"I'm back," Carl called, tossing his jacket over the back of the nearest chair. It had been chilly coming through Grand Central, down where the gates were, but at home it was just another sweltering August afternoon. Annie and Monty came bounding out of somewhere in the back of the back of the house to greet him and he grinned as he gave them each a scratch. "Take it easy guys, I was only gone a few hours. Where's Tom?"

He's out back, digging for bones, Monty said. He cocked his head to one side. We told him he wouldn't find any. Bones, huh? Carl made his way through the house and into the backyard, rolling up his sleeves as he went. It had to be ninety outside.

He found Tom on his knees in the middle of a flowerbed, with dirt caked up to his elbows and smeared across his brow. Sweat stuck his gray T-shirt to his back and darkened his graying hair. He glanced up and grinned.

"How was it?" he asked, stabbing his garden fork into the dirt and prying up an old, mean dandelion.

"Fine. Rhiow says hello." He watched Tom for another minute. "What are you doing?" Tom sat back on his heels and wiped the back of his arm across his forehead, leaving another smear of dirt.

"Gardening."

"Well, I can see that," Carl said. "I thought you hated gardening."

"Somebody has to do it. Just look at these weeds."

"So have Nita talk to them; she's good with living things."

"She was," Tom said. "I was looking at her entry in the manual, and she's starting to lean another way; prophetic stuff." Carl groaned.

"As if we didn't have enough of that already with the koi, and Peach ..." They were silent for a moment, remembering their fallen friend. "I hope she can handle it," Carl said. "It can drive you nuts."

"Oh, like you know," Tom said with a grin. "Hand me that hose, will you? This rhododendron is all wilty." Carl picked up the hose and looked at the spray nozzle on the end, and then he turned the water on.

"Here you go," he said, his fingers catching on the nozzle trigger and sending a blast of cold water into Tom's back. Tom cried out in surprise and twisted away from it, his T-shirt pulling tight across his broad chest. "Oh, sorry about that," Carl said. Tom lurched to his feet and Carl hit him in the chest with another blast. "Uh oh, time to go," Carl said with a laugh. He dropped the hose and turned to make a run for the house, but Tom's long arms caught him around the waist.

"Where do you think you're going?" Tom asked. "It's your turn to get dirty." He took a step backward, toward the garden, but their feet tangled in the hose and they wound up sprawled out in the grass, laughing too hard to get up, with Carl's head on Tom's chest. "Oh, I've missed you," Tom said when he was able to catch his breath.

"I was only gone for a few hours," Carl protested. He thought about getting up, getting off of Tom, but it wouldn't hurt to enjoy it for just another minute.

"Not that," Tom said. "We've both been so busy the last few weeks, I hardly ever see you, and we never talk, and I never get the chance to do this!" He grabbed the hose and shoved the nozzle down the front of Carl's shirt, spraying him with cold water. Carl laughed and pulled away, rolling onto his back in the deep grass. Tom sat up, a mischievous glint in his eye as he raised the sprayer, but then he dropped it and stretched out beside Carl, propping himself up on one elbow as he ran his knuckles down Carl's cheek. Tom smiled and leaned toward him --

"Tom? Carl? You guys back -- Oh!" Carl raised his head and glanced past Tom's shoulder. Kit and Nita had just come around the side of the house and stood staring, manuals in hand.

Oh, shit, now what? Carl asked silently.

Watch your language, Tom said. Just act casual. To the kids, he said, "Hey, you two, what's up?" He sat up and used the bottom of his T-shirt to wipe his face.

"Well ..." Kit said, casting a sideways glance at Nita, "we just had a couple of questions about this whole Mars-thing --"

"But we can come back later," Nita added quickly. Tom waved his hands at them.

"No, no, we were just messing around in the garden. Go on inside and say hi to the dogs; we'll be right behind you." The kids exchanged another glance, and Carl could almost hear what they were thinking. "What?" Tom said with a laugh, "just because we're Seniors, we aren't allowed to goof off once in a while?" He grabbed the hose again. "Now get inside before I blast you both." They grinned and headed into the house. "And you better help yourselves to a soda, too!" Tom called after them. he waited until back door swung closed, and then looked down at Carl. "See, piece of cake."

"Do you think they know?" Carl asked. Tom shrugged.

"Probably. They're smart kids."

"Do you think they care?" Another shrug.

"Probably not. Like I said, they're smart kids. If they don't know already, they'll learn real soon that the most consistent way to fight the Lone Power is to love someone, because that which is loved can never truly die." Carl smiled up at him and reached out, catching hold of the front of his shirt and pulling him down. Their lips met, warm and soft and a little gritty with dirt. Carl closed his eyes, his lips parting to allow Tom into his mouth. He let go of the T-shirt and reached out, feeling across the grass until he touched the hard, slick plastic of the hose, and then his lips quirked in a smile. Tom just groaned.