Jahni came into the kitchen wearing only the robe he’d worn the night before, eyes still half-closed, hair mussed. He carried the coffee cup Madari had taken into the bedroom for him a few minutes ago, waking him with a gentle shake of his shoulder.
“Sorry to wake you early,” Madari said, busy at the stove making breakfast, as Jahni almost fell into a chair at the small kitchen table. “I know you aren’t on duty today, but I am and you’ll have to be gone before the housekeeper comes in.”
“That’s okay,” Jahni said, yawning. He squinted at the plate of eggs and toast Madari put in front of him. “You know, I almost expected bacon.”
Madari winced. “I might have been, um, hasty about saying I’m no longer a Muslim.” He sat down with his own breakfast and poured himself a cup of coffee. Jahni pushed his cup across the table and Madari reached over to top it off. His shirt sleeve fell back as he reached out, revealing his watch and beside it, the amber wristband. Jahni smiled.
“Not part of regulation uniform,” he said.
“If anyone asks, I’ll say they’re prayer beads,” Madari said. “Anyway, I’m the commander of the regiment. I make the rules.”
Jahni smiled wider at that. Perhaps thinking there were a few rules he could change. If only! They ate in silence. What kind of small talk could they make in this situation? Nice day. Did you feed the cat? Have the newspapers arrived? We had sex last night.
Barely even ‘last night’. Only around four hours since they went to sleep. Both of them had fought to stay awake simply to enjoy the time holding each other. When Madari had woken to the dawn stealing into the room, they were no longer locked together. But he’d reached out and, even in his sleep, Jahni had rolled into Madari’s arms, fitting into place as easily and naturally as if he belonged there.
He did. They should have done this years ago, when they were not so important. When they had the freedom to choose to leave. But it made no sense to worry about the past. It couldn’t be changed. They had made the choice to delay their happiness for just a bit longer and Madari admired Jahni having the strength to choose for them. He couldn’t make the choice himself, it hurt too much.
“Is there a CCTV camera in the emergency stairs?” Jahni asked, looking more awake now, with food and coffee inside him.
“No. Definitely not.”
“And I can get into the car park from there without setting off any alarms?”
“Yes.” Madari sighed at this reminder of the reality of their situation. Jahni would sneak out of his home like a criminal escaping the scene of a crime. Which is exactly what he was. What both of them were. “I’m sorry that you have to do that.”
“I’ll consider it practice at being invisible,” Jahni said. “I’m going to have a shower and get out of here. You should probably go. It’s getting late.”
Any break in routine might arouse suspicion. Madari should arrive at the barracks no later than usual. He knew he looked tired, but nobody would question that. He still mourned his dead wife. People would assume grief kept him from sleeping. They wouldn’t guess the truth.
Tonight, he would sleep. Alone.
He stood up and put on his jacket. Jahni watched him, with an expectant look. What was he expecting? Madari knew what he himself wanted to do—kiss Jahni goodbye. But he feared weakening his resolve. He’d said ‘after’ last night. The sun was up. It was indisputably ‘after’ now. Or did it still count as part of last night until they left the house? They should have established some rules about allowed contact. They were not going to have sex again, but what of kissing? Touching in… affectionate ways.
A kiss. There could be no harm in a goodbye kiss this morning.
“I’ll see you later.” Madari stepped over to Jahni and leaned down to kiss him. Jahni was startled for only a second, and then he stood, his arms around Madari, mouth opening. When their tongues met, the thrill of the contact tore through Madari like an electric shock and he gasped. His hands instinctively grabbed Jahni’s arms to hold him in place. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop. His head pounded and when he pulled back he had to grab the back of a chair to steady himself, his knees were so weak.
“I’ll see you later,” Jahni said, in a maddeningly nonchalant voice. He began to clear up the breakfast things.
Madari couldn’t speak. He left the room before he lost his mind and flung Jahni down on the breakfast table there and then.
No harm in a kiss?
Jahni woke on his own sofa with a start, the book he’d been reading earlier sliding to the floor. Four in the afternoon. He’d been sleeping for two hours and he needed more if he was to catch up on what he’d missed last night. The door buzzer had woken him and still blared, as if someone was leaning on it. Rubbing his eyes, he got up and hurried to answer the intercom.
Now whatever could she want? “Come on up.” He buzzed her in and went to boil the kettle for some tea. Might as well be a gracious host, even if she’d probably throw it in his face.
A short time later—short enough that he knew she must have almost run up here—he heard a knock at the door. A glance through the peephole showed him Alex’s scowling face and he let her in.
“It’s not Izzy’s fault,” she said as she walked in the door.
“Will that make more sense when you tell me who Izzy is?” Jahni said, closing the door behind her. He went back to the kitchen and she followed.
“Raian, for goodness sake. Isma’il.”
“Oh.” He grinned. “You call him Izzy?”
“I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.” She sat at the kitchen table while he made the tea.
“Probably not. My lips are sealed though. I know how to keep a secret.” His voice had a certain bitterness. One she misread and frowned at him.
“You don’t have to be sarcastic about it. I made him tell me.”
“What? Oh.” He hadn’t meant it to be a dig at Raian. It applied though. “I appreciate your feelings, you know I do. But he had no right to tell you anything about the investigation.”
“Don’t blame him. I nagged it out of him.”
Jahni snorted. The kettle whistled on the stove and he took it off and poured the steaming water into the teapot. “Alex, Raian is trained to resist harsh interrogation and torture. A woman’s nagging shouldn’t break him.”
“You’ve never heard me nag.”
He hid his smile from her as he stirred the tea. It was hard to stay angry at her or Raian when he sympathised entirely with their anger and the desire to move the investigation along. My god, if anyone could sympathise with the need to find the cell behind Sophia’s death, he could!
And, yes, Raian had broken the rules because of his personal relationship with Alex, but how could Jahni condemn him for that after last night? All he could feel was a little envy that even if Alex and ‘Izzy’s’ relationship was unconventional at least they didn’t have to conceal it from the world or risk losing everything.
He poured the tea and brought it to the table, pushed the sugar bowl to her.
“You and Raian. Is it serious?”
She looked surprised at the question and he surprised himself a little. But he went on.
“Since you’ve been poking your nose where it doesn’t belong, I think perhaps I have some right to do the same.”
She smiled at that. “Fair enough. Yes, I’d call it serious.”
“Are you considering marriage?”
“Why? Does he need your permission?”
“Oh.” That took her aback.
“You’d have to be vetted.”
“Don’t worry about it. The colonel checked your background thoroughly when you became Sophia’s bodyguard.”
“Did he now?”
“I know you’re trustworthy. If you and Raian ever did marry—and you didn’t actually answer me by the way about if you’re considering it—you’d be very welcome as one of our regimental wives.”
She rolled her eyes at that, but laughed. “Well, I can’t say becoming a regimental wife would be a totally unexpected thing. Almost every man I’ve been involved with was a soldier.” She sipped her tea. “Yes,” she said. “We have considered it. That is, he’s asked me, but…”
“He asked me right after the murder.”
“So I don’t know if he only asked me because he was so shook up at the thought he could have lost me. And I couldn’t accept then, because I didn’t know if I was thinking straight either. I still need to figure so much out.” She sighed. “Like why I survived.”
“I was just luck, Alex. There’s no ‘why’ about it.”
“Random chance? Aren’t you supposed to say it was God’s will?”
“The colonel would probably say that, I wouldn’t.”
She stared at him, but he didn’t elaborate. He’d already told her more than he’d tell most people.
“So you don’t believe in fate?” she said. “You don’t think there’s some purpose I was spared to achieve?”
“I don’t know! Get the people who killed Sophia and Greta? Marry Izzy and have his babies? Or give everything up and go and do missionary work? I don’t know. What do people do when they didn’t die due to pure luck?”
Jahni shrugged. “Go back to work and try not to assume too much about why they survived. After all, evil dictators sometimes survive numerous assassination attempts by luck. Does that mean God is sparing them?”
“I should come and talk to you more often. There’s nothing like chatting to someone who’d more of a nihilist than yourself to cheer a girl up.” She sighed and rubbed her face. “Well Izzy apparently thinks it’s God’s will I was spared to be his wife. But I’ve made him wait. I know he’s serious about me, but he can be serious without a wedding ring for a while yet. He’s probably not entirely happy about that.”
“We Arabs aren’t used to women like you.”
“I know. If we do decide to go for it his family might be a bit tricky to convince.”
“What about yours?”
She shrugged. “They’ve expected me to marry an Arab fella since I first moved out to the region. It wouldn’t bother them. About the only thing that would bother my dad is if I married a Frenchman.”
“So, is he going to be in trouble?” Her tone was quieter than before. Some guilt on her face. Perhaps she should feel some guilt, but Raian had made his own choices, whatever she said about nagging.
“I’m still deciding what to do.” Which was almost a lie. He hadn’t thought of it for over a day now. “I’ll let him know tomorrow.”
Good. Give himself a deadline. Now he had to think about it, and not, for example, about Madari’s hands, touching him, stroking him until Jahni was begging him not to stop, begging for completion, begging for… no, he couldn’t think about that. Not until Alex left anyway.
He didn’t sleep again after Alex left, but he didn’t think about Raian either. He brooded on what happened next. Had he made the right choice last night? If he’d made a different one, would they be on a plane now?
Did he really have the strength to keep his hands off Madari now he knew what it was like to be with him? He’d been afraid of it for so long. What a fool! It was only a man, a man’s body. How could he call himself brave when he feared touching a man? And it was him. Faris. No part of him could be frightening or repellent.
Just after six the door buzzer rang again. Only a short burst this time, not like Alex’s demanding continuous blare.
Jahni took a breath before he said, “Come on up.” He buzzed open the door. Could this be a good idea so soon after last night? Just the voice had already produced a physical reaction in Jahni, his skin growing warm, his heartbeat quickening. What would the sight of Madari do to him?
He waited at the door, had it standing open, watching the stairwell until Madari appeared, still in uniform. He must have come straight from the barracks. He smiled as he approached the door.
The sight of him, tall and smart in his uniform, looking tired, yet still better than he had for weeks, produced the reaction Jahni had feared and he had reason to be glad he’d worn loose clothing today for relaxing. His wide-legged trousers and long loose shirt hid his own reaction and—he hoped—made it less likely Madari would have a similar one. Ignore it, he told himself. It will go away.
“Coffee?” Jahni said, stepping back, since letting Madari brush past him to come through the door would be a serious mistake. He hurried away, leaving Madari to close the door.
Madari followed him into the kitchen a moment later. He’d taken off his jacket and must have hung it up in the hall. So comfortable here he didn’t need to wait to be invited to do that. He started to gather sugar, spoons and cups for the coffee, familiar with where all those things were, welcome to help himself to them. As comfortable as if he belonged here.
He looked more at home here than in the kitchen back at Sophia’s flat, Jahni thought as he set up his coffee maker. He belongs here, with me. Or if not here, somewhere else, but in a kitchen we call ‘ours’. With me. He sighed, tried to derail those thoughts.
“How was work?” Jahni asked, thinking to keep the conversation impersonal and realising he sounded like a wife asking her husband about his day. “Anything I need to know about?” he added.
If Madari thought the question ‘wifely’ he didn’t show that. Instead he filled Jahni in on developments that day. Nothing too dramatic, but one needed to be in the loop. The politics of the regiment was as important as the politics of the country, Jahni had learnt once he became the commander of the Special Forces unit.
They sat at the table with their coffee. Sofas offered too much space to give in to temptation. Hard, straight-backed kitchen chair had fewer romantic possibilities.
“What have you been up to today?” Madari asked.
“Just catching up on sleep.” Damn, maybe shouldn’t have said that, a reminder of the reason he’d missed so much sleep last night. “Alex came round.” Damn again. He hadn’t intended to mention the situation with Raian to Madari unless he had to. But he’d have to say something in case Madari found it strange that she’d visit Jahni at home in the middle of the day. Madari was frowning. Yes, he found it odd. “Just for a chat,” he added.
“Right. You and Alex.” Madari looked down, blushed. “You aren’t…”
“What? No! I told you, she’s involved with Raian. I’m not interested in her that way.”
Madari sighed with relief. “Right. Though of course, since we aren’t… you could.”
“It’s serious with Raian. And I’m just not interested in her, I swear. She’s a friend. But nothing else.” The last thing he wanted was to end up in some weird echo of the triangular relationship Madari had had with him and with Sophia.
“Good. That’s good.” Madari grimaced. “I’m sorry. I sound like a jealous idiot.”
“No. I understand.”
“It’s as much her I’m thinking of. I’d hate to see her hurt.”
Jahni thought for a moment about Karen Bennett and Madari’s attempts at matchmaking. Another practical solution that would have gone horribly wrong. Luckily, Karen had more sense than the two of them added together.
“I know you’d never intend to hurt her,” Madari went on. “But I never intended to hurt Sophia.”
They drank their coffee in silence, the mention of Sophia’s name bringing up a barrier between them. It disappeared again quickly though. Jahni glanced at Madari in time to catch Madari looking away with a flush in his cheeks. He’d been sitting there looking at Jahni. Appreciatively? Or thinking about the night before? Now Jahni sat and looked at him in the same way. The face he thought he’d seen express every emotion possible had last night shown him something new. Not only the ecstasy, but afterwards. Lazy, warm happiness. Smiling even when he slept. He’d watched Madari sleep many times. He’d never seen him smile in his sleep.
“I was thinking about horses today,” Madari said.
“Regretting selling yours?”
“More metaphorical horses I suppose. I was thinking about how little use it is to lock a stable door after a horse has bolted.”
A thrill of anticipation and fear combined raced up Jahni’s spine. Madari couldn’t mean… but what else?
“That’s funny,” Jahni said, trying to keep his voice steady. “I’ve been thinking about cats. And how hard it is when a cat is out of a bag to get it back in.”
Madari nodded slowly, as if considering some sage wisdom. Jahni didn’t know how apposite it was. This cat had been out of its bag for a long time.
“I’m very fond of an old saying I learned in England,” Madari said. “One might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb.”
They’d done it once. They were criminals now. Even if they never touched each other again they’d committed a crime that they could go to prison for. And that Madari at least believed they’d go to hell for.
They could only go to hell once.
“Are we going to sit here all night quoting animal proverbs at each other?” Jahni asked. “Or are we going to bed?”
Madari gasped at the direct question, even though he’d started the hints.
“It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Jahni said, with a challenge in his voice.
“Actually, I came here because I couldn’t stand to go home alone and I hoped you’d invite me to stay for dinner.”
“Would you like to stay for dinner, Faris?” Jahni put on a polite tone.
“Thank you, that would be very nice.”
“But it’s much too early for dinner now,” Jahni said, still in the overly polite tone. “Is there something you’d like to do first?”
“Perhaps we could go to bed?” Madari blushed, as if shocked with himself for daring to tease and make a joke of something so serious. “I know we said we wouldn’t but—”
“We said a lot of things. And yet not enough. Not yet.”
They hadn’t done enough yet either. Still shy of some things. Not of each other anymore, but perhaps fearing to get something wrong. But it was time to take a chance, Jahni decided.
In the bedroom he pulled only a thin curtain over the window instead of the blackout blind, and the evening sunlight still came into the room, casting a warm glow over them both, golden from the yellow fabric of the curtain.
It felt somehow more forbidden in this much light. Darkness hid them last night, but nothing did now. In the light their bodies seemed more real, the scars they’d both acquired stark, yet not repelling them, rather reminding them of what they’d lived through together. The events that had brought them here, now, lying naked together on Jahni’s bed, hands exploring, lips alternately kissing and whispering. Nonsense words. Words they’d held in for so long, given them outlet only rarely.
Madari pressed against Jahni and moved rhythmically, as if to begin the same rubbing together they’d done last night. But Jahni wanted to give him more this time. Gently, he pressed Madari back and moved on top of him, looking down into his face.
Nothing about Madari frightened or repelled him. He leaned in to kiss him, then moved, kisses trailing a path down his neck onto his chest, lower. Madari gasped as he realised what Jahni intended.
“Kahil, you don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
He wanted to. More than anything, he wanted to give Madari pleasure. To love him, worship him. Why be afraid? He faced bombs and bullets and grisly death. He’d seen more horror than a man should ever have to. He wasn’t afraid of a cock!
His mouth found it, his hands steadied it and he knew then, he knew this was it. The final reconnection. They were one again. Fused closer than ever before.
“Kahil? Are you asleep?”
“No.” He didn’t want to sleep. Waste even a minute of holding Madari? No. He wasn’t asleep. Madari had been lying facing away from him, spooned against him, but turned now into Jahni’s arms, pressed close. The shared warmth of their skin, the way he tangled his long legs with Jahni’s more sturdy ones… perfection. Had he ever held anyone like this before? Had either of them?
“I wanted to say sorry.”
Jahni couldn’t imagine what for. He’d returned the pleasure Jahni had given him and though inexperience had made him just as tentative it had been nothing to apologise for.
“For marrying Sophia.”
“Oh, Faris.” He stroked Madari’s hair. Hair so messy and disarranged. Delightfully so. “You don’t have to. I’m over all that.”
“I’m not. It was a mistake and it got her killed. I’ll have to live with that forever.”
Jahni sighed and pulled him closer, in the role of comforter once again, as well as lover.
“You married her because you didn’t want to lose her. You couldn’t have known what would happen.”
“Fear of losing her was an emotional problem, but I tried to fix it with a practical solution. The same as I did with you and Paris. You were right when you say I pretend to be practical. I do pretend. But because I’m not, I get it wrong. So both those solutions were doomed and they cost me our friendship and cost Sophia her life.”
Jahni was staring at him by the time he finished.
“And now I have to apologise for making long, ridiculous speeches while lying naked in your arms.”
Jahni laughed. “As long as I have you naked in my arms you can give any speeches you like.”
“What about the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry the fifth?”
“What worries me is that you probably could.”
“Of course I could. Ahmed used to recite it to me to send me to sleep as a boy.”
“You’re not joking are you?” He shook his head. “Of course not. See, you are wrong on one point. It didn’t cost you our friendship.” He moved a bit, adjusting his position to get more comfortable, felt Madari’s warm skin slide against his as he echoed the movement. “We’re still friends. More than friends.”
“But for months, we weren’t. I missed you, but worse—you were suffering and I wasn’t there for you. After all you’d done for me, bringing me back from the depths of insanity, when you needed me, I wasn’t there. I can never forgive myself for that. I’d understand if you couldn’t either.”
“I do forgive you for it.” He had no hesitation in saying it. “I’m here. If I hadn’t forgiven you, I wouldn’t be. And I’m as much to blame, acting so stubborn. I could have made the first move and tried for a reconciliation, but I didn’t. I chose to go on alone. Don’t blame yourself for all of it.”
He stroked Madari’s face, wishing he could soothe away the pain he saw there. Though the increasing dimness of the room hid some of the lines on his face, the years were showing on him again.
“You’re only human, Faris. You made mistakes. We all do. You have to learn to forgive yourself for them.”
“I don’t deserve you, do I?”
“Of course not,” he said, smiling, teasing gently. “But you’ve got me, so better start getting used to it.”
“I should thank you too, for not holding it against Sophia. You never said a word against her. I appreciate that.”
Would he appreciate it if he knew about Jahni checking out the story behind her losing her money? Never mind. He’d never know.
“I did have some resentment against her, I admit it. But only a very tiny amount I had left over from using on you.” He grinned. “After all, it wasn’t her fault you’re an idiot.”
“Idiot?” Madari made an abrupt move, shoving Jahni over onto his back, rolling on top of him and holding his wrists down. Jahni grinned up at him. “You’re referring to your commanding officer as an idiot?” Madari asked, with all the mock sternness he could manage.
“Put me on an insubordination charge then,” Jahni suggested. “I can’t wait to hear the details. ‘While naked in bed with Major Jahni…’” He stopped, seeing a shadow cross Madari’s face. Madari sighed and rolled off him, letting his arms go. He flopped down on his back.
“Sorry,” Jahni said, turning on his side. He rested his hand on Madari’s chest, only the fingers moving, sparse hairs and warm skin under them.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Madari said. “Our days are numbered now. Either we lose this or we lose everything else. Possibly both.”
“If we do go to jail—”
“Damn.” Jahni sat up and swept his hair back out off his forehead. He rested his elbows on his knees. “We need to make some contingency plans.”
Madari sat up too, stroked his hand down the length of Jahni’s back. “You mean escape plans?”
“Yes. I guess that’s what I mean. We should make sure our money is accessible from outside the country. We should carry our passports at all times in case we need to drop everything and make for the airport or the border. And cash. Enough for plane tickets. Credit cards can be frozen after all.”
“I’m going to send my sentimental things to someone out of the country. Murdock maybe. Have them put in storage. So if we have to leave with nothing more than the clothes on our backs –”
“Kahil, not now.” Madari said and pulled him close again, kissed him. Jahni let himself be pushed back down on the bed, Madari still kissing him. Okay. Not now. They would consider it all after they got out of bed.
“We have to make the most of this time we have,” Madari said, after breaking the kiss. “This is the only time we’ll have everything and it won’t last.”
The thought should have depressed Jahni, but it didn’t. They’d lose the rest, he felt sure. But they’d have this and this mattered most of all. Their future together had started.
“Good morning, sir,” one of Jahni’s clerks said. “You seem to have a spring in your step this morning, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”
Jahni laughed. Yes, he had. Madari hadn’t stayed all night, just until after they shared dinner. So Jahni had slept. But he suspected the spring in his step came from more than a good night’s sleep.
“Thank you, Corporal. Bring me some coffee, please. And send a message to Captain Raian. I want to see him at nine on the dot.”
He went into his office and raised all the blinds, flooding the room with the morning sunshine. He should feel bad for so many reasons this morning. He should feel guilty. With Raian on the way, expecting to be carpeted and busted down to Lieutenant, he should feel like a hypocrite. But since he’d been a hypocrite for years anyway, he’d decided not to start fretting about it now.
He sat at his desk and picked up the phone. He had some strings to pull.
By the time Raian showed up at nine—on the dot—Jahni had drunk more coffee, but didn’t need coffee to feel more clear headed than he had in years.
Raian marched in, came to attention in front of the desk and saluted. He wore the carefully neutral expression that any soldier cultivates for an interview in his commander’s office, but Jahni saw the worry in his eyes. He didn’t torture the man for too long, got straight down to it with the solution he’d woken up with fully formed this morning.
“I’m giving you a temporary secondment, Captain.”
He saw the devastated expression quickly controlled. Raian thought he was losing his squad. He was, but only for a while.
“To Military Intelligence. Specifically to the section working on finding the people responsible for the murder of the Colonel’s wife.”
Raian stared at him. “Sir?”
“You heard me correctly, Captain. I’ve asked favours of others who are frustrated by the slow progress and they’ve arranged to make it happen. You are to be seconded to help them with your specialist knowledge of urban terror cells.”
“Yes, sir.” His neutral expression looked as if it wanted to become a huge grin. Jahni stood and walked around the desk to stand close to Raian, speaking more quietly.
“You do understand that ‘help’ in this context mean ‘light a rocket under the arse of’?”
“I’m not expecting you to make many friends.”
“I promise to make every man I meet there an enemy for life, sir.”
Jahni hid a smile at that, trying to keep up his stern commander’s demeanour. He handed Raian a folder from the desk.
“The details are in here. This takes immediate effect. I want you out of here before ten o’clock.”
“Yes, sir. I won’t let you and the colonel down.”
“I know you won’t. One small point, Captain. Please remember that you report your progress back to me and not to Alex.”
Raian’s face flickered for a second, then he nodded. “I’ll remember that, sir.” She’d probably leave him alone now she knew he was down there speeding up the investigation.
“If she does start on you, remember, name, rank and serial number. If required, I can provide her with a copy of the Geneva Convention.”
Raian saluted and left, off to his new assignment with the air of a man who’d just got more than he ever dared hope for. Jahni fully understood the feeling.