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An English Rose Garden

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"Oh, I am quite happy," Lawrence said, reaching for the teapot. His smile was as unconvincing as it had been the first dozen times Ali had witnessed it since his arrival on Lawrence's doorstep.

Thus far, England had impressed him as a cold, miserable country of cold, miserable people.

"What are you doing?"

He had walked away once. It had seemed the wiser choice, a clean break.

"Doing?" Lawrence asked, all wide-eyed surprise. "I'm pouring you a cup of tea. Don't you want any?"

Ali resisted the impulse to scream. He had given in to it once, unwitnessed by the object of his exasperation. In the long run, it had not served to make him feel any better.

"Does your life now consist of receiving old friends and pouring them tea, then?"

"Oh no." Lawrence smiled again. "Hardly that. In fact, before your arrival, I had rather assumed that I didn't have any. Most of them died, at some point or another. One of them by your hand, even."

Ali closed his eyes and prayed for patience.

"I suppose I musn't blame you," Lawrence went on. "God knows I've killed my share of your friends."

God appeared not to be in a mood to grant him any favors. "Is this British hospitality?"

Lawrence frowned a little. Ali supposed it was an improvement over his smiles. "If you wanted British hospitality, you could have gone to Cairo. Or London, if you were that keen on experiencing the weather. How was your trip?"

"I came by boat," Ali said. He intended it as a challenge, a goad for Lawrence to stop acting like someone only half here and to start involving himself in the conversation.

"How else?" Lawrence asked. "Do you take sugar? No, of course not."

"You are not happy," Ali said.

"Are you calling me a liar?" Lawrence's expression suggested the idea pleased him. "You travelled a long way just for that. You might have sent a telegram. A letter, even."

Ali would not have trusted any foreigner to deliver the message of an Arab. "Yes." At the very least, any message he had sent would have been intercepted, picked over. Read by a great many people for whom it had not been intended.

There was peace in Arabia, for now. The Harith ought to be able to spare him.

"It never even occurred to me to write to you," Lawrence said.

Here, at last, was some familiar ground. "That is because you are crazy."

"You won't be staying long, of course."

Ali inclined his head, neither denying nor confirming anything. He had spent enough time in the company of Prince Faisal to have come to recognize the occasional virtue of acting like a politician.

"No." Lawrence seemed to shake himself awake. "Drink your tea. It's getting cold."

 

British hospitality being in somewhat short supply, Ali coaxed a concession that he might take up residence in the guest room out of Lawrence, 'until you find something more suitable'.

He told himself that he had not come here expecting to be embraced and kissed like a brother. He had not come here expecting to find Lawrence full of joy, or apologetic for not having sought to contact Ali himself. He had not come here expecting to find Lawrence sane.

In these regards, he was not disappointed.

"People talk about happiness like it's this great, wonderful thing," Lawrence said.

The two of them were sitting by the hearth, which Ali had lit, after a surreptious check that his assumptions as to how it worked were correct.

"When I say 'people', I mean the British, of course," Lawrence added. "Civilized people, who wage civilized warfare. Who kill people in a civilized manner."

Ali had witnessed the result of this 'civilized warfare'. "And what word do you use for those like me?" At this point, things like anger and disappointment were beyond him.

"Does it matter?" Lawrence shrugged.

"I have seen men sacrifice their own lives to save that of a friend," Ali said. "Give away the last of their food, their water, to someone they considered more worthy to survive."

"Yes." Lawrence stared at the fire. "Those are not things civilized people do."

"If you do not want me here, say so. Do not seek to drive me away with your insults and your lies. Right now, I look at you, and what I see is a man drowning in quicksand, refusing to reach for the rope that might save him." Not the best choice of words, possibly.

"I don't want you here," Lawrence said, not turning his head. "I have nothing to give you. I'm empty, Ali."

Ali scoffed. "Empty, but happy?"

"No." Lawrence looked at him. "That was a lie."

"Yes," said Ali. He thought he should feel vindicated. Instead, he just felt very, very tired.

 

"I tried fishing," Lawrence said the next day, when Ali had revisited the topic of Things To Do Now That You're Not Fighting a War. "It bored me."

From what Ali had read and heard, men fished to relax. There was a certain potential for competition, but its general appeal as something other than the means by which one might acquire food had escaped him.

"So find something that does not."

Lawrence smiled faintly. It was a real smile, though, so Ali counted it as a victory. "You do it. We shall try it together."

Not laziness, Ali judged. Lawrence had never been unwilling to exert himself, even when common sense had dictated he should. "I am not English."

"I would never hold that against you. In fact, I might even consider it one of your good points."

"One of my good points," Ali said.

Lawrence kept smiling. "You have several."

"You are making me blush." Ali kept his tone flat, not inviting elaboration.

"No," Lawrence said. "I considered trying, a few times. It never seemed worth the risk."

"What risk?" Ali scoffed. "That I would get angry? That I would leave you, the way you left me?"

"You left first," Lawrence said. "Would you? Get angry? I wouldn't mind you getting angry, you know. You have the right. I'm sure that I have done many things that made you angry."

"I did not come here because you make me angry." It was true, as far as these things went.

Ali did not think that loving someone also meant wanting to yell at someone, or being tempted to slap someone simply so that they would stop walking around as if they were half asleep.

"I do though, don't I?" Lawrence said. "Sometimes, you want to hurt me. To punish me."

Ali remembered Deera. "You need a keeper. Not a bodyguard."

Lawrence smiled at him and spread his hands. "So keep me."