Syed lies next to Christian, watching him sleep. He snores a little bit, which Syed hadn't stuck around long enough to realise before. It's not loud, like his mum's, but quiet and almost sort of endearing. He wonders if he normally does or it's a side-effect of being beaten-up and then it's not so endearing. He can't sleep, he just keeps thinking about this goddamn situation and how he's going to get out of it. It's a catch-22, a lose-lose situation, a stalemate- however it's put, it's so fucking unfair is what it is. He can't lie to himself, or Christian, anymore but he's not going to go shout it off the rooftops. Christian wants to and would be quite happy to if Syed didn't have such a problem with it.

The thing is, though, as proud and open as Christian is about his sexuality and about his feelings for him, Syed's only heard Christian talk about his mum once the entire time he's known him. And it was something muttered under his breath, like "nosy cow", after an uncomfortable-looking phone call, not exactly a loving tribute to her. He thinks it's safe to assume that his relationship with his mother could be categorised as not good. Christian doesn't seem particularly bothered by his lack of contact with his mother, though. Not much touches Christian, in general. There are exactly four things that Christian cares enough about to get upset over- his family, and select members of it at that, his sexuality, Roxy and him. Everything else could go to hell, and he wouldn't give a shit. It's one of the things Syed admires about him. There are plenty of things that he admires about Christian, but this one ranks near the top. Syed wishes he could be more like him, in that respect- 'take me the way I am or don't take me at all'. But he's not brave enough.

The last four years were the worst of his life and he never wants go back to that, not ever. Syed's spent months getting to this point, where his dad is actually proud of him for the first time ever. He can't just lose all that momentum for some stupid feelings. There is little point of building a foundation and then destroying it. It's there to be developed, to build on. If he destroys it now, he can't build it again. Even if it's built on lies, it's there, it exists. Even shaky foundations can make for a decent house. The thing is lies always get found out eventually, just like the house built on shaky foundations will collapse at the smallest earthquake. It's just a matter of time. He knows that from experience.

Being with Christian, it's like the money. At first, he only took fifty quid. A hundred, tops. He told himself he wouldn't take anymore. But then the more he spent, the more he needed and he just kept going back and getting a little more, a little bit more. Then he was finished, he was done. Except then he needed to pay someone else, buy something else. He would pay it all back, plus interest, when he was a success. Except he wasn't a success, because he was weak and impatient. He never had the patience to wait anything out.

It's the same, now. The first time with him was the last time. It had been born out of sympathy for his situation, and his anger, not a big thing. Then the next time he was just confused, it didn't mean anything. Not at all. He'd been planning on proposing to Amira for ages, anyway, and his mother's hints were about as subtle as a punch in the face. Scratch that, a brick to the face. It was what they all wanted, anyway, him included. No matter what Christian said. But like the loan shark or the stocks that have gone through the roof, there's always something dragging him back. He only went to see Christian to check he was okay. That's what any co-worker would do. Any friend.

Ian hadn't pulled any punches about the state of him, but he'd still been shocked. It wasn't just the bruises, or the fact his eye was swollen shut, or anything, though that was horrific enough. It was the look in his eyes. Syed's seen Christian be a lot of things, but he's never seen him scared before. Christian's always been the brave one out of the two of them, by a clear mile. He wished that he could make it better, but he just kept making things worse. It's what he does best, apparently. He screws up and keeps on screwing up until everyone he cares about is hurt. He might not be a success in the business world, but when it comes to hurting the people he cares about, well, he's award-winning.

There was a push-and-pull about that day, going to see him at the flat. Part of him never wanted to leave Christian alone again, but the other part of him was so disgusted with himself he could barely stand to look Christian in the face. Looking at his face, he couldn't have felt worse if he'd beaten him up himself. If he'd been a little bit honest with himself, then Christian wouldn't have gone to the Vic and gotten slaughtered. He wouldn't have left with that man. He keeps thinking about it objectively, trying to put aside his guilt, like, what was he supposed to do? He's fairly sure that "I can't wait to get married, and by the way, I occasionally shag other blokes, I hope that's okay with you, now, on with the party" isn't what he'd call a traditional engagement speech.

Technically speaking, he'd done the right thing by pushing him away. Snogging his fiancée's friend in the kitchen while she told everyone how much she loved him in the other room, that would've been wrong. The truth was, he'd been hoping that Christian would finally leave him alone, that if he was enough of a twat to him, Christian would think he wasn't worth the effort and give up on him. At the end of the day, if he wanted to live a lie, what business was it of Christian's? He could live however he wanted. He hoped to bend the bond between them so hard that it broke. But feelings don't work like that; they don't go away just because they're inconvenient. He, of all people, should know that.

He doesn't know what he expected Christian to do. Syed had hoped that he'd just give it up for a bad job and just forget about it. He forgets, sometimes, that Christian doesn't keep going on about this because of some gay agenda to get more people on side, but because he cares about him. Christian wants him to be honest with himself, not to cause trouble or to stick his nose where it doesn't belong, but because he wants him to be happy.

When he saw that look of fear in his eyes, though, that was when he knew there was no turning back now. It was too late. He was in this too deep, he'd fallen too far, to go back. He could lie and deny and pretend until he was blue in the face, but he couldn't change what Christian meant to him. He knows he'd go through what Christian had gone through a thousand times over if it meant that Christian would be unharmed. He wonders if he'd do the same for Amira. And if he would, whether it would be for the right reasons or just for appearance's sake. He cares about Amira, a lot, but when he's with her, it's like being with Shabnam. It's comfortable and warm and nice, but it's not like a single touch from her can cause a rush of emotion so strong he can't control himself. The 'no sex before marriage' rule isn't so much a restriction as it is a relief. Christian told him once that he didn't fancy Amira. He just doesn't feeling like testing that theory much. He wants to prove Christian wrong, desperately, but he knows he won't. Christian knows how he's feeling, because he's been there.

Except that Christian doesn't understand, it's not a choice between him and Amira. It's a choice between having a family or not, between being a respected member of his community or not, between leading a good life or living in sin. Christian's of the opinion that his cousin Sameenah found something that mattered more, but Syed wonders. He wonders if she ever resents the love of her life for taking her away from her family and friends. He thinks a lot about his cousin, more than he has in years. Sometimes he feels like ringing her, asking her if it was worth it. He looks at his mother's scars sometimes, on the occasion she's sloppy about hiding them, and knows, for her at least, the shame was worth it. He's never seen anyone as in love as his mum and dad. The shame she'd brought upon her family, it seems almost insignificant now, when she's got her own family and is so happy with it. But that's the difference. From the shame she heaped upon her family name, she got a new one. She got her family out of it. He wouldn't even get that.

Since he was twelve years old, he had his life planned out. He'd be a business success, he'd make his family proud, he'd marry a beautiful girl, have these amazing kids, a gorgeous house and this amazing life. Life rarely works out that way, though. He knows if he got his life's dream, he wouldn't be happy. There would always be a hole. But it's the same with Christian. He'd be being true to himself, and living his life like he wanted to, but he'd have to sacrifice his family. Or, to be less dramatic, have his family be ashamed of him. Again. He'd be whispered about at parties. He'd become a ghost story designed to keep young boys on the straight and narrow, emphasis on the straight. Boys would be encouraged to go to mosque on credit of not ending up like that Masood boy who ran off with a man called Christian, of all things. His mum would become the mother who raised the gay son. That's what he hates most of all, the fact that his mother would be blamed for something that was nobody's fault. He doesn't think he could bear that. Because as overbearing as she can be, it's hard to argue with the fact that she's the best mum anyone could ask for. The thought of his parents being forced into shame for no reason, it fills him with horror. They've taken so long to build the family's good name, which had always been an uphill battle due to the circumstances of his parents' marriage, and was made even more difficult by his greed; to have all that hard work wiped out in an instant would just be beyond unfair.

He thinks of Christian's poorly-chosen words at Bushra's party- he could have just said 'person', after all- and the expression of disgust and pity that passed over her and her daughter's faces. He imagines his mother having to face that look every time she mentions him. Some people would be sympathetic, for God's sake, like he had some sort of terrible affliction. Which, he supposes, in a way, he has. He bets family members who have loved ones pass away don't get half the pity that mothers of gay sons get.

But he thinks of how right it feels with Christian and how most of the rest of the time he feels like a fraud. Every time anyone mentions Christian, he feels this rush of feelings he's never felt before. From time to time, his mother, and especially his father, will stare at him for a little longer than normal and he's convinced they know. In amongst the crushing fear, there's relief there, too- he doesn't have to pretend anymore. Then his mum will say something like his needs to brush his hair, and in amongst that relief, there's a touch of disappointment. He has to go back to pretending he's a good Muslim boy, with a beautiful fiancée he is madly in love with.

That's why Christian gets to him so much, when he's telling him to be honest. Christian doesn't see how hard he works, pretending to be something he's not. Syed tries so hard, all the time and Christian's unravelling all his hard work with a few carefully-placed words That voice that's been there as long as he can remember, the one that keeps him going back to Christian over and over, keeps getting louder and it's Christian he hears in his mind, now. Things Christian has said to him, or Syed imagines that he would. His Christian voice has become well-developed over the last couple of months. Even when Christian's not with him, he's still whispering things in his ear. Suffice to say, they're not exactly verses from the Qur'an. He doesn't even know where some of the things come from, and he's fairly sure some of them are impossible physical feats that his imagination has just come up with.

It's worse when he's with Amira. The voice barely shuts up then. He supposes even the voice in his head is acting characteristically; Christian doesn't half enjoy being a pain in the arse at times. Anytime he's near Amira, or holds her hand, or kisses on the cheek, the voice whispers maliciously, See? Nothing. There's nothing there and there never will be. He tries to remind the voice that holding a girl's hand isn't meant to be madly arousing, but he's not very convincing. Amira will look at him and there's this beautiful look in her eyes, that says how much she adores him. Instead of filling him with happiness or even pride that such a beautiful girl loves him like that, it fills him with guilt because he doesn't feel the same way. He's also jealous of her, jealous that she can fall in love with him so easily and he tries so hard to make himself love her, but can't. She's a catch, as his dad put it; she's beautiful, funny, charming and interesting. He knows if the circumstances were different, he'd be counting his blessings that he'd managed to get a girl like her. He hasn't just punched above his weight with Amira, but he's playing in the completely wrong sport.

He watches Christian sleep a bit longer and all he wants at that moment is to join him. Wake up, in his arms, warm and content in a way he never is with anyone else. But it's late and he's got to get home. Even though he's twenty-four, his mother will still interrogate him if he stays out all night. He wishes he could know for sure she was asleep, because he could sneak in at six-thirty, the time his mother wakes on a Saturday, and go to bed. His parents sleep like the dead, and Tamwar won't care where he's been, and none of them would be any the wiser. But he can't take the risk. So, he gently runs his fingers over Christian's face, over his swollen-shut eye and the cuts that feel all wrong against his fingers. The complexion, he remembers, was smooth last time, except for the wrinkles. They're particularly deep around his mouth, he notices, and he wonders if it's because Christian spends so much of his time smiling. Or used to, anyway.

"Don't go," Christian says. Syed's not even sure if he's awake or knows what he's saying. Syed didn't want to go anyway, but now pulling himself away, it's like trying to pull apart magnets with opposite poles. He wants to stay, desperately, but he knows he needs to go. Needs always outrank wants, even if they're becoming particularly blurry these days.

"I'm sorry," Syed whispers before kissing Christian's forehead softly as to not disturb him.

When he leaves, he makes sure it's silent. Christian will awaken to that silence, he thinks, all alone. He tries to push the thought down as he walks home. As with all things relating to Christian, he can't stop himself. The guilt gets stronger every step he takes, but he keeps on walking, though every instinct is screaming at him to go back. He keeps on walking.

***

Title is unceremoniously stolen from Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken, which is definitely worth a read. Feedback is much appreciated.