the moon says, “How long will I remain suspended without a sun?”
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. Stillness enveloped him. The folds of his thobe, a whisper on his skin, burned like chains of fire restraining him in his uncle’s 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 home 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 the 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 would have confessed the rest… like who he was. 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 by guiding him away from Adam? Or was this a test, a challenge to his passions? What would he overcome to be with Adam?
Everything is decided by Allah.
But what was Allah’s decision?
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and forty minutes since he’d seen Adam’s face. Touched his skin. Looked into his eyes and had seen something that looked like love.
Abdul had banished Adam, barely letting him dress before his bodyguards 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 is alive still because he is useful!” Abdul had roared. “Speak no more of this!”
Faisal had been hauled back to his uncle’s palace in Riyadh. They left him in his old rooms, the wing of the massive palace that had been his own, along with Abdul’s own 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 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 the halls, nearly climbed the walls. The first few days, he’d kept quiet and out of sight. Kept his eyes down. Spent hours in the musalla, the prayer room within the palace.
Hidden eyes followed him everywhere.
A week passed, and still no word from his uncle. He asked to see him 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 Adam’s eyes had looked as Faisal inhaled, about to whisper that he loved him.
After ten days, his thobe was a straightjacket on his soul and the silence of the palace was shattering his mind. He chased his uncle down, blocked his path out of his office one afternoon.
“Please, Uncle, allow me to return to Baghdad.”
“You will never go back, ya Faisal. Never.”
“I have done so much more than only meet Adam—”
“Do not speak his name!” Flushed, Abdul’s face had twisted, puffy and red with rage, eyes narrowed and streaked with pain. “That name will never cross your lips again. Promise me, Faisal.”
He’d stilled. Everything in him, his heart, his blood, his breath, had stopped.
“It is forbidden,” Abdul had hissed. “And until you are over this, you are not to leave this house, and you are to remain here, within these walls. You will pray, rahimullah, you will pray to Allah all day long.”
“Maa shaa Allah, I am at peace with Allah. I do not need to search my soul.”
“You will remain here!” Abdul’s bellow had echoed, his roars bouncing off the walls and vibrating the rubies and sapphires in their mosaics. Curtains shivered. His uncle took a shaking breath, one meaty finger thrust toward Faisal. “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, his du’a to Allah hollow, like echoes in an empty mosque.
He and Adam hadn’t spoken since a last furtive text he’d sent before 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. He’d thought, if they never spoke again, he’d want 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. 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.
Sharing intelligence between them was just a way to keep seeing Adam. An excuse, all he could come up at first, until his heart had galloped away from him and he spent the hours he wasn’t at Adam’s side counting down the minutes until he was again.
He’d thought he could survive this, at first. He’d thought he could text Adam, confess his love, and then quietly pick up the pieces of his shattered heart. He’d expected Adam’s rage, had built up his heart to survive the lashing out. But then Adam had texted back a line of poetry that wrapped around his broken heart, and had confessed he’d craved Faisal every bit as much as Faisal had craved him.
They were addicts of each other, it seemed. Like every addict, he couldn’t simply quit.
If he could, he’d text Adam again. Call just to listen to him breathe, or sleep. Stay up all night and count his gentle snores, so precious to his heart.
But his uncle had taken his phone, like he’d done when he was a child. He wasn’t a child any longer, he was a man, but he was still like a son to his uncle, and Abdul was the only father he had ever known. They shared the same blood, but more than that: he was of Abdul’s soul as much as he was of his flesh, and he could no more go against his blood and soul than he could turn against himself.
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, forty-nine minutes.
He was atomizing in the palace, turning to dust and sand. His soul was atrophying, decaying in the silence of the musalla, withering beneath the distance and despair of Abdul. The distance was soul-shattering, and so different than their past. He had years of memories of the two of them, the closeness they’d shared together. An orphan and an old man, his children having long since abandoned him, given a second chance to love again. Faisal had counted the years by how much he had to tilt his head up as he walked at Abdul’s side in the gardens, listening to his wisdom about the Kingdom and the world. One day, he’d realized he was eye to eye with his uncle, and he hadn’t been ready for that moment.
Now, the withdrawal of his uncle’s affection was like the sea pulling away from shore, a low tide that went on and on, the waters creeping further away, perhaps 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 Abdul. 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 for the life he’d been raised in. How dare he now consider turning his back on that love.
But… In shaa Allah…
Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and fifty-one minutes.
If he could just hear Adam’s voice again… perhaps see him. If he could just have a whisper of Adam’s world again.
If onlys sang in his blood. Fantasies played in the moments of his blinks, lives of wonder lived in Adam’s arms played out in seconds, before reality crashed down again.
Desperation sliced at his soul.
Earlier that day, Abdul had left for the king’s palace, disappearing with his contingent of bodyguards. The halls were empty, Faisal’s sandals echoing on the marble, soft footfalls like waterfalls in distant rooms.
It was too easy to slip into his uncle’s study.
He found his phone and then his charger thrown into the bottom of Abdul’s desk drawer. The phone was off, and he powered it up, waiting for the signal to connect as he chewed his lip, 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 computer screen.
A video was paused, the screen filled with an angry imam’s face. He glowered into the camera, his harsh eyes and a falcon’s gaze searing Faisal to the spot. His breath caught. Faisal knew that man. He was not a gentle man, not a kind man. The imam was a force of hate, a lightning rod of extremism in the Kingdom.
Why was Abdul listening to him? Was he a follower? No, impossible. There were fatwas from the imam that railed against the excesses of the powerful, a not-too-thinly veiled attack on the royal family. Faisal had been at family meetings where his distant uncles and cousins, fellow princes—all of whom were far higher up the royal food chain than himself—were calling for the imam to be arrested. Charged with corruption of the earth, even, which carried the death penalty. He was building a base of firebrand fundamentalism and riling up despairing Saudis with visions of retribution. He was anathema to the royal family.
So why was Abdul watching him?
“Astaghfirullah,” Faisal 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 during the lessons, after the prayer. “Imam, I must ask. What do we do if we find a homosexual among us? What do we do with them?”
Faisal’s blood chilled.
The imam’s expression darkened. 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.”
Frozen, he watched the video roll forward, listening without hearing to the cheering and the Arabic cries and chants. Distantly, he heard his phone chime and chime again.
Permissible to kill them. Better they be dead.
Abdul, his own uncle, had been watching this.
Was Abdul planning on killing him? Was he to be murdered, an honor killing to assuage the family’s honor, and erase the stain of his existence? Cleanse the world of his sin and rectify the guilt Abdul must be carrying? How had Abdul raised such a creature? Was it already being murmured among the family?
Was that where Abdul was now? Planning his death?
Was it being decided by the family?
Was he to be ripped from the world in a whisper?
Who would remember him if he died?
His phone chimed again. Messages were arriving, twenty-six days worth of them. He tried to read, but his eyes were blurring, tears building and falling in waterfalls every time he blinked. Oh, Allah, it was Adam.
[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?]
[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.]
Faisal texted Adam back, finally, twenty-six days, twelve hours, fifty-nine minutes too late. His fingers trembled as he tried to type. Adam. I’m here. I’m sorry. I didn’t have my phone.
[Faisal??????????? OMG, where are you? Are you okay???]
No. I’m not okay.
[Where are you???? I’ll come get you. Are you in danger??]
In Saudi. But I’m leaving. It’s not safe here.
[Come to Baghdad. We’ll figure something out together.]
I’ll be on the next flight.
[I will be here when you land.]
He ran, racing across the palace back to his rooms. He changed, flinging his thobe and pulling on his suit, the one he’d worn when he last saw Adam. Two minutes later, he was ready. He had his Quran and a heartful of memories. Should 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 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 and bottomed out the SUV on the road, squealing the tires as he careened away.
He texted as he waited at a traffic light: I have yearned for you every moment we’ve been apart. My every thought has been of you. Dropping his phone in his lap, Faisal 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 as he hiccuped. Adam had sent a love poem from Rumi.
You are my beginning and my end, Adam.
He used his royal status to push onto the very next flight leaving, a cargo 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, praying the entire time. He watched the pilots like a falcon, every twitch of their eyes, every movement of their hands suspect. Had they been radioed and told to turn around? Had they been ordered to bring him back to Saudi?
He had never disobeyed his family. Not ever.
He’d never thought they would murder him. His secret wasn’t really a secret anymore, and hadn’t been, not since Oxford. He’d gotten used to the sidelong glares and whispers behind plastered smiles and fake kisses to his cheeks.
He wasn’t the first gay man in the royal family. He’d had two great uncles whose names were bitten off in hushed conversation.
One had been murdered. The other had been tried for murder. They both ended up banished from history.
Where did his story end? How thick did his family’s blood run?
Was this the last time he saw the sands of his home, passing beneath the cockpit windows?
Two hours later, the jet landed at Baghdad international Airport. He was texting before the wheels had skidded on the runway. I landed. I’m on the industrial side of the airport. Flew up on a cargo jet.
[I’m waiting on the American side.]
I’ll come to you.
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 raced toward him, leaving behind his black, US government-issue, not-undercover-at-all SUV, and headed for Faisal. Faisal ran for him as well, his throat clenching, his chest burning. 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 public. Faisal pulled back 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 anyone, it would look like they were saying hello, an Arabic hello. But their lips were touching skin, lingering on each other, 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 in a dismal US-built 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, an electric plate and one tin pot. He had a coffeemaker, too, plugged into a bewildering array of plugs 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 his sleeping bag on the ground and bought a second pillow. Hidden out of sight, beneath his cot and his spare boots, 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. He tore Adam’s shirt off and 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 sleeping bag, barely. Faisal slithered down Adam’s body. 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, then his head.
When he slid into Adam, Adam’s back bowed, and his mouth puckered, a silent, trembling O. Faisal ran his hands up and down Adam’s thighs. “Adam,” he whispered, drowning in the Acacia warmth of his lover’s irises, in the stars reflected in his pupils. “Adam…”
Ana bahibak trembled on the edge of his lips.
Adam’s hands threaded through his hair again and 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 breathed as he pressed his words into Adam’s cheek, his neck, his collarbone. Pulling back, he rocked his hips, rolled himself deeper within Adam’s body. Adam bucked, clinging to him. “This is love / To fly toward a secret sky.”
Stars were falling from Adam’s eyes, glistening on his skin. Faisal kissed each one, taking Adam’s salt, the taste of him, into himself. They moved together, hands and lips and legs, 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. Everything in him was clenching, his entire body, and even his soul seemed to strum, vibrating on Faisal’s life, on his soul. Adam gasped, sucking in breath after breath. “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 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 Faisal had seduced Adam on the riverfront?
Adam was shy about his mid-orgasmic 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. “It’s dumb. Of me. It’s so dumb of me. I can’t fall in love with you, not really. You’re a prince. I’m nothing. It’s not like we can ever…” He sighed. “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 royal 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 to them, and I never will be.”
“Not after what happened?”
“Not ever. There are two thousand princes. I have never been special.”
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 hissed. His eyes went wide.
“I wanted to tell you that day. I was going to tell you everything: who I really was, and that I had fallen in love with you, habibi. That I wanted to have something real with you. I was going to tell you everything after the next kiss. I wanted it to be… special. I wanted you to feel special. I was afraid you’d think—”
Adam kissed him, shutting him up. 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.
“Fuck, Faisal. Jesus Christ.” Adam’s hands shook against his shoulders, his biceps. “Thank God you got out. Jesus…”
“Adam.” He pinched Adam’s arm. “Language.”
“Sorry. I just can’t…” Adam swallowed. “I can’t imagine a family doing that. How could your uncle plan that? When he raised you? I just can’t—” His voice cut off.
“I never, ever thought it was a possibility. We may be Saudi, but that’s never been the family’s way. I never thought… certainly never from Uncle Abdul. He’s my father.”
Adam breathed in his hair, pressed his lips to his scalp and held him close. “You’re free from all that, and you’ll never go back there. Ever. 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.
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. Maybe he needed Adam for the rest of life, need him like the sun needed sand and the wind.
But before there was Adam, there was his family, and the same blood that ran through his veins ran through his uncle’s. When his world ended when he was six years old, Abdul had brought him back to life. He’d created Faisal’s new world, had given him a home, had given him more love than Faisal thought was possible in the universe.
Was Faisal the one to end that love, cleave them apart so finally?
Family – a word thrown around so casually in the modern world. It meant something to him, to all Arabs. It meant everything.
But he’d walked out on his family. He walked out on his uncle, the man who raised him, who loved him, who cherished him, who brought him from boy to man.
It is permissible to kill these people.
Or had Abdul walked out on Faisal first?
Where did the love end? Where did blood run out?
Their family was built on the shifting sands, millennia of history swirling beneath them. The family – his family – survived the eddies of history with their bonds forged in blood and fire.
This was no way to leave things. He’d walked out like he’d sliced through an artery, and he felt his soul waning as the days passed. An Arab without his family was a soulless man, missing part of his soul and his heart. Without his family, his blood was slowly dying, starved of the love that had made him.
He watched Adam sleep. 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.
Instead, he 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.
I cannot live with myself if I do not.
“Habibi… I have to go back.”
Adam was furious.
“You can’t go! 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!”
“I’m Arab, Adam. Family is half of my soul. I cannot live without them in my life.”
“That’s not true. Everything you are comes from you, Faisal. You made yourself great. Your family is nothing by biology and genetics. Cells combining. That’s all!”
“Look, I know how this feels. I left my family. I walked out on them. They weren’t trying to murder me, but they weren’t awesome, and I knew I had to make 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 asked to watch the sunrise together in the morning.
“You looked like the most lonely person in the world that night.” He sighed, a gentle breath of air. “My heart called out to you.”
“You pitied me?” Adam scowled and tried to jerk away.
“No. I recognized that loneliness.” Faisal tugged him closer. “We are both orphans in our ways. I understand what you’re saying. But I cannot live a life without my family.”
Adam covered his hands. “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. I would die cutting them out. I am already withering.”
“So you’ll let them kill you instead?”
“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 the hot trails of Adam’s tears slide down his own skin. “Faisal, I could be—” Adam cut himself off, shaking his head and stepping back. He looked away. “Call me.” His chin wavered. “If you can. I’ll wait for you… as long as it takes.”
“In shaa Allah, I will be back.”
In Riyadh, he took a taxi from the airport to his uncle’s palace. The Bengali driver had never been to the Governor of Riyadh’s palace gates, and he trembled as he drove up the long drive. Five guards raised their rifles, and only lowered their weapons when Faisal stepped out.
The taxi driver was sent away. Faisal was dragged inside.
He waited in the grand parlor, his uncle’s sitting room overlooking the gardens. His eyes traced the paths they had walked through the roses and the lilies, years and years of conversation—of life—flashing through his memories. Uncle Abdul had always made time for him, had always given Faisal a smile and held out his hand. He could still feel Abdul’s lips on his forehead, the dry press of his kisses. His uncle, as long as he could remember, had always been the northern star in his sky.
All stars fell. Everything died in its time. If this was his time to die, 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 main hall. He closed his eyes and turned away from the door. His uncle was a sharpshooter, 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? He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to see.
“Faisal!” Abdul’s bellow, sharp and lined with shock, shook the walls. “Ya Faisal! Subhanallah, Faisal!”
Hands grabbed his arms, spun him around. Abdul held him in a bruising grip. His eyes were wild, mad, darting over Faisal’s body, searching him from head to toe. “Where have you been? Where have you been?” Abdul shook him in time with his shouts.
Faisal’s voice fled. The words wouldn’t come. They jammed against the block in his throat, the memories that were trying to strangle him. Hands held between the roses, Abdul taking him to the desert, pointing out constellations and shooting stars and holding his hand to the side of a camel to feel her heartbeat beneath his little palm—
“Where have you been?” Uncle Abdul roared, shaking him again. “Speak!”
He couldn’t take it, not one single second more. 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!”
Abdul stopped breathing.
“Kill me!” Faisal roared. “La illahah illalah, I am ready to be one with Allah! Just do it so it’s over! I am sick of fearing you, Uncle! I am sick of the poison in our blood. So just do it!”
Uncle Abdul stepped back, one trembling step and then another. He shook his head as if shaking off a nightmare. Wild confusion had replaced the madness, utter incomprehension spilling from every pore of his body. “You think I want to kill you?”
“I saw the video you were watching, and what that imam said. You think it is permissible to kill me, that it is better to be dead than to be me.”
“Ya Faisal,” he hissed. “That is my biggest fear! I kept you locked in here because I was afraid someone would follow that fool! And I have been calling every hospital and police station in the country since you left. I have been searching for your body!”
Abdul grabbed him, held his head in both of his hands and pulled him close, until their foreheads were pressed together. “Astaghfirullah, I had to know. I had to see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears. I had to know what those people want to do to my blood.” His voice dropped, turning to a growl. “In shaa Allah, they will never touch you. They will never harm my family.”
He grabbed his uncle, holding onto him in return. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think.
“How could you think I would ever harm you? Have I loved you so little that you think I could do such a thing? Where did I go wrong, where you believed that I would raise a hand to my own blood?”
“You were so angry.” He closed his eyes before the tears fell. “You pushed me away. I didn’t know what to think.”
“Astaghfirullah, I am terrified.” Uncle Abdul’s voice dropped again, grinding over his words. “I don’t know what to do.”
“You’ve kept me here because of this?”
“I would do anything to keep you safe. Bismillah, now you are home, thank Allah. You will not leave again, no. You will stay with me where it is safe.”
“Uncle, I have been safe—”
“Not safe enough! I found you. If I found you and him together, then who else can? The filth, the people who took your father, my brother, from us? You saw yourself what they say they want to do.”
“I will not allow those people to take any more of my family.” Uncle Abdul’s voice shook. “They took my brother. They will not take you. But I cannot be everywhere to guard you. I cannot watch over you anymore like I did when you were a young boy.”
“You must hide more. You must hide everything. Even yourself.”
“I cannot live like that.”
“What other way is there? Do not ask me to bury you, ya Faisal. I cannot bury another of my beloved. I am not strong enough.” Abdul’s eyes were red and wet, hollow, and filled with agony.
“I promise you, Uncle, I have lived twenty-six years in this life, in this body. I know how to survive. I grew up in Saudi, after all.” He tried to smile. Abdul didn’t smile back. “Uncle, I will not give him up.”
“I will go back to Baghdad.”
“It is too dangerous! What if someone in Baghdad saw you with him?”
“I’m going back.”
“Will you risk your life for him? For this one man?
“Astaghfirullah, I will. He is worth so much to me.”
“He is worth asking me to bury you?”
Faisal’s lips thinned. “He is the other half of my soul, Uncle. He is as dear to me as family.”
He watched his words impact his uncle, slam into him like bullets. “I would rather die than be caged. Or not be who I am.”
“This does not have to be who you are,” Abdul said carefully.
“Yes, Uncle, this is who I am.”
Abdul clutched his chest and grimaced. “Do not hurt me this way.”
“You are hurting me, too. Please don’t ask me to change. I won’t. I can’t. Not even for you.”
Misery flowed off Abdul like sand pouring from the dunes before a billowing wind. “Ya Faisal… 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. Not again.”
“You can pray for me and know that I loved my life. A life you gave to me.”
Uncle Abdul turned away, burying his head in his hands. “You would resent me if I forbid you to 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, where he is. Let me go back to it.”
Abdul shook his head, disgust and dejection rolled into one despairing groan.
Abdul collapsed, falling to the marble floor as his knees buckled. He kept his face buried as his shoulders shook, sobs quietly rolling from him. Faisal dropped to his side and took his uncle into his arms, a mirror of that night when he was only a boy and his world had come undone.
“Ya Faisal, my heart goes with you wherever you take it.” Uncle Abdul reached for him, cradling his face. “You must take care, abnay.”
My son, his uncle had said. Abnay: my son.
“I will. Wallah, I will.”
“And I will keep you safe, wallah, for all of my days.”
Adam waited in his apartment, pacing. He clenched his phone in his sweat-soaked fist, squeezing 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. So fucking stupid. I let him go off to die. You let the man you love be murdered, you dumb fuck!
He stopped, rubbing his hands over his face and his head and gripping the back of his neck. Groaning, he kicked the wall, over and over, grunting with every slam of his boot until the drywall cracked.
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 Faisal truly love him? How many nights had he lain awake, his thoughts consumed by Faisal and those words of love?
But Faisal wasn’t just a man, he was a prince. No, 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 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. How long would he wait for Faisal’s call?
Would he ever stop waiting?
His phone rang.
He jumped, and his phone slid out of his sweat-slick palm, clattering 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. Something burst from him, a gasp and a sob and a shriek all rolled into one.
“Ya hayati, I am all right. 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 didn’t bother wiping them away. “Are you sure? Positive? This isn’t, like, some kind of hostage situation is it? If you’re in trouble, then say pickle or something.”
Faisal laughed. Adam gasped, a choking sob. “I’m in the gardens. My uncle is praying, and then we are going to eat. We have lots of talk about, him and I. But it is just talk. We’ve come to an understanding. I think this may be the truest he’s ever seen me, habibi.“
“So… no honor killing?”
“No honor killing. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
He waited, but Faisal did not elaborate.
“I’m coming back to you, habibi. I may split my time between the Kingdom and Baghdad in the future. My uncle wants to keep me close.”
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. “I love you,” he choked out.
“And I you,” Faisal breathed. “More than you may ever know.“
The line cut out. Adam dropped the phone. Pitching forward, he buried his face in his hands and let the sobs pour from his soul. His entire body was 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 equally 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.