It is a quiet, crowded little street, well away from the main thoroughfares.
Not the sort of place to attract aimless pedestrians or loiterers.
Salim supposes this would make his american quite difficult to overlook, even were he not sitting on the doorstep like a lost cat.
“You might have knocked,” he points out mildly, coming to sit beside him.
Perhaps he ought to be alarmed. Mystified, at the very least. The marine is a surreal sight, so far out of context.
The man glances over, not quite at him, dark eyes flicking sideways under half-lowered lids.
“Thought you might be asleep.”
Sleep does not look to be something the man has had much of lately, but possibly that is only the exhaustion of travel.
It is odd how only one day, even if it were the longest and strangest of Salim's life, can make a formerly unknown accent so strangely familiar. Salim thinks perhaps he never entirely stopped hearing it in these last months; that there has been a small, Jason-shaped voice in the back of his mind to keep him company through so many changes and dark moments of disquieting memory.
Perhaps this is why it does not feel as strange as it should, finding him here.
Jason is not wearing any sort of insignia. Even his tattoos are covered by long sleeves. But Salim recognizes elements of standard issue wear, all with that faded, frayed look of hard wearing; scuffed boots and durable trousers nevertheless at the edge of wearing through at the knees. It does nothing to diminish the look of a lost stray.
There are many questions Salim could be asking.
“How have you found me.”
“Why have you found me.”
It's a pleasant morning. The narrow street is in shadow, and there's a profound chill in the air, but sunlight is just beginning to guild the rooftops in gold. The city traffic and early morning bustle are a distant background.
So very peaceful.
“It is good to see you,” Salim says, instead of anything else.
The man's smile is a small, lopsided affair. Not, perhaps, very certain of that welcome.
Well. Salim means it. His american is a pleasant sight.
Surreal, but pleasant.
“I've thought of you,” he says. That little voice in the back of his mind. The one he could talk to, in the privacy of his own head, about things no one else would understand. The one who was there, in the dark. The one who came back for him.
“Zain is well,” he continues, casual as speaking to an old friend met by chance. He chooses to ignore the subtle tension in Jason's posture, that air of someone who might never have quite managed to ring the doorbell behind him, not at any time of day. “He has many new friends, much to keep him busy.”
He'd brought a mug of tea with him from the house. He holds it for a moment, letting the warmth soak into his hands, before handing it to the man beside him. Jason unbends a little to take it, boots scuffing the pavement as he shifts.
“What about you?” he asks.
Salim considers the question. Exhausted. Emptied. Adrift. And so very glad to be alive.
“Content,” he decides, “well enough.”
Jason's smile is a little more real this time, if still strangely subdued. Salim leans back, stretching his neck as he looks up at the sunlit rooftops. “I think I will stay here for a while,” he says, to them as much as to Jason.
Zain has a life of his own here, a very demanding and busy one, and an entire future ahead of him full of people and places Salim had only dreamt of in his own younger days. He has no intention of taking this time from his son.
And yet... he does not want so many miles between them. Can not stand the thought of that distance, should anything go wrong.
“But I fear I am abusing the hospitality of my relatives. Today I will try to find an apartment of my own.” He lowers his head to find Jason watching him, only to look away again as though caught in something illicit.
He is so similar and so different to how Salim last remembers him, as though the time between has not been kind.
“What about you, my friend?”
Jason looks down at tea which by now must be cool enough to drink, but he only adjusts his grip on the cup.
“Just passing through,” he says.
This is not an answer to what Salim was asking, and also rather improbable, all things considered. Salim supposes again that he ought to be feeling something besides mild interest and pleasure in all of this, but he can't quite be bothered to.
It is such a very pleasant morning.
“My dad was a contractor for tenant buildings,” Jason volunteers abruptly, “I helped patch all kinds a' shitholes when I was younger. Making 'em look better than they were. I know all the tricks. Could come with, if you want. Help you pick out something decent.”
Still never quite meeting his eye.
“I would enjoy the company,” Salim says.
He does, too.
Jason is close to his old self by mid morning, throwing Salim constant looks along the theme of ”can you believe this shit” as they tour a collection of low-income housing which frequently appears to have already been inhabited by creatures which would leave some exterminator with a decent paycheck, if only the landlords could be persuaded to hire him.
It is very entertaining to watch. So entertaining that Salim doesn't quite get around to explaining that savings will only stretch so far, rent is high, and a foreign national with no steady income is not a favorite candidate in most tenant markets.
He should probably intervene before the man's attitude gets him blacklisted by every viable agent in the area.
“You can't stay here,” his american says for the fourth time that day, glaring at black specks on the bathroom wall and scuffing resentfully at the peeling linoleum.
“It is not so bad,” Salim lies. “Could be worse.”
Jason snorts. “Sure. Could be the last shithole we looked at. But you didn't survive vampires to die of a respiratory infection from black fucking mold and who the hell knows what else.”
So very indignant. As if the man himself hasn't certainly dwelled in far worse conditions, and isn't aware, as he must be, that Salim has too.
“Some of this shit ain't even legal.”
“No,” Salim doesn't retort, “this is why it is cheap.”
“I can make do,” he says instead.
Jason shoves his hands into his pockets, still glaring at the wall.
“I found a gig,” he says abruptly, “local. The pays not much, but enough to do better than this if we split it.”
And there's that tension again, something stretched tight and gone fragile. Salim looks at the back of the man's neck while Jason very decidedly does not look at him, and thinks of several things he could say. Pointed, amusing things; remarks he would never have held back down in the dark, even before Jason stopped threatening to shoot him.
And again, there are questions. So many questions. Except questions have answers, and his american looks very much ready to run instead of answering any of them.
“Where did you have in mind?”
It is a nice little apartment. Very small, but partially furnished, with a compact kitchen and no terribly objectionable smells or noticeable biological hazards.
“We can look for another mattress this weekend,” Salim suggests. There's one bedroom, and one bed, and little room to spare. He glances thoughtfully at the equally underscale living space. “Although I'm not sure where we will put it.”
Jason shrugs. “I'll take the couch fer now.”
'Couch' is a generous term.
“You are not so small as that,” Salim sizes him up critically, “not quite, anyway.”
Salim shrugs, and eyes the bed again. “It's big enough for two,” he decides.
Jason shifts uncomfortably, but it really is a very small couch, and apparently this “gig” of his begins quite early in the morning. Salim supposes he himself could offer to sleep in the living space instead.
He does not.
“Next weekend,” Jason agrees.
Salim is not clear on what Jason's work is, exactly.
Somehow, it continues to be easier not to ask these things. Easier to quip about dishes left in the sink, or parry Jason's persistent nagging about “what that shit is doing to your lungs, Salim,” or lapse into the comfortable silences of new-found habits.
All he knows about Jason's job is that it begins early, gives him callouses, and leaves him with an exhaustion so complete that he's very nearly docile with it in the evenings; half asleep by the second beer and dead on his feet when Salim convinces him to eat something instead of drinking his dinners.
He suspects that his marine is a marine no longer, but they don't talk about that, either.
Salim supposes that he understands about the questions. Why they can't happen. It's such a precarious comfort they've found; built carefully around the tension in Jason's shoulders whenever a comment from Salim comes too close even to something like “how was your day.”
Even such inane questions approach too close to bigger ones, ones about why, and where have you been all this time, my friend, what happened to you, what is happening to you.
Every time, the message in Jason's averted face is clear:
Don't ask, don't ask, don't ask .
'Don't tell,' Salim thinks, rueful and a bit sad, slotting a last clean plate into the rack as he hears Jason's key turn in the lock below.
Late Friday night, Salim wakes to find Jason shaking in the bed beside him. His back is turned, shoulders hunched. Salim thinks that his american might have cried out, but he's silent now, contained around whatever horrors the night brought him.
Mind still heavy, not quite awake, Salim reaches out to rest a hand between the man's shoulders. Jason startles, just a little, tensing further. Then he exhales. The tension leaves him slowly, painfully, as though willed away by hard-won degrees.
“Sorry,” he mutters, “didn't mean to wake you.”
As though that were any particular trouble worth apologizing for.
“We survived, friend,” Salim tells him, “it is over.” It is something he's told himself many times, until the words sunk in like warm sunlight into chilled stone, settling deep enough to believe.
He hears the hitch in Jason's breath. Sees him turn his face a little further into the pillow.
“Yeah,” he says, voice rough and muffled. “I know. 'm alright.”
Salim reluctantly lets his hand fall away.
His stubborn american would not let himself be anything else.
Especially if he wasn't.
“I'm here,” he says, only to sense some of the tension return to the body beside him. He suppresses a sigh, but it's a gentle thing he's feeling, as most things he feels these days are. His emotions are like the clothes Jason wears, all worn soft by too much use.
It's a fragile thing they have.
Perhaps too fragile.
But he trusts it anyway.
I'm here, he thinks, in that liminal half-asleep space where small words can mean so many big things, and half-smiles into his returning sleep.
The weekend comes and goes.
They do not bother to look for another mattress. It is such a small apartment, yes? And they're managing well enough.
The agreement, like so many other things, remains unspoken.
It is two weeks later when Salim learns that not all of his emotions have become gentle, resigned things.
A group of drunken students from Zain's university appear unnamed on the afternoon news, three hospitalized and one fatality, and Salim--
It is no rational response that he has, but he can not think for the dread of it, the unreasoning certainty that the worst has happened and that nothing is ever truly safe.
(Good Iraqi Muslims don't drink, of course, but they don't steal either. Salim loves his son, but he also knows his son).
Zain is young and carefree and far too busy to check his messages.
It is Jason, coming home to Salim's panic, who makes the calls and confirms that no, of the thousands of students in attendance at a large university, none of the five in that horrible accident are Salim's son.
It is some other parent who will be grieving tonight. Salim grieves for them, but it is relief that leaves him shattered.
Still, by the time Zain returns his call, he has found enough composure to sound otherwise, to sound reassuringly normal, to not sound like a man who knows dreadfully well how easily fragile young lives can be lost.
He smiles into the receiver, laughs, says the right things, and then buries his face in shaking hands after finally returning the phone to its cradle.
The not-really-quite-a-couch dips beside him. Paper rustles, and he smells what ought to be appetizing.
“You should eat something,” Jason tells him. Salim laughs into his hands. It's a weak sound, a little hysterical.
“I am old, Jason. I am old and tired and very, very frightened of what this world can do to all that we hold dear.”
“You're a parent,” Jason tells him, voice gone soft and a little rough, “a good one.”
Salim lowers his hands to look over at him. Wonders, not for the first time, who it was who'd failed his american so badly as to leave that look in his eyes.
And it's-- easy, leaning over, dropping his head on the man's shoulder. The tension is there again, but he ignores it, and Jason does not object.
“Yours were not, I think,” Salim says.
He watches Jason pick at a loose thread on his trousers. He has many to choose from. He has not changed from work, and there is a ridge of dark smudges across his thighs, as from carrying something heavy and oil-stained.
“This ain't about me.”
He watches, eyes half closed, as Jason flicks at the thread he'd been pulling before smoothing it down again. Finally the hand goes still, and Jason sighs.
“Dad was... drunk, mostly.” Salim waits. “Mom moved back in with her parents when I was ten. Took my kid sister with her.”
“But not you.”
“Nah.” Jason is very still now. “Guess I was already too much of a mess.”
Salim's eyes slide the rest of the way shut. “You are not too much of a mess, Jason.”
He feels as much as he hears the way his american's breath does that thing again-- that little catch and stutter, quickly suppressed.
“Eat your damned kebabs. They're getting' cold.”
That night Salim dreams of catastrophe. The images are alternatively formless and absurd, according to the logic of such things, but the feelings are sharp, familiar, and depthless in their dread.
He wakes in a cold sweat to a hand on his shoulder and a familiar voice speaking low.
He opens his eyes. Finds Jason close enough to surprise even himself, it seems, with the way he startles back. The hand doesn't leave, though, not quite.
“You were dreaming. Sounded... bad.”
Salim exhales. He can still feel that dream waiting for him, like an abyss at his back. He leans forward, away from it, dropping his head against Jason's chest.
Jason goes very still.
“Salim,” he croaks. Salim waits, but the man only swallows and doesn't go on.
“Stay,” Salim tells him, “I do not want to be alone. Not tonight.”
He does not know when it became so easy to be so selfish. When he became so certain he could ask such things. The certainty is simply there, solid as stone, and whatever objections Jason has swallowed down do not rise again.
His american settles beside him. The hand on his shoulder becomes an arm over his side. Hesitant, but there. Salim rests his face in the crook of Jason's neck. Sighs. Feels the man shudder against him, and wonders vaguely if the other will get any real sleep tonight.
Selfish, he thinks again, rueful, but without the energy for any true self-recrimination.
He finds his own rest easily enough.
It is pleasant to wake up tangled in another. This is not a sensation which Salim has enjoyed in, oh, over a decade?
Such a long time.
Even Jason's breathless swearing can't quite manage to spoil it. At least, not until he begins to disentangle himself as stealthily as a decent, if old, set of boxsprings will allow. Which is not very.
Salim opens his eyes.
His american has put as much space between them as the bed will allow. Again, this is not very much. He was quite close to the edge already. His arms are folded tightly, and he will not meet Salim's gaze.
“I think,” Salim says, setting himself up on one elbow and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, “that we should address this elephant in the room.”
He pauses, considering the phrase, and glances down. There is very much of nothing to see, what with the blanket, the former marine's general tendency to overdress for bed, and the fact that the man is apparently attempting to become one with the mattress. “I exaggerate. But perhaps not by much. Where do you keep it? It seems rather... disproportional.”
Amazing how much expression the man can fit into one word. It leaves Salim wondering idly about other things fitting other places. He turns the thought over in his head a few times, then gives a mental shrug and discards it.
Just now, his american looks truly miserable.
“I didn't plan this,” Jason says, as though it matters, as if Salim is accusing him of something. “I wasn't try'n-- I just-- fuck.”
“You did not wish to be alone.”
He watches Jason attempt to look at him, eyes never flicking higher than where Salim's elbow rests against the bed. Then he slumps. Shakes his head.
“Couldn't go back to it.” He's ducked his head, like Salim's gaze is heavy in more than the metaphorical sense, weighing him down. “All the killing. The bullshit. Not after.”
Salim considers him, the defeat in those words, in his posture. He waits.
“They gave me an out. Shitty fucking discharge deal, but. I took it. And, yeah. Felt pretty fucking alone, after.”
There is no more don't ask.
But telling, Salim supposes, that is something else entirely.
Maybe it is time to stop being so selfish. Or to truly begin. It is rather difficult to tell the difference just now.
“Well. I do not wish you to be alone. I also do not wish to be alone, either. Perhaps this is not so complicated.”
Jason finally does look at him, then, defiant and steady, never mind the flush in his face or the evident shame.
“You can't tell me you don't got a fucking problem with this, Salim.”
“I can not?” Salim blinks in affected surprise.
“I'm fucking serious.”
“You never let me joke. Fine then. How to say it... I think our world has too many problems. I'm learning not to care for the ones which do not matter.”
“And you're thinking this is one of those?” Jason laughs, bitter. Not a very nice sound. Salim frowns.
“I am. Yes.”
“It damn well is where I'm from. And I'm pretty sure that big book of yours has some shi-- some stuff to say about it, too.”
So unhappy. Salim finds that he particularly does not care for this thing which has tied his american into very complicated and painful-seeming knots.
“My son was sixteen when he told me he cared only for the company of other men.”
Jason goes very quiet.
“And what do I say to him? Do I say, 'no, this is a sin, you are bad for being this way?'” Salim laughs, rueful, remembering that day. “Perhaps I did not handle it perfectly. It was important he be discreet. This was my main concern at the time. But to tell him such a thing? No. I could not.”
He waits. Jason is silent for a moment longer. Then,
“You had a wife.”
“Oh, yes. I enjoyed the company of women well enough. Then I was married. Then I had a son to raise alone.” He shrugs. “It's been a long time since there was any question of such things. Now I'm telling you, if this is what you want, then this is not a problem. Not for me.”
“Fuck, Salim.” Jason drops his head again, eyes screwed shut. He sounds absolutely wrecked, and Salim hasn't even touched him yet. Salim would rather like to touch him. Would like Jason to like Salim touching him.
He's a little surprised by how much he would like that. It has been a long time since sex meant more than a few minutes spent alone in between doing more important things, when very nearly everything else felt more important.
But now, he finds, he will be very disappointed if his american leaves this bed untouched.
“I see it like this, friend,” he says, “we could go on as before. Buy that second bed. Eat our dinner tonight. Let our elephant go back to sleep. Or... we could do something else.”
“And what do you get out of this.”
Salim's english is excellent. He knows that it is excellent. However, in moments like this, his first instinct is still to wonder if it is not so good as he thinks.
“Said you were fine with it. Didn't say you wanted it.”
Salim blinks at him, replaying the last few minutes in his mind and trying to find the point where they began having two different conversations.
Jason huffs, and looks away. “Thought so.”
May the heavens witness. “For the love of all that is--” Salim drops his head, digging a thumb into the new-formed knot between his eyes. English is insufficient. Salim switches to Arabic, appealing to the universe at large as he points out that the man makes mules look cooperative, that he is utterly impossible, just, in general, and that Salim is a patient man, but surely patience has limits.
“What,” Jason mutters, “just sayin' you maybe shouldn't put your dick in it just 'cause--”
“Jason.” Salim drops his hand to give the man the most unimpressed look he can muster. “Come here.”
The man stops, mouth still half open. Does something like he's trying not to swallow noticeably, which just makes it more noticeable.
“Because I wish to clarify something. Come.”
Jason sits up and edges forward, that mulish look still on his face. It cracks satisfyingly when Salim sets a hand to his chest and pushes him down on the bed.
“You seem,” he says, following him down, “to have gotten some very wrong impressions, here.”
It isn't precisely intentional, his thigh between the man's legs, Salim had a different focus, but the sound Jason makes is hardly an encouragement to remove it. Their elephant is very much still evident.
“Fucking hell,” Jason pants, squirming under him, even as he's noticeably attempting not to; every movement curtailed as soon as it begins.
“Could you perhaps,” Salim says, lips still against the man's neck some twenty seconds later, “at this point, potentially entertain the notion that I might possibly want you.”
It is an interesting noise Jason makes. A very good noise, even if he bites his lip hard a second later to stop it.
Salim eases back a little, supporting himself on his elbows while his thumbs track idly across the man's ribs, catching under the edge of his rumpled-up shirt.
“I would be happy to demonstrate more supporting evidence, should it be welcome.”
Jason swats at his shoulder, then grips it, body shifting very distractingly under Salim's weight.
“Fuck, Salim.” Then, looking away, “...you ever actually done this before?”
“With a man? No.” Salim admits cheerfully, “but I understand the concepts well enough. You?”
Jason keeps staring at the wall. The nod is so minute that it could almost be mistaken for an involuntary twitch.
“Oh. Hm.” Salim's hands fall still.
That brings the man's face snapping back around to glare at him.
“Nothing.” Salim bites the inside of his lip to suppress a smile. Perhaps this is not a time to push his luck, or tease too far, but. Well. His american is so very distracting, bitten lips and flushed face and faltering self-control as he so obviously tries not to simply rut against the thigh between his legs, and Salim feels... giddy? Giddy. Such a funny word. That is how he is feeling. “I am only trying to determine whether or not I am jealous.”
Jason hisses as Salim shifts a little, accidentally-on-purpose applying friction to the man's trapped cock. He tips his head back, throat working, but manages to stay mostly still.
“Jealousy ain't something you decide, asshole.”
Still trying to control himself. Such remarkable stubbornness. Salim begins idly kissing that exposed neck again, more chastely now, well aware that he is teasing for the sake of teasing, but very disinclined to stop.
“I said 'determine,'” he murmurs, “as in 'figure out.' That is different.”
Jason chokes on what might have been a whine. The hand on Salim's shoulder drops to his waist, tugging fitfully as his hips begin making small movements against the pressure above him. “You're really gonna be pedantic sonuvabitch right now?”
“You call me such sweet things.”
“I think I am jealous,” he says casually, “entirely unreasonable, I know. But I have been feeling so selfish lately. And you indulge me so readily. Now you are here, precisely where I want you. I fear I may become quite insufferable, if this goes on.”
It is an opening for the america to quip back at him, to relieve some of that frustration (in several senses of the word) which he is clearly feeling, but,
“...they ain't anything to be jealous of.”
Low, and rough, and thick with something very different than frustration.
Salim pauses with his lips against Jason's jaw.
“Nah.” He can't see, but he can hear the smile; the glassy-eyed quality of it.
“They weren't you.”
And, oh, his american.
So full of surprises.
Salim laughs, a little shakily.
“Oh,” he says, “oh. You can say sweet things.”
Then he's moving, shifting to slot a knee between the man's legs and push them apart to make room for himself. He is very sure he has never wanted to be inside of someone so badly in his life. Not a thing which can happen now, both of them so close to the edge, but he can feel what it would be like--
in the motion of Jason's hips against his, in the hands gripping him, in the sounds the man makes.
“The things I would do for you,” he tells him, breathless, uncertain of the language he is speaking, “the terrible things, Jason, my impossible american.”
The man's cock is already weeping when he gets a hand around it. His own is not so far behind.
“You know,” he says after, breathing heavily, their mutual mess still cooling on his american's stomach, “that I will always be thinking of it as our elephant now.”
“Fuck's sake, Salim.”
But he's laughing, and this is a good result.
“There are worse euphemisms, surely.”
Jason slaps at him, then swears abruptly, struggling upright.
“Shit. What time is it?”
“Where do you work?” Salim asks, leaning against the apartment's entryway and watching Jason struggle into his boots. Jason blinks up at him, still tugging at the laces. “Docks. Warehouse. Why?”
“Well, because I need to call them. You're dreadfully ill.”
“The hell I am.”
“Such a temperature. Can not even speak coherently.” Salim tsks, shaking his head. “Imagine your poor flatmate's concern, finding you in such a state.”
His american still looks confused, and more than a little affronted.
“Am not. An I ain't ever called off sick a day in my goddamned life.”
That is... not so surprising.
Alarming, yes, but not surprising.
“Then you are due a day. And you are already late.”
Jason still looks ready to object, but when Salim edges him back against the wall and tips his hat back to kiss him, that look is replaced by one which could do unfortunate things to Salim's ego if he were inclined to let it.
He is a little inclined to let it.
“Stay,” he says, a moment later, against the man's neck. “I am not done with you yet.”
“Fucking hell,” Jason mutters, and pulls him closer.
The call to the warehouse ends up being late too, but it is only one day and, miracle of miracles, Salim's own work visa is approved later that week.
It is approved the same day Salim finally fucks Jason, in the shower, thoroughly enough that his american completely fails to keep his footing after, and catastrophe is only averted by quick reflexes and spatial dimensions so economic that there is no space for a proper fall.
Jason swears him out over it anyway. They use the bed next time.
And Salim's new life, well, it is not feeling empty at all.
They could certainly afford a second bed now. They could probably afford a bigger apartment.
For now, they are managing well enough.