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Egypt, 1935

"Come on," Jonathan wheedled, drawing out the final syllable in that brogue of his.

"No," Ardeth refused, for what felt like the hundredth time.

"Och, come on, it'll be fun! Just like old times, only easier. No cursed book. No tomb filled with deadly booby traps. No ravening hordes of brainwashed arabs. Just you and me. A quick trip up the Nile to Amarna. We get in, get the map, get out. That's all I'm asking."

Ardeth sighed through his nose. "You are asking to steal a map in order to follow it who knows where on another treasure hunting trip. No. I do not wish to help you. Why can you not accept this?"

Since they had first met in 1923, Ardeth Bay had seen Jonathan Carnahan on many occasions--each one unexpected. It seemed that every year or two, the amateur treasure-hunter had a new scheme to try in Egypt. He always sought out Ardeth and begged him to come along. Since the Medjai were still concerned they had not seen the last of Imhotep, Ardeth agreed, as a precaution, to guard the man. He watched as Jonathan bungled his way across the country, up and down the Nile, sometimes successful--mostly not. He had covered Jonathan's hasty exit more than once. And more than once, he had done both in silent condemnation of the man, as he romanced some woman or other who turned out to be the wrong choice.

The last time he'd seen Jonathan Carnahan, he was floating away on that great airship. That had been two years ago, and Imhotep was truly defeated at last, his ghost banished for good. So Ardeth Bay had imagined that would have been the last time he saw Jonathan, in truth. He would have been happy enough never laying eyes on him again. Life certainly would have been easier, And yet, here he was, back like a lost calf.

"Because you're bored, my friend. I can see it in your eyes. You went back to your tribe, am I right? And you've got nothing to do, now that Imhotep is defeated. You crave an adventure." He spoke with all the confidence and persuasiveness of a man much more accomplished than Ardeth knew him to be. His manner, in fact, reminded him of the market vendors who hawked their dilapidated wares out of ramshackle carts or on woven blankets. But the glint in Jonathan Carnahan's eye was unmistakable. And the dimple in his smile was equally irresistible.

It was that dimple that had won Ardeth over, every time, like it or not.

"I am not bored," Ardeth lied. He was unable to meet Jonathan's gaze when doing so, so he focused on the horizon where the bluest sky met the sand. It was yellow, here near the town, not the red of the dunes from the deep desert.

"Of course you are," Jonathan insisted. "You can't be anything but bored. Come on, you know you want to go with me, stop being stubborn."

"You think I want to go with you, while you rob my country of our ancestors' wisdom and wealth?" Ardeth scoffed. His mouth twisted wryly. "You are mistaken, if that is what you think."

"Who said anything about robbing anyone?" Jonathan blinked. He actually seemed insensible to the concept that his endless search for the priceless artifacts of the past was just that. "No, I've no need to rob anyone. In fact, I can fully fund the expedition."

"Given the amount of treasure you took, I should hope you could," Ardeth observed. "That is not the theft to which I refer."

"Och, don't be ridiculous, man. What are these relics of the past if we can't study them? Anyway, there's no raiding needed. I know where the map is, and who has it. It's a small matter of convincing him to sell it to me; I just wish to...engage you to go with me to Amarna."

"And from there?"

"From there....we'll see." Jonathan grinned. His grin was also irresistible. Ardeth wanted to smack it off his angelic face.

Or, if he had not been so certain what kind of man Jonathan was...he could have kissed it off.

He banished that thought immediately, as quickly as it occurred to him--as he did every time a similar thought occurred to him. No, he did not want to accompany Jonathan Carnahan on his "adventure."

And yet, he knew he would not refuse. Perhaps, he could not. He knew that in accepting, he would regret going along, and yet, if he did not accept, he would wonder and worry. Neither choice gave him satisfaction, but of the two, at least being on-hand meant he might be able to keep Jonathan from getting himself in terrible trouble. That had to be its own consolation, for there wasn't going to be any other kind of benefit. And he knew he would suffer the entire time, from the same fantasies that he had to control on every occasion when Jonathan Carnahan was around to distract him. Indeed, being so near, yet so far, from the young English fellow, would be torture. Exquisite, beautiful torture.

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

 

The barge trip up the Nile was uneventful; the ride into Amarna even more so. If Jonathan Carnahan had wished Ardeth's company because he feared bandits or similar trouble, he had wasted his effort. If he had thought to invite him in the hope of "adventure," he was mistaken entirely. The lack of occupation left Ardeth irritable and edgy. He disliked the water, hated the lack of control it created, the knowledge that there was no easy escape should calamity strike. The city was crowded, but not as large as Cairo, Memphis, or Thebes, and while cities were not as natural to him as his dunes, at least Ardeth knew what to look for in an urban setting. He functioned more-or-less as Jonathan's bodyguard, and occasional translator, in these cases. Not that Jonathan needed much help with the latter, and with the former, only because he appeared an easy mark to the cutpurses and pickpockets that plagued any occupied area.

There was little in the way of a hotel for him, however, and so Ardeth had found lodging for them in the home of a sheik and merchant acquaintance of his cousins. The sheik was a devout Muslim, and Jonathan complained of the lack of alcohol in the house. "Let's find somewhere to dine, my friend," he suggested. "Where a man can have a proper cocktail, if possible."

"That may be difficult," Ardeth cautioned, but Jonathan dragged him into the streets in search of a tavern or restaurant. They wound up, of all places, in the lower room of a brothel, that served food as a way to keep off the constabulary and appear respectable.

Jonathan made as much a meal of the serving girls as he did the food they brought. Every time he winked at one or flirted, Ardeth grimaced into his plate.

"You're not eating much," Jonathan admonished him.

"No," he agreed.

"Not to your liking?" Jonathan sopped a bit of his stew with the thick bread. "Actually, considering this isn't their primary business, the kitchen's not half bad."

"You make a spectacle out of everything you do," Ardeth muttered. He was hardly aware he had spoken aloud, until Jonathan's face clouded.

"Well. I'm...sorry to disappoint you," he commented softly. "Are you…." The man who was so glib and comfortable with words faltered. "I suppose you might feel I'm taking advantage of the local, er, flora."

Ardeth shook his head. "If you wish to stay after dinner and...sample their primary business, who am I to tell you no?"

Jonathan laughed. "But you won't...sample them? Don't tell me you've taken a vow of celibacy or some nonsense?"

He fought not to blush. "Not...exactly," he admitted. "But I have no desire for a love of...this sort." He looked away quickly, for now he was blushing. Had he said too much? Would Carnahan think anything strange about that?

"You know...I never did think to ask if you're married, old boy," the other said slowly. He crossed one leg over the other knee, letting his ankle dangle prettily. "Or...if you have a sweetheart?"

It would have been easy to lie and let Jonathan think exactly that. Let him think that was what he meant. Ardeth did not trust his voice, and he certainly did not think he could have spoken in a tone that could convince Jonathan, experienced as he was at convincing others that up was down or left was right. Ardeth Bay merely shook his head, stalling for self-control.

"Well, if you're not…." Jonathan took a sip of wine. "Is it part of being Medjai? Purity or something like that?"

"No," Ardeth replied, managing to laugh through it this time. "Although, speaking of that, a word of warning: there's no guaranteeing these women are clean."

"Oh, you needn't worry, old chap," Jonathan chuckled. "I doubt even in a town like this, they'd last long if they weren't at least reasonably looked after." He leered at his companion. "But...as it happens, no, I was thinking we should get an early start tomorrow. I'm not seriously suggesting we...indulge." He sipped his wine, leaned back in his chair, and pulled a cigar from his breast pocket. "But that doesn't jolly well mean we need to behave as if we're blind, does it?"

"As I said," Ardeth sighed, looking down at his plate again, "you are free to do as you wish. When have I ever stopped you?"

Jonathan said nothing. The silence was so unlike him that Ardeth looked up, but the man had returned his attention to his supper. He deferred his teasing for the remainder of the meal. He also deferred his overt flirtation with the serving women.

They walked back to the sheik's estate through a city still alive with street music and late-night markets under the stars. The moon painted the sand silver-grey, like Jonathan's eyes in certain light. The orbs in question shone out from under his dark eyebrows, glimmering with curiosity about the people they passed and the buskers plying their trade. Ardeth found himself wondering, not for the first time, what those eyes would look like brushed with kohl.

"Fancy a game of cards?" Jonathan asked when they entered the compound. "It's a nice night and too early to go to bed."

"I thought you just said we would make an early start tomorrow. Does that not imply an early night, as well?" Ardeth murmured. He could feel how close Jonathan was standing.

The man pressed his lips together, billing them out a bit in a frown of consideration. "I suppose you're right. I'll probably just lie awake for a while, then, wondering what to do with meself." He looked up at the sky, and then stretched his arms upward, as if overcome with the need to touch the curtain of night. The manoeuver showed off his reedy figure, under the pale waistcoat and tan trousers, as his cream-coloured jacket spread open. Was that deliberate? Did he have any idea what he was doing?

"You might wonder what you will say to secure this map you seek," Ardeth suggested. He inclined his head slightly, wishing only to get away before he defiled the house of their host with his desires. "Good night."

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

 

There was really something artistic about the way Jonathan could wrap officials, merchants, or collectors around his finger. He had had some practice in the years he'd been coming to Egypt. In this case, the collector's name was Mr Saleem Momar-Hassan, a fat, self-important man, whom Jonathan flattered and played like an oud. Jonathan procured the map in less than half an hour, haggling included.

"You do not need me," Ardeth repeated, when they stepped onto the bright street, Jonathan fanning himself with the newly-acquired map.

"Of course, I do! We're practically family," Jonathan replied.

"How do you figure that?" asked Ardeth, shaking his head in confusion.

"Well...Rick is like a brother to you, and he is a brother-in-law to me, so...we're sort of like brothers, too, wouldn't you say?" He smiled, or more accurately, squinted, at Ardeth, for he had not yet put on his straw hat to shield his eyes from the blinding sun.

"I would not," Ardeth argued.

"Now, don't be offended," said Jonathan lightly. "I'm sure if Rick's good enough to be the chosen of the Medjai, and Evy's the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess, then I'm not too ignoble for an association."

"That has nothing to do with it," muttered Ardeth. "We have never seen any evidence that you are anyone of importance." He clamped his mouth shut. While his tone had been neutral, he realized as the words came out that they were cruel. Much more callous than he had intended. "I beg your pardon, Jonathan Carnahan. I did not mean--"

"No, it's all right. I know what you mean. Evy and Rick had...destinies. And I...don't. Quite right. Excuse me," he said quickly, and before Ardeth could stop him, he ducked down an alley and melded into the crowd on its other end.

Ardeth nearly went after him. But Jonathan was competent enough, and Amarna small enough, that Ardeth was satisfied that he would be all right on his own. He was sure that Jonathan deserved time to absorb the harshness of Ardeth's inadvertent jab. Had their circumstances been reversed, Ardeth knew he would have appreciated the courtesy of being left alone.

His shame over the careless remark did not leave him all morning. Only when Jonathan arrived back for luncheon, beaming cheerily again, did Ardeth manage to forgive himself.

They studied the map that afternoon. "So...the lost city of Rokoroth should be...about two days' ride westerly from the Abydos Temple, wouldn't you say?" Jonathan asked, tracing a line through the drawn desert.

"You know as well as I that the sand does not leave trails," Ardeth reminded him. "Have you been away so long as to forget?"

"I haven't forgot anything, old boy," Jonathan replied. His lashes fluttered against his cheeks as he glanced down at his hand, then up at Ardeth. "Not a thing."

"Then you know there will be nothing to point the way once we leave the area of the Temple," Ardeth cautioned.

"Of course there will, man--the sun and the stars!" Jonathan exulted. "Look here." He pointed to a faint tracing of glyphs that ran down the edge of the parchment. "These give instructions for keeping the constellations in the correct orientation. We can travel at night, and head in more or less the correct direction."

Ardeth could not resist a smile, for while Jonathan may have claimed to remember all, he himself had forgotten that Jonathan Carnahan was well-educated in Egyptology--nearly as well-educated as his sister.

"We will not find anything," he predicted. "There is nothing there. And if there is, the desert has long reclaimed it. We must decide now the point at which we give up. I do not mean to die in the high desert."

"We'll give up if we go four days out without any sign of ruins," declared Jonathan. "But we'll bringing a proper crew, as you're right, it's probably well-buried." He paced around the table once. "I'll go and find us a barge to cross the river, shall I? We can hire camels and men on the other side."

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

 

Traveling with a caravan was certainly the most practical choice, but it also meant they left behind their solitary companionship. Jonathan seemed to have learned something from his previous travels, for when they reached Abydos he exchanged his cream linen suit and straw hat for the pantaloons, tunic, caftan and head covering of the Bedouin. Ardeth's breath caught in his throat when Jonathan appeared in the travel clothes on the morning they departed.

"Do you imagine yourself like that Aurens fellow, back during the Great War?" he asked. He felt it necessary to tease Jonathan, because otherwise he would find himself oddly aroused by the sight of the Englishman in that getup. He wore it more comfortably than Ardeth would have expected. The effect was curious--where Ardeth had anticipated he would be annoyed by Jonathan's appropriation, instead he found that it gave the gangly man a certain exotic air. If he'd added kohl to bring out those blue-grey eyes, he would have appeared a perfect temptation. Mocking him was Ardeth's only defense against his feelings. At least he managed to sound less cutting than days before.

Unfortunately, Jonathan did not catch Ardeth's derision, only the link to the other Englishman he referenced. "Lawrence of Arabia? Goodness, do I really look as dashing as all that?" His eyes sparkled. "Maybe I'll keep these togs, then, for fancy dress parties after."

Ardeth rolled his eyes. "Allah be good," he muttered, as they mounted their camels. At least he had hours of riding ahead to drive out the infuriating thoughts that he wished would cease on their own.

Jonathan Carnahan was not interested in other men. He reminded himself of this fact constantly, and others that constituted all the reasons Ardeth was a damned fool for wanting him. Jonathan was an outsider, with no claim of kinship on his own merit--Evy's and Rick's connection notwithstanding. Even Alexander, whom Ardeth had promised could come and train when he got older, had the benefit of his parents' heritage to recommend him. Jonathan Carnahan was a wastrel, a con-man, and not even a first-rate archaeologist. He had a long, long string of failed romances--to say nothing of his failed attempts to seduce countless other women. There was more proof than necessary that the man could not take care of his own affairs--and yet another clear indicationand more than enough confirmation that he sought out the company of women. Ardeth had to be outside his wits to even consider a liaison. Yet since the man had pranced back into Ardeth's life, he'd thought of little else.

Why? he wondered as they rode, and the rock and scrub of the valley gave way to rolling dunes and endless sand. Why this man? It wasn't as if he had no options. There were at least two Medjai who would have leapt at the chance--and no shortage of other ways to indulge, if he were less scrupulous and a little more desperate. Mostly, he was content not to give in at all, preferring to channel his energy into exercise, and more recently training others of his tribe. It was...simpler than the alternative. After all, there were many (too many!) of the faithful who labored under the mistaken belief that such a connection was an affront to the Prophet, and even to Allah himself. There was a great deal of risk in declaring one's interest in another man. Thus he had devoted himself instead to the rigorous discipline of Medjai guardianship, and only entertained affairs a handful of times in his life--when his curiosity had overtaken him, or his resolve had been too weak, or his partner too enthusiastic to be refused.

When Rick and Evy and Jonathan had first crossed his path, he had been wary of them as potential threats to the safety of Hamunaptra; then he had come to know them as friends, and eventually it was revealed that they were even more. But always, he kept an especially watchful eye over Jonathan. Partly, he still did not fully trust the man not to sell his own grandmother for a profit, or to sell rubbish to his own grandmother and call it a bargain. But, even then, he had to admit, he'd found him uncommonly attractive, if equally exasperating. And now, he was back--he had sought Ardeth out as he had done so many times over the last decade--when it was daily more and more obvious that he did not need help, intervention, or instruction anymore.

"Why did you involve me in this venture?" he asked again, while they spread their rugs for supper and a rest.

Jonathan's smile faltered. "I told you. I knew you would want an adventure as much as I do." He broke apart a piece of flatbread and held out the half to Ardeth. "Am I wrong?"

Ardeth reached out to accept the pita. By some chance, Jonathan's long fingers brushed the back of Ardeth's hand as he withdrew. Or...was it chance, indeed? Ardeth made bold to look directly in Jonathan's eyes. The man was watching him intently, half a smile pulling out the dimple in one cheek, with an impish glow that had nothing to do with the sun sinking to the horizon and bathing everything deep pink. Jonathan's eyes darted down to Ardeth's hand, then lifted back up with all the promise of the most brazen coquette. Ardeth's breath shook in his chest. Surely, Jonathan meant to signal him--surely he was being deliberate? He could not mistake his action. As Ardeth gawked at him, Jonathan winked and his smile broadened. That had to mean he knew the effect he was having, and intended Ardeth to receive his message. Again, Ardeth recalled Jonathan's constant womanizing--but then, he also knew, many a man loved women equally as well as other men, and was simply more discreet about the latter. It was...not entirely outside the realm of possibility that Jonathan enjoyed the carnal pleasures offered by both sexes. He glanced over again, furtively; Jonathan was busying himself with a smoke, paying him no attention. No, Ardeth decided firmly. He was merely imagining something he wished were so.

After supper, they mounted again and put in a few more hours' travel, with Jonathan navigating by the stars. Or trying to.

"Yes, that...that should be the little Dipper there, and….goodness, there are a lot of them, aren't there?" he babbled as he consulted the map by moonlight. "The milky way is...so large. Ahem. So...that's Draco--"

"That is the cobra, there," Ardeth corrected, pointing some inches to the left of Jonathan's gesturing hand. "Let me see it," he demanded, holding out his palm for the map.

"No, no, I've got it...let's see. Yes, so if that's Draco--er, the cobra," he corrected his angle, "and that's the dipper, then we need to go between the two, and...straight on, it looks like."

It seemed a long, long time before they called a halt and stretched out their canvas lean-tos to rest. Ardeth considered whether to set up next to Jonathan or far away, whether he could control himself, or whether he risked offending Jonathan if he made his bed across the camp.

Even after he chose his place, divested himself of bandoliers and belt, and spread his sleeping rug, he lay awake on it for a long time, considering and reconsidering his decision. Wondering whether he could have made a better one. He needn't have worried. Shortly after the sounds around them settled and faded away into light snores, he heard a single set of footfalls brush through the sand toward him. It was followed by a weight sinking onto the carpet beside him. He opened his eyes. Jonathan sat, knees drawn up and his arms resting loosely around them. He had removed most of his layers, retaining only the pants and the thin gauze undershirt as protection against the night air. He turned his head toward Ardeth.

"Do you...really need me to say why I asked you to come with me? Why I...always ask you to come with me?" he murmured, voice just above a whisper.

Ardeth rolled to the side of his mat, effectively making room for Jonathan to lie beside him if he wished. But Jonathan didn't move.

"I do not need you to say anything, Jonathan Carnahan," offered Ardeth. "But you must be sure of your wishes. Do not trifle with me."

Jonathan looked away, studying the soft boots that completed his desert wear. "I'm quite sure," he whispered. "Say my name again?"

Ardeth held out his hand in invitation. "Jonathan Carnahan," he intoned. "Come here." Jonathan gripped the proffered hand and let Ardeth pull him down into his embrace.

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

 

Quiet was not how Ardeth wanted to experience this union, especially the first time. But quiet was what they were forced to be, given the circumstances. Quiet was necessary. So quiet, and slow, was how they took it.

Jonathan lay facing him on the bedroll. He traced Ardeth's tattoos with the tips of his fingers, feathering across his forehead, cheekbones, then down the side of his throat, finally dipping into the open top of Ardeth's tunic and the kameez underneath. Ardeth, meanwhile, pressed himself closer, almost nose to nose, and tucked his arm under Jonathan's head to wrap it around his back. He slid his top leg between Jonathan's, but resisted bending his knee upward, content to press into Jonathan's thigh for the moment. As Jonathan stroked downward on Ardeth's chest, Ardeth tilted his head to fit his lips against Jonathan's. He leaned in, tasting the softness, the faint trace of Jonathan's tooth powder, tobacco, and under that the lamb he had eaten and the cold coffee he had drunk at supper. Jonathan answered with his tongue, slipping it beyond Ardeth's teeth. He matched Jonathan's tongue with his knee, drawing it upward reflexively.

Jonathan hissed and shuddered. "Not yet," he panted, drawing back to shift his kiss from Ardeth's mouth to his nose. Ardeth shimmied downward, planting little touches to Jonathan's neck and chest as he adjusted. "Mm," Jonathan breathed. The hitch in his breath was confirmation that Ardeth was on the right track. He dove further down, until only his hand was supporting Jonathan's head above his own, and then Jonathan lifted his head and kissed Ardeth's palm to free it. He reclaimed his limb, scraped it down Jonathan's torso before working it under Jonathan's waist. Again, his partner obliged, lifting up from the hip to allow his hand to pass underneath. Then Ardeth pulled Jonathan's hip forward, rolling him onto his back.

Now free to take in the sight of Jonathan below him, Ardeth sat up on his heels. He also scanned the camp quickly to make sure the others were still sleeping. The fire had burned low but had not gone out, and its reddish glow bathed Jonathan's pale skin, burnishing the few places where it showed, where his kameez had rucked up and exposed a line of stomach or a sleeve had pulled high on his arm.

Jonathan smiled up at Ardeth. He lifted himself on his elbows, then tugged at Ardeth's sash. "Let me see you," he requested. He untied the knot and let the wrapped cloth fall around Ardeth's legs. When Ardeth reached for the hem of his tunic, Jonathan grabbed his hands and moved them to his own waist. Then he sat up higher, and lifted Ardeth's tunic himself.

Fighting to control his excited breath, Ardeth leaned forward so that Jonathan could pull off both tunic and kameez in one motion. As the sleeves rolled inside-out and left his wrists, exposing his back to the moon, he gripped Jonathan's kameez and drew it toward him, so that both their shirts--his two and Jonathan's one--wound up in a tangle together. He tossed the bundle to the side. They would have to check them for scorpions later, but for now, he didn't care. They both paused a moment, basking in the sight of each other's bare chests.

"So damn beautiful," Jonathan sighed, and reached up again to trace one of Ardeth's tattoos. He sat up, scooting back on the rug for a better angle, and leaned forward to lick the sweep of falcon wing that lined Ardeth's pectoral muscle. Just at the end of the tracing, Jonathan closed his mouth and bit--gently--the flesh where the wingtip ended.

A hiss of pent-up tension escaped Ardeth's teeth. He hummed with bliss, and toppled willingly when Jonathan pushed him down to the mat again. Now on his back, Jonathan above him, he reached up to brace his hands against Jonathan's biceps. These were predictably wiry, but strong enough, and they flexed as Jonathan lowered down to lave Ardeth's chest with his tongue. He worked through each picture on the map of Ardeth's skin, punctuating here and there with a nip or even locking his teeth around part of the tattoo and sucking on the flesh to raise little bruises, delicious in the ache that he left behind. He wandered and licked and sucked and marked, and sweet Horus, it was good. Jonathan made his way lower and lower, until he tugged on the drawstring of Ardeth's breeches and eased them over the bulge that had formed in Ardeth's breechclout.

"Not yet," Ardeth breathed--more accurately, panted, for Jonathan's attentions had left him breathless and limp everywhere else. Jonathan complied, though, instead climbing back up to his lips, and claiming them with an open-mouthed, pliant kiss.

"What now, then?" he asked, voice low and sultry and a comfortable rumble against Ardeth's cheek.

"Now...it's my turn," Ardeth declared. He wrapped his legs around Jonathan's, grinding his pelvis upward and feeling the erection that was Jonathan's twin to his own. Without rising, for in truth, he wasn't sure he could rise just at that moment, he frotted against his lover's groin. His back arched with each tilt of his hips, then sank into the sand beneath the mat as he shifted backward. He held Jonathan tight to his body, face buried in the hollow of Jonathan's collarbone, so that he could stifle his grunts and moans against the man's shoulder. As he undulated in his slow motion, he also let his hands drift up and down Jonathan's back, with careful attention to the curve and bumps of his spine. As for Jonathan, he braced his hands to either side of Ardeth's shoulders, but kept his head lifted so that he could drop more kisses onto his face, neck, and collarbones, and pressed backward with his feet to meet Ardeth's rolling hips with each thrust. Finally, he set one knee on the ground, and pulled up the other, all the way until it met Ardeth's groin. The pressure against his balls sent a shiver through his whole body.

"Yes," confirmed Ardeth. He momentarily forgot any other English words, so he repeated it, and then said more in his own language.

"What was that, my dear?" Jonathan asked.

 

"We...should wait," Ardeth said, finding the vocabulary at last.

"I--what?" Jonathan sat up, perplexed. "I thought we had been waiting."

"No...I mean--" Ardeth waved one arm toward the others, asleep around them. "This is...not the safest place. Or the most private."

Jonathan nodded, frowning as he looked around. "You're right, of course," he agreed sadly.

"I do want to--" Ardeth began.

"No, no, I understand. I...just…you have to know, I've wanted this for a long time."

"How could I know, when you are constantly trying to win the attention of ladies?" Ardeth countered.

"I win the attention of ladies to keep people from asking uncomfortable questions. But I could ask you the same thing--all this time, all the times I've asked for your help, and you've never said a word I could interpret as interest."

"It seems we are both fools, then," Ardeth concluded. "Wasting time."

"Well, this fool does not want to waste any more of it," commented Jonathan. "Especially since, if we're not going further tonight, I shall have to see to myself before I'll be able to sleep." He shifted to his knees on his way to standing.

"Come here," Ardeth said, pulling Jonathan down on his side, to fit against him, back to chest. "I can help, but you'll have to be quiet."

"I can be--oh!" Jonathan swallowed a cry of surprise and recognition, as Ardeth reached around to his trousers and slipped his hand inside. Jonathan was not wearing a clout, but had kept his Western-style, loose-fitting shorts. They made for easy access. With one hand cradling Jonathan's head, Ardeth pumped the other around Jonathan's cock--first slowly, then more and more rapidly, until the head pushed past the foreskin and wept its tears over his hand. As he climaxed, Jonathan clamped his teeth on Ardeth's wrist and bit down--as if Ardeth's arm was a biting stick. Only his vambrace kept Jonathan from breaking the skin, but he would rather have had a bite mark than have Jonathan cry out and wake the others.

"And...you?" Jonathan asked when he'd recovered.

"I'll be fine," Ardeth claimed.

Jonathan twisted his neck to look back at him. "No, you don't have to--"

"I...would prefer not to, right now. I'm...enjoying the delay, if you must know." He shifted a little to feel the friction against Jonathan's arse cleft. He was glad that their position hid his blush, but that did not stop Jonathan from chuckling softly.

"Oh, really? Is she a little into self-denial, then?" he teased.

"She?"

"You. Sorry. That's...when I was at school, the lads would...nevermind," Jonathan stammered. He shivered. "Forget I said it, will you."

"Gladly. You are chilled," Ardeth observed. He sat up, shook out their shirts, and handed Jonathan's back to him before donning his own.

"I...should go back to my own rug, I suppose," Jonathan continued sadly.

"No need. I will wake before dawn and make sure we are safe," promised Ardeth. He was already planning how they could ensure some privacy at the earliest opportunity.

"I suppose that's the advantage of sleeping with a Medjai," Jonathan muttered, already giving in to his fatigue.

"Yes," agreed Ardeth. He leaned over Jonathan's ear and whispered, "One of many."

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

 

Ardeth tended to think of himself as an intelligent fellow, and a good tactician. He considered himself fairly well prepared for any contingency. The next day, as they plodded along in the caravan, pacing themselves and doing their best to follow Jonathan's compass, while dunes and shifting sands got in their way, he tried to think how he and Jonathan could reasonably put some distance between themselves and the rest of the caravan. He considered suggesting that they ride ahead after the caravan had made camp for the night. They could "scout the terrain," as it were. But as quickly as he came up with the excuse, he rejected it. It might have fooled a party of Europeans, or even less experienced Bedouins, but the men they had hired would never believe a tactic as foolish as that. Besides, practically speaking, they would have had to ride very far ahead indeed to avoid the possibility of being seen or heard. They could wait, of course, until they returned to Abydos, which, by benefit of the temple near the city, at least had the advantage of a Western-style hotel.

Somehow, he doubted that Jonathan wished to wait that long. In truth, he didn't really wish to, either. But he simply could not decide how best to proceed.

So he was, really, a little impressed when they broke to nap in the heat of the day, and Jonathan dropped to a cross-legged seat beside him. "I think perhaps we'll make camp a little earlier tonight," he said casually. "I've brought something along that might help our situation. But we'll need a bit more time to set up."

Ardeth glanced at him sidewise, but Jonathan only smiled enigmatically, as if to prove that he, too, could be mysterious. With a dismissive, but affectionate eyeroll, Ardeth shook his head. "Fine. Surprise me, then," he challenged.

They rose again a few hours before sunset, and about two hours after, Jonathan called a halt. He pointed to one of the pack animals and through a combination of Arabic and gestures, got the men to pull off a bag containing a massive lump of canvas--much larger than a lean-to. When the contents were unrolled, they revealed metal pole sections in the middle.

"You brought a tent?" Ardeth commented, as Jonathan started fitting the pole sections together.

"I brought a tent."

"There's not enough solid earth. It won't stand up in the sand," Ardeth warned.

"Sure, it wll!" Jonathan insisted.

He had apparently anticipated better than Ardeth gave him credit, because the tent was designed to stand on its own within its pole framework. Once they had the canvas stretched across it, it did not need to be staked--only weighted down so that it would not blow away like a sail. The frame also created a good amount of space, given its size. It was easily big enough for two. "All right," he admitted. "I am surprised."

Still, Jonathan turned around in the door flaps. "Come to me when they've gone to sleep," he said, somewhere between an instruction and an invitation.

"Did you...plan this whole escapade, just to proposition me?" Ardeth asked under his breath. Though they were speaking English, which hardly any of the others understood, he barely risked letting his mouth move, for fear they'd guess what he was saying.

"Of course not! I really do think we'll find Rokoroth," Jonathan assured him. He grinned, winked, and then retreated into the tent, twitching the flaps closed without another word. Ardeth got the distinct impression that he was being treated to a touch of Jonathan Carnahan, expert grifter. He did not care for the sensation of being humoured.

As he set up his lean-to with the others and pretended to go to sleep outside, Ardeth reflected on Jonathan's strategy. It was incredible to think he had arranged this whole trip, had brought the tent, had spent days studying Ardeth for his reactions, and then...deliberately tantalized him? Or had he taken Ardeth's comment about delaying gratification to heart? Surely, he knew that it was torture to wait outside, to behave normally while the others dropped into slumber, knowing they would have an opportunity to take their time with one another (even if they still had to be quiet about it)? Was he playing a game, and if so, what were Jonathan's rules? What power did Ardeth possess to set rules of his own?

Finally, the breath sounds around him smoothed out as even and quiet as the breeze across the dunes. He scanned their lean-tos from his position on the ground. Once satisfied that they really were asleep, he rose in a single, fluid motion, and tip-toed around their forms to the large shape of the tent, leaving his canteen, but taking up his bandoliers out of habit and an abundance of caution. As he opened the flaps, it occurred to him that as helpful as the structure would be, it was also a great shame that being inside the tent meant he would not be able to see Jonathan naked in the moonlight.

Maybe another time.

Jonathan had not bothered with a cot, and instead had spread his carpet and bedroll on the ground. The sands underneath the tent floor were too uneven to risk a lantern, but the moon outside was bright enough to filter through the canvas and provide a dim light inside. Ardeth stood still a moment, adjusting to the low level, but before he moved, Jonathan struck a match and lit an oil lamp. Holding it in one hand, he pushed up from the carpet with the other.

He was bathed in the single flame, not the moon, but either way, his body was a sight to behold. Ardeth's lips parted in a breathless gasp of appreciation. The bandoliers slipped out of a grasp gone limp, clattering so that he feared someone might have woken from it. He paused, but no noise arose outside.

"What are you waiting for?" Jonathan asked gently. He stepped forward, offering Ardeth a spectacular view of his nude figure, the curly hair that formed in the center of his chest, the thin line of it extending into an unruly tangle over his balls, and under which his cock hung, loose but growing stiffer with each step toward his visitor, his legs muscular, if thin, and his face tilting up to capture Ardeth's astonished lips. Jonathan set the lamp down carefully, smoothing the ground beneath the floor so that the lamp nested safely with no danger of tipping over. He then turned back to Ardeth, still on his knees, and began untying his sash. As before, he loosened the wrap and let it fall around Ardeth's feet. Next, he tugged on the drawstring of his breeches, and they fell to bloom around the tops of Ardeth's boots. With only a brief glance upward, his lashes fluttering against his brow ridge, Jonathan found the tucked flap of Ardeth's breechclout and began unwinding it. He got it open enough to dislodge Ardeth's hard and seeping cock, and then, without a word, without letting him move further into the structure, Jonathan closed his lips around the head of Ardeth's penis.

Oh, it was ecstasy. Jonathan's talented tongue swirled around and up and down, as if Ardeth's cock were some delectable treat to be sampled and sucked and licked away into nothingness. He pushed the tip of his tongue inside Ardeth's receding foreskin, then into the slit at the end. It made Ardeth's knees feel weak and watery, and he fought to remain standing. His hand drifted down to grip Jonathan's hair, stroking and petting and pulling him forward--not hard, just forcefully enough to tighten their grip on each other, Ardeth's hand and Jonathan's mouth, locked together while Jonathan sucked him down.

Jonathan also reached for a better grip, wrapping his arms around Ardeth's buttocks and digging his nails in. Ardeth could barely feel it through the strip of cloth, which Jonathan had not finished unwinding, so he gently moved Jonathan's hands long enough to push the impeding fabric down under the globes of his backside. Jonathan cupped his buttocks as soon as they were free, raked his nails down and up in time with his suction, and oh….. Ardeth shuddered and jerked and threw back his head from the sensations.

He tried to hold back, but Jonathan's attentions were both too relentless and too marvelous not to succumb. He regretted that there was nothing else to hold onto but Jonathan, as the throes of his climax overtook him, and he feared he might have almost suffocated his lover by clinging to him as he came. As soon as he finished, he let go and dropped to the ground like a sack of grain, almost falling atop ofJonathan, but twisting to the side at the last moment to avoid bowling him over completely. Jonathan chuckled and fell backward with him, tangled up in sash and breeches and loin cloth, and his mouth red and puffed from his efforts.

"Allah 'akbar," Ardeth murmured, when he could speak again.

"I hope that pays back for last night," Jonathan said through another chuckle. "I never meant to give you...er, blue balls, we would call'em."

"I am repaid, with interest," Ardeth confirmed. "I think...I even owe you some change."

"Mm. If you insist. Catch your breath first, my dear." He lifted himself on one elbow, cradling his head in his hand. "And...maybe finish undressing."

He did both, eventually. And when, a few minutes later, Jonathan doused the oil lamp, lest they kick it over and start a fire, he put the oil in it to much better use.

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

 

Ardeth woke still entwined with Jonathan and his left arm feeling rubbery and dead, where Jonathan's head was pillowed on it. The light filtering through the tent was the grey of pre-dawn. Years of rising early had trained him, even without the direct sun to wake him; his body knew the time all on its own. Ardeth extricated his arm, rolled onto his back, and rubbed vigorously with his right hand. When the pins and needles started, he flapped his arm about to speed up the return of circulation. The rapid motions caused Jonathan to stir.

"Morning," he whispered, snuggling against Ardeth's side.

"Good morning. I must leave before they wake up."

"There's time yet," Jonathan protested. He flung an arm around Ardeth to pull him close.

"No," Ardeth said quietly. "But we will have plenty of time in the future."

"Will we?" Jonathan smiled prettily. "That suits me down to the ground."

"You are most vexing," Ardeth informed him. "Vexing and enticing, all at once. How do you manage that?"

"I'm talented," Jonathan declared. "Give us a kiss before you go, at least?"

Ardeth crawled back to him, but when he leaned over to kiss Jonathan, Jonathan reached down--

"No," Ardeth refused, slapping his hand away lightly. "Do not start what we do not have time to finish."

"I thought you might like the delay," Jonathan suggested.

Ardeth's eyes flashed, and his cock twitched despite himself. "Just because I like a little discomfort does not mean I enjoy it on every occasion. Nor does it give you the right to abuse that privilege. We can discuss boundaries another time. For now, I need to dress, and we need to behave ourselves until you have the opportunity to...pay me back for your error."

"Tonight?" Jonathan requested, stretching so that his thighs and waist were elongated and shown off to advantage.

"Perhaps," said Ardeth Bay. There was no perhaps about it, but he felt it fair play to tease and tantalize, if he was going to be teased.

They traveled another day, and spent another night in the tent. This time, Jonathan pressed him down on the mat, turned his head toward Ardeth's feet, and fucked his face, simultaneously drinking him down. Ardeth was glad of the gag, because otherwise, he might have made too much noise.

Jonathan found the city's marker the following morning. It was nearly buried, but the pointed, pyramidic top of what must have been an obelisk still poked out of the sandy blanket of the desert.

"We found it!" Jonathan whooped, hopping off his camel and running to the one with the tools. "Rokoroth! Amazing no one's bothered before!" He grabbed a shovel and brought it to the obelisk. "I'm astonished it was this easy. This must have been the city gate."

"As you say, no curses."

"Yes, but the map was just--"

Too late, Ardeth noticed that the men had not reached for their shovels or any tools. Instead, one of them had gone to his saddlebag, and pulled out a heavy revolver.

"Thank you for leading us here so directly," said the caravan leader, in unfortunately perfect English. "Mr Momar-Hassan thought you might be just the one to do it. We received a message from him, just before you showed up to hire us, as he said you might. So sad that you met with a tragic accident in the desert."

Ardeth ignored Jonathan's expression of disappointment, shock, and fear. It was astonishing that Jonathan, whom Ardeth had personally seen lie his way into and out of numerous scrapes, still thought other people were as honest as he could be dishonest. But there was only one way out of this particular calamity. Ardeth Bay did not hesitate. He reached into his belt, drew his dagger, and threw it in a single motion. It landed square in the man's chest. The Bedouin dropped the pistol as he fell, and in the next moment, Ardeth had his sword out of its scabbard. Jonathan recovered enough to dive for the gun.

"Anyone else?" Jonathan asked bravely brandishing the weapon. The men merely turned their mounts, kicked them into a run, and fled.

"They may be back," Ardeth cautioned.

"Probably," Jonathan agreed. "Depends on what they tell Momar-Hassan. I knew he gave up that map too easily. I guess he just didn't want to take the chance himself, coming all the way out here for a minor historical find."

"What do you want to do?" Ardeth asked him.

"Well," Jonathan said, fanning himself with the sleeve of his caftan, "I'm going to have a smoke. We should bury this fellow. Then uncover more of the obelisk, and bring back proof that it's here and that we found it. And then…."

"Then?"

He gestured outward with his arms. "Pitch the tent, of course. So I can...pay you back."

"You are incorrigible."

"Maybe," he said with a shrug. "But the one upside to their running away is that we're finally alone. Completely alone. No one else for miles. I mean to take full advantage."

"And if they return?"

"Think about it, Bay. They'll be at least two days getting back, and another two days returning with more men."

"Ardeth," he corrected.

Jonathan laughed nervously. "Ardeth Bay," he said seriously. "We have time, and we are in the middle of nowhere. We will never have more privacy than we have right now. No having to be quiet. So. Will you, or will you not, fuck me 'til I scream?"

Ardeth felt his mouth twist in a tight smile. He stepped forward, gently took the pistol out of Jonathan's hand and let it fall. Then he pulled him close. "I will," he said.

They took turns with the single shovel and paced themselves until the sun climbed too high for labor. The obelisk now stood about Jonathan's height, but the sand kept falling back around its base whenever they tried to clear it away.

"Well, we're going to have to come back with better tools," Jonathan surmised. "However, I did bring this." He dug through the pack and brought out a large camera.

"How did you…?" Ardeth asked, but Jonathan just waved a hand in his direction. Wordlessly, he unscrewed the lens cap and prepared the plate, aimed, snapped a picture, and then reset for another exposure. Carefully, he stowed the camera back in his saddlebag.

Then they pitched Ardeth's lean-to and sat in its shade, sharing a cool waterskin and a little bread and hummus, after which they lay together and snoozed until evening.

"If we start back right away, we might be able to catch up those men a little," Ardeth suggested. "We could get in a few hours before we stop for the night."

"Not a bad idea," Jonathan agreed. "So long as we don't catch them up entirely. You did promise," he reminded him.

"We shan't," Ardeth concluded. "And I keep my promises."

They shared a simple dinner of cold cooked lamb, and more bread--things they could eat from camelback. Jonathan produced a small jug of wine and offered it to Ardeth, who refused. They rode along companionably until just after nine, at which time Ardeth reined in and recommended they make camp.

It probably took them a little longer than necessary to pitch the tent, but neither commented on the pace. Still, Ardeth's hands trembled uncharacteristically, as he imagined what was about to take place, and it slowed him down, when that was the opposite of what he wanted. Luckily, the tent wasn't that difficult, and they only stumbled over each other a few times. When they did, there were no harsh words exchanged; rather, they passed the occasions with the brush of a hand, or the squeeze of a shoulder. Only once did Ardeth give in to the temptation and bend Jonathan backward through a tooth-crushing kiss--just enough to feel Jonathan's erection rise in his trousers--and then he let go, pushed past him, and picked up the tent pole as if he had merely swapped places without laying a finger on him.

"Oh, you'll pay for that," Jonathan grunted, but he didn't try to retaliate at that moment, nor any other while they finished.

There being no need for pretext, they both brought their bed carpets inside and spread them so that they almost filled the floor from pole to pole. It was ironic that since they could take their time, now, they lost none, practically competing to see who could undress more quickly. Jonathan won, since Ardeth had more to contend with, and so he moved in to be "helpful" with the remainder of Ardeth's clothes and weapons.

Once the last article was discarded, they crashed together, tongues and teeth and nails and legs scraping against skin, raising gooseflesh and the small hairs on their necks, and most importantly, their cocks, which came to attention almost before they had touched. Jonathan ran his hands through Ardeth's curls, an action Ardeth had not even realized he longed to feel until the moment Jonathan took it. Just as he reached the length of them, Jonathan tugged sharply, hard enough to pull the hair slightly off the scalp, and--"Nnnn," Ardeth moaned. He lifted Jonathan as if he were a child, only to feel Jonathan clamp his legs around his hips. The unexpected motion carried him down to the mat, pinned by Jonathan's bodyweight.

"Sorry, sorry," Jonathan protested, but Ardeth merely laughed.

"I'm fine." They repositioned with no small amount of laughter. "Where's the oil?"

"Oh, damn. I have something better, but it's outside," Jonathan said. He climbed to his feet. Ardeth impulsively rose as well and followed him to the pack camel. The moon had been waning for two days already, but it was high and its reflection off the sand created more than enough glow. He watched Jonathan's buttocks tense and relax as he marched, barefoot, to the saddlebag. As he had imagined, he fairly glistened in the silvery ambience.

Ardeth's hand closed around Jonathan's when it brought out a little vial--not lamp tallow, this time, but something more suitable, which also argued that Jonathan had in fact planned the whole endeavour. He held the bottle aloft, higher than Jonathan could reach, and enjoyed the spectacle of the other man trying to half-climb, half-jump up to capture it again. He danced away, pulling Jonathan with him, back to the tent. As gorgeous as it would be to fuck in the moonlight, he did not exactly fancy the idea of sand in extremely uncomfortable places. As it was, they were taking a chance, going barefoot, that no snakes or scorpions were active this time of night.

"This is probably not the most prudent game, you know," Jonathan told him through a dimpled grin. He was clearly thinking along the same lines.

"No, probably not," Ardeth agreed. "But you're only saying so because you know you'll lose."

"Oh, sod off," replied Jonathan. "Ordinarily, I'd applaud you loosening up like this, but tonight, you're the only one of us wasting time. I'll add it to your account, shall I?" He broke off his assault and absolutely sauntered back to the tent flap. "You can play keep-away out there, or you can join me in here...and use that liquid for what it's meant for." He bent to open the tent again, positively pushing his arse out with a flat back, and--yes, he wagged it a couple of times before going back inside.

Ardeth's playful attitude dissolved into something more urgent on the instant. He came in, brushing off his feet and legs where sand had dusted him. Jonathan had positioned himself on hands and knees, presenting his arse even as Ardeth stepped inside. Jonathan leaned down on his elbows to push his buttocks a little higher.

"Open that up and coat your fingers," he instructed. "You'll want to stretch the tissue there a bit before--"

"I know what to do," Ardeth interrupted. He did not need orders. "Just tell me if it's too much."

He dropped to his knees, popped the cork, and tipped a little of the liquid out onto his hand. It was viscous like oil, but had no scent, and felt more watery in its slickness. "Hm," he assessed. Before he spread it into Jonathan's sphincter, however, he bent down to kiss the pink, puckered entrance. This elicited a little gasp from Jonathan. Encouraged, Ardeth bent down again, and this time, blew warm air into the hole. Jonathan sighed contentedly and relaxed a bit. Happy with that result, Ardeth brought his fingers up and gently inserted the index. He massaged the glands inside until the muscle opened a bit more, at which point, he swapped the finger for his thumb, hooked it around the ring of muscle, and squeezed his thumb and forefinger together to put more pressure on Jonathan's prostate.

"Oh, god," Jonathan moaned. "Yes. Yes, please."

Ardeth worked the muscle for a few moments, until he judged it was loose and relaxed, before switching to two fingers inside. He pressed them apart while pushing his thumb along the outer rim, bent forward again, and blew each time he separated his fingers. Jonathan pushed back against his face, bucking slightly from the attention. "Shh," Ardeth said, soothing him as he would have a stallion he was trying to break in. A few more scissoring motions, and he was ready to add his third finger. Before he did, he opted to taste the opening, pressing the tip of his tongue just beyond the sphincter and flipping it rapidly around the rim.

Jonathan gasped and panted, dropping his head to his forearms and pressing back as if to impale himself further on Ardeth's tongue. Ardeth withdrew his hand and pushed gently against Jonathan's buttock, cupping it softly as he pulled out with his tongue, and positioned himself at the entrance. Efficiently, he dribbled a little more of the lubricant onto his shaft and slicked himself. Then he opened the hole a little wider with the fingers of his soiled hand, while he guided his prick inside with the other. Jonathan pushed out and pressed back without being told what to do. He moaned again as he thrust himself backward; then cried out joyfully when Ardeth canted his hips and drove himself forward, balls slapping lightly. Ardeth folded himself around Jonathan's back to deliver thrust after thrust; by the third one, Jonathan had picked up his rhythm and they moved together with perfect friction. Three more thrusts, and they were both rearing up on their knees, Jonathan sat back onto Ardeth's cock, his own pointing out at a jutting angle. Ardeth held him with one arm, but with his already-slicked, sticky hand, he traced a line down Jonathan's torso, until he could close his fist around Jonathan's balls and shaft.

Ardeth Bay kept his promises. Jonathan screamed as he came, the spurt so energetic that drops landed on the tent wall. He leaned back into Ardeth's own ejaculation, riding wave after wave as Ardeth came inside him, They collapsed together after, both of them panting and spent.

"Sometime soon," Jonathan said, a few moments later through wracking breaths that came in shudders. "You'll have to...let me...return that favor."

"'Sometime soon?'" Ardeth repeated incredulously. "Jonathan Carnahan, I expect you to repay me tomorrow night."

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

 

They rode for Abydos as hard as they could the next day, stopping only when necessary, and covered nearly half again as much distance as they had on their second day out from the temple. They overtook the caravan shortly after dusk.

Ardeth ran down the new leader of the caravan, pulled him to the side, and proceeded to question him.

"We were not going for help," the man insisted. "None of us knew that a Medjai was part of the venture, until we were already engaged. We did not wish to anger you, esteemed one. It was only the 'ajnabi we wished to...deter."

"He is kin to the Medjai," Ardeth said without hesitation. "You will not harm him. I shall see to it that any discoveries he makes will remain in Egypt, where they belong."

"If you say so, we will believe you. But...what will you do about Mr Momar-Hassan?" the man asked.

"That is a matter between him and myself," Ardeth growled. "Now…you may go your own way, or you may return to Abydos with us, but either way, our business is done. Be glad of it, for if you cross us again, I will not stay my hand."

"Yes, yes, understood!" the Bedouin said, nodding exuberantly. He returned to his companions and they conferred. "We will travel with you, if you will have us," he announced.

Ardeth nodded once to accept them, knowing it meant he and Jonathan were trading some privacy for a little more safety as they came back into the more populous valley. "Do not pitch the tent tonight," he told Jonathan, but he did join him in Jonathan's lean-to once the others fell asleep. They rested, spooning, adjoined from shoulder to knee, without any coition other than their hearts, beating in tandem.

On their return to Abydos, Jonathan went straight to the hotel and engaged a suite. Then he visited the telegram office, where he was also able to develop his photographs and send a telegram to the university at Cairo, staking a claim on the discovery of the city of Rokoroth. Ardeth advocated visiting Momar-Hassan, but Jonathan thought that sending his official discovery to Cairo would suffice, and they needn't borrow more trouble by menacing the man. While they waited for a team to join them, they had little to do--the desert was not going anywhere--so they spent it primarily in Jonathan's rooms.

He had more than one occasion to reduce Ardeth Bay to shards of himself, disassembling him and then painstakingly putting him back together. While fucking Jonathan held more tantalizing pleasure than most other things Ardeth could conceive, being fucked by Jonathan came a close second. Possibly it was equally fulfilling. He kept inventing new debts (both his own and Jonathan's) as an excuse to switch, just to refine the comparison.

"Why did we wait so long for this?" Ardeth asked, after one such occasion when Jonathan had ploughed him senseless. The man was not strong, but he was talented in innumerable ways, knowing just how to leave Ardeth shattered and boneless and thoroughly satiated. Jonathan liked to be taken from behind, hard and brutal, but he preferred to shag Ardeth facing him, legs over his shoulders, rucking him up the bed with every smooth thrust, and working his prick at the same time, so that when he came, Jonathan could duck his head down and swallow every drop--sometimes without even slipping out of Ardeth's arse. He was unusually flexible in that way. It was one of many skills Jonathan was all too happy to demonstrate.

"Because, you idiot," Jonathan answered, bringing him back to the present instead of reliving their love-making, "you didn't pick up on my signals until I made them so blatantly obvious that anyone could catch them."

"Hah," pronounced Ardeth. "Forgive me. I did not realize you were attempting to flirt. I just thought all Englishmen were effete snobs."

"Ho! Well. You're not wrong," Jonathan allowed, "but some of us are also pleasantly bent. Oh, it's fine. I'll just add it to your ledger. Where is that IOU?" His comment earned him a playful swat, which was followed in quick succession by a kiss, to make it better.

"I've been thinking," Jonathan said the next afternoon, as they lazed in their bed (Ardeth had already ceased to think of it as solely Jonathan's, though he had a room in the suite that he had not yet used once).

"Mm," Ardeth grunted. Personally, he was thinking about sitting Jonathan in his lap and letting the man ride him like a hobby horse.

But Jonathan had more serious ideas on his mind. "When this dig is over...come back to England with me." He twined his fingers through Ardeth's, brought them to his lips, and kissed each knuckle sweetly.

Ardeth sighed. Inwardly, he had been dreading this moment, this conversation, since the first instant that Jonathan sat down on his sleeping rug, Could that have only been days ago? It already felt like they had been conjoined forever. Nonetheless, the inevitable moment had arrived, and there was no point in avoiding it any longer. Best to meet one's challenges head-on, his father had always said. "I cannot be so long away from the Medjai," he admitted.

"You followed us to London once before," Jonathan countered. He sat up and reached for one of his cigars.

"When there was a danger that Imhotep might still rise," Ardeth said, nodding. "It was part of my duty at the time. But...I do have other responsibilities to my tribe." He kissed Jonathan's shoulder. "You could...stay here. What is there in England for you?"

"Evy, Rick, and Alex," Jonathan said quickly, puffing his smoke.

"Your family. Of course. But…. Isn't the union of two men illegal in your country? You'd have more freedom among my people. The Medjai are not as backward as most, when it comes to the heart. They would understand. We could live without having to hide our natures."

"Really?" Jonathan asked, impressed. "Well, that's certainly an argument in their favor. But...no. No, I don't think I could live that way, forever. I'm not really Lawrence of Arabia, you know."

His confession felt like a stab to Ardeth's heart. It cast a pall on his mood, and rather than let it infect his repose, he swung out of the bed and donned a loose robe to go and sit in the lounge. A few moments later, Jonathan followed him. He, too, had put on a dressing gown, though his was a smart little double-breasted silk robe, with pockets and sash. He looked quite fetching, but Ardeth was too cross to be beguiled just at that moment.

"Are we...really contemplating a life together, then?" Jonathan asked. "I know next to nothing about you, or you me. But Ardeth, I do want to figure this out...before we break each other's hearts. Can we...think about our options?"

"You might have thought about them before you set up this entire seduction," Ardeth complained. "You did, didn't you? Plan out this whole manoeuver?"

Jonathan had the grace to nod. "I...knew I wanted you. I thought, maybe, you might feel the same way. There were times, I could have sworn you were...imagining what it would be like to fuck me. Or be fucked by me. And I thought that out there, with no particular constraints on either of us, it would be easier to...provide an opportunity. I never dreamed I'd feel quite this way so quickly, but God help me, I do."

"We are too different," Ardeth commented. He was already stacking up the reasons he ought to bid Jonathan farewell and sever all future connection.

"We're...not so different. Did you really tell that Bedouin that I'm kin?" He looked over slyly.

"I did not think you heard us," Ardeth admitted.

"I didn't. I heard some of them discussing it on the way back. They said you told their leader that I'm under the protection of the Medjai, that I am kin to you." He did not wait for confirmation before continuing softly. "I thought I wasn't anyone of importance." His tone was contemplative, not accusatory. But he looked down as he stubbed out the end of his cigar.

"I never meant it that way," Ardeth began, blushing anew.

"Oh, I know, old chap. Believe me, I know. And I know I'm not of much use, compared to Rick, or I suppose any of your Medjai recruits. I'm...not brave. And I'm not very strong. I'm not a fighter. I'm not useless, though. I have some value, don't I? And I have other qualities, that are worth while."

"I am sorry I said that you were not important," Ardeth insisted. "I never said you were useless. You have even saved my life, and I am grateful for that. And...yes, it surprises me to say it, but you are as endearing as you are infuriating. You have...I think you have bewitched me, Jonathan Carnahan."

"And you've captivated me for a long, long time, Ardeth Bay," Jonathan rejoined. "Why do you think I came looking for a buried city with next to no historical value?"

"Because...you were bored?" Ardeth ventured.

"Because I wanted to see you, you numpty! Because I was wracking my brain trying to think of a scheme I could plausibly involve you in." He paced the room, nervous with energy, but seemingly too afraid that he might upset Ardeth if he came too near. Now it was Jonathan treating Ardeth like the skittish foal. "I came back to Egypt again because--well, yes, because I've always been fascinated, not that I know why--heaven knows Evy seems to have all the spiritual connection to the place--but more to the point, I kept coming back because I couldn't stop thinking about you."

Ardeth swallowed. He wished it were permitted to drink alcohol; of a sudden, he felt a powerful urge for whiskey. Though he had never tasted it, he had heard of its properties to give one courage, to spread an inner fire through the system and make one feel calmer, and by Allah, he wanted that at this moment. He felt the need for strength. Instead, he sent up a silent prayer and hoped the Prophet would hear and grant the desire of his heart.

"Well, you came back, and you...wooed me, I suppose, and you have won me. And yet, I cannot live in your world, and you will not live in mine. What do you propose we do? Will talking now change any of that? How long shall we pretend? Maybe better we end now, or else be very clear with one another that it will end." He could not keep the bitterness from his voice, and he turned away into the arm of the sofa rather than face Jonathan directly.

Jonathan hung his head. "I need a whiskey," he muttered. "God, you're stubborn. Though...that's part of what I love about you." He crossed to the bar cart and fixed himself a drink, complaining about the unavailability of ice. "I don't like to think about endings, Ardeth. I prefer to...follow the road where it takes me. But…. Well...that's not to say--I mean." He sipped his drink in thought. "I suppose, if the excavation of Rokoroth is successful, someone will need to curate it all. Someone who can speak some Arabic, for example, and read ancient hieroglyphics. Someone who...knows their way around Egypt."

"Are you suggesting, you could stay in Egypt, only not with the Medjai?" Ardeth asked.

"I mean, after all… Evy, and Rick do work in Egyptology--they're bound to come back on future expeditions, and they'd likely bring Alex. So it's not like we would never see them, if I did stay. And as for what else to do…. What would you think of...maybe starting a business venture?" he asked suddenly, as if seizing on a new and glorious seed of an idea.

"Such as…?"

"We could set up shop here. Or in Thenis. And run tours out to the city. Or...somewhere else. To the Valley of Kings, perhaps. Maybe even Luxor." He was growing excited by the prospect.

"I hate the river," Ardeth said by way of veto. "And Luxor is cursed. With your luck, we'd raise another mummy."

"Well, at least we have experience sending them back down?" Jonathan suggested, with an attempt to make light of their previous adventures.

"We would be in the desert most of the time. Or separated. I thought you did not wish to live that way," Ardeth protested.

"Steady on, I'm just thinking out loud," Jonathan replied. "Something else, then…. Oh, I say! What about a nightclub? Like the bars they have in Casablanca, only here in Egypt. We could buy an old palace somewhere and fix it up."

"A nightclub?"

"Why not? It would be lucrative, stable--we'd bring in European clientèle and we could hire guides to take them wherever they want to sightsee. I don't know--I only mean that, well, I suppose I don't have to go back to England, right away. We could always just...visit."

"You would really stay in Egypt? For me?" Ardeth asked.

"I...think I would," said Jonathan. "Provided it's in someplace civilized enough for an icebox. Lord knows, I can afford to start a club, and I rather fancy the idea of running one, the more I think about it. Jonathan Carnahan, impresario. I like the sound of that."

"It...does seem like it would suit you," Ardeth admitted.

"And, provided that…you'd be willing to travel with me? From time to time?" He lowered himself to the sofa where Ardeth had settled.

"From...time to time," Ardeth echoed. "Or, if you needed to travel, I could visit my people in the Medjai."

"That--would work," Jonathan allowed. "But for now...I believe you owe me back again?"

"Hm...it so happens, before you began this sentimental discussion of our future, I was thinking something similar." He looked away coolly. "Only, I think it's the other way. You owe me."

Jonathan stroked Ardeth's hair, tugging out the tangles. "Excuse me, was I, or was I not, pounding you into the mattress just under an hour ago?"

"Exactly. So you owe me."

"Hm. Well, I suppose perhaps I could...extend some credit? Or, you can buy lunch, after."

Ardeth smiled at Jonathan's awkward banter. It was his turn, after all, and he rather liked his earlier hobby-horse idea. To see Jonathan bouncing on his prick, watch his back arch, his eyes roll backward...his cock jumped a little at the thought.

"Ah-hah!" crowed Jonathan, seeing the tent rise. "See, he agrees. Now, will you stop arguing, you stubborn mule, and fuck me?"

"Mule, is it? What does one do with a mule, if not ride?" Ardeth pivoted toward Jonathan, nudging him into his lap. Jonathan pulled up Ardeth's robe to expose his cock, swept his own gown aside, and straddled Ardeth's legs. He sat so their balls touched, and their shafts stood side-by-side. He put his hand around both.

Jonathan leaned forward to put his lips close to Ardeth's ear. "Like this?" he suggested, deliberately misunderstanding. "Or...did you have something...specific in mind?"

Someday soon, Ardeth reflected, they really did have to have that talk about rules and boundaries. But not right this moment. "You will be the death of me, Jonathan Carnahan."

In answer, Jonathan rocked back and forth with his hips, and sat up to look in Ardeth's eyes. "Say my name again." It was impossible to tell whether it was an order, or a request.

Either way, Ardeth growled indulgently. "Jonathan Carnahan, please fuck me."

"With pleasure."

 

𓀘𓀘𓀘𓀘

Epilogue

 

There's a little club just on the outskirts of Cairo, where dance music plays six nights a week, the drinks are only mildly watered, and the patrons are free to love who they love. It's a policy strictly enforced by the owners--one a slender, handsome English bon-vivant, the other a dour, dark beauty with the tattoos and demeanour of a fierce warrior from the legendary Medjai tribe. They demonstrate, every night, that inside Club Imhotep, the rules of so-called polite society take second place to the rules of the heart. The constables know what goes on, but they don't dare interfere. If the Englishman's money is not enough to keep them away, fear of the Medjai makes them respect the place. Even when they are not personally on-site--which is rarely, but somewhat regularly--no one has the temerity to try to shut the club down. It is 1937, and no one cares who does what inside, so long as the employees are respectful of all faiths, and not when they have the best cabaret acts, the best dancers, and the best drinks in all of the city.

As for the owners themselves, it's clear they're in love, but many speculate just what it was that brought the two into partnership. There are rumors that they met during the expedition that made their fortune; there are rumors that the Englishman's life was saved by the tribesman, or perhaps it was, incredibly, the other way 'round. Surely, some say, there is some sort of life debt involved, else why would two men, so different, be so inseparable?

If anyone dared to ask them, they would confirm that there was, in fact, a life debt, but they frequently disagree about whose. Perhaps that is because it is a constantly changing tally. Jonathan Carnahan and Ardeth Bay never do quite settle who owes what to whom--but they continue to pay each other back, every night.