A Matter of Relativity

Part 3: The impossible takes a little longer

Chapter 27


"They do not love that do not show their love"
 William Shakespeare

Part 3 of 4 Parts


Piper decided that as they were going to celebrate Christmas, they were going to celebrate it properly as a family. It was going to be for Melinda, and Whosit and about having Phoebe home. It was going to be proof that despite the last six months, the gossip, Phoebe's whims and Leo's decisions about his calling, they had held it together as a family and she invited any-one to dare to argue. Not surprisingly no one took the invitation up.


Only it soon became apparent it wasn't going to be quite family. Victor as soon as Phoebe called him to say she was all right had been determined to spend Christmas with his daughters and granddaughter, apparently at the cost of quite an argument with Margaret who felt her first Christmas with her new husband should have been spent with her family.


"Margaret" said all three girls in horror. Leo and Cole just helped themselves to another beer.


Then Paige argued that if Margaret was coming it wasn't strictly family and announced that Mark was not only staying for Christmas, he was staying for Christmas Eve. She said he had decided not go back to his family in Chicago so that that the other people working at the agency could spend more time with their families.


"Paige does know he's just staying to be with her doesn't she?" Phoebe asked.


"Paige doesn't know what she knows," sighed Piper.


Cole had to tell Piper that he had not invited Francesca to Christmas dinner.


"That's nice" said Piper distracted.


"I didn't ask her but she accepted anyway" he said.


Leo gulped "Margaret and Francesca at the same table" he said.


"Margaret won't be at the table "Piper said bitchily "she'll be to busy checking to see whose sleeping in whose beds."


"Just as long as Mom an Sam don't all drop in" Paige said.


"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh" sighed Leo and Piper and Phoebe.


"What the hell" said Piper and asked Marly to join them and was a little hurt when she said she had planned to spend the day with a witch friend but she would call in because she had some presents to bring.


"At least you and Phoebe don't have to worry about the in laws and family extensions" Paige sighed to Piper. She had  to do some juggling to see her father's family on Christmas Eve and was going to drive up with Mark to see her mother's parents the day after Christmas. "Unless" she slyly said to Phoebe "You want to go ask not Mamma in law to lunch." And enjoyed watching Phoebe blanch.


It was hard to guess which one in the family was more excited about Christmas, Phoebe or Melinda. Both were running around the house checking parcels and shopping and Phoebe and Melinda had tree decorating as a priority. Tensions did become a little tight when Piper walked in on her very pregnant sister levitating Melinda up to put a star on top of the tree. As had the discussion about the ethics of using fairy images as decoration.


Phoebe's spirits were only dampened by the appearance of a whitelighter called Manuel. Manuel had once been a monk. He was a rotund little man with a benign expression that looked always on the verge of tears.  Leo ran when he saw him but explained to Piper later that he was one of the most senior whitelighters.


Manuel mournfully explained that Caleb had discussed it with Elders and come to the conclusion that he and the Charmed ones where not entirely compatible and they had thought the benign influence of Manuel would be better.


Manuel's mournful habit of looking as if he was going to cry when the Charmed Ones rejected his advice reduced Piper to threatening to blow him up in the space of days.


Manuel mournfully broached the subject of the witches' Books of Shadows which Phoebe as captive of Elisheeva had helped steal and told her so sadly she had set back the cause of good decades. Phoebe's face had fallen, and then her chin had come up, a sure sign she was racked with guilt. Piper and Cole spent an enjoyable few hours inventing long and complicated ways of getting even with Manuel for upsetting Phoebe. Leo had shook his head and said Manuel was doing his job and Paige had bitten back a comment.  Phoebe was still very quiet that night when she and Cole went to bed. He finally cheered her up he when he whispered to her a few of the more original ways he and Piper had invented to dispose of Manuel but had to regretfully resist the temptation to carry them out no matter how much she pleaded.


"I'm not evil. I made damned sure she didn't harm the witches" Phoebe said stopping laughing " I'm not evil. I just knew I had to do what I could to survive until you found me."


"There's nothing to prove to me" Cole said hugging her to him.


"There is to Paige" Phoebe sighed.


"A little" Cole agreed "She'll come around. Give her room, baby. She was right about me and who knows about the future. Maybe not such a good idea to damn her for doubting."


"Damn you " said Phoebe.


"Why?" Cole asked.


"You're right" she said.


"I'm always right," he said smugly if not truthfully. "What did you get me for Christmas?"


"You have to wait" Phoebe told him severely.


"Damn " said Cole.


"What the hell are you doing in there" Cole demanded when Phoebe shut the bathroom door and wouldn't let him in on Christmas morning.


"Just wait " Phoebe called out.


Finally Phoebe came out,  wearing a short black negligee and fairly certainly nothing else.


"Here it is. Open your present" she said pulling his hand to the pearl buttons of the negligee.


"What" he said undoing the buttons.


Phoebe smiled.  Phoebe was naked, completely naked and she had big ribbon and bow over the bump that was Whosit with a card hanging off the bow. "Read your card" she ordered Cole.


"From me to for you, something what ever you say you want more than me.  Love all of my love" he read as Phoebe watched him carefully. 


"Phoebe" he smiled the one he save for her and leant over to kiss her belly.


"What did you get me?" she demanded.


"Nothing as good as that " he said his eyes suspiciously damp.


Francesca arrived very early, mid morning when no-one was really ready for guests. Phoebe was in the shower and Paige was with Mark taking thank you presents to the neighbours.


"I know I'm early" Francesca said to Piper as she orbed into the kitchen. Piper was reaching the frazzled stage of cooking traditional Christmas dinner for 9 adults and a toddler. Francesca looked very much like the Francesca who had worked as Cole's assistant, glasses, plain face, neat tailored slacks and a darkish sweater and her hair in a chignon. She was also wearing very large Santa Claus earrings "But" she said ignoring Piper's not entirely enthusiastic Christmas greeting "its no fun waiting around for Christmas when you could be having Christmas."


Francesca carried two large baskets. One was full of bottles of things and chocolates. The other contained beautifully wrapped parcels. Without asking Francesca found a place for 2 bottles of champagne in the refrigerator. Piper, who knew something about labels, recognised them as the real French top of market variety.


"Where's Melinda?" Francesca asked.


"In the parlour with Leo and Cole. We did the family presents this morning " Piper explained. "Leo insisted she needed a train set " Piper said with disgust in her voice. "I told him she was to young."


"Boys playing with it are they. In my experience" said Francesca smiling, "little girls are always to young for train sets and little boys are never to old for them." and Piper laughed.


Francesca went into the parlour and if she found the sight of a probably ex whitelighter and definitely ex demon playing with a train set and a little witch telekineticing paper wrapping into the air and snatching at it to hear it rip amusing Francesca almost managed to keep the smile to herself. In time honoured fashion Melinda was more excited by the wrapping paper than the present.


She wished them both happy Christmas and patted Melinda who eyed the presents while Francesca put the contents of her basket under the tree. She did not miss that both Cole and Leo were a little embarrassed but neither actually gave up playing with the train set, which was not exactly one that Francesca would have chosen for a two year old girl.


Francesca raised her eyebrows but kept the smile off her face, and returned to the kitchen. Without asking she helped to herself to red wine and poured one for Piper "Its Christmas" she said when Piper glanced at the kitchen clock.


"There's egg nog in the parlour" Piper said pointedly.


"I'm European dear " Francesca said "I like my ah booze to taste like booze. I'll do those dear" she added and before Piper could stop her, Francesca put on an apron and set herself up to peel vegetables.


Then she proceeded to show Piper she knew as much about how to cook Christmas dinner as she knew about everything else. For a second Piper was outraged at her kitchen being taken over and then conceded it was Christmas and she was not the only one who regarded preparing dinner as part of the pleasure.


Phoebe in the very tight scarlet dress wearing large reindeer earrings and hair arranged so it changed colour in different lights came down to find Francesca peeling potatoes and pumpkin into intricate shapes and caught in earnest discussion with Piper about wine.


"Cole an Leo are in the parlour playing with trains" Phoebe said.


"Its Christmas dear" said Francesca " let the boys play with their toys and enjoy it."


"How do you do that " Phoebe said watching what Francesca was doing with potatoes.


"Something I learnt from a cook, they didn't call them chefs then, when they first brought potatoes into Europe, when they were exotic "Francesca answered sipping red wine, "must have been about what 500 years ago."


Paige appeared at the kitchen door "Mark's in the parlour playing trains with Cole and Leo" she said hands on hips. " Three grown men" she snorted. "Playing with toy trains."


"Its Christmas dear" said Francesca.


"Boys like to play with their toys" said Phoebe.


"Happy Christmas Francesca." said Paige and turned to Piper "You should have made Leo get Melinda a choo choo train on a string "


"How would I do that?" said Piper.


"Well, come and make him at least let Melinda help play with the trains" said Paige hauling Piper out of the kitchen.


"You've no idea how pleased I am you're safely back home dear " Francesca said realising Phoebe was to uncomfortable to say anything. "So glad in fact I'm not even going to ask how."


"You wouldn't approve" Phoebe said.


"Oh if Cole, found a way around the spirit winds" Francesca said dryly. "I wouldn't.'


"He did" Phoebe said.


"Don't tell me" Francesca smiled. "To be honest I am just as a glad you're back for my sake as yours."


"Why?" said Phoebe uncertain where this was going.


"I really was concerned that for the first time I may lose a guardian to his darker side" Francesca replied.


"Oh." said Phoebe.


"Especially Cole" said Francesca " he's a dear boy but if you tell him I said that ."


'"I understand, " said Phoebe. She was silent for a few minutes and finally said "Francesca "


"Yes" said Francesca sipping wine.


"Cole thinks… he's trying not to say it but, I… it was all a storm in a teacup, running, not staying home to talk about Whosit." she said.


"Cole would" Francesca said sipping more wine.


"Nothing nasty happened" Phoebe said " Whosit is okay.  Cole's probably right."


"Tell me " said Francesca " why didn't you burn your hand when you took that pot off the stove."


"I used a pot holder" said Phoebe. "Took precautions."


"Exactly "said Francesca.


"I don't " said Phoebe.


"Get it " Francesca said arranging potatoes and vegetables to a pan to cook exactly right. "Nothing happened because you did what you did. If you want to know what staying would have done, perhaps we can find an alternate time line."


"I'll think I'll pass" said Phoebe gulping.


"I would," said Francesca.


Phoebe looked up to see Mark standing at the doorway. "I was sent to get beer." he said not even pretending he had not heard the conversation.


"There's egg nog in the parlour" Francesca said her eyes twinkling.


"I know "said Mark grinning. "That's what Piper told Cole and Leo."


"In the refrigerator, bottom shelf" Phoebe said "Where's Piper?" she asked.


"Setting the table" Mark answered.


"You better use glasses" said Phoebe. "Top shelf over there."


Mark found the beer and glasses and Phoebe giggled as she heard Piper pointedly ask him whether he had found the glasses.


"Poor Mark" said Phoebe "I wonder if he knows what he has got himself into."


"I think he understand more than you think " Francesca answered cryptically.


"I don't" Phoebe said.


"Get it?" said Francesca but she offered no explanation.


"I, while we are talking" said Phoebe "I shouldn't ask. Its Christmas and.."


"Ask dear " said Francesca sipping wine.


"Manuel" Phoebe said.


"Who dear?" Francesca said


"New whitelighter" Phoebe said "made me well, he was very disappointed I helped Elisheeva get those witches' Books of Shadow" Phoebe said in earnest, her eyes a little teary.


"I see" said Francesca. She hesitated a second then said "What does Cole do?"


"Ensures the balance" Phoebe answered.


"What 's the Great Plan " said Francesca


"Good wins, just, " said Phoebe.


"Evil had to win a few to keep the balance," said Francesca. "but whitelighters they represent good, they aren't always so thrilled at that."


"Oh" said Phoebe.


"Let whitelighters pontificate" said Francesca taking off Piper's apron "you enjoy Christmas dear."


"I will," said Phoebe.


Marly arrived about half an hour later with a basketful of presents, hand made and hand sewn, obviously putting in effort when she could not afford money.


She accepted a non alcoholic drink and dutifully opened presents that the girls had bought her. Leo and Cole had a little guiltily signed their names on the card. Leo especially felt guilty because Marly had gone to a great deal of effort and made him a number of handmade old-fashioned handkerchiefs hand-sewn with an L in the corner, the type he really liked to use and Piper hated to get him.


Marly spent a few minutes with Melinda in the comer of the parlour, enjoying the presents as much as the toddler and even helping her bash away on the drum  that Cole had bought Melinda to Pipers 's disgust. The boys had stopped playing with the train set when Marly came and were doing their duty to entertain Francesca. Mark was enjoying himself listening to Francesca's view on a number of subjects and decided he rather liked this particular lady.


Francesca had a particularly strong views on the law firm Cole had left.


Finally Mark said to Cole "You never did say what the fatal deed was that forced you from that law firm"


"No " said Phoebe " you never did get around to telling me."


"I saw Arlene's tits" Cole said straight faced.


"They should have paid you recompenses for that" said Francesca sipping wine, making Mark smile.


"How?" said  Phoebe more interested than suspicious.


Cole told them about Arlene and the dead goat which had the affect of making Mark spit red wine. To Cole's satisfaction. Paige kept glancing from one to the other and wondering why they were getting on.


Marly suddenly stood up. "I don't like Arlene" she announced to the room. I have to go" she said "Arlene was rude to me, just because I asked to speak to h…him," Marly said pointing at Cole "She isn't nice, she isn't good. I have to go" she said "Happy Christmas."


Paige and Phoebe saw Marly out asking her again if she wanted to stay but Marly with a set lip said she had other friends to visit, Wicca ones who did not celebrate Christmas and the her eyes watered "You are so good to me" she said "I wish , I'm honoured.  I never thought the Charmed Ones;" and she quickly hugged Paige holding Melinda but left Phoebe standing there.


"What the hell was that about " said Cole as the two witches went back into the room.


"Nothing good I suspect" said Leo "you shouldn't have said tits in front of her Cole" he added severely and then had to intervene when Melinda finally showed an interest in the train set.


Margaret arrived with Victor full of good wishes and concern and expensive presents that she had bought and signed with Victor's name and which she insisted was just what everybody needed.


"What the hell does she think I need a lady shaver and wax kit for" Phoebe demanded from Paige when they escaped from the room after present giving.


"Pregnancy hormones" giggled Paige forgetting her concerns over Whosit. "Why does Piper need a home facial kit and why do I need bright yellow short pyjamas. Yellow is not my colour." She added.


"Same reason Cole needs a electric toothbrush and Leo needs an electronic work organiser." Phoebe giggled back.


"Does Cole use electric toothbrushes" Paige asked curious.


"Hates them," said Phoebe.


Christmas lunch had a certain entertainment value, not only because of the food which to Piper's credit and a little bit of Francesca's, was wonderful but because Francesca managed to vanquish Margaret at every turn. Margaret had decided that if she was going to have to eat with the evil step daughters, she was at least going to be queen of the occasion but on that score Francesca with a smile and a word, defeated her on every turn. Each victory was accompanied by considerable eyed rolling from the family and bewilderment from Victor and a great deal of amusement from Mark. Mark managed to add to the entertainment by addressing Paige as darling on every occasion, although if he did not call her Paige he usually addressed her as pet. Margaret always addressed Victor as Victor Darling usually followed by "get me." Both Piper and Phoebe were grinding their teeth every time they saw Victor jump.


"If she calls daddy darling once more" Phoebe muttered to Piper as she and Piper stacked dished in the kitchen.


"It could be worse " said Piper who was getting bitchy under the strain of being nice to Margaret "She could call Daddy baby."


"Or honey" said Phoebe sweetly her nose in the air.


The only time that Margaret really git a victory was when Francesca left to go the bathroom.


"Francesca pees" whispered Phoebe to Cole.


In Francesca's absence Margaret found her target. "Having a quiet wedding this time" she asked a stunned Phoebe.


"What" said Phoebe.


"Well as its your second wedding together and the um bump. A big one is not really appropriate" Margaret said. "I mean you and Cole have decided to stay together despite everything haven't you."


"We haven't got any plans for wedding" said Phoebe.


While Cole started to say "I don't think its any of your business."


"Oh dear" said Margaret  "I thought when Victor said you two were back together, it was permanent, you would be saying it's your baby. Oh dear Victor I'm so sorry. I misunderstood.'


"I didn't" said Piper firing up.


"How about dessert?" said Leo.


Over dessert, both chocolate pudding and traditional English pudding  which Cole had shimmered to England to buy, to stop a threatened battle between Piper and Phoebe over only serving chocolate pudding, Francesca managed to complete vanquish Margaret into total silence. Shortly thereafter Margaret and Victor had to leave to visit her family. Victor hugged his daughters and Paige and Margaret gave them air kisses. She and Francesca wished each other Happy Christmas from a distance.


After they left, there was really not much to do but sit around in front of the fire and recover from dinner. Melinda who refused to have a nap was lying asleep on Piper's lap. Phoebe watched the little girl with an expression of longing and almost envy that Cole did not miss.


"Lucky for Margaret Santa is a myth" said Mark "because if she had to rely on only good little girls getting presents, there would not have been much with her name on it."


Cole and Leo and Francesca looked at each other. To Cole's surprise Francesca made no effort to hide that she was magic in front of Mark and all but told Mark outright that Cole was not mortal, which made him narrow his eyes but not say anything.


"Santa isn't a myth?" said Mark catching the glances.


"Tell me Mrs Rinaldi " Cole said to break the silence. Mark's grey eyes danced as he met Paige's glance That Cole was the only one in the family who addressed Francesca as Mrs Rinaldi amused him.


"Tell me" asked Cole who had a little more alcohol than he should have had which made him a little braver than he should have been, "How did you pay for Christmas dinner this year?"


"And what is that supposed to mean" Francesca asked snippily.


"I saw Proctor last week." Cole smirked.


"And the only conversation you could have was to gossip about me " Francesca  said in her best schoolmarm voice.


"We talked about..other things" Cole a little grimly.


"I understand "said Francesca whitelighter and no nonsense.


"Whose Proctor?" asked Mark. "or what is Proctor."


"A colleague" Cole answered as Mark rolled his eyes "he told me about Francesca," and smirked as Francesca pursed her lips " and her Christmas presents."


"Cole" said Phoebe warning.


"I've been watching" Cole said ignoring the warning "What was it. The drought breaking in China, the peace treaty in South East Asia or the debt relief in West Africa" and to Cole's surprise and considerable enjoyment he got his second best Christmas present. Francesca flushed with embarrassment.


"Proctor is no friend of mine" Francesca answered tartly and then to get even she asked "Did you find your visit to ah previous haunts… Enlightening."


It was Cole's turn to flush with embarrassment but he tried to brazen it out. "Not a  problem" he said "I don't know what you all fussed about." Then he swallowed hard "All right" he said seeing the disbelieving smile on Francesca's face "It frightened the hell out of me. What  I felt " Cole glanced at Mark which Francesca ignored "the darkness, the feeling of misery and the temptation. Okay, okay you were right "he said as Francesca smiled with satisfaction" Its not somewhere I should be. The temptation is not as beyond me I thought… I thought it would be the temptation would be to join it .. not exterminate it. Okay you were right." he conceded.


"Thank you Cole " said Francesca answered gratuitously " I've been waiting for my Christmas present all day."


Francesca finally left after midnight, genuinely thanking the family for having her and acknowledging that she had gate crashed the party.


"You're welcome any time" Piper said taking her hand.


"Especially if Margaret is coming," said Leo with a smile doing the same thing.


"My pleasure" replied Francesca her eyes twinkling.  She allowed Paige and Phoebe to hug her and shook Mark's hand "it was a pleasure" she said.


Cole looked at her for a second and went to awkwardly take her hand then muttered oh damn it and touched his cheek to hers. Francesca's eyes twinkled again which Mark did not miss.


Then to all of the family's surprise Francesca orbed in front of Mark. He stared at the empty space his grey eyes narrowing.


Phoebe started to yawn almost as soon as Francesca left.


"Bed Miss" said Piper as she had said to her daughter four hours earlier.


"I'm not two" said  Phoebe looking to Cole for support.


"Bed Miss" he said picking her up.


"Don't treat me like I'm two " Phoebe muttered at him.


"I wasn't planning on it "he said.


"Good" she said catching her arms around his neck "I don't feel as sleepy."