“Should a physiotherapist’s office be so high up?” Jahni asked, as they sat in the waiting room fifteen floors up. He nodded over at a young woman reading a magazine, a pair of crutches at her side. “What about people with bad legs?”
“There are lifts, Kahil.”
“Mr Madari?” A woman in a white tunic came out into the waiting room, carrying a chart. “Hello,” she said, shaking Madari’s hand when he rose to meet her. “I’m Phillipa Dryden.”
“Ms Dryden, hello.” He glanced at Jahni who was probably intending to sit here and read magazines. “Kahil, why don’t you take a walk and meet me in the lobby in an hour?”
“I can wait.”
“Don’t be silly, you’ll be bored.”
“Well, I’ll come back up to collect you anyway. You’ll be tired.”
“Oh it’s really just an assessment today,” Phillipa said. “We’ll start the real work next time.”
“See? I can manage the lift just fine.”
Clearly reluctant, but obeying, Jahni left the waiting room and Phillipa led Madari back into the treatment rooms.
“Sorry about Kahil,” he said, sitting in a chair by her desk. “He’s inclined to be overprotective.”
“You two seem very close,” she said, as she brought up information on a computer terminal. “Is he your brother?”
“Brother, oh no…” And what did he say then? He could just say ‘friend’, he was sure she wouldn’t pry. Or he could bite that bullet and say it. Say what exactly? What word should he use?
“No. We live together. That is, in a few days we will. We’re sorting out the house now.”
“Oh, right. Well don’t forget to give the receptionist your new address.”
“I have it here, actually.” He pulled out a card. Face had had a supply of them printed up. Phillipa took the card and glanced at the address.
“Nice location,” she said, clipping the card to his chart.
That was it. No ‘leave my office, you deviant, I don’t treat the likes of you.’
“Right,” she said. “Let’s go over your medical history and then I’ll do the assessment so we can see where we are.”
We’re in California, Madari thought. Though right now, I’m starting to wonder if we’re in Paradise. Perhaps this wouldn’t last—they’d meet someone who wouldn’t accept them—but he would enjoy it while it did.
An hour later Madari found Jahni in the lobby with his usual air of waiting for it to be attacked and they fell into step as they walked into the underground parking lot.
“How did it go?”
“Very well. She helped me a lot. Shall we get some lunch?” He wore a small smile that made Jahni look at him oddly. Should he tell him? Soon. Over lunch. He’d had somewhere in mind for lunch since this morning when he’d slipped another card into his pocket. One that came from the folder Lowell gave them. When they found their new car, he gave Jahni the address, only a couple of blocks away.
He had become a little nervous by the time they arrived, parking the car in a nearby lot and walking half a block to the cafe. The area might be called bohemian, with several bookshops, small art galleries and cafes. Madari was looking for one particular cafe, but he was prepared to turn around and go to another if there was anything…strange about it.
“The Rainbox?” Jahni said, when Madari stopped by it. “Funny name. Shouldn’t it be rainbow? They have a picture of a rainbow on the sign.”
“Who knows, Kahil? Maybe it was a misprint.”
It looked okay. There were some tables outside where a few people sat drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Nobody gave them a second look as they walked inside.
To Madari’s relief the place seemed quite sedate. The time was approaching two in the afternoon and the lunch rush must be over, but still most tables were occupied. They found a free one and in a moment a waitress, with startling purple hair, piercings and black clothes appeared. She had a friendly manner though and took their order with a smile.
Jahni looked around. Madari watched him as he caught the eyes of a couple of men and then turned back to Madari, frowning.
“What’s going on, Faris?”
“This place is apparently ‘gay friendly’. I’m not quite sure what that means. But it certainly seems friendly.”
“Given the way some of the men are looking at me it certainly seems gay, too.” He gave a wry smile. “I suppose I should get used to it.”
“The perils of being gorgeous, my dear Kahil.”
He didn’t whisper it, as he would normally have done and was gratified to see a blush tinge Jahni’s cheeks. He took out the card he’d been carrying.
“It was in that folder Lowell gave us.” There’d been a few cards and leaflets for cafes, bookshops, advice centres. Lowell was clearly a perceptive man.
Jahni took the card just as the waitress came back with their sandwiches, coffee and cakes.
“Oh, is that one of our advertising cards?” she said as she distributed the things from the tray.
“Yes. A friend gave it to us,” Jahni said, tucking it away in a pocket.
“Are you fellas new to LA? You have such nice accents.”
“We’re new to America not just LA,” Jahni told her. “Only visited before. Now we live here.”
“I hope we see you in here plenty. We’ve got more seating upstairs. Armchairs, if you want to stay for a while. It’s a nice, no pressure place to hang, you know?”
“Hang…hang out, yes it seems very nice.” Madari wondered what the ‘no pressure’ part meant.
“There are books, magazine, papers up there and sometimes in the evening we have live poetry readings.”
“Oh, we’ll definitely be back for one of those.” Madari flicked Jahni a glare to stop him rolling his eyes. Not a poetry lover.
“My warrior poet,” Jahni said with a smirk when the waitress left.
“Perhaps I’ll stand up and read some of my father’s poetry.”
“In Arabic? Oh yeah, that’ll go down a bomb. And that’s what they’ll probably think it’s about!”
“Kahil, please, don’t make assumptions. I would expect the people who come here are quite open minded.”
Jahni shrugged. “I suppose.” He bit his sandwich and had soon demolished half of it. Madari ate his more slowly.
“By the way,” Madari said, pausing to sip some coffee. “I told Ms Dryden about us.”
He probably should have waited until Jahni had finished eating. After Jahni finished trying to inhale steak and cheese, he drank some coffee, wiped his watering eyes and spoke in a voice weak and cracked from coughing.
“You what? About us us?”
Madari chuckled. “She asked if you were my brother—which is what you get for coming over as so protective. I’m surprised she didn’t ask if you were my mother. Anyway, I told her no, that we were moving in together.”
“Was she okay about it?”
“She never…I think the expression is ‘never batted an eyelash’.”
“Eyelid I think. But, I can’t believe it. After all my nagging, you’re the one who does it first.”
“I thought it could be a rehearsal, shall we say. If she reacted badly, well, no harm done.”
“It’s not the same as telling the team though.”
“I know. But I’m feeling better about that all the time. This Saturday, we’ll have to do it. We can’t put it off any longer.”
“What do we actually say?” Jahni asked. He had finished the sandwich, but didn’t start right in on the piece of cake, instead started to tear it into small pieces. “Living together is a bit ambiguous. They know we’re going to be living together.”
“We could just say we’re lovers.”
Jahni winced. “I don’t know if I can say that. That word. It’s too…sexual to say to other people.”
“Getting coy, Kahil?”
“Maybe. What about partner? I’ve seen that a lot.”
“Partner?” Madari grimaced at that. “I don’t know. That’s so…bloodless.”
“That’s why I like it. It’s kind of neutral, it doesn’t make people uncomfortable.”
Madari sighed. “You deserve more than ‘partner’.”
“Oh, please, no.”
Madari grimaced. “For a man my age?”
“Sugar daddy?” Jahni grinned.
“Now you’re being foolish.”
“I think we should go now.”
Moving day couldn’t be called a spectacular affair. Most of the things they’d bought had gone straight to the house, so they had only a few personal belongings to fetch from Hannibal and Murdock’s houses.
When Madari and Hannibal arrived BA and Face were already standing outside beside their cars, BA carrying a measuring tape and a big notebook. As soon as they got inside he started measuring up for his security system.
The tooting of a horn a few minutes later told them Murdock and Jahni had arrived. Madari almost ran to the door to see Jahni walk up the steps to the front door grinning. He carried a large bag over one shoulder and in his free hand he had a long bundle, well wrapped up in oil cloth. Madari thought he knew what it was. They had already installed brackets on the wall, ready to hold the reminders of the careers they’d lost, here in the home that reminded them of everything they had gained.
“Welcome home,” Madari said to Jahni, and embraced him, wished he dared kiss him. But that would have to wait until they were alone.
“Welcome home,” Jahni echoed.
“So which room do we put your stuff in, Kahil?” Face asked. “Did you two decide who gets the master bedroom yet?”
Madari thought the world held its breath in that moment. Face had given him a cue. Jahni gave him a wide-eyed look as he stepped out of Madari’s arms and Murdock’s expression could only mean: ‘now or never’.
“We both do,” Madari said. As coming out speeches went it lacked drama. He watched Face closely, seeing an initially puzzled look turn to shock. Before he could say anything, Murdock picked up Jahni’s bag which he’d dropped to the floor.
“So let’s put this away before someone falls over it.”
Hannibal looked at them for a moment, then shrugged and went into the living room.
“You’re probably best off sealing the window in the guest bedroom shut,” BA said, making a note on his pad, “If there ain’t gonna be anyone sleeping in there.”
“Good idea,” Madari said. “Thank you, BA, I, ah appreciate it.” BA just grunted and went off into the guest bedroom to measure things.
“You’re both using the master bedroom,” Face said. “Together. You’re…”
“Together. Yes.” Madari tried not to put any kind of challenge in the words, dreading Face would turn around and walk out of the door.
“And in other shock news,” Murdock said, “The sky is blue and water is wet. We gonna stand here all day? Work to do.”
Face didn’t walk out of the door. But he still wore a look of shock. “I’m just gonna…I’ll sort the kitchen out.”
There wasn’t really anything to sort out in the kitchen, but Madari didn’t try to stop him as he headed in there. He turned a helpless look to Murdock.
“Give him some time,” Murdock said. “He just needs to work through it in his mind. He’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah…99% sure anyway.”
Late in the afternoon, Madari found Face sitting out on the deck, nursing a cup of coffee and smoking a cigar. Face had worked on jobs around the house like the rest of them all day, but had done so alone and stayed quiet. He’d barely spoken over lunch. It was time to talk to him, Madari decided. He unfolded the other chair and sat down.
“Face, I value your good opinion and your friendship. If I’ve lost those things, please tell me.”
Face blew some cigar smoke out. He was smoking one of Madari’s cigars. It had to be a good sign that he’d accepted one when Madari handed them out.
“I don’t like feeling I’ve been lied to,” Face said. “No man likes to feel that.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve tried not to actually lie. But I’ve certainly omitted telling you things.”
“I’m not saying I had some kind of right to know. It’s your business after all. I just…I’m disappointed you didn’t think you could trust me.”
Madari clasped his hands together, thinking of the times he might have told Face at least about what he felt for Kahil. Had he believed in those moments that he couldn’t trust this man? No. But…
“You must understand, it was hard to trust anyone. The stakes were so high the consequences so bad… I’m sorry. You’re right. I could have trusted you, but I was too afraid to.”
They sat in silence for a while, watching the ocean.
“How long?” Face asked quietly.
“We…. had feelings for each other for many years, since before we met you. But it was a long time before we could admit even that much. And as for…well, our relationship only became…physical last year.”
Face didn’t look at him, stared out at the ocean. Did he blush? Was he angry? Impossible to say, the setting sun giving his skin a pink tinge anyway.
“You were married. We came to your wedding. Was that some kind of sham? A cover up?”
“No!” Madari snapped. “It was a mistake, I know that now. I was using Sophia to try to escape my feelings. But my relationship with her was genuine. We were man and wife. I cared for her. I still…” His voice caught. “I still mourn her.”
Face turned to look at him at last, a long assessing look, his head tilted on the side, like a man studying a picture. Madari tried to hold his gaze, but had to look away.
“So, you guys went for years carrying this secret. Never knowing if you’d ever be free. Never knowing if one day you’d be dragged off to jail.”
“Yes,” Face echoed, expression thoughtful. He nodded and stood up suddenly. Madari rose too. He stopped Face with a hand on his arm as Face went to pass him to go inside.
“Please, I need to know if you are okay with this, or if when you leave my house tonight you plan to never return.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m ‘okay’ with it. I really don’t want to hear anything about it. But, I still owe my life to you guys. That hasn’t changed.” He rubbed his forehead, sighed tiredly. “I guess I just need some time to think it through.”
Madari couldn’t even guess the outcome. Face might come around, he might not. But they wouldn’t know that for sure tonight. Face was a deeper thinker than he liked to let on.
“Hey!” Hannibal’s voice interrupted them, as he poked his head out of the French doors from the living room. “Come on in here, you two. Got a little ceremony going on.” He vanished back inside. Face nodded to Madari and passed him to go inside. Subject closed. For now.
In the living room Jahni and Murdock knelt by the coffee table, unwrapping the dress swords Madari and Jahni had sent to the team before the coup. Two sets of padded hooks waited on the wall.
“How’s Ahmed’s sword doing?” Madari asked Murdock. He’d never regretting making a gift of it to Murdock. Jahni had told him Murdock found it comforting.
“It’s fine. Hanging up in my living room. Got a great view of the TV. Loves the Mexican wrestling.”
BA grumbled something mostly unintelligible and Hannibal grinned. Murdock stood up and handed what Madari recognised as Jahni’s sword to him. He was about to protest it was the wrong one, but he caught Jahni’s eye and realised, no, he had the right one. Jahni stood carrying Madari’s.
The two of them stepped up to the hooks on the wall. Madari nodded at Jahni to go first and he did, placing the sabre carefully on the top set of hooks, then running his hand along the ebony scabbard’s shallow curve.
Madari lifted Jahni’s sword and placed it on the other set of hooks. They stepped back. The two swords were different in detail, but formed the same shape against the plain, painted wall. Echoed each other. Different, but the same at heart.
Jahni put his arm around Madari, smiling up at him. “Home,” he mouthed. Madari put an arm around his shoulders. Wherever he was with Jahni was home.
They turned back around as they heard glasses clinking, then the pop of a champagne cork. Hannibal and Murdock shoved foaming glasses into their hands. Face stepped forward to make the toast, surprising Madari. He raised his glass, his face serious.
“To happiness. Long delayed only makes it more precious.”
The glasses clinked together, as they all echoed the words. Murdock downed his champagne in one gulp and then grinned at Face.
“Good toast, Face. Good toast.”
Jahni stopped to buy a newspaper on the way back towards the house from his morning run. He’d have to work out a route, he thought. Or perhaps he’d jog along the beach, though he’d never much liked running on sand. Or perhaps he shouldn’t have a usual route. His old security habits were still ingrained. Just as back at home he’d varied his route from home to barracks, so here he should vary the route he took for his morning run. Just in case.
The thought they could still be in danger made him run faster, wanting to be back at the house with Madari. Wanting to get back and share their first breakfast there together. Madari had been awake when Jahni left and Jahni wondered if he’d find him out of bed, or if he’d have gone back to sleep. Either of those scenarios had attractive possibilities.
He fished the keys from his pocket as he approached the door and went inside. “Faris? You up?”
He found Madari cracking eggs into a bowl. He wore sweat pants and a baggy T-shirt and his hair was still wet from the shower. Quite deliciously casual and domestic.
“I bought a paper,” Jahni said, dropping it on the table, going to Madari’s side and kissing him on the cheek. He smelled good, all fresh and cool.
“We should see about having one delivered. I’m not sure how we do that here.”
“I’ll ask Murdock.”
“Okay. Go and take a shower. Breakfast on the deck in ten minutes.”
Perfect, Jahni thought, heading to the bathroom, shedding his clothes as he went. Could a man be any happier than this? Actually, yes, he thought. Madari still seemed a little preoccupied. Had been since the team left last night. Jahni hadn’t wanted to ask about it yet, trying to just enjoy their first night together in their house.
He turned on the shower, started to soap up with the same citrusy scented shower gel he’d smelled on Madari.
Perfect happiness couldn’t last, even if they achieved it for a while. Things would change as they slid into a domestic routine. They’d even have arguments. But meanwhile he had to find out what was bothering Madari. If there was even one flaw in their happiness, Jahni wanted it gone.
When Jahni came onto the deck a few minutes later, wearing boxer shorts and an untied bathrobe Madari looked up from the newspaper and stared at him. There were people around on the beach, enjoying the fine Sunday morning.
“Ah, Kahil, that’s a little immodest.”
“When you’re a hot as me, who needs to be modest?” He grinned. “Let them enjoy the view.”
“Really, Kahil! You’re becoming quite outrageous.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t love it.” He sipped a glass of orange juice.
Madari rolled his eyes and looked at the newspaper again.
“Usual news from home,” he said. “Less of it all the time too. The world is losing interest.” He sighed. “If we want to keep up with what’s happening we’ll probably have to get an Arabic language newspaper. I’ve seen them in other parts of the city.”
“Good idea.” Jahni buttered some toast and scooped scrambled eggs from a covered bowl onto his plate. Madari dropped the paper onto the deck and pulled his chair close to the table. He started filling his own plate.
“I’ve been thinking about the guest room,” Jahni said. “We should get rid of that bed and use the room for something else. I could get some gym equipment.”
“We could get a decent sized desk in there,” Madari said. “Make it a study. But I was hoping we’d be able to have guests too.”
We’ll think of something.” Jahni sipped his coffee. “What guests were you thinking of?”
“Karen perhaps. Alex. I know, back home it would be unacceptable for them to stay, but here…”
“Nobody would even blink,” Jahni said. He grinned. “And they’d be perfectly safe with us.”
“I’m hoping to bring Kibibi over for a visit too. Perhaps next summer, during the school holidays. It would be quite an adventure for her. And she still talks about the team—Face especially—in her letters. I’m sure she’d like to meet them again.”
Jahni saw a tiny grimace cross Madari’s face when he said ‘Face’ .
“Faris, did anything upset you last night? You’ve seemed a bit out of sorts since the team left. You were talking to Face out here, weren’t you? Was there a problem?”
“He isn’t finding it easy to accept what we told them. He feels we didn’t trust him. And he’s just not very comfortable with the whole situation. We’ll have to be careful around him, not to offend him.”
Jahni snorted. “If Face has a problem, that’s his problem.”
“Don’t be so defensive. Face has a right to his views. And remember he is a Catholic.”
Jahni sighed. “I’m sorry. You’re right of course. I’ll be discreet.” With all they owed each other, the two of them and the team, Face had earned some time to get used to the idea. They couldn’t demand acceptance from him. “The others were okay though. Well Murdock already knew of course. And BA just doesn’t pry anyway. I was surprised Hannibal didn’t say more though.” He poured himself more coffee from the pot, and topped up Madari’s cup.
“I think he might have suspected for a while, so maybe it’s no shock.”
Jahni sat back in his chair with his cup. “Is anything else bothering you?”
Madari looked at him and shook his head. “You’ve only been living in California a few months and you’re already well into the whole therapy idea.”
Jahni chuckled. “Faris, I’ve been your therapist for some time.”
“Really? In that case it’s not at all appropriate for us to be sleeping together.”
Madari chuckled and shook his head. He looked out at the beach, one hand resting on the railing around the deck. Near the waves a group of young people ran around, playing, splashing in the water. Their laughter and the shrieks from the girls floated over on the breeze.
“I just feel we have unfinished business. We’re settling down here and making a new life. Comfortable. Happy. And yet the vow I made to avenge Sophia is unfulfilled. Saifullah’s still alive.”
“He’s beyond our reach now. Sophia would understand that. She wouldn’t expect you to go back into danger.”
“I suppose.” Madari sighed, sounding unconvinced.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and someone will assassinate him?”
Madari stared, as if the thought had not occurred to him. Then he gave a grim smile. “That would be satisfactory.”
And if someone did, Jahni wondered, did that mean they’d go back home? Try to take up their old lives? No, surely they’d passed the point of no return yesterday when they moved in together. They could never go back now.
Assuming their enemies knew about that of course. Were they watched? Did the enemy already know they were lovers and not simply housemates? His best hope lay in persuading Madari to be as open as possible. Not easy, given his naturally discreet and private nature—not to mention the long years of practice in keeping this secret.
He fought an urge to lean over and kiss him. Too outrageous. But he did reach out and stroke a hand through Madari’s hair. Madari smiled at him.
“What was that for?”
“Just you. Just for you.”
There was a woman jogging along the beach, a dog running with her. Not the same woman or the same dog Jahni had seen in his desert vision of the possible life he could have with Madari. But the image was close enough. Jahni waved to her—one neighbour to another—and she waved back.
“You know her?” Madari asked.
Close enough. 99%. Madari’s misgivings about allowing Saifullah to go on breathing were the only small damper on their happiness.
Perhaps that was inevitable. Paradise didn’t exist. Not here, not after death. But a man could make his own Paradise and they had made this one. An imperfect Paradise but theirs.
“I found you,” he said to Madari, who looked at him questioningly. “At last I found you in Paradise.”
Madari smiled and sighed. “Yes. I’ve pictured us here so many times. It’s hard to say if reality matches up or not. It’s almost too intense to take in.”
“Would you like to go back inside now?”
“Why? It’s very pleasant out here.”
“I could make things even more pleasant back inside.” He winked and enjoyed the way Madari’s eyes widened and his cheeks burned.
“Ah, Kahil, I do believe you’ve hit on the perfect way to spend the morning.”
Yes, he had. What better than bliss and ecstasy to fill their days here in Paradise? What better way to make up for all those years they’d turned their backs on the happiness they could have had?
No better way.
They stood and he took Madari’s hand and, when they stepped over the threshold, pulled him close with an arm around his waist. Anyone watching them couldn’t fail to see the kind of relationship they had.
Jahni wouldn’t let anyone take this happiness away from him, not even Madari himself. They were past the point of no return. They would never return to Qumar. They were home now.
Saifullah lived and yet they were free and happy.
Surely there was still victory in that?