There was a tree in her yard.
Much larger than anything she even seen at the nursery the few times she'd thought about landscaping. Probably ten meters tall, branching gracefully.
And that infuriatingly irresistible man was standing out on the sidewalk beside her grumpy neighbor, the pair of them looking at the tree. No doubt half the rest of the neighbors were watching from the presumed safety of their homes.
Rael pulled into her driveway and joined them. "So . . . what kind of tree is it? And . . . what are those?" Two big stone bowls now bracketed her front door. Big viney things . . . "Grapes?"
"Yep. A merlot and a chardonnay. I'll move them to the back or get rid of them altogether if you don't like them."
The grumpy neighbor snorted. "Fancy schmancy. Get the whole neighborhood's taxes raised."
Rael clutched her head. "Sorry Mr. Keric. But I probably did that already by getting this guy to fix up the worst house on the block. And . . . I'm not going to start making wine, either."
"Then eat them, or let the birds have them." Xen glanced up the street. "I suppose all the water mains and storm drains and whatever are all pretty old. Must be why gentrification is going so slow."
Mr. Keric growled a bit. "Pack of la-di-dah Oners moving in. And then what's an honest man to do, surrounded by a pack of nasty mind-readers."
"Laugh at them." Xen shrugged. "I mean, they mostly don't use their abilities for anything but glowing and fencing. Those Oner names are just potential. Three-quarters of them never even try to develop it. Just a few like Rael, here. Now she's dangerous."
The old grump looked Xen up and down, spat on her weeds and stomped off.
"Do you laugh at us?"
"About as often as I laugh at myself. So, do you want a stereotypical suburban lawn, or we could try some low ground cover like wild violets?"
"I was thinking in terms of buying plants, not . . . where did you get that tree?"
"In a forest on an Empty World. The grapes . . . my dad has a vineyard. He constantly planting grapes, starting them in pots and . . . then he hasn't got any place for them, so he sticks them in bubbles. He was quite happy to have me take a couple. The wild violets—most places consider them weeds. Silly. Much prettier than grass, and low maintenance."
"Oh yeah? No drawbacks?"
"It doesn't take trampling very well. Not good if you . . . are planning on volleyball."
Why that pause? Oh . . . "if you have kids." Yeah, damn it. My constant . . . wobble. And no reason you'd want more children.
Rael crammed those thoughts down and forced herself to think about landscaping. "Wild violets sounds nice. And what do you have planned for my poor back yard?"
He followed her inside. "You don't like the tree?"
Drat, was I leaking thoughts? Emotions, more like. "The tree's beautiful . . . I guess I'm having a bad case of . . . oh, wishing I had a normal job, a normal life."
He heaved out a breath. "I do that sometimes. But doing what? I'd purely hate a desk job. Medgician? Soldier or cop? Farmer? I could grow chocolate oranges and breed horses. Mine for gold. How about you?"
She leaned on him, head against his warm chest. "Oh. I've got an office, but Urfa sends me off so often it hardly counts as a desk job . . . it's just that sometimes I look back at those forks in the road and wonder what sort of person I'd be if I'd taken one of the other forks. Or maybe if the fork hadn't happened." She leaned away so she could see his face. "What do you think you'd be doing if the Assassination Attempt had never happened? Professional horse shows, or would you have started working for Urfa?"
"No, I was mostly done with my exit prep. I was going to be delivering my government's response to the passing of the war bill to the president and the council, and acting as some combination of diplomatic courier and envoy."
"Mainly because I was the only one they were pretty sure would survive long enough to attempt to get some sort of communication going. As soon as it was safe, they'd have sent a real diplomat."
"Umm. So they were going to sacrifice a well placed spy?"
"Eh. We'd gone in pig-ignorant and blind and stumbled around managing to not do anything disastrously wrong. Our next infiltration was much better."
She thumped his ribs. "I know. Izzo grumbles about not getting a whiff, when it's a virtual certainty Comet Fall's got another group in. Damn, now I'm sorry I missed what would have been an awesome . . . what? Reintroduction?"
Xen chuckled. "Exactly. I was going to very briefly introduce myself, hand over the letter from my King and Council to the president, then pop over to your Council Hall for the really fun part. We had it all scoped out. Seal the doors, take control of the media feed to keep it going, and explain a few things to the Council. Starting with a History lesson. It would have been awesome. And a hell of a lot better then almost losing you." He pulled her close. "Damn Urfa. I thought you were dead for . . . three years? It seemed like longer."
"But you came and healed me."
"The healing sleep, or whatever you want to call it . . . we dream, and we can't tell the difference between real and dream. I thought it had to be a dream."
"Ah. I sort of wondered why keeping me away from you was working. I figured . . . three years, why would you care anymore?"
"And when Q told me there was a Oner with spikey red hair . . . Ha! She made me dress up before she told me, because I teleported right over and it was true. There you were, glowing and throwing off happy sparks in all directions."
"Happy sparks! I do not!"
She sputtered with laughter. "All right, enough. I think I'll keep you. Now what are you going to do to my poor over-grown back yard?"
"Hmm, do you have anything in mind?"
She looked out at the small sticker filled space. "Umm, kill everything and put in concrete? A table and chairs?"
"Tsk. How about raised planters on three sides and a paved patio in the middle?"
"You know it'll turn out to be solid weeds."
"Not if I came by now and then to take care of that little problem."
Rael paused. Caught her breath. "How often is now and then?"
"How often do you get time off?"
Hard dry swallow. Don't panic! It's only a little escalation in the relationship. "Generally Sunday night through Wednesday morning. Not that I don't usually end up working or exercising or just hanging out at the barracks . . . "
"Anything but pulling weeds?"
She looked around. "It gets too empty and quiet."
"Yeah. I know that feeling." He stepped out and waved his hand around. The weeds fell over and piled themselves, finely chopped, in a corner. Then the ground sort of ruffed up and smoothed out.
Xen started pulling stone blocks out of thin air . . .
Four hours later, they were eating real steaks grilled over real charcoal in her new stone grill, surrounded by vegetation and flowers.
"At least I got to buy the furniture." She shook her head. "What are you planning to do next?"
He mined consulting an invisible device in his hand. "Ah! Seduce Rael. Nearly forgot."
"Ooo! I may have to play hard-to-get."