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A White Thread, A Black Thread

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I: A Hawk to the Hand

The Banks of the Nile, 1807

So that was the way of it, then. He'd come to Tussun like a hawk whistled to the hand. And now Tussun, confident in his victory, was dozing beside him: but Thomas had seldom been further from sleep. All too soon today would be over, and there might never be another like it in his life.

He did not much care for the thought that he was so easily brought to hand.

But hot on the heels of that thought came the memory of Tussun's hand, Tussun's hand on Thomas's skin. Thomas shivered in the noonday heat: looked down at the Nile-water that still beaded the pale skin of his belly, and streamed from his dark hair. The memory of what Tussun had done to, demanded from, him -- that was enough in itself to stir his blood again, to make his prick twitch against his thigh.

And maybe after all it was not that he'd been called, commanded. Hadn't he responded with as much fierceness and heat as Tussun had brought to their embrace? It was not a thing that Thomas had ever considered for himself, though he knew that such things passed between other men. Yet it was as though his body had known everything that was right to do: known how to arch against Tussun, to set his hand to the other's member, to press his mouth against the hard muscled curve of tawny skin between Tussun's throat and shoulder.

The memory surged through his blood and brought a smile that he could not suppress.

Out over the river, a pair of dragonflies swooped and swirled, bright as jewels against the green water. They are comrades, thought Thomas. Neither calls, or commands: they come together for the simple joy of it.

"What are you thinking, Tho'mas?" came Tussun's voice from beside him.

It would have been easy to lie, to speak of the hawking party or the coolness of the shade-trees or his friend Zeid ibn Hussein. But Thomas knew already that this thing between himself and Tussun would not be easy. They must be wholly honest with one another: there must be no secrets, nothing unspoken.

"I was thinking," he said, "of what passed between us here, earlier."

Tussun's flashing grin was bright as sunlight. He lay there, enviably at ease in his own bare skin, and the sight of him confused Thomas, for it made him at once shy and bold.

"It was a fine thing, was it not?"

"It was," agreed Thomas. "Yet ... it was not a thing I knew about myself, until today."

Tussun's brows shot up. "This was ... I was the first?"

"Calm yourself," said Thomas dryly. "There have been women."

"Ah, but there are things that happen between two friends -- two men -- that women cannot know." Tussun was practically glowing with contentment. "Though I had thought -- your friend, Captain Zeid, is he not ...?"

Thomas bit back a sharp retort, because he was no longer at all sure what he thought of such practices. He thought about Zeid, about the young Bedouin captain's easy friendship: about the way he had been given a bed in Zeid's own tent. A bed in the third bay, where in a household tent the women's quarters would have been. He thought about Ahmed Bonaparte, and the pretty boys who served him.

"My eyes have been opened," he said. "There is much I did not see."

Tussun propped himself on one elbow and leaned towards Thomas, staring into his eyes as though he found some new sharpness, or brightness, there.

"Truly it is a good thing, to see clearly," he said. "And I am glad that it fell to me to give you the gift of clear sight."

"It will be different, in the city," said Thomas slowly, not wishing to make any claim yet desperate to be honest about his feelings.

Tussun leant back, smiling, content.

"If Allah wills it," he said, "we shall find a way to be together."


II: A White Day

A Palace in Cairo, 1808

Tussun's head ached, not with the dull ache of too much wine but with a sharp, sour pain like an arrow-wound or a knife. And it was less than he deserved for what he'd done. What he'd ordered. He thought of Ibrahim Bey -- of Tho'mas -- overwhelmed by his enemies. By the enemies to whom Tussun had given free rein in their jealousy and hatred.

Jealousy, thought Tussun. Perhaps after all, like Aziz Bey who Tho'mas slew, they were only jealous of what is between the two of us.

He thought of the fine things in the armoury that he'd given to Tho'mas for his home. Thought of the soft camel-hair rugs dark and juicy with blood. The blood of his friend: the blood that he'd betrayed. The blood that Tussun might as well have shed himself. And then, at least, he would have seen Tho'mas, living, one last time.

Always between them, since Tussun had bought Tho'mas's freedom from Ahmed Agha, had been that shadow, that sense of obligation. And though Tho'mas had come willingly to Tussun's embrace time after time, it seemed to Tussun that he had always held something back. That something, or the lack of it, had been the seed that Sulieman and his friends had brought to an evil flowering. The dark side of love: jealousy.

They had never spent a night in one another's arms, entwined: and now they never would.

That thought was enough to bring forth more tears. He had sent his servants and retainers, his guards and all his household from him. There was no one -- no one who mattered -- to see him weep like a girl over the death of his friend; and if there had been ten thousand crowded there, still he would have wept, for the love he bore Tho'mas and the nauseating ache of his own betrayal.

Only grey-bearded Abdin, and Ali, Tussun's page, had dared to remain. Abdin stood at the door, his back to Tussun, guarding him still: Ali sat huddled against the side of the divan. He'd put a trembling hand on Tussun's arm, earlier, but Tussun had shaken him off. Ali was too young to understand what lay between the two of them, himself and Tho'mas the Scotsman turned Muslim. Ali would not understand ... no, had he been here all along when Sulieman and his cronies had goaded Tussun into rage and spite?

No, surely he could not have been in the room. If he had witnessed that wine-fuelled frenzy, he would have fled his master, fearing him mad or sick. And truly, Tussun thought, I must have been mad.

They drove me mad.

There were no tears in him any more, but he could not stop the dry sobbing that shook the bed. There was rage, now, and he welcomed it. Thought of how he would avenge his friend, his brother, his Tho'mas. Thought of how Sulieman and Rashid and the rest of them would suffer before they died; of how slow that death would be.

Had it been quick, for Tho'mas? Or had his fierce and formidable spirit given him the strength to prolong that final battle?

There was some commotion outside the room. Sulieman and his friends returning, triumphant. He had bidden them ... he had bidden them bring him Tho'mas's head, for proof that they had done the thing. The bile rose in Tussun's throat. Under the heaped pillows of his bed, his hand searched for the dagger that was always there.

"Tussun."

Sudden as waking, ice ran through Tussun's veins, up through his bones, freezing the sourness in his belly. For an instant, he wanted to crawl beneath the embroidered blankets, to hide from the bloodsoaked and vengeful ghost that, alone in all the world, could speak his name thus.

"Tussun, it is me."

His honour, his heart, the remnants of every fine thing about him, all bade Tussun face his fear, face the ghost of the man he had killed. The man he had loved. He rolled over, propping himself up on one elbow, and stared.

If Tho'mas was a ghost, he was a remarkably solid one. He wore that shabby old burnous of his, though Tussun could see blood-stained pale linen where it had fallen open. There was blood welling thick and crimson from Tho'mas's arm, and he was pale beneath his tan.

"Tho'mas! You're -- you are not dead?"

"I am not dead," said the Scotsman levelly.

"But Sulieman --"

"Nor Sulieman. He and one other escaped, out of the ten who came against me."

For a heartbeat, Tussun hoped that Tho'mas had not known who had ordered his death. Hoped: nay, feared. For he had not the words to confess his crime, and yet -- yet they had always been honest with one another.

He stood up slowly, gathering his thoughts.

"Why in Allah's name did you send him and his cutthroats against me in the night?" There was no rage in Tho'mas's soft voice, no fury or indignation: just a deadly weariness that struck Tussun to the heart.

"They said -- Sulieman said -- that you --"

Tho'mas glanced away from Tussun for a moment, to where Ali cowered in the shadows. Was he wary of his words being heard? Ali is loyal, Tussun wanted to say: but he did not feel he had any right to speak of loyalty, not now.

"I can guess what Sulieman said. Could you not have trusted me? Not even long enough to ask me the truth of this story?"

"It is not true?" said Tussun, though in his heart he knew -- had known all along -- that Tho'mas would never speak against him. That Tho'mas was his friend, his brother.

Tho'mas did look angry now, and the flush of his face, the spark of his pale eyes gladdened Tussun as nothing else could have done, for it was proof that Tho'mas was truly alive, not some ghoul or ghost, and that ... that he cared. That he was wounded by Tussun's betrayal more cruelly than by the men -- ten men! -- who'd gone out to murder him.

"I am sorry!" he cried. "Tho'mas, I am so sorry -- "

"So am I," said Tho'mas.

"Forgive me -- you shall forgive me!" Tussun demanded. And without thinking about it, he was starting forward, rushing towards Thomas, and Thomas towards him: and then they were embracing in the middle of the room, Tho'mas's heart hammering against Tussun's face where he pushed it into the hollow of the taller man's shoulder, Tho'mas's blood sticky against Tussun's hand ...

"Tonight, Tho'mas," he said at last, raising his head, "you shall -- please, stay here with me."

This was not a thing that had ever been spoken between them. They had always come together quickly and casually, in the evening after fencing, in the heat of the day in some hidden shady place. Tussun would never have asked such a thing of Tho'mas -- with all that went, unsaid, with such an offer: with its promise of lingering pleasures, of each offering himself to the other -- while Tho'mas clung to that sense of obligation. Yet now, surely, surely, things were clear between them: a white day, a clean slate?

He raised his eyes to Tho'mas's, hoping that he might see looking back at him the equal, the friend, that he'd glimpsed the very first time they had come together, on the banks of the Nile.

"I will stay," said Thomas, and his arms tightened about Tussun's shoulders. "I will stay."


III: A Black Thread

The hills above El Rass, 1815

The sun had set, red and sudden, and Thomas could scarcely make out the path beneath his feet. He saw the man climbing silently towards him only as a silhouette against the fires of the camp below. His hand went to his pistol: but he knew that gait, that grace, even before the figure stumbled and the sound of Tussun's voice, cursing, came faintly to Thomas's ears.

"You should not whistle in the dark in enemy country," Tussun reproved him when they met.

"Was I whistling? I did not know. What brings you seeking me?"

"It is drawing on to the time for prayers. Too dark to tell a black thread from a white one. It is right for a man to pray in company with other men, not alone with the rocks and the empty spaces."

"I will pray with you, my brother," said Thomas, smiling in the darkness. And faintly, from below, came the call to prayer.

The two knelt, speaking the familiar words, making the ritual movements, wishing one another peace and mercy. And when the silence came back, neither of them moved towards the path back to the camp. Instead, by unspoken agreement, they moved back into the lee of the rock, where the chill wind did not reach them.

Thomas had been thinking of Anoud, and praying for her and their unborn child: but he was glad to have Tussun at his side. It was a rare and precious thing to be alone with his friend. The last three weeks, leading their little army through the mountains and harrying the Wahabi war-chief Abdullah ibn Saud, had given them few enough moments to speak privately together. And now they were here in the high country, with hoar-frost sparkling on the rocks and Orion the Hunter wheeling slowly above them in the vast sky. Despite the cold, despite his own fatigue and hunger, Thomas's blood was surging at Tussun's nearness. He put out his hand, and met Tussun's warm clasp, and sighed.

After he'd come to Islam and undergone that ritual circumcision before a crowd of other men, he'd feared that the act of love-making would be dulled for the rest of his life. Whether it was his own hand, or the soft curved body of one of the Daughters of Delight, the pleasure had been dimmed, blurred, blunted. And perhaps, he'd thought, that was as it should be. A devout man should live in purity, unswayed by earthly joys.

But Tussun had proved elsewise to him: and, he thought, it had been different for Tussun, too.

Tussun was asking him about the tune he'd been whistling. "It was the tune you were trying to teach Anoud the day in Tief when you said I had picked tomorrow's rose. A sad tune. Are you sad, Tho'mas?"

Thomas set his free hand against the icy rock, feeling the prickling of frost melting under his fingers. "No, I was thinking of Anoud, and I suppose the song came into my mind."

"Do you think of her very often?"

"Sometimes," said Thomas. "I don't need to think of her. She is part of me, as you are part of me."

"I used to be jealous of her," said Tussun thoughtfully, his hand tightening on Thomas's own.

Thomas wanted to laugh, but it would not have been kind. "Not now?" he said gravely.

"Not now. Was Anoud ever jealous of me?"

"I don't know," said Thomas honestly. "If she was, she hid it better than you did. But certainly she had as much cause to be -- and as little."

"Sometimes I think it must be hard to be a woman," said Tussun. Thomas could hear the satisfaction in his voice. "There is so much that they cannot know, so much that they cannot share."

"I am blessed to share this life with you, my brother," said Thomas, flexing his fingers to feel the familiar shape and strength of Tussun's hand in his. "They have been good, these weeks in the high hills."

Tussun shifted closer where they sat, so that he was pressed against Thomas from shoulder to knee. "If I live to be old, I shall remember them, taste them again on my tongue, and the taste will be good."

"For me also," said Thomas. Tussun's mouth was so close, slightly open. He could feel the other's warm breath against his face. He leant over and they kissed, long and slow and sweet, as lovers do who know every way of bringing bliss to one another. Tussun tasted of saffron and arak -- he still drank too much, in defiance of the Prophet's words, though never again had he been as maddened by drink as on that night in Cairo -- and he kissed Thomas back with a sureness and insistence that was utterly different from Anoud's gentle, hesitant kisses.

"I would ... taste you more deeply," murmured Tussun, a thread of laughter in his voice, against Thomas's mouth.

"No: let me ..." And Thomas shuffled back until he was straddling Tussun's legs, sliding his hands up beneath the other's burnous, freeing him -- oh, Tussun wanted this! -- and huffing his own hot breath over the warm velvety skin.

His own prick swelled, and he pushed against Tussun's knee as he slid his mouth, slowslowslow, over the pulsing head of Tussun's member, swirling his tongue around the ridge of it. His hand, spittle-slick, slid quick and firm along the shaft. And Tussun was groaning already, thighs tensing beneath Thomas, pushing his hips up to sink himself more deeply in Thomas's throat.

Thomas loved it: loved Tussun for this, for everything, for every time they'd brought one another to pleasure. He groaned, too, around the thick quivering prick in his mouth: hollowed his cheeks and pressed his tongue against that particular spot, and swallowed hard as Tussun, with a choking oath, poured himself into Thomas's throat.

The taste was still strong and bitter, like early almonds, in his mouth when Tussun lunged up and pulled him down, and within moments had Thomas's clothes open and his mouth where Thomas had been wanting it, and he'd hardly begun before the stars of Orion overhead blurred into a bright white haze as Thomas's climax overtook him.

Afterwards, putting their apparel to rights, the two sat for a while longer under the cold brilliant night sky, unwilling to return yet to the noise and warmth and smells of the camp. Beyond the mountains, the sky was beginning to take on a faint snail-shine of light, where presently the moon would rise. And Thomas found himself recounting, for Tussun, the tale of David and Jonathan. "And when David learned of Jonathan's death, he went through the ranks of the enemy, none able to stop him, and cut down Jonathan's body and bore it away."

"I would do that for you, Tho'mas, my brother," said Tussun fiercely. He held Thomas's hand again, and his fingers tightened almost convulsively. "Would you do that for me?"

"Yes," said Thomas, and was startled by what he heard in his own voice. Startled, and afraid, and yet unable not to speak his heart for once. "I would do anything for you. I would give up my life."

A small silence: then, "Allah grant that it will not be needful," said Tussun huskily. "That we shall grow old together."

But Thomas knew that it would not be so.

-end-