"The Arabs love you." Ali's voice is soft and warm, the flash of his black eyes almost gentle in the fading sunlight.
Lawrence wants to say, And you, do you love me? but he does not, does not even allow himself to imagine Ali's answer. He closes his hand over the flowers Ali gave him for a moment, too gently to crush them, and slips them into the breast of his robe.
Ali's eyes at that moment will haunt his dreams.
"They'll be all right with me. Look, Ali, if any of your Bedouin arrived in Cairo and said, 'We've taken Aqaba,' the generals would laugh." It doesn't come out right, Lawrence realizes when Ali straightens as if struck.
"I see." Ali's voice is clipped and harsh. "In Cairo you will put off these funny clothes. You will wear trousers and tell stories of our quaintness and barbarity, and then they will believe you."
Ali is so far from right that Lawrence almost laughes. "You're an ignorant man."
That is not the right thing to say, either, but Auda abu Tayi interrupts before Lawrence can find the words to explain.
When Lawrence returns from Cairo, Ali brews mint tea, sweet enough to make Lawrence's teeth ache. Lawrence has never liked the cloying taste of mint much, but he drinks it anyway for what it means. Sharing tea is as close as either of them will get to apologizing, Lawrence thinks.
He is wrong.
They sip the tea from tiny, elegant silver cups looted from a Turkish officer's quarters. Ali sits cross-legged on the carpet with an easy, straight-backed grace that Lawrence envies with all of his English heart.
"Blasphemer," Ali says quietly, his voice warm and affectionate. He reaches over to touch the back of Lawrence's wrist lightly with two fingers. "I should not have doubted you."
"I wore funny clothes the whole time," Lawrence replies, grinning a little. "They stared at us in the officer's bar. I slept on the floor. Faraj was appalled."
Ali laughes, his teeth flashing white in the gloom, and Lawrence feels warm and almost contented.
Lawrence does not like to remember Deraa, for two reasons.
One: that he hated it.
The other: that he liked it.
Ali touches Lawrence like he is memorizing him, his eyes never leaving Lawrence's, his fingertips brushing lightly over Lawrence's brow, cheekbones, mouth.
It is close and silent in the cave, and if Lawrence closes his eyes, he can imagine that they are in the dark intimacy of Ali's tent, in the wide, clean breadth of the desert.
"In Cairo an Arab woman told me that my eyes reminded her of the desert sky shining through the eyes of a skull," Lawrence says, his voice hollow and distant to his own ears.
Ali leans forward to kiss Lawrence's brow. "Your eyes are like water," he says softly. "You are like water in the desert to me."
Lawrence's breath catches in his throat. He does not deserve this. He presses his face into the warm curve of Ali's shoulder and does not scream.
"I'm going, Ali."
"I've come to the end of myself, I suppose."
"And the end of the Arab revolt?"
"I'm not the Arab revolt, Ali. I'm not even Arab."
"A man can be whatever he wants, you said."
"You proved it!" Ali said.
"Look, Ali. Look! That's me. What color is it? That's me! And there's nothing I can do about it." Lawrence aches to crawl into a clean bed in Cairo and sleep for a week, away from Arabs, away from sand. He almost misses England. Almost.
"A man can do whatever he wants, you said," Ali says, as if saying it will make it true. He catches at Lawrence's sleeve, desperately.
"He can, but he can't want what he wants."
"It is not clean," Ali says, accusingly.
They send Lawrence back to Arabia.
"You've changed," Ali says. "What did the English general do to you in Jerusalem, Aurens?"
Lawrence laughes, bitterly. There is no way to explain. "Gather the Harith, Ali! I have money from the command in Jerusalem. We will take Damascus with the Harith!"
"I don't want your filthy money!" Ali shouts. "The Harith do not want your filthy money!"
Lawrence revels in Ali's anger. It is glorious. "What do you want, then?" he asks.
"I want Aurens back!" Ali cries, throwing his hands up. "My Aurens! The Aurens who rode with me to Aqaba!"
"That Aurens is dead," Lawrence says.
Ali stares at him for a long moment. "Then we are lost," he says, and ducks out of the tent without another word.
Lawrence goes to Ali's tent that night. Ali's skin tastes like salt and dust.
They do not speak in the morning, except to discuss strategy.
Ali's face when he sees the fabled gardens of Damascus for the first time, littered with Turkish dead, will haunt Lawrence for years.
"You will come," Auda abu Tayi says firmly. "There is only the desert for you." Auda is a fierce old warhorse, born and bred to the desert. He is used to things being true because he says them.
Auda cannot understand, Lawrence thinks, despairing. "What about you, Ali?" he says, hoping to divert Auda.
"No," Ali says, curtly. "I shall stay here and learn politics." He nearly spits the last word, and his eyes are a challenge, his gaze level.
"That's a very low occupation," Lawrence says, putting all the contempt he can muster into that soft statement. Two can play at that game.
"I had no thought of it when I met you," Ali says. He softens a little, leans towards Lawrence. "You tried very hard to give us Damascus."
"It's what I came for," Lawrence replies. "And that would be something." He stops himself, barely, from reaching for Ali's hand. His eyes are damp despite the dry desert air.
He feels unclean.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lawrence sees Auda slip away, muttering to himself.
Ali's eyes are fiercely bright in the dim light. Lawrence tells himself it is only the sunset.
"Why, Lawrence?" His voice is breaking, he lays his hand on Lawrence's cheek.
Lawrence reminds himself not to flinch. Ali does not deserve that.
He closes his eyes and turns into Ali's warm touch, his lips brushing against Ali's fingertips. He does not deserve Ali, but he will have him, and the desert. He will be purified.
"I will stay," he says, almost under his breath, without meeting Ali's eyes.
Ali crushes Lawrence to him suddenly. Lawrence is shaking, and Ali is stroking his back, murmuring softly in Arabic, kissing his cheeks and brow. Ali's face is damp against his neck.
Lawrence is a dreadful liar, but he does love Ali with all his heart, pitiful as it is. Maybe it will be enough, and maybe Lawrence will learn to believe his own lies one day.
On that day, Aurens and Ali will ride to Damascus together, and Aurens will not be afraid.