Chapter 2

There were not two but three Talessanins when they arrived at Mac’s for lunch. Hanna gritted her teeth and waved them over to the table where she waited with Rachel and Tiffany. The addition of the slender, dark-skinned man with the striking amber eyes and quiet, reserved manner blew Rachel’s careful seating arrangement all to bits. Her strategy had been Divide and Conquer: Rachel and Tiffany facing Hanna across the table, with the fourth chair and another one filched from a nearby table placed at the ends for the aliens.

As it was, Tomin and the new guy took the ends, and Jon pulled another chair up on Hanna’s side of the table, making her wonder if their seating strategy was Surround and Subdue.

She certainly felt surrounded, with Jon’s bulky presence dominating the space on her right and the new guy occupying the end of the table to her left, but she refused to be subdued so she took a deep breath and cheerfully introduced her friends. After the three men had made their apparently obligatory bows and declared themselves honored to meet everyone, Jon informed the women that the new guy was called Chance. Since Hanna’s knees were practically wedged up against Chance’s under the table, she reflexively put her hand out to shake his as she said, “It’s nice to meet you.”

Chance hesitated, glancing first at Jon, then at Tomin, and Hanna realized her mistake; they didn’t shake hands, they bowed. She froze, hot blood rushing to her face again, but Chance nodded solemnly and reached over to grasp her hand in a firm shake. The chestnut-brown membranes between his even darker fingers wrapped around her hand, and she was pleasantly surprised to find the touch warm, and soft, and not at all disagreeable. What had she expected, cold and clammy?

A flustered waitress interrupted the moment, handing around menus, and the ensuing food recommendations and explanations gave Hanna’s heart time to slow to a normal pace again—at least until she noticed the uncertain, curious stares their table was drawing from the restaurant’s other patrons. Talessanins were supposed to appear on TV, not in the neighborhood bar and grill. Well, Hanna supposed they would all just have to get used to it.

After everyone ordered and the waitress went away, an uncomfortable quiet descended over the table. Rachel arranged and rearranged her knife and fork. Tiffany pretended to read the advertisements on the folded cardboard centerpiece and surreptitiously stared at Chance’s hands, which rested on the table. Hanna tried desperately to think of something to say as she glanced around the group. She almost came up with something, but then she caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye of Jon gazing at her, his head tilted quizzically to one side, and whatever she’d thought of evaporated.

It was Tomin who finally broke the silence. “Hanna,” he said, “Chance was very sorry to have missed your visit.”

Chance took his cue. “Yes,” he said, “I was in the back yard repairing connections on Jon’s hot tub, and when I came inside there was chocolate cake, like a gift from the Sower.”

Tiffany’s eyes lit up at the mention of the hot tub, but then confusion clouded her face. “The Sower?” she asked.

“The predominant Talessanin creation myth,” Tomin explained in the tone of an experienced tour guide. “An omnipotent being who scatters the seeds of life throughout the universe. The tradition offers a very poetic explanation for the similarities between Talessanins and humans, actually—seeds from the same tree sown in different gardens, but growing into trees that yield the same fruit.”

Jon interrupted him. “Tomin has been working as a media relations officer at the Talessanin embassy in North America,” he said. “He can tell you a great deal about Talessanin history, culture, and tradition if you let him. But you do not have to let him.”

Tomin laughed. “I do have a tendency to lecture. The point is, it was kind of you to bring us a cake, Hanna. Thank you.”

Hanna blushed. She seemed to be blushing a lot today. “It was no trouble,” she said, floundering in her head for a way to shift the conversation away from herself. “So . . . an embassy media relations officer; that’s impressive, Tomin. What do the rest of you do for a living?”

For a moment nobody said anything, and she worried that she’d shut the conversation down again. Then Chance said quietly, “The three of us served in the same unit during our basic military service, before Jon joined one of the specialized forces, and Tomin went into the diplomatic division. Jon recently retired and decided to come experience Earth culture first hand for a while, and he invited us along for company.” He shrugged. “I mostly fix things.”

Tomin grinned. “You certainly fixed the hot tub.” Was he changing the subject? “It should be filled and heated by the time we get home. I can’t wait to try it out.”

Tiffany was starting to relax a little and didn’t let another opportunity slip past; she beamed her full, blond, Tiffany simper at him. “I love hot tubs! You should totally have a party!”

Tomin stared at her, then chuckled. “You know, maybe we should. It would be a great community relations move, Jon. People wouldn’t be as nervous to have us in the neighborhood if they’d been to our home and had a good time.” His eyes flicked sideways, seeming to indicate the watchful locals, and his head tilted slightly as he looked back at Jon.

“Ever the diplomat, Tomin.” Jon sighed, and Hanna tried not to flinch as the big man shifted to lean forward. “But whom would we invite? We have met only one neighbor and her friends. And I am not certain even you know enough about human culture to do it properly.”

“Oh!” Tiffany practically squealed. “Rachel could help you with the planning. She does great parties!”

Rachel laughed. “And Tiffany has a lot of friends she’d love to invite.”

“Are you serious?” Hanna demanded. “You two just met these guys, you can’t invite all your friends over to their house!”

“Of course they can!” Tomin protested. “It would be fun. Say yes, Jon.”

Jon frowned.

Chance reached across Hanna and poked his big friend hard in the shoulder. Grinning, he said, “Live a little. You just retired.”

Jon sighed. “Yes. When?”

Tiffany did a little flutter clap under her perky chin.

Tomin thumped his webbed hands down on the table and asked, “Rachel, how quickly can you plan?”

Rachel grinned. “How quickly do you want me to plan?”

“Could we do it tonight?” Tomin asked.

“Wait a minute,” Hanna interrupted. “Don’t you need to finish unpacking or something?”

Tomin shrugged. “The furniture store set everything up when they delivered it, and when you’re in the military like Jon and Chance, you cart everything you need around in one trunk. I’m only here on extended leave, so I just had a few things to put away, myself. There’s really no unpacking left to do.”

That opened the floodgates, and by the time the food arrived, Rachel and Tomin were talking animatedly about budgets and caterers, and Tiffany’s fingers were flying on her cell phone texting all the “right” people in Freebridge.

Jon sat silent, his face bemused.

Hanna shook her head and chewed the end of a french fry. When she caught Jon looking down at her, she swallowed hard and cleared her throat. “I apologize for my friends. They do this sometimes. You can’t stop them once it goes this far.” The expression on his face made her smile as she looked away.

Tiffany kicked her playfully under the table and kept on texting. “You’re coming this time, right Hanna?” she asked.

Hanna took another bite of french fry to give herself a moment to think. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I might have a date with Mr. Bickles tonight.”

Tiffany stopped texting. “Are you serious Hanna? You’d throw over a hot tub party with the only extraterrestrials in town for a date with Mr. Bickles? You need to have your head examined.”

Hanna shrugged. “A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do, Tiff.”