Aurens was very beautiful by firelight. The fairness of his skin acted as a blank canvas for the glow to spread a haze of colours across and turn him into a work of shadow and light. He lay upon the furs spread out beneath them, his body lax in its positioning but touched by that inherent tension that Ali had never truly seen leave his muscles. They were so close that he could feel the heat radiating from him but still, a distance parted them. He had had a long time – too long – to ponder from when that distance had started to stretch apart. It had always been there. Their bond – there was no word that truly encapsulated it – had been borne of, and in, a land that was nothing but endless distance; being around Aurens had something of the desert in it. He could be just as empty, just as unforgiving, just as beautiful.
Within Aurens’ hotel room, Ali felt the pressure of the walls. They enclosed them, forced them together. The wind was barricaded out, the stars stifled behind over-bright street lamps outside and even the air seemed different, musty, impure. The tightness of it all made Ali irritable. He found he was absent-mindedly playing with the furs, a fleeting memory of the desert. Aurens watched him.
‘’How do you sleep in these rooms, Aurens?’’ he said, though the name no longer seemed to suit the man in the unfitting army uniform beside him. Aurens paused and that slow, strange smile came across his face. It was not happy, nor sad, nor much at all, just another expression that the light from the fire blended around.
‘’Barely,’’ he sighed softly. ‘’Though if it were made of sand and canvas, I cannot say if it would be very much different.’’
‘’If it were made of sand and canvas, I would be much more comfortable.’’
‘’They do not cater for you, Ali. They will not listen to me, let alone –‘’ Aurens stopped himself, though not with the air of someone particularly concerned with what they were about to utter. Ali let it pass. It was not Aurens’ fault for how he had been treated and reacted to in Paris. The train journey had been excruciating (he had remembered with idle passivity that the last train he had seen had been with Aurens, shattered and on its side; nothing more than a hunk of metal) and only seeing Aurens at the train station had given him any sense of ground. Though they met almost as strangers might, and within a halo of flashing cameras, a weight had momentarily lifted.
He had entertained a vague, desperate hope that somehow in their parting, the chronology of their time together had changed and they could return to how it had been before – But before what and when, Ali didn’t know. Aurens had always been Aurens. Ali had been briefly disorientated to hear so many people calling him Lawrence. One was an alias and one was not and he was not certain which. They were both aliases if one did not have a name. He was but a creation – a broken creation. In their parting, he had not fixed. A work of shadow and light.
He was watching him again through heavy lashes, the firelight having sapped some of the blue from his eyes. Ali had forgotten how blue they were. They were one part of Aurens that he had problems in accepting the reality of. Now, though, huddled in some claustrophobic Parisian room, the exploits attached to him could have just merely been heroic adventures created for children. It did not seem possible that this man had been the leader of their – his – Arab revolt.
Ali turned from him. He doubted again why he had come. His arrival had been under the veneer of political interest and ambition. Beneath it was Aurens. He had awoken far too many times thinking he would be waiting for him, a white sun in the desert sands. ‘’I missed you, Aurens,’’ he said without considering it. He had forgotten what they had last said but their fractured relationship had never been one for fluidity.
He saw Aurens immediately tense beside him. He sat up as if retreating into himself. ‘’Why?’’ he asked. Ali laughed, a brief release of emotions that coiled up again soon after.
‘’Aurens, you were everywhere all the time. It is not normal for you to not be there suddenly.’’
Aurens sighed as if in defeat. ‘’’There is nothing but the desert for you’. That is what Auda said to me in Damascus. I can’t understand if that is true or not.’’ He paused, longer than was comfortable. Ali was about to speak when he continued, ‘’Do you think I should return, Ali?’’
Ali echoed his impregnated silence. It had not been the first time the question had been posed to him, though it was the first time it had come from Aurens’ lips and not his own mind. ‘’It would be for selfish reasons if I said yes,’’ he admitted eventually. Aurens appeared to shudder and shake his head.
‘’Don’t talk like that, Ali,’’ he said softly, almost in a whisper.
Ali laughed again. ‘’Do you think I enjoy it, Aurens?’’
Aurens turned to meet his gaze. He smiled and chuckled bitterly, devoid of humour. Ali looked from him to the fire, preferring the pain of staring into it than the ache of watching Aurens. ‘’Maybe this will not work,’’ he said. ‘’Feisal is already here and I do not need any more politicians.’’ He almost spat the word, like it left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. It did not help Ali’s taut nerves.
‘’Feisal may as well not be here, Aurens. I have heard about what you’re doing. How many of his words are yours? If I stay, will I have to pretend for you as well? A sherif cannot speak English if a prince cannot.’’
‘’You have a talented habit of using us, Aurens.’’
An illusion from the firelight caused Aurens’ eyes to darken momentarily before he turned from Ali to indulge in his own private hideaway. Knowing the futility of this state of mind, Ali rose to leave. Maybe this had been a mistake. He doubted anything – anything between him and Aurens, anything for his superficial Arab delegation – would change. He reached the door before a small voice spoke up behind him.
‘’I have a talented habit of being used myself.’’
Ali paused. He was suddenly reminded of those long corridors in the town hall of Damascus, rushing down them with the cold night colours hazed in his eyes from the tears. He could not recall why he wept – a thousand and one reasons – nor the times after. He let his hand drop from the door handle and turned back to Aurens. They were a long way from Damascus.
He regained his place on the furs. The brief detachment from Aurens’ vicinity and the release of the few steps to the door had shifted his temperament somewhat. He allowed himself to relax a little more. Aurens’ gaze did not turn back to him and he was glad of it.
‘’You don’t have to leave, Ali,’’ he said privately, personally. Ali sighed.
‘’I suppose I don’t have a choice.’’
The slightest hint of a smile touched Aurens’ mouth. Encouraged by the stillness which had fallen around them, a proverbial truce, Ali reached out and guided a hand through Aurens’ golden hair. At first, he reacted on instinct and tried to lean away but then softened and lent into the touch. Ali ran his fingers through the gentle curls, the sensation bringing back more pleasant memories, if such things could exist between them. People had always been enraptured with Aurens, even before his ambitious feats, because of his blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin. He smiled at some foreign recollection of strangers flocking to Aurens on one of their many treks, wanting to stare at and touch this strange man. He had been like a mirage, just some image conjured by the heat of the desert. Yes, they had been happy once.
Despite the warmth of the fire, Aurens had begun to shiver, lost in some secret place. Ali gently rubbed the back of his neck until it had passed. He remembered times when the nights had drawn out like this, Aurens silent but for his ragged breathing and the rustle of the blankets as he twisted and turned, sleep eluding him. He had become as cold and hostile as the desert when the sun sank below the horizon, after –
‘’Ali –‘’ Aurens’ voice was barely above a whisper, but the sound of it in the solitude of the room was enough to abruptly draw Ali from his troubled reveries. He was still gazing with that forlorn intensity into the flames and for a moment, Ali thought he may have imagined the soft murmur. But then he turned and those azure eyes implored him. It had been far too long since he had looked at him like that.
He ran his thumb inquisitively over Aurens’ bottom lip. He trembled, didn’t stop as Ali drew closer and pressed his mouth to his. As Ali expected, his hands immediately came up to grasp and push a little, a half-hearted attempt to escape. Ali had come to think it was his way of accepting what they did, a trick he played on himself that he did not desire it. He held him, tried to deepen the kiss, but he turned away. When he rejected Ali’s second kiss, he moved to his neck, dry lips feathery light upon his heated skin, then not so gentle. He felt his muscles stretch as Aurens leant his hand back almost painfully far. It laid him open and bare to him, though not without that insistent hard grip upon his shoulders. The shivers continued to wrack his body.
Ali doubted Aurens was doing this for anything but necessity. Their relations had become nothing more, at least not when Aurens had come to his tent at the end of the long days, not when he pushed him down onto the heavy carpets and he buried his face in them to stop himself seeing Ali as he slowly took him apart. It was only the physical closeness of their bodies that had made these efforts intimate.
Still, Ali began to grow warm in anticipation. Aurens was starting to moan at the fierceness of his assault on his throat and Ali realised with a strange satisfaction that he must surely be leaving marks. He tugged softly on his blonde hair and Aurens bent back so his body was beginning to form a contortioned s-shape. His legs moved restlessly between them.
‘’Ali – Ali –‘’ he murmured, trying to speed him up.
Surprised at the trembling of his hands, Ali reached to undo the buttons of Aurens’ uniform. Aurens sharply pushed him away. Their closeness was again broken as he backed off. He dimmed the lamp by the window to an almost blackness and in the pressing dark, Ali left him to undress himself. The next time they found each other, it would have been in blindness had it not been for the dying fire, barely stretching to the four corners of the humble room. He reached out for Aurens and touched his bare shoulder, felt him jolt and pull away to the bed in the corner.
It was hardly large enough for one man to stretch out upon. They were forced together and Ali could not help but gasp as their bodies finally pressed full-length against one another. Aurens was no different from the last time they had laid together but for his skin, softened without the desert ravaging it anymore. Ali felt the pent-up emotions welling in his chest and he renewed his physical adoration. It was not what Aurens wanted from him but it had been too long and feeling him in his arms again was dragging up the love (dare he call it such?) that he thought may have been lost.
He pressed kisses over Aurens’ lengthened neck and throat, trailing a path down over his collarbone and chest. Aurens’ eyes were closed but more to avoid watching Ali treating him like this than any kind of pleasure he could admit to. His hands ran aimlessly through his hair and he swept a leg over his hip to fit them together. Ali found he was already damp with sweat. He kissed it away at the parts his mouth could reach but could not stop the trembles rippling through Aurens’ taut muscles. It was as if he was in a state of fever, ravished by the attacks.
He pulled him closer, cocooning him with his body and starting to treat him more roughly. He knew he could take it; knew he craved it like this. Aurens clung to him desperately, burying his head against his neck. His nails scratched marks onto Ali’s back and Ali could not help the shiver which ran through him. It made Aurens tense further, half-pulling back. A sharp press of their hips together had him arching into the heat trapped between them again. Encouragingly, Ali moved his hands to the sharp points of Aurens’ waist, revelling in the smooth rhythm he was keeping. He matched it, a half-formed notion appearing then disappearing that it was one of the few fluid things about their relationship. Aurens moaned and bucked against him. His breathing was starting to become laboured. Ali held him tighter.
They moved positions further onto their sides so Aurens could wrap himself more firmly around Ali and Ali could press a thigh up between his legs. ‘’Ali –‘’ he heard Aurens sigh, voice cracked and as if it took all his strength to draw up those two syllables. It was more of a plea than an endearment and Ali easily relented to him. His motions became harsher and Aurens writhed against him, surely scarring his back. He felt his body already beginning to tighten in anticipation. His own body responded similarly and together, their rhythm started to falter. Ali heard the strained sobs rise in Aurens’ throat. He wished deeply it didn’t have to be so painful.
Aurens was starting to bite the sensitive skin of his neck to fight the pressure surely now building up within him. A pleading groan of his name and a few uncontrollable jerks against him and Ali gave in to the intensity that Aurens fiercely wanted him to experience first. He pulled Aurens closer in the heat of it and dragged his fingers across the ridges of his scars. Aurens gasped and arched, reaching the edge sharply and immediately. He scrabbled to hold on, Ali’s name becoming a helpless chant. Ali kept him grounded until the convulsions had left both of their bodies.
Afterwards, in the too short afterglow, it would be the one time Ali could freely hold Aurens without any tension or resistance in him. He lay, limp and wilted, panting in relief, still curled against him. Ali smoothed his sweat-drenched hair and cleaned both of them up as he allowed himself these few quiet moments. As soon as he’d finished, though, he detached from Ali and rolled away onto his front.
By now, the fire had died down and the only light in the room was from the cold moon, streaming through the window. It kissed Aurens with black and blue hues, outlining him in smooth lines. Ali watched him for a minute. It would make no outward difference to him if he left or stayed. He would not move until morning and then he would wake early, as the first signs of the sun strained over the horizon. Being near Aurens had affected Ali deeply and he was not sure if it was for the better or worse. He had longed for him in their parting but with each pining thought also came one of fear and doubt.
It was a strange kind of love that made him stay that night. He pulled the covers higher around Aurens’ shoulders and gently kissed the back of his head. He did not respond so he continued to press kisses further down, tracing the map of his scars. A shudder ran down his spine and he mumbled something incoherent and drowsy into the pillow. Ali soothed him as one may do to a frightened horse, whispering and stroking softly. Aurens shook his head, but was too exhausted to do anything more.
There were too many scars upon Aurens’ trembling back. Ali could not help but notice, though he tried not to, that some were fresher than others. If he allowed the troubled thoughts in frequently enough, he knew it would slowly destroy him to imagine that he was responsible for some of this damage. He had stood outside at Deraa, he had listened to those noises (and over and over again afterwards) as they had –
He stopped. Aurens was looking back at him over his shoulder. He pulled away, burning inside at being so near to him, this man he had been a part of breaking. He would have left if Aurens had not reached out for his arm. So, again, he returned to his side. This time, he didn’t resist as he embraced him, gathering him up against all his own guilt and regret. It was yet another splinter in their fractured separation, another reason for his doubt in their long parting. He wished he could just hold him, wished they were back in the open air of the desert, not these stifling rooms.
Aurens buried his head into his shoulder, as he knew Ali would want him to do. Ali did not know which words were going to appear as he said, ‘’I’m sorry.’’
‘’I don’t know why,’’ Aurens replied softly.
Ali chose not to respond. He held Aurens until he drifted into a slumber and listened to the foreign, muffled sounds from the street below, a reminder of the distance from home and the contrast of their two worlds. They could never truly fit together.
He was his shadow and he was his light. He was his light and he was his shadow.
Ali awoke once in the night as Aurens rolled away from him onto his front, half-awake, half-dreaming, murmuring softly. They remained separated.