* * * * * Ben * * * * *
Piper holds on the best she can as her left hand is crushed by Phoebe's deathgrip.
"Come on, sweetie," she says, using her free hand to wipe the sweat-soaked hair from her sister's forehead, "You're doing good."
Phoebe pants through another contraction and squeezes tighter, making Piper clench her teeth.
"This is so unfair, Piper!" she says, tears popping from her eyes, "Cole should be here."
"I know, sweetie." says Piper gently, "and I'm sure wherever he is..."
Before she finishes her sentence, the door slams open and Cole bursts in.
"I'm sorry, baby, I got caught in the traffic, tried to reach Leo on the cell phone, but this damn thing!..." he says as he takes Piper's place by his wife's side.
"I can take it from here." he says, smiling at his sister in law.
"You'll bet you can." she mutters with a mockery smile, massaging her hand.
"Hey, dad, you almost missed all the fun." says the doctor, as Piper leaves the labor room and goes join Leo, Paige and Victor in the waiting room.
Cole smiles briefly at him before turning his attention back to Phoebe.
"Are you okay, baby?" he asks, holding her hand and kissing her forehead.
"I'll be better when this is over." she says with a faint smile. Then another contraction strikes her and she screams in pain, squeezing his hand tight. Caught completely off guard, Cole screams along with her.
"Okay, Phoebe, time to start pushing." says the doctor.
When she squeezes his hand again, Cole is prepared and squeezes back, astonished at the strength contained in the small hand that almost disappears inside his own.
She has her eyes closed and her head lies back as she pushes hard. For a moment, Cole imagines he can see the line where her throat was cut open months ago. He can't of course, there are no scars on her throat, Whitelighter's powers beat any plastic surgery technique.
The events from that afternoon come back to his mind once again. He was prepared for the pain; he knew pain. He was the only demon who could say he knew how it felt to be vanquished: he had gone through this when Belthazor had been vanquished, and he was ready to what was about to come, or so he thought. What he wasn't prepared for was the vertiginous fall that followed. He never knew if he was really falling or if it was just his mind trying to decode the experience into something his senses could understand. It did feel like he was falling, sinking into a dark, cold abyss. He was barely aware of the Source's howls as they were separated and he too seemed to be finding his way into the abyss. During his fall, all the warmth seemed to be leaving his body, as all the hope left his heart. Every pleasant experience he had ever had, every good feeling was being taken away from him. "That's it?" he thought, "An eternity of emptiness and coldness? That's what awaits me? Please God give me the burning hell and the malicious demons, but not this, please not this!" When he felt the firm grip around his wrist, he shrieked in terror. Then he saw Leo's face hovering above his. "What are you doing?" Before his lips could form the words to express his thought, he was startled to hear Leo's answer inside his mind: "Taking you back home". Indeed he could feel his fall stop short, and eagerly grabbed the other man's hand.
He can hardly remember what happened next, except that when Leo let go off his hand he was shaking so badly that he fell on his knees in front of Phoebe, and hide his face on her lap, relishing her loving touch and warmth. He was barely aware of a trembling Piper somewhere near, hugging Leo, and of Paige's voice babbling something about enough being enough.
"I've seen the gates of Hell," was his first rational thought, "I've been to the gates of Hell and lived to tell the story."
The thought of how close he had been of dragging his wife and son along with him to the same fate was almost unbearable. If she had just killed one innocent... He wanted to say he was sorry, wanted to beg her to forgive him, but he just couldn't seem to find his voice. When he finally raised his head from her lap, all he could do was stare at the others in utter bewilderment. He felt exausted and shaken, and frankly none of them looked very good, either.
"Why?" he finally managed to ask in a tired voice.
"The Elders gave me permission to go after you." said Leo, gravely. Seeing Cole's perplexed look, he added: "You made your choice; it's never too late when it comes to do the right choice."
"The Source...?" he didn't dare to put it down in words.
"Vanquished. For good."
Cole felt his head spin and squeezed the hand Phoebe rested on his shoulder.
"So," he said, looking nervously at the four people gathered around him. Being the only one sitting on the floor, he was in a very awkward position, having to raise his head to face them. "What happens now?"
"Now," said Leo, fondling Piper's hair, "I guess we start it over again, and hopefully learn from our mistakes."
He looked to their tired faces in astonishment. They were gonna let him stay? After what he had done? Then Piper left Leo's embrace and reached out for Phoebe. As Paige and Leo joined them on the sofa, Phoebe thankfully nested in the arms of her family. He was still sitting at her feet, and sort of got caught in the mess of loving arms and hands.
What was that that Robert Frost once wrote? "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." With a sigh, he closed his eyes and rested his head on Phoebe's knees, choosing not to question his good fortune. They were home again. At last.
Later that day, he approached Leo and timidly tried to thank him. Now, if that wasn't irony... Who would have thought he would ever feel embarassed in the Whitelighter's presence? Yet, he was. And he was deeply surprised when Leo raised a hand to silence him up.
"Don't." he said. "Just prove me right."
Sure it wasn't easy. It still isn't. He still wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, but at least it doesn't happen every night as it did during those first weeks. He knows that the memory will never fade completely, as neither will the scar on his arm, of the wound he didn't let Leo heal. He wants it to be here, as a reminder of what could have happened. Whenever he feels like letting anger and pride taking over, frustrated with all the rules, the limitations of being human, his lack of powers, he touches it and remembers why he's doing this.
It wasn't easy for Phoebe, either. She and her sisters had to work hard on their issues, but the day finally came when they had to use the Power of Three again. Now that was something that couldn't be faked: either it was there, or it wasn't. And it was, alright. While Piper, Phoebe and Paige watched as another demon went with a bang, Cole looked at Leo, and the evident relief in the Whiteligther's face told Cole that he wasn't the only one who had worried about it.
"Why in hell do women have babies?!?" -- Phoebe's voice brings him back to the present.
"Shut up, you're not the one giving birth!" she yells.
"But I thought I was..."
"Honey," she says, panting, "you know that stuff they said in the prenatal classes, about coaching and everything?"
"Yes?" he asks, hesitantly.
"It's bullshit. Your job here is to stay quiet and hold my hand, okay?"
"Okay. Do you..."
"What have I just said about talking?" she says, with a look that would have made a less brave man -- or one whose hand wasn't clasped in hers -- leave the room in fear.
"No talking." he quickly says.
Another contraction makes her close her eyes and squeeze his hand, and he's smart enough to keep his mouth shut and squeeze back.
"We're almost there, Phoebe!" says the doctor, making Cole's heart jump.
He remembers how terrified they were that their son could be evil. They had Leo check him up, they pressed the Book of Shadows against Phoebe's abdomen, trusting its ability to protect itself from evil, they even scried Phoebe's abdomen, and they'd probably have kept trying all sort of weird things if Piper hadn't finally made then stop. None of their attempts showed anything other than a normal, healthy, human baby, and oh God, now he was on his way.
"Just one more push, Phoebe, come on, push hard!"
Phoebe screams again and this time she's rewarded by the sight of a very angry baby in the doctor's arms, crying strongly to show his discontentment for having just been expelled from his safe, comfortable womb.
"Hi, Ben." she says softly, as her baby is placed in her arms. "Hi, sweetie, I'm your mommy. And this" -- she motions her head towards a very amazed Cole -- "is your daddy."
Ben's cries slowly diminish, while his mom and dad look at him with eyes filled with love and wonder. Cole hesitantly reaches out his hand and gasps as his son closes a tiny hand over his finger.
"Now can we please come in?" says Paige, stucking her head in the door.
Without waiting for an answer, she, Piper, Leo and Victor enter the room and gather around the bed.
"Hey, everybody," says the proud new dad, "meet Benjamin Coleridge Turner II, heir of the love of his family, a '99 Buick..."
"... assuming his mom and dad will actually make it to the last payment..." says Phoebe, grinning.
Cole nods with a smile and proceeds:
"...one third of a manor at Prescott Street... and nothing else, I'm afraid." he adds, with a sheepish smile.
"From where I stand," says Paige, smiling as she reaches out to fondle the baby's hair, "little Ben seems to find it more than enough."
"And you, you'll be blessed
You'll have the best
I promise you that
I'll pick a star from the sky
Pull your name from a hat
I promise you that, promise you that, promise you that
You'll be blessed"
(Next installment: "The Demon's Advocate")