a word to pass between them, they walked back the way they had come. Jake scraped the toes of his sneakers against the pavement, staring at his feet. A few yards off the playground, they found a spot heavily veiled by a cluster of evergreen trees, short but adequate.

Finally, stopping, Chris dared to breach the cloak of silence. "Can I just say one thing?" Jake scowled at the leaves crunched under his feet, wordless. Chris promised, "Just one thing."

Reluctantly, Jake allowed a gruff, "What?"

A hand shoved roughly through his hair, Chris sighed. "I didn't mean to upset you," he said at last. "I know your mom's… important to you, okay? I just thought… but I was wrong. I'm really sorry." Searchingly, he tried to will Jake to make eye contact, but Jake's eyes never left his shoes, expression too thick for Chris to even begin to decipher.

At length, when Chris started to think Jake wouldn't respond at all and would make Chris wait indefinitely, the boy lifted his eyes to sit somewhere around Chris's chin. "I can't leave my mom," he stated flatly. "You can't tell."

"I wouldn't," Chris insisted. "I wasn't going to. I meant for you to… I'd never betray your trust like that." Not for a moment did Jake believe that. Grave, Chris paused, finally catching his charge's eye. "I won't tell anyone without asking you first. I promise."

Slowly, Jake's shoulders inched back down, uncoiled. A bit. "Okay," he said, voice softer than air.

Chris released a breath of air. "We cool?" he asked. The boy, who seemed eager to brush the entire episode under the rug, shrugged. For now, Chris understood this was the best he would get, and ruefully accepted it. Respecting Jake's unspoken desire, he dropped the subject and let it settle in the dirt at their feet. "We should head back." When he held out his hand, Jake hesitated for a long moment before finally bypassing the outstretched hand and gripping Chris's upper arm. Chris had lost ground today, he could tell. To gain it back would be difficult. They disappeared in a tornado of light. Left behind remained their fight, unburied, by no means forgotten.

They orbed first to Jake's house. Immediately, without even speaking, Jake went to his desk to continue his work. Chris knew not to stay. He didn't need to be an empath to know his very presence served as an intrusion here. Thoroughly disheartened, he returned to the manor.

[Sunday, October 27, 2019]

The stench of burning flesh spread through the kitchen, leaving the air dry and acrid. From his seat beside the stovetop brew, Chris choked out a loud series of coughs. Arms folded across the countertop, he cushioned his head neatly in the space between his elbows. Beside him stood Paige, so deeply engrossed in their brew that she seemed oblivious to the boy she was tutoring. Or so said boy convinced himself—until she said aloud, "Chris, come stir this while I get more powdered toadstool; the potion's looking a bit peaky. And remember what I told you about keeping your wrist straight."

With a sigh, Chris scooted his stool over to take Paige's place, accepting the proffered spoon from her hand. She relinquished her spot to him and went to the cabinets to root through their stock of ingredients. Chris dunked the wooden spoon into the extra-large, stainless steel cauldron that his mother had purchased years earlier at a gypsy fair. He circled it twice clockwise around the edges, then switched directions and did it again. Although he tried to ignore it, curiosity tempted him. As a quick precaution, he shot a glance over his shoulder to make sure his aunt's attention was still occupied. Then, ignoring the long-since engrained rule not to stick his nose into unknown substances, he leaned forward to peer inside. The endeavor was rewarded with a face-full of cloudy lavender mist. Immediately, his lungs protested the unexpected intrusion, expunging the trespasser with a deep, firm cough. Chris swiped at watering eyes and then checked to assure himself that Paige hadn't noticed. For the remainder of the task, he stirred at arm's length.

A couple of minutes later, Paige returned to his side. "How's it looking?" she asked. With the palm of her hand, she waved away the plume of smoke so that the brew became visible.

Oh… Chris mused. Could've done that…

Aloud, he stated with confidence, "Looks good to me." Paige tilted her head to stare at him, one eyebrow raised. Chris squirmed. "What?" he said defensively.

The second eyebrow rose to join the first. All she said was, "Hm. Thought you were smarter than that." Chris ducked his head, but not quick enough to hide his blush. How she knew, he had no idea. Did his face carry some leftover markings from the potion's smoke? He squinted at the side of the cauldron, using it as a mirror to gauge his appearance, but it was too misted over by the heat from the flame.

"It doesn't show," said Paige, amusement tingeing her tone. "I just know you."

Shoulders hunched, the boy muttered a response before falling into sullen silence.

Gently, Paige pushed Chris's hand to the side in order to sprinkle in a fistful of fine, white and pink powder. As it settled, she watched with scrutiny. At length, she determined, "That's much better," and wiped her hands clean on the leg of her pants.

Frowning, Chris squinted into the cauldron. Without the smoke playing interference, he could see it clearly now. He tilted his head to the left, then to the right. When, eyebrows raised, he voiced his confusion—"But it's the exact same color!"—Paige only shook her head. "Chris, it's darker by at least three half shades," she sighed. "Tell me you see the difference."

Oh, three half shades, sure, he thought morosely to himself. Whatever that means… Out loud, however, he said nothing.

For now, Paige let the subject drop. They had plenty of time to study the shades of various potions at a later date. Right now they had to practice proper timing. Thanks to half an hour's worth of demonstration, Chris's stirring had finally become consistent. Now he fell into a steady rhythm almost without thinking and maintained it with minimal effort. Which presents its own set of problems, Paige noted as her nephew's eyes glazed over—keeping him focused. To collect his attention, she loudly cleared her throat; but his mind was already too far gone to notice, or he ignored her. Either way, he paid her no heed until her firm hand clasped his shoulder, making him jump.

"Come on, Chris, focus," she half implored of the boy. "This could save someone's life one day."

Far from sobering him, the remark only brought a smirk to his face. The poorly-concealed snort depicted exactly what he thought of that. "Right, Aunt Paige," he retorted, slouching lower in his seat. "A potion that 'diminishes the potency of one's symptoms but leaves the underlying cause of those symptoms untouched.'" Paige blinked in surprise, for a moment too taken aback to come up with a response. Her nephew absorbed far more than she assumed he had. When else had he feigned ignorance, taking in everything? How many times did he play stupid—but when push came to shove, proved himself much more aware than they gave him credit for? Before she could ponder the implications, he had continued, "Which means basically, if I break my leg, the potion will making my pain go away but the bone will still be broken, so I still won't be able to walk on it. Very helpful." He stopped stirring long enough to give her a pointedly bored stare. "As far as useless potions go…" Purposefully, the thought trailed off.

"Just stir, Chris," Paige sighed.

While he dutifully—if begrudgingly—followed her instruction, Paige searched in the cupboard for the asphodel root that would neutralize the poisonous effects of mixing billings' root and essence of toadstool. "It's best to use a freshly picked root and chop it immediately before adding it to your brew," she intoned for her nephew's benefit. For all she could observe, he appeared to be disregarding the information completely but then again, she couldn't be sure he wasn't once again simply putting on an act. "But that solution, while most potent, isn't very practical." She extracted a container of chopped asphodel root and set it down beside Chris. "This works well enough in ninety percent of the potions you'll end up brewing in your life." She paused, and then added, "Unless you become a necromancer, that is."

At this, Chris perked up. "Why? What's a necromancer have that we don't?"

"Oh, now you're suddenly interested," his aunt remarked with a laugh. She dumped in a few tablespoons of the asphodel chunks and then usurped the wooden spoon just long enough to mix two counterclockwise rotations. "Clockwise," she now instructed, handing it back to the boy.

"What's a necromancer do?" he insisted stubbornly, prepared to wait in that exact position until she gave in. Off his aunt's raised eyebrow, however, he quickly changed his mind, dunked the spoon beneath the surface, and began to stir.

Satisfied with his compliance, Paige explained, "Necromancers deal with the brink of life and death, which in and of itself is a volatile plane of existence. Any 'tween' place is, by definition, volatile because it exists in a state of perpetual 'almost.' You're almost dead, or almost alive, but you're not meant to remain like that. The universe needs distinct definitions, not vague something-or-others."

Heavily disappointed, Chris sighed. Only in this family could a topic as fascinating as necromancy morph into the monster of boring lectures. But once Paige got started… At this point, it was best to simply let her talk herself out.

Unaware of Chris's rapidly decreasing interest, the witch elaborated, "Because of the delicate state they work with, a necromancer's potions tend to use excessive amounts of billings' root and essence of toadstool, which means that a regular, pre-crushed asphodel root doesn't have enough power to counteract the poisonous reaction. Its strength ebbs over time—which is why you absolutely cannot use any form of asphodel that expired, not even a day past its expiration date. Best case, it'll do nothing. That's best case." She paused heavily to make sure Chris heard the gravity of her warning. Once, realizing she would wait, Chris hurriedly nodded, she continued, "For a necromancer, it's needed at the peek of its potency. That's why most necromancy is done on All Hallow's Eve. That's when the herbs and flowers pack their biggest punch. Not to mention the veils of the tween planes fall away."

Finally, Chris's groan cut short her impromptu lecture. In despair, he moaned, "You're supposed to be the cool aunt."

Scoffing, Paige replied, "I am the cool aunt." She went to put away the asphodel root.

Chris snorted. "Whatever." If this was cool, he held out no hope for the rest of the family. The thought was so utterly outrageous that he couldn't even pretend to support her delusions. Still, she seemed confident enough that nothing he said would sway her belief, so he didn't try to. Instead, propping his cheek on a fist, he refocused his attention on mixing. For a few minutes, the only noise came from the splashing and clunking of the spoon. Liquid bubbled up against the brim and, a few times, came close to overflowing, though it never actually did. Eventually, bored with silence, Chris piped up, "How will a pain-soothing potion be useful for All Hallow's Eve anyway?"

Paige set a jar down on the countertop. "It's always important to be stocked up; you never know what you might need," she answered evasively. With some difficulty, she popped open the cap and pushed the jar across the counter to her nephew. "Add the pixie wings."

"Pixie wings is murder," Chris grumbled, though he obeyed, if reluctantly. Using only the tips of his fingers, he dug out a pair of sparkling, transparent wings.

"And what's the next ingredient?" his aunt prompted. When he said nothing, not even bothering to try, she supplied dully, "Snakeweed," and sighed. "Chris, you need to get this."

"Why?" Chris snorted. "When will I not have the Book of Shadows but somehow be in the presence of a stove, a cauldron, and a fully stocked cupboard?"

At first, Paige opened her mouth to argue, then, pausing momentarily, seemed to decide a debate so ridiculous did not merit her time or effort. Instead, she swept up a few of the ingredients they had already used and returned them to their cabinets. By the time she finished, Chris was slouched low on his wobbly stool, torso half-draped over the counter. Forgoing the concoction he was meant to watch, his eyes meticulously followed the second hand on the clock, which ridiculed his imprisonment with a mocking ticktickticktick. Paige pressed her hand into his shoulder, straightening his posture.

"This part is delicate, Chris," she warned. "You need to stir for forty-four seconds in rhythmic, counterclockwise circles. If you lose count, your potion will cook in the wrong places and become absolutely useless."

Although Chris gave a solemn nod, as soon as Paige turned around to put away the pixie wings, he rolled his eyes at her back. Still, he counted as he stirred. One, two, three… This is ridiculous… seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven… What a waste of time. When would someone use a potion like this anyhow? Aunt Paige is just looking for ways to keep me busy… thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven…

The sound of the front door slamming shut made Chris look up. Piper's voice called to them with a businesslike, "We've got a demon," as she marched through to the kitchen, dumping her keys and purse on the dining room table as she passed.

"Thank goodness for that," Chris sighed. He shook out the spoon and moved to stand.

"Chris," Paige hissed, "your potion—!" But it had already begun to sizzle. Purple liquid rose to the lip of the cauldron and bubbled over.

As Paige snatched up a dishtowel, attempting the futility of mopping up the liquid faster than it could spill, Chris merely stared. He made no move to help clean the mess he had caused. Magenta spread everywhere, staining the countertop a discolored, raspberry hue.

Piper, in an act that was strangely out of character, disregarded the mess completely. Without even a glance on her part, the scene froze; flame, concoction, and all. "Not important," she said sharply. Paige ogled in disbelief. The woman who had spared no one the wrath of her consternation in the face of muddy footprints across her floor—the woman who insisted on scrubbing her dishes before letting the dishwasher run—she, leave a mess for later? Never.

"Who are you and what've you done with my sister?"

Piper rolled her eyes. "This doesn't mean I'm letting you get away with it," she clarified. "As soon as we're finished, I'm sending Chris back into this kitchen with a rag and some soap."

Chris groaned—thanks, Aunt Paige, he thought, wishing at that moment for a spark of telepathy so he could make his aunt aware of his gushing gratitude. Meanwhile, Paige relaxed. That sounded more like the Piper that she knew and (sometimes) loved. As she set down the dishtowel, her sister explained, "Phoebe called me at the club. You know those women who've been going missing lately? Premonition—they're witches. She didn't get a good enough look to identify the demon responsible, but she said the next attack is coming. Soon." All thought of the botched potion vanished as Chris and his aunt followed Piper into the conservatory to set up shop and begin their hunt. "Phoebe's already on her way over. Paige, can you pick up Leo from Magic School and drop him off at P3? I need someone to cover for me. Crystal's son is sick with the flu, so I'm down a pair of hands."

"I thought Crystal works at the restaurant."

"Normally she does," Piper concurred, slipping briefly from hardcore super-witch to fatigued businesswoman. "Astronomica's business has been a bit slow lately, so she's been my extra hands at a ridiculously over-popular club. Not that I'm complaining. At least one of them's bringing in cash." Bringing herself back to the task at hand, she prompted, "Leo? Can you—you know?"

"Right. Be back in a minute." She vanished before her sentence was completed.

One woman down, Piper paused to take a breath, both eyes shut as she determined their next course of action. The tension in her shoulders unwound in the few seconds she let herself relax before getting down to business. When she opened her eyes again, she stepped out of her role as Piper Halliwell and into Charmed One. "Okay," she said at length. And again, "Okay," this one with more focus. "Chris, scrying board? And bring down the Book, too, while you're up there. We can definitely take this guy."

Twenty minutes later things had more or less settled. Piper stood over Chris's shoulder as, elbow leaning against his propped-up knee, he swung the amulet over an outdated map of San Francisco. Across the room, Paige sat eyes closed, regulating her heartbeats and breathing as her sensing powers struck out blindly for a creature she had never encountered.

"Anything?" Piper pressed. When Chris shook his head, she said, "Not even a tug?"

Chris shrugged, shifted weight off his knee, and straightened his spine with a satisfying crack. "Maybe he decided to sleep in today," the boy suggested. His mother's swat to the arm he took with a silent wince, but his remark won its desired result—Piper wandered away from him to stand beside her sister instead. Usually by this time, Piper was elbow-deep in magical ingredients, halfway through a vanquishing potion. But with no hints from Phoebe's premonition andno entry from the Book of Shadows, she had no information upon which to base a vanquish. She could only hover uselessly and wait for something to change.

Phoebe had called a few minutes earlier with a frustrated report on the day's traffic that included her car at the center of the scene. She would be at least another fifteen minutes, if not twenty. Until she arrived, the Book of Shadows, which lay abandoned on the coffee table, could offer no assistance. Without their 'seer,' they were blind.

"Could really use a tip here," Piper grumbled loudly, unsure to whom her ire was directed.

For Paige the voice beside her ear broke her concentration. The look she cast at her sister went, for the most part, ignored. Broken from her trance, she now noticed the cramping in her legs and the itch she had thus far disregarded. After satisfying her itch, she resettled herself on the couch and then closed her eyes to try again. Her breathing slowed, her heartbeat calmed, and she felt herself return to the depths from which she had emerged. Just as she reclaimed control of her reservoir of magic, a petulant whine penetrated her thoughts.

From Chris, bored by inaction, came a frustrated, "Why am I the only one who has to be here? It's not fair."

At once, relieved to finally have something useful to do, Piper admonished, "Because. Prue's too young, and Wyatt's at the library. He practiced his potions last night so he could study for the test he has tomorrow. He plans ahead."

Chris found it odd that, two weeks ago, Prue's age had been perfectly adequate for the dirty-work of demon-hunting but since then had apparently—or at least according to their mother—regressed to the helplessness of infancy. Even he could see the frustration mounting in his little sister, who concealed her ire rather poorly, while Piper, their omniscient mother and matriarch of their coven, seemed oddly oblivious. But what really confused Chris was how she could say "Wyatt" and "library" without pausing at her own words. Wyatt—willingly taking up a book? No more likely than Chris's ability to go an entire week without detention. And the extent of Wyatt's ability to plan ahead was remembering to brush his teeth before bed. But if Chris breathed a word about Wyatt's whereabouts… Well, he didn't fancy an encounter with a charged, twice-blessed witch. Especially since, for the past couple of weeks, Wyatt hadn't acted like himself. So Chris said nothing and continued to scry, complaints on mute.

After a few minutes of silence, Paige's breathing fell out of sync and her eyes opened, remorse thick. "I got nothing." She stretched her tingling muscles and moved to get up. When Piper opened her mouth to protest, Paige explained, "It's late. I told Bobby I'd be there to pick him up ten minutes ago." Piper, unappeased, folded her arms over her chest. "Look," Paige sighed, "the attack obviously hasn't happened yet or between me, Chris, and Phoebe, we'd know. I have to pick up Bobby from his play date. I'll drop him off at the station and then come back for round two, okay?" Lips pursed, Piper gave one sharp nod.

As soon as her sister's orbs dissipated, she wheeled back around and rounded her frustration onto her son. "Anything?" she demanded.

From beneath lowered lashes, Chris looked over at his mother, at the rigid set of her shoulders and the tightly pressed lips. Now was not the time for light-hearted quips, he knew. Gravely, he answered, "Nothing. But he's bound to surface at some—"

A high-pitched trill cut him off; vibrations seized Chris from the waist down. As Piper spun to seek the source of the noise, Chris jammed a hand into his pocket to relieve it of a ringing cell phone. Another alto trill. With one glance at the caller ID, Chris leapt from his seat, phone held out at arm's length as if its owner feared it might explode. "Shoot, it's Dwight!"

"So?" Piper frowned. "Call him back later. Tell him you were busy."

"You don't understand," Chris protested. The ring interrupted him, and he glared at the phone, furious that it could betray him by putting through Dwight's call. "We were supposed to go to a movie today. We planned to see it ages ago, but I got detention and… Shoot, what do I do—?"

When Piper released a sigh, it seemed to soften her face: shoulders relaxed, the darkness of stress seeped out of her eyes, and she even smiled softly. Guiding his hand back to his chest, she remarked, "Answer it, then. As long as Paige comes back before the demon attacks, I don't see why we can't handle it without you." Appreciated though the unexpected kindness was, it caught Chris too much by surprise for him to react. He stared stupidly at the palm of his hand, then up to his mom. Off his bewilderment, she encouraged, "Go on, you deserve some sort of normalcy. I know how that feels. Your aunts and I have got this one." She gave him a smile, which he returned, if a bit uncertainly. He felt a surge of gratitude—for once, he wouldn't have to cancel on his best friend. As he flipped open the phone and, somewhat belatedly, pressed it to his ear, Piper traded positions with him. She collected the crystal from his loose grip and dangled it over the map.

"Chris!" Dwight announced into the phone, voice a few decibels too loud for the receiver. "I thought you were gonna come over before the movie!"

"Dwight, quit yelling." Chris yanked the phone away from his ear. "I can hear you just fine."

"I'm not yelling! And the movie starts in half an hour, so you coming or what?"

Suddenly, Piper's lazy thoughts, which were half-listening to the one-sided conversation, were brought back to her task with a sharp tug. Tension flooded back into her body. The crystal. It had gotten a whiff of the demon—an attack. And neither sister had yet arrived to her aid.

"Yeah, yeah," Chris was saying, "sorry. I got held—"

"Chris," Piper interrupted, voice low, "the crystal's falling."

Chris froze, disbelieving. Freedom, his delicate freedom, fast drained from sight. Desperately, he cried, "What! But it can't!"

"Now who's yelling?" Dwight quipped. "Look, it's no big deal if you're busy. We can meet at the theater. No need to freak—"

"Hang on," Chris interrupted sharply. Panic spread in his chest, expanding like a poisonous gas, suffocating. Suctioning his hand to the receiver, the boy hissed, "But the movie—you promised!"

Piper closed her eyes, willing the crystal not to fall. "I said if your aunt comes back in time," she corrected. Even before she said it, she knew the excuse would not satisfy him. For all purposes, she had just handed him the keys to his freedom and then, as he stood at the threshold, yanked him back into his prison cell. But what else could she do? They could not allow yet another Innocent to perish at this demon's hand. Heavily, the witch sighed. Though she hated allowing this responsibility to so disruptively pervade her son's life, he understood as well as she that this was a burden they could not shirk. "Chris, I didn't think he'd attack either, but the crystal is pulling."

With his own eyes he could see she was right. The chain swung against her grip with ferocious strength, winding in tighter and smaller circles as it honed in on a location. The demon was afoot, and with no one else available the task fell to him. Saying no was not an option. His responsibility had existed since birth, bound by the blood of the Halliwell line. He could no more escape this than he could his whitelighter heritage, or those vestiges of mortality that left him yearning for a normal life.

He glared, but that was the only rebellion he could afford without wasting time their Innocent might not have. Voice rich with frustration, he dutifully muttered into the phone, "I can't make it to the movie today. I'm really sorry. Something just came up."

"What?" Now Dwight's yelling came for yelling's sake, but Chris didn't dare move the phone from his ear. How could he? The anger was more than justified, and what else could Chris say to rectify the situation? "What do you mean you can't make it? What came—"

"Chris, the crystal dropped. We have a location."

"—How could something come up? We were meant to see this ages ago—"

"Chris, a witch is in trouble. We need to orb!"

Eyes squeezed shut, Chris curled his hand into a fist. His head ached fiercely from the barrage of noise coming at him from both sides. Teeth clenched. Why couldn't Paige have waited ten more minutes? Why did Wyatt have to choose today to go out and "study"? Now both were gone, and Chris was the only one, a duty he dared not evade at the risk of losing a life. The stakes were too high for him to allow his own petty stubbornness to stop him. Though Dwight's justified fury branded Chris with guilt, he had a job to do.

Hating himself for the words, he whispered into the phone, "I'm sorry, I have to go. I'll call you later."

"But, Chris—"

The instant his phone clicked shut, Chris felt a hand seize his elbow. Right now, he couldn't bear even to look at his mother, never mind touch her; but her grip was too strong for him to shake off. Besides, it would have been a wasted phone call if he blew off his best friend and they still lost the Innocent.

Piper's voice interrupted the turmoil within his head. "It's between Fillmore and Bush." When he didn't immediately react, she urged, "Chris, let's go." He opened his eyes, and anger surged forward to greet him. The Innocent. Never mind her son, who had scheduled his plans ages ago as his mother claimed Wyatt had done. Wyatt, who didn't plan a day in his life, but Chris—he had gone to the effort and still came away with nothing to show for it. Never mind that his mother claimed to profess advocating a normal life. When it came right down to it, she still dropped her own existence to save another's. If some idiot witch was too dumb to know not to cross directly into a demon's path, then why was it their job to save her? And just because his mom's Wiccan duty as a Charmed One obligated her to protect, why did he have to turn into her faithful taxi service? No one asked his permission before enslaving him to 'the Greater Good.' Right now, he wanted to be as far away from all of this as poss…

Until he fully materialized behind a parked garbage truck on Bush Street, Chris didn't realize what he had done. Violent and raging, the emotions that had overwhelmed him seized magic from his control. The wish to escape all that tethered him had been granted; Piper was nowhere in sigh. She had been left behind. Ever-present, even in her absence, her voice echoed between his ears, ordering, "Chris! Get back here! Come back! CHRIS!"

"Oops," Chris said, not very apologetic at all. Although the departure had not been intentional, he didn't regret that the accident had occurred.

Putting her on mute—he would get an earful for it later, but he could help no one with it serving as a distraction—he took a moment to examine his surroundings. Quiet, nothing much out of the ordinary. A couple of people, none of whom had noticed his arrival, hurried along the sidewalk in both directions. Across the street, a row of short buildings, devoid of life. Closed for the weekend, while those who spent their days there went out with friends or family. Did normal weekend stuff, came back grumpy and tired Monday morning, ready to get reclaimed by the captivity of the week, looking forward—always—to the coming Friday, to freedom—

Forcing down his mounting ire, Chris reminded himself, The sooner you deal with the demon, the soon you're off duty.

The question remained: where was this demon? With all the buildings tall enough to conceal an encounter, Chris couldn't be certain which one to check first. Running the wrong way meant losing time he couldn't spare. Then again, standing here uselessly did the same. He crossed the street, cocking his head to one side and blindly threw out his sensing powers as far as they could extend. He would not recognize the Innocent's unique mark, but perhaps he could detect a general sense of terror that frequently came with a demonic assault.

With no magical focus, the information he got nearly drowned him, but despite the surge of unfamiliar thoughts crowding into his brain, he persisted. Slowly, he sifted through and discarded the sounds of all the clueless passersby on the street, and then—

The noise hit him as if a physical blow. A whimper and moan and blood-curdling shriek intertwined into something that rent apart Chris's insides. There was something familiar there, too, a humming, like the low buzzing of a fly by his ear, but he couldn't identify it and the presence of fear overpowered the softness. Breath catching, he stumbled backwards from the force of emotion.

Although nearly incapacitating, the experiment had proved successful. Wheezing with pain, which stung in his chest each time he took a breath, the boy stumbled in the direction his senses led him. He garnered a couple of confused stares as he hobbled, half-crippled, down the sidewalk, but no one tried to stop him.

Wounded before I even start to fight, he thought grimly. This isn't gonna be pleasant. But even as he turned down the alleyway, the pain began to recede. By the time he disappeared completely behind the building, it had faded to little more than a memory. For protection, the boy ducked behind an open dumpster, cringing at the stench, and peered out in search of the Innocent. A few feet away, he spotted them—the Innocent's back to him. Jeans, a sweatshirt, mouse-brown hair sagging in a loose ponytail; a plastic Shop-Rite bag overturned on the cement at her feet. Its contents—bagged vegetables, canned Ramen Noodle Soups, and a novel with pages now bent—were scattered around her like an earthbound halo.

"What is it with Innocents and alleyways?" Chris muttered to himself. "Don't they ever learn?" Determined to get closer to the action, he edged along the side of a graffiti-sprayed building, pressed close to avoid detection. Just now, with concealment so imperative, he cursed the bright blue t-shirt he had thrown on that morning. With no intention of leaving the house, he had not bothered to get properly dressed; and during the hubbub of the demon-tracking, it had not occurred to him to change into more camouflaged colors. Still, he couldn't waste time lamenting now. He would have to pray for the element of surprise and the stupidity of his opponent.

Certainly the creature didn't look too intelligent. Thick claws, extended, and a dim-witted, if menacing, sneer. Chris allowed himself only a second to take in the demon's features; a bare chest, rubbery skin a burnt shade of maroon. A sleeveless trench coat showed off the sinewy muscles etched into each arm. Aglow, eyes lighted on the prize trembling before him. The demon lit his hand with a sphere of crackling, blue energy. When the Innocent took a step back, she tripped on a stray can that had rolled beneath the heel of her shoe. She lost her footing and stumbled, but just as the demon raised his hand to strike, Chris decided it was high time he stepped in.

Normally, in these circumstances, Chris's quick wit jumped to his aid, but everyone had an 'off' day. It appeared today was his. Words seemed to abandon his every endeavor to retrieve them, so instead he settled for a simple, un-ignorable, "Hey—ugly!" The demon paused, mostly out of confusion, wondering if the comment had been meant for him and wondering if it had been an insult.

"Yeah, I'm talking to you," Chris continued, stepping into view. The time it took for the bewildered demon to lower its hand was all Chris needed to launch a full-blown verbal attack. "I know it's hard to tell—you probably don't have a mirror in whatever hole you live in—but even for a demon, I mean, yuck. Did your mother abandon you at birth for a face like that?"

The demon looked, if possible, even more perplexed. Frankly, Chris didn't blame him. He was grasping at straws here, not responsible for whatever absurdity happened to escape through his mouth. But it served its purpose. For now, the Innocent was still alive. As he spoke, Chris began to inch toward her. If he could just reach her and orb…

Noticing the movement, the demon let out a possessive growl and stepped forward. Chris froze. Teeth bared, the demon announced, "The witch is mine."

"Funny that," Chris responded rather amicably, "'Cause she's the one I came for."

The demon's broad shoulders rose with a territorial snarl. Preparing for a fight, muscles tightened visibly in his forearms. "I found her first," he said in a half-whine. "Go find your own powers to acquire."

"'Acquire,' big word," Chris approved, clapping twice in congratulations. "But don't you mean 'steal'?" At this point, still under the scrutiny of a demon on the offensive, he dared not try to reach the Innocent. It appeared he would have to get his hands bloody for this one.

"The witch is mine, boy," the demon repeated more forcefully. "Go back to the Underworld and play with your lizards. There's no place for you here." A fist rose, clenched.

"I'm not a demon; I'm a whitelighter." At his own words, he paused. Since when did he introduce himself as 'whitelighter'? As much as he took pride in the pacifist half of his heritage, he had always aligned himself with witches. But 'whitelighter' had slipped right out, almost naturally.

He resolved to ponder the implications later, or not at all since a slip of the tongue hardly indicated anything significant. Besides, he currently had more important things to deal with.

A guffaw of laughter burst from the demon's swollen lips. "Whitelighter?" he repeated, incredulous. "You? Little boy? So the Elders recruit dead children now? I didn't realize they were so desperate."

"They're not," Chris countered, "I'm just that good." The boy adopted a battle stance of his own—his feet shifted, planting firmly against the cement. His hands, still at his sides, tensed in anticipation. Cautious, he watched the subtle shift as the demon's hands gravitated toward his waist. He's got a knife, Chris noted to himself, and then filed the fact away. Voice deceptively bright, he remarked, "Since I'm in a pretty generous mood, I'll make you a deal: You don't attack this witch, and I'll let you run off with your tail between your legs and all your body parts still attached. For today, anyway."

Finally, a threat—something the demon understood.

"You will be the one to run, little whitelighter, and I won't offer such mercy." Paused at his waist, the demon's fingers curled in thought. He licked his lips. "I've never orbed before. How interesting it must be…" He left the sentence to die off as he conjured an energy ball in each hand and charged.

To the Innocent, who had remained strangely silent through the whole encounter, Chris called out, "Get yourself somewhere safe!" He kept his eyes trained on the fast advancing monster. When the demon was only five feet away, Chris held up a hand. In his mind, he felt the thick, leathery skin against his palm; felt muscles strain against the sudden pressure his magic forced upon the demon. Unable to break through the invisible barrier, the demon's body came to a halt. Both energy balls sputtered out of existence. After a moment, taking care to steady his powers first, the 'little whitelighter' thrust his hand forward. With it, the demon flew backward, arms, legs, and head outstretched in front of him. He collided with the wall of a building and went down with a thump and a groan.

Chris allowed himself a smile. "Nice work," he commended, but to his surprise was immediately forced to duck and deflect a bluish sphere of pulsing light. By the time he resumed his stance, the demon had already clamored to his feet, recovered. "O-kay, quicker than I gave him credit for." In the exact time it took to dive out of the way, another energy ball careened past his head. He heard it sizzle as it passed.

"Careful!" someone cried. The Innocent—I thought I told her to get lost, Chris thought with frustration. This was why they got killed right and left: because they refused to follow a set of simple instructions. Alone, Chris would have stayed to finish off the demon once and for all, but he couldn't risk the Innocent's life just because she was too dumb to know the meaning of the word 'run.'

"Okay," he muttered, half aloud and half to himself, "time to get out of here." Resolved in the face of an updated plan, he spun to confront the Innocent. "We're gonna have to…" The instructions, confident at first, died in his throat. His green eyes widened, stunned. The Innocent stared back, eyes wide and face blanched with fear, but lips quirked at her counterpart's obvious surprise. "M-Miss Gowell?"

While Chris fought, she had gained those few short minutes to come to terms with the peculiarity of the situation. Her student—in battle—with a demon, no less! How did he even know about demons, much less have powers of his own? What was he even doing here?

"But-but—" the boy stuttered, clearly just as bewildered as she had been.

"Mister Halliwell," she pronounced wryly, and then—eyes growing wide and panic overwhelming the irony—"Behind you!"

Instinct made Chris turn, only to have his shoulder make acquaintance with the energy ball that had been hurled at his spine. Pain shot through his arm. Although training had taught him to remain on his feet, the overwhelming sensation had him sinking to the ground with a heavy groan. His vision dimmed, swam.

He heard a deep voice—the demon's—but couldn't make out words over the blood roaring in his ears. The distinctive 'whoosh' of an energy ball. A shriek. The demon's chuckle; this time Chris forced his brain to decipher it: "Come out, come out, witch. I know you're here somewhere. I know your powers; you can't fool me. Can't hide forever! You wouldn't leave the precious little whitelighter all alone to die, would you?"

Suddenly, Chris felt a grip tighten on his arm. When he squinted upward, he could see nothing, but he definitely felt a hand on him—that he couldn't deny. "Wha—?" Vision blurred, he relinquished himself to his inner eyes. They reopened the world before him. His senses registered the sound he had heard earlier, the combination of fear and that familiar tug, which he now recognized as his teacher. At his side, it hummed into his ear, although he could swear no one stood beside him. Beyond that, the deep, mocking laugh; the growl—of a demonic presence. It sauntered toward him, apparently bored of searching for his victim when here lay another, completely helpless. Bewilderment climaxed when, in his ear, an urgent voice whispered, "Chris, you have to get up. Come on, we need to get you to a hospital…"

The incongruity of the statement—a hospital, for a demon attack?—helped to clear his head. Using his senses to guide him, Chris shook off the invisible grip and rolled over onto his hands and knees. A bolt of fire shot down his shoulder in protest, but gritting his teeth, he ignored it. The fingers on both hands curled against the concrete. His knees pressed into loose pebbles, which dug into his skin like ever-tiny shards of glass. What he needed right now was more power. Without it, the demon would easily overpower him, and Chris had no interest in having his own powers up for grabs.

Even drained as he felt, Phoebe's constant drilling kicked in. He could hear her telling him to open his eyes. There's magic in nature. Just look for it, Chris. But in a cemented alleyway, devoid of life, what natural magic could possibly exist?

"Go deeper," he breathed to himself. "Focus."

With ease, his bruised body slipped into the meditative breathing pattern Phoebe had ingrained in him. In, hold, out; in, hold, out. Pain faded to a recess in his mind, muted, tucking itself away for later. Right now, he had a job to complete.

Collecting his last strands of energy, the boy threw his magic out through his hands. It rushed past the thick cement, deeper, to the ground beneath. At his touch, the earth came alive. He could feel it breathe, its every breath echoing with ancient life, with history, with the dormancy it had endured from the creation of time until now. The deep eternity of the earth roared in his ears, the pulse of the universe itself. She sand to him in a voice his head could barely contain. He allowed her sentience to fill every crevice of his body and mind. Soon, his wounds were forgotten—no longer existed, for he had folded into the earth and let her take him over completely. In the shadow of such impossible vastness, his Self faded.

In a rush of strength, he switched directions. When the earth released her next slow breath, he thrust his magic outward. The ground gave one horrible lurch, which sent the demon sprawling. Excited at this new freedom, the earth began to tremble with energy. The rumbling grew louder until it was deafening.

Through his bond with the earth, Chris felt everything from inside him. He felt a presence at his side—the one he still could not see, but the earth's power went beyond human sight. He felt the demon—a wrongness so profound, the earth felt it necessary to expel it from her midst.

With that, I agree with you, Chris told her. He called her forward, focusing the infinity of her magic with the structure his own limits could provide. Guided, the magic sprouted upward, stealing through the top layer of cement that held her captive. Spaced evenly between Chris's hands, the cement broke away. Freed, magic shot forward, splitting the ground as it zigzagged toward the Wrongness. The fallen demon rolled to his feet just as, with a terrifying roar, each side of the jagged crevice ripped away from the other.

Ms. Gowell stared at Chris's straining muscles, the concentration that wrinkled his forehead and tightened his jaw. Just in time, the demon noticed his inconvenient location, one foot situated on either side of the growing gap.

The demon's lips were moving but his threat, swallowed in the roar, went unheard. Then, the air around him began to shiver, and by the time Ms. Gowell blinked once he had faded into nothing. Still, the gap continued to grow. One look at Chris's closed eyes determined he had not noticed the demon's departure.

"Chris!" she screamed over the noise. "Chris, he's gone!" Before she could physically shake him out of his trance, the rumbling subsided. Breathing heavily, Chris forced himself to relax. The power gushed out of him, escaping into the crack as the earth, pacified with her work, returned to her slumber. The sudden emptiness left Chris's bones aching with fatigue. By the time he opened his eyes, the only thing left was the jagged line that cut deep into the earth's crust. Shaky, Chris forced his feet beneath him, although he had to lean heavily against the wall for support. His chest rose and fell with exaggerated motions, clinging to the air with desperation. As soon as, thinking himself stable, he stepped forward, his legs buckled. He stumbled—but before he could fall, something grabbed him.

"Easy," instructed a soft voice. In his state of utter exhaustion, it didn't strike him as suspicious that the hands that caught him and the voice that soothed him did not come with a body attached to them.

Stupidly, he announced, "Nobody's here. I shouldn't be standing right now." His mind felt like jell-O. Softer than jell-O—like mush. A big, blobby mush, he thought, and that sounded funny enough to make him grin.

"What are you talking about?" said the voice, bewildered.

"And I shouldn't be hearing a voice right now," continued Chris, "but I do."

"Chris, did you hit your… ohh."

There was a pregnant pause, and then suddenly Chris could see that the hands holding him steady were female. Little by little, everything else leaked into view, from the wrists to the elbows to the shoulders, then down the torso, legs, and finally her neck and then face; until there stood his teacher, alive and unharmed.

"Oh," Chris said dimly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Hullo, Ms. Gowell."

Unsure of what else to say, Ms. Gowell replied, "Uh, hi." Chris laughed.

"How did you…?" With one hand, he motioned vaguely to her face.

"It's my power," she explained. "I can… turn invisible." She felt silly saying those words aloud, but then again, Chris had literally opened the earth with sheer willpower. After that, her little 'disappearing act' seemed like no more than a magician's parlor trick. "But I can't do it on command," she rushed to admit, and with a fair amount of embarrassment also added, "And I can't actually tell when it's happening."

This admission seemed to leave Chris unperturbed. "Wow," he breathed, "that's sickly cool."

He said nothing for a few moments, preferring instead to stare at her, eyes roving over her face with scrutiny. He looked as if he were about to ask something, but then—apparently thinking better of it—stopped. At length, he finally sighed, allowing pragmatism to slowly filter back into his brain. His muscles felt like paste, his head throbbed in time with his heartbeats, and his brain felt as if it had gotten stuck mid-yawn, open and gaping for all to enter. Despite this, he had not finished what he had been sent to do, and that realization was enough to sober him, at least temporarily. "We should go somewhere safe," he announced.

"Okay," Marcy replied, too shaken by the whole encounter to even think to disagree. "My car's down the block if you—"

"Oh." Chris gave a chuckle. "I've got a faster way." Instinctively, she took the arm he extended; only afterwards did it occur to her to follow him with caution and not blindly, especially with that lopsided grin he couldn't completely erase from his features. "Don't worry," he assured even as she began to, "it doesn't hurt." His orbs seemed to rush out to greet him, embracing with the warmth and familiarity of an old friend. After the raw energy that had left his insides ragged, their soft, fluttery touch soothed his weary bones. Relieved, the confines of his body melted into their caress. At the last minute he even remembered to take his teacher with him, and she began to dissolve as well.

"Wait!" Ms. Gowell cried in a panic, "What doesn't hurt?"

Author's Note: After many long months, yes, it's true - I'm back. To any of you who may still be reading, kudos on your tenacity. In your position, I may have abandoned this long ago. To that end, I'm very sorry. Some of you are aware (and the rest are about to be informed) that I didn't have internet for a good ten or eleven months, and the brief stints I did have were spent writing to friends. But enough about that. The point is, although I didn't post, I didn't stop working on the story. I wanted to be able to post immediately upon my return to the world of internet. However, I got back a good few weeks ago at this point and, as you may have noticed, this is my first post since then. I wanted to give you guys a great chapter to break the hiatus. Unfortunately, action scenes are not my forte. I am, in fact, rather embarrassingly bad at writing them. But I didn't want to shortchange the scene, so I went through edit after merciless edit to bring it up to par. When I gave up on Friday afternoon, I still wasn't happy with it, but I was so sick of reading the same words again and again that I knew it was either post - or scrap the entire thing and begin again. Doing the latter may very well have disheartened all further attempts, so I decided to post as is. Apologies, truly.

Also, I'm sorry for the extra long chapter. Some of you may prefer them, but my preference has always been chapters on the shorter side (most likely due to my utter lack of attention span), so to those of you who share the same feeling - I do try to keep them shorter when I can. I just couldn't find the right place to stop. As it was, I felt I cut short the scene, but I think it was a good place to pause without feeling like there was something missing there. Hopefully, the next chapter will be up soon, as it's half done already, maybe more so depending on how many edits it needs. (Needless to say, the "action" has not yet ended. :P)

Don't forget to take a stab at the quote's relationship to the chapter. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Often I get some interesting connections that never occured to me. I love reading those best!

Now, for replies to some reviews:

Birlygirl - I tried to reply to your review personally, but I couldn't find an account you were linked to. Alas, a public response will have to do. "My enjoyment of your story outweighed my displeasure of the public humiliation list" - Wow, you're a good soul. I think that would have turned me off immediately. :P What can I say? I can be quite the passionate person when I have my moments. I fully agree with you, though, that the extent to which I went was - ah - extreme. (Not that I don't still agree with my old self about helping a fellow author with some criticism, but I've mellowed - mostly because I've found more important beliefs to fight for, I guess, and that one, by comparison, pales just the slightest bit.) "I LOVE Bobby" - I'm so glad! You know the feeling when you share your favorite book with someone... and you wonder, "Will she like it, too?" It's like sharing a part of yourself. Well, I've got a soft spot in my heart for Bobby. All my characters have at least one deep, dark secret that interferes with living a normal, happy, healthy life (shall we say what that indicates about me? let's not), but Bobby - I can't do that to him. I want him to stay innocent, so innocent he shall remain! At least in this world... "You have me feeling miserable for Katie" - Thank you! Actually, because she was so well received (okay, okay, mostly because I like her), I've decided to work her into the story a bit more than originally intended. I hope you like the way her story unfolds. :) When I wrote her scene in the previous chapter, I have to admit, I wasn't sure about it. I couldn't decide if it was a bit heavy, you know? So I'm glad to get your very much trusted approval. "Dwight is getting kind of boring." - Noted. I'll try to see how I can spice him up a bit. I do have some plans for him down the line, but maybe I should work them in a bit earlier so that his interest isn't completely killed before we get there.

() - sigh. I only wish people could give names so that I'd know who I'm talking to. It's hard enough not having a face to put to a written word, but to not even have a name? It's like speaking to a blank wall. Very difficult. :P In any case, I liked the reviews (two of them) so much that I have to respond anyway. I hope whoever wrote it will know who you are. You said you thought Chris would have known to go to the school nurse as a cover. Err... You could definitely be right, but it didn't occur to me that he should go to the school nurse, so maybe the two of us will just claim obtuse and hang our heads in shame? I will try to keep an eye out for such obvious plot manipulation in the future, though. The second comment you mentioned was that, while the Elders can be inconsiderate, you can't see them giving a charge to a half-trained underage witch who still has school and responsibilities of his own. I can see where you would say they'd give Jake a more experienced whitelighter, but I have to disagree about the whole school thing. Honestly, I got the feeling that the personal lives of their protectors - witches, whitelighters, etc. - did fall very high on their list of things to consider. Thank you so much - I value your thoughts more than most. They were immensely helpful - gave me a challenge to focus on as I continue writing the story. The next time you see anything that requires "a suspense of your belief," I hope I'll be the first to know!