“Faris? Faris? Can you hear me?”
Madari opened his eyes, to see Jahni’s face close to his. The fear and worry on it dropped away, replaced by relief.
“Thank God. Are you back? Are you with me?”
Madari raised his head, and looked around. Jahni’s living room. He lay on the sofa and Jahni knelt beside it, holding one of Madari’s hands. His other hand rested on Madari’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Madari whispered. “I’m back.” The darkness still felt close, but he was back. He just had to stay back. Stay here. Now. Jahni stroked his shoulder and that helped. The touch anchored him in the present.
“I never saw you in a flashback for that long before,” Jahni said. “I was getting worried.”
Frightened he meant. Madari saw that in his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Please, don’t let me cause him any more pain. Not him.
Jahni shook his head. “Don’t say sorry. You’ve had a bad time lately. Just rest now.” The hand on Madari’s shoulder moved to touch his hair for a moment, only for a moment, a couple of soothing touches. Madari closed his eyes. “I’ll make you some tea,” Jahni said, and he moved away, his hand slipping out of Madari’s. The fingers in Madari’s hair stroked through it one last time and then were gone.
Madari didn’t open his eyes as he heard Jahni’s footsteps, leaving the room. Only once he knew he was alone, did he open them again. They felt sore, and he realised he had been weeping in the lost time between Raslan’s home and here. Had it been a flashback? He normally remembered what happened during them. Yet this time, he knew only blankness.
He looked around, taking in the familiarity of the room, again, looking for that anchor to the present and reality. A glance down at himself made him realise he lay sprawled on the sofa in an ungainly fashion, one leg bent up, the other resting over the arm at the end of it. His uniform jacket bunched up underneath him. Hardly a dignified position for an officer of the Royal Guard.
He didn’t move. It didn’t matter. What use was dignity to him, when he had no honour and no pride? And Jahni knew that now, just saw him throw away his principles to maintain the cover-up. How soon would he start to despise Madari as Faraj had?
Faraj, oh god, Faraj. He saw it again and felt the gun buck in his hands, saw the crimson stain appear on Faraj’s chest. I killed him. He dropped his face down onto his arm. The one last thing I could do to hurt him. A shaking breath in came out as a sob and he pounded his fist into the cushions, trying to control himself, trying to channel the pain out into that fist. But the tears came anyway and he wept.
Nothing could ever be the same again. These acts, killing his friend, lying and covering up, letting a traitor escape unpunished. He knew for sure now what awaited him. The torture he had once suffered for three weeks had only been a taster, of the torment he would suffer for an eternity in hell as a murderer and a hypocrite.
“Faris.” Jahni’s voice spoke close to his ear. “I’m here. You’re safe.”
He thinks I’m in the past again, Madari realised. But no, I’m right here. He turned to look at Jahni. His one comfort. The one person who made his life bearable. But now he had a new terror. That he would lose Jahni too. Madari swallowed a couple of times, brought his voice under control.
“You hate that I let Raslan go.”
Jahni hesitated for a moment, and then said, “I understand why you had to.”
“You despise me for it.”
“What? No of course not!”
“Kahil.” He reached out to Jahni, who took his hand at once. “You’ve seen what I am now. A hypocrite. A man with no honour.”
“No!” Jahni snapped the word. “That is not what I saw! Do you think I would have preferred you to sacrifice the future of Idris’s children?”
“Kahil, please, listen. I’m afraid, more than anything, of losing you, as I lost Idris. Losing your respect, your friendship.”
“You won’t.” Jahni shook his head. “Never. I know you are sometimes weak, sometimes afraid. I’ve seen that. And I still…” He looked down. “It can’t happen the way it did with Idris. I’m not Idris.” He looked up again, into Madari’s eyes. “I’m not him. What I feel is different…”
He broke off, his cheeks flushing, then abruptly stood, letting go of Madari’s hand. He walked to the window, where he stood with his back to Madari, arms folded.
“My feelings,” he spoke again after a moment, in a low voice. “My feelings are different.”
Madari stood up slowly, unfolding himself from the sofa. He stood there, in his crushed and creased uniform, and didn’t care about it, because, like the rest, it was trivia, meaningless. Only two things had meaning now. His inevitable fate and the man who stood there, the only one who made it worth staying alive to delay that fate.
I know I am going to hell.
Jahni looked up, seeing Madari’s reflection in the window. Then he turned, his eyes wide, as Madari strode towards him. The room was small, he covered the distance in only a few steps and reached Jahni, raised a hand to the side of his face, leaned in, pulling him close.
Madari had kissed him once before, Jahni remembered. When they found each other after the battle for the camp. In the smoke they embraced and Madari had kissed him on the temple. That had been relief, at finding him alive. He’d seen other men do the same that day. Nothing wrong with it. Nothing forbidden. Nothing sexual.
This was different.
This was a dream, surely? He’d thought of it and dismissed it, forced it away. It couldn’t be real, could it? Madari’s mouth on his, his arms pulling Jahni close.
It felt real. As real as hail. As real as pain. One of his arms slid around Madari’s waist. The other reached up to touch Madari’s face, and slide around to the back of his head, fingers stroking through his hair. Not as comfort, as he’d done a few moments ago, but a caress, the touch of a lover.
Lover? No, they couldn’t be that. That fake report told those lies about them because Raslan knew the damage it could cause if people believed it. The danger. Too much danger.
He pulled back from the kiss, panting. Madari stared back at him, face flushed, eyes wild. After a moment, Madari tried to lean in again.
“No. Wait.” Jahni pulled away from him, and took a few steps away from him, into the room. God the window. The open blind. He raised his hands, as Madari moved towards him. “Faris, we can’t. You know we can’t.”
“It doesn’t matter any more,” Madari shouted. “We’re both going to hell anyway! I have no reason not to show you what I feel.”
“Hell?” Jahni gasped as Madari crossed the room again, and took Jahni in his arms again. He made a sudden move to the side, and Jahni’s knees stuck the sofa. In a second they were lying in a tangle of limbs, Jahni on his back, Madari on top and kissing him again.
“Faris, wait. What are you saying about hell?” Jahni gasped, fighting his own desire to respond, but not putting much heart into that fight.
Madari stopped for a moment, pulled back enough to look down into Jahni’s face. “You have rejected Islam. I’m a murderer and a hypocrite.”
“I don’t believe in hell,” Jahni said.
“It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not.”
Kisses again and Jahni couldn’t fight them. He could certainly fight Madari off, if he wanted to. But he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to hurt him, of course, but he didn’t want this to stop either. Not really, not truly, in his heart. He’d wanted it for years. He’d come close so many times. He’d once even made plans to offer his body to Madari. But that had been different. He’d thought they were about to part, perhaps forever. Now there were so many reasons this shouldn’t happen.
“Faris.” He moaned out the word as Madari started to kiss his neck and face. “Please.”
“Kahil,” Madari said, his breath sounding short. His eyes still had that frantic, beyond control look. “Either I am right about hell, or you are right and there is nothing after death. In either case, it doesn’t matter. ”
“No, it does matter! There are other reasons. I want this. But… my training.” He felt ashamed of it for a moment. Did he care more for his career than he cared for Madari? But Selection, six months of the hardest work he’d ever done in his life. “I don’t want to throw that away! Faris, I worked so hard, for you, for the unit, because you believed in me.”
Madari shook his head. “I don’t care about the unit, the Guard, any of it.”
“I don’t believe you.” Jahni stroked Madari’s shoulder, trying to make it soothing, not a caress. “You’re upset about Idris, grieving, not thinking straight. You still care about the Guard. I know you want to help the Colonel rebuild. Rahama needs you. The king needs you.”
“I don’t care!”
Madari suddenly got up, leaving Jahni partly relieved and partly bereft. He sat up and watched Madari pace the room, twitchy, as if his rage and pain couldn’t be contained any longer.
“I don’t care,” Madari said again. “Not about the regiment, or the king, or the country. None of it matters now. We should leave. Go somewhere we can be together. I love you. If I have to go to hell for that, I will not go without ever saying it. Never having held you and…” He broke off, choked.
Jahni rose slowly from the sofa, feeling trancelike. He said ‘I love you’. He loves me. I’ve known it for so long. But to hear it at last. But then he pulled himself together.
“You wouldn’t voluntarily abandon your post like that. Not you. But if we give in to this, then you’ll be forced to, we both will. Our days will be numbered.” He shook his head, trying to shake the picture of the events if they were caught out. “I’m not ready to sacrifice all that.”
He stepped backwards, sat down again, and buried his head in his hands. Madari loved him, and Jahni had to turn him away, despite his dreams, despite his love. Too afraid of disgrace and ashamed of that fear. He looked up when Madari sat down beside him.
“If we could find a way?” Madari said, his voice calmer now. “To be together. Would you want to be with me?”
“Yes. I love you.” He almost choked on the words he’d said so often in his mind and never aloud. Never thought he would say them to Madari’s face. This time, when Madari leaned in to kiss him, it was gentler, slow, the frantic, out of control near-madness gone.
What if he gave in, just for this one night? Gave in to what? Kisses, or more? Did Madari actually want more? He hadn’t attempted more than kisses so far. Were the mental scars from his torture still too raw to allow him to go further? Though he did with…
“Sophia,” Jahni said, pulling away. “What about her?”
“I don’t love her.”
“I know that. But…”
“Don’t think about her.”
He didn’t want to, and then he couldn’t any more, because Madari was kissing him again.
He gave in to it. To this at least, no more. He justified it in his mind because it seemed to be soothing Madari. He had lost the earlier agitation, which had frightened Jahni, fearing it would send him into another flashback or panic attack.
So he gave in to staying on the sofa, wrapped tight in Madari’s arms and kissing and talking softly. He spoke the most as usual, and the voice came out, the one he used to help Madari out of the nightmares and the attacks. He hadn’t needed to use it much lately, but the soothing tone came naturally again. Perhaps even in this very different situation it had its usual effect, because after a while Madari drifted into sleep. Or perhaps he was just exhausted.
That was the end of it then, Jahni knew. Things would be different when he woke. He’d be ashamed or embarrassed. Or would he be glad they had finally broken the tension and aired their feelings? Perhaps that was good. Healthy. They couldn’t act on those feelings again, but honesty about them meant they could be on their guard. They could guard each other from temptation as well as themselves.
And were either of them strong enough for that? For a moment, he envied Madari’s faith, because he at least could pray for strength. But then he remembered what Madari said about hell, and stopped envying him. Jahni didn’t want that fear on top of everything else.
Madari sighed in his sleep and murmured something incoherent. Jahni looked at him. He’d held him like this many times, stroked his hair and face to soothe him. But he’d never done what he did now, lean in and softly kiss him on the forehead. Is that the last kiss I’ll ever give him? One more, perhaps. He’s asleep, no-one can see. Tonight is the time for giving in to temptation.
It would be dawn soon, the night fading. Light would bring the return of good sense, sound judgement. And then this madness would end. But for now, with Madari asleep in his arms, he enjoyed the madness for as long as he could.
Madari once again awoke to find himself lying on Jahni’s sofa. But this time he remembered how he got there, and sat up with a gasp. He was alone. Sunshine poured into the room and a glance at his watch told him it was almost eight in the morning.
“Kahil?” His voice cracked, his throat so dry.
No-one answered. He must be around somewhere. In the kitchen, or the shower perhaps? Madari rose, unsteady on his feet, feeling as if his pounding head overbalanced him, it was so heavy and aching. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and winced at the mess of his clothes and his hair. He made an effort to flatten the hair and straighten his clothes.
He had to leave. What happened was totally unacceptable. What if Jahni walked back into the room now, and expected Madari to kiss him again? To hold him like last night?
Oh, he wanted to, so much. But he no longer could. Not now he felt sane again. Only in the grip of some kind of madness could he behave like that again. Is love a kind of madness?
He turned as the door opened and Jahni walked in. He wore fresh clothes, and carried two coffee cups.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
Was he disappointed? Did he want to shake Madari awake gently? Kiss him? No. No, he was the one who had said ‘no’ last night. The one who had kept his head, while Madari lost his mind. Nevertheless, he gave a smile that seemed softer than the normal one he greeted Madari with.
“How do you feel?” Jahni asked, handing Madari one of the coffee cups.
Better. Worse. Less crazed. But with a pounding headache, and his back not thanking him for the hours on that sofa.
“Tired,” Madari said, and took a mouthful of coffee.
“I called in to the barracks, to Colonel Rahama. I told him we’d been working all night and he said to get some rest.”
Yes, of course, Rahama thought they’d been working all night searching through Faraj’s papers, as he’d sent them to do. Faraj’s papers, that lay scattered around Madari’s office now, abandoned when he found that report, and saw what it meant.
Madari took another gulp of coffee, it gave him courage, and it gave him his voice back, his throat no longer parched.
“Kahil, I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to even start apologising for the way I behaved. I was out of control.”
Jahni shook his head. “Don’t say sorry.”
“No, I must. You didn’t want it.”
“But I did! I mean, partly. But…” He broke off, looking away. “I’m just so torn.”
“No, you were right. It’s wrong.” Had that been what he said? Not exactly. No, he was afraid, he wasn’t ready for it. Would he ever be? Would Madari? One day? Hope. A small glimmer of it, that one day, somehow, they might have some chance of happiness. Not while they were who they were now. But the future held endless possibilities.
At least it does as long as I live, Madari thought. Only one possibility after that. But even that thought felt more abstract now, less of an immediate threat. He couldn’t feel the flames at his heels any more.
But until ‘one day’ came, he had to relearn some things. Self-control. The guilt and grief over Faraj had torn away so much of his strength. Left him so weak. Too weak to deal with Raslan as he should have – by killing him. Too weak to resist temptation.
“I have to go,” Madari said, finished the coffee with another gulp and handed the cup back to Jahni.
“Go? But…” Jahni followed him, as he left the room. “We should talk.”
“No,” Madari said, stopping by the front door. “We should put it behind us. We’ve both known the danger for a long time, perhaps we grew complacent.” He looked around. “Did I have my cap here?”
“Cap? No.” Jahni dumped the coffee cups on a table and came towards Madari, reaching out for him, frowning now. “We can’t just forget. We have to deal with it. You know that!”
“Yes.” Madari raised a hand to fend off Jahni’s. “We do. But I think we have to deal with it separately.”
He couldn’t stay here, because the raw memory still overwhelmed him. The touch of Jahni’s hands, his lips. The scent of him, that soap that had fixed the memory of him every time Madari came to check on the lonely flat during those months apart. If he stayed, if they talked, then the most powerful thing of all, Jahni’s voice, would tear down his control again. There’d be less despair behind it than last night. But still, it would be a failure.
“I’ll call you later,” Madari said. “I just need some time to think it through now. Perhaps later we can talk.”
Glum looking, Jahni nodded. “Okay,” he said in a low tone, looking away.
Madari understood. Talking things out was what Jahni was best at. Being able to talk to Jahni about his nightmares and trauma had saved Madari’s life. Yet now, he had to turn it down, for fear it would lead to more weakness, more sin.
Jahni’s sad expression almost unmanned him though. He wanted to lean in and kiss him goodbye, call him “my dear”, as he did with Sophia. Or something else, some absurd pet name. But he retained just enough control not to do that.
“Goodbye.” At last, he tore himself away, out of the door, and closed it behind him. He hurried away, down the stairs, fearing Jahni would call him back and he wouldn’t be able to resist.
At the bottom of the staircase, he hesitated and took a moment to fasten his uniform jacket and again try to make himself look semi-respectable. After all, those rumours could still damage him. If he was seen leaving Jahni’s home first thing in the morning, in rumpled clothes, people might think… Well, something close to the truth actually.
But he met no-one in the lobby, and the street was quiet. He walked to the corner, onto the main road, and found a small coffee house.
He needed to regroup. His car was at home, so he’d need to get a taxi to take him there. Checking his pockets for money for the coffee and the taxi, he found his wallet, and also, Raslan’s fake report. This he had to destroy, despite what he’d said earlier about only concealing evidence, not destroying it. More hypocrisy. Were there other copies? He wouldn’t put that past Raslan.
And once he got home, he had to regroup mentally, decide how to go forward. How to live with knowing he could act on those long suppressed feelings, and enjoy the act, and yet despise himself for it at the same time. And he had to vow that it couldn’t happen again.
Could he do that alone? Did he have the strength? Who could help him if he couldn’t? When he couldn’t turn to his usual source of strength, Jahni.
Could he tell Sophia? But he’d promised to be faithful to her, and last night he had broken that promise. Another sin. Hannibal? He’d been a help in the past. He’d invited Madari to call him whenever he needed. But Madari had no idea how he’d react to this particular problem. Americans might be more liberal, but Hannibal was a soldier. No, he wouldn’t risk losing the man’s friendship.
Who did that leave? So many of his friends were gone. The thought made his eyes burn briefly. He found his small diary in his other pocket and flipped to the contacts section, looking over the phone numbers. One made him pause and then nod.
He found the payphone near the back of the coffee shop. Glancing around, he saw nobody close enough to hear him. He dialled a number.
“Dr Al-Hijazi? Faris Madari here. Oh, I’m glad I caught you before you went to work.” He nodded a few times, and then spoke again. “Yes, I would be happy to come to dinner. We must meet more often. But there’s something specific I called about. I… I would prefer to avoid going to an Army doctor about this. I wonder if you can give me a referral, to, um, a psychiatrist.”
He blushed as he said it, which felt absurd. He’d seen an Army psychiatrist for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had found the sessions difficult, but always useful. But he’d never dared mention to the Army doctor what he felt for Jahni. If he did have to talk about that, then it needed to be a civilian doctor.
Al-Hijazi gave him a name, and a moment later, a telephone number. Madari ended the call, with thanks and promises to call soon. He looked at the paper with the name and number and then put it in his pocket.
About to leave the phone, he suddenly recalled another promise he’d made. Taking out the fake report, he looked at one of the few actual facts on it, the telephone number for military intelligence HQ. As he’d promised, he had to speak to Raslan’s C.O. Who had better now be Raslan’s ex-C.O.
A few minutes later he had the cheering news that Raslan had indeed resigned his commission and was currently completing the discharge paperwork. So, he’d left the Army. Madari hoped he’d never see Raslan again. That at least would be one less thing to complicate his life.
He sat back at his table again and drank more coffee. A lighter feeling came on him, as his head cleared and the future looked brighter. He would deal with his problems. What happened last night wouldn’t happen again.
But there was something else, which made him both glad and ashamed. He had more than a dream to hold onto now. He had more than imagination. He had a memory. Jahni in his arms, kissing him. He’d have that always now. Sometimes he’d let himself take that memory out and enjoy it briefly, like a treasured photograph, or old letter. Even after he re-learnt enough self control to stop it happening again, nothing could ever take that memory away.
Not from him, and not from Jahni.