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After the Fall

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***

Reluctantly, I raise my head to meet the blue eyes that are staring at me in a frightening and familiar intensity. Red-rimmed and adorned with black rings they watch me, silently. Not wavering. They are never wavering. First curiously, then accusingly. Blaming me for all the things they have seen, for everything their owner had to endure during the past years. For a moment longer I can hold the gaze before I have to bow my head to break the eye-contact; like always. My gaze falls upon my hands, which seem to be the ones of a stranger instead of mine. The fair long fingers are flexing almost violently, searching for something, anything to grab on, to keep them busy. And then it happens again. Suddenly, without warning, it is there. It stains my hands until it reaches the fingertips and begins to drop onto the expensive light brown carpet of the small flat I call my own . I do not falter for I do know what will happen next. It is always the same.

Even as I look down at the floor, watching in a strange detachment every single fibre being coloured by blood - blood I've shed - , the scene changes. Magically, the carpet vanishes and is replaced by the hot and pure white sand of the desert. The walls around me have dispersed when I look up again, have made place for the unmerciful burning sun I'd learned to call my friend during the long months I spent with the Bedu.

Cries mingle with the typical noise of London until they replace it completely. Cries of desperation, cries for help, cries for mercy. There is no escape from them. And then a face; watching me in horror as I approach. Gun drawn, aiming. Ready to fire in another desperate attempt to burn out the shame by the violent injustice that has been done to me. Not by the man across of me, but by one of his people. I don't see the difference anymore. The youthful features in front of me blur and undergo a complete transformation; changes into the face of my tormentor. The terrible grin, knowing that he had broken me. Not completely, only enough to do what he had planned. A rough cough is the last push for me. I shoot. Wide eyes watch me first, then the wound I inflicted on the body. I fire again and again , not even aiming anymore, until a hollow clicking tells me that the charger is empty. I look down on my tormentor, waiting for the pain in me to vanish. But there is nothing. Nothing except the blood that stains the white sand, cries of vengeance and despair. So much blood ... yet no relief for me from the terrible memories of over seventeen hours of anguish and humiliation. If I could afford it, I'd sink down to my knees and cry. But there is no time for it. I have to be strong. Strong for myself and strong for the people I vowed to lead to freedom.

Like in trance I turn around, searching for something to take my pain away. Again and again. I'm not even aware of the tears streaming down my face when I face another opponent, another possible torturer. I aim. But before I can fire, a hand settles on my shoulder. Through the daze of my pain and frenzy I hear a familiar voice, asking, begging me, 'Lawrence! Enough! Enough! Stop this! Make them stop!'. My hand starts to shake when I turn around and find myself face to face with Ali. My confidant and my friend. The only person still managing to break through the wall I've created to protect myself, probably the only man on earth I didn't repulse with my temper, the only one I still can endure close to me. He is looking at me; his eyes clouded by despair and shock. 'Please, Lawrence.' Although his voice is low, I cannot ignore the imploring undertone. And this time I listen. I lower the gun and let it fall onto the floor. I close my eyes. I cannot longer stand his gaze. I feel dirty. Not only besmirched by the Turk and the violence he inflicted upon me, but by my own hands. By all the blood I've shed. I have become like those I devoted myself to fight against. I am no better then them.

My head swirls and I feel my knees weakening. I see myself sliding to the ground. But before I hit it, I feel myself supported by strong arms and lowered onto the desert sand. Why is Ali doing this? This wasn't suppose to happen. It never happened before. Such kindness towards a monster like me. The flood of tears refuse to end. I can't stop shaking. It is not my place to be so fragile. I have to lead an army towards victory and so towards freedom. My body tenses when I feel myself pulled in an embrace. I want to cry 'No!', but the only sound leaving my mouth is a faint whimper. Soothing words, words of approval and comfort, reach my consciousness and I slowly relax. Ali, the only man whose opinion still matters to me, doesn't reject me. He is with me, willing to help me to heal. His words and caress says so. I'm not alone. I've found my heaven in the middle of the madness around and in me ...

***


London, 25th January, 1919: 
 

Tears he hadn't allowed to be shed for a long time were streaming down his face when he became aware of his surroundings again. Accusingly, as if his reflection was to blame for the daydreams he had to endure since his return from Damascus, he watched himself in the mirror over the washbasin before he tore himself away and looked around. Of course their was no Ali, nor anybody else. He was alone. That wasn't a surprise. Ever since his not really willingly retirement, he had been alone. That had been one of his reasons for moving to London. He'd wanted to spend sometime far away from meaningful glances and hushed conversations behind his back. Even without hearing every word he knew exactly what the talks were about. Astonishment, on the border to admiration, mingled with fear. Admiration for the miracle he had worked, and fear for the same. Neither the new recruits nor his superiors knew what to make out of him. Probably never did. But how could he blame them if he himself didn't know it?

Wearily, he lifted a hand to brush away an unruly strand of hair out of his eyes. Who was he? An interesting question. Was he Lawrence, the retired Colonel? Thomas Edward Lawrence, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman? Maybe El Lawrence, the given name by the people whose army he had lead? Or was he simple a soldier who had lost his mind after the long war under the pitiless sun of the desert? The last thought was accompanied by a slight, bitter smile, for Lawrence knew that most people he had met during the last years, would agree with the latter and that wholeheartedly. For them he was nothing more but an eccentric to be avoided at all cost as soon as he had done his duty. Before he had gone to Arabia they had already thought him strange, unable to fulfill the simplest duties and disrespectful to his supervisors, but with every new return from the desert he had been confronted with more politely hidden fear and rejection which culmination had been the suggestion that he should retire. Of course, it had been well hidden behind even more polite words and false smiles, but the intention had been clear; 'Get rid of him while it is still possible'.

He should shave, maybe cut his hair. It was too long. But for what? It was not that it was required of him anymore. He could do what he wanted. He was a free man, wasn't he? The question still lingering in his mind, he cast a last quick look towards the mirror before he left the bathroom and entered the living-room which, to the same time was his study. Thoughtfully, he sat down onto the chair behind his desk where he, absently, began to re-order the papers that covered every inch of the mahogany surface. Newspapers, some of them months old, for he refused to read them out of fear that he would discover that his worst fears had come true, that he'd failed in giving the Arabs their freedom; random papers, hand-written, on which he had tried to write down the memories of his last days in the desert and sketches of the people who had been part of his life there. With a critical eye, he observed his work. Tafas; Prince Faisal; Brighton; a few faces whose names he couldn't remember anymore; Auda, alone and in the middle of his men; and Ali - thoughtfully, smiling, tired, by foot and on his camel. The last a posture that, if any possible, was even more impressing than the others.

With a slight smile that didn't really enlighten his features, Lawrence remembered their first meeting and the deep friendship that had developed out of it. A friendship built on respect, admiration and deep love. Despite their difficult beginning, Ali had been the only person who never had stopped believing in Lawrence. From the beginning to the end he had stayed with him, had helped him to make the miracle reality, had been there for him. But the drawings were missing something. All of them. It seems that he wasn't able to capture the real essence, the fierceness, the loyalty, the respect for life, the high running emotions. His drawings were just a shallow reproduction of the real persons, painted by an untalented, uncertain hand.

In a sudden wave of anger, Lawrence lifted his arm and cleared the table in one swift motion. Almost. One sketch, as if to mock him even now, after all the time, withstood his display of temper and stuck to the desk, almost as if it had been glued there. Mocking eyes, normally brown but black on the paper, were watching him. A silent reminder at the worst hours of his entire life.

Would they still be afraid of him if they could see him now? Lawrence wondered. A man not knowing where he belonged anymore, tormented by strange visions and dreams coming to him when he needed them last? A man between two nations not really belonging anywhere? If they knew the truth about what had happened to him at the hand of the Turks? That he had been beaten into submission and afterwards had been abused? That he wasn't the strong leader everyone saw him as but that he had been willing to sacrifice everything if it would have stopped the pain and humiliation? Probably. Though then the fear would be mingled with pity ...

No, he didn't want anything of them. Not their admiration, not their fear, not their pity. Not now, not anytime. All he wanted was his peace and to live a normal life. But how could he do it after everything what had happened, after everything he had experienced? It seemed impossible. Yet he tried it, again and again. And he failed - again and again. There was nothing for him anymore. He was like one of his sketches that now covered the floor below him - a shallow reproduction of himself, a pity imitation of the Lawrence who had gone into the desert to lead an army. 
 


"You should stay at home in this weather, Señor Lawrence." The voice belonged to Marceta Goméz, the landlady of his flat. A fat Spanish woman whose family lived here since four generations.

"Don't worry about me, Marceta," he answered, gracing her with a slight smile. Lawrence liked her. She was honest and open minded. So very different from the people in the army. In a faint way she remembered him at the Bedu. "I've survived far worse."

A statement which she accepted with a nod. "There was a man here today. He asked for you. He named himself Bentley. Is a reporter, he said, and that he'd heard that you lived here now." Coldness got hold on Lawrence by the mention of this name. He remembered Bentley. How should he forget the only non-Bedu who had accompanied them for far too long and in the end had been witness of him loosing control shortly before they got to Damascus? "Do you know him? He said he wanted to talk to you."

"What did you tell him?" Lawrence asked, shifting uncomfortable under the curious gaze with which the woman was studying him.

"Nothing. I told him that I don't know what he was talking about."

Lawrence thanked her with a smile, before he left the house, ignoring her unspoken questions. There was no need to enlighten her about his life and his relationship to Bentley. He knew that he could trust her to keep the American away from him. There was only the question if Bentley would believe her. He certainly hoped so. He had no interest of being the headline of a newspaper once more. Journalists! He could move to the deepest north without telling anybody, and they would find him.

***

The drizzle had changed to a full grown storm when Lawrence left the small bar where he had spent the late afternoon in the vein attempt to find diversion from his gloomy thoughts. Now, in the fall, he drifted aimlessly around like so many others who didn't know what to do with themselves in the huge town. The narrow streets, stinking and crowded with people, circled by trees or buildings, seemed to crush him. In the attempt to escape the feeling of imprisonment, Lawrence willed his feet to move faster. Only that there was no escape. Wherever he turned, wherever he looked, it was the same. There was a gathering of wealthy people, absorbed in a loud debate; there was a group of street artist, trying to entertain the spoiled London society with its tricks. On a plain wooden platform to his right stood a small man clothed in something like a - now wet - blue robe that reached to the ground, declaring himself as the rebirth of Nostradamus.

Lawrence head began to spin by the impact onto his senses. Was this what he had longed to come back to? A civilisation that threatened to absorb and crush him with all that it had? It was nothing compared to the desert, its infinite range, the quietness and purity ... No, not anymore pure. That he had taken away from it when he had not only given the order to spill blood, but had done so himself.

//... The desert has dried up more blood than you could think of ...//

Coldness came over Lawrence and held him in its clutches when he remembered the last talk he had had with the Howeitat leader. He clenched his hands to fists and shook his head in a violent motion. No! He didn't want to think about them. Not yet, not ever again. For if he would allow the memories of the past years into his consciousness, he'd be lost, would be an even easier target for his nightmares and visions.

Not thinking anymore and ignoring the protests of the people, he forced his way through the crowd that had gathered around the 'new Nostradamus'. He did neither know nor care where his feet would take him. Couldn't, for his mind was busy quenching the images and memories that searched for a way out. Images of events that had burned themselves into his memories, images of people whom he had called friends and sometimes even more.

//... And that would be something ... Yes. Much ...//

The last words that had been spoken between him and Ali of El Karish. Words, that to an outside observer wouldn't have had any important meaning but which to them meant everything. A last attempt to fit into words what had taken place between them, to describe their own personal miracle. A relationship that had burst the borders of the definition of the word *friendship*.

Salty tears mingled with the raindrops that touched his face when the walls he had erected around those precious memories were slowly cracking under the onslaught of his own retention.

It was a relationship that by no means had been easy. While there had been a certain attraction from the very first beginning, it had grown only slowly. First their had been a thick wall of distrust, Lawrence had to overcome. His own pride had urged him to prove the Bedu that he was not just another Englishman with a big mouth and an unhealthy desire to see the Arab country under a British flag. He had managed it. Somewhere on the way the distrust had been replaced with a deep respect and then friendship. But that hadn't been the end.

Out of breath by the fast walk through the town, Lawrence sat down onto the stone stairs of one of the oppressing houses the British were so proud of. British? When had he started to separate himself from his people? Ever since your return from the desert, you just haven't realised it yet, murmured a low voice in his head that became harder and harder to ignore with every passing day. Lawrence closed his eyes, deliberately disregarding the voice, and surrendered to his memories.

It had been after the battle in Aqaba when his life had changed. 
 

***

Aqaba, 6th July, 1917 
 

He'd rode to the sea to have some peace after the battle for Aqaba. He needed the silence to sort his thoughts, to decide what to do next. He wasn't alone for long. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a garland flew past him and into the water. Confused, he turned around and there he had been. Imposing as ever, sitting on his camel and grazing him with a bright smile. Sherif Ali.

"Garlands for the conqueror. Tribute for the prince; flowers for the man."

Lawrence couldn't help but be infected by the other man's enthusiasm. Swiftly, he dismounted and went after the flowers, enjoying the rapidly moving water that played around his legs. Clutching the flowers against his chest, he met the other man's eyes again. "I'm none of those things, Ali." Without giving an answer, the Arab dismounted in his typical graceful fashion.

"True, El Lawrence. You are far more than an ordinary man. You are something special."

The spoken words in combination with the warm eyes that lay on him, showed Lawrence that the other man was serious about what he had said. Gratitude and warmth welled up within him. Lawrence didn't know anymore when the last time had been that someone had made him feel so accepted, so understood. Here, among the Bedu, who were so different from his own race, he could be himself without being judged for his behavior, his personality.

"Thanks," he stated, his voice rougher than was normal. Not knowing how to deal with the storm of emotions within him, he broke the eye contact and turned around to face the sea. There was so much he wanted to say. He wanted to sing, to shout out loud how happy he was to be here, with the Arabs, with Ali. Yet there were no words which would suffice to describe his feelings and in the end, he simple said what came to his mind first, "My god, I love this country!" And it was true. He hadn't felt so fulfilled in a long time. The wideness of the desert, the Bedu and their trust in him, yes, even the journey through the Nefud, and their successful conquer of Aqaba, all this let him feel at peace with himself, satisfied. He finally did something that made sense to him. Lawrence wished that the moment would never end. Everything was so right, so perfect. He took a deep breath, caressing his lungs with the moist, salty sea air.

"And the Arabs love you. You not only gave us Aqaba, but also new hope. You showed us that we can change our life, that we can fight against the Turks if we work together. Without your arrival, the Harith and the Howeitat wouldn't be here today, riding side by side. We would still listen to Brighton and his nonsense. We have to thank God for sending you to us. And you, for accomplishing the miracle."

Slowly, Lawrence turned around to the man who stood closely beside him. Yet, although he still had to get used to the physically closeness which seemed to be common among the Arabs, he didn't feel uncomfortable. Not with Ali, anyway. With slight hesitation, he laid his hands onto the Bedu's shoulders. "It is what I came here for," he explained, slightly embarrassed by Ali's praise. "And we're not finished yet. You'll get your freedom. This I promise you and every Arab. This country will be yours as it was meant to be."

A sincere vow which Sherif Ali accepted with a nod. "You know, El Lawrence," he said in his special accent that let Lawrence's name sound hard and melodic at the same time. "If somebody else would speak this way, I would assume him mad. But not so with you. Not anymore."

Lawrence laughed. "Then you belong to only a few peoples who don't."

"You shouldn't listen to those other peoples. They are fools," Ali explained with a determination that caused Lawrence to smile. "They don't see something good if it is right in front of their eyes."

Lawrence acted on a sudden impulse that surprised himself maybe most when he drew the other man closer to press a soft kiss onto his forehead, pushing with his movement the black cloth away that was covering the Arab's head. "Thank you, my friend," he murmured against Ali's hair, deeply inhaling his scent. Then, realising what he was doing, he immediately released his hold and took a step back. Embarrassed for losing his self-control and doing something that was so completely uncharacteristically for him, who normally avoided any close physically contact to those around him, he made a move to turn away as not being forced to be confronted with the disapproval he was almost certain he would see in the other man's eyes.

Before he could follow his instincts, he felt a hand on his shoulder that silently urged him to turn around again. Questioningly, he met the other man's eyes, believing himself prepared for everything and ready to explain himself, to apologise for his blunt approaching. Yet, what he saw in Ali's dark, almost black, eyes left him stunned and lost at words. For instead at other times, when they had been blazing with anger or gleaming with happiness and joy, they now were filled with tenderness and love. Love for him, Lawrence knew, yet somehow couldn't really believe it. Love dedicated to the black sheep of the British army. In wonder, he opened his mouth to say something, but closed it when no words came out. And then Ali took Lawrence face in his hands, and, out of their own account or so it seems, their lips met. First testing, than with growing passion they kissed.

***

Of course, not everything had been easy from there on. On the contrary. Only moments later, far too fast, the magic had been disturbed by Auda's search for the gold and him telling Ali that he would return to Cairo. Not for long, only to report what they'd accomplished.

//... I see. 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 ...//

Words that had pained more than he was able to say. He couldn't understand then why Ali had reacted so after what they'd just shared. So he'd defend himself the only way he knew. With words.

//... You're an ignorant man ...//

Words that hadn't missed their target for Ali had been too stunned to retort anything. And Lawrence had left, uncertain and hurt, without a last glance back to the man who had just shown him heaven on earth. Only later he'd found out that this was Ali's way to deal with the fear that Lawrence would leave them and not return.

A heartfelt sigh escaped Lawrence by those memories which he cherished and dreaded equally. For months, ever since this fateful night when they had spoken for the last time, he had managed to ban them; completely. In his daydreams and in his nightmares there had been no trace of what they had shared, of what Lawrence had lost when he had returned to England. Until today. The vision he'd had earlier the day was nothing new, at least not the beginning. But until this afternoon, Ali had never been part of it. Only the blood and the desperate cries and faces, never him. And Lawrence had been grateful for it.

"Ah! Mr. Lawrence! You're a man hard to track down."

Irritated by the sudden interruption, Lawrence glared at the man who stood on the street, protected from the heavy rain by a plain black umbrella. The blue eyes, darker than is own, were watching him nervously. "This may be because I don't want to be found, Mr. Bentley," Lawrence greeted him, not even trying to hide his annoyance by the reporter's sudden materialisation in front of him. "What do you want? More photos? I thought you've finished your campaign. The war is over and you don't need a hero anymore." Although Lawrence could see that the American winced by his tone, he couldn't bring himself to be any friendlier. He was neither in the mood for small talk, nor fancied he to be once more a cover story for Bentley's newspaper. It didn't help much to improve his mood that Bentley obviously had decided to ignore the rebuff; for without further comments the reporter sat down beside him.

"It's a nice country, just a bit too wet for my taste. Nothing compared to the desert, is it?" Bentley asked, keeping his voice politely.

"It is a terrible country. "

"Then why did you return?"

The question was honest, Lawrence could hear that much. Yet it was one he couldn't answer. "What are you doing here, so far away from home?" he changed the topic, knowing that there was no hope to get ride of Bentley so soon.

"I'm searching for the man, who had become a hero and at the high decided to vanish from the stage. You did neither leave an address when you retired nor did you say good-bye. And none of your friends, neither Arabs nor British, know about your whereabouts. So I was asking myself, what probably could have happened to the young, enthusiastic man who had so many plans? Where is he know? What keeps him away from a course that had dedicated his life?"

"I came to the end of myself, I think. I did what I could. Now it is on other men to do the next steps." It was an answer that even to his own ears sounded like a lame excuse.

"And whose job is that then? That of Prince Faisal or Sherif Ali? They don't stand a chance. They are surrounded by people who have no interest in the Arab cause besides getting hands on their land. The French and the British, maybe? If you think so, you're a fool. They are just interested to divide the land between them. And the Arabs in general? They have to watch how the land you've promised them - their land - is the highest stake in a game of power." Bentley sounded bitter when he ended. A bitterness Lawrence felt in every fibre of his body. A bitterness that was spiked with rage.

" And why is it your concern? As far as I know, your country has nothing to do with it."

" Damn you, Mr. Lawrence!" The words had lost the resigned undertone that had accompanied the American's voice before. Angrily, he rose to his feet and paced in front of Lawrence, face pale, almost white, eyes gleaming with anger. But this sudden outburst made him almost sympathetically. "Damn you! I've accompanied you and your army during the revolt. I've supported you with my articles and photos. I've made you famous. Against all odds, I've been with you and your people, have done what I could to help you to win a war that was almost impossible to win. Do you really need to ask me *why* I'm interested in the result of my doing?"

Strangely detached, like so often during the past months, Lawrence watched Bentley's explosion. But the reporter's serious display of anger caused something to stir within Lawrence. It was a feeling he had not only kept lock up ever since his retirement but also almost forgotten that he possessed it; a slight uproar of a familiar, yet deeply buried determination that had driven him to go and to stay in Arabia. It was frightening.

"And what do you expect me to do now? Shall I go to Allenby and Dryden and talk some sense into them?"

"Who else could do it, if not the man who'd started everything?"

A bitter laugh escaped Lawrence. " I can do nothing. Not even if I wanted to."

"What do you mean with 'not even if you wanted to'?"

"I can't go back," Lawrence stated in a low voice, fighting a lost battle against images and emotions that turned up and vanished as fast as the flashlight of Bentley's camera would.

"But why?"

For some time Lawrence simple stared into the nowhere. //Why? Because I can't face again the place where I've experienced heaven and hell? Because I don't want to be confronted with a dream that had shattered into a million pieces?//  Certainly not what Bentley wanted to hear. But maybe he did. Would make a great headline.  "It is not my place anymore. My work there is done, Mr. Bentley. Let it be, " he finally broke the strained silence that had settled between them.

"Let it be? What? The Arabs? You?" When Lawrence didn't answer immediately, Bentley squatted down in front of him. "Mr. Lawrence, they need you. Not as an ambassador of the British army but as a friend who can lift their spirit and their hope. Somebody who can advice them."

"I can't. I'm sorry," Lawrence repeated, his voice barely more than a whisper.

"And that is all you've to say?" Bentley asked, his bewilderment and lack of understanding plain in both, his voice and his eyes.

"They'll manage. "

"And how will they manage, if I may ask? How will they stand against two countries which laid claim on their land not caring for a promise you gave to the Arabs?"

"They'll. They're strong."

"What has become of you, Colonel? You look like death warmed up. You live in a country that you hate instead of helping the people who admire you and who depend on you."

"I'm sorry," words Lawrence repeated over and over again as if it would be a mantra; a last hold onto reality. And somehow it was exactly this. Not only an apology for Bentley, the Arabs, himself and everybody else he had failed, but also an anchor in a world that had become a never-ending nightmare.

"I pity you, Mr. Lawrence. You and the mere shadow that you've become. I pity the Arabs who fought for nothing; and myself for believing that I could help you to change something. For us all believing in you." It were the last words spoken, for Bentley, without as much as another glance, took his umbrella and vanished into the night, leaving Lawrence alone with his thoughts, fears, doubts and fainting memories of a dream that once had been his life.

Out of the corner of his eyes he saw a plain brown envelope on the stair where Bentley had sat. For a moment uncertain of what to do, the blond man just looked at it, before he, carefully, as if it could burn him, took it in his hands and opened it. Photos where the first thing to come into his view; a smiling Allenby cheering with Dryden, a few men whose name he couldn't recall and a very grave appearing Prince Faisal. The photos were followed by a single paper that was doubled in the middle. Slowly, not sure if he really wanted to find out what it contains, Lawrence unfolded it. 
  
  

** Classified ** For Internal Use Only **

The Sykes-Picot Agreement 
  
 

It is accordingly understood between the French and British governments:

That France and great Britain are prepared to recognise and protect an independent Arab states or a confederation of Arab states (a) and (b) marked on the annexed map, under the suzerainty of an Arab chief. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) great Britain, shall have priority of right of enterprise and local loans. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) great Britain, shall alone supply advisers or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.

That in the blue area France, and in the red area great Britain, shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.


All blood had left his face when Lawrence had reached the end of a treaty that never was named as such. Slowly, he stood up, crumpling the innocent looking paper with it's explosive contains; the ultimate proof of his failure; in his hand. The power-games had gone too far already when they had reached Damascus as that if it would have been enough to arrive there before the British army. Arabia's fate had been sealed then already.

// ... All you want is someone holding down the Turkish right, but I'm going to give them Damascus. We'll get there before you do, and when we've got it, we'll keep it. You can tell the politicians to burn their bit of paper, now ...//

// ... Fair enough ...//

Bentley had been right, he was a fool. Had been all along. From the moment on that he had been sent to Arabia, he had been no more but an pawn of an imperialist power struggle for control of the Middle East. A very useful one, but nothing more. 
 


Damascus, Al-Azem Palace, 13th February 1919, late afternoon: 
 

For once Prince Faisal had no eyes for the beauty that surrounded him when he left the imposing building that, not so long ago, had been used as a palace but was the headquarter of the French army now. He did neither have the time to admire the riots of flowers or the expensive ornaments that decorated every room and every passage, nor the patience. The latter he had lost already some weeks ago at the Paris Peace Conference. Now he was in search for Sherif Ali whom, so he had been told by his arrival, he should find here somewhere.

He didn't have to seek for long. His confidant stood at the biggest of the cascading fountains. Yet, although Ali's eyes were turned towards a rosebush, his posture and gaze told Faisal that the other man was somewhere else in his thoughts. Most certainly very far away. Faisal sighed inwardly. He just could imagine what was keeping the other man's mind busy. Lawrence. Ever since the Englishman's departure, Ali hadn't been the same. It had not been necessary for the younger Bedu to vocalise his feelings. Ali's silent grief was tangible and had become his constant companion. Like a dark shadow it clung to him and refused to go away. And Faisal, although he would never admit it, felt guilty. Had he been one of the persons urging Lawrence to leave Arabia as fast as possible for fear that the English would be a thread to his power. Yet Lawrence never had been the thread. The only thing he had truly wanted was to give them their freedom, like he had said all the time.

How irrational his fear had really been, Faisal had discovered during his stay in Paris. He had been sure that Lawrence would be there, that he would support them in the concern of the Arabs. When he couldn't find him, he had asked Allenby if Colonel Lawrence would not take part in the Conference. The General's evasive answer had told Faisal everything. Lawrence had been pensioned for, as Allenby had put it so carefully, his extraordinary achievements. But Faisal was almost sure, that the true reason for this action had been that the British army couldn't be sure anymore about Lawrence's unconditionally loyalty.

Obviously, the man who once had told him that it was possible to be loyal to more than one country, had had a change of heart. It had been no mystery that he had loved the desert, but Faisal was surprised that this love obviously had been strong enough to overshadow the young Englishman's feelings towards his own country. But then again, he had never claimed to know him. He liked him, even felt admiration for him, yet Lawrence had remained a mystery. The man who had been sent by Allah to work the miracle had never ceased to amaze him.

"My Lord."

Faisal looked up by the familiar voice that interrupted his pondering. "Salaam, Ali."

"It is good to see that you have returned. And obviously healthy, yet your eyes are shadowed with unease."

Ali watched him, waiting for him to tell the result of his journey. "And that not without reason."

He could see understanding gleaming up in the other man's eyes. "They won't keep their promise." It wasn't a question, but a resigned statement.

"No. They justify it with a treaty between the British and the French from 1916. A treaty that shouldn't even exist according to Mr. Dryden's and General Allenby's own words."

Faisal could see rage welling up in Ali's eyes, causing them to gleam dangerously in the later afternoon sun. "They are liars, all of them! We should never have trusted them."

"No, we shouldn't have."

"Was there nobody who spoke for us?" Faisal knew that there was more behind Ali's question than the spoken words.

"Just the American reporter Mr. Bentley, but of course he had no saying."

"Of course not."

"He was not there, Ali."

"Do you believe that the reason for that was that he knew about the plan? That he betrayed us?" Ali had turned his head. Yet even without the eye contact Faisal could imagine what was in his mind and slowly he begun to understand how close the two men had become during the time they had fought side by side.

"No. He has retired after his return to England. Whatever is happening now, he has no part in it. I am not even sure anymore if he had known about the treaty. His surprise, when I told him about it had been serious."

Ali just nodded. It seemed almost as if he had never really questioned Lawrence's loyalty. And maybe he hadn't. Maybe there had been no reason for him to do so. For *if* anybody could claim to know the Englishman, should it not be the man who had stood at his side during all those years? Thoughts that let Faisal wonder once again how deep the relationship between the two, on the first view very different men, had really been. What they had seen and found in each other. Yet it was neither the time nor his to ask those questions. That was alone between Ali and Lawrence and, of course, Allah. There were, at least for the moment, other, more urgent matters for him to take care of.


Around the Mediterranean, Friday, 28th February 1919, afternoon 
 

"Sir, I thought you'd like to know that we will arrive in time. Our arrival is scheduled for Sunday, late morning."

A slight smile that slowly widened, spread over the features of the man who leaned against the railing with his face turned towards the warm sun that stood in a heavy contrast with the coldness he had had to endure in England. "That are indeed wonderful news. Have you told my companion yet?"

"No, Mister, but I'll do so now."

"That is not necessary, I'll do it myself."

"As you wish, sir," the young sailor said. "Excuse me, sir, but you and your friend, you're not from the French or British army, are you?" The question was asked hastily and a suddenly very red face showed the boy's embarrassment by his own curiosity. "It is just, well, most of our passengers at the moment are from the army, but neither you, nor your friend fit in there."

"No, boy. We've nothing to do with the army. Not anymore," the words were accompanied by a soft, thoughtful laugh. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but we're just ordinary passengers."

An answer that was accepted with an impish grin. "That is not disappointing. On the contrary. It is a very interesting change. Do you mind telling me where you're from?"

"I'm from England, and my friend is from America." The eyes of the boy grew wide by the mention of this far away country. He just opened his mouth to speak again, but was stopped when he heard a voice calling for him.

"I've to go, sir. But it was a real pleasure to talk to you." And with these last words he turned around and hurried away.

"Already making new friends, Mr. Lawrence?" he heard Bentley's voice from beside him. The head of the other man turned up in the small passage that led to the cabins. The reporter's presence at their journey hadn't turned out half as bad as Lawrence had feared before. Not that they had become close friends or such, but he had proven himself an agreeable companion after he had understood that Lawrence wasn't willing to tell him everything that had happened to him in Arabia and his time afterwards. Instead they both had concentrated on developing a plan that - hopefully - would change the destiny of the Arabs for the better.

"He was more interested in you and your country, I think."

"You look good. Much better than in London," Bentley stated.

"How could I not feel good here. Just look around, "Lawrence explained with a smile.

"Well, all what I can see is sand. And this image holds only a limited attraction to me after the first day."

"It is beautiful," Lawrence contradicted him. "The peace, the wideness, the silence ..."

"You're the same man I spoke to only a few weeks ago, aren't you?" The smile that accompanied the words was warm, yet Lawrence detected a hint of thoughtfulness in the American's eyes. "You are very different now. Alive. It is as if the surroundings have given you new strength, as if you do belong here."

"Maybe I do." The words were spoken absently for Lawrence's mind was wandering to one of his last nights in Damascus.

//I know your heart ... You will come ... There is only the desert for you//

Maybe Auda had really known his heart. For Lawrence couldn't deny any longer his own feelings, what he already had felt with every sea-mile he had put between London and himself; relief mingled with the knowledge that he was finally doing the right thing. But this had been nothing compared to the rush of happiness and peace that had come over him when he had got the first glimpses of the desert. It had been so overwhelming that he had found himself on the verge of tears. It was like coming home. In a childlike joy, he had opened his arms to the sky and danced, thanking God. Yet his happiness was shadowed with a fear he couldn't ignore. How would the Bedu receive him? Would they still see him as a friend, or would they think him a traitor who had known what would happen? Or, maybe even worse, would they deal with him like they would with an unwelcome stranger? The thought let him shudder.

The possibility that he wasn't welcome anymore by those he had grown to love, let his heart bled. And then there was Ali ... It was a topic he had managed to suppress so far, but now, that they were so near ... Lawrence shook his head in the attempt to clear his mind. He wouldn't get answers to his questions and worries before they were there, so there was no sense in drawing up 'What - If' scenarios. He had no other chance but to wait and see what the future would bring.

" ... what do you think?"

Befuddled, Lawrence turned his attention to Bentley who, quite obviously, had told him something while he had been lost in thoughts. "I'm sorry, but what did you say?"

"You didn't hear a word, did you?"

Lawrence shook his head, slightly embarrassed. "No, I'm sorry. I was ... thinking."

"Never mind. It was nothing important."

"You're sure?"

"Nothing we haven't talked about before," Bentley reassured him.

Lawrence nodded gratefully and for a moment they allowed silence to settle between them when they both watched the swiftly moving water that carried them to their destination. "Mr. Bentley?"

"Yes?"

"You never told me how you got hold onto the Agreement and how you found me."

"Well," the American cleared his throat before he continued, "I've a few connections and one of them could tell me about your whereabouts. Today you can find everyone if you know the right people or if you're willing to pay the price." Lawrence just nodded, not wanting to interrupt the other man. "And the Agreement ... I happened to be at the Conference in Paris. I stood in the first row to make photos. And there it lay on the table, completely ignored by everybody. I thought it might be useful, so I took it. And I wasn't wrong. You wouldn't have come without it, would you?"

"I might have. One day, but not yet. You did good to take it. Maybe your newspaper can publish it? It might be very helpful for our project," Lawrence changed the subject. 
 


Aqaba, Sunday, 2nd March 1919, late morning: 
 

Lawrence felt like in a dream when he finally left the ship and took the first steps in the town where everything had started. Curiously, he looked around. Not much had changed here. The only significant alteration he could make out on the first view, was the presence of the British army, which, of course, hadn't been here when they had taken Aqaba. And there, just along the outer city wall was the place where --

"Identify yourself, please, and tell me what the purpose of your visit is." Slightly peeved, Lawrence turned around to the voice that so unbidden had interrupted his thoughts. It belonged to a young British soldier, who had taken position in front of them and so barricaded the access to Aqaba.

"Why? Is it forbidden to be here?"

"No. Of course not. But this region is under the protection of Great Britain. So if I --"

Lawrence couldn't hold down a short, hollow laugh. "Protection, yes?"

"What my friend meant," hurried Bentley to say to take the edge out of Lawrence's words and voice, "was to express his surprise by your explanation. When we were here the last time it had been Arab territorial."

"Well, it isn't anymore." The voice was cold and the gaze with which the soldier studied them, promised trouble. "But since you're not willing to cooperate, I must ask you to come with me."

Before Lawrence could say anything, Bentley had taken the word again. Probably for fear that Lawrence would make the situation even worse. " We didn't mean to cause trouble it was just a moment of surprise. But of course we will come with you." The American reporter had grabbed Lawrence's arm and was no following the soldier who lead them to a tent not far away. "Maybe a bit more diplomacy wouldn't hurt here, Mr. Lawrence," he whispered so that none but Lawrence could understand him. "We should at least try to get into the land. Otherwise we won't help anybody." Lawrence just nodded. Of course, Bentley was right, but that didn't help much to ease his anger towards the whole, incomprehensible situation. The arrogant manner of the young soldier was only one point. He had taken Aqaba with and for the Arabs, not for the British.

"Please excuse the interruption, sir, but these two refused to identify themselves." Lawrence closed his eyes when he heard the familiar voice ordering to bring them in and even when they entered, Lawrence wondered if their situation could get more complicated. It would have been far easier to deal with an unknown man instead of Allenby. But when he saw the surprise in his former superior's face he felt a wonderful wave of satisfaction flooding through him. The disbelieving expression alone was worth the trouble, he decided silently.

"Windson, go back to your position, I don't need you anymore," Allenby broke the odd silence that had settled between them. "Colonel Lawrence --"

"Just 'Mister Lawrence' nowadays, please, General Allenby."

The eyes of the older man narrowed. "Very well, Mr. Lawrence. I have to admit that I'm surprised to see you. Last saying was, that you've vanished from the stage."

Lawrence shrugged. "And the last thing I heard was, that Aqaba was Arab territorial. Seems that not all what we believe to be true turns out to be the truth."

"Mr. Lawrence, I must beg your pardon, but this is not your business anymore."

"No, it isn't."

"I'm glad we agree here. Now, would you please tell me what your and Mr. Bentley's business is here?"

"We're on holidays."

"Expedition."

The answers came almost to the same time and earned them a sharp glance. "Which is it now?"

"Both actually," Bentley answered with an apologising smile. "I had heard that Mr. Lawrence had planned to spend his vacation here and I ask him to accompany me on a research study of ancient Arab history. His knowledge of the country will be very helpful."

Allenby's nod didn't erase his doubting expression and for a short moment Lawrence feared that he would send them back. "You can go then, Gentleman. But don't forget, Mr. Lawrence, you're no longer part of the army. So take my advise not to interfere with our business here."

"I wouldn't dream of it, General," Lawrence stated, barely able to hide a smile.

"I'm glad we understand each other so well. Now, have a nice and fruitful vacation." 
 

***

"As always a very pleasing man."

"He can be even better. Seems that our arrival had left him floundering otherwise you would have had the chance to experience him in his top form."

"I think that is an experience I would rather not have," Bentley stated with a chuckle before he became serious again. "He really fears your influence on the Bedu."

"Yes, there is only the question if it will be helpful or if it will be a an obstacle." If his fear isn't completely unfounded, Lawrence added silently, not willing to share his own fear with the other man.

"I don't believe it will be a problem if you don't lead a public revolt." Lawrence just nodded. They had already decided that he would act as a shadow adviser for Prince Faisal without showing himself into the public. It would be for the best. It was not his favourite choice, but it had to do for now. Later they had to see how it would work out and maybe change their strategy.

"What now?" Bentley asked.

"I thought you did plan out everything?"

"Yes ... well ... but this is more your country than it could ever be mine. I thought we would spend the rest of the day here and tomorrow -- after a night without seesaw -- make our way to Damascus and to Prince Faisal."

Lawrence was about to answer, when his gaze fell onto the old main-gate of the city, that, although not used anymore, for the port entrance and the 'land gates' had taken its position, was flanked by two soldiers on guard. The two uniformed men in front of the stones seemed completely out of place and time.

"Can you take care of everything from here on? I have something to do and will join you later."

Bentley, who had followed his gaze turned his attention back to him. His eyes were full of questions, yet to his favour he asked none of them, but merely nodded. "I'll find a place to sleep and get a car and you do ... whatever you have to do."

"Not a car, Mr. Bentley."

"No car? But it is the fastest way to reach Damascus."

"Maybe. But I do prefer the traditional way; by camel."

The eyes of the reporter widened in disbelief. "You're not serious. We will need at least ten days, more likely fifteen. Not to speak about how terrible uncomfortable - You are serious, aren't you?"

"I am."

"And why in god's name do you want it?" When Lawrence didn't reply, Bentley shook his head in resignation. "Let me guess, another question that remains without an answer. Let me tell you something, Mr. Lawrence, this is a bad way to start our project. How I'm supposed to do a reportage if you won't talk to me?"

"My answers are my concern, Mr. Bentley and completely irrelevant to your reportage about Arabia."

"All right, " Bentley stated in a resigned voice. "We'll have it your way. Camels it shall be."

Lawrence nodded once before he turned around and slowly approached the gate that had attracted his attention earlier. Without as much as a gaze, the soldiers let him pass, obviously just having being positioned there as a deterring measure, to show off the British presence in the town. Lawrence left the stone gate and took his first step onto the sand, his eyes fixated upon the rapidly moving water. It was exactly like in his memories, with exception of the noise that reached him from the busy town. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he went further along the wall before he approached the sea and finally reached the place from his memories of past happiness. Not thinking anymore, Lawrence stepped into the waves. For a long time he didn't move at all but allowed the water to soak him while he focused on the storm of emotions that rushed through him.

Anxiousness, happiness, fear for rejection and finally ... dark eyes filled with emotions Lawrence hadn't seen before, at least not dedicated to him. Strong arms, rough lips, growing passion ...

Completely lost to the world, not caring for his clothes or how he might appear to an outside observer, Lawrence sunk to his knees.


Desert, near Amman, Friday, 9th March, evening: 
 

"But that can not be," Sherif Ali stated while he jumped to his feet and begun to pace through the tent of his host Auda abu Tayi. A raised eye-brow was the only visible reaction to his public outburst of emotions. "Your man must be wrong."

"Are you saying that he is a liar?" The voice of the older Bedu had taken on a sharp edge by the supposed offence against one of his tribe.

"I never said so. But maybe he was mistaken. There are more English out there than ever before."

"And all of them are called Lawrence and have those blue eyes, yes?"

Ali froze in his movement and faced the other man. "What else did your man see?" he asked, carefully, not willing to let the Howeitat see just how much he wanted to believe his claim.

"He was too far away to see or hear much. But he said that it looked as if Lawrence and the other one, the American, were having problems with one of the soldiers."

"What for problems?"

"How should I know? I was not there. But I thought you knew about it."

"No, I did not know!"

"Then why are you here? Trying to play politician again, Harith?"

"Prince Faisal of Mecca wishes to know how the situation with the English is here. And he wants you and your men to come to Damascus."

"For what?"

"He is gathering the leaders of every tribe to decide what to do."

"The English broke their word?" Ali nodded. "That is no surprise. Some things are not supposed to be, Sherif Ali."

"You will not come to Damascus then?"

"For what? Why bothering still? It means nothing."

"It means everything. That is what we fought for." Anger got hold on Ali by the indifference with which Auda spoke, yet his face remained calm.

"Yes, and we have won the battle but lost the war."

"Not yet."

"No? Tell me, what Prince Faisal will do then? Fight the English? They have guns, we don't."

"There must be a way and we will find it. But for that we need you."

Thoughtfully, the eyes of the Howeitat leader watched him. "Now you almost sound like Lawrence, do you know that? The same strong and foolish passion. We did believe him, but see what good it does. The British have taken over Aqaba and move forward. And do not forget the French in Damascus. So what good did his and our belief in success?"

"We would still live under the Turks if it wasn't for him," Ali reminded him.

"True."

"So you and your men will come?"

"I will think about it. But not tonight. It is late and I am tired and need to rest. So should you. You are invited to stay. We talk tomorrow."

Ali bowed in gratitude and turned around to leave the tent when a voice held him back, "If my man was right, we have a chance."

"Yes." Ali's voice was low, barely more than a whisper and he felt his throat tightening by the rush of emotions that suddenly was cursing through him.

Emotions that didn't allow him to find rest. And so he found himself wandering through the nearby mountains in the middle of the night, pondering Auda's claim that Lawrence had returned. Could it be true that the English, despite his sayings, had come? One part of his mind tried to convince him that it was impossible, that Auda's man must have been wrong. For had not Lawrence himself said that he would never come back? That he never wished to see the desert again, even less cross or live in it? But those thoughts couldn't put out the small glimmer of hope that had begun to sparkle within Ali when he had recovered from the first shock of the Howeitat's statement.

//... Lawrence has been seen in Aqaba, together with the American ...//

//... I told him that we would come, that he can not resist the call of the desert ... He is too much Bedu for that ...//

Gracefully, Ali sat down onto a ledge that loomed far above the camp, trying to regain control over his emotions.

//... If my man was right, we have a chance...//

Indeed. But only if Lawrence had given himself a chance to heal after everything that had happened and what he had experienced. Only, if he had managed to triumph over the self-hatred that had been his constant companion ever since his return from Cairo. Like a dark cloud it had hovered over Lawrence, ready to absorb him at any time. Ali prayed to Allah that the English had managed it. For if Lawrence had not found a way to control his rage and hate, he would be lost. Lost to the world, lost to himself and lost to Ali. A cold grip got hold on the Bedu by those thoughts and the unsought memories that accompanied them.

***

The empty gaze was even more terrible than the silence. A silence that was only broken by winces caused by injuries. Carefully, Ali lead Lawrence into the cave and urged him to lay down onto the blankets that covered the hard stone. Silently, Lawrence followed his order. Their men had left as soon as they had seen them, very well knowing what had taken place. When the door closed, Ali pushed away the last reminders of Lawrence's robe. Unbidden tears welled up in his eyes when he saw the wounds that were covering the other man's back; wounds that, even when healed, would be a constant reminder of the violence that had been done to Lawrence. As carefully as possible, Ali cleaned his back before he wrapped the unresisting body in one of his own ropes and covered him with a thick, woollen blanket without that Lawrence moved or said something.

"Sleep," he told him, sitting beside the improvised bed, not willing to let the other man out of his eyes for just one moment. The only evidence that Lawrence maybe had registered his words were the slowly closing eyes. Then the nightmares begun. Cries, weeping and shaking. When Ali didn't know anymore what else to do, he laid down beside the broken man he had come to love and pulled him in his arms. Willing the other's body to stop the violent shaking. And it helped - for a bit. A few hours of unfitting sleep and the nightmares returned. Hour after hour.

***

Ali shuddered by memories of an event that had been the beginning of the end. The end of what they had shared and the end of the Lawrence who had come to Arabia. For while he would have recovered from the violence that had been done to him, his journey to Cairo and something that must have happened there, had caused his downfall. The Lawrence that had returned hadn't been the same anymore that he had grown to love. He was colder, almost stolid, his whole being just focused on his newest mission - Damascus. It was an indifference that had hurt Ali more than when Lawrence had given up his command to him. Then, despite Lawrence's determination, there still had been hope. Not so with his last return.

The Harith pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders when he remembered the lunacy with which Lawrence had lead them into the attack of the Turkish column. Madness, hate, vengeance and helplessness had shown in his eyes. An expression that had scared Ali. There was nothing left anymore of the man who so thoughtfully had started the Arab revolt, who had united the tribes and taught them that nothing was impossible.

Ali shook his head to muffle those disturbing memories, to push them in the back of his mind where he was not forced to think about them. He pulled back his head and watched the sky from which, like small diamonds, the stars were shining. A view that never failed to soothe him. So also this time. His eyes turned on a dreamily expression when his mind travelled to another time and another place. 
 

***

Aqaba, 18th July 1917 
 

Confused by the sudden noise, Ali left the house he had chosen for his stay in Aqaba. The way between the port and the town was crowded with cars; British army cars to be exactly. A convoy that was lead on by none else but Lawrence who was still clothed in the Harith robe Ali had given to him. It was an image that brought a smile to the Harith's face and warmed him.

Absently listening to the voices of two British soldiers in the distance, Ali sat in the shadow at the stairs in front his house, waiting for Lawrence to return from his meeting with a British General.

"I told you I would return. And see, no trousers."

Ali stood up by the familiar, soft voice. "I have underestimated you once again, it seems, El Lawrence," he admitted while marvelling in the picture the other man presented. The white robe seems to glow in the light of the moon, as well as the piercing blue eyes. Instinctively, he took a step closer to the other man, who so far hadn't made a move, but was watching him with an unreadable gaze. "I apologise for that."

"For what? For not trusting me? Half of the time I don't trust myself," Lawrence retorted with a soft laugh, slowly approaching Ali until he stood right in front of him. For a moment Ali hesitated, then he reached out with his hand and pulled Lawrence in an embrace.

"Al Hamdo Lillah Ala Al Salamah," he said in a low voice, 'I thank God for bringing you back safe.'

"So do I," Lawrence stated with a smile. For a moment they watched each other, both uncertain of what to do next. When the voices, which Ali had heard already earlier, become clearer and louder, he made up his mind and slowly went up the stairs to the small stone house where he held open the door.

"Coming in?" An invitation Lawrence followed to Ali's relief.

Inside the main room, the English looked around in plain curiosity. "That doesn't look like you," he finally stated, pointing at the expensive and clearly exaggerated room that was enlightened by a fire.

"I didn't chose the decor," Ali retorted with a slight smile. "Would you like something to drink? Tea perhaps?" he asked after a moment of silence, helplessly, for he didn't know what else to say. But when Lawrence turned his head to him and their eyes met, no more words were necessary. Their gazes spoke for themselves. Like in trance, Ali, never breaking the eye contact with the beguiling blue eyes that radiated so much life and so much passion, moved forward without even realising it. And soon they laid in each other arms, drifting on an attraction that, something Ali could not deny, had been there from the first moment on he had laid eyes on the English.

Lost and alone in the desert he had stood there and opposed Ali and his action, not showing any fear. Swift fingers loosened his rope until it fell down to the floor, leaving him nude in the warm room. Fair hands, a contrast to his own dark skin, wandered about his body, inflaming his desire with teasingly light strokes. For a moment, Ali let himself being carried away by the gentle caresses before he pushed away the white head dress to touch the other man's hair, something he had longed to do since he had first seen it gleaming in the sunlight. Carefully, he let his fingers glide through the soft blond streaks, before his hands wandered down to unclothe Lawrence. In awe he watched the fair skin, that glowed unnaturally in the flickering light of the fire.

"Beautiful," he murmured in a low voice.

Carefully, as not to destroy the piece of art Allah had not only created, but also sent to them - to him -, he traced the lines of the lean, muscular body with his forefinger, caressed the almost completely hairless chest and brushed ever so slightly against one lightly red nipple. A touch that coaxed a soft moan out of the other man. A new wave of desire flooded Ali when he looked up and saw that Lawrence had thrown back his head and was trembling, his eyes closed.

"Look at me, " A request which Lawrence followed almost immediately. His bright blue eyes, shining with passion and lust, met his own. Out of their own account as it seemed to Ali, their bodies pressed together and their lips met. All rational thought fled out of Ali's mind when they begun to explore each other in earnest, with hands and mouths. One time during their exploration, he noted that they had ended onto the soft, thick carpet that covered the floor, entangled in each others arms, almost like one. And like one they reeled onto waves of passion, locked into their own world, where nothing but them existed.

***

A sigh escaped Ali by those memories and he fought against tears. In vain. When he couldn't see the stars anymore from which he'd meant to draw comfort, he buried his face in his hands. Why had Allah taken away from him the only person he had felt really close too? It hadn't been mere attraction or passion that had bounded them together, but much more. Despite all the differences between them, they were very much alike. More alike than either of them would admit. They were meant to be together, Ali had been sure of it. Almost like two pieces of a puzzle that belonged together and wouldn't be complete without the other half. Spiritual kinship; that was how it had felt.

//... Some things are not supposed to be ...//, he recalled Auda's words, and maybe that it had been. Maybe they were never meant to stay together, to find happiness and peace in each other.

"And some things *are* supposed to be. They only need time." Shocked, by the unexpected interruption that let him realize that he must have spoken out aloud his last thought, Ali jumped to his feet. When his gaze fell onto the Howeitat leader, he sat down again. Auda followed his example and made himself comfortable beside Ali. "I see that you have found my favourite place. I come here to think, when I need peace or when I am troubled. It is nice here. Quiet. Just you, the nature and God." For a short moment Auda watched Ali with a thoughtful look, maybe waiting for him to say something. But Ali wasn't in the mood to talk, so after a time, Auda begun to speak again, "You still love him, so why are you not happy to hear that he has returned? Do you still fear him?"

Ali shook his head in confusion before he turned his attention towards the Howeitat, searching for a sign of mockery in his eyes. But the only thing he could see was sincere interest, maybe even compassion. "Happy? I do not even know if is really true, so how shall I be happy? You know how he was before he left, how strong his hatred was. So tell me, how shall I feel happy if I do not know if it is still part of him?"

"Why do you worry about something you cannot be sure about? Maybe your worries and your fears are for nothing. Wait until you meet him again and then listen to your heart."

Ali felt uncomfortable by the familiarity with which Auda talked to him, yet he had to admit that what he said was true. Slowly, he nodded. "Maybe you are right. I shall worry later. *If* he is really here." Angrily, Ali glared at the other Bedu when he begun to laugh wholeheartedly. "What?" he demanded. "Am I that funny?"

"Sherif Ali," Auda begun but had to stop again when a new wave of laughter came over him.

"Yes?" Ali's voice was strained with anger.

"You should listen to yourself. You are not afraid to go against the English army but you have fear to meet one of them alone."

"It is not just one of them," Ali objected. "It is Lawrence."

"Yes. Your friend."

For a short moment lost at words, Ali just stared at Auda before his gaze softened again and he smiled. "I suppose you are right. Not very politic, am I?"

"Some things are even more difficult than being a politician."

"Where do you think he will go and why he is here?"

"He will go where the adventure is - Damascus. He would not be Lawrence, if he would not do so. Why, I do not know. That we have to ask him when he comes."

"*We*? Does it mean you will come to Damascus?"

"Of course, I will come. Tomorrow early evening we will be ready to go. You are welcome to stay so that we can ride together then."


Desert, in front of Amman, 10th March 1919, late morning: 
 

Impatiently, Lawrence waited for his companion, who had fallen behind at some time.

"Do we take a break here?"

"Not yet. I would like to pass Amman before we do so."

Bentley's response was a humourless gaze when he stopped beside him. "Seven days already. This way to travel is even worse than being on a ship in the middle of a storm."

"We would have passed Amman already, if you wouldn't have insisted upon spending two days in Petra," Lawrence stated slightly annoyed before he rode on again, not waiting for the American. With every day they came closer to Damascus his anxiousness and impatience grew, something that reflected also to the outside.

"I know. And I apologise. But this journey is getting to me. The nights we spend in the wildness of the desert and the days on camels. I would really have preferred to travel by car"

"You couldn't have gone to Petra with a car, Mr. Bentley. Believe me, some times the old ways are the best. Especially here in this country when it comes to travelling."

With a resigned sigh, Bentley rode faster to catch up with him. "Will we stay in Amman? To make pictures?"

"I'm not sure if this would be wise. We should stay clear from towns with army presence until we reach Damascus. I won't take the risk of attract the attention of Allenby and his men too early."

"You're right. He is suspicious. I would be surprised if he didn't already informed others about our arrival."

"Yes," Lawrence agreed. "Too bad it was him in Aqaba. Although I've to admit that enjoyed his expression very much. I can't remember that I saw him so startled before." Bentley joined in in his laughter and for some time they rode in pleasurable silence through the mountain range they had reached in the meanwhile.

"Do you miss the army?"

A question, Lawrence could answer with a plain but expressive 'No'. "Would you miss something that use you as a pawn in one of their power struggles, breaks promises and give you the boot after you've done your duty just because you don't fit in anymore?"

"So your retirement wasn't your wish?" Bentley asked, obviously sensing that Lawrence was a bit more talkative than usually and determined to get as many answers as possible while the mood lasted.

"Not that, nor my return to England. In the former case it was an advise, hidden behind many nice words, and in the latter I never got a chance to protest." Bitterness and anger filled Lawrence when he recalled his last day in Damascus.

//... He longs for the greenness of his native land ...//

//... Well then, Godspeed ...//

"If it would have been your decision, what would you have done? Gone home or stayed here?"

For a short moment, Lawrence allowed silence to settle between them while he pondered the question. "I really don't now. Maybe I would have gone home. My work here was done and I needed a change of location, but that was something I would have liked to decide for myself. "

Bentley nodded. "Do you mind me asking what has happened to you in Der--"

"Nothing!" Lawrence cut him off. Obviously shocked by the sudden change of mood, Bentley watched him with eyes that radiated surprise and even more questions.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," the reporter stated in plain helplessness.

"No, I'm sorry for snapping at you. But there is nothing to tell that could be of any interest for you."

It was an explanation, Bentley accepted with a nod. No more words were spoken after this incident and no more questions asked. And Lawrence was grateful for it. Did it allow him to collect himself again. He hadn't meant to be so hostile towards Bentley, but his question had left Lawrence floundering, had reminded him at the darkest hours of his life. And Bentley, despite them getting along so well, was not the person he desired to tell about it.

At a high point, from where it was possible to look over the land, Lawrence stopped. "There is Amman," he explained, pointing to a dark spot in the distance. "We should reach it in maybe two or three hours and will have passed it in one more, maybe less." Bentley took up his binoculars to get a better view.

"Well, that looks like a few hours more fun ahead of us." Lawrence, only glad that Bentley hadn't lost his humour, chuckled. "What is that? South from Amman?"

"That should be Qatrana, we will pass it on our way."

"And that right from Amman?"

"There is nothing, just the desert."

"No, there is something. We are too far away as that I could really recognise it, but I would say it looks like a camp." Lawrence could feel his throat tighten by Bentley's revelation. So far they hadn't met any Bedu. Something that wasn't very surprisingly, since they weren't that far away from Aqaba and Amman, both towns with a heavy British army presence at the moment. "Here, see for yourself." With mixed emotions, Lawrence took the offered binoculars and looked through them. But like Bentley, he could only recognise that it was a camp.

"Do you know which tribe it is? Or is it maybe the army?"

"It can't be the army. There is no sense in taking position somewhere in the desert with nothing around. But we ride there anyway, so we'll know very soon who it is," Lawrence stated as a matter of fact.

"You think it a good idea? We could always avoid them and ride through Amman."

"I rather deal with the Bedu then with the British. Besides, if they are Bedu our presence has already been noticed. You can't cross their land without them knowing it even before you see them," Lawrence said before he returned the binoculars to the reporter. "But maybe a rest wouldn't be such a bad idea before we ride on." And without waiting for Bentley, Lawrence dismounted and lead his camel back into the mountains to a shady place they had came across just moments before. To stop his hands from shaking and so Bentley from realising just how nervous he was, he kept himself busy by enlightening a small fire to make some tea in the way he had learned so long ago. Still, even while his hands were busy, his mind was wandering around, wondering which tribe it could be and what would expect him there. 
 


Howeitat Camp, same day, a bit later: 
 

"How many did you see?"

"Two of them. They just left the mountains. And they are riding towards us," Maahir, a young man out of his tribe whom Auda had sent to look out for dangers or strangers, explained.

"Did they look like Bedu?"

The other man shook his head. "No, English. But not like the other English here."

"I see," Auda stated when knowledge sunk in and a brief smile crossed his features.

"Shall I get some men ready and find out what they want?"

"No, Maahir. We will wait for them here."

"You know that they will come here?"

"Yes, Allah will lead them to us." Of that Auda was certain. As certain as that he knew that the sun would arise every day anew. "You can go then," he dismissed the younger man. "No, wait. Where is Sherif Ali?"

"In his tent, I believe. Do you want to see him?"

"No," Auda dismissed the idea almost as soon as it had turned up. There was no need to tell the Harith about it; not yet. He wanted to look into the other man's face when he saw with his own eyes that he had been wrong doubting a Howeitat. Besides, he did not want to ruin the surprise. "But do make sure that the Harith will not hear about it before they come here. Find something that will keep him busy and tell the other men not to speak about it. See to it that dinner will be prepared."

"As you wish."

A satisfied grin on his face, Auda watched the younger Howeitat taking his leave to carry out his orders. Silently, thanking Allah for sending the American and, even more important, Lawrence right his way, he begun to prepare himself for his guests. While he had not doubted the words of his man, he had not believed to see the English again so soon. He had hoped for it, that was one of the reasons he had wanted to delay their departure, but he had not really expected to see Lawrence before Damascus. So it was even better. For all of them. Lawrence would not only help them once again to make the impossible come true, but would, hopefully, also cheer up Sherif Ali. He had come to enjoy the presence of the Harith leader. For a man not of his tribe, he was quite remarkable. But that, of course, he would never tell him. 
 


Near the Howeitat Camp, same day, afternoon: 
 

"Howeitat," Lawrence stated in a low voice, his eyes fixed on the red flag in the distance that fluttered in the weak wind, almost as if it would beckoning him to step closer.

"Huh?" Bentley pushed the sandy hut away that had slid over his face when he had dozed off.

"It's the camp of the Howeitat tribe."

"And that is a good sign, isn't it? Is it not the tribe of the one who had reacted so paranoid by my camera?"

"Auda, yes."

"We're welcome there, aren't we? After all you fought together."

Lawrence stopped his camel and stared into the distance, his body rigid by the concerned anxiousness that had got hold of him earlier and which now seemed to have reached a new level. Where they welcome? As what? Friends, enemies or strangers? Involuntarily, he had tightened his hold onto the reigns so that his knuckles went white and his nails cut into the flesh of his palms. Why hadn't Auda sent his men already? Surely they had noticed their approaching by now. Had Auda got careless in the past months? Very unlikely. Maybe they had been forced to leave the camp in such a hurry that they had to leave the tents behind? No, even without the binoculars and at that distance Lawrence thought to see movements. Yet something was not quite right and Lawrence wasn't sure what to make out of it.

"So, if they are not enemies, we certainly can ride a bit faster now instead to continue our senseless crawling? I'd really like to arrive anywhere soon." Bentley's words forced Lawrence to admit to himself that he had been hesitating, like a fool, trying to avoid what he knew was coming. Ever since he had discovered that there were Bedu on their way, he had played for time. First a long rest which he had refused to make before, then the snail's pace with which he had lead them out of the mountains and through the desert - everything as not to face that which was inevitable and which he craved and feared to the same time; the confrontation with people who had not only trusted him, but who had accepted him in their life. People who had not only given him a new identity but the chance for a new life. A heritage, he had returned, like you would return a broken car, in the nightmare of what had happened to him. Something that filled him with shame. With a feeling close to disgust, he looked down his body and the 'uniform' that covered his flesh. For his fine, light suit was no more than that; a European uniform. Yet it would have been wrong to him to wear the Harith robe which Ali had given to him after the Nefud - a life time ago so it seems to Lawrence. It had been a sign of honour and trust. Both of which he had lost by his own actions and failures.

"Anybody at home, Lawrence?" The reporter sounded slightly annoyed when he addressed him.

Almost grateful for the interruption in his thoughts, Lawrence tore his attention away from the flag and turned it towards the American. "I think so, yes. Let's go." There was no sense in delaying any longer what was to come. It was better to get over with it, so that the uncertainty, that had accompanied him since his departure from London, could no longer torment him. And with these thoughts and a loud 'hut, hut, hut', he rode on so fast, that Bentley could barely keep up with him.

***

Lawrence could almost feel Bentley's nervousness, or so he thought at least, for it could be also his own that reflected onto the reporter. Yet the tensed expression, with which the American observed the men that had lined up in front of the camp, spoke for itself. "You're sure that we're welcome?"

"I never said I was sure of anything, Mr. Bentley. I just told you which tribe it is."

"Right. The rest was my conclusion. Maybe we should ride back and take the way through Amman? Maybe your own people won't react that strange to our arrival," Bentley suggested, pointing out the expressionless features of the Howeitat reception committee.

If Bentley would have suggested the same thing just one hour ago, Lawrence would have agreed immediately. Not so now. Not after he had just made up his mind and was actually looking forward to the confrontation. "No. It is too late for that."

Finally they reached the group of Bedu that had gathered in front of the camp. Stopping his camel, but not dismounting, Lawrence observed their faces. A few he thought familiar, but if they recognised him too, they didn't make it known. In silence they stared at each other, none of them making a move. From beside him he sensed that Bentley was even more uncomfortable than him. The atmosphere was strained. "Mr. La--" Whatever Bentley wanted to say was left unsaid when a man appeared behind the line of Bedu, slowly passing his men until he stood right in front of Lawrence. Not uttering one word, he studied them, intently.

Lawrence didn't know how much time had passed when the other finally broke the tensed silence. "What is your business here, Englishman?"

Lawrence almost winced by the indifferent voice, yet he held his position. "We ask for the hospitality of your tribe before we continue our journey, Auda abu Tayi," Lawrence said, glad that his voice was even and didn't betray his feelings. "We have heard that the Howeitat are famous for their hospitality towards strangers," he added with a slight smile by the memory of their first meeting.

The eyes of the other man narrowed slightly. "There is much talk and not all of it is true. But tell me, English, where does your journey will go?"

"Damascus."

"What do you want in Damascus? Will you go there to add the other Englishmen?"

"No. We have nothing to do with the British army. We are going there to add Prince Faisal and the Arab in their cause."

"So you will betray your own people then?"

"No, I would not call it this," Lawrence stated, not giving more explanations. Something the Bedu in front of him accepted for he didn't ask more questions.

"If it is true what you are saying, why do you not come down here so that I can see your eyes? Only a liar thinks it necessary to hide them, for they will tell me if you are speaking the truth." With mixed emotions, Lawrence followed the request and dismounted. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Bentley doing the same. Without hesitation he stepped in front of the Bedu and, after a bow, met his eyes, unwavering. For a long moment neither of them said a word. Then the eyes of the Howeitat leader softened. "I can see that you are speaking the truth. You and your companion are welcome," Auda stated, his features enlightened by a smile, before he, with a dubious glance towards Bentley's camera, added," As long as he keeps that away from me."

"He will do so."

"Then be our guest. Dine and rest with us and then we will ride to Damascus together, El Lawrence." With the mention of his name so it seems, the gap that had separated him from the Arabs, had vanished. The men, who before had stayed silent, were now cheering and applauding, voicing their pleasure of 'Aurens' return. In wonder, Lawrence looked around, met smiling faces and sincere looks followed by gestures and warm words that bid him welcome. He felt like in a dream, not really able to believe that these all should be dedicated to him, the man who had not only broken his promise but also abandoned those people to their fate. Hesitantly, as if afraid that what was happening here would vanish as soon as he would turn his back on it, he turned around to Auda who had taken hold on his arm to get his attention. "What took you so long to come, El Lawrence?" he asked, showing Lawrence that the official part was over, that he had passed the Howeitat's test.

"You knew that I was back?"

"Yes. I knew it already when you were Aqaba," he replied to Lawrence's amazement.

"But ... how ...?"

"One of my man saw you there."

"I see."

"But I already knew before," Auda stated while he lead him into the camp. A gaze backwards showed him that Bentley was right behind them. "I told you that you would come. It was only a matter of time." The Bedu graced him with such a bright grin, that Lawrence couldn't help but answer with one himself. A smile that soon turned into a soft laughter. A laughter that set him free, that, at least for the moment, banished his fears. It felt so right to be back, almost as if he had never been away.

"It is good to be back again," Lawrence said and meant every word of it.

"Of course it is. The desert is your home." The words were spoken with such a determination that Lawrence almost could believe them.

"It had been. Once. But not anymore." His voice had taken on a bitter tone, something that didn't go unnoticed by Auda who studied him intently.

"Now you are lying, El Lawrence. Your eyes tell something different. They say what your mouth won't to say. Or maybe it is what your mind refuse to believe?"

"I don't know, Auda. I wish I would." And it was the truth. While it felt right to be back, there were still so many things that prevented him from returning completely. Situations he would have to face one day very soon.

"You do know. You just cannot see it. But you will, in time." And with a strange, somehow knowing look in his eyes which Lawrence couldn't read, Auda lead him in front of his own tent. "Do you see my men? Do you hear their voices?" Lawrence nodded. "Do you think that my men would welcome you if they would agree with you?" The Englishman's throat had become too dry for him to answer. "They would not. And if you do not agree, you are either a fool or you call them liars." The call of his name had become louder as more men gathered around them. Lawrence felt strangely light headed. He had expected much, but not this. Still, there was something, that didn't allow the nagging doubts and a deep running fear within him to come to rest.

"But why ...," not finding the right words he stopped.

"You were away too long, Lawrence. Or maybe the English air was not good for you. Have you really forgotten so fast?" When Lawrence didn't answer immediately, Auda continued, "They have not forgotten. They love you. That is why."

The voice of the Howeitat leader made it clear that he wasn't interested to continue this - in his eyes obviously - unnecessary discussion and so forced Lawrence not to speak more about it too. And if Lawrence should be honest, he was glad about it. He wanted to enjoy his return and just for once forget what had not wanted to leave his mind since he'd started this journey. He nodded in agreement," All right, Auda."

"That sounds better, El Lawrence. And maybe I have the right thing to ease your worries. But not now. First we will eat and drink and talk." And without further explanations, Auda took his arm again and lead him into the tent before Lawrence could even start to absorb everything the Howeitat leader had told him so far. Slightly confused, Lawrence looked back to Bentley who had followed them, obviously unsure of what else to do.

With a motion of his hand Auda invited them to sit down. "You want to go to Damascus?" Lawrence asked, watching Auda preparing tea. "Why?"

"Prince Faisal asked for our coming," the Bedu explained in a voice that was strangely dismissive, almost as if he didn't want to talk about it. "So, you are not here for the British army this time, El Lawrence? Why is that?"

"I left the army," Lawrence explained. "No, that is not quite right. They left me."

"They think you a traitor." Not a question, but a statement, Lawrence realised when he took the offered glass of tea.

"Allenby fears him. Hell, the whole British army fears him," Bentley, who so far had stayed silent, threw in, a wide grin on his face.

"But you worked for them."

Lawrence took a sip from the hot tea before he answered, "Not anymore. I told you so. They don't think me befitting anymore."

"They are afraid that he has changed sides," the reporter supplemented in his straight manner, that could be as useful as annoying how Lawrence had discovered during the past weeks.

"And are they right?" Auda asked Lawrence.

"They fear that I've become too much Bedu to be of any use to them."

"Some things you can not hide," Auda stated with a meaningful glance towards Lawrence's clothes.

"No, I suppose you can't," he replied, slightly embarrassed but not able to explain his reasons for the choice of clothes. "When do we leave?"

A question to which he never got an answer for almost as soon as the words had left his mouth, the tent opened up and a figure stepped in. "Auda! Would you ..."

The newcomer never finished his sentence for his eyes fell onto the Howeitat leader and his guests. Lawrence, who had just taken a new sip, choked on the tea when his brain progressed what his eyes had already understood. Ali stood right in front of them. His eyes, which by his entry had been gleaming with something like displeasure, widened in plain and obvious surprise when his gaze met that of a badly coughing Lawrence.

"Sherif Ali, it is good from you to join us. Dinner should be ready now," Auda said with a bright, inviting smile; ignoring everything; the plain astonishment of both, Lawrence and Ali, Bentley's confused look that darted between the two men and Lawrence's gasps for breath when he finally stopped coughing. "Oh, did I not tell you that Sherif Ali was my guest also? I must have forgotten about it by the surprise of your arrival. Sherif Ali was sent by Prince Faisal and we will ride to Damascus together. But maybe we should delay our departure for one more day. El Lawrence and the American look as if they are in need for some rest. Do you not agree, Sherif Ali?" Neither Lawrence nor Ali noticed the almost impish look that had softened the older Bedu's features, for they both were still staring at each other in astonishment.


Lawrence was almost glad to leave the camp and the celebrations behind as he searched his way through the mountains to a place where he, according to Auda would find Ali. They needed to talk. Something that had been impossible during the last hours when he had been constantly surrounded by others. First there was the long dinner in Auda's tent and afterwards the celebration from which Ali seemed to have vanished at some time. And despite his almost fiercely urge to be alone, to sort out his thoughts before having the desperate needed talk with the Harith leader, Lawrence couldn't reject Auda's hospitality and all that came with it. So he had stayed and watched and pretended to enjoy himself while his mind had been on other things. Something Auda had finally decided to notice a few hours later.

"You are not enjoying yourself, El Lawrence."

"It is not ... No," Lawrence had finally admitted. "Look, I'm sorry, Auda, but --"

"You want to do something against your worries." Surprised, Lawrence had looked up. The eyes of his host had been watching him knowingly, had shown Lawrence that the Bedu hadn't been oblivious to what had kept his mind busy and distracted him since he had seen Ali.

"Yeah, I think that is what I want to do."

Auda nodded before he pointed to the mountain range to his right. "I think I saw our friend going there some time ago. If you follow the small path you will not miss it. But then again, for some things we do not need directions. We just need to listen to our heart." Lawrence had stared at the other man in silence, not knowing what to say for that was a trait he hadn't discovered before at Auda. He had got to know him as a warrior who fought for what he thought was right, who was loyal to his tribe and, once he got over his mistrust, to his friends. A man who devoted himself completely to one task if he could fathom its usefulness, but his open understanding was something new. But then again, maybe it had always been there and had just been hidden under the roughness Auda wore on the outside. "Why are you looking so surprised? I am not blind to what is right in front of me. And now go!" The voice of the Howeitat leader had become his gruffly self again, causing Lawrence to smile.

Thoughtfully, only mildly aware of his surroundings, Lawrence went the narrow path, letting his feet doing the work for him while his mind was wandering. What would he do, what could he say, when he had found Ali? So far they hadn't exchanged more than a few obligatory courtesies. And Lawrence couldn't say if he was grateful for it or not. While he longed for a talk he feared it to the same amount. He wanted to come to terms with the Harith but was afraid that he wouldn't like the outcome, that there was nothing left anymore that could be cleared up and/or patched. With a shudder he remembered the mix of emotions with which Ali had regarded him after he had ordered the attack of the Turkish column. Disgust, helplessness, pity and fear. It was that what had let Lawrence realise what he had done. A realisation that had ashamed him beyond words. He hadn't even been able afterwards to meet the Bedu's eyes, even less to be touched by him or to speak to him. His withdrawing into a shell had not helped to improve the situation. On the contrary. A heartfelt sigh escaped Lawrence when he remembered their last days together. Days that instead of comforting each other before the battle for Damascus, they had spent separated. Not by distance, but by borders Lawrence himself had erected. Borders of self-hatred, pain and self-pity. Borders, he hadn't allowed Ali to cross and whom he so had driven away; bit by bit.

Lawrence followed the path when it took a sharp turn to the left and froze in his motion when he found himself again on a ledge. And he wasn't alone. In front near a small fire, his back turned to Lawrence, sitting on the stony ground that partially was covered with sand, was Ali. It was impossible to mistake the dark clothed, even in a sitting position imposing figure for somebody else but that of his past friend and lover. Though, lover was hardly the right description to do justice what they had shared. Lawrence shook his head to clear his mind from yet another thought. It was not that he didn't have enough to worry and ponder about. For just a moment longer he allowed himself the luxury of watching the other man before he stepped closer. "Do you mind if I join you?" He barely recognised the low, rough voice as his own. The Harith's head turned to him and, after a moment of silence that seemed to last an eternity, Ali nodded and motioned beside him. "Auda told me where I could find you," Lawrence explained, although he was almost sure that Ali was aware of it already. Lawrence tried to read the other man's eyes in the hope to find something there that would give him a clue for what he should do next. There was nothing. The black eyes were unreadable.

"I am surprised Auda let you out of his view at all." Lawrence laughed softly in agreement but otherwise remind silent for he didn't know what to say to ease the odd, tensed atmosphere that surrounded them. When he couldn't stand anymore the gaze of the dark eyes that watched him with such an intensity that he could almost feel them burning their way into his most inner self, laying bare his very soul, Lawrence turned away his head. His gaze drifted from the mountain walls that surrounded them, over the camp below, the wide desert and towards the dark sky from which the stars shone as clearly as in his memories. "I didn't believe Auda when he told me that you was on your way. And even now, seeing you with my own eyes ..."

"I still can't believe it myself. It is like a dream."

"Prince Faisal heard that you are no longer with the army. So what brought you back here?"

The words, although spoken neutrally, hurt. Did they indicate that Ali believed that he just had abided in Arabia because of his loyalty for the British army. After all what they had experienced, after all the battles they had fought, after all what they had shared, Ali still didn't trust him and his motives completely. Desperation and anger mingled within Lawrence when he stood up, walked carefully around the fire, close to the abyss and looked into the night, taking deep breaths of the cool air to regain control over his emotions. "Sherif Ali, I assure you that I'm not here with or for the British army. My reasons are of a personal nature," he stated in a cold voice with which he hoped to mask the emotional turmoil he felt.

"And what are your 'personal reasons'?" Lawrence winced inwardly by the voice that matched his own in its coldness.

"The same like the last time. To help you." His voice broke ever so slightly and for a short moment Lawrence closed his eyes and wrapped the cloak, Auda had given him for protection against the coldness so far up here, tighter around his body. That was not the way he wanted it to be. "Look Ali, Bentley searched for me, found me and told me what happened on the conference. He convinced me that we might be able to help and that is why I'm here." Even without turning around he could feel the other man's gaze. "I'm not here to spy out for the British, if that is your worry. I'm here as a friend. I didn't know about the treaty. Not before Prince Faisal was in Cairo and discovered it. That is why I wanted to go to Damascus before Allenby. I thought it would change the outcome. It didn't. I failed in what I promised you. But I think, I and Bentley found a way." Lawrence was shaking. And while his instincts told him to go away from the whole situation, there was, like the first time, a part of his mind that refused to give in. His pride forbid him to leave, before he not at least had tried to convince Ali.

Lawrence straightened up and turned around to face the other man. "You have every right to doubt me," he said, not only referring to their last ride to Damascus but to what had happened between them. "But I know again what I'm doing. I cannot prove my words to you, so it is on you to decide if you'll - if you can - trust me one more time." Lawrence throat tightened when the gaze of the Bedu still gave no indication of what he was feeling or thinking. "You might think of me as only another desert-loving English who all but lost his mind. See me as what you want and, most certainly, you're right, but you know that I'm not a liar or a traitor. I never betrayed you or your people and I certainly won't start doing it now."

Lawrence stepped away from the abyss and squatted in front of the sitting Arab. "I have been wrong in more things than I would like to admit. I did things I regret deeply, things that still hunt me. I was half mad and I am still not sure about who or what I am, but even during my madness there were things I never regretted; like coming here, leading the Arab revolt, and meeting you. Those memories saved me from losing my mind entirely. The only thing I truly regret is the way everything has turned out." Slowly, Lawrence stood up again. "And I thank God, that Mr. Bentley found me and convinced me to return with him, for if not for him, I most certainly would still sit in England and torment myself with a past I cannot change. Without him I would still ponder the emptiness in me instead of knowing what I want." And with those last words, he re-arranged his cloak and headed for the small path to take his leave before he would lose control over his emotions completely.

"And what is that you want, Lawrence?" The voice let him stop in his motions.

"To stay here, where I belong. To fight for the people I've come to care more about than about my own. To try to make up for my failure. *If* these people will let me."

"After your welcome here, you still doubt it?"

Lawrence felt shivers up his spine. He took a deep breath and turned around again to face Ali, who had risen from the ground in the meanwhile. "The Howeitat welcomed me, true. But what is about the rest? What about the other tribes? What about Prince Faisal? What about you, Sherif Ali?" Those were the words he spoke, yet there were only the shallow vocalisation of what he really wanted to know, the insufficient attempt to speak out aloud the questions which possible answers he feared and craved to the same amount.

"Prince Faisal always thought very highly of you. He believed in you. Even before me. And the Arabs love you, of course they will welcome you, regardless of their tribe." Lawrence had to swallow by this statement and the sudden closeness to the Bedu. While he had answered, Ali slowly had approached him, so that Lawrence could make out the other man's features without difficulties now.

"And you, Sherif Ali?" He had to know it, even if the answer wouldn't be what he wanted to hear.

"I am an Arab, El Lawrence," Ali retorted with a smile that let Lawrence's fear almost vanish. Yet there was a small bit that refused to leave, for he didn't know if Ali answered to all of his question or merely replied the ones he had managed to voice. And if so, would it be enough? It had to be, Lawrence decided. But this reasonable determination did nothing to ease the ache within him that had accompanied his thoughts. While he had been separated from the other man, imprisoned in madness and hatred, he hadn't allowed himself to think about it more, and after a time he had managed to forget, almost. But now that he had seen Ali again, had talked to him, had been so close to him again, the strength to fight or to forget had left Lawrence.

Obviously, something of his distress had slipped onto the surface, for the features of the other man became serious. "Some things are written, despite what you may believe, El Lawrence. Your coming here was no coincidence. It was His will. The same for your return. And I thank God for that." Ali reached out with his hand and gently squeezed his shoulder. A comforting touch that almost made up for the loneliness Lawrence had imposed onto himself. "'A man can be whatever he wants', you said so once. It is true. You belong here. The colour of your skin is not important. Do not be so hard to yourself. You did not fail us. You gave us more than what we could have hoped for. All of us. And maybe me most. Our ways are entwined by Allah's wish, El Lawrence." The last words were spoken softly, yet in combination with Ali's warm gaze they were the answer Lawrence had sought and hoped for.

He wanted to thank the Bedu, but the words wouldn't come. And in the end it wasn't important anymore. Slowly, almost hesitantly, Lawrence lightly touched his friend's cheek with his fingertips. It was just a brief caress, but one that finally broke the spell that separated them. When Ali leaned forward to kiss him on his forehead, Lawrence pulled him in his arms and pressed their bodies together. Ali not only allowed the contact, but responded by leaning into the embrace and closing his arms around Lawrence's body. A special kind of peace welled up within Lawrence when their lips met and he, for the first time in far too long, tasted the other man. Almost forgotten where the long months of self-imposed loneliness, of repressed but never forgotten longing, when sure fingers gently urged his right hand to release their hold onto the protective cloak and then began to unbutton his shirt, not missing the opportunity to caress every inch of the newly exposed skin.

A soft moan escaped Lawrence when the cool night-air stroke over the inflamed skin of his body. Instinctively, he reached out for the other man. Needed to make sure that he wasn't having another illusion that would fade as soon as he started to believe in it. The relief that swept over him when he felt Ali's lean body against his own was overwhelming. A soft sigh escaped Lawrence when he finally allowed himself the luxury of being where he had longed to be; in the arms of the man who had shown him the heaven on earth, who had taught him what it meant to be loved and love in return and who had been his last hold onto reality when madness and shame had threatened to absorb him. But the moment of inner peace Lawrence experienced was taken away from him at once, when Ali not only released the embrace, but went around him and got ready to push the shirt away to free the rest of his upper-body.

Blue eyes snapped open and Lawrence could almost feel how every muscle in his body stiffened. Never ever had he allowed anybody to see his bare body after Deraa. He had made sure that the evidence of his own failure, of his ultimate humiliation, that would brand his body as long as he'd live, was carefully hidden behind as many layers of clothes as possible so that neither he was confronted with it, nor anybody else got a chance to see it. Through the pain that was building up within him by those memories he could feel Ali's hesitation and the retreat of his hands. The shifting of air and the rustling of clothes showed him that Ali was moving. Lawrence closed his eyes. Not only that he was on the verge of tears - again, but he didn't think that he could stand the concerning gaze of the other man. Concern mixed with pain; pain, whose origin he was - once more.

Warm, rough hands were touching his face, gently, were silently asking him to open his eyes. A request Lawrence couldn't comply. Not yet. Maybe never. So much pain. His pain and pain he caused those he loved. Again and again. A never-ending circle. A continuing nightmare from which he couldn't escape. He could feel the tears behind his tightly closed eyelids, searching for a way out.

"Don't Lawrence." Words spoken in a soft, unsteady voice cut through the veil of desperation that separated Lawrence from the outside world. "Do not exclude me. " Fingers traced the fine lines of his face. His cheeks, his mouth, his forehead, stroking his eyes. So known, almost painfully familiar. "Don't do that to me - to us. Please. You do not have to go trough this alone. Allow me to be with you, my friend." A pert tear slipped from behind his eyelids; slowly, silently, making its way down his face, leaving a wet track. Not alone. Slowly, Lawrence willed his body to relax under the constant caress. Strength flooded him. Almost enough for him to open his eyes. But not yet. He needed just a little bit more. Needed to know that he was truly save and ... loved. Loved despite what had been done to him, loved despite the things he had done. Warm lips on his right cheek, catching the errant tear before they wandered further, covering his whole face with light kisses. Almost there. Just a few words. Nothing more. Please. A silent, desperate request for a need he could not voice. 

"Lawrence ..." The most different emotions reflected in just one word. "Please, El Lawrence. Ana bahebbak."

There they were, the magical words; ana bahebbak. Words that had never been spoken out aloud before, but which were desperately needed to be said and heard now. Only this one time to expel the darkness that had laid claim him. Lawrence could feel how it retreated, how it was driven away by the love and warmth Ali promised. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he opened his eyes, meeting the ones of the Bedu in front of him which were filled with gratefulness and love. Love for him. Looking into those eyes, drowning in their seemingly bottomless warm blackness, Lawrence thought he could see into the soul of the other man, could read his most inner self. And in this moment he knew that he would do everything for the other man, would try the impossible; not only for him, but for both of them.

"Ali." It felt so good, so right to say his name. This small word was enough to overcome the gap that had separated them for the last moments. A slight smile on his lips, Ali pulled Lawrence in an embrace before their lips met. Not longer hesitantly, but fully aware of what he wanted and what he was willing to do for it, Lawrence answered, stroking with his tongue over the other man's lips, urging him to open up.

Lawrence shuddered, this time not for fear or discomfort but for pure pleasure, when he felt Ali's hands moving over those parts of his body they could reach. He could feel his body involuntary relaxing under the familiar, slightly rough caresses. Ali began kissing down Lawrence's neck, nibbling and sucking. A soft groan escaped him, when Ali released the embrace, leaving Lawrence feeling at lost. A feeling that didn't hold on for long for soon sure fingers were stroking down his chest and over his stomach, coaxing a delicious, weightless heat to life in the pit of his stomach. Lawrence rode on a wave of passion that flooded through him. Like a flower would turn to the sun, his body arched into the ticklishly light touch to gain more contact. Then the hands were at his shirt again, softly tugging at the cloth but almost immediately stopping in their motion when Lawrence tensed ever so slightly. Dark eyes laid on him.

"Please ..." What was he asking for? For more? For Ali to stop? He didn't know.

"You asked me once to trust you, my friend. Now let me ask you the same, El Lawrence. I ask you to trust me. Can you do it?"

"I always did." Lawrence barely recognised the husky voice as his own.

"Then trust me in this too?" The imploring gaze of the other man hold Lawrence in its spell, woke memories of a better time when his life had still been his, when there hadn't been any walls to separate them. Lawrence's throat tightened by a sudden rush of emotions. He reached out, took the other man's face in his hands and pressed a light kiss on his lips.

"Yes." The word was barely more than a whisper, but it resounded in his ears like a thunderstorm. Yet the smile with which the other man graced him showed Lawrence that he had made the right decision. And if not the man whom he loved, who else should he trust? The warm gaze never released his eyes when the protective cloth was pushed down his shoulder, glided down his arms and landed soundlessly onto the ground. Clenched fists of which Lawrence hadn't even been aware of, were taken in strong hands, led to the other man's mouth and were covered in soft kisses until they relaxed and opened up.

"Thank you, my friend. You know that I would never hurt you." Lawrence just nodded. Ali had never used his vulnerability against him and he certainly wouldn't do it now. During his time in Arabia, Ali had been the only person close to him whom Lawrence could not only trust completely, but also the only person by whom he could be himself, who had not only accepted him - the Englishman - outside his rule as the leader of a revolution but who also had kept him together in one of his worst times. Yet he couldn't repress a shudder, when fingertips wandered over his back, not hesitating or stopping by the marks that branded him. Up and down they run over his skin until Lawrence couldn't help himself but relax once more. And only when no tension was left anymore within him, Ali's fingers left their track and moved on to his chest, coaxing a soft groan out of Lawrence when they ever so lightly stroke over his nipples which grew rigid under the touch. Rationality left him when those tormenting hands wandered further down, accidentally stroking over a hardness that Lawrence hadn't even been aware of, before Ali unhooked his belt, unfastened the button of his trousers and slowly released the zipper. Lawrence closed his eyes when the other man pushed his hands inside of his pants and eased them over his hips until they slid down his legs. He gasps when his underwear followed only a short moment later and cool wind stroke over his body, almost as tormenting and teasingly as Ali's hands before.

Without hesitation Lawrence followed the tug on his hand and, after having freed himself from the restraining clothes which had surrounded his feet, crouched down to be face to face again with Ali. "El La --" Whatever Ali might have wanted to say was left unsaid for Lawrence had leaned forward and claimed Ali's mouth for a searing kiss. Joy and wonder shone in the Bedu's eyes when they separated again, both of them breathlessly. Lawrence's hands were shaking when he reached out to strip Ali out of his robe. Though for lust or as a last remainder of his fears and doubts he did neither know nor did he really care, couldn't not for his whole attention was concentrated on the not entirely easy task of dealing with the black cloth in front of him. One day he would learn how to do it without having to fumble too much. He was sure about it. A light triumphant smile enlighten his features, when he finally laid bare the upper part of Ali's body. Carefully, he pushed the cloth down and ran his hands over Ali's chest, marvelling in its muscularity which was so very different from his own slender form, and the contrast of his own far too fair skin compared to the dark body of the Harith. Fingers brushed the back of his head and tangled in his hair when Lawrence focused his attention onto one dark nipple and bend his head to tease it with light strokes of his tongue. A sudden touch on his shoulder let him flinch and for one brief moment he didn't know anymore where he was.

A line of men; cold, dark and hungry eyes; pain; humiliation.

"Lawrence." Bewildered by the worried voice that reached behind the veil of his nightmarish memories, he looked up. A wave of plain relief flooded through him when his eyes met the questioningly ones of the Harith leader. No Turkish General. No more pain. He was safe; at least for the moment. Ali would make sure of it.

"It's all right. I'm all right," he said, blowing a light kiss on the hand that was touching his face. "Now I'm all right," he added softly after a moment of silence. An answer the other man accepted with a somehow uncertain nod.

"Lie down with me?"

With only a slight hesitancy, Lawrence took the offered hand and let himself be pulled down onto the cloak that some time earlier the night had landed there. Arms encircled Lawrence almost the same instant they'd settled, pressing him against Ali's body. Gentle touches and light kisses allowed him to relax enough to be turned around on his belly. A shudder escaped him when he felt Ali's lips on his nape, slowly kissing their way down. His body tensed when they reached the first of many scars. Even without having ever looked at them, Lawrence knew the exact position of each. He was almost sure that they had reached the beginning of the end . For how could Ali accept something he himself could not even look at? How could the Bedu not feel repulsion by the proof of his violation and failure? A gasp escaped Lawrence when the mouth not only did not stop but begun to pay special attention to each scare; almost as if the light touches could undue the horror they stood for. A sudden lump in his throat made breathing difficult for Lawrence when, instead of detestation or silent rejection, he was showered in acceptance and love. An unexpected reaction that was overwhelming in its intensity. Lawrence's body begun to tremble when the last of his walls cracked down under Ali's tender caresses and he, for the first time, allowed his pain onto the surface in another's company.

A strong body covered his own from the side when Lawrence begun to shiver under the flood of tears. Soft, encouraging words whose meaning Lawrence couldn't grasp, were whispered in his ear and fingers massaged his scalp, comforting him while he let out and shared the ghosts that were tormenting him. Lawrence pressed his back against Ali's body, needing the closeness to drive away the last desperation and darkness within him. At some point he became aware of hands that were wandering down his body, not demanding but simply to show him that he wasn't alone, that Ali was with him. His arms, his chest, his hips, his legs; over and over. Touches that not only soothed his distress, that not only restored his peace - at least part of it -, but that let him feel alive again. Not really aware that the rush of tears had stopped, Lawrence arched into the offered touch, not only wanting, but needing more of what Ali gave him so willingly.

Like two pieces of a puzzle their bodies fit together when Lawrence shifted against the other man in the attempt to get closer. A movement that coaxed a soft moan out of Ali. Slowly, obviously prepared to withdraw as soon as Lawrence would give any indication of distress, the Bedu's hands moved between his legs and caressed him with soft strokes, causing Lawrence to gasp out aloud by the intense pleasure that was sent through every fibre of his body. Involuntarily, he moved back and forth. There was no fear anymore when he alternately pressed against the stroking hand and the hardness of the other man that fitted so perfectly between his buttocks. This was real; not his nightmares, nor his visions. There was no Turkish General who would hurt and use him. Here and now was only Ali, himself and rising lust and passion. This was where he wanted to be, and with whom he wanted to be. For now he was safe.

Lawrence lost himself in the waves of sensation that rolled through him, for once not remembering the darkest hours of his life or his fear. Fiercely pleasure, almost painfully intense, caught him off-guard and engulfed him completely, when the strokes became stronger, more demanding. Sudden warm breath at his ear in combination with his husky whispered name and a sudden stickiness between his buttocks were too much; with a hoarse cry on his lips, which could have been either, a curse or a blessing, Lawrence's world exploded in a blinding white light.

***

Lawrence didn't know how long he had laid there in the aftermath of what had happened when he finally felt able to turn around again, to face the other man with whom he had shared so much in a past that seemed so very far away. Ali watched him with a strange wariness, almost fear, obviously not knowing what to expect now that the short moment of shared passion was over. Hesitantly, Lawrence reached out with his hand and caressed the Bedu's cheek, bringing a small smile to Ali's face.

"What now, El Lawrence? Where will we go from here?" the dark eyes seemed to ask. Lawrence watched Ali before he shook his head. But even if he didn't know the answers to those unspoken questions, he knew what he wanted; knew for certain that there was no way that he would turn his back onto Arabia - and Ali - once more. He would stay and finish for what he had came for in the first place and maybe - hopefully - find a way to defeat his own inner demons. He wouldn't run and hide again. He would fight for what had become so very important to him.

... our ways are entwined by Allah's wish ...

Thoughtfully, Lawrence traced Ali's features. He wished that his own faith would be that strong. What was if Ali was wrong? If they were never meant to be together?

.. ana bahebbak ...

"And I you, my dear friend," a voice interrupted his pondering, let him realise that he had spoken out aloud his last thought. Hands were framing his face, were pulling him closer. Warm lips were kissing him; not to re-awake lust, but to emphasise Ali's words. And somewhere deep within him, Lawrence saw a small light of hope. Maybe there was a chance. A chance for regaining his peace and happiness. With a sigh he allowed himself to be pulled closer to the other man who enfolded him in a comforting and protective embrace. Here in Ali's arms he could almost share the Bedu's strong faith, could almost believe that they had a chance ...


With a satisfied gaze towards the mountains, Auda faced the dying fire in front of his tent.

Everything went just as he had wished for. Even better. For could it only be a good sign that neither Lawrence nor Ali had returned to the camp yet. First Lawrence's return to the desert, then Sherif Ali's fears that had proved wrong and now that. And tomorrow they would --

"Have you seen Mr. Lawrence? He has not returned yet and I wondered --"

"Lawrence chose a different resting place. You will see him in the morning." Obviously uncertain of how to understand Auda's words, the American looked at him, blankly. "Lawrence is fine. No harm will come to him. You should go to sleep also. We will rise with the first rays of the sun and ride to Damascus to work another miracle."

Satisfied, Auda saw the American once nodding before he went away, probably to seek out his own sleeping place.

Yes, everything was good and it only could get better. Together they had a chance. And if not? Then they would return to their life and accept what was not meant to be. 
 

-- THE END --