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[personal profile] sara_wolf
February 26, 2009

Piper didn't know what had happened. The last thing she remembered was sitting down on the couch in her living room, and then everything went black. And now she was standing in the middle of a metal-walled room, facing a roaring fire. Prue was beside her, looking similarly confused.

'What the hell happened to us?' Piper thought, fighting back a surge of panic. It was so hot in the room that she couldn't think straight.

She looked around, and then fury swamped her when she saw Nathanial Pratt standing on Prue's other side. He hadn't noticed them, so entranced by the fire in the middle of the room. She nudged Prue to get her attention, and her sister's eyes hardened as she glared at Pratt.

"What the hell is he doing here?" she hissed, furiously.

Pratt turned at the sound of her voice, a startled look flashing over his face. But, then his face smoothed over into his usual smug expression as he sneered at them.

"I don't know how you two got in here," he said, "but you couldn't have done it if you weren't witches. Thank you so much for all the evidence I'll need to arrest you, just like I did your sister."

"You can try," Prue growled, "but you'll never succeed."

"I'd say that I've already succeeded," Pratt said, gesturing grandly to the fire in front of them. "It's only too bad that you were too late to say goodbye."

"What are you talking about?" Piper demanded, a hard knot forming in her stomach.

Pratt made a gesture to someone standing outside the room, and the fire suddenly died down, revealing a charred body tied to a metal pyre. For a second, Piper didn't understand what she was looking at, but then she saw the metal-studded restraining collar around the person's neck, and she got it. Beside her, Prue had gone very, very still, except for a minute trembling in her hands.

"You killed her," she rasped out, unable to take her eyes off Phoebe's body. "You bastard, you killed her!"

"And you're going to join her," Pratt said, still in that smug tone.

A door off to the side opened, and a pair of armed men slipped into the room. Prue stepped protectively in front of Piper, hand raised threateningly. She jerked her hand, sending Pratt crashing back into the window behind him, and then a sharp crack filled the air. Prue collapsed in a heap, her eyes open in unseeing shock. There was a small hole in the middle of her forehead, and blood spread out in a pool under her head.

Piper stared down at her in growing horror, and then turned to see one of the men pointing his gun directly at her head. She was overwhelmed with rage as she lifted her hands to blow the man up. She never made it.

Another sharp retort rang out, and she looked over to see the second man, the one she'd forgotten about, with his gun trained on her. Then, as her legs buckled, she looked down to see a small hole in her chest steadily leaking blood.

And the world went black...



"Daddy, come join my tea party!"

Melinda poked her head into the kitchen, where Daddy was fixing something in the teapot. He looked up at her and smiled.

"Done playing already, Princess?" he asked.

"Mrs. Penny and I want you to join us at our tea party," Melinda repeated, patiently.

She pointed at the small table she'd set up in the middle of the living room. Mrs. Penny, her favorite doll, sat in her usual place at the head of the table, with Baby Wiggles and Edward M. Pachyderm the Third on either side. Eddie toppled out of his chair, and Melinda ran back and dusted him off before putting him back.

"Come have a tea party with us, Daddy," she begged, and Daddy nodded.

"A tea party sounds like fun," he told her. "Why don't you set a place for me at the table, and I'll be there in a minute?"

"Okay!" Melinda cheered, happily, running back to the table.

Daddy joined her a few minutes later, kneeling between Eddie and Mrs. Penny and taking the cup she held out to him. He went to take a drink, but Melinda stopped him with a stern look.

"Don't gulp it, Daddy," she scolded him. "The tea's hot and you'll burn your tongue."

"Okay, Princess," he said, hiding a smile behind his hand. "I'll take small sips."

They sipped their tea, and Daddy asked her about school. Melinda showed him the painting she'd done during art period, and Daddy got up immediately to put in on the fridge. He was just coming back to the table when he stopped, a hand on his head as he swayed. He groaned like he was in pain.

"Daddy?" Melinda asked, concerned. "Daddy, what's wrong?"

"No-nothing, Princess," Daddy said, but his face was still screwed up like when he smashed his finger in the car door, and Melinda didn't believe him for a minute. But, why was he lying to her?

"Is something wrong with Mommy?" Melinda asked, in a small voice. He always got that look on his face whenever Mommy was hurt.

"Mommy's fine," Daddy told her, but his voice shook when he spoke, and there were tears in his eyes. "Princess, I have to go check on something. But I'll be right back. I promise."

He orbed away, and Melinda wanted to follow him. It would be easy enough, with all the times she and Daddy had played orbing tag (although they hadn't played in a while). But, she'd promised Mommy that she wouldn't use her magic, anymore. And Daddy had promised that he'd be right back. She settled back down to play tea party with her dolls.

When she got bored of tea party, Melinda grabbed Mrs. Penny and curled up the couch, turning on the television and flicking through the channels to try and find cartoons. But, the TV was filled with lots and lots of talking, and Melinda quickly changed the channel every time someone mentioned witches.

Mommy and Daddy didn't know that she knew what was going on, but she'd snuck out of bed on nights when she couldn't sleep, to see the late-night news reports playing on the TV. The pictures of people being taken away had scared her even more. Especially when the news people talked about Aunt Phoebe, and how she'd killed a man.

Mommy and Daddy really didn't know that she knew about that.

There were no cartoons on the TV, and Melinda shut the TV off, plunging the room into silence. And then she realized that, except for her dolls, she was still alone in the house.

"Daddy?" Melinda called, expecting him to appear in bright lights in a second. "Daddy?"

He always came when she called, no matter what. Daddy told her once that he could hear her everywhere, and he would always find her. But, he wasn't coming, now.

Melinda went through the entire house looking for him. She even went up to the attic, where she was never supposed to go on her own. But, it was getting dark, and she was scared. She wanted Daddy to come home.

The door to the attic was closed when she got to the top of the stairs, and she slowly pushed it open. She stepped into the room, looking around, but Daddy wasn't there. But, something else was.

The Book of Shadows was never supposed to leave Aunt Prue's office. Mommy had explained the rules very clearly. It had to stay safe, and Aunt Prue's office was the safest place. So, why was it here, lying in the middle of the floor?

Melinda traced the triquetra symbol on the front of the book, feeling the soft leather under her fingers. Mommy used to teach her magic out of the Book, before it started being bad. Mommy told her that one day the Book would be hers, one day when Melinda had her own family and Mommy watched over her like a guardian angel. Was that why the Book was here? Was Mommy an angel? Tears filled her eyes.

"Daddy?" she whispered, as tears rolled down her cheeks to land on the Book. "Daddy, please come home."

She curled up on the floor, holding onto the Book like one of her stuffed animals, and she screwed her eyes shut as she cried. She must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next time she opened her eyes, a woman with long, dark hair was kneeling over her.

"Who are you?" Melinda squeaked, scared, and the woman held up her empty hands, moving back slightly.

"Easy, sweetheart," she said, soothingly. "My name is Paige. I'm a Whitelighter, like your Daddy."

"Prove it," Melinda demanded, suspiciously, and the woman held out a hand. The Book orbed off the floor and into her arms.

"See?" Paige said, quietly. "I'm here to help you, Melinda."

"Did Daddy send you?" Melinda asked, hopefully. Maybe he was busy, and he'd sent Paige to bring her to him.

Paige bit her lip, her shoulders slumping. Something dark flashed across her face. "Sweetheart, let's just get you out of here, okay?"

Melinda shook her head, panic coming over her in a rush. "I want Mommy and Daddy," she demanded, tearfully. "Where are my Mommy and Daddy?"

"They-" Paige stopped, tears in her eyes. "They're can't come home, Melinda. Your Mommy and Daddy are gone. I'm so sorry, sweetie."

Melinda shook her head. "No," she said, backing away slowly from Paige. "No, no, no-"

A crashing sound downstairs stopped her in the middle of her sentence, and she whirled around to stare at the doorway, hope filling her.

"Daddy!" she cried, but before she could bolt down the stairs, Paige grabbed her around the waist. Melinda struggled in her grip, even tried to orb away, but something was stopping her. "Daddy!"

"That's not your father," Paige said, sounding scared, and Melinda twisted around to look at her.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I mean that we need to get out of here," Paige said, her grip tightening on Melinda.

She swept Melinda up into her arms, settling her on her hip, and then she waved her hand at the Book of Shadows, summoning it into her hand.

"Hold onto me," she urged, and Melinda clutched the woman's shirt in her hands. As they orbed away, Melinda caught sight of a furious man bursting into the attic.

They landed in a small, brightly-colored room. There were cartoonish zoo animals stenciled on the walls, and a cotton-candy-pink bed filled with stuffed animals. Melinda sniffled as she looked at the stuffed elephant that reminded her of Eddie.

"Where are we?" she asked, softly, and Paige crossed the room to set her on the bed.

"This is my house," she said.

"Does a little girl live here?" Melinda asked, as she touched one of the stuffed animals. It looked a little bit like her room at Mommy's house.

Tears glistened in Paige's eyes. "This was my daughter's room," she said, quietly. She sounded like she was trying not to cry.

"Where is she?" Melinda asked.

"Gone," came the answer, and Melinda wondered if it was the same kind of gone as her Mommy and Daddy. "Melinda," Paige said, suddenly, "I'd like you to stay here with me, so that I can keep you safe."

"From the witch hunters?" Melinda asked, and after a moment, Paige slowly nodded.

"From the witch hunters," she confirmed, a reluctant tone in her voice.

"Did the witch hunters get Mommy and Daddy?" Melinda asked. When the woman nodded again, Melinda felt tears roll down her cheeks. "Are they going to get me, too?" she whispered, afraid of the answer.

"No, sweetheart," Paige told her, a fierce light filling her eyes. She pulled Melinda into a protective hug. "The witch hunters aren't going to touch you. Not while I'm here. I swear."



Melinda didn't sleep. She couldn't. This wasn't her house, her bed. This house belonged to another little girl, one who was gone. And her house was gone, too, filled with the angry men that took Mommy and Daddy away from her.

She pretended to sleep, though, curling up under the covers and closing her eyes. She didn't know if Paige was fooled or not, but the woman seemed willing to leave her alone, either way.

"I'm so sorry, Melinda," she whispered, and then Melinda watched through slitted eyes as Paige crept silently out of the room, leaving the door open a crack so that the light from the hallway shone through.

Melinda wrapped her arms around one of the borrowed stuffed animals, staring at the darkness. She wanted her house, wanted her toys, wanted Mommy and Daddy. But, she couldn't have them, anymore. Mommy and Daddy were dead; she would never see them, again. She buried her face in the soft fur of the gray elephant, tears streaking down her cheeks. It was all Aunt Phoebe's fault. If she hadn't killed someone, the witch hunters wouldn't have come after her family. She wouldn't have to live with some stranger.

"I miss you, Mommy," she whispered, crying harder when there was no answer.

She finally fell asleep at some point, and as she slept, she dreamed.

She was standing in the middle of a sun-soaked room, watching a dark-haired woman sit with a red-headed little girl in a rocking chair. The woman was humming softly, and when she lifted her head, Melinda recognized Paige. Which meant that the little girl was probably her daughter that she'd talked about earlier.

"What are we going to do today, Lily?" Paige asked, but the little girl's reply was drowned by a sudden pounding sound. Paige looked out of the room, a worried expression on her face. "Stay here, honey," she murmured, quietly, as she got out of the chair.

Curious, Melinda trailed Paige out of the room to watch her answer the front door. A tall man in a dark suit was standing on the other side. He had a piece of paper in his hands that he shoved at Paige before she could speak.

"What is this?" Paige demanded, after she'd looked at the paper, her face going pale as she read. She sounded scared, but when the man tried to push past her into the house, she blocked his path.

"It's a warrant for the arrest of Lily Matthews," the man informed her, gesturing to the paper she was clutching so hard her hands were white.

"My daughter is five years old," Paige said, tightly.

"The crime of witchcraft has no age limit," the man said, crossing his arms over his chest as he loomed threateningly over Paige. She refused to be cowed. "If you resist me," the man growled, "I'm under orders to take you in, as well."

"You're not getting your hands on my daughter," Paige snapped.

"Ms. Matthews, your daughter will be perfectly safe," the man said, a patronizing tone in his voice. It was the same tone the neighbors had used when talking to Mommy about Aunt Phoebe. "She will be returned to you after a short stay in a rehabilitation facility."

"You're going to torture the magic out of her," Paige said, flatly, glaring at the man.

"Rehabilitation is the prescribed course of treatment for those afflicted individuals who've committed no crimes," the man droned, sounding like he was reading from a book. "You should be grateful that a well-meaning person has turned your daughter in before she could become a danger to herself or others, when we would be forced to execute her." His humorless smile became sharp. "And even more grateful that we have no evidence against you."

"I'll kill you before you touch my child," Paige said, taking a step back and dropping her arms to her sides, hands twitching. She looked like Mommy or Aunt Prue did when they got ready to use their powers.

"You should be careful," the man said, not even fazed by her threat. "Some might think you were serious." His eyes lit up as he stared at something over Paige's shoulder. "Ah, there she is."

For a moment, Melinda thought that the man had somehow seen her, which was impossible. But then she looked over to see Lily standing on the other side of the doorway, hovering anxiously as she looked between the man and her mother.

"Mama, what's going on?" Lily asked, sounding scared.

"Everything's going to be all right, sweetheart," Paige said, and Melinda got scared, because Daddy had said the same thing, and then he never came home again.

She wanted to stop what was going to happen, wanted to grab Lily and orb away from the scary man. But, her hands went right through the other little girl. This was all in the past; Melinda couldn't do anything now but watch it happen.

She could only watch as the man shoved roughly past Paige, knocking her backward. Could only watch as he crossed the room and grabbed Lily in a hard grip, making her cry out in pain.

Paige growled, moving toward the man holding her daughter. She grabbed his wrist, there was a bright flash of light, and then the man went flying backward to crash into the wall behind them. Paige swept Lily up in her arms and bolted for the stairs, Melinda following them.

They ended up in the same brightly-colored room that Melinda was currently sleeping in. Paige bundled Lily into a coat before pulling a backpack out from underneath the bed and helping her get her arms into the straps. Lily looked like she was about to cry.

"Mama-"

"Shhh," Paige whispered, wiping away a tear that trickled down her daughter's cheek. "It's going to be okay, sweetheart. I promise."

"I don't wanna leave," Lily whimpered, and Paige pulled her close into a tight hug.

"I don't want to lose you, either," Paige said, her voice choked up. "But, I have to keep you safe."

"But why can't you come, too?" Lily begged.

"I can't," Paige told her, tears in her eyes. "I wish I could come with you. But-"

The rest of her sentence was cut off by the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and Melinda peeked down the hallway to see the angry man coming toward them. When she looked back, Paige was talking to Lily.

"I love you," she said, a fierce tone in her voice. "Never forget how much I love you."

Then, as the man burst into the room, Lily was taken away in bright, shining orbs. Paige whirled around to confront the man, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and pinning him to the wall with a surprising strength.

"Look at me," she growled, and the man's eyes were dragged down to meet hers. Paige's eyes were glowing electric blue. "You're going to leave, and you're never going to come back." The man jerked in her grasp, but he couldn't escape. "You're going to go back to your puppet master," Paige continued, in that low, angry voice, "and you're going to tell him that Lily Matthews was gone when you arrived. Do you understand?"

The man slowly nodded, and Paige shoved him toward the doorway, watching him stumble.

"Get out of my house," she snarled, and the man bolted, thundering down the stairs in his haste to escape the woman.


Melinda jerked out of the dream to find herself still lying in the bed. She was crushing the elephant to her chest, and she really didn't want to let the stuffed animal go. She did want to know more about Lily, though, and she wondered if Paige would tell her if she asked.

Climbing out of bed, she crept out into the hallway and down the stairs. She could hear voices coming from another room, and she peeked into the kitchen to see Paige sitting at the table with an older man with graying hair. He reminded Melinda of her grandfather.

"-can't believe the Elders," Paige was saying, her hands clenched around a small, white cup of something that steamed. "They're supposed to be so powerful; how can they not know what happened to Leo?"

"He vanished from their radar," the man told her. "He's been using his powers a lot, lately. It's possible he attracted the attention of a rogue Darklighter who sensed his orbing."

"And with the ban on us using our powers," Paige sighed, "Leo would be the only target for miles. Damn it. What the hell was he thinking?"

"That the woman he still loved was in danger," the man said, quietly. "That he had to help her."

"Leaving his daughter unprotected and completely vulnerable." Paige sounded angry, bitter.

"Paige," the man said, reaching out and grasping her hand, "Leo and Melinda aren't you and Lily. You did the only thing you could to protect her."

"I could have gone with her," Paige said, glaring down at the table.

"And that would have raised even more questions," the man replied. "Paige, you protected Lily the same way your mother and I protected you. By giving her up, to keep her out of danger."

"And I hated you for it," Paige said, sadly. Her father smiled.

"You got over it," he reminded her. "Lily will, too. When this is over, when the witch trials have died down, you can bring her home again."

"If we have a home to back to," Paige sighed. "What else did the Elders say?"

The man looked troubled. "They're talking about sealing away the heavens," he said, sounding unhappy. "They want to recall all Whitelighters. Including you."

"Like hell," Paige snapped. "What do they want me to do with Melinda? Just leave her here? I won't abandon another child, Sam!"

"They didn't say anything about Melinda," Sam told her.

"I'm not doing it," Paige said, flatly. "That little girl upstairs needs me. I'm all she has left. Maybe the Elders could ban me from contacting my sisters, from ever knowing them, but I'll be damned if I let them keep me from protecting Piper's daughter."

"That little girl is watching us from the doorway," Sam said, nodding in Melinda's direction, and Paige jerked around to lock eyes with her. A guilty look flashed across her face.

"Hey, sweetheart," she said, her voice shaky. "You're up."

"Did you know my mommy?" Melinda asked, as she came into the kitchen, sitting down at the chair Paige pulled out for her.

"Sort of," Paige told her. "It's a long story. Melinda-"

The rest of her words were cut off by the sound of a phone ringing. Paige grabbed for the small cell phone sitting on the table, talking to the person on the other end in a terse voice. When she hung up a few seconds later, she grabbed for the TV remote, switching it a news station.

"The search continues for the daughter of recently-executed witch, Piper Halliwell," the reporter was saying, and Melinda gasped as Mommy's face came on the screen. "Halliwell was discovered along with her sister, Prue Halliwell, attempting to break notorious killer, Phoebe Halliwell out of prison. All three witches died in the execution chamber several hours ago."

"Mommy," Melinda whimpered, tears welling in her eyes. Paige pulled her into her lap, stroking her hair in a soothing gesture.

"Halliwell is survived by a daughter," the reporter went on, "five-year-old Melinda Wyatt. The child is believed to possess powers like her mother and aunts, and must be brought to the nearest rehabilitation facility as soon as possible. If left unchecked, it is believed that her powers could turn her into the same kind of monster as the rest of her family." A picture of Melinda flashed on the screen, and Paige turned the TV off with a vicious gesture.

"You're not a monster," she told Melinda, who was still staring at the screen in horror. "And they're not going to touch you. I swear."

"You'll have to leave the house," Sam said.

"We'll have to leave the state," Paige muttered. "The house is already in your name." When Sam gave her a look, she shrugged. "I took care of it a while back. Just a hunch, you know?"

"Be careful," Sam said, and Paige smiled sadly at him.

"Always am," she murmured.

"Are we leaving?" Melinda asked, and Paige nodded, giving her a reassuring look.

"It's going to be okay," she said. "We'll come home again, one day."



Eight Years Later

Melinda hated small towns. Everyone knew everyone else, there was no such thing as privacy, and even though she and Paige had lived there for nearly two months, they were still new, still strangers. Mel glared at the brick-and-mortar building in front of her, wanting nothing more than to run away and never look back. Anything to avoid yet another day of being called the new girl, and teachers and classmates who still couldn't, or didn't bother to, remember her name.

But, she sighed and trudged toward the building. She and Paige were in this town because there was no permanent witch hunter, here. No one remembered her name because she kept her head down, stayed quiet, and did everything she could to be completely, utterly forgettable. It was the only way they would stay safe.

Her first class of the day was history. Her school was small, and they couldn't afford the fancy, new holographic screens that bigger, fancier schools got, making due with plain old whiteboards and computer projectors. 'The Witch Trials' was scrawled across the board in her teacher's messy handwriting. Mel fought back a shudder.

She took her seat at the back of the room as her teacher, Mrs. Davis, walked in, and for the next hour, employed her usual strategy of being practically invisible. Digging her fingernails into her leg, she used the pain to distract herself from saying something she shouldn't during the lecture, staring mutely at her family's faces as they flashed across the projection screen, along with all the other witches who'd been incarcerated or executed over the years. She had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from crying when her mom's face appeared.

Mel looked away from the screen, trying to calm herself down, and she saw one of her classmates, Micah Jantzen, staring at the images on the screen with the same stricken expression she was sure had been on her face just a few seconds before. His hands were clenched so hard into fists that his pencil had snapped, but he didn't seem to notice.

'Maybe I should invite Micah home to meet Aunt Paige,' Mel mused, watching Micah out of the corner of her eye. Even if he wasn't a witch, he was clearly a sympathizer, and there was no telling what could happen if they didn't get him into the Underground in time. The wrong word, to the wrong person, and Micah could find himself locked up in a rehab center before he could even blink.

A knock on the classroom door broke into her thoughts, and she glanced over to see a short man in a black suit standing in the doorway. Before Mrs. Davis could say anything, the man pulled his jacket aside to reveal a badge on his belt, the shining symbol of the witch hunters visible even to where Mel was sitting at the back of the room. She bit back a groan as sweat trickled down the back of her neck.

"Your class is to report immediately to the auditorium," the hunter said, in a toneless voice, and then he swept out of the room without giving anyone a chance to reply.

Up at the front of the classroom, Mrs. Davis was staring after the hunter, her hands clenched on the back of her chair. When she spoke, her voice was slightly shaky.

"All right, everyone," she said, trying to keep a chipper tone in her voice, "single line, down the hallway, you know the drill. Leave your books and your bags," she added, when a couple of students tried to pack their things.

"What if we-" the aborted question came from a girl who kept glancing nervously at the door, like she expected the hunter to come back and drag her away at any second. Not that Mel blamed her for her nerves; when the hunters came to town, everyone was rattled, even if they had nothing to hide.

"Everyone is coming back to this room," Mrs. Davis said, firmly, cutting off the girl's question before she could finish.

"And if the hunters take you away, you're not going to have to worry about studying, anyway," someone joked. An anxious ripple of laughter drifted through the room; Mel just wanted to get sick.

She snuck a glance over at Micah, seeing a horrified look on his face. All the color had drained from his face, leaving his skin a sickly gray color, and he stumbled into a desk when he tried to walk toward the door. Biting back her own fear, Mel hurried to his side, grabbing his arm to help him stay on his feet.

"I've got you," she murmured, but Micah shook his head, trying desperately to pull his arm out of her grasp.

"Let go," he begged, quietly. "Please, I can't-"

"Trust me," Mel whispered, pulling him determinedly along. For not the first time, she wished that one of her powers was Aunt Paige's persuasion ability; it would make things so much easier, sometimes.

Steering Micah down the hall, they joined the crush of students drifting down toward the auditorium. Mel was grateful that both she and Micah were short, because it helped them escape notice, especially when she dragged him into the empty girl's restroom halfway down the hall.

"What are you doing?" Micah demanded, but Mel shook her head, clamping a hand over his mouth to keep him silent.

"What's the hunter going to find when he talks to you?" she hissed, keeping a wary eye on the door in case someone decided to come in. "Are you a witch, or someone in your family?"

Micah stared at her like she'd lost her mind, and then his shoulders slumped. Mel carefully pulled her hand away from his mouth.

"Me," Micah whispered, his voice so low that Mel could barely hear him. "My great-great-grandmother was, and it skipped a few generations."

"Active powers?" Mel asked, and Micah nodded, a miserable expression on his face. "Whatever happens, whatever the hunter tries, you can't use them."

"You've been through this before?" Micah asked, quietly, and Mel grimaced.

"Once," she muttered, "when we couldn't get out of town fast enough. And that's not an option here, either," she told him, when he looked at her, hopefully. "Not unless you want to leave your family behind, right this second."

"No," Micah said, shaking his head.

"Then you have to play normal," Mel stressed. "Watch every word that comes out of your mouth. And for the love of god, stop sweating. That's practically an admission of guilt, right there."

She grabbed some paper towels from the dispenser, shoving them at Micah who gingerly wiped at his forehead and the back of his neck. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and then he nodded at her.

"I'm ready," he said, only a minute trace of a tremor in his voice.

Mel moved to the doorway, peeking outside, and when it was clear, she and Micah slipped out into the hallway. They jogged to catch up the tail end of students streaming into the auditorium, taking seats at the very edge of the bleachers. The witch hunter was already pacing in the middle of the large room, hands clasped behind his back as he stared up at the students sitting in front of him. Then entire auditorium was completely silent.

As terrifying as her previous encounter with the hunters had been, at least Mel knew what to expect, now. A single hunter couldn't scan the entire school for potential witches; for that, the government sent in an eradication team. Instead, the hunter would select random students to interview, feeding into the fear that permeated the room that no one was safe, and anyone could be next. The hunter usually stayed for a couple of hours, and they wouldn't see any of their classmates again, even the ones found innocent, until after the hunter was done. Another fear-mongering tactic.

Mel told Micah as much as she could, stepping hard on his foot when he started to hyperventilate.

"Keep it together," she hissed, when his panic turned into pain for his squashed toes. "There are five hundred people here; we might not even get called."

Micah just shook his head, his mouth clamped shut like he was trying not to get sick all over the floor. Mel gripped his hand in silent support, and they waited anxiously for the whole thing to be over. Over the next hour and a half, a dozen names were called, the students disappearing into the hunter's interview room. Micah looked distinctly green, and he had his eyes closed as he rocked back and forth in his seat. If this didn't end, soon, he was going to fall apart.

"Rebecca Winters!"

Mel jerked at the sound of her assumed name, inadvertently digging her nails into Micah's wrist as she held onto him. Micah let out an involuntary whimper at the pain, staring at her with fear in his eyes.

"You're-"

"Everything's going to be fine," she said, trying to inject firmness into her voice. Standing up, she reluctantly pulled her hand out of his. "Going to be fine," she whispered to herself, as she marched across the impossibly-long stretch of floor to where the witch hunter was waiting for her.

The hunter escorted her to the small room where he was conducting interviews. The room was empty except for a single table with a pair of chairs. There was even a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, and Mel bit back a hysterical laugh when she realized that the room looked like it had come out of an old police drama. She took the seat that the hunter indicated, folded her hands in her lap, and waited.

"Miss Winters," the man intoned, solemnly, as he shut the door with an ominous clang.

There was no way that the door could have made that noise, so he must have used some kind of sound effect to intimidate her. He was much more of a showman than the last hunter she'd encountered. A barely-audible giggle slipped past her lips before she schooled her face into a blank mask.

"Sir," she returned, respectfully, not meeting his gaze directly, but keeping her eyes averted to a point over his shoulder.

The hunter may have been an expert at breaking people, but Paige had trained Mel to hide in plain sight for nearly a decade, and she wasn't going to make it easy on him. If she was careful, and kept her head, she might even get out of the interrogation in one piece.

"Miss Winters, I understand that you and your mother recently moved into town?" the hunter asked, sitting down across from her and bracing his elbows on the table, staring at her.

"Yes, sir," Mel replied. "Going on two months, now."

"Why?" The blunt question had her glancing over at the hunter, and then averting her eyes again.

"I, um-" Mel muttered, twisting her hands, nervously, and staring down at the table, "I had some problems at my old school. Mom wanted to keep me in a smaller environment, figured that maybe I'd be able to get into less trouble, here."

She kept her voice steady as she recounted the story she and Paige had cooked up, the same thing that her aunt said had happened to her after her parents had died. She didn't look at the hunter, supposedly out of embarrassment. Hopefully, he was buying it.

It seemed he was, because she didn't see any tells that indicated that he knew she was lying. He leaned back slightly in his chair as he made a note in the file in front of him.

"How do you feel about magic, Miss Winters?" His next question actually surprised her; she hadn't been expecting him to be so open about his intentions. She wondered if the guy was new at his job, and had gotten the assignment in her town as a training ground of some sort.

"I think that magic ruins people's lives," she said, choosing her words carefully. "The witch hunts have ripped people apart, and dangerous people walk the streets." Her voice didn't shake, and she hoped he believed the words he was feeding him. Everything she said was actually true, so long as he never asked for context.

"Have you ever known a witch?"

"I don't think that one would be so bold as to announce themselves publically," she murmured, praying that it was enough of an answer.

"Are you a witch?"

Mel almost started sweating, again, even as she marveled at the unsubtle questions. The hunter was a newbie, she was sure of it. Forcing herself to meet the hunter's eyes, squarely, she took a quick, shallow breath and relaxed her shoulders.

"No," she said, firmly. "No, sir, I am not a witch."

"Right hand on the table, please."

Mel blinked at the sudden command, slowly pulling her hand out of her lap and laying it, palm-up on the table. The witch hunter made a gesture, indicating that he wanted her to flip her hand around. She did so, reluctantly, wondering what he was looking for.

The hunter nodded, and then without warning, his hand flashed down, something glinting in the light. Pain shot through her hand a second later, and she couldn't stifle the cry that slipped past her lips. When the hunter pulled his hand away, she saw a bloody knife clutched in his fist. Mel whimpered as she cradled her injured, bleeding hand to her chest.

"Are you a witch?" the hunter asked, again, his voice never wavering from the calm tone he'd used before.

"No, sir," Mel gritted out, choking on a gasp as she wrapped her hand as best she could in the hem of her shirt.

"Give me your other hand," the man said, and Mel cringed away from him.

"Why are you doing this?" she whispered, fearfully.

"A necessary precaution," the hunter told her. "The pain will end when I am convinced that you are telling the truth. Now, your hand, please."

Mel laid her shaking hand flat on the table, staring at the far wall. She could still see the hunter out of the corner of her eye, could see the knife flash down a second time. A ragged howl was ripped from her throat, and as soon as the knife was removed, she jerked her hand back. Tears streamed down her face.

"I'm not a witch," she sobbed, before the man could speak. "I swear, I'm not a witch! Please, I want my mom."

She snuck a glance at the hunter, expecting him to demand a foot, next, or maybe her whole arm. But, he was studying her with guarded curiosity in his eyes.

"You may go," he said, abruptly, and with a wave of his hand, the door swung open.

Mel stared at the door in shock, going cold at the thought that the government was keeping trained witches on their payroll, that witches could turn on their own so easily. Glancing back at the hunter, she found him still watching her.

"You will tell no one what's happened here," he told her. "Now, go. You'll want to get those hands looked at by a doctor."

Mel nodded, almost tripping over her own feet in her haste to flee the room. She bolted blindly down the hallway, panicked sobs choking at her throat, but she held them back with an effort. She couldn't break down, not until she was safe at home. When an arm slipped around her waist, she jerked away, but the person held fast and kept her on her feet.

"Keep walking," Micah whispered in her ear, propelling her down the hallway. "They let us out a few minutes ago. I waited to try and find you."

"Wanna go home," Mel whimpered.

"Rebecca, your hands," Micah gasped, looking down at the blood that coated the front of her shirt.

"Doesn't matter," Mel forced out. "Gonna be fine."

She veered, dragging Micah into the same bathroom as before. It was thankfully empty, but she didn't think she could have kept herself from orbing out even if it had been crammed with people. She and Micah reformed in the small house that she and Paige were living in, and Mel sank down on the couch, crying.

"Aunt Paige," she choked out. "Aunt Paige, I need you." White lights formed in front of her, and Mel managed a weak smile as her aunt knelt down in front of her. "I'm kind of in trouble," she whispered.

"It's all right, sweetheart," Paige murmured, smoothing a lock of Mel's hair behind her ear before taking her hands, gently. "You're going to be fine."

"You're a Whitelighter!"

Paige didn't even blink when Micah's shocked exclamation rang out through the living room. She glanced up from where she was healing Mel's hands, giving the teenager a once-over.

"I am," she finally answered.

"They're extinct," Micah accused.

"Only in hiding," Paige replied. Finished with Mel's hands, she helped her sit up on the couch. "Hunter at your school?"

"Yeah," Mel said, marveling at her unbroken hands. No matter how many times she saw it, healing still seemed like a miracle.

"His partner's been roaming the rest of the town," Paige told her. "We're running, tonight."

"Glamours?" Mel asked, and Paige nodded after a moment.

"We'll have to risk it," she replied. "You coming with us?" she shot over her shoulder, looking back at Micah.

"My family-" he started.

"If anyone saw you helping Mel, they could turn you into the hunter," she told him. "I've got contacts who will get your family into the underground, but you can't risk going to them and bringing the hunters to their front door. It's too dangerous, I'm sorry."

Micah looked like she'd just ripped his heart out, but he nodded. "Okay," he whispered. "I'll come with you."

"Good," Paige started. "We're-"

She was cut off by the sound of pounding on the front door, and her face went pale as she craned her head around. Mel sucked in a breath, remembering the premonition she'd had years ago about Paige's daughter.

"Upstairs, now," Paige hissed, softly, as she started for the front door. "If I give you the signal-"

"I orb us the hell out of here," Mel replied, automatically. "Even if you're not with me." She twisted the bracelet on her wrist that Paige had imbued with a homing spell, one that she could follow to a safe house.

"Good girl," Paige said. Pulling Mel into a quick hug, she murmured, "I love you. So much."

"Love you, too," Mel whispered, tears springing to her eyes, again. Then, she grabbed Micah's hand and dragged him up the stairs to her bedroom.

Just like Lily before her, she had a backpack hidden under her bed, stuffed with everything she needed to make a fast getaway. Slinging the backpack over her shoulders, she crept back to the doorway and to the top of the stairs, peering down.

Paige was standing in front of the door, blocking entry to the house. Beyond her, Mel recognized the hunter who'd been at her school. He had to have used magic to follow her so quickly, and she cursed herself for orbing out in a panic. She knew he had powers; he'd probably been waiting for her to slip up and reveal herself, and she'd played right into his hands. This was all her fault.

"I haven't seen my daughter," Paige said, suddenly, her voice carrying up the stairs, and that was the signal Mel had been waiting for.

She didn't wait to hear the hunter's reply, grabbing Micah by the shoulder and orbing them out of the house. The homing spell on the bracelet activated, and she felt a tugging sensation pulling them in an unknown direction. When they reformed, they were standing in the middle of what looked like a cave.

"You must be Paige's newest refugees," a male voice said from behind her, and Mel whirled around to see a man standing in the middle of the room, watching her. "I'm Cole Turner."

"How do I know I can trust you?" Mel asked, suspiciously, keeping Micah behind her as they slowly backed up toward the wall.

In answer, Cole fiddled with his hands, and then tossed something in her direction. Mel twitched her fingers, freezing the object in midair, and then she used telekinesis to pull it toward her, where it hovered in front of her face. A plain, gold band floated in front of her, and she poked it gingerly with her finger, keeping an orb shield between her and the ring. When it didn't explode in her face, she reached out and closed her fingers over the ring.

The premonition was instant, and she saw a series of images of Cole and Paige, smiling and happy, stretching back years. Letting go of the vision, she looked up to see Cole watching her.

"Paige gave me that ring," he told her. "It's my half of the homing device."

"It's supposed to take us to a safe house," Mel started, but then she trailed off when a teenage girl slipped into the cavern from behind Cole. She had close-cropped, bright red hair, and Paige's features clear on her narrow face, and Mel couldn't hold back her startled gasp when she saw the girl.

"Lils, we've got new arrivals," Cole was saying to the girl.

Lils. Lily. Paige's missing daughter stood in front of her, arms across her chest. She eyed Mel and Micah, giving them a small smile in greeting. Mel could hardly think straight; did Paige know where her daughter had been all this time?"

"What is this place?" Micah demanded, suddenly, breaking into Mel's thoughts. "Is this the Underground I heard about?"

"This is the Underworld," Cole corrected him, a wry tone in his voice. "Welcome to Hell, kids."
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