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Beautiful Things (I)

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Lee didn't see him--the Laurin--for weeks after the rebirth. He left messages in the office and promised to appear at the court case, but she always missed his calls.

"Do you think I'm avoiding him or he's avoiding me?" she asked Gelert. They'd gone out to lunch and apparently missed the opportunity to go over the Elf-king's testimony. She could call back, of course, and would try, but polite receptionists always informed them that the Laurin was unavailable.

"You'd think, even with the time difference, he could figure out to call during office hours," Gel said. The Laurin had managed to catch her easily enough when he was playing mysterious informer, after all.

It was mildly baffling to Lee that the Laurin might feel threatened by her, but perhaps the very power for which he'd sought her, the Sight he'd asked her to use to strip him and his world of immortality and perfect illusion, was something he didn't know how to face again when he didn't have a purpose to turn it to. Lee had been dealing with that kind of fear most of her life, but it hurt to think that the Laurin might have turned as gutless as a felon about to be tried. What did he think she might see that she hadn't already? Or had she seen something already that he wished she hadn't?

So Lee didn't see him until the court case. It went as smoothly as one could have hoped--the Laurin arrived to give his testimony punctually, despite reporters from six worlds camped out on the courthouse steps to bombard him with questions. The judge had kept them out of the court itself but they were still a nuisance of the highest order. The media presence had also occasioned a feeling of necessity, on LAPD's part, that Larry resume his duties as bodyguard to Lee.

"No more high-profile cases for a while," Lee had begged Gelert.

"We're high-profile," Gel told her sternly. "What do you want to do, turn down work?"

"No," said Lee: she loved her work. That didn't mean she might not want a vacation.

By the time Castelain was sentenced, Lee was ready to get away from it all. When the Laurin caught her hand to get her attention, touching her fingers briefly before letting them fall, and murmured, "Would you care for dinner?" Lee was more than ready to agree.

"Perdu?" Lee asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Hm," said the Laurin, smiling wryly. "What's lost has been found. Perhaps, instead of returning to our origins, we should move forward. Will you let me pick the venue?"

"Can you still worldwalk?" Lee asked. If the Laurin's choice of venue wasn't on Earth, so much the better for losing reporters and her well-meaning bodyguard.

"Yes," said the Laurin. "Can you?"

"Exhibit 18, your honor," Lee laughed. The court had taken the Laurin at his word about the ability of elves to cross universes without worldgating facilities, but Lee had been prepared to stage a demonstration.

"Oh, please," said Gelert, "wait until we get outside. Give me something else to talk to the papers about. I'm bored of intercontinual conspiracies."

"Can we not drag my love life back into the news?" Lee asked, because reporters occasionally still asked about their firm's relationship with the assistant DA. Then she blushed at the Laurin's raised eyebrow. She had been joking, mostly because Gelert would say it if she didn't, and she almost hadn't thought of him, the Laurin. Had she assumed too much? He was smiling too, though, that wry little hook of his lip.

Gelert huffed a soft doggy snicker and said, "You crazy kids. Get out of here."

Lee took the Laurin's hand, tentatively at first, but holding on where he had let go, and then they walked into the front stairwell of the courthouse, vanished like drawing a curtain aside, and stepped into a sushi bar in Tierra's Tokyo.

"I don't even know your name," Lee said. His fingers were warm around hers.

"Laurin," he said, seeming surprised. After a moment, he added, "I am the job, the job is me. I suppose I could tell you what my name was before I challenged for the position, but it wouldn't be particularly relevant--I'll never be that person again. We move onward, not back."

"Oh," Lee said, feeling somehow sad for him.

"Or," he went on, "I could tell you what my name might be after I abdicate."

"Is there a way to do that?" Lee said, intrigued. "Gel and I were speculating--we weren't sure if assassination wasn't the only way power changed hands in Alfheim."

"Oh, no," said the Laurin. "We've always been too long-lived for there not to be a mechanism for a king simply to step down. For whatever reason."

That seemed to be a cue, though Lee couldn't for the life of her guess what the Laurin meant her to glean from it. "I suppose you must get bored eventually," she offered.

"It's not that, necessarily," said the Laurin. "But it is rather traditional for the king to step down when he marries. Especially if she's an outworlder."

Lee felt her face go hot. He couldn't mean--no.

"It's not a succession issue directly," the Laurin said. "Who inherits the crown has always been whoever can handle the power, the world, not--a particular lineage. That ability tends to run in families, but it doesn't guarantee a king's children anything."

A small pause ensued. Lee knew her eyes must be wide, but she couldn't bring herself to respond. The Laurin spoke of marriage, and now of children--no, it was all too sudden. It had to be--hypothetical. A joke. Something.

"On the other hand," said the Laurin, "outworld parentage isn't any particular bar to inheriting that ability, either. I must confess, my family is the source of some of your fairy tales."

"Oh?" Lee managed. Right. The Laurin had been talking about his own history--he wasn't planning on abdicating any time soon, and certainly not for her.

"The way some of those old stories go," the Laurin mused--and met her gaze, and seemed surprised at her discomfort. "I only meant to say," he said, touching her folded hands across the table, "that you should have had some souvenir. A rose bush, for your own garden."

"A whole bush?" Lee said, wondering what he really had meant to say. "I thought the single perfect blossom was traditional."

"Perhaps," said the Laurin, "although it's much more difficult to convince a single stem to root."

A waitress came then, which was a relief. She took Laurin's order (in fluent Japanese) and Lee's (mostly in English). She poured them both green tea and by then there was food. Lee pressed her hands together and half-bowed in her seat, thanking the waitress for the break more than anything.

"Could anyone do this?" Lee asked, determined to change the subject. She waved her hand to indicate the change of locale. "Just walk out of the world, and into another?"

The Laurin dipped a piece of hamachi sashimi in soy sauce, contemplating. (The waitress had delightedly informed them that the tuna was fresh from Tierra's own oceans. Tierra had been importing fish from Earth and Huichtilopochtli for years--their oceans had been too polluted to provide food. Since the rebirth, Tierra had found itself cleansed, at least in part. That the tuna population was higher and healthier was wonderful news.) "I think," the Laurin said in a measured tone, "you have to learn in Alfheim. Though I'm not sure that will work as well as it once did."

"Gel learned," Lee murmured. "After he'd been sent back to Earth."

"With the aid of the stone from the garden," the Laurin replied. "I'm not sure how effective those artifacts will be anymore, either. In any case, I'm not willing to see Alfheim eroded so that everyone can learn to pass between worlds at will."

"I suppose there are--political considerations," Lee murmured. There would be no meaning to any boundaries, if this were a common ability. Yet some part of Lee wished she could share the wonder with--with everyone.

The Laurin quietly sipped hot sake, watching her. "Would you like to go world-walking? With me?" he asked.

"I," Lee said. "Where to?" she asked, wondering at the invitation.

"I was thinking," said the Laurin, "that as the Mother and Father of this," a small wave of chopsticks, a tight circle, "change, we have a responsibility to see how it's played out in all the worlds. Now, I'm sure you've been following the news from the acknowledged worlds, but I thought you might be interested in visiting the other five universes in the sheaf."

Lee exhaled--she felt like she'd been holding her breath since he'd said Mother. "I am not--that power," said Lee. "I am the conduit of that power. But I make no claims to godhead." She did not say, and nor should you, because from what she knew of the Laurin's abilities, she was not at all sure that that was a reasonable admonishment.

The Laurin nodded gravely. "You gave Justice your eyes," he agreed. "Alfheim gave me--its very foundations to mold. The power was greater than us, but the choice was ours."

That sounded less--terrifying. It was a comfort that the Laurin did not see himself as a god. Lee said, "Yes--we chose."

"Then as adherents to those powers on whose behalf we chose," the Laurin said, one corner of his mouth flicking upward, "do you agree we should go and see what change we've wrought?"

"Yes," Lee said, bowing her head briefly with a smile. "I accept your invitation."

They didn't go adventuring that night. Laurin secured her promise to visit Terra with him that weekend and walked her home instead. Lee was supposed to have been in charge of the walking and intended to take them into her office, but they walked unexpectedly into her kitchen. Laurin's expression gave nothing away: he didn't seem surprised, but nor did he seem at all guilty. He said, "Good night," and kissed her hand, and nothing more untoward than that occurred.

Gel asked her if it was a date--if either of them were dates, both the dinner in Tierra and the proposed expedition to Terra. "No," said Lee. "Maybe." To both.

"Huh," said Gel. "Let me know when you know."

Laurin arrived Saturday morning and startled the hell out of Larry the bodyguard. Larry had still not forgiven Lee for jumping universes and then, to add insult to injury, failing to report in when she got back. On top of that, "Now here's the king of elves appearing in your kitchen, when I had thought the house was clear."

"Would you like some breakfast?" Lee asked calmly. She had been paring an apple for herself.

"No, thank you," Larry bit out, and went back out on the patio.

"I wouldn't mind," said Laurin and Lee held out a piece of apple to him on the knife-tip. She had cut the apple cross-wise, so the seeds showed in a star. Five points, five pockets of possibility.

Five universes he meant to take her to.

He took her to New York again in Terra. They walked into Grand Central Station, and the only being that seemed to notice was a stray cat that twined itself around one of Laurin's legs briefly. Laurin bent to scratch its ears. The cat nuzzled his hand and padded off down the corridor.

"Does it feel different to you?" he asked her.

Lee tilted her head, trying to listen to the universe. "It's subtle," she said. "I can't put my finger on it."

Laurin seemed amused. "What would you say about the change on Earth?"

"Well," said Lee, "just--it seems brighter. More hopeful, maybe. I take your point, though. What has changed here? Is it anything more specific than that?"

"I've called ahead," said Laurin. "I know who we can ask."

They took trains out to Long Island and then walked a ways--ordinary walking--into suburbia. The air was easier to breathe outside the city, and Lee didn't know whether that was a shift or not. It was odd to try to guess anything about Terra when so many simple things like the New York skyline ran almost parallel, and yet not quite.

At last they turned onto a little side street and Laurin said, "Number twenty-seven. This is it." He went up to the door and knocked before Lee could say a thing about just dropping in on someone from another universe who didn't know other universes existed.

But it seemed they were expected. Two big black-and-white sheepdogs, nearly Gel's size combined, tackled them when the door opened, and one of the two human inhabitants of the household said, "Annie! Monty! Stop slobbering all over the king of Alfheim! It's impolite."

The dogs sat down, panting. Lee caught her balance and wiped her face on her sleeve. "Laurin," said Laurin, sticking out his hand.

"Tom Swale," said one of the men, and shook Laurin's hand.

"Carl Romeo," said the other. "Who's your friend? Irina didn't say you were bringing company."

"Lee Enfield," said Lee. She glanced at Laurin. "Who's Irina?"

"Senior wizard for the planet, in this universe--my counterpart," the Laurin replied. To Tom and Carl, he added, "Lee's a lanthanomancer on her Earth. She was--ah--an active witness in recent matters."

"Come in," said Tom, hauling the dogs by the collars. "Something to drink?"

Tom put the dogs out back while Carl got them sodas. Lee murmured quietly to Laurin, "Wizard?" A human who studied magic? The same way the Alfen were elves in everyone's fairy stories?

"This universe," the Laurin answered just as quietly, "deals with the disregard of the many by empowering a chosen few. Wizards keep things running here."

"Unfortunately we also have to do it in secret," Tom said, and Lee jumped slightly. She hadn't meant to be talking behind their backs, but it made her uncomfortable to talk about a universe's failings in front of its citizens. "Here, anyway. Some planets are more enlightened."

"Oh, are you a galactic society? Like Xaihon?" Lee asked.

"Not as a race," Carl replied. "Wizards, however, tend to travel a fair bit. You've been worldgating: you know what I mean."

Though Lee and Laurin had worldwalked to different continents, it hadn't occurred to Lee to use it to walk to different planets.

"I understand the change that affected this universe recently didn't center on this planet," the Laurin put in. "Though humans were involved?"

"Yes, three junior wizards from our area played a major role," Tom replied.

"Plus a few from elsewhere," Carl added, "and one human who wasn't a wizard at all. There are exceptional people among those not endowed with wizardry, too."

Lee sighed. They had heard.

"So what happened, here?" Laurin asked.

Tom and Carl exchanged glances. "I'm not sure where to begin," Tom said. "How much background do you have on this universe?"

"A few decades," said the Laurin. "Perhaps you'd better begin at the beginning."

"Ha," Carl said.

"In the beginning, the universe came into being," said Tom, with a wry glance at Carl, and Lee realized Carl's laugh had been in anticipation of Tom, rather than in reply to Laurin. "All of the Powers brought their creations into it--space, gravity, matter, light, time. The Lone Power introduced death, and the other Powers cast It out. " Lee glanced at Laurin--the Lone Power? Laurin answered her with a slight shake of his head. She listened. "As wizards, we fight death. We try to slow entropy. And we work for the redemption of the Lone One. What happened recently--a new version of the Lone Power manifested, one we've never seen before. One that changes the story, changes the rules of our work, of the universe."

Tom drew a breath. Carl continued, "We've got the Hesper, a version of the Lone Power who never fell from grace, who never chose death over life."

They both paused expectantly. Laurin nodded gravely as if he understood the importance of this statement; Lee looked to him for explanation. When none seemed forthcoming she said, "I'm sorry, maybe I'm not following. Your--Lone Power--She was cast out completely, in the beginning? What about the ambivalence, the, the--"

"This universe," Laurin interrupted her gently, "has a great many problems with uncertainty. It would very much like for everything to resolve in black and white. You'll find that most of the differences between universes can be seen quite clearly in their creation stories--they are different because they were made differently."

Tom and Carl exchanged a glance. "How does that story go," Tom asked her, "in your universe?"

"Well," Lee said, "every religion has its own version, of course--" They kept looking at her. No one seemed inclined to let her waffle out of it. "But the repeating elements--the Power that creates death--there's always two versions, two faces. The evening star and the morning star, Hespera and Phosphora if you want to go back to the Greek, the fair side and the fallen side, the one who took the Mother's hand and the one who turned away. Two sides of the same coin. Her choice, the ambivalence--that's what we all face. She represents the act of making the choice, the deliberation, the consequences you face for it." She turned to the Laurin. "What about in your universe?"

"A number of my people," the Laurin said wryly, "think I'm a modern manifestation of your two-faced god, and not because they think I chose wisely."

"Are you?" Carl said, eyebrows up. The Laurin seemed taken aback by the question, and Carl added, "Sorry to be blunt. We've a great deal of experience spotting the Lone One, hardly any spotting the Hesper, and none at all with extra-continual combinations of the two."

"The kings of old in Alfheim were believed to be gods," said the Laurin. "I'm not. Whether they were--perhaps. They shaped the universe and we, like children, said, show us how you did that. They indulged us and in our hubris we shaped and reshaped the universe like we were playing with a lump of clay, never putting it in the kiln to fire it, valuing the malleability over any kind of permanance. Where they went, those old kings--I would like to think," he said with a glance at Lee, "that they stepped down out of nothing more sinister than boredom. Perhaps they stayed to live and wed among us, and we are all the children of gods. But I rather fear that the ritualized challenge that's part of our passage of power, the overthrow--I rather fear we killed our gods, and thereby introduced death ourselves. My choice--" He looked distant for a moment. Then his gaze locked with Lee's and she found that she had to fight her Sight, that the Laurin was somehow back in that moment and drawing her along. "I looked at how the other worlds lived and thought, how much kinder to know that death will come to everyone in its time, than only to know violent death, only to be murdered--that particular fate did come to all of us eventually, for all we cultivated the belief that we were immortal. That fate would have come en masse in time, and my people thought they could cheat it, never quite seeing how it was bound into our world."

Tom cleared his throat and broke the spell. Lee was able to look away from the Laurin and breathe. "That's a special thing, you know," said Tom, "a chance for a choice remade like that."

"Yes," Laurin said. His tone dropped out of that formal re-enactment and he seemed merely a man again. "I hope we managed to get it right. I don't think we'll have another shot at it." He looked at Lee but with curiosity only, not the raw power of a moment before. "Did you learn what you had hoped to, here?" he asked her.

"I think so," Lee said softly. The answers she'd gotten were--theological instead of concrete. In school, she'd learned this sort of thing as some bizarrely calculated ethical constant. Now Laurin and these wizards spoke of the shaping of worlds by the actions of gods. Two ways to describe the phenomena of universes, but where one provided a dry fact with little explanation, the other provided an intelligible explanation that led to more questions. Why had the gods made worlds with such a variety of flaws? Why the flaws at all? Why hadn't they made all the universes right?

"Thank you," Laurin said to Tom and Carl. Lee echoed him as they rose. "Do you want to walk back from here?" he asked her.

"Use the backyard," said Carl, "it's got a better set-up for worldgating."

So they went out to a nicely landscaped yard and bade farewell to Tom and Carl and their dogs. Tom and Carl had, among other flowers in their garden, deep red roses. Laurin led her past the bush and murmured, "You really should have a rose from me."

"From Alfheim?" she asked, not willing to pluck one from their hosts' backyard. "Ten to one it'd explode the second I got it back to Earth and then what would Larry think of you."

Laurin laughed and took her home. In her kitchen, he kissed her hand and took his leave.

Lee called for Larry to say she was back. "I know," he said, "I saw."

Lee blushed and said, "He's very old-fashioned. It comes of being centuries old."

"I'm sure," said Larry.

The next Saturday, Laurin arrived to take Lee out again. They were going to a universe Lee hadn't ever visited before, even in passing, and Laurin wouldn't tell her anything about it, except to dress for tropical weather. "You should see for yourself," he said.

Lee hooked her arm in his and wondered whether he'd keep in touch after they'd spent a month of Saturdays worldwalking, and what they would do when there were no more worlds to visit.

They walked out into an open, grassy field, warm and humid in the sunshine. "Take your shoes off," said Laurin, doing so himself.

"Why?" Lee asked, slipping her sandals off her feet.

"So that you watch where you step," said Laurin. "You wouldn't want to crush the people here."

"The people--?" Lee barely had the chance to ask before Laurin caught her hand and pulled her along. Laughing, sandals swinging from her other hand, Lee followed. She tried to step lightly and on the balls of her feet, glancing down all the way.

Laurin stopped them at a circle of toadstools, a fairy ring. "Here," he said, "there should be some about..."

"Some what?" Lee asked, and a butterfly zipped past her.

"There," said Laurin. Lee turned to look at the butterfly and realized it wasn't a butterfly at all, it was--a pixie? A miniature human form with flapping butterfly wings longer than she was tall. "Put your hand out," said Laurin. "Palm down. They'd rather land on your knuckles, so you can't grab them."

"I wouldn't," said Lee, letting go of Laurin's hand to hold out her own. The fairy creature alighted and her wings slowed enough for Lee to see the pattern, iridescent blue with green eyes in the tops and teardrops in the tails. "Hello," Lee said.

"They don't speak," Laurin told her. He stood shoulder to shoulder with her and reached out, slowly, to touch the edge of one wing with his fingertip. "They don't show any signs of human-level intelligence, but we're honestly not sure whether that's a result of their size or their lifespan. We expected them to be smarter than insects because they look like us, but..."

"You've been here before? Studied them?" Lee asked.

"Oh, yes," Laurin said. "We've been able to travel to this universe for a long time. I think sometimes the accidental worldwalkers from pre-gate universes must have come here, too--you all have stories about creatures like these."

The creature in question flew up off of Lee's hand. She caught Laurin's hand as they let their arms fall back to their sides. "So what's changed in this universe?" Lee asked.

"I don't know yet," said Laurin. "It's harder to find someone to ask, here."

"They're not--there aren't any sapients here?" Lee asked.

"No," said Laurin. He nudged one of the broader toadstools with his toes, and a pair of fairies flew up, spinning around each other.

"They're beautiful," Lee breathed.

"They only live a few weeks," said Laurin. "They don't have time to grow old. Of course they're beautiful."

"As if you'd know anything about that," Lee said as lightly as she could.

Laurin harrumphed. "I found my first grey hair the other day."

"Really," said Lee. "Show me."

To her surprise, Laurin didn't protest, only let go her hand and reached up to his temple. His hair was pulled back and held with a green leather tie, and he teased a lock out. He sorted through it carefully, then held one silver hair out to her. His expression seemed an odd mix of mournful and amused.

"You know," Lee teased, "wherever you see one, there's three you haven't found yet."

"I hadn't heard that," Laurin said, brushing his hair back behind his ear. "I suppose there's all sorts of things about aging I haven't heard. I did hear, though, that it's traditional to name one's grey hairs."

"Oh?" said Lee. "What did you name yours?"

"Lee," said Laurin.

Lee laughed, wondering if he'd missed the import of that particular tradition. "Am I a worry to you, then?"

"Not so much a worry," Laurin said contemplatively, "as a frustration. I make a proposal: you don't say yes, you don't say no, and I could cope with the ambivalence if you'd at least acknowledge the question, but you don't even do that."

"Wait," said Lee. "You haven't asked me a question." Not that one, not that question. He hadn't, she'd been sure. "You told me a story, you didn't ask me..." She trailed off, not wanting to say anything more, because he hadn't meant that. She had been sure of that.

Laurin turned to her. He did not go down on one knee. He looked at her straight-on with those deep brown eyes of his. Lee tried to glance away, uncomfortable, but her gaze didn't stray any farther than the lock of hair he'd pulled loose, which the wind had blown free. She reached up to tuck it back behind his ear. He let her, but caught her hand before she could pull back again, and held it to his chest. "Liayna Enfield," he said, "will you marry me?"

Lee swallowed and made herself look him in the eye. His demeanor was grave, serious. He was practically burning with the desire to convey how very much he meant it.

"Oh," said Lee at last.

"Oh, she says," said Laurin, looking away only to roll his eyes. "It's an acknowledgement, at least." He loosened his grip on her hand, and she let it fall. He bowed his head toward her and touched her chin with his fingertips. Lee didn't pull away when he pressed his lips softly on hers.

After only a moment, he drew back. Lee said, "I really will have to think about that."

"As long as you're thinking about it," Laurin said drily, "and not pretending it didn't happen."

"You didn't ask!" Lee said.

"You were white as a sheet," Laurin said. "I didn't want to push you. But you had to know."

Lee pressed her lips together to remind herself of the feel of his kiss. It was a nice feeling. "I think you've brought me to new universes under false pretenses," she said, trying to lighten the mood.

"I think you've been leading me on," he grumbled in reply.

There was a thunderclap then and the heavens opened. Laurin's expression sobered from teased to--not surprised or annoyed, but utterly black. "What's the matter?" Lee asked. "Do you melt in the rain?" She put her hand on his arm. "Laurin?"

Laurin was silent for a moment, staring up at the grey sky. "They'll die in droves now," he said. "Their wings get waterlogged and make them easy prey. Every time it rains, only a handful of them survive."

Lee looked around. "But there's none of them in the air right now," she said.

Laurin looked at her, startled. He looked around, then dropped to his hands and knees to look under the toadstools. Lee followed suit.

There was one lone fairy drowsing against the trunk of the toadstool, the one with the green and blue wings. She looked a little damp, but not waterlogged. A few inches away from her, on the other side of the trunk, was a hole in the soil--a burrow. "They're sheltering," Lee whispered.

"That's new," Laurin said, his voice as hushed as hers.

"Do you think they'll live longer now?" Lee asked.

"I don't know," Laurin said, but he sounded awed. He scrambled back on his heels.

Lee brushed her knees off and stood, but Laurin stayed down a moment longer, plucking a flower from the grass before he stood up. "A primrose," he said, offering it to her.

Wide pale pink petals with a buttery yellow center--simple, but beautiful. "Are we feeling very prim?" Lee asked, accepting the flower.

"We're feeling you should have proper roses," Laurin said, "but this will do for now. Shall we go home?"

So they walked back to Lee's, and Laurin kissed her hand and left her. Lee found a vase for the primrose and a towel for her hair. She ignored Larry's dire looks and called Gel to say, "Well, I guess it was a date. All of them so far."

"My," said Gel. "I never would have guessed. You just get out of the shower?"

"No," said Lee. "The rain. Nothing like that's happened."

"Sure," said Gel, ever so mildly disbelieving. "Call me back when you're ready to work on the Cartwright case."

"Nosy hound," Lee muttered cheerfully before she hung up.

Another week of work went by. Lee tried to keep her mind on the caseload, but she found herself often thinking of--other things. The primrose had wilted by Monday, leaving Lee without a symbol to hang her hopes and fears on. She spent most of her nights that week curled up with a cup of xoco, wishing she had Laurin there to ask things. (Why did he want to marry her, why was he willing to abdicate for her, had all that talk about children and heirs been something she was supposed to magically understand, how much of this was because he was, on some level, afraid of growing old?)

Laurin arrived on Saturday with a rose bush. "Since you seem not to take hints well," he said, "I thought I would stop beating around the bush and, well, bring it to you. Have you got a shovel?" He even looked like he'd made an attempt at dressing for gardening, wearing jeans and a polo instead of the suits she was used to seeing him in. Crisp, bright jeans, but he had tried.

"Oh, my," said Lee. She went to the garage to find a spade.

Larry patrolled along the street, in line of sight but far away enough to give them some conversational privacy while Laurin dug up Lee's front flower bed to plant his Alfen rose bush next to hers.

Lee sat in a deck chair and periodically offered Laurin lemonade. She asked him, "Would you really abdicate? If we did?" It might have been cheating to start off with the most removed, least emotionally fraught question, but, well, she was scared.

"I would," said the Laurin. "Honestly, I ought to regardless. I've done something so drastic that--there's been backlash. Someone's going to challenge me one of these days and not someone qualified. I hate having to kill upstarts. And if it is someone qualified, that's it for me, and I was really beginning to look forward to the idea of dying of natural causes instead of dying of coup."

"Is there someone qualified?" Lee asked. "To take over, I mean, if you do abdicate."

"When I do," the Laurin corrected. "Traditionally, that's not supposed to be any of my business, and certainly it's not going to be anyone whose politics I agree with, given the, ah, reactionary climate. It doesn't matter. It has to be someone who can hear Alfheim, and Alfheim will make its needs known." The Laurin grimaced slightly, tugging at a weed. "I don't know--the thing that I wonder about most, I suppose, is if Alfheim will still make its needs known to me. I can't quite imagine not... feeling that. But that's how it's meant to work, theoretically."

Lee shifted in her chair. "I can't imagine abdicating my responsibilities here," she said, not quite asking if he expected her too. "Justice won't stop seeing through me. And I love my job, and my partnership with Gel, and--"

"You don't have to give any of that up," Laurin said. "I'm not jealous of Justice, or the court, or Gelert. I won't even be a foreign head of state, so I shouldn't present any conflicts of interest for you."

"I wouldn't say not any," said Lee. Laurin grinned at her. "So um." She nudge him with her foot. He elbowed back. "What was all that about the succession? Children of kings and outworlders?"

"I want children," said Laurin. "Do you want children?"

Lee thought about Gelert and Nuala and the pups, rambunctious fluffy children who loved their Aunt Lee unconditionally. "Can I say maybe for now and append that to the marriage question?" she asked.

"If you say yes to the one, you're saying yes to everything?" Laurin asked.

Lee blushed and wished he couldn't make her do that at the drop of a hat. "Do you want children to inherit the throne, or do you want... a family?" she asked, making herself focus on her questions.

"I think it's likely we could have a child qualified to succeed me," the Laurin admitted, "but I also... just want to be a father." He pensively paused his digging. "Moreso now than before. Two thousand years and I never gave it much thought. I suppose it always seemed there was time for that later. And now--there's less time. A finite amount." He started digging again. "I don't think those two impulses are entirely separable. I want to give my children the world. And I want to give the world my children."

Lee nodded, appreciating the honesty. He could have answered purely to reassure, but he didn't.

"I would want to raise them in Alfheim," he added suddenly, sitting back on his heels. He reached for the rose bush he'd brought and unwrapped its roots to set it in the ground. "I would want to take them everywhere, show them everything, all the wonders in all the worlds, but I want Alfheim to be their home."

"How would that work," Lee asked, "if I kept working here on Earth as a 'mancer?"

Laurin gave her that quirky half a smile. "You could commute."

"I suppose I could," Lee allowed, smiling back a little. His hair was mussed, coming a little loose from the leather tie. He was sweating under the LA sun. He had dirt all over his hands and on the knees of his jeans. It was--ever so much more attractive than the Alfen perfection he'd had, before. Lee crossed her legs and tried to remember what else she'd meant to ask.

Laurin finished situating the rose bush in the ground and waved his finger at it and Lee's rose bush. "Now then," he addressed the bushes, "the two of you are going to get along. Understand?"

"Why did you want me to have your roses?" Lee asked.

"Because they're beautiful," said Laurin, "and you're beautiful." He had her blushing again, damn it. "And it's traditional. Occasionally, I like tradition."

He wiped his hands on his jeans and stood. He offered Lee his hand, and she stood too. "Why do you want to marry me?" she asked.

"Your fairy tales make this sound so much easier," he grumbled, taking her hands. "My fairy tales make this sound easier." He was close enough to kiss her now, but he didn't, yet. "I would have thought a forensic investigator like you would be a lot better with the hints."

"Some things, I prefer to be told directly," Lee said. "Like that proposal. And this."

"I love you," said Laurin. "You've seen all of me and didn't flinch. You--"

"Go back," said Lee.

"I love you," Laurin repeated obligingly, breaking into a smile.

"Magic words, those," Lee murmured. Laurin kissed her then, so Lee didn't have to make her fluttering stomach settle enough to let her return the sentiment. Lee put her arms around his shoulders and kissed him back.

Down the walk, Larry cleared his throat. "So. You guys heading back inside?" he asked. "Now that you're done with the gardening?"

"Yes," said Lee, without looking. "Get lost, Larry."

"Hey," said Larry, "I've still got to protect you, you know."

"He's the King of all elves," said Lee. "He can walk between worlds. If something comes up that he can't protect me from, we're all done for."

"Yeah, but," Larry said, rubbing his neck.

"I think," said Laurin, "that perhaps your bodyguard thinks he should be protecting you from me."

"Oh!" Lee laughed and looked at Larry. "His intentions are strictly honorable, I assure you."

"Really," said Larry.

"Really," Lee replied firmly. She led Laurin back in the house and shut the door behind them. If Larry felt the need to hang around outside, well, they'd opaque the privacy screens on the windows and let him wonder.

"Not strictly," Laurin said, hands on her waist. He lifted her up onto the kitchen counter and kissed her some more.

They made their way back to her bedroom eventually. Laurin pressed kisses all over her skin and where his fingers wandered after, he left little muddy swirls, on her breasts, on her stomach, on her hips, on her legs. Lee pressed her face into his shoulder and inhaled the scent of his sweat--that still unexpectedly human smell. Afterward, too languid to be nervous, Lee did tell him, at last, "I love you."