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~:: The Big Day ::~

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“A lot of work goes into planning a wedding,” the mother said with a somber nod to her daughter as the toiled alongside each other in the brightly lit kitchen. “Are you sure everything can be done by next week?”

“Mom, we just want a small ceremony with just the immediate family there. How much planning will that take?” The young redhead countered.

“What are you going to wear?”

“I already have a dress picked out at Icon. It’s in layaway. And Marcus has a tux,” the petite girl reached across the counter to retrieve a large bowl. With a practiced hand, she deftly scraped the diced tomatoes into the salad and with skilled flair, tossed the now complete mixture. “Salads done, where do you want this, Mom?”

“Just sit it on the table on the patio. I am planning on having dinner out there tonight.”

“Will there be enough room?”

“Sure. I will have Keres bring out the card table and chairs from the closet in the den.”

“I can do that, Daw…umm… DeLara,” Marcus offered as he poked his head into the kitchen.

“Just call me Mom, Marcus,” the fiery redhead admonished. Sheken’s eyes widened at the thought of her mother urging her fiancé to use such an endearing term towards her, in light of the fact that it was her mother who nearly had a hand in orchestrating his untimely demise.

Marcus merely smiled warmly and said “Okay, Mom,” as he ducked out to the kitchen to retrieve the requested furniture.

“Can I help, Aunt Vu?” Adara asked as she walked into the kitchen.

“Sure,” her aunt answered and tasked her with stirring the Jell-O until the gritty powder dissolved. “Don’t forget to add the cherries while it is still fairly warm. They are already drained, just dump them in.”

Adara looked up at the clock above the kitchen door. “I wonder what is taking my mother so long.”

Her aunt concentrated for a moment, tuning her empathic senses to her sister’s thoughts before breaking out into a salacious grin.

Sheken gave her mother a scowl. “I think she is…busy…comforting your father after the long stressful day,” Dawl answered coyly.

Adara nodded with a mildly embarrassed smile. She didn’t have to be given details to catch the implied meaning behind her aunt’s expression. “I hope they get here in time for dinner,” she said quietly.

“I am sure they will. If not, there will be plenty left and they can eat whenever they get here. We have lots of things to talk about, and plans to make. I am pretty sure no one will be going to bed early tonight.”

“No one but me,” Zakai laughed as he snatched a couple of pieces of lettuce from the salad bowl, earning a light-hearted slap on his wrist from his sister.

“Stay out of that, you can have some for dinner.”

He grinned and turned to his mother. “I have an exam in the morning, so I need to get at least a little sleep.”

“No problem, honey,” his mother said, soothingly. “I can pick out your tux and have Serge use your most recent measurements.”

“Tux?” he asked. “For…?”

“Your sister’s wedding.”

He blinked. “Okay. But won’t I have plenty of time to get a tux?”

“We want to get married next week, Zak,” his sister chimed in.

“Next WEEK? Like the weekend after this weekend?” She nodded as he gave her an incredulous look. “Are you crazy? How can you put together a wedding so quickly?”

“It’s easy,” she answered. “We plan to keep it simple. I already have a dress picked out. I just have to go pay it off when I get paid this week. Marcus got his tux last week. We want to have the wedding outdoors, with just the family and maybe a few close friends. Mom’s going to help me make up some invitations on the computer later, after dinner.”

“I am betting you find out there is a lot more to it than that. What about a reception?”

“We will just have a picnic after the wedding.”

“Sounds good. You already have the ceremony planned?”

“Not yet,” she answered with a frown. “I guess Marcus and I need to discuss what vows we want, and all that.”

“You could write your own,” he suggested brightly.

Marcus grimaced as he returned to the kitchen. “The card table is set up on the patio, Mom, with the chairs. I wasn’t sure where you wanted it but I can move it later if you like.” DawL nodded and murmured her thanks as Marcus turned to address Zakai, “I don’t know about that. I am not much of a writer.”

“You’re romantic, right?” Zakai asked him.

“I am Italian,” Marcus grinned. “Romantic is part of our DNA.”

Sheken laughed. “I’ll vouch for that,” she quipped as she gave his butt a playful squeeze. He gave her a funny look and nodded towards Adara, who was intently observing the animated conversation among her cousins.

“Oops, sorry Adara. I forgot you were in here.”

“It’s okay,” Adara answered. “It doesn’t bother me, really.”

“I can help you come up with something, if you’d like, Marcus,” Zakai offered.

“Sure, if that’s okay with Sheken.” She nodded and the two males wandered off in the direction of the den, where Zakai had ample writing materials.

Suddenly her mother turned to her with a serious look on her face. “Do you really think Marcus will forgive me?”

“I think he already has,” Sheken answered sincerely.

“What about you?” Dawl asked her daughter.

Sheken paused for a moment, reflecting on her feelings and on Azazela’s words that burned into her mind. Slowly she nodded, as she turned to face her mother. “Yes. Yes I do.”

Dawl reached up to put her arms around her daughter. “You know I love you and I only want the best for you. I am sorry I doubted Marcus. I see now that he really does love you – enough to give his life for you.”

Sheken gave her a puzzled look. “Az showed me everything,” her mother continued. “How he stopped Doctor Maritus from pulling you over the edge at the cost of falling himself.”

Her daughter gave her a shocked look. “He what?”

“It’s true,” Adara interjected. “That man had fallen over the edge and was holding on only by your horns, and Marcus held you down as long as he could, but when he realized you were sliding closer and closer he leaned down and pried the man loose. But when he did he lost his own balance and fell. I managed to teleport him back to a ledge, but then after Naimah threw you over the edge, I had to catch you, and well… Marcus used the ring to stop her from attacking us any further. The ring kind of…exploded with energy and blew him back off the ledge and I couldn’t catch him and hold on to you at the same time…” Tears misted in the tender-hearted child’s eyes as she relived that agonizing moment.

“Oh, Adara…” Sheken reached out and hugged her cousin.

“He really proved himself as a hero,” Dawl said quietly. “A true hero - one who would lay down his own life.” Tears welled in her sparkling green eyes.

Marcus poked his head around the corner, blushing furiously at being the topic of such conversation. “Sorry to interrupt, baby, but I really need your help, if you aren’t too busy?” Sheken nodded, looking at him in a whole new light. “Zakai was researching different types of vows and the structure of how they are written varies a lot based on the situation. I need your opinion on what we should write and what you want to say.”

“Sure, do you mind excusing me for a few, Mom?”

“Take your time, Sheken, I have it under control, and Adara is here to help me,” her mother answered, beaming. “You two will come up with something beautiful, I am sure of it.”

Sheken took his hand as he led her back to the den. Keres passed them with a nod on the way into the kitchen.

“I see the two lovebirds are busy getting ready for the big day,” he chuckled. Dawl smiled and nodded. “It’s so nice to see you aren’t trying to wrap your talons around his throat, or any other tender spots on his person,” Keres whispered in her ear.

She gave him a sad smile. “Even I can learn a tough lesson once in a while, you know,” she retorted.

Adara was quietly arranging some large dark cherries in the bottom of a glass dish in preparation for making the Jell-O. “That looks very pretty,” her aunt said, encouragingly. She smiled, “Thanks, Aunt Vu.”

Keres grinned. “That reminds me, where’s Cale and Az?” Dawl gave him a lusty grin and he responded with “Oh, okay. I guess it won’t hurt if they are a bit late to dinner.”

Adara blushed softly as she intently focused on the epicurean work of art she was creating. Dawl left the kitchen to ferry another stack of dinnerware out to the patio. Keres returned to the den to find the trio hard at work on the vows for the wedding. He sat down across from them and directed his speech to Sheken and Marcus. “I am very proud of both of you. I am especially impressed with you, Marcus, more so than Sheken because she’s been raised in a family of heroes. I know what you had to go through to get to where you are now, and to tell you the truth… at first I had my doubts. Not anymore. I know you love her and will do whatever you can for her. Sheken, I hope you take your love for this man just as seriously. Don’t forget that marriage is two people caring for each other. Remember that you need to think of Marcus the same way he will be thinking of you and putting you before himself. If you both do that, it will be smooth sailing. Just remind yourself every day what made you fall in love with each other.”

Sheken smiled and nodded and nuzzled up to Marcus. Marcus reached forth a hand to the brawny scrapper and shook with a vigorous grip. “Your approval means a lot to me. To both of us,” he added, giving his beloved a tender smile.

“Keres,” Sheken began shyly, “you’ve always been there for me, ever since I was a little kid. I know my father loves me in his own way, but he’s been gone most of the time, and I barely know him. I am really closer to you and if you wouldn’t mind…” she paused with a shy smile. “I would… we would… like you to give me away at the wedding.”

He beamed at the thought. “I am honored that you asked. Of course I will.”

Marcus turned to Zakai. “I have a question for you, Zakai,” he began slowly. “Would you like to be my best man?”

Zakai blushed. “Of course I will. I guess I need to see about getting a tux in the right colors.”

Sheken rolled her eyes. “If I know Mom, she has already planned for this and has just the right tux on reserve,” she quipped.

“Has what planned?” Dawl entered the den, wiping her hands dry on the back of her very short shorts.

Zakai smiled. “Marcus wants me to be his best man.”

“Oh, well that won’t be a problem. I am sure Serge can come up with just the right tux for you. I think he has one just like the one Marcus has in silver that would…”

Sheken raised her eyebrows. “Wait a minute… how do you know what kind of tux Marcus has?”

Dawl blushed, “Well, while you both ran home to umm… change into some other clothes… I stopped by to see Serge before I took the tram to back here. He said he’d sold Marcus a tux the week before last, and had a beautiful dress that you’d put on layaway until this coming week.” She grinned, “You did a great job picking it out, it is gorgeous!”

“Mom,” Sheken cried. “You weren’t supposed to SEE it yet.”

“No, honey, that’s Marcus that isn’t supposed to see it,” her mother answered.

Sheken sighed deeply and gave Marcus a shrug of frustration. “It’s okay,” he soothed, and turned to Dawl to add, “I appreciate your help.”

“You need a maid of honor,” Keres said to Sheken. “Did you have anyone in mind?”

“Actually,” Sheken said, “I wanted to ask Karishka.”

Dawl smiled. “That would be very sweet. She will be happy for you, I am sure.”

Sheken grabbed a piece of paper from Zakai’s binder and began to write a list. “I want to invite Shandie, and Inari, a girl I met at the bookstore. Should you call Plucky and see if Tan and Song can come too?”

Her mother sighed. “This is getting bigger and bigger, and it is on very little notice. I can call around but it is very likely that other people have plans.”

Marcus squeezed Sheken’s hand. “As long as you can make it, I’m happy,” he joked.

“Did you finish the vows?” Dawl asked.

“Not quite,” Sheken answered before the males could get a word in.

Marcus was fairly certain they were finished but his little bride had other ideas. At the rate she was adding things the simple wedding ceremony would last for hours, he thought with an amused grin.

“Okay,” Keres said, “you kids get back to work on the vows and Dawl and I will finish dinner.” He shot the voluptuous redhead a lusty wink.

She giggled and they headed back to the kitchen as the trio of young heroes sat huddled over the books on the low table.

Keres cupped her soft bottom as they burst laughingly into the kitchen and found a startled Adara still intricately arranging cherries that she’d opened with a small knife to form little roses in the Jell-o.

He blushed and nodded at the adolescent before explaining, “I forgot you were in here. That’s beautiful,” he added in awe.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Dawl asked her young niece.

“I just like to cook up fancy dishes and make them look pretty. One of the Maven’s at school likes to cook and sometimes after classes she lets us hang around and she teaches us… things.”

“That’s very nice, Adara,” Dawl encouraged her.

“Thanks,” she blushed.

Once the roses were gently surrounded by some warm Jell-O, they put the dish in the refrigerator to set and headed out to the patio with the remainder of dinner. Adara set the tables and folded the soft paper napkins into lovely little shapes, placing one on each plate. Dawl cut some miniature roses from the window box along the ledge and placed them in a small crystal vase in the center of the table the food was laid out on. The simple dinner was turning out to resemble a feast fit for a royal occasion.

They were already well through the first course when a breathless Azazela showed up, with her smiling mate in tow. He threw his arms around his daughter and just held her for some time before he murmured in her ear, “You have no idea how proud I am of you.” She beamed. Nothing made her happier than her father’s approval. Az smiled. Adara loved her mother with all her heart but she was definitely a daddy’s girl.

“I am sorry we were delayed,” Az spoke to her sister in a hushed tone.

Dawl gave her a knowing grin. “S’ok. I am sure you were quite busy.” She punctuated the word ‘busy’ with a soft snicker.

Azazela blushed crimson and Cale just met Keres glance with wink and a satisfied grin. Once everyone had eaten their fill, the women cloistered in the kitchen to wash the dishes and the men retired to the den.

At first Marcus was uncomfortable as the lone outsider among the closely knit family. It didn’t take the men long to make him feel welcome, however. Zakai retrieved a deck of ancient cards and began to demonstrate his skill at reading fortunes, while Keres and Cale bantered back and forth over some political topic.

Marcus smiled and basked in the feeling of warm camaraderie. Friendship was something he’d never had in his life and he suddenly realized how good it really felt to be surrounded by the closeness of friends and family. It made his former life seem like nothing more than a bad dream.

Soon everyone was gathered in the den and Dawl had disappeared for a few minutes to answer the intruding buzz of the doorbell. When she returned, there was a man in a purple suit and a white fedora behind her bearing a large box. “You can set that down right over there, Frankie,” Dawl gestured. The dapper man who was following her put the box on the floor and pulled a small crowbar out of an inside pocket. Cracking the crate, he pulled out several bottles of champagne. Dawl rushed to the kitchen to retrieve a large tub full of ice in which to plunge the bottles. Frankie stuffed them down in the icy bath to chill. Turning to Dawl, he tipped his fedora. “D’ese is on the house,” he said, “Youse kids have a good wedding!”

Marcus nodded, feeling slightly uneasy at the thought of doing business with a man that was in all likelihood a mobster. Sheken merely smiled warmly. “Thanks, Frankie! That’s very sweet of you.”

Dawl nodded towards the kitchen, “There’s plenty of leftovers from dinner, Frankie. Would you like to stay?”

“No, ma’am, but thanks fer offerin’. I gots to get back to the store. I gots some important fellas stoppin’ by later for a little business meetin’. “

“You want to take some Jell-O?” she asked with a grin. “This is just the plain stuff, unfortunately, but it is very pretty and very tasty.”

He grinned. “Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt ta have just a smidge.” He held up his hand with thumb and finger an inch apart. She ducked into the kitchen and came back with a small clear plastic bowl with a perfect cherry rose suspended in the gelatin and topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

“Wow,” he marveled. “I ain’t seen nothin’ this fancy since we had us a big Family dinner at that swanky French joint in Faultline.” Dawl smiled. “Thanks for taking the time to drop these off.” “Anything for youse, toots,” he replied with a smile that bared a row of nearly perfect pearly white teeth. He winked as he cradled the plastic bowl in his hands and headed back out the door.

“I haven’t had champagne since…” Marcus dropped his voice as he thought back to the day he returned to live in Paragon City with the assistance of a very helpful DJ Zero.

Sheken blushed and looked at the floor. That day had been a complete disaster but it had brought them together and now that was all that mattered.

Keres grabbed a towel and hoisted one of the dripping icy bottles from their frigid bath. As he prepared to pop the cork, Dawl passed champagne flutes around to everyone, including Adara. Az gave a disapproving scowl but Cale squeezed her hand and muttered, “You were fine with letting her run off to the Rogue Isles. I think she can handle a sip of bubbly to toast her cousin’s marriage.” She met his eyes and nodded as the loud pop resounded throughout the den and the champagne began to flow.

“To the happy couple,” Keres raised a glass, “may their marriage be solid and their honeymoon be…” He trailed his voice as he looked over at Adara. “May their honeymoon be on us.” He winked at Marcus.

“Oh, wow, that’s… I’m just speechless…” Sheken sputtered with joy.

"Thank you,” Marcus said softly.

“Believe it or not, it was Dawl’s idea,” the scrapper said with a grin.

Dawl just smiled and looked at her only daughter. “I just want you to be happy, Sheken. That is all I have wanted since the first time I saw your precious little smile.” Tears started to form in the little empath’s green eyes.

“Oh, mom,” Sheken said, as she handed Marcus her champagne and hugged her mother.

“Have you decided where the wedding will be?” Zakai asked Marcus, in an attempt to break the emotional tension.

“Sheken wants an outdoor wedding," Marcus replied. "Maybe out on one of the northern islands here in Talos?”

“Ohh, perhaps the cove?” Dawl suggested.

Sheken gave her a rather uncomfortable look. The idea of getting married in the spot where she was both concieved and born just didn't sound right to her. “Well, I don’t know… We were thinking of Scylla Island, where they have that atoll, with a islet in the center that would make a lovely place for an evening wedding, with the sun setting behind us…”

“Sounds romantic,” Keres nodded. “Who’s going to marry you?”

Sheken and Marcus exchanged a startled glance. “I…guess we hadn’t thought of that yet,” she answered.

Cale raised his champagne flute with a smile. “Well, you might find this amusing, but I happen to know an ordained minister.”

“Really?” Sheken asked excitedly. “Could you ask him if he’d marry us?”

Cale nodded, draining his bubbly. “Sure thing. First thing in the morning.”

A few hours later, the entire group was relaxed and sleepy, sans Zakai who retired early and Adara had already fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room. The two lovebirds were shooed off to bed by a slightly tipsy and giggling empath. “Go sleep in your old room, Sheken,” she said with a smirk. “I’ll change the linens tomorrow.” Keres shook his head with a laugh.

“I should be going,” Cale said. “It’s late.” Az nodded in tired agreement.

“You two can sleep in Az’s old room.” Dawl offered. He hesitated.

His abode was close enough that it took him mere seconds to traverse the distance. “I really should go home…”

“Adara’s already asleep. She’s got to return to Salamanca tomorrow.”

He nodded. “I know. She’s got schoolwork to make up. I guess we could sleep here and go with her in the morning.”

Dawl smiled. She rose from her perch on the edge of the kitchen counter and led them up to the room from which she’d summoned his lover on the day she introduced them.

The next morning the apartment was a flurry of activity. Zakai had left for classes very early, Dawl nursed a mild hangover, Keres was busy arranging a secluded mountain cabin for rental for the following week, and Sheken was calling to invite guests.

“Yes! I know, and we’ll be hand-delivering the invitations today, but I wanted to call because it’s short notice!” Then Sheken’s expression went from ecstatic to disappointed. “It’s okay,” she murmured. “I know it is late notice. I will send you some pictures. Hahaha, no not of the honeymoon!” she giggled. She hung up the phone with a sour expression. “Karishka can’t make it. She’s working out in the Shard and will be gone that whole week and can’t get back in time.”

“Did you ask Shandie or Inari?” Her mother queried.

“Shandie can come but she said she might be a bit late, by the time she gets off work,” Sheken said glumly. “I don’t know Inari that well… but…Mom… what would you think if I invited someone that wasn’t from here?”

“As in, from where?” her mother asked, giving her daughter a suspicious look.

“Well, what about Syn. She helped me get back home, and she is a close friend of Az…”

Her mother gave her a shocked look. “She’s… a succubus.”

Sheken nodded. “I know, mom. But that’s okay. She’s really nice.”

Az, Adara and Cale came walking into the kitchen as Dawl was shaking her head. “I really don’t know. And how would she get here?”

“How would who get here?” Cale asked curiously.

Dawl gave him a sour nod. “Morning, Cale. Sheken wants to ask this…Syn…to be her maid of honor, since Karishka can’t make it.”

He nodded uncomfortably. Having been intimately acquainted with one who own whose lineage included a lot of demonic DNA, he was not about to debate the merits of having a succubus as part of the wedding party with her own half-demon sister. He shrugged and took the cup of tea Keres offered him. He quickly accepted the scrapper’s invitation to join him in the den to look up some possible choices for the honeymoon location, knowing it was best to remain out of the line of fire during this particular discussion. Adara, catching the hint in her father's gaze, quietly followed her father.

"I need to call Father Riley, anyway," Cale nodded as he followed the scrapper out of the kitchen.

Az met her sister’s worried look. "DeLara, I can assure you that Syn is not a creature of evil. I know she cares deeply for Sheken, having risked her own safety to sneak both her and Marcus out of the Rogue Isles. I think she would be pleased and honored to be in the wedding," she continued, turning to Sheken.

"Can you ask her, Aunt Az?" Skeken asked with a hopeful smile as she bounced up and down excitedly.

"Of course," the towering angel replied as her niece embraced her in an exuberant hug.

Cale returned to the kitchen with a smile. "I called Father Riley. He said he'd love to officiate the happy occasion."

"Excuse me for a moment," Az murmured softly, as she phased into the timeless realm with a nod of her head.

"Gah, I hate it when she does that," her sister said with a roll of her eyes.

Cale nodded to Dawl and her daughter and made his way back to the den. There Adara was listening to Keres tell her about how pretty the mountains were in the fall as he finalized the rental of a cozy cabin with a heart shaped bathtub and a lovely deck that looked out over a crystal clear stream.

"Why would someone want a bathtub shaped like a heart?" Adara asked innocently. Cale opened his mouth to speak as he gave Keres a look of discomfort.


Azazela materialized quietly behind her mate, rubbing his shoulders. "Adara, some people find hearts to be a beautiful symbol of love, and a honeymoon is a celebration of love.”

Adara nodded, still not fully understanding the connection between a symbol of love and taking a bath.

Cale smiled and let out a silent breath of relief. Keres gave Az a warm smile and nodded in silent agreement at her tactful explanation.

Adara nodded and turned to her mother. "Did you and daddy have a honeymoon?"

Azazela turned to Cale and cocked one eyebrow as if to say "I will let you answer this question."

Cale bit his lower lip. Keres smiled and intervened. "I think your parents have done just as Dawl and I have over the years. There have been many trips we have taken together, spent celebrating our love for each other. None were officially a honeymoon, but each one was just as special."

"Does that mean you and Aunt Vu aren’t married?" Adara asked him with a surprised look.

"Actually, no" he said with a chuckle, "we never bothered to make it official. I guess we just knew we will always be partners and never thought we needed a ceremony or a piece of paper to convince us of that."

Adara turned to her father. "Why didn’t you and mommy get married?"

Cale blinked and swallowed a huge lump that was uncomfortably lodging itself in his throat. "I… umm… we…"

"Adara, we love each other and have been committed to each other for many years. As Keres said, there was no need for ceremony to reinforce that bond." Azazela stepped in to answer for her tongue-tied mate.

"But did you ever want a wedding, or a honeymoon, mom?" Adara’s curious nature was obviously in full bloom at the moment.

Her mother smiled patiently. "I really never gave it much thought. I had your father, who has been a devoted and faithful partner to me for many years. And we had you. I never really even considered wanting anything more than that."

Adara nodded and gave her mother a bright smile as she shifted conversational gears instantly with her usual aplomb. "Can you and daddy stay in Salamanca while I am in class so we can have dinner together again tonight?" Azazela looked questioningly at Cale.

He shrugged. "Sure, I don’t see why not. I have nothing important planned today."

"We should be going soon," Azazela prompted gently.

Cale nodded and motioned towards the kitchen. "We should go thank Vu for dinner and let her know we are leaving."

"Yes," the towering angel nodded, "and I must give Sheken the good news."

He thanked Keres for their hospitality. They entered the kitchen to find Dawl sitting at the table staring intently into a cup of coffee as she rubbed her temples lightly with a pair of carefully manicured talons. Sheken was arranging tiny triangles of toast in an artful manner around a poached egg.

She placed her creation along with a small dish of melon on a tray that bore the crystal vase of roses from last night’s dinner. As she hoisted the tray, she smiled to her mother. "I am taking breakfast to Marcus. Be right back."

"If I know you," Dawl retorted, "You’ll offer him dessert, and you won’t be right back."

Azazela turned to address Sheken. “I have spoken with Syn and she said she would be honored to be your maid of honor.”

Sheken’s face lit up. “Awesome! Thanks, Aunt Az!” She sat her tray on the table long enough to run to her aunt and hug her tightly, hovering up to kiss Az lightly on the cheek.

“We must be going,” Az said softly. "We are going to take Adara to Salamanca and remain there in order to have dinner with her this evening after her classes."

As Sheken moved to pick up the tray bearing her beloved's breakfast, she turned to Adara. “I know it’s typically just young girls who do this, but would you be my flower girl?”

Adara grinned widely. “Of course! I just need to get a dress.”

“Any dress will do. This isn’t going to be too formal.” Sheken said, softly. Adara nodded with a huge smile on her face.

Dawl nodded painfully and met Az's eyes. "Are you sure about this succubus?" she asked with a frown.

"Absolutely," her towering sister assured her.

Dawl pursed her lips. "Okay. I’ll trust your sense of character judgment. After all, mine’s kind of sucked lately. I was totally wrong about Marcus. I’ll reserve any opinion on this Syn until I meet her. How’s that?"

Az nodded with a big smile. "You will like her, of that I am sure."

Her diminutive sister gave her a terse half-smile. "Now I just need something for this hangover."

Azazela lifted a hand and cast a soothing wave of energy over her suffering sibling. The tiny redhead closed her eyes as a soothing glow of purple energy swirled around her for a few moments. When she opened her eyes, her headache was gone.

"Thanks!" she smiled gratefully. Az nodded and motioned Cale and Adara towards the front door. "Have a safe trip, and do good at school, Adara," the empath called to her niece. Adara ran over and planted a kiss on her aunt’s cheek. Hugging her, she replied, "Always, Aunt Vu!" They said their goodbyes to Dawl and left via the elevator to take a leisurely walk of a short block to get to the tram station.

Keres returned to the kitchen to find his mate sitting at the table with a wistful smile on her lips. "Where are the kids?"

"Sheken took Marcus some breakfast in bed," Dawl grinned.

"That sounds good!" he said with a mischievous grin.

"Didn’t you already have breakfast?" she teased.

"Maybe I am hungry again," he murmured as he moved behind her to bend down and nibble at the warm smooth skin on the nape of her neck. A soft growl rumbled deep in her throat as she closed her eyes and began to pant softly.

By midday, both couples were showered and once again dressed and had met up with Zakai at Icon. Sheken whisked her mother back to the fitting room to try on the lovely dress. Tears welled in the little empath’s sparkling green eyes.

"My baby. My little baby is all grown up," she sobbed quietly.

"Oh, mom," Sheken soothed as she hugged her mother, "it isn’t like it’s the end of the world. I am still going to be living in Paragon City."

"That’s not the point, honey," her mother answered. "It is just hard to face the fact that my little baby girl, the one who slept at my breast and took her first steps into my arms is about to start a family all her own now."

"Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, mom," her daughter repliebyd with a laugh. "I want it to be just me and Marcus for a while."

"You’re using birth control, then, I take it?"

Sheken’s face flamed with a crimson blush that rivaled the deep red of her tresses. "Of course," she mumbled.

"Well, that’s how I ended up with Zakai, and Mark, and James, and…" her mother said with an embarrassed grin.

Sheken laughed softly and shook her head. "Don’t worry, mom. I know you are not ready for grandkids."

"Oh, please! Of course I am!" Her mother retorted with a warm laugh.

"Well I am not ready for kids, so be patient," her daughter chided.

Serge tapped on the fitting room door. "I have a surprise for the lovely bride, whenever she is ready," he announced.

Sheken opened the door and took a few dramatically slow steps into the room. Keres and Zakai were discussing the Peacebringer’s very successful morning exam but their conversation came to an abrupt halt as they watched the stunning redhead waltz daintily out of the fitting room.

"Stunning!" Serge exclaimed, clapping his hands in delight.

"Wow! She’s beautiful," Zakai blurted, sounding a bit too surprised – which drew a scowl from his younger sister.

"Of course she is," Keres said, smiling. "She’s always been a beautiful girl. Now she’s a beautiful bride. Marcus is a very lucky man. Where did he go, by the way?"

Zakai pointed to another room in the very back of the store. "He’s still in there getting the final fitting for his tux. I am supposed to let them know when Sheken is done showing off the dress so he can come back out here."

Dawl stared at her only daughter with tears brimming in her eyes.

Serge beamed. "And, Miss Mandana, I have a surprise for you." He picked up a large box from a nearby table and handed it to her. It was a small box, not like one that might hold a garment. She gave him a puzzled look. "Open it!" he urged her.

Carefully, she slid off the stretchy cord that wrapped around the box. She pried open the box and squealed with joy. "Oh they are BEAUTIFUL!"

Inside the box was a beautiful necklace that dripped glittering jewels in a shape that perfectly complimented the neckline of her dress, and matching earrings. "For one of my very best little helpers," Serge said, smiling at Sheken. "These are gifts from me to you."

Her eyes welled with tears. "I don’t know how to thank you," she said breathlessly. "They are just…so…beautiful!"

"In my years of working here, I have made friends with the best jewelers in Paragon City. While they are indeed very pretty, they are not nearly as beautiful as the bride," he said with a huge grin. "I have another surprise for you," he said in a hushed voice. "Your dress has been paid for."

She gave him a completely puzzled look. "Let it suffice to say that an anonymous benefactor came in and settled your account in full."

"You didn’t…"

He shook his head. "No, this was not my doing. It was someone who wished to quietly give their blessing to your wedding."

Sheken glanced over at her mother. "Don’t look at me. I have no clue who might have done this."

Serge smiled. "Even I do not know who it was. The payment and a note were sealed in an envelope that was mysteriously placed on my desk."

"Odd," Sheken said. "Not that many people know about the wedding."

Serge shrugged. "I am sure it was someone who wanted you to be happy on your special day. Would you like me to have the dress bagged so you can take it with you today?"

"Sure," Sheken said with a smile.

A young girl scurried over to help Keres pick a suitable tuxedo from among the selection on the racks. "I believe there is a tux on reserve for you," she nodded to Zakai.

"Correct, Mirabella," Serge affirmed. "Zakai, your mother gave me some approximate measurements, so this should fit, but we can make any alterations needed before the wedding." He moved to a small armoir and opened it. It was full of clothing in garment bags with red and gold tags that read "RESERVED for our special customer" and beneath that was a line where the customers’ names could be written. He flipped rapidly through several tags before finding the one with Zakai’s name on it.

Meanwhile, Dawl had wandered off to supervise the selection of proper attire for Keres. Sheken looked at the flurry of activity around her and burst into tears.

"There, there," Amber, one of the clerks with whom Sheken had worked closely with back when she held a job at Icon, approached her, giving her a hug. "Wedding jitters," she murmured soothingly. "It’s okay to cry."

"Can you help me get out of this dress," Sheken said, sniffling.

"Sure," Amber replied, taking the teary-eyed defender by the elbow and steering her back into the fitting room.

"Coast is clear," Zakai quipped, poking his head into the back room. "If you’re done, I will try my tux on now."

Marcus smiled at the boy. "Sure. Come on in. How’s this look?" The Peacebringer gave him a wide grin and a thumbs-up. "You look great!" Noticing the stubble on his chin, Zakai laughed. "Going for the ‘ruggedly handsome’ look?"

"We spent the night at your place, remember? I didn’t have a razor," Marcus laughed. "I assure you I will be clean-shaven for the wedding."

Zakai smiled warmly. "Let me slip this on real quick, and we can see how they look together." Marcus nodded and slipped out the door as the young Peacebringer began to undress.

Dawl was tugging Keres with one arm, the other arm being full of tuxedo. "Come try this on," she urged. He gave her a long-suffering smile and allowed himself to be led to the fitting room.

Within a few minutes all three men were dressed and standing in a row. The little empath stood back and beamed. "Beautiful choices, Serge" she said with a smile. "Thanks for all the help in selecting them. They look great together even though they are all unique."

Sheken had returning wearing her own clothing, a pair of puffy eyes, and followed by Amber who carried a bulky, opaque garment bag ostensibly containing the dress and accessories. "Why is it bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her dress but not the other way around?" Zakai asked.

His mother shrugged. "They are silly traditions, if you ask me, but I think that it is exciting for a man to get his first glimpse of the beauty of his bride in all her glory as she walks towards him down the aisle."

Keres nodded, giving his mate a patient smile.

"Why don’t you get a new dress, sweets?" he suggested.

She shook her head. "I am sure I have something I can wear."

"Preferably something long enough to cover your behind, and reasonably opaque?" he joked.

"Why does it need to cover my behind? I won’t be the one standing up in front of everyone," she retorted.

"Mom!" Sheken shot her mother an exasperated look.

"Don’t worry, honey, I’ll look presentable at your wedding," Dawl assured her soothingly.

That evening, Sheken and Marcus once again found themselves at Dawl’s apartment, along with the kindly priest, Father Riley to whom Cale had given Dawl’s phone number. When the Father suggested meeting with the bride and groom to rehearse the ceremony, Dawl was more than pleased to invite him to join them for dinner.

After the meal, they all sat around the table sipping some fragrant green tea. The priest looked at Sheken and smiled. "The rehearsal went flawlessly. I hope it goes that perfectly for the wedding as well."

She nodded. "Thanks for dropping by to go over this with us."

"It’s my pleasure, I assure you. Weddings are such happy occasions and it is nice to be doing something that isn’t going to end with someone being arrested," he chuckled.

"Let’s hope not," Marcus quipped, as he shook the priest's hand.

Father Riley tipped his cup and drained the last of his tea. As he rose from his seat he addressed Dawl. "Thank you very much for the hospitality. Dinner was delicious." He bowed his head, and turned to the young couple. "I will meet you on the island around three-thirty Saturday afternoon, so we have time to make any last minute preparations before the ceremony."

Marcus extended his hand. "Thanks so much. I’m sorry this has been so last-minute. By the way, what do you charge for doing weddings?"

"Charge?" the priest laughed. "There is no charge. If you would like to make a donation to the church, that is fine, but there is no set fee. I consider it a privilege and part of my good work here," he said, piously raising his eyes to heaven.

After the priest left, the planning went in to high gear. Dawl turned her full attention to orchestrating the event at hand. Keres and Marcus grabbed coffees and retreated for the balcony.

“We will need chairs, and tables, and…”

“Mom! Let’s not blow this into epic proportions!” Sheken chided her.

“Well, we can’t ask everyone to sit on the grass!”

DawL called the apartment manager and made arrangements to rent some of the folding chairs and tables they kept on hand for those who rented their conference rooms.

"So that's all taken care of," Dawl confirmed. "We will all meet out at on the atoll at Scylla Island early Saturday. We can set up chairs up on the plateau that rises out of the cove in the center of the atoll." She passed around some pictures she’d taken of the island when she’d first moved to Talos Island.

"I agree, that looks like a perfect spot," Marcus nodded.

"Sounds great!" Sheken exclaimed.

Keres wandered off to the den with Marcus to double check on the cabin and airline reservations. The newlyweds were going to take a shuttle to the airport on Sunday morning then fly to an airport that was about an hour from the mountains. "Marcus, do you drive?" he asked.

"Sure, I had a New York driver’s license, so I was able to get a Rhode Island license by transferring."

"Wow, did your old license come with a medal for bravery?" Keres joked. "Okay, I am going to rent a car that will be waiting for you at the airport. Take the shuttle out to the lot, and pick it up, and you can drive from there to the cabin. Here, let me show you a map," he said, pointing to the computer screen as he typed the address into the search box.

Sheken shook her head with a wry smile. The "small wedding" was growing by leaps and bounds, but there was not much chance of winning once her mother set her mind to a course of action. Both jumped as the doorbell buzzed loudly. “I’ll get it,” her mother said and rushed towards the door.

Sheken heard her mother call for her. As she approached the door, she saw the familiar face of Frankie, and about a half-dozen other dapper looking gentlemen she knew to be part of Frankie’s gang. Each one had a large box. Sheken took the box from Frankie, and walked into the living room, sitting it on the long sofa, as she was returning, four of the men walked past her, each carrying more boxes.

One man, Nick, sat his box down and bowed politely to Sheken, “These are from Frankie, and all of us,” he said with a huge grin. “Just a few things to get you kids off to a good start.” Sheken peeked into one of the lidless boxes and saw it was full of beautifully wrapped gifts. Her mouth flew open in surprise as Frankie followed her mother into the room, pulling off his fedora as he walked over to hug Sheken. “Oh, Frankie!” she said with tears forming in her eyes. “You shouldn’t have done this…”

“Hey, now, little girlie! Don’t be telling yer elders what ta do, now. I know yer momma raised you not to sass!” He let out a hearty laugh. “We’ve been friends with yer momma a long time, she’s just like Family to us, and this is how we Family celebrate a weddin’!” “I also want to tell yas, and remember, the Family don’t take no for an answer,” he grinned widely, “that we have already arranged for my boss’s yacht to deliver chairs, tables and a catered picnic to whichever island ya choose to have yer weddin’. Just let me know when and where and I’m gonna make it happen.”

Sheken had tears of joy streaming down her face and found herself speechless. Dawl gave Frankie a big hug and said “I think you’ve got her stunned. I don’t know when I have ever seen her at a loss for words.”

“I would also like to recommend my cousin, Fabian,” Frankie said with nod towards Kings Row. “He’s got a florist shop over in the Row, and if ya tell him I sent ya, he’ll fix ya up real good with some real swell flowers.”

Sheken smiled and nodded, still too stunned to speak. Dawl hugged Frankie again and said “Oh of course! We will be in Kings Row delivering invitations, this morning. But I don’t want to impose, will he have enough time to get flowers ready that soon?”

“Fabian is a real magic-maker when it comes ta the flowers. He can make it happen, trust me!”

“I cannot thank you enough, Frankie,” Dawl said, looking up at the towering gent with tears in her eyes. “You’ve been so generous!”

“Anything for you, Miss Dawl,” he said, tipping his fedora with a smile.

Keres and Marcus walked in to see the large pile of boxes and their eyes flew wide open. Marcus bristled to see the mobster again, but Frankie walked over and clapped a huge, strong hand to his, giving a hearty shake. “You Sicilian?” he asked. Marcus nodded. “Good man! I’ve known this little girly since she was in diapers, and she’s gonna be a fine wife. She’s a smart little doll. Like her momma,” he quipped, winking at Dawl. “I hope youse enjoy the presents, and have a wonderful weddin’!” He donned his Fedora as he stepped towards the door, tipping it towards the women. “I gots to go, but we’ll be seein’ ya this weekend!”

Sheken still hadn’t found her voice but grabbed him in a fierce hug and shed tears of joy on his lapel as he beamed down at her. He gave a ‘thumbs-up’ as he ducked out the door.

Keres was peeking into the boxes. “These are ALL wedding gifts? Wow!”

Dawl giggled and answered “When I ordered the champagne for last night, he asked me what we were celebratin’,” she mimicked Frankie’s accent. “I told him Sheken was getting married Saturday and then…this.”

“Wow!” Keres shook his head. “This would make a great wedding reality show story!” he laughed.

Marcus was still a bit unsure about how to feel about the kind mobster and his “boys” bringing gifts and practically furnishing their wedding. He turned to Dawl. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but…”

Dawl read his fears before he could even turn them into words. “People’s hearts are often neither pure black evil nor shining noble white, but usually muddled shades of grey. I have known Frankie for a long time, and though yes, he’s part of the Frost Family, he’s a wonderful guy with a huge heart of pure gold.”

Marcus rubbed at his chin. “I think I understand what you mean. We have a succubus as a maid of honor, after all.” He chuckled softly.

“And a former assassin as the groom,” Dawl added pointedly, driving the lesson home. “Touché” he replied, bowing his head. “Point taken. There’s good, bad and in between, and just about all of us, at one time or another have crossed those lines.”

Dawl nodded with a somber look, “Believe me, it was a hard lesson for me, too. We can thank Azazela for that.”

He reached out his hand and took hers. “I have learned a lot. My life has changed so much in the last year I am not even sure I know who I really am. But it’s all been change for the better, because of Sheken. And I have you to thank for that.”

Dawl blushed softly. “I’m pretty proud of the young woman she’s become. But much of it was in spite of me, rather than because of me. I feel I really failed as a mother.”

“No,” Marcus shook his head. “You did exactly as you were meant to do and she’s a strong, beautiful woman because of it. She’s got your strong will, your compassion, and your beauty. I am the luckiest man in the world.”

Dawl gave him an earnest smile. Keres walked up to Marcus and put a hand on his shoulder. “I believe you both are lucky to have each other. Just remember that, any time a conflict arises.”

“Oh, I will,” Marcus replied. Sheken was still just standing there, staring at the huge pile of presents. She hadn’t said a word. Marcus moved to her side and pulled her into his arms. He surprised himself along with everyone else as he covered her lips and gave her a passionate kiss.

To Chapter 2