Gabriel wakes up on an unfamiliar bed. There’s a dry, dusty smell to the room. To his right, there’s an open window; it lets in a faint breeze and the quiet sounds of traffic, intermittent and a long way off. There’s birdsong. This isn’t Los Angeles. He can’t feel water anywhere; at least, not beyond the normal slow trickles of household plumbing. No rivers, no canals, no ocean.
There are two options here. Either he’s been kidnapped, in which case he’s probably going to die soon – if he’s very lucky, quickly – or he’s going to kill Max.
“You’re awake,” says a voice from his left. Gabriel pushes himself up on one elbow and focuses on the figure in the chair next to the bed, a process that’s much more difficult than it was when he still had full vision in both eyes. It’s Max. “Congratulations.”
“Congratulations on what?” Gabriel asks.
Max grins, clearly pleased with himself. “Your retirement.”
Option two, then. He’s definitely going to kill Max.
He’s fully expecting Max to prevaricate about where they are, exactly, but Max tells him without any fuss. They’re in a medium-sized town in the Tejano Republic, not too far from the borders with both Mexico and Zion. The bed Gabriel wakes up on turns out to be in a two-bedroom ranch house on a quiet side-street. There’s a small and rather neglected garden, a well bore, and an assortment of aging furniture.
“I’m surprised I didn’t wake up in New Holland,” Gabriel says somewhat acerbically as he investigates the house, Max slouching along at his heels.
“Thought about that,” Max says. “Or Aotearoa. Ended up being too hard. I couldn’t have kept you unconscious all the way there, and you’d have made a fuss if you’d woken up half-way.”
“And so you picked the Tejano Republic?”
“This town’s big enough that new people aren’t noticeable,” Max says. “Small enough that nobody’s going to come looking for you here. Or, also importantly, me.”
“Who’s going to look for a water mage in a desert?” Gabriel pulls open a kitchen drawer. It’s empty. They’re going to need something to eat off. “You got tips from Cassandra Morales, didn’t you.”
“Mostly,” Max agrees. His face is calm, but he’s bouncing the toe of his left foot on the floor, nervous. Gabriel can read Max like a book, after all this time. He wonders what Max’s plan is, if Gabriel decides he really doesn’t want to be here. After all – this is a man who once shot him in the head for his own good. (And the good of Northern and Southern California, that shouldn’t be discounted. But at least a bit for Gabriel.)
He opens the fridge; similarly, nothing.
“Well, if you’re going to kidnap me to a small town in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “do you think we could at least find lunch?”
Max’s shoulders relax, fractionally. His face doesn’t change.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think we can do that.”
Max has an internal combustion-powered car, the transport mode of choice in the Republic. Gabriel has never lived outside Los Angeles and has never learned to drive one. As far as he knew, neither had Max.
He wonders how long Max was planning this.
Despite the emptiness of the kitchen, there had been clothes in the closet of the room Gabriel had woken up in – but not his clothes, suits and ties and button-up shirts. Polo shirts and jeans and khakis, the uniform of a middle-aged, recently-retired civil servant. Max is wearing something similar. Gabriel changes, and wonders how good the odds are he won’t be recognised. He woke up without the patch he usually wears over his bad eye. He’s been doing that so long in public that there’s probably five people who really know what he looks like without it. No photos, he’s pretty sure.
Maybe he should grow a beard. He doesn’t know what Max would think about that, though.
They eat mostly in silence. Gabriel watches the people around them, a mix of black and Latino and Anglo customers, some obviously on their lunch break from work, some older. This is a rural town, a place for farmers to come and buy things they can’t grow or make, travelers to stop on the road through to Southern California or down to the city-states of Mexico. He and Max don’t stand out particularly, despite Max’s missing ear – his hair is long enough now to cover it – and Gabriel’s bad eye.
“You really think this is going to work?” he asks Max, who has a forkful of enchilada half-way to his mouth. Max takes the time to eat it before he responds.
“Better than all the other options,” he says.
Gabriel doesn’t really have a response to that.
Gabriel is fifty-three. He’s been running the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for thirty years, more or less, since Max shot William Mulholland in the head. Gabriel doesn’t want to be shot in the head. Again. By either Max or somebody who’s actually trying to kill him. But he also has no real idea how to let go; he took the tiger by the ears, because somebody had to, and there was never a plan for getting off.
He’d talked with Max about it a few times, tried to figure out ways for Max to leave safely, if he wanted. Max hadn’t wanted. He’d never seemed to have interests, particularly, beyond surviving, and stopping Gabriel doing anything particularly stupid (his words). But Gabriel had figured he’d get tired of that eventually, give in and go. Max is maybe a decade older than him and had a much, much harder life, before Gabriel found him in the kennels. Gabriel wasn’t going to be able to retire, but letting Max do it: that had been a comforting thought.
Now he feels suddenly adrift, or maybe stranded is a better word. In water he knows who and where he is. Here, in the desert, he’s cut off.
He knows that was almost certainly part of Max’s calculations: put him somewhere water isn’t at the heart of things, for a while, make him go cold turkey. Which is ridiculous, because water is at the heart of all human things, water is life, but there’s certainly less of it here than in Los Angeles.
He wonders if he’s going to cope.
They pick up stuff they need for the house, try to keep a low profile, but not so low they’re an object of curiosity. Gabriel scans the newspapers every day intently. Max watches him, like it’s entertaining, and then steals the bit with the crossword. Doings in Southern California don’t get a lot of coverage here – it’s all local or national, the international news mostly focused on border scuffles with the northern cities of Mexico and goings-on in Zion and the United States to the north and east. Southern California, and Northern, are at the second level of importance, with the Caribbean.
“What are you looking for?” Max asks him one evening. “You think they’re going to put it in the paper, if someone comes looking for you?”
“There’ll be hints,” says Gabriel. “Who’s taken power, who’s lost out. I need to keep an eye on it.”
“You’re dead,” Max says. “There isn’t anything to look for. Didn’t you read the article about the funeral? I saved it, if you missed it. Sounds like a bunch of people suddenly realised how much they were going to miss you once you were gone.”
Gabriel had. He doesn’t think the people Max refers to were that cut up by his alleged demise. “But you might have missed something, left a clue -”
“No, see, that was it,” says Max. “Firstly, you’d never have actually gone through with it -”
“I tried to, twenty years ago!” Gabriel retorts. “And you – you lured me back in.”
“Wasn’t the right time, then.” Max shrugs. “Anyway, like I said. You’d never have gone through with it, and if you had, it’d have been too neat. You’d have tied everything up, handed it over. It'd be obvious you were planning to go. This way was far more convincing. Nobody who knows you would ever believe you’d walk away half-way through the planning on the Lake Crowley scheme.”
Gabriel has been trying not to think about that. “They’re going to screw it up so badly now I -”
“I didn’t deserve to retire,” Gabriel says, slumping back in his deck chair. “I deserved to have to keep dealing with all of it until somebody put me out of my misery. After what happened.”
“Yeah, well,” says Max. “I didn’t deserve that. So here we are.”
“I wouldn’t have kept you if you wanted to go,” says Gabriel, stung. “In fact, I tried to get you to retire. For years! You could have -”
“I couldn’t have.” Max takes a thoughtful swig of beer. He seems to be trying to learn to like it again. Gabriel isn’t sure if it’s the potential loss of control or because he didn't get to try it until he was over thirty, but Max has never really taken to alcohol. “And also I didn’t want to go through the thing again.”
Gabriel looks at him sideways. “What thing?”
“The thing where you cycle between beating yourself up for being an awful person and believing that nobody else in the entire world can run things as well as you can.” Max makes a face and puts the beer bottle down. Gabriel sips his wine and wonders how many bottles he’s going to end up pouring down the drain before Max gives up. “It’s exhausting just listening to you do it. And it gets boring after a while.”
“I’m so glad to know I exhaust and bore you,” Gabriel says.
Max just gives him a look, because of course: here they are.
“Seriously,” Gabriel says. “If you’d wanted to go somewhere. I’d have made it happen. There are places they don’t use hounds, places nobody would recognise you. I owe you at least that much.”
“Which is why we’re here,” says Max. “Where they don’t have hounds, or any magic, really, and nobody will recognise me or you.” He pauses. “I didn’t feel like going off somewhere by myself, okay?”
“Oh, I see,” says Gabriel. “This wasn’t about me needing to retire at all; this was about you.”
“Exactly.” Max breaks into a rare smile. “Now you’re getting it.”
Gabriel is just starting to relax, maybe, a tiny bit, when they walk into the diner one Sunday morning – even for the sake of their cover Gabriel can’t muster up the energy to go to church regularly, and Max flatly refuses – and see Daniel Blackland and Cassandra Morales sitting there frowning at the menu.
Gabriel freezes, because his instinct is to turn and walk away, but they’ve been here long enough to be regulars, so that’s going to mean questions about why he walked away from a couple of people passing through, and then –
Max grabs him by the elbow, discreetly, and steers him over to their table.
“Hey,” he says, mostly to Cassandra. “Didn’t know you two were going to be coming through. Mind if we join you?”
Daniel looks unimpressed – but not at all surprised, Gabriel notes – but Cassandra says “Sure! Move over, Daniel.”
They make small talk because Maria is coming over to take their drink orders – or Cassandra and Daniel’s, anyway, she knows how all her regulars take their coffee. Max asks about the dogs tied up outside, which are apparently Daniel and Cassandra’s, and Daniel says to Gabriel, “Didn’t realise this was where you two had ended up.”
“Really?” says Gabriel. “I thought this was a recommendation from Cassandra.”
“Cass doesn’t tell me all her secrets,” says Daniel. “Also, I didn’t care that much.”
“I didn’t know you two had friends visiting from out of town,” Maria says to Gabriel as she sets the coffee down.
“Neither did we,” says Gabriel. “A happy coincidence.”
“How nice,” she says, a genuine smile on her dark face, not just the professional one she can summon up even for the most obnoxious customers. It strikes Gabriel suddenly that he’s getting to know people here in a way he never did in Los Angeles. The lack of subdued terror at his position is probably the key factor there. “Now, what are y’all having?” She addresses Daniel and Cassandra. “It’s all good, and you can ask Gabe and Max if you don’t believe me.”
Daniel manages not to smirk at the nickname, which Gabriel is grateful for, all things considered.
It takes a while for Daniel to admit why he and Cassandra and several dogs are at a diner in a Tejano town and not at home in California running their restaurant, like they should be.
“Ethelinda’s a bit upset,” Daniel says, finally.
It takes Gabriel a moment to place the name. “Your niece? Paul’s daughter?”
Daniel shrugs. “I killed her dad, you know. I get it. So Cass and I are taking some time out. Traveling a bit. She might get tired of hunting me down eventually.”
“I suppose,” Gabriel says dubiously. He knows what it is to have a parent murdered. So does Daniel. They both got revenge, if that’s what you want to call it, but not because either of them had planned it. Seeking it out is not a mindset he really understands. Nor, he thinks, does Daniel, who’d only ever wanted to keep himself and the people he loved safe. “What about Sam and Em? The kids?”
“They’re okay,” Daniel says. “Keeping their heads down, just in case. Kinda hard with a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a newborn, but they’re smart.”
“Newborn? They’ve had another one?” Gabriel had lost track.
“Oh, yeah, I guess you wouldn’t know.” Daniel perks up. “A little girl – here, let me show you.” He has a picture in his wallet, of course; it’s a baby, so it’s not very distinctive, but Gabriel makes the appropriate noises. Daniel adores being a grandfather, although he’d deny it furiously if asked. It’s one of his better qualities, in Gabriel’s opinion.
“Is there anything I can help with?” Gabriel feels obliged to ask. “With your niece, and her…quest.”
Daniel gives him a cold look. Gabriel sighs. “As in helping you steer clear until she’s gotten over it, not doing anything to her. There’s not much else I could do, now. Retired, remember?”
“Oh,” Daniel says, sounding surprised. “No, not that I can think of. Although of course you never saw us.”
“And you never saw us,” Gabriel returns. They raise their coffee mugs to each other.
Gabriel always had a list of things he was going to do – no, a list of things he could do, if he ever retired. He wasn’t going to retire, so it was more a happy dream of a different life. Start riding his bike again, take some forest trails. Read books that weren’t technical reports or engineering texts. Learn to sail.
There’s no forest around here – not close enough to ride a bicycle to, and he hasn’t seen anybody but kids on bikes anyway – and sailing is definitely right out of the picture, but at least he can read; there’s a local library and it’s not utterly abysmal, even if it’s not as frequented as Gabriel really feels it should be.
He tries to stay away from books about the sea. Or rivers. Or water, generally, because it’s still there, in his head, the quiet rush of water in pipes. Sometimes he thinks he can sense moisture in the clouds drifting overhead. Sometimes he goes and sits out at the well bore, just to feel it. He tells Max he’s meditating and Max lets him get away with it, sometimes.
He’s not sure exactly what Max does when he leaves the house; if Max wanted to tell him, he would. They’ve both spent a lot of time trying to learn to cook, which neither of them is any good at, to start with. Daniel and Cass would think it was hilarious, Gabriel thinks moodily, the fourth time he burns rice. Burnt rice is the worst thing in the world, he’s discovering, because even if it’s just some of it, it flavours the whole pot and you have to toss it all out.
He feeds some of the failed attempts at cooking to the birds in the dusty excuse for a garden, and also to the stray cat which keeps coming back, probably to try and eat the birds. It never wants to get closer to Gabriel than a meter or two. That’s okay by Gabriel; it probably has fleas.
Gabriel realises eventually that it keeps returning not because of the birds, but because Max is feeding it things that aren’t cooking failures. (There are fewer and fewer of those as the weeks turn into months, which Gabriel feels is to his – their – credit.) It is not to Gabriel’s credit that he only realizes Max is feeding it when he finds the bag of dry cat food in the bottom of the pantry, although to be fair he’s pretty sure Max was trying to be unobtrusive about it.
“I didn’t know you liked cats,” he tells Max.
“Who says I do?” Max retorts. “I just like this one.”
The stray is sniffing delicately at the food bowl, tucked in a corner of the patio. Max hovers by the French doors.
“I like cats,” Gabriel offers. He’d never had time to get a pet. Not that this really qualifies as a pet.
“I bet that would have surprised a few people to hear,” says Max, going for the tedious joke.
“Funny,” Gabriel says. “What about you?”
Max goes quiet for a little while. “Cats don’t really need anything from you. Except food.”
“I know.” Gabriel steps up next to Max. The cat doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. “That’s what I like about them.”
“Then why did you never get one?”
Gabriel shrugs. “No time. You know that.”
They watch the cat eat.
“People spent thirty years calling you my dog,” Gabriel says. “If they were being polite they didn’t do it to your face. Even people who should’ve known better.”
“Of course they did,” Max says. “That’s what I was, as far as they were concerned. You could put me in a suit and call me Assistant Director all you liked. Didn’t change anything.”
“You weren’t,” Gabriel says, knowing he’s putting on his pompous Director voice and not caring. “You’re not.”
“Not anymore,” Max agrees. “Not here.”
Three weeks later, Max manages to coax the cat into a carrier and take it to the vet for parasite treatments and de-sexing. Gabriel is expecting Max to come back all scratched up, but he’s fine.
“She didn’t put up much of a fuss,” Max says.
“Now we have to stay here,” Gabriel says. “We can’t just adopt her and leave her behind again.”
“I know that.”
They don’t give her a name. Maybe that’ll come with time. Gabriel comes home one day and finds her sitting in the middle of the couch, purring and shedding equally fast.
“Not on the furniture,” he says, despairingly.
“Too late,” Max tells him cheerfully.
Gabriel picks up the still-unnamed cat, who purrs like he’s doing her a favour.
“I know I’ve lost the battle about the couch, but you’ve got to stay off the benches,” he tells her sternly, and puts her outside. She goes to sleep on the patio.
Max tries to clean up the hair on the couch, though. Gabriel notices.
Gabriel is starting to spend more and more time at the library, when he wants to get out of the house. There’s disorganization creeping into its more distant corners, and if he fixes it, he doesn’t suppose anybody will object. He doesn’t even realise anybody has noticed, until the librarian, Mrs Hernandez – a round woman who always wears long, flowing skirts in bright colours that stand out against her teak-dark skin – calls him over and asks if he wants to be an official volunteer.
“Is there a volunteer program?” Gabriel asks, in surprise.
“There is now,” she says. “Maria said you were complaining about how people leave the place, and you keep sneaking in before I can get there. Do something it properly. Also, the next time we have a town council meeting, speak up when they're figuring out how much we get in the budget.”
“Maria at the diner on the south side?” Gabriel still doesn’t have as good a grasp as he should of how everybody in this town relates to each other; it’s harder to make himself pay attention when the future of an entire country – not to mention his life, and Max’s life – aren’t hanging on it.
“She’s my sister,” says Mrs Hernandez. “You’d know that if you weren’t new.”
“How long does it take before I’m not new?” Gabriel has to ask.
“My husband’s still new,” she says. “He moved here to work in the bank twenty, no, it’s thirty years ago now. You’re not going to live long enough to not be new.”
“I can live with that,” says Gabriel, who had never expected to make fifty and is surprised to find the prospect of another twenty years here seems – if not highly likely – at least possible.
He goes home and tells Max that he’s going to be an official library volunteer.
“Of course you had to find something to organize,” Max says. “We’re lucky it wasn’t the sewer system.”
“I’m not stupid,” Gabriel says. “Might as well print my real name in the paper. And you wouldn’t have liked it.”
“Since when do you not do things because I won’t like them,” says Max.
“Since – a long time ago,” Gabriel tells him, and Max frowns at him for what feels like forever before, somewhat abruptly, kissing him. It’s a bit clumsy and a lot surprising.
The clumsiness is part of the surprise. Gabriel never thought Max would be clumsy about anything. Then again, how much practice has he had at this? Gabriel doesn’t really have any idea. He suspects not much. Still probably more than Gabriel’s had, since he stepped into William Mulholland’s still-warm shoes.
“Okay, never mind,” says Max, pulling away.
“No,” says Gabriel, feeling stupid and helpless and much younger than he is. “No, let’s try that again.”
They end up on the sofa, more or less making out like teenagers, because they’ve got about the same level of inexperience, trying to figure out how this, how they, fit together.
“That wasn’t how I pictured this evening going,” Gabriel says. Max is letting him lie practically on top of him. It’s amazingly nice. Gabriel would be totally okay if all Max ever wanted to do with him was – he’s not going to call this cuddling, they’re much too old for cuddling. Max grins, and kisses him again, running increasingly exploratory hands down Gabriel’s back, and Gabriel realizes that no, he would not be okay if this was all Max ever wanted to do.
He hadn’t realized just how much he missed touching people until he didn’t, more or less, for thirty years. He wants to touch Max all over, for as long as Max will let him.
Max seems to have similar ideas. It takes a little while.
“This is a lot better than I pictured this evening going,” says Max, a bit later.
People spent about thirty years assuming Gabriel was sleeping with Max. Usually not to his face. Probably to Max’s face, more often. It wasn’t like he’d never thought about it, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate. Even if he’d thought there was the faintest chance Max would actually want anything like this. Which had seemed unlikely. Gabriel doesn’t overestimate his own attractiveness. Every proposition he’d gotten for thirty years had been pretty clearly aimed at the Director of Water and Power, not Gabriel Argent.
“Are you kidding,” Gabriel says. “What did you think I was going to do?”
“I don’t know.” Max shifts; he’s agitated. “Laugh?”
He might as well be speaking Russian, for all he’s making sense to Gabriel. “Come on.”
“The thing is,” Max says eventually, one hand carding gently through Gabriel’s hair – what there is left of Gabriel’s hair, being more accurate. “You might’ve felt like you owed me, and that would have just been depressing.”
“You used up most of that when you shot me in the head,” Gabriel says.
“Twenty years ago, I apologized, get over it,” says Max.
“I realised,” Gabriel says, “I do owe you, but it’s the kind of owing you where there’s no point trying to make it up because I can’t.”
“Yeah,” says Max. “That.”
Gabriel has never let himself classify his feelings about Max as ‘love’, because that always seemed both dangerous and more than a bit pathetic. But they were there all the same, inconvenient and inevitable. It hasn’t occurred to him before that Max might view it the same way.
Gabriel wonders how much time they’ve wasted, and then remembers that they’re here now, and he – he and Max, to be honest, they managed to keep Los Angeles running in a not-entirely-insane way for thirty years and that’s not a waste, will never have been a waste.
But he’s glad, deeply, that they’re here now, instead of there.
Gabriel finally finds out what Max goes off to do and doesn’t talk about when he’s talking to Isabella – Mrs Hernandez – about the summer reading program she’s going to be running and she tells him to ‘get Max to make all his kids sign up for it.”
“What?” says Gabriel.
“You know,” she says. “The softball team?”
Which is how Gabriel finds out that Max has been helping out with, and is now assistant coach of, the elementary-grade softball team.
“Have you ever even played softball?” Gabriel asks.
“I have now,” says Max. “There aren’t that many rules. It’s just about hand-eye coordination, really. Which rules you out, of course.”
Gabriel gives him a look. Max is completely unrepentant. As always.
Max shrugs. “I went for a walk, back after we got here, and there were these kids practicing, and – you could have asked.”
“I thought if you wanted to tell me, you’d tell me.”
“You’re allowed to ask,” says Max, which is of course as close as he’s going to get to saying I want you to be interested.
“Well, how about,” says Gabriel. “How about the next time there’s a game I can come along and tell them they should sign up for the reading program myself, and you can back me up?”
Gabriel has never really understood children – or wanted them – but Max, he knows, genuinely likes them.
“Fine,” says Max. “If you have to.”
“Oh, I think I have to,” says Gabriel, and puts down his book to turn off the light. They’re still trying out this sleeping together thing – well, the sleeping in the same bed thing, the other version is going just fine – because neither of them have ever been in the habit. Gabriel thinks it could be a habit. He’d like that.
The day after Gabriel goes to the softball game, there’s clouds on the horizon.
“We might get rain,” says Isabella, holding books up and checking them for damage. “Has it rained since you got here?”
“Once or twice,” says Gabriel. He’s distracted by the newspaper someone’s left, untidily, on one of the big tables in the middle of the library. He’d skipped the international section this morning, has started to get out of the habit of obsessively going through it, but now he sees that there’s a small article – a few lines – datelined Los Angeles, Southern California.
City council elections have been held and the results appear to be accepted, it tells him. The death of the city’s long-time unofficial ruler, Gabriel Argent, was expected to bring disruption, but slow moves towards democratic reform have been surprisingly stable.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says to Isabella. “Max and I should really do something with the garden. What can you grow out here that doesn’t mind not getting rain for months?”
“I don’t grow anything I can’t eat,” says Isabella; she even keeps pots of basil on the windowsill of her small office. “You want to ask Matthew Bach, you know, his daughter is the manager at the bank. He knows all about plants that grow in the desert, he’s always checking out everything we have on botany.”
“I’ll ask him next time he comes in while I’m here,” says Gabriel. “Thanks.”
When he heads back to the house, there’s cracking thunder in the distance, and the wind is picking up. He hurries inside, shoos the cat in as well. Max is sitting at the kitchen table, fiddling with a screwdriver and the pot with the handle that’s coming loose.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says to Max. “We should do something with the garden.”
“How about,” Max says, “you can do something with the garden and I can watch.”
“That was basically what I meant,” Gabriel says.
“Then sure,” says Max, a brief smile twitching across his face.
Outside, the first drops of water are starting to fall. The air is alive with moisture, for a brief moment of time. It’s almost like, if he tries very hard to fool himself, being back among the canals of Los Angeles again; a taste of power. But it’ll be gone by tomorrow, like it wasn’t there at all. That’s not what this place is.
Gabriel doesn’t mind.