She managed to graze him, singe him, and certainly enrage him, but hard as she tried Prue couldn't kill Delic. He'd inflicted further injuries, as well, though she and he parried about equally well, and gradually, they came to stalemate, and silence.
With her back against the craggy wall as they tousled, Prue saw the red rimmed eyes materialize behind him before he did. With all her strength she fling again him away from her, muttering snidely with her remaining breath, “What you don't know is going hurt you, Delic. And I only want to be there when it does.”
He caught himself as he landed, turning to sneer at her, “And I want the same with you, witch.” With that, and a wink to toward Klea, he shimmered out.
Prue faced Klea, all too aware that she was not ready for this fight. Her clothes were blood stained, and the cuts underneath were enough to make her more than wince. But Klea was eyeing her, full of contemptuous loathing, and there was no way she'd dare flinch now.
“You fight well, I suppose. Well, all the better. She would be disappointed if the child she went to all this trouble to get lacked killer instinct.” Klea's small self-satisfied smile grew as comprehension and dread dawned in tandom on Prue's face. That the Seer had recruited an acomplice ... Prue had to push away the near despair with an effort. She still held the trump card, didn't she?
“Even if she succeeds, does she actually think she can keep the Source from finding out?” Prue moved away from the wall, not wanting to get cornered. “He'd kill her for even thinking of disrupting his plan.”
Klea's answering laugh was shrill, almost feline. In a near blink, they were nose to nose. “By the time he would even suspect, she'll be unstoppable.” She smiled, Cheshire-like. “Of course, so little is stopping us now. Merely my own little wish to watch him hand you over. Then I can be sure we have him back.”
Prue just raised an eyebrow. “You mean so you can have him back, don't you?” She made a show of brushing past Klea, and heading to the entrance to the cavern. The twists and turns of the Underworld's passages were still something she was getting oriented to, and she was trying to mentrally retrace her steps when from behind her came Klea's voice.
“You think there is any distinction? Who, witch, do you think invited him into the Brotherhood? Who has been at his side for a century? And who do you think he shared his plans for the Charmed Ones with?” Prue nearly turned back around in her impatience, but Klea wasn't finished. “Who, witch, do you think taught him,” her gravelly voice dropped to a whisper, “everything he knows?” Prue did turn then, and raised a face filled with loathing toward the already dematerializing figure.
Again the Cheshire grin. “We'll come for you soon enough, witch. And once she's pulled out of you what she wants, well, we'll send you into oblivion. And he will simply look the other way.”
She felt like Gretel, following little familiar clues back to the conjured wooden door. And it struck her anew, how out of place it looked against the cragged stone of the passageway. She let herself wonder why all that effort had been made before realizing she hadn't had the conjured key with her when Delic made his entrance. Prue set her jaw and raised her arm to knock at the door.
The expression on Cole's face when he slowly opened the door could best be described as “due consideration”. He silently motioned her inside, and then deliberately, silently, checked the passageway for any traffic. Finally he closed the door, and eyed the room itself before turning to her. Again, the inscrutable look as he considered her, taking in the bruises he could see on her face.
With renewed impatience, she shrugged past him and strode into the kitchen, going straight for soap, towels, and the tap. She'd already seen that whoever it was exactly who had conjured this illusion had, in purely demonic fashion, seen no need for any sort of first aid kit. She was tending to the shiner over her left eye when she heard him say behind her, “I take it the Seer is still keeping Delic in the dark.”
She put down the washcloth. “You would know better than I would.”
She couldn't see his grimace. Klea is sinking her claws in. And all the best laid plans would turn to dust.
Aloud, and just behind her now, he said, “Don't be so sure.” He reached for the washcloth, ran it under the tap, and then balled it gently into his hand. She flinched away when the damp cloth touched the first still slowly bleeding cut, just below her collarbone. They both knew it wasn't from the pain.
She gestured at her chest, and nodded at the cloth even as she avoided looking him in the eye. “This is Delic's handiwork, and I'm supposed to believe you actually give a ...” She gave a small laugh, and brought her fingers to the blue-black skin around her eye.
He reached out and pulled her hand away. “Yes, you are.” They stood there a moment. Then Cole whispered against her hair, “How close did he get to -- ?”
There was little anger left in her voice as she studied the sink in front of them. “Close enough that any further and there wouldn't be anything left for the Seer to pull out of me.” She smiled, wryly, before pulling her hand out of his grasp.
“'A better Dantalion...'” He muttered this realization softly, and then, on surer footing, said simply, “Delic never could spin a plot worth a damn.” This time, he didn't need to see her face to picture the glimmer of hope re-emerge. Before he ventured to pick up the washcloth again, he added, “not even fifty years ago, when conspiracies grew on trees.”
“What did you think of him a hundred years ago?” He could feel the tension in her body; and he knew both that she wanted this particular answer and what larger answer she couldn't bring herself to demand.
“He was single-minded, and I admired that, at the time. But his ambition always annoyed me.” He laid his hands lightly on her wrists, and when she didn't tense he began to gently stroke her lower arms.
“You aren't the first time he's gone overboard in the name of reputation and lost sight of the larger picture.”
Putting aside her curiosity about that, she said, “And now?” She still stood apart from him, her eyes determinedly on the sink.
He slightly increased the pressure of his hands against her arms. “Ask me what you really want to know, Prue.”
Again, he can see without seeing that her jaw was set, that she was working herself up to it. And then, rapid fire. “Why aren't you going along with the Seer?” A beat. “Why does it matter to you what happens to this child?” That it took something out of her to admit that to him was evident; not from her voice, but from her hands, gripping the edge of the basin so tightly her knuckles were white.
The silence hung between them a moment.
“I never got the chance to answer your earlier question,” he finally said. Only remembering what that question was allowed her to loosen her hold. With a hand on each of her shoulders he turned her towards him. “Something else I'll hold against him.”
She squared her shoulders, preparing herself for ... well, of course she didn't know exactly what. But what he said next – no, she couldn't have prepared for that.
“I didn't excel during that appearance before the Source, Prue. Not the way you imagine, anyway.” He gave his own self deprecating laugh. “Oh, it looked that way, I'm sure. But between my first three years on the surface, and then the isolation of her pariah status once we were recalled...” He shook his head, and again came that rueful smile. “My soul was brighter than it had any business being. I had to fight to stay as detached as I did.”
Her shock could hardly dare give way to hope, and she picked her way carefully. The edge of the sink jutted against her hips, and she said, “So what you said before the Source was calculation, but also ...”
“Sheer terror that I was going to lose her.” She couldn't help the flash of recognition in her eyes as she looked at him then. The knowing look he gave her in return only deepened when he went on, “And do you have any idea how damned difficult it was to push that memory out of my mind? Out of my soul?” He pulled her to him, and whispered against her ear, “Of course you do.”
Her nod did not come without a dose of suspicious awareness. “How could you possibly know about that?” The fact that she was between a rock and hard place reasserted itself.
His gaze was level. “She was the mother of the Charmed Ones. The occasional spy could be spared, for a red letter day. The entire Underworld knew within hours.” The flicks of anger and awe in her eyes, quickly pushed back, prompted him to add, “I was at City Hall, putting a completely different operation into the works. But the next day I tracked down that spy, asked him what he'd seen.”
Her bravado joined the evil coursing through her mind and body in asking, “Long range planning?”
His answering smile was sinister. “The thrill of picturing those three motherless, powerless little girls who everyone thought could no longer pose a threat to the Source.” He reached out, and ran the pad of his thumb down her throat, “And who could be vanquished just as soon as the old witch keeled over.”
Her own developing inscrutable look was on display then, a sight that thrilled him in the here and now.
“However, all he would talk about was ... you, standing and shouting on that dock.”
She cut her eyes at him. “Obviously, at the time...”
He mirrored the look in acknowledgment. “It was nothing more than a passing curiosity. I dismissed it, and went on my way. Even while preparing for the Triad mission, when they told me what,” and here, finally, he did look at her and laugh, “Rex Buckland and Hannah Abbott had observed.”
She would have rolled her eyes at the taunt, or even voiced the curious thought it inspired about whether warlocks actually had their own names, if it hadn't reminded her of Klea. Sweet oblivion, but nothing to show for it? No!
“The Triad knew we had something there.” Again, his lips sought her ear. “Every kindness, every flattery he showed her tore you up, didn't it?”
She couldn't deny it – didn't want to, except to stop the terror the thought of failure inspired, especially with the hope of success so close. “Yes,” she ground out, evenly.
The look he gave her was so deliberately thoughtful, she had no doubt he'd been waiting to savor the admission – that one, and, also, “And the thought of she and I, out on the town, while you sat at home poring over theories and constructing flow charts...” His thumb traced its way along her collarbone, barely minding the welts, which had begun to congeal. Pain, rage, the despair he was dangling before her again, all came out in a hiss. Only the quirk of his mouth betrayed that he heard her, as he went on, “not jealousy, not then, no, but no one would listen, hm? Even though you were growing more sure by the day....”
He took her hand and traced it along the starched thinly stripped cotton of his dress shirt, slowly, in the pattern of his markings. He looked her in the eye, and this whisper was steel. “No one would understand your terror.”
She didn't imagine that he backed her over and against the sink basin, for he did, though it might have felt like she imagined it. But she wanted this admitted, even so. Just to take the given chance...
“None of them.”
The hint of bitterness, even now, amused him. “You held it in. Again.”
Numbly, she nodded. Then through her weary dread came the sudden memory of the morning after their wedding night, and how she'd glimpsed the tremble in his hands when he'd told her about their audience with the Source.
So she began to see, began to let herself recognize that he was giving her an answer. “I didn't have much of a choice.”
He picked up the washcloth again, ran it under the tap afresh. Set it on the basin's edge. “Neither did I”. He laid a hand against her abdomen, and met the remaining wariness in her gaze. “And I want my child to understand what all of that means,” his other hand found hers even as he murmured, “in the marrow of his bones.”
She knew she'd been holding her breath, and she let it out slowly. He watched her face, letting his fingers dance against her open palm. “Were you really so worried, Prue?”
It came out in her second exhale. “Worried? No. Terrified of forfeiting my place in the game before it had barely gotten started?” She jerked her hand away from his touch, even as she dropped her gaze to his hand, still against her abdomen. “Oh, yes.”
The game. Her further admission, though it struck a chord, couldn't fully override the renewed attention the sword hanging over both their heads demanded. “How close,” he tried the question again,
“did he get?”
In answer, silently, she pulled off her blouse. Most of the shallow welts have congealed over, but one or two still lazily dribble blood. He eyed the streaks of dried blood, which ended just past her ribcage. “He probably would have gone further, if I hadn't fought back.” But there wasn't just bravado in her voice – the terror of defeat was there, too.
He again picked up the washcloth, and with it, the bar of soap by the faucet. “And we probably wouldn't be having this conversation now if he was already in oblivion.” Meticulously, he began to wash and clean the cuts.
She gritted her teeth, remembering the pain newly inflicted with each swipe of the cloth. “I tried, damnit.”
He shook his head, both at her, and at his memories. Delic, insisting on chasing terrified mortals as San Francisco burned to the ground, while he, newly admitted to the state bar, and adjusting once again to the royal court-like intrigue of the Brotherhood, proposed taking the opportunity of the great earthquake to seize the power of the Nexus. “You overstep your place, Belthazor.” Haughty contempt gleamed in Delic's eyes. “Not that I should be surprised. Spawn of a pitiable foolish mortal and a disobedient whore, what else could you do?” The ensuing fight was savagely elegant, and only broken up by the appearance of Raynor, come to give the news that a team had been approved to surveil the site of the Nexus.
“I know.” He tapped a damp finger against her jaw. “I know very well.” The cuts were as clean as they could get, and Cole finally set aside the bloody cloth. He stepped back, contemplating her and her words.
“Compared to the Seer, Delic's unimportant. But he's finally gotten the position he's always wanted, and he'd been preparing for it for a century and half.” He gave her a cold, slow smile. “And he's now just one step below the Source.” He shrugged before turning and heading towards their living room, throwing over his shoulder, “If you'd care to try again tomorrow, be my guest.”
She stood a moment, the calculus of the plans, counterplans, and various loyalties going through her mind. Then she picked up her blood-streaked blouse from the floor, and shrugged into it before walking determinedly into their bedroom, where she exchanged it for a clean one.
When she entered the living area, he was again deep in the study of his law books. She sat down, legs crossed at the knee, her back to him, and waited. Perhaps ten minutes passed in silence between them before Prue said, quietly spitting out each word, “Did the Source make your mother plead for her life?”
The provocation got him to his feet, at least, and for that instant it was worth it. She rose, and faced him as he came toward her. There was cunning in his eyes, like a rattlesnake slowly coiling, but making no move to strike. Yet.
“Mm-hm. Said she was entirely in his debt, that she owed him my life.”
Her dread rose up again, and, desperate, she let a current spector haunt a former. “Then you're something of a hypocrite.” This brought him around the sofas, until they were almost nose-to-nose.
“Considering we both owe the Source our lives,” he laid a hand, lightly, on her scar, “and that I am not demanding very much, at the moment, besides the ability to defend what is mine from a threat that I know very well,” he glanced, pointedly, at her black eye, “I would strongly disagree.”
Even through the turmoil inside of her she could see that he knew this would be a major concession won. Yet her own mental voice, which had shifted in the same way her instincts had, remarked that he was right, and that moreover, she wanted what he was offering. And that even if he was lying, well, two could play equally well at that game. This one was different, but not much, surely, and she still wanted in.
Restraining herself from covering her black eye, she held her hands together in front of her. “What do you want me to say,” came out as a clear statement, even if the undertone was forced.
He looked at her, and yes, she could see the demonic mirth and schadenfreude there, but there was also human impatience and exasperation. She didn't want to contemplate the idea that it even seemed to be fond exasperation.
In that moment, the question that came out was borne of a very practical desperation. “What could you even do that would --”
His hand slid up to her shoulder. “Let me worry about that.” The remaining drops of wary doubt in her eyes prompt him to add, the steeled exasperation again in his voice, “And for once in your life, let someone actually protect you.”
The breath was pulled, not knocked out of her, this time, and so she didn't know how she said it, but once the words were out, and her hands held out, it was as thought it couldn't have been done any other way. He saw the silent “Okay” form on her lips first, and waited.
Then, aloud and precise, “Then protect me, please.” For all her decisiveness, he could also see the uncertainty in her eyes, as though she was feeling her way through the entirely unfamiliar.
His answering laugh was gentler than might be predicted. “You don't even know how to ask the question, do you?”
A slow, careful shake of her head. “I'd never needed to know.”
Over dinner, Klea's taunts reasserted themselves in her mind, now as material to analyze, and to ... ask about. “When exactly,” she ventured, over the salad that had become a staple of their dinners, “did you join the Brotherhood?”
He set down his fork, considering the likely reason for the question. “I was sixteen. Mother was between assignments, so we were here, and Raynor approached her with the idea. Said demonic guidance was what I needed, and that it was 'high time' I found a place in the Underworld.”
Prue took that in, adjusting again her assessment of Klea. “He became your ...mentor,” she looked up to seek confirmation, “immediately?”
Cole shook his head, eyeing her plate. Relatively soon, he knew, her appetite would change, and it would be even more vital that she kept her strength up. “No, only about five years later, after I'd returned from law school and passed the bar, when we were reacting to the great earthquake.”
She paused in the lifting of her glass, and looked across at him, then towards the living area with his desk and books, then back at him, in mild bafflement. “You're actually a fully qualified lawyer.”
He nodded. “Under scores of alias over the years, whatever the mission required. But yes.”
She raised her eyebrows. “The Source agreed to that?” And even as the words came out of her mouth, they seemed to miss the obvious. She tried again, feeling the laughter in his gaze. “Why would he want you to go through the whole process of getting a human degree? Why not just --” she gestured with the glass, indicating the table, the meal, and the suite itself, “let you play a charade if you needed to, whenever you were on the surface?”
“Some part of it was a desire to be rid of me for a while, so there was that.” That rueful smile again. “But I suppose he remembered that audience, because Raynor made a point of telling me that the Source wanted to 'test the power of misplaced expectation'.” He glanced at her, and her own knowing smile betrayed thoughts of the county courthouse, the guardians, and the demonic conspiracy. “But mostly, it's just practicality. Some things can't be faked well enough.”
She nodded, and they ate in silence for a while, as Prue toyed again with how to raise the issue of Klea.
“So, when you returned...”
“I was out of step, 'contaminated' by the surface, and although Raynor was the one I looked to most, he decided Klea should be the one to get me reacquianted with life down here, with raiding missions, with the politics, with ....” He trailed off, taking a sip of water.
Prue, telling herself she didn't need to know, not now, asked, “So I'd imagine there were other plots. It wasn't just a series of quick raids for the next ninety-four years.” She eyed him. “Was it.”
He shook his head, relief at the diversion well concealed. “We may have had a hand in delaying the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, in confounding some Allied efforts during the Second World War, and in helping rumors spread about what went on the Haight Ashbury in the late '60s. Oh,” he decided just then and there to brag slightly, and test her reaction in the process, “and we more or less engineered the Milk-Moscone assasination later in the year your mother was killed.”
Barely batting an eyelash, Prue didn't disappoint. “'May have'?” And if he didn't think twice, he could have nearly convinced himself she was almost flirting.
They stood, the meal finished. “I am trying,” he replied, “to develop in my old age a degree of modest objectivity about my accomplishments.”
At that, she merely raised a familiar eyebrow. “Objectively, then. Who is Klea to you?”
He'd just, neither of them failed to notice, gathered up their silverware. “She was the first demon I really noticed, my first and best raiding partner, and the best sounding board I could have had.” Idly, he let the unused spoons drop from his grip. “She taught me how to be demonic, before even Raynor took an interest.”
“You must have been close ... allies.” He didn't fail to note the effort she must make, even now, to keep her voice even.
“She took something of a special interest in me, and,” now the forks clank back down on the plate, “it's made sense all these years to maintain the alliance.”
Deliberately or not, he was giving her no quarter to ask the question that by now she simply wanted answered and done with. Lifting their stacked plates, she threw it out. “What else did she teach you?”
The cunning, coiling look reappeared as he came around the table. “More or less, basically everything I needed to know.”
Her bravado is pure skepticism, for the fact that this was one more, perhaps final test of the persistance of her own mortal insecurities was obvious in a milisecond. “Really,” came out dry and deadpan.
Two feet from her, he shrugged. “Well. Not everything.” His hands were on her shoulders an instant later, and then he was kissing her, deeply. It was Belthazor, and along with his desire to pull suffering out of her like a magician's handkerchief she felt a shadow of the all-consuming terror that she had pushed back into resignation as she lay down on their wedding night. His tongue flicked against hers, and she bristled at the craftiness of it. The guile, and the gall. And then in the next instant his hold on her shoulders loosened, and the kiss became not any less intense, but more complex. There was the fondness she'd glimpsed, and a strong admiration. And what really frightened and repulsed her – gratitude and protectiveness, in near equal measure.
When they broke apart, her first thought came from the ice now in her veins. “You did tell her your plans for the Triad mission, of course.”
He smiled slightly at the pure distilled curiosity in her voice. “Down to every last detail. Conspiracies within conspiracies are her area of expertise.”
She contemplated that, and him. “For an expert on twists and doublecrosses, she's very sure she'll win.”
A nod of acknowledgment. “We were sure about the Triad mission, too.” He gathered up the silverware again, starting with the knives.
No fear, and no hesitation. “The power of misplaced expectation. Hm.” She followed him into their kitchen with the glasses. “Your mother, what was her name? And when was she --”
He placed the cutlery in the sink. “Sartra, and she was vanquished in 1923.”