Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This one is a LONG one! This week, we’re going back to Adam and Faisal, pre-Enemies of the State. This is part of Adam & Faisal’s continuing prequel story set before The Executive Office series, and takes place after How To (not) Say Goodbye, also featuring Adam & Faisal. You should read that before reading this Byte.
This Byte delves into complicated issues of family and obligation in Arab and Middle Eastern cultures.
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and thirty-seven minutes.
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and thirty-eight minutes, as the clock continued to move.
Faisal closed his eyes, bowing his head. Stillness enveloped him. The folds of his thawb, a whisper on his skin, burned like fire, like chains of lead restraining him in his uncle’s golden palace.
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and thirty-nine minutes since Adam had been taken from him. Since Uncle Abdul had followed him and Adam to his Gulf house, and burst in on them in his bedroom. Ya Allah, the day had been so perfect. Had he and Adam ever kissed so sweetly? Had Adam ever unfolded so completely beneath his touch? Had his own heart ever beat as hard as it had as he whispered poetry he’d longed to confess to Adam’s soul?
He’d been so close. So very, very close to confessing it all. His love, and then after, when Adam was in his arms, he was going to confess the rest. Who he was, truly. He’d prayed, endless du’a to Allah asking if this was the right course, the right choice. Was it right to try and go further with Adam, to try and make something lasting. Something deep, and real. It had felt right in his soul. It had felt good, like the settling of some deep answer, a shift in his entire sense of self, his world, his everything – reaching out to Adam with his whole heart was right.
It was supposed to be then, that day. The words were on his lips. Adam was in his heart.
It was supposed to be beautiful.
Ya Allah, how had it all gone wrong?
Was it a sign? Was this divine intervention, a message he should not ignore? Was this Allah answering his prayers, guiding him away from Adam? Or was this a test, a challenge to his convictions, his passion? What would be overcome, to be with Adam?
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and forty minutes since he’d seen Adam’s face. Touched his skin. Looked into his eyes, and seen something that looked like love.
Uncle Abdul had banished Adam, barely letting him dress before his uncle’s bodyguards had shoved Adam into the SUV and roared off, heading for Kuwait. Never mind that Adam had a flight booked out of Riyadh. He was to be dumped in Kuwait, just one foot over the border, and that was to be the end of that.
He and his uncle had argued, bitterly so, for hours after. How unfair it was to Adam. How Uncle Abdul had been wrong about them, that it wasn’t Adam using Faisal. Uncle Abdul didn’t want to know, and he didn’t seem to care.
“He is alive still because he is useful, ya Faisal!” Uncle Abdul had roared. “Speak no more of this!”
Shaking, Faisal had made it back to Uncle Abdul’s palace in Riyadh, surrounded by bodyguards. They left him in his old rooms, the wing of his uncle’s massive palace that had been his own, along with Uncle Abdul’s natural children, so long ago. His uncle’s children – his cousins – were long gone. Long, long gone. For years, he’d been the only one to visit his uncle, the only child to return to his home. For an Arab family, the empty home, devoid of the children of the father, was a black hole of despair, and an unspeakable, unutterable tragedy.
He’d haunted Uncle Abdul’s palace. The first few days, he’d kept quiet, out of sight. Dressed in his thawb and his ghutra, and kept his eyes down. Spent hours in the musalla, the prayer room within the palace.
Eyes followed him everywhere.
A week passed, and still nothing from his uncle. He asked to see Uncle Abdul, but was rebuffed. Spend more time in the musalla, the note from his uncle said.
Faisal’s days passed in silence and solitude, picturing Adam’s face, the taste of his lips. The way his eyes had looked, just before Faisal had wanted to whisper that he loved him.
After ten days, the thawb was a straightjacket, scratching at his skin and his soul, and the silence of the palace was shattering his mind. He’d escaped the solitude of his childhood, he’d thought, but the cage was settling around him again. He had to escape. He had to get back to Baghdad. To Adam.
His uncle had forbidden him.
“You will not return to Baghdad.”
“But… uncle, my work. I have important work to do in Iraq. I’ve been collecting intelligence—”
His uncle’s sharp glare had cut off his words. “That was not the work you were sent to do, ya Faisal.”
“I have done more, much more, than just connect with Adam—”
“Do not speak his name!” Flushed, Uncle Abdul’s face had twisted, puffy and red with rage, his eyes narrowed and burning with wrath. “That name is never to be spoken again! It will never cross your lips!”
He’d stilled. Everything in him, his heart, his blood, his breath, had stopped. “Uncle… I—”
“It is forbidden!” Uncle Abdul had roared. “Forbidden! You are not to leave this house! You are to remain here, within these walls! You will pray, ya Faisal! Rahimullah, you will pray to Allah all day long!”
“Uncle, maa shaa Allah, I am at peace with Allah! You cannot keep me here!”
“I am your uncle! I am responsible for you, ya Faisal! You will remain here!” Uncle Abdul’s bellow had echoed, his roars bouncing off the gilded walls and vibrating the rubies and sapphires in their mosaics. Curtains shivered, and somewhere, glass tinkled, far off. His uncle took a shaking breath, one meaty finger thrust toward Faisal. “You will remain. You will not leave without my permission.”
The days rolled on, an endless smear of prayer and sun and sand. He lost the taste for almonds and dates, for mango juice and yogurt. The silence of the palace enslaved him, solitude not of relaxation, but of prison. Even his prayers were troubled, pleas in his du’a to Allah feeling hollow in the emptiness of his chest.
He and Adam hadn’t spoken since a last furtive text he’d sent while dressing, before Uncle Abdul spirited him back to Riyadh. A poem, one he’d wanted to whisper to Adam’s skin, a confession in his breath on Adam’s belly. If they never spoke again, he wanted Adam to know. In shaa Allah, he had to know that he was loved.
It was never about the intel for me, he’d confessed. I wanted to keep seeing you.
He’d craved Adam, from that first night on. Bismillah, from the first moment, and every moment after, his soul had been drawn to Adam, like a comet captured in the orbit of a star.
Shared intelligence was just a way to keep seeing him. An excuse, what he used before he was able to say that he just wanted to see Adam because he desired to.
If he could, he’d text him again. Call, and hear his voice. Listen to him breathe, and sleep. Wait up all night for his gentle snores, so precious to his heart.
But Uncle Abdul had taken his phone, like he’d done when he was a child. He wasn’t a child, he was a man, but he was still like a son to Uncle Abdul, and his uncle was the only father he’d known, after his own had died. He could not go against his uncle, like he could not go against his father.
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, forty-nine minutes.
He was atomizing in his uncle’s house, turning to dust and sand. His soul was atrophying, decaying in the silence of the musalla, withering beneath the distance and despair of his uncle. The distance was soul-shattering, so different than their past. They’d spent hours in the gardens, walking and talking, Faisal learning about the Kingdom and the world from his uncle’s stories and experience.
The withdrawal of his uncle’s affection, his attention, was like the sea pulling away from shore, a low tide that went on and on, the sea continuing to creep further and further away, never to return.
Should he stay?
He’d been touched by the West too much, to even think the thought. Before university in London, and before spending time with Westerners, he’d never have thought, not ever, to go against his family’s wishes. His uncle knew best. His uncle’s word was absolute. He was thankful for his uncle for everything in his life, most especially for his love, and the life he’d been raised in. How dare he now think to turn his back on that love.
But… In shaa Allah, he had to be free.
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and fifty-one minutes. He made up his mind.
His uncle had left earlier, disappearing with his contingent of bodyguards. The house servants had been reduced since Faisal had returned, most of them gone, the halls empty.
It was easy to slip into his uncle’s study unseen.
He found his phone, and then his charger, thrown into the bottom of his uncle’s desk drawer. The phone was off. He powered it up, waiting anxiously for the signal to connect, for his messages to come in. Had Adam texted? Had he reached out during these long, long twenty-six days?
Faisal’s gaze caught on his uncle’s laptop, open on his desk.
A video had been playing. His uncle had paused the feed. Frozen, an Imam glowered out of the screen, harsh eyes and a falcon’s gaze searing Faisal’s spine across the internet. This was not a gentle man, not a kind man. The Imam was a divisive force of hate and fundamentalism, a lightning rod of extremism in the Kingdom. Why was his uncle listening to the man?
Was his uncle a follower of the Imam? His numbers, his followers, had grown. He was building a base of firebrand fundamentalism, charging up Muslims living in pain in the Kingdom with visions of retribution, pointing fingers to assign blame at anything he could.
Slowly, Faisal reached for the keyboard. “Astaghfirullah,” he whispered. I take refuge in Allah; forgive me. He clicked play.
The video must have been made after Friday prayers. Someone off screen was asking the Imam a question, and the Imam was answering anything his followers asked.
Faisal’s blood chilled as the words washed over him.
“Imam, I must ask. What do we do if we find a homosexual among us? What do we do with them?”
The Imam’s expression darkened. His scowl deepened. He raised one hand, pointing to the sky. “I tell you, surely there is no place in this world for people like that. There is no place for people who sin, who go against Allah. If you find a homosexual in your midst, it is permissible to kill them. Better they be dead than live in sin.”
He slammed the laptop closed. His phone chimed and chimed again. His mind swam, the Imam’s words echoing over and over, a gong ringing in his skull. Permissible to kill them. Better they be dead.
His uncle – his uncle! – had been watching this.
He had to get out. He had to escape. Was his uncle planning on killing him? Was he to be murdered, an honor killing to assuage the guilt of his uncle, that he’d nurtured such a sinner? Was he to be erased from the world, discarded and forgotten? Who would remember him if he died?
His phone chimed again, a series of messages finally arriving. He tried to read them, but his eyes were blurring, tears building and falling down his cheeks every time he blinked.
[Faisal… Are you coming back? When can I see you again?]
[Are you in Baghdad?]
[Did… you change your mind? Do you want me to stop texting you?]
[I’m worried, Faisal. Please. Just tell me you’re okay. I’ll stop. I’ll leave you alone. Just as long as you’re all right.]
[Faisal… please. Please. Be okay. Please.]
He texted back, finally, twenty-six days, twelve hours, fifty-five minutes late. His fingers trembled as he tried to type. Adam. I’m here. I’m so sorry. I didn’t have my phone.
[OMG, where are you? Are you okay???]
No. No, I’m not okay. It’s not safe here.
[Where are you???? I’ll come get you. Are you in danger??]
In Saudi. But I’m leaving. Right now. I have to.
[Come here. Come to Baghdad. We’ll figure something out.]
Okay. Yes. Okay. I’m going to the airport. I’ll be on the next flight.
[I will pick you up.]
He ran, racing across the palace back to his rooms. He changed, flinging his thawb across the room and pulling on his suit, the one he’d worn to pick up Adam from the airport. He had a single bag, his Quran, and a roomful of memories. Did he take anything with him?
No. Not after that video. He’d take nothing.
His phone chimed. [Faisal… I’ve been so fucking afraid.]
He ran for the garage and took one of the cars. A dark SUV, one that would blend into the thousands of other cars in Riyadh. He peeled out, zooming down the drive and almost scraping through the gate before it had opened fully. He nearly stripped the mirrors off the doors, bottomed out the SUV on the road, squealed the tires as he turned down the road.
On the way to the airport, screaming down the highway, he texted back. I have yearned for you every moment we’ve been apart. My every thought has been of you.
He dropped his phone in his lap and focused on racing to the airport, weaving in and out of cars. He felt his phone vibrate against his leg, but didn’t look until after he’d parked.
[‘The real beloved is that one who is unique,
who is your beginning and your end.
When you find that one,
you’ll no longer expect anything else:
that is both the manifest and the mystery.’]
His eyes blurred again, tears slipping down to his chin in hot trails. Adam had sent a poem, a love poem of Rumi.
You are my beginning and my end, Adam.
[Get here. Please.]
He used his royal status to get onto the very next flight leaving, a delivery jet running up to Baghdad and back that afternoon. He sat in the unused third pilot’s seat on the jet, clinging to the seatbelt harness until they were in the air.
Two hours later, they landed at Baghdad international Airport.
I landed. I’m on the industrial side of the airport. Flew up on a delivery jet.
[I’m waiting in the American side. Let me get over there.]
It took some time for the pilots to taxi across the airport and past the passenger terminals. They pulled up to a hangar, finally, and Faisal followed the pilots down to the tarmac.
And there he was.
Twenty-six days, fifteen hours, and eight minutes vanished.
Adam jogged across the tarmac, leaving behind his black, US government-issue, not-undercover-at-all SUV, and headed for Faisal. Faisal jogged for him as well, his throat clenching, his chest burning. His eyes were blurring again.
Adam’s arms wrapped around him, a crushing hug, and he almost collapsed against Adam’s broad chest. He buried his face in Adam’s neck, inhaling the scent of diesel fuel, sand, sweat, and a tang that was all Adam. It was ambrosia for his soul, and Faisal breathed it in, held Adam in his lungs.
They were still in the Middle East, though, and in relative public. Faisal pulled back, his legs shaking, and laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder. Adam mirrored him, one hand on Faisal’s waist. Leaning in, Faisal placed a kiss on Adam’s cheek, as Adam did the same, twice. To an observer, it would look like they were saying a cultural hello, a Middle Eastern hello. But their lips were touching skin, lingering on each other’s cheeks, and that was pushing all of the lines.
“Let me take you home,” Adam breathed.
* * *
Adam’s apartment was a studio in the renovated Green Zone, one studio in a complex that housed hundreds of American contractors, defense personnel, State department officials, and undercover intelligence officers, like Adam. He had a couple bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, a thin, stained carpet, a lumpy couch, and an electric plate and one tin pot. He had a coffeemaker, too, plugged into a bewildering array of plug and electricity converters. One coffee cup.
He slept on a cot in the corner, military issue, on top of his sleeping bag and under a thin sheet. Usually. But when Faisal started slipping into his apartment, and they stole night after night together, Adam spread out blankets on the ground, enough to make a cozy nest for two. Two pillows nuzzled side by side, and, hidden out of sight, beneath his cot and his spare boots, there was a bottle of lube Faisal had brought and left.
They barely made it into Adam’s apartment before their hands were on each other.
Faisal slammed Adam against the thin wall, shaking the lights above. He tore Adam’s shirt off, pawed at his pants. Sank down to his knees before Adam could respond. As he sucked, he stripped, shedding his own suit jacket and button down as he moaned around the taste of Adam, the hardness in his mouth.
They made it to the blankets. Faisal slithered down Adam’s body, kept up his mouth’s lovemaking. Adam shivered and trembled, trying to reach for every inch of Faisal he could reach. Fingers slid through his hair, slid down his back. Hands gripped his biceps. Adam’s thighs wrapped around his shoulders, his head, as he dropped his tongue lower.
Faisal stared down into Adam’s eyes as he slid within his body. Adam’s back bowed, and his mouth puckered, a silent, trembling O formed by his lips. Faisal ran his hands up and down the back of Adam’s thighs, a gentle caress. “Adam,” he whispered, drowning in the pools of Adam’s gaze, the stars reflected in his pupils, in the Acacia warmth of his brown irises. “Adam…”
Ana bahibak trembled on the edge of his lips.
Adam’s hands threaded through his hair again, pulled him down. They kissed, their lips merging, becoming one.
“‘My soul spills into yours and is blended / Because my soul has absorbed your fragrance’.” Faisal moaned, a breathless whisper, as he pressed his words into Adam’s cheek, his neck, his collarbone with whispers and open-mouthed kisses. Pulling back, he rocked his hips, rolled himself deeper within Adam’s body. Adam bucked, clinging to him. “‘This is love’,” Faisal whispered. His words shook. He closed his eyes and buried his face in Adam’s neck. “‘To fly toward a secret sky’.”
Stars were falling from Adam’s eyes, glistening on his skin, his cheeks. Faisal kissed each one, taking Adam’s salt, the taste of him. They moved together, hands and lips and legs moving as one, bodies entwined. Adam began to tremble and never stopped.
Close, they both were close. Faisal could feel it, in the way Adam moved, the way his breath hitched. The way he tried to climb Faisal’s body, pull Faisal deeper into himself. His fingers scraped up Faisal’s back, nails scratching over his skin like a brand. Wallah, he loved this, loved making love to Adam. Loved sending Adam to the delirious heights of passionate pleasure. Just a little more, and Adam would fly apart. He pulled Adam closer, tilted his hips up. Cradled his lover, and cupped his face as he thrust. “‘I swear, since seeing your face / the whole world has become fraud and fantasy’.”
“Faisal!” Adam grasped his arms, squeezing tight, clenching. Everything in him was clenching, his entire body, and even his soul seemed to strum, vibrating on Faisal’s endless lovemaking. Adam gasped, sucking in breath after breath, and stared wide-eyed into Faisal’s gaze. “Faisal… Ana bahibak. Ana bahibak, ya hayati.”
Faisal’s soul went supernova, exploding in a billion shards of light. His heart erupted, and he captured Adam’s lips as he surged, as they surged together, bursting apart in each other’s arms.
* * *
Much, much later, they talked.
Adam kept the lights off after dark. No one needed to be looking in with ease, spying on their silhouettes lounging together on the floor, or moving together in a very specific way. They burned one candle inside the tin pot, diffusing the glow across their faces as they laid together.
Faisal couldn’t stop touching Adam. He couldn’t keep his hands off Adam’s chest, his stomach, his elbow. He had to touch, feel his lover. Twenty-six days, fifteen hours and eight minutes was too long to be apart from Adam. Had they been apart even a fraction of that time since the first night?
Adam was shy about his confession. He looked down, away from Faisal, a flush rising on his cheeks when Faisal tried to hold his gaze.
“Did you not mean it?” he asked. “Was it… just the moment?”
“I meant it.” Adam played with the edge of a sheet, spinning the fabric in a spiral. “I mean it. I’ve… fallen in love with you, Faisal.” He snorted and shook his head. “I mean, it’s dumb. Of me. It’s so dumb of me. I can’t fall in love with you. You’re a prince. I’m… nothing.” He sighed. “But I already have. I used to think one day, when this was all over, we could try and be together. When we weren’t…” He waved his hand through the air and sighed again. “When it wasn’t about intel or about politics. But I guess it will always be about politics, huh?”
“It doesn’t have to be. I’m nothing in the family. My father is dead. My uncle raised me, but—” He shook his head. He wasn’t ready to talk about his uncle, or the video of the Imam. “I’m nothing. And I never will be.”
“Not after what happened?”
“Not ever. I’ve never been part of the family’s future.”
Adam stared at him, twisting the edge of the sheet. He swallowed. “So… maybe… we could…” He flushed again. “Only if you want. I mean, you never said—”
“I love you, ya hayati. Ya qalby.”
Adam’s jaw dropped, his mouth hanging open.
“I wanted to tell you that day. I was going to tell you everything. Who I really was. That I had fallen in love with you, habibi. That I wanted to have something real with you.”
Adam smiled, and he reached for Faisal’s face, cupping his cheek. They kissed slowly, and then not slowly at all, and it was hours before they spoke again.
* * *
In the middle of the night, Faisal told Adam about his uncle, the Imam, and the video.
Adam grabbed both his arms and pulled him close, holding him against his chest. “Fuck, Faisal. Jesus Christ.” His hands shook against Faisal’s skin. “Thank God you got out. Jesus…”
“Adam.” He pinched Adam’s arm, gently. “Language.”
“Sorry. I just can’t…” Adam swallowed. “I can’t imagine a family doing that. How could he plan that? When he raised you? I just can’t—” His voice cut off, and he shook his head, scowling.
“I never thought it was a possibility. Certainly, never from Uncle Abdul.”
Adam breathed in his hair, pressed his lips to his scalp and held him close. “You’re away from him. And you’ll never go back there. Ever. You have to stay safe, habibi. We’ll figure out something. I promise.”
* * *
You’ll never go back there.
The words scraped the inside of his skull, a spider building a web within his brain. You’ll never go back there.
Never go back.
Could he turn his back on his home? His family? His decision to flee had been impulsive, his reach for Adam instinctive. He’d needed Adam, in that moment, and had found the safety and surety he’d needed.
What was he to think about Uncle Abdul? Uncle Abdul had given him life that night when he was six years old. Was he the one to take it all away? After all these years, after the life that his uncle had built for him, was it all going to end?
Family was built on the shifting sands, millennia of history swirling beneath their feet in the desert of his home. The family – his family – survived the desert, the eddies of history, due to the bonds forged in blood and fire. Family – a word thrown around so casually in the modern world. It meant something to him, to all Arabs. To all in the Middle East. It meant everything. Family – and the man who was as much his father as his own blood father had been – meant everything.
And he’d walked out. He walked out on his uncle, the man who raised him, who brought him from boy to man.
It is permissible to kill these people.
Somehow, someway, it was all going to end. Either he left, severed his ties with his family, cut a part of his soul out of his heart and watched it slowly die, starved of love and connection, or he returned and faced his uncle.
He watched Adam sleep for the last hours of the night. Watched the sun rise and the call to prayer break over Baghdad. The cry of the muezzin wailed. It is better to pray than to sleep!
He was a devoted man, a man who lived with the love of Allah in his heart. But, for the moment, it was better to lie in the orange glow of dawn and watch Adam breathe.
Faisal whispered du’a as Adam slowly stirred, blinking awake and reaching for Faisal. Faisal kissed him, a sleepy, warm kiss of morning and happiness. Adam gazed at him, contentment and peace filling his eyes.
You don’t have to do this.
Yes. I do. I cannot live with myself if I do not.
“Habibi… I have to go back.”
* * *
Adam was furious.
“You can’t go! Faisal, they’re planning an honor killing! They are going to murder you!”
“I have to go. Bismillah, I have to face my family.”
“You don’t! You don’t owe your family anything! Especially if they’re planning on hurting you!”
“My uncle is the only real family I have left. I’m Arab, Adam. Family is part of my soul, and I’ve already lost nearly everyone. He is everything I have. Without my family, I am nothing, ya Allah.”
“That’s not true. Your family just got you to exist! It’s biology and genetics. Cells combining. That’s all!”
“Look, I know how this feels. Kind of. I left my family. I left them, Faisal, and I never looked back. They weren’t trying to murder me, but they weren’t awesome, and I knew I had to find a better life without them. So I left. Forever.”
Faisal blinked. He held Adam’s face in both of his hands. “Do you know why I approached you that night?” The night they met, the night under the lanterns, when he’d held Adam’s hand and begged him to go home with him.
Slowly, Adam swallowed. He shook his head. “I’ve wondered,” he whispered.
“By the light of the lanterns, you looked like the most lonely person in the world, Adam.” He sighed, a gentle breath of air. “My heart called out to you.”
“Pity?” Adam scowled and tried to jerk away.
“No. Recognition.” Faisal tugged him closer. “We are both orphans, in our ways.”
Adam covered his hands, still cupping Adam’s cheeks. “Please… habibi, don’t do this. Don’t go back. We just—”
“We are alike in so many ways, ya hayati. But in this, we will always be different. My Arab soul cannot cut my family out of myself. No matter what. I would die, just cutting them out.”
“So you’ll let them kill you?”
“Ya Allah, one way or the other, my soul will die without my family.”
Adam’s expression cracked, and he pulled Faisal close, crushing their bodies together. Faisal felt his face burrow into his neck, felt hot trails of Adam’s tears slide down his own skin. “Ana bahibak, Faisal,” Adam whispered, in between shaking breaths. “I could be—”
He cut himself off, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes and stepping back. He looked away. “Call me.” His chin wavered. “If you can.”
“In shaa Allah.”
* * *
In Riyadh, He took a taxi from the airport to his uncle’s palace. The Bengali driver had never been to the gates of the palace of the Governor of Riyadh, and he trembled as he drove up the long drive to the gate. Five guards raised their rifles at his taxi on the drive up. They only lowered their weapons when Faisal stepped out of the back.
The taxi driver was sent away. Faisal was dragged back into the palace.
He waited in the grand parlor, his uncle’s sitting room overlooking the gardens. His eyes traced the paths he and his uncle had walked through the roses and the lilies, years and years of walks and conversation flitting through his memories. Uncle Abdul always had time for a walk, had always made time for him, then and now. His uncle had been steadfast in his life, his northern star in his sky.
Would his father have been as attentive, had he lived? What would his father do now, if he were here?
All stars fell. Everything died, in its time. If this was his time, then inna lillaahi wa innaa ilayhi raaji’oon. To Allah he belonged, and to Allah he would return. His only regret would be that he had such little time with Adam.
Footsteps pounded down the palace’s main hall. He closed his eyes. Turned away from the door. His uncle was a sharpshooter, was a master hunter. He’d taught Faisal how to shoot when he was a boy and could barely hold the heavy, antique rifle.
Would it be a gun? Or would it be a knife?
“Faisal!” His uncle’s bellow, sharp, and lined with shock. “Ya Faisal! Subhanallah, Faisal!” Footsteps crossed the parlor, slamming on the marble—
Hands grabbed his arms, whirled him around. His uncle stood before him, holding him in a bruising grip. His eyes were wild, mad, darting over his body, up and down, searching him from head to toe. “Where have you been, ya Faisal? Where have you been?” Uncle Abdul shook him, in time with his shouts.
His voice fled. The words wouldn’t come. They jammed against the block in his throat, the memories of his life with Uncle Abdul that were trying to strangle him. His vision blurred. His eyes burned.
“Where have you been?” Uncle Abdul shouted, shaking him again. “Speak, ya Faisal!”
“Baghdad,” he choked out. “I flew to Baghdad.”
Uncle Abdul went pale, all color draining from his face. “No,” he breathed. “No, ya Faisal. How could you? Na uzo billah, ya Faisal…”
He couldn’t take it, not one single second more. His heart raced, and his palms were rivers of sweat. His body froze as his soul burned; death would be a relief from the torment. “If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with! Kill me and be done with it!”
Uncle Abdul froze.
Faisal breathed hard, panting. “Kill me!” he roared. “La illahah illalah, I am ready to be one with Allah! Just do it!”
Uncle Abdul stepped back, one shaking step, and then another. He shook his head, slowly, as if shaking off a nightmare. Wild confusion had replaced the madness, utter incomprehension spilling from every pore of his body. “Ya Faisal,” he breathed. “You think I want to kill you?”
“I saw the video you were watching. I saw it. The Imam, and what he said about me. It is permissible to kill me. It is better to be dead than to be me.” He watched his words hit his uncle, strike him like bullets.
Uncle Abdul staggered, all the air gusting out of him in one ragged breath. He grabbed Faisal’s hands, squeezing both until his bones shifted. “Ya Faisal,” he hissed. “That is my biggest fear! What that filth preaches! I have been up the entire night, calling every hospital and police station! Searching for your body!”
Faisal’s jaw dropped. Uncle Abdul grabbed him, held his head in both of his hands and pulled him forward, until their foreheads were pressed together. “Astaghfirullah, I had to know. I had to see it with my own eyes. What could happen to you. What those people want to do to my blood.” His voice dropped, turning to a growl. “In shaa Allah, ya Faisal. I will keep you safe. I will keep you safe.”
He grabbed his uncle, holding onto him in return. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t think. “Uncle…”
“How could you think I would ever harm you, ya Faisal? Ya Allah, ya faisal! Have I loved you so little that you think I could ever hurt you?”
“I didn’t know…” He closed his eyes, before the tears fell. “I didn’t know what to think. You pushed me away, Uncle.”
“Astaghfirullah, ya Faisal. I am terrified.” Uncle Abdul’s voice dropped again, grinding over hi words. “I am terrified of what the world will do to you. To my Faisal.”
“You’ve kept me here because of this?”
“Yes! And bismillah, you will stay here! In this palace! Where it is safe!”
“Uncle, I have been safe. I have been careful—”
“Not safe enough! I found you, ya Faisal! If I found you, and him, then who else can? The religious police? They will put you on trial! You will go to jail for the rest of your life! Or, the dogs, the filth, the people who took your father, my brother, from us? Those terrorists will cut off your head!”
“I will not allow those people to take any more of my family!” Uncle Abdul’s voice shook, trembling. “They took my brother. They will not take you! They will not!”
“They won’t, uncle. I swear it. I swear. I am careful. I’ve always hidden… everything.”
“You must hide more, ya Faisal. You must hide everything.”
“I cannot live in hiding, uncle.”
“I will keep you safe. Bismillah, I will keep you safe. I swear it.”
Faisal stepped back. He held onto his uncle, grasping his shoulders, and looked into his gaze. Uncle Abdul stared back. His eyes were red and wet, hollow, and filled with agony. “Uncle, I must go back to Baghdad.”
Uncle Abdul’s lip curled, a dark sneer. “I know why you want to return.”
“Yes, you know one reason. But he is not all my reasons. Uncle, I have to do something with my life. Let me contribute to this family. I was good at what I did. I enjoyed it. Let me go back.”
“It is too dangerous. What if someone in Baghdad saw you yesterday? What if someone saw you and… that person… anytime?”
“Astaghfirullah, uncle, I cannot live in a palace my whole life. I cannot be locked away. If that is your solution, then I would rather you kill me. I would rather die than cease to live any meaningful life.”
Uncle Abdul reared back, as if Faisal had slapped him. “There will never come a day when I will hurt you, ya Faisal. Ya Allah, how could you even consider the thought?”
“You are hurting me now, uncle. Locking me up.”
Turning away, Uncle Abdul paced the length of the parlor, one hand to his head. He gazed back at Faisal, misery flowing off him like sand pouring from a dune before the billowing wind. “Ya Faisal…”
“Please, uncle. Let me go back.”
“What am I to do if I find a video of your death online? La hawla wala quwata illa billah, I am not strong enough to survive that, ya Faisal.”
“It will not happen. I promise. I swear it.”
Uncle Abdul turned away, burying his head in his hands. “You would resent me if I forbade you leave. Would you run away again? Would you shatter my heart with your disobedience?”
“You would shatter mine with your command to remain.” He took a breath, a deep inhale. “My heart is in Baghdad. Please. Let me go to it.”
Uncle Abdul shook his head, disgust and dejection rolled into one despairing groan.
Uncle Abdul collapsed, falling to a sofa as his knees buckled. He kept his face buried as his shoulders shook, sobs quietly rolling from him. Faisal crossed the parlor, dropping to his knees before his uncle.
“Ya Faisal, my heart goes where you are.” Uncle Abdul reached for him, cradling his face. “You must take care, abnay.”
His uncle’s words flowed over him, warming his soul and filling his heart with light. My son, his uncle had said. Abnay; my son.
“I will. Wallah, I will.”
“And I will keep you safe, ya Faisal. Wallah, for all of my days.”
* * *
Adam waited in his apartment, pacing. He clenched his phone in his sweat-soaked fist, squeezing the phone until the plastic groaned.
I should never have let him go. I shouldn’t have let him go back. How could he go back to them?
His thoughts curdled, turning against each other. I’m so stupid. What could I have done? God, I could have saved him! What should I have done?
He stopped, rubbing his hands over his face and his head, gripping the back of his neck. Groaning, he kicked the wall, over and over, grunting with every slam of his foot against the thin, dusty drywall.
We’d just managed to say the words. God fucking damn it, we’d just managed to say it. His dream, his impossible dream – could he truly love Faisal? Could Faisal truly love him? He’d dreamed it countless nights in Baghdad, his thoughts consumed by Faisal.
And then, everything changed. Faisal wasn’t just a man, he was a prince. He wasn’t just a prince. He was a Saudi Royal Prince, and his uncle was the next in line for the throne.
But Faisal still wanted him. Wanted to love him. Had said it, even. Ana bahibak, ya hayati.
Even the worst fairy tales, the original grim ones, hadn’t ended so cruelly. To find perfection, and have it all undone.
Adam sank against the wall, sliding down until his ass hit the floor. He hung his head, letting it drop between his shoulders. How long should he wait for a call?
And then, his phone rang.
He jumped. His phone slid out of his sweat-slick palm, clattered to the floor. He grabbed it, pawing for the buttons. “Hello?”
He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t make any sound at all. His eyes squeezed shut and he thunked his head back, hitting the wall. Something burst from him, a gasp and a sob and a shriek, all rolled into one.
“Ya hayati, I am all right. We’ve talked. I am in no danger. Coming back was the right thing to do.”
Tears poured from his eyes, waterfalls that fell from his chin. He tried to wipe them away. “Are you sure?” he grunted. “Positive?”
“Completely. And, something else.”
Adam waited, holding his breath.
“I am coming back to Baghdad. Officially.”
The tears came again, cascades of tears. “Maa shaa Allah,” he choked out. “Maa shaa Allah, Faisal.”
“I will see you soon, ya hayati. Ya qalby.”
“Soon.” He couldn’t speak more than a single syllable. “Ana bahibak,” he choked out.
The line cut out. Adam dropped the phone. Pitching forward, he buried his face in his hands and let the sobs roll out of him, pour from his soul. His bones shook, his entire body wracked by the force of his wails. His heart ached, agonizing pain radiating from his chest.
This was all going to end in disaster. Terrible, terrible disaster. He could feel it in his bones, in the depth of his soul. There was too much against them. And, too much love between them. They would burn their worlds down, with this love. It would be safer, better, to walk away.
But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.
Timestamp: Approximately two years prior to Enemies of the State, immediately following How (not) To Say Goodbye
Author’s Note: Poems used by Faisal and Adam are all of the great Persian poet Rumi.
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