Thailand – Jengar’s Camp – Day
And then the light faded. Rowena leaned over the remains of the control panel, her weight on Amira’s gun. Amira looked around nervously.
Lightning still struck out from the machine. “Did it work?” Amira asked. Very slowly, it became clear that the lightning was becoming less frequent.
A smile spread across Rowena’s face. “I think it did,” she said softly. Then, louder, she shouted, “It worked!” She and Amira tried to high-five each other but missed. There was jubilation among the other slayers on the platform as well. Rowena picked up the satellite phone.
“Cleveland,” she said softly. “We’re good. Allister out.” Then she slumped to the platform, eyes staring up at the suddenly very blue sky. There was now a crater around the Uncreation Machine for a quarter mile in every direction. It still sporadically produced bolts of lightning.
Below them, Dawn peeked her head up from her hole.
“What just happened?” Jeff asked.
Council HQ – Command Center – Night
The room burst into applause. Willow and Kennedy hugged each other and started jumping up and down in unison. Buffy and Grace locked eyes, and Buffy gave her a thumbs-up. Grace bit her lip during a smile and brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. She looked down at the floor and let out a long breath.
Thailand – Waterfall – Day
Lorinda tried to climb down the rocks next to the top of the waterfall, slipping on wet, black stone more than once. “Shannon!” she called. “Shannon!”
“I’m down here!”
Lorinda leaned carefully backwards and saw Shannon, hanging from a rock a few yards down and about six feet over. Water poured down on either side of her, and she was drenched.
“I’m coming,” Lorinda called.
She made her way down the cliff face, and in a few moments she was on a ledge on approximately the same level as Shannon. She edged toward the water, gripping the cliff face with one hand and stretching out the other towards Shannon. Shannon reached with one hand and grabbed Lorinda.
Shannon swung over through the edge of the waterfall and landed on a slick rock. Her feet slipped for a moment before her hands found purchase on the black stone of the cliff face.
For several seconds, both girls stood there, clinging to the rocks. Shannon was dripping wet, and Lorinda’s face was bloody and bruised. Then Shannon broke into a grin. She started laughing, and she couldn’t stop.
Lorinda looked at her, almost in horror. “What?”
“I hate you so much,” Shannon said, gasping because she was laughing so hard. Lorinda stared at her for a moment then burst out laughing herself.
“Yeah, I hate you, too.”
A lush valley stretched out beneath them, untouched by the chaos upriver. Laughter echoed off its walls.
Two Days Later
Bangkok – Airport – Day
Lorinda, Shannon, and Rowena walked across the tarmac together. Ahead of them loomed a jet with a Council shield on its tail, its engines cycling up. Lorinda pulled a cart loaded with luggage. The cuts and bruises on the three women had already faded slightly, and they had been given a chance to shower. Closer to the plane, Dawn pushed Jeff in a wheelchair.
“So you must have been wrong,” Shannon said. “The Scythe wasn’t what was keeping the slayer spell going.”
“Evidently,” Rowena said. “Still, I’m surprised. And you said that you felt weak for a moment.”
“This is my stop,” Lorinda said. She halted and turned to the other two women. “My boyfriend sent me a ride.” She pointed to another plane taxiing towards them. The crest on the tail was that of the British royal family. Shannon just sighed and shook her head.
Lorinda turned to Rowena. “Look, I don’t know exactly what happened out there, but as far as I can tell, our lives were saved because your wife loves you more than puppies and pancakes combined. Which is creepy.”
Rowena stared at this girl for a moment. Then she extended a hand. “Goodbye, Slayer Sheparton.”
“Bye,” Lorinda said, and they shook hands. She turned to Shannon, hand still out-stretched. There was an awkward moment. Shannon finally reached out and grabbed Lorinda’s hand. The two shook hands, once. Lorinda turned and loaded two large bags off the cart. Then she looked back up at Shannon.
“Look, guys are mostly the same. If you need any advice…”
“God, what is it with you?!” Shannon exclaimed. “I’m not consulting you on my sex life.”
“Why not? I’m sure that Normie would enjoy it.”
“If Norman cared about that, he’d be with you. It’s not like you never tried.”
“I have a natural smoky magnetism.”
Lorinda sounded angry, but she had a huge grin on her face. So did Shannon.
“No, you don’t. You have a natural smoky sluttiness.”
“That’s Princess Sluttiness to you.”
Rowena crossed her arms, ran a finger over the bridge of her nose, and waited for them to finish.
Cleveland – Hopkins International Airport – Day
The returning group emerged from the breezeway into the antiseptic world of the airport terminal, eyes drooping and muscles clenched from the long flight.
Their families were waiting for them. Willow had brought the whole passel of children. She waited a respectful distance away, with the kids stumbling impatiently around her ankles with Jake dozing while strapped into a racecar stroller. Ro stopped briefly at the breezeway exit, taking in her family, Willow’s big eyes, and small smile. Then she stepped forward, and the two women met in a long, quiet embrace. After a moment, Rowena felt several tugs at her pant-legs and stooped down to scoop up Jen in her arms.
Jeff was next, wheeled in a chair by a burly airport security guard. Grace rushed toward him, hand over her mouth. “Oh, poor baby!”
“It’s okay,” Jeff said. “I’ll be all right. We’ll make it work.”
“Well, of course we’ll make it work,” Grace told him. “What were you thinking, trekking into a Burroughs novel like that, Jeff? You can’t just –”
Jeff raised his good arm and took Grace’s hand. “No, listen, I mean, we’ll make everything work. You should be happy.”
A tear threatened to dive off of Grace’s cheek, and she kissed him on the forehead.
Dawn took two steps out from the breezeway, and Skye was there, kissing her. A lot. The others stopped their sweet reunions for just a few moments, their attention drawn by the continuing smacking sounds as the two of them made out with each other. Their eyes closed, oblivious to the world around them.
Shannon found this scene waiting for her when she emerged. Her cheeks shaded red as she stepped around them. When she had gotten a comfortable distance into the airport, she craned her neck in two or three different directions, obviously hoping to find somebody specific. But she didn’t find who she was looking for.
Council HQ – Lobby – Night
Buffy waited in the lobby as the group entered. She hugged Rowena and exchanged greetings with the others as they filtered past. Shannon brought up the rear. She saw Buffy and then glanced away. She couldn’t bring herself to look again.
“I heard what happened out there,” Buffy said. “Or at least some of it. Deeds and daring-do.”
Shannon kept her focus on her own feet. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“Don’t be,” Buffy told her. “You did your job. You stopped the world from ending. What’s one shiny ax thing against the world?”
“He beat me,” Shannon said.
“And you think he wouldn’t have beaten me?” Buffy replied. “Look, the Scythe was kinda awkward anyway. I had trouble finding an ensemble that really went with it.”
Shannon risked a look up at Buffy, who met her with encouraging eyes. She nodded.
“Sometime soon, you and I should get together and pick out something new to pass down through the generations. Maybe a fun bracelet?”
Shannon burst out laughing at her boss.
Council HQ – Lounge – Night
Norman sat in a big easy chair in the Council lounge. The only light on was a stand-up lamp in the corner. He took a sip from a bottle of Bell’s Ale. On the TV, Hadley Ramirez belted out the final notes of the national anthem as basketball players waited patiently at courtside.
“You weren’t at the airport.” Shannon leaned against the doorframe, her face lit gold.
Norman muted the TV and stretched his neck to look at her over the back of his chair. “I didn’t want to crowd you.”
Shannon walked over to Norman’s chair. She put one of her hands over one of his and smiled. “Norm, a word of advice about us girls. Right after we’re stranded in the jungle for a week, we don’t worry so much about our boyfriend crowding us. Whatcha watchin’?”
“Oh, just…tall people and pop singers. You ever think about switching to singing like Hadley? Probably doesn’t involve as many helicopter crashes.”
She shrugged. “You’d be surprised. But I don’t have the pipes she’s got. And anyway, I’m happy right here.”
As Norman took another sip of his beer, Shannon stepped in front of the TV and dropped to one knee. She produced a small black jewelry box and presented it. He almost choked.
Shannon grinned as Norman set down his bottle and tried to swallow. “You okay?”
“Well, I, uh, I tell you what,” Norman said, recovering. “You’re full of surprises.”
Shannon opened the box. Inside was a small gold ring. Two entwined gold dragons held a tiny green stone in their mouths.
“It’s-it’s not real,” she said. “I bought it at the airport in Bangkok. I just needed a prop so I could ask you…will you marry me?”
Norman shook his head. “But…but I thought…”
Shannon looked down at the floor for a moment then back up at Norman. “Yeah. But you know slayers. We’ve got thick heads.”
“Yeah, I know,” Norman said. He threw up his hands. “Heck with it. Of course I’ll marry you.”
Shannon got up, and her smile grew wide and wicked. She leaned over Norman, resting one knee on the chair between his legs. She kissed him, hard, for several seconds.
London – Kensington Gardens – Day
Lorinda walked past a security guard and down a couple of steps. She entered a spectacular and well-groomed garden, walking down flagstone paths between rows of brightly colored plants. She ignored the flowers of every color, concentrating on the young man sitting on a bench up ahead.
The Prince got to his feet when he saw her coming, a big smile on his face. He stretched out his arms to welcome her. “Lorinda!”
“Hi, Alfie,” she said. He hugged her, and she squeezed him back. Her face was friendly, but her eyes had something else in them, something wistful.
“I was so worried,” he said when he pulled back. He still held both her hands in his, but after a moment she pulled away.
“Well, you shouldn’t have been,” she said. “You might say I was in my element, as it turns out.” She offered him a wan smile. “We all learned lots about ourselves, in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.”
She was cut off by a brief kiss from the Prince, which almost startled her. He held her face in his hands. “I’ve been thinking, too,” he said. “And ‘Rinda –”
“Don’t!” she interrupted him. He dropped his hands. There was an awkward moment. “Don’t…call me that,” she said, more softly.
“Right,” he sighed. “Sorry. Well, like I said, I’ve been thinking. And you were right, I haven’t been fair to you. Your career is, well, it’s a part of you, and if I want us to take the next step, I need to accept that. And I do want us to take the next step.”
“The next…?” Lorinda began, but she trailed off when the Prince got down on one knee in front of her. He reached inside his sport jacket and pulled out a small purple jewelry box. Lorinda swallowed nervously. “Alfie…”
“You make my life almost more interesting than I can handle. Which is saying something because most people would consider my life quite a bit interesting. I want to keep you around. So, to sum up…Lorinda Sheparton, how would you like to be a princess?” He opened the box and revealed a ring completely encrusted in diamonds, set with another gigantic, glittering diamond at its center.
Lorinda blinked several times. Then, slowly, she began to shake her head. “Nah, I can’t.”
The Prince stayed on one knee, but his eyebrows went sky-high. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Look, I’m sorry,” she told him, “but you’re not the guy. I look out primarily for number one, and that includes not marrying a guy who’s not the guy. Sorry.”
“Not the…” Alfred could barely get the words out. “Is there…is there someone else?”
She seemed to genuinely consider this, but then shook her head. “Not an available someone. And anyway, he’s not the point. Maybe there is no guy. I could live with that. You know what I am, Alfie? I’m diabolical. I scheme. Sometimes even against myself. Which is what I think is maybe what’s been happening. I’m a badass, and no matter how much you may want a badass for purposes of, well, screwing, you don’t want one for a princess, which is why you’re not the guy.”
“Lorinda…what?” Alfred stood up, his mouth hanging open. He threw up his arms. “I’m a Prince. And you’re – you’re turning me down.” He pointed indignantly to his chest. “You’re turning me down?”
She patted him patronizingly on one shoulder. “You’ll get over it, Alfie.” Then she turned and walked away.
He pointed at her retreating form. “You – you can’t just…Bloody hell, woman!”
She smirked, not turning around. “Well, they always said I was trouble.”
Thailand – Ravana Refugee Camp – Hospital – Day
The old monk tipped a tin cup of water into the mouth of a young Ravana girl. Her eyes had very little life in them, and there were only two or three sips worth of water in the cup. He adjusted her sheets, sighing as he looked down at her. Then he heard a yell from outside. He rushed to the door and looked out of the screen. He smiled at what he saw.
Thailand – Ravana Refugee Camp – Moments Later
The old monk walked up behind the shoulder of the young Ravana boy named Ni, who was pointing at something. Just outside the camp, a large cargo helicopter was setting down. It had a long, camouflage-painted body, and two rotors, one in front, one in back. Another, similar helicopter was coming in for a landing nearby.
“I told you’d they’d come back,” the child said in Ravana.
The rotors of the helicopter spun down, and a ramp lowered from the back. Andrew Wells walked down the ramp, wearing a khaki uniform with a Council symbol embossed on the pocket. He waved over his shoulder. “Let’s do this, people.”
Several girls followed from inside the helicopter, hauling large boxes full of supplies out into the village. They were mobbed by Ravana children.
Tracey walked up behind Andrew, wearing a similar uniform. She had a pistol holstered at her hip, where everyone could see it.
“Easy to forget they tried to end the world,” she said, arms crossed over her chest.
“Eh, so have human beings, and we help them,” Andrew said. “I think it’s nice.” He took a deep breath. “And so the Hometree was saved, and the soldiers and Na’Vi lived in harmony for the rest of their days.”
Tracey slapped him hard on the back. “Don’t push it, Honey,” she said and then walked back into the cargo hold.
On the side of the helicopter, the words “Millennium Falcon” were painted in black.
Council HQ – Hallway – Day
Willow and Rowena walked together down the hallway to the coven room.
“I’m serious,” Willow said, “I don’t hafta hafta go to Greece. It’s a nice to have. Well, a really nice to have. But you and the kids really are my priority.”
Rowena raised a hand to gently touch Willow’s elbow. “I know. And look, if I can’t watch them, we’ve got a 24/7 day care and a Council full of super-powered babysitters, okay?”
The two of them stopped outside the coven room. Willow put her hands on her hips. “That’s not the worry, Ro. You know what I’m talking about.”
Rowena sighed. “Yeah. Maybe I’ll always be a teensy bit insecure. It’s easy to forget when you’re off hanging out with snake goddesses that…you and I, we’re special. We’ll always find our way back, won’t we?”
Willow smiled, and after long moment, she pointed to the coven room door. “Let’s go in.”
“Okay,” Rowena nodded.
Council HQ – Coven Room – Day
“And then I was fine, like nothing had happened,” Shannon finished. She was sitting on one of the mats on the floor of the coven room, with Willow, Dawn, Skye, and Rowena listening intently around her. Shannon shook her head. “God, I feel like such a loser.”
“What?” Dawn asked, forehead wrinkled in disbelief. “Shannon, you saved the frickin’ world.”
“The Scythe’s been around since the beginning of time, and I screwed things up,” Shannon said. “Lots of people here have saved the world. I’m the only one to lose the Scythe.”
Skye nodded. “It does seem like this is gonna be at the top of your Wikipedia entry.” Shannon glared at her. Skye shrugged. “Sorry.”
“I guess I’m missing something,” Willow said as gently as possible. “So, it completely disintegrated?”
Shannon nodded. “I saw the whole thing. Sort of in slow motion, like the worst instant replay ever.”
“Does that mean something?” Rowena asked Willow.
Willow shrugged. “Well, we thought it did, but maybe not. I mean, if that doesn’t reverse the slayer spell, I don’t know what will. Which only goes to show how badass I am.”
Rowena gave her wife an ‘I’m on to you’ half-smile; then she turned to Shannon. “You said you did feel weak for a moment, but then it went away?” Shannon nodded, and Rowena raised an eyebrow. “Well, I guess the activation spell released all of the slayer force, leaving the Scythe just a weapon.”
“A very shiny weapon,” Dawn pointed out.
Skye giggled. “Wait, go back. There’s a ‘slayer force?’ Just like I was ‘vampified’?”
“I’m bad at naming things,” Rowena said defensively.
Willow grinned at this and put one hand up to pretend to shield her mouth from Rowena. “I came up with the names for our kids,” she stage-whispered.
Shannon did not join in the levity. Her expressions showed that her mind was elsewhere. “I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, when I held it, I felt something, like I was part of this, like, chain. Like I was always meant to hold it.”
“Well, sometimes we all feel that way,” Dawn said. “People tear up just from hearing the National Anthem or from walking by the names on the slayer wall. If nobody follows it, a flag is just a flag. What if the Scythe was just a Scythe, and its power was given to it by the slayer that held it rather than the other way around?”
Rowena sighed. “I guess we’ll never know.” She checked her watch then turned to her wife. “Hey, we’ve got that other meeting.” To Shannon she said, “Look we’ve got to go, but don’t blame yourself. Sometimes destiny wins one.”
Council HQ – Buffy’s Office – Day
“I’m trying to be on board here, Buffy, really I am, just…” Willow took a deep breath. “We’re not talking about Student Council President here. This is the Chair of the Watchers Council.”
Buffy, Willow, and Rowena sat around a table in the Chairwoman’s office. There was a two-liter of Coke and multiple boxes of Oreos on the table. Buffy took a sip from a red plastic cup, swallowed, and set it down on the desk. “I wish it was Student Council President. Look, guys, I’m serious about this. Are you okay with it or not?”
“I think Willow’s just surprised,” Rowena said. “She’s great, I’d be the first to say it, but…when did she even get on the list?”
“I went off the list,” Buffy said.
“I appreciate taking a more holistic approach,” Willow said. “But…”
“A what now?” Buffy asked blankly.
Willow sighed. “Look, if you didn’t find somebody in Cleveland, we can go other places. What about Frances Abikwelu?”
“You don’t even know her,” Buffy pointed out.
“I do so know her!” Willow insisted. “She’s self-involved, immature, and doesn’t have what the Japanese like to call ‘people skills’.”
Rowena raised an eyebrow at this. “I wouldn’t say that…though Frances Abikwelu has really brought that Johannesburg branch to a whole different –”
Buffy grabbed an Oreo from the box and held it up for everybody to see. “Do you guys trust me?”
Willow swallowed, her eyes flicking down and back up. “More than anybody.” Rowena nodded in agreement.
“Then it’s settled,” Buffy said. She put both hands on the Oreo and gave it a twist. It came away with the filling equal on both sides. She handed one half each to Willow and Rowena.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know there was already somebody here.”
They all turned to see Grace standing in the doorway. Willow looked at her half of the Oreo and said, “It’s okay, we were just leaving.” Then she popped it into her mouth and chewed.
Council HQ – Buffy’s Office – Minutes Later
Buffy had moved behind her desk. The spot on the wall behind her where the Scythe had been now had a framed newspaper picture of slayers posing with a group of children in an African village. Across from her, Grace wasn’t quite able to sit still. She wore a shirt decorated with the words “Resistance is Futile”, beneath which, in smaller text, was written “(if <1 ohm)”.
“You want a Coke?” Buffy asked.
“No, I’m, uh, I’m good, actually.” Grace took a breath, put both feet on the floor, and leaned forward. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something.”
“Yeah?” Buffy asked. “Me too, actually. But you first.”
Grace flashed her an awkward smile. “Nah, you first.”
“No, really, I’m always here, and you’re the one who made the appointment,” Buffy pointed out. “You first.”
“You’re the Chairwoman,” Grace said. “You should go first.”
Buffy sighed and held up her hands in defeat. “That’s just it, y’know. I’m the Chairwoman. But, Grace, what if you were?”
Grace made a noise that sounded like “Humnu?”
“I know this is sort of out of the blue.” Buffy cocked her head, thinking about this. “The blue what? Sky? Ocean?” She shook her head and leaned forward, elbows on the desk. “It’s a tough job, and honestly I really don’t think I should be the one doing this anymore. This job isn’t about the paperwork, or lobbying, or, you know, getting invited to red carpet official dinners with caviar – although I will miss that. Anyway, it’s about saving the world, and I have no doubt about you being able to do that because I’ve seen you do it.”
Grace was stock-still now, hands tightly gripping the armrests of her chair to keep from falling out of it.
Buffy leaned over and started rummaging through one of her desk drawers. “You don’t think you’ve got the whole package, but you do. You don’t know how to recognize it, but it’s there.”
Grace managed a spacey nod.
She pulled out a very thick green binder, much dog-eared from use over the years. “You don’t have to answer right away. Rowena gave this to me when I took over from her, and I’ve tried to update it as circumstances have changed. Take a look at it, and if you think you’re ready for this, let me know.”
Grace silently accepted the binder and let it rest in her lap.
“So, you had something you wanted to tell me?” Buffy asked.
Very slowly at first, then speeding up, Grace shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“Well, okay then,” Buffy said.
Council HQ – Hallway – Minutes Later
Grace closed the door to Buffy’s office behind her. She leaned back against it, her knees weak, the thick green binder clutched to her chest with both hands. She took several hard breaths. Then: “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”
She dropped her arms, and very slowly a smile appeared on her face. The light changed on her cheeks, from bright spring to warm summer.
When she stepped away from the door and walked away down the hall, she was no longer holding the binder and her t-shirt and jeans had been exchanged for her nicest dress.
Council HQ – Front Lobby – Day
Grace walked into the front lobby of the Watchers Council to find a familiar group of people sitting and chatting in the visitor waiting area. The handicapped doors at the front were propped open, and the glass through which the front lawn could usually be seen was covered with banners decorated with the Council coat of arms.
“Oh, she’s here, the lady of the hour!” Grace saw Dianna, wearing a green satin dress, get up from her chair and rush over towards her.
“Hi Mom,” Grace said with a slightly put-upon tone. She accepted her mother’s hug, a little uncomfortable.
When Dianna pulled back, she was beaming. “I told you it was only a matter of time, didn’t I? You just needed to work your way up a little, go on a few donut runs, and now you’re Rowena Allister’s boss instead of the other way around.”
“I seriously doubt that was what you said, Dianna.” A tall, burly man with a bushy beard on a kind face walked up to them wearing a bow tie. Next to him stood Jeff, awkwardly wearing his own suit and tie.
Grace threw her arms around the bearded man. “I wasn’t sure you’d come, Dad.”
“What, and miss this?” he said. “Someone has to stand behind you out there and weep majestically.”
She pulled back with a grin. “Is that even possible?”
“I’ve been practicing,” her father assured her.
Dianna snorted. “I’m sure you have, Daniel. You’ve got plenty of time, out in the woods working on your novel. How many years have you been working on that bloody thing?”
“Genius requires patience, woman,” Daniel said. “Something you have rarely exhibited.”
“Yes, how have I lived without your genius?” Dianna shot back.
Grace and Jeff ignored her bickering parents. “You look great?” he said.
“So do you,” she replied. They pecked each other on the lips.
“You ready for this?” Jeff asked.
She licked her lips and nodded. “A day may come when the courage of men fails, but it is not this day.”
Jeff put a hand on her shoulder and smiled. “I’m gonna take that as a yes. Let’s do it!”
Grace took a deep breath and walked steadily towards the front doors, head held high. Jeff pushed her parents along behind her. She pushed her way out between white Council banners and out into nearly blinding sunlight. The front lawn of the Watchers Council was completely covered with people, and there were more beyond the gates. In the front, some seating was set up, filled with Council people, and behind that there was a platform covered with television cameras.
As one, the assembled crowd stood and cheered. Cheered for her. Grace’s eyes widened. She wobbled a little, but Jeff caught hold of her under her arm. The two of them exchanged smiles.
Buffy was also applauding from where she stood at a podium atop the front steps of the Council. Jeff led Grace over to her, slowly because Grace was having to hold up the hem of her dress with one hand. He held back and let her go the last few steps on her own.
Buffy leaned over and whispered in Grace’s ear. “Bear with me, I’m new at this, too. We didn’t make a big deal like this when I took over.”
“These days ya gotta put on a show,” Grace replied.
Buffy took a step back so that both of them could face each other behind the podium.
“Raise your right hand and repeat after me,” Buffy said, loud enough that the microphone could pick it up.
Grace breathed out through her mouth then raised her right hand.
Council HQ – Main Meeting Room – Day
The Chair’s wooden gavel banged down onto its base.
“All right, party time,” Grace said from the center of the main table. “Kennedy, I hear you have many fascinating reports from the field.”
Buffy watched the proceedings from her position leaning against the front wall of the room, arms crossed.
Kennedy, sitting to Grace’s right, flipped through a stack of manila folders. “Yeah, there was a nest of vampires found and staked by Chamique’s team last night in the Gold Coast. Very nice apartment building, the neighbors may be calling you.”
“To complain or to thank us?” Grace asked. Kennedy shrugged. Grace sighed and turned to Rowena. “A little posh for your average vamp orgy. Maybe send the minions a-scurryin’?”
“I didn’t say it was an orgy!” Kennedy pointed out indignantly.
“I was embellishing for dramatic effect,” Grace told her. “More attention grabbing.”
“We’ll look into it,” Rowena said, sounding a bit tired.
“Okay, next thing,” Grace said. “Oh look, this one involves dryads. Very exciting…”
As Grace spoke, Buffy silently slipped out the door.
Council HQ – Hallway – Moments Later
Xander was waiting for her in the hall. “Everything shipshape?” he asked.
Buffy nodded. “Mission accomplished. I’m now completely unnecessary.” She bit her lip and looked down.
Xander shuffled his feet before very suddenly looking up and saying, “You’re not unnecessary.”
Buffy suppressed a grin. “Thanks.” She coiled her arm around his, and they walked off down the empty hallway. Daylight streamed through doors at the far end. She leaned her head against her shoulder. “Y’know, I think I could really get into being some slayer’s watcher.”
Xander let out a loud laugh. Buffy pulled her head away and looked up at him. “What?”
Cleveland – Old Stone Church – Day
A massive organ belted out “Here Comes the Bride” as Shannon inched down the center aisle of a large church in a huge, white, frilly dress. The church was ancient by Cleveland standards, with walls built from sandstone and lined with mid-1800s stained glass depictions of religious scenes. Robin Wood walked beside her. Shannon kept a death grip on his wrist with a gloved hand. If the slayer-level squeezing bothered Robin, he didn’t show it.
The pews were packed. All the slayers were sitting in a big group on the left. They all stood, clapping, cheering, and generally making a scene. Casey led the cheering, wearing a red eye-patch that went with her dress. Shannon flashed them a nervous smile. Joelle Hansen shot this ruckus a disapproving look from the front row on the right. She wore a very large hat and sat with her husband. Shannon’s family sat right across from them. Her brothers beamed proudly, but her mother mostly just looked harried.
Norman waited up by the altar, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. Shannon’s bridesmaids lined up, wearing bright yellow dresses that weren’t really practical for humans. Dawn stood in the spot reserved for the Maid of Honor, Skye just behind her. The vampire gave Shannon a thumbs-up and seemed generally unfazed by being inside a church. With them stood a gawky seventeen year old girl, Norman’s little sister. Xander and Jeff stood with Norman, all of them in tuxes.
Shannon reached the altar, ascending the steps at the front of the church only with Robin’s help. He withdrew to take his place behind Norman. Then the music ended, and the minister stepped forward. Norman and Shannon smiled at each other, and this time there wasn’t any awkwardness or mixed signals.
Somewhere on the bride’s side, Willow leaned over to Rowena. “Church weddings are so boring.”
Rowena giggled. “I’ve got enough squirmy kids to worry about, I don’t need you, too.” Their family took up most of the row. Rowena’s attention was drawn away when Jen Rosenberg tried to stand up on the pew to get a better view. “No, honey, get down…”
Shannon and Norman had begun their formal vows. They both repeated after the minister, standing by their partner for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.
Then, at the request of the minister, little Nikki Wood scampered forward holding a pillow with the gold wedding bands on top. The congregation let out a collective “Awww…”
Norman slipped the ring on Shannon’s finger, and she returned the favor.
“I now declare you man and wife,” the minister announced. “You may kiss the bride.”
What followed might have been considered inordinately sweet and chaste, had it not gone on for quite so long. It was met with a sitcom-style “Wooooo!” from the slayer section.
Cleveland – The Flats – Night
On a well-appointed outdoor patio tucked into a hard bend in the Cuyahoga River, the wedding reception was in full swing. Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Rowena all sat and chatted at one table, with a collection of kids at the next table chatting somewhat more excitedly.
Casey and Grace were standing by a table of hors d’oeuvres, trying to fit into the same frame of a video camera held by a rather put-upon wedding photographer.
“Look, Shannon,” Casey was saying, “the key is, when you’re on the honeymoon, right, there’s a bit ya do with your tongue. Some people can’t, but I’ve got the recessive gene, and all you have to –”
Grace elbowed her in the side. “I think we’re getting off topic. Congratulations, guys!” She waved vigorously at the camera.
Casey gave her friend a sidelong glance. “You were more fun when you didn’t have a life, you know that?”
Andrew and Tracey were seated at a table with Kennedy and Kadin, playing with the tall glasses filled with shrimp cocktail.
“We’ve actually been making big strides in L.A.,” Andrew said. He took a swig from his champagne, surprisingly debonair. “Like, um, you know there’s an entire species of demon that likes to hang around the dumpsters behind Winkies diners? We’re always learning.”
“Have you guys hooked up with Angel and his gang at all?” Kennedy asked, trying to seem nonchalant. “Not that I, y’know, care personally, but…”
Andrew put down his champagne. “We, ah, well, it’s a long story…”
Tracey cut in. “More importantly, how are you doing? You know, with…everything.”
Kennedy shrugged. “Better. A lot better, actually. Running a branch of the Council keeps ya surprisingly busy.”
Kadin slid an arm around Kennedy’s shoulders. “But not too busy.”
“No, it’s really great,” Kennedy said, reaching for her glass. “Some days it’s actually a nine-to-five job, if you’d believe it. And other things are getting – Dammit!”
She’d missed her mouth with her champagne glass, pouring it all over the front of her dress. Kadin tried not to laugh as she reached for a napkin. “It’s okay, I don’t think it’s too bad.”
“Now my boobs are cold!” Kennedy whined.
Andrew choked on his own champagne, earning him a glare from Tracey. He covered with a coughing fit. “This is…this is good,” he managed.
Away from the hubbub, Shannon leaned over the railing separating the patio from the river. Still wearing her wedding dress, she took a long drag on a cigarette. Above her glittered the city skyline of Cleveland.
“I come all this way, and here you are lookin’ like the cover of a bad punk album. How ya doin’?”
“Five by five,” Shannon said. Faith settled up against the rail next to her. Shannon held out her box of cigarettes, but Faith waved her off.
“I quit. So where’s the lucky guy? Aren’t you two contractually required to spend every waking moment with each other for the rest of your lives?”
“I just needed a break,” Shannon said. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “He’s probably still up near the stage if you want to find him. He is your son.”
Faith glanced back at the party, hesitating. “I, uh, don’t know if that’s –”
“Norm turned out great, y’know?” Shannon said. She flicked the remains of her cigarette into the river and turned to Faith. “All on his own, too.”
“Look, Kid –”
“I’m not a kid,” Shannon snapped. “You just haven’t been around in a while.” She turned to head back to the reception.
After a few steps she stopped then slowly turned back to Faith. “I really am glad you came, you know.” She extended a hand. “Come on, if you’re with me, it will be…slightly less weird. For one night I’m willing to forget this is your entire fault.”
Faith gave her a half-smile and took the hand she was offered. The two of them walked back into the party.
Cleveland – The Flats – Later
Up on stage, Grace tapped the mic, making sure it was on. The party went silent around her. “Okay, we know you all love Shannon and Norm, but I’m pretty sure this is the real reason we’ve got a full house. When some bints get famous, they just step on all the little people on their way to the top. But some, nicer, better people never forget where they came from, and this gal’s one of those, because she is here, now, as promised, Ladies and Gentlemen, Hadley Ramirez!”
Hadley, wearing a black-studded pop-star outfit and jeans, ran out on stage, accompanied by her backup band. She waved to the assembled crowd, which elicited wild cheering. “Where’s the happy couple?!”
Shannon and Norm were standing by a nearby table, arm in arm. “Congrats, guys! This is my new single, but tonight we’re gonna pretend that it’s just for you two, okay!”
Behind her, the piano started up, signaling the start of a gushy ballad. Hadley pulled the mic off of its stand and strode to the front of the stage. She crooned, low and sultry, “When I met you…I wasn’t sure/But now I see you’re everything worth fighting for…”
The dance floor resolved into a couples slow dance. Buffy let Xander lead her, hands around her waist. Willow and Rowena swayed together, staring into each other’s eyes. Kennedy and Kadin awkwardly tried to get into position, unsure whose arm went where. Grace rushed down to join Jeff below the stage, trying not to trip over her dress.
Giles and Becca watched from the sidelines with smiles on their faces. Then they tried their best to get out of the way as Andrew and Tracey tried to push past them. Young Martin Giles pulled his mortified pre-teen sister Liz Giles onto the dance floor, and Becca began to fish in her purse for a camera to take a picture.
“When we’re together, the world falls away/And I look at your eyes, and I just know I’ll be okay…”
And in the center of all of it, Norman and Shannon danced together. Their arms wrapped around each other, and Shannon smiled.
“If there’s one thing that I know/In my crazy, crazy, craaazy life/It’s that you’re the one. You’re the ooooone…”
Slow Fade to Black
Smash Cut To:
Thailand – Rainforest – Day
Strange animal noises filled the thick jungle air. By a babbling pool stood a tree with a slight, overgrown mound at its base. Roughly carved into the tree were two words: “Aileen Murdoch.”
Zooming forward through the forest, one whipped past dozens of giant trees. Far ahead stood a particularly large specimen, with something propped against its base.
It was the Scythe. It stood against the tree as if its owner had just left it there and planned to come right back for it. A ray of sunlight broke through the canopy and struck the silver ax.
End of Special Assignment
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