Part 41: The Final Choice

Chapter 1

September 1999

Zara was waiting on the doorstep when Jahni returned from his morning run. The cat must have exhausted the possibilities offered by the outside world in the hour he’d been gone.

“Bored already, princess?” He unlocked the door and Zara shot inside heading straight to the kitchen. Jahni took it more slowly, getting rid of his running shoes and taking off his sweat-heavy clothes until he was stripped to his underpants. Zara didn’t protest his state of undress, wafting by her food bowl and giving him a meaningful look.

He fed her and set up the coffee machine. He’d take a shower first before he ate, he decided, so he could share breakfast with Madari. Madari didn’t run every day, only accompanying Jahni three times a week. The days he didn’t run Jahni usually came back to find him up and starting breakfast, but this morning, as he padded silently through the bedroom, he found Madari still sleeping. He’d been awake late the night before, Jahni knew, having stirred a couple of times to find the other side of their bed empty. Small noises elsewhere in the house told him Madari was prowling about, as he did quite often lately. His old insomnia had resurfaced since they came to America. Unsurprising, Jahni supposed. They were happy, but Madari remained unsettled. He had a lot to come to terms with.

After a quick shower, he went back to the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee and sat in the living room, the TV tuned to CNN to catch the morning’s news. Zara joined him on the couch and he teased the silver tabby by flicking the end of his bathrobe’s tie. It was a favourite game for her. She pounced and worried the tie until it submitted, then let go until he flicked it again and she launched another attack. Both ends of the tie were shredded and made Madari click his tongue and ask if Jahni thought they were so rich they could afford to encourage the cat to destroy their clothes? Jahni usually just grinned called him a spoilsport.

Sipping his coffee he watched the TV though taking little notice of it until a “Breaking News” banner started to run along the bottom of the screen and he saw the words.

Qumar shooting.

Blinking, he sat up, grabbing for the remote to turn up the volume, forgetting about waking Madari.

“…of an assassination attempt…”

“What?” He jumped up as the new anchor continued to talk. The phone rang, but he ignored it, continuing to stare at the screen. The picture changed to a live link, a journalist reporting from Az Ma’ir.

“…confirmation that the President of Qumar has been shot…”


Madari appeared at the door almost before Jahni shouted. The ringing phone must have woken him.

“What’s going on? Aren’t you going to answer the telephone?”

“Look at the television. Look!” Jahni grabbed the phone as Madari stared at the screen, rubbed his eyes, rubbing away sleep and trying to comprehend what he was seeing.

“Are you watching?” Hannibal’s voice on the phone. Of course he was always up and around early, even if he did then spend about three hours with his feet up drinking coffee and smoking his morning cigar.

“Yes. My god, is this real?”

“Looks like it. Hush a second.”

“…no official confirmation, but reliable sources…” the audio fritzed for a moment, static drowning the words. “…is dead. Repeat, reliable sources from the hospital he was taken to say that Basit Shehade, the President of Qumar is dead.”

Madari turned to stare at Jahni, eyes huge, face white with the shock that Jahni hoped would soon turn to joy. No official confirmation. Did they dare to believe it until they got that?

“…pictures from earlier… lone assassin…arrested…”

He looked at the screen. It showed pictures of a crowd, first cheering them suddenly screaming and scattering in panic. Still and calm in the midst of the panic stood a figure clad in a black burka, pointing a pistol, as police closed in, swarmed the assassin.

“A woman?” Madari said. Jahni doubted this. Probably a man in disguise. Best way to get a gun through the security cordon.

“Official word coming through now,” the news presenter said over the pictures. “The Qumari government have confirmed their president died in hospital twenty minutes ago.”

Madari’s yell sent Zara flying out the room as if a cannon had gone off. He ran to Jahni and they threw their arms around each other. Jahni bashed him on the ear with the phone handset, but Madari didn’t notice it, too busy laughing his joy spilling over.

Distant ringing sounds started from elsewhere in the house. Their cell phones. They ignored them. Jahni had almost forgotten he was on the line to Hannibal as he leaned his forehead against Madari’s, his voice a whisper.

“You’re free, Faris. Both of us, at last. He’s gone.”

Tears streamed down Madari’s face from his closed eyes. Did he weep for joy, or for all the people he’d lost? Did he weep because he didn’t have the chance to kill the monster himself? Jahni knew Madari felt he’d failed to do his duty by killing Saifullah. Who was the benefactor who’d released Madari from the burden he carried around on his sleepless nights?

“Hello? Hello?” Hannibal’s voice, tinny and distant. Jahni recalled himself and put the phone back to his ear.

“We’re here.”

“Look at the TV, right now.”

Madari followed Jahni’s cue and they saw some of the same grainy and blurred pictures from before, but a different sequence, filming the police officers as they hauled away the assassin, the burka torn away exposing the face. Jahni had been wrong about the disguise. The face was a woman’s.

“Guys,” Hannibal said. “I only met her that one time, but isn’t that—”

“Yes,” Jahni said. “It’s Alex Black.”


Though Madari believed Alex Black could plan and carry out such a mission, he didn’t believe she could fund it. Getting back into the country, undercover or in disguise with a false passport, getting a weapon, getting close to Saifullah; it all required money and contacts.

Which was why three days after the assassination he and Jahni were making their way along the corridor of a hotel in New York, going to meet a man with a connection to Alex, the money to fund what she’d done, and a motivation to do so.

“Maybe I should—” Madari began as they stopped at the door to a suite.

“No,” Jahni said. Madari frowned at him.

“You don’t know what I was going to say.”

“Don’t I? You were going to say you should go in alone, because it’s a delicate family matter that needs careful handling.”

“It is.”

“Do I have to remind you about the last time you went in alone to discuss a delicate family matter with a rich and powerful man and I had to come in with all guns blazing to keep you from getting killed?”

“I think your guns were only pointing, not blazing, but I’ll concede the point. Very well, come with me, but try not to impersonate a bull in a china shop.”

“I’m discretion made flesh.”

Very fine and handsome flesh, Madari thought, glancing at him in his smart suit, but looking away quickly, needing to keep his focus. He knocked on the door and a moment later a broad-shouldered and heavily muscular young Arab man, opened the door.

“Good morning. We have an appointment with Mr Raian.”

The bodyguard took them into a luxurious sitting room and brought coffee. After a few minutes Mr Raian appeared from the bedroom, speaking on a cell phone. They rose to greet him, but he didn’t acknowledge his visitors as he continued his call. Madari and Jahni exchanged a look, Jahni scowling about the rudeness. After a awkward moment, Mr Raian ended his call, pocketed the phone and turned to them with an unfriendly look.

“Mr Madari, Mr Jahni.” They shook hands, Madari noting the use of “mister” and not their ranks. “You’ll forgive me if I say I hoped never to meet either of you again.”

He could hardly be blamed for his hostility towards the men who’d brought him the news of his son’s death. Madari had spoken to him on the phone of Captain Raian’s final moments, had offered to meet him to talk to him more about his son, but he’d refused the offer and never contacted them again. Jahni lowered his head, a flush in his cheeks, anger perhaps at the hostility, feeling as if they were being blamed simply for surviving while this man’s son lay dead and he hadn’t even been able to bury him.

“I’m sorry to intrude on your grief, sir,” Madari said, remaining diplomatic. “However it’s not your son I want to talk about today, but events back home.”

“Yes.” Mr Raian sighed. “Yes, I see.” His manner softened and he gestured towards the couch. “Please, sit.”

They sat and Mr Raian dismissed his bodyguard, something Madari was glad about, feeling he could speak more freely.

Mr Raian said, picked up an Arabic newspaper from a table. The aftermath of the assassination dominated the front pages. The government reported to be in chaos, a diplomatic row raged between Qumar and the British government over Alex. Saifullah’s supporters claimed she worked for British Intelligence. Madari didn’t believe this for a moment.

“I shed no tears for that monster,” Mr Raian said, tossing the paper down again.

“Nor I,” Madari said. “But it was quite a shock to us to see our friend Miss Black arrested for the assassination.”

“Was it a shock for you?” Jahni asked, perhaps deciding to employ the bull in a china shop approach after all.

“Of course,” Mr Raian said. “And yet, in some ways, no. She seemed like a resourceful young woman and she had plenty of motivation to do it.”

“Had she been to see you since the coup?” Madari asked.

“Yes, once, to pay her respects to the family.”

“And did you give her money for this operation?” asked the bull in a china shop.

Mr Raian scowled. “Are you accusing me of conspiring with her?”

“You said yourself she was motivated,” Madari said, becoming as direct as Jahni. “So are you. With the right funding you could have made her an instrument of your revenge.”

“She is a woman! Do you think I would send a woman to take revenge on my behalf?”

His anger seemed genuine, righteous, and it made Madari squirm inside, because Alex had been an instrument of Madari’s revenge too. She killed Saifullah not only for Raian, but for Sophia and Greta, her friends. Sophia, who Madari should have avenged, even if it cost him his life. Instead he’d chosen his freedom, and his relationship with Jahni. Chosen sin over the obligations of honour.

“I did not give her money for this ‘operation’ as you call it.”

Madari frowned. Something about the way he said it… “But, you did give her money?”

Mr Raian sat back in his chair, crossing his legs, his foot a little too obviously pointing at Madari, making Jahni scowl. “That is family business,” he said with a defiant air.

“How? She wasn’t your family,” Madari said. “Your son wasn’t even betrothed to her, that I know of. What obligation did you have to her?” He found it hard to believe an independent woman like Alex would come looking for money from Mr Raian because of her connection with his son. Even if she wanted the money for the assassination operation how had she persuaded Mr Raian to give it to her when his family owed her nothing officially?

“I had no obligation,” Mr Raian said, “except perhaps family honour.”

“Please explain, sir,” Madari said. “If you don’t I will investigate further. Miss Black is my friend and I intend to help her in any way I can. If I find out you exploited her grief for your own ends—”

“You can’t threaten me, Madari. You’ve no power any more. Whatever happens you can’t go home can you?” He glanced between the two of them, something of a sneer on his face. Jahni stirred beside Madari, who put a hand on his arm briefly to restrain him.

“I’m not threatening you, but I will have the truth in the end.”

“Oh, very well. I gave her money, yes. One hundred thousand pounds sterling. I believed she’d had my son’s child.”

“What?” Madari and Jahni exchanged a glance. Jahni looked at surprised as Madari felt. A baby?

“She said that?” Madari asked.

“Not in so many words, no, of course not. She understood I wouldn’t be able to acknowledge the child.”

A half-British illegitimate child, the child of his eldest son, so with a claim on the family fortune perhaps stronger than the claim of the younger son Madari knew he had. If such a child existed it would make sense to Mr Raian to pay Alex off to ensure the child never came looking to claim a birthright.

“She implied it, discreetly. She understood our ways quite well. Of course I gave her whatever she needed to take good care of the child.”

“We don’t know if there really is a child,” Madari said. “She could have been lying to get the money from you for the operation.”

Mr Raian sighed and nodded. “You may be right. Though I’m glad that man is dead, I’d rather have him alive than see Alex pay with her life.”

And she would, Madari knew. She may have been expecting to be dead already, killed at the scene. But she’d been taken alive and a show trial would follow, where she’d be made to say whatever the regime wanted. Whoever they told her to accuse she’d point to as her backers. The King, Zahir, her own government, even exiles like Madari and Jahni.

They’d learned all they could here. Madari rose and Jahni and Mr Raian did the same. “Thank you for your candour, sir,” Madari said, offering his hand. “I hope we won’t have to contact you again.”

“I hope not,” Raian said. Madari almost added something about him being a likely port of call if the plans he was fermenting required more money than Madari could raise. But he decided not to show his hand yet. Let Mr Raian think he’d seen the last of them.

“Come, Kahil, we have a plane to catch.”

They left the hotel suite and walked towards the elevators.

“It’s hours before we have to catch the plane,” Jahni said, glancing at his watch. “You want to get an earlier one?”

“No, I was just ready to get out of there.”

“So we have some time to kill?” Jahni said, with a hopeful tone in his voice. Madari smiled indulgently.

“Where is it you’d like to go, Kahil? Central Park? The Empire State Building?”

“The Statue of Liberty.”

The request took Madari by surprise, but he agreed they had time. He’d never visited the statue the time he’d been in New York before. A cab ride and a boat ride later, they were mingling with the crowds on Liberty Island.

As they toured the statue Madari had to wonder if Jahni’s motivation for bringing him here was more than sightseeing. He made a point of going to see the dedication plaque, making sure Madari read the words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

Madari had never thought of himself as a huddled mass, or wretched refuse. But homeless and tempest-tossed, yes, he could relate to that. Relate to the yearning to breathe free. Jahni understood that. He’d brought Madari here to make a point. Did he have suspicions about the plans forming in Madari’s mind?

If he did, he didn’t ask about them yet. They went back outside, bought ice-creams and strolled around the island, looking perhaps a little incongruous among the tourists because of their suits, but attracting no other attention.

“Do you think it’s possible Alex had Raian’s baby?” Jahni asked, finally turning back to what they’d learned from Mr Raian.

“It’s not impossible,” Madari said, non-committal.

“But when she came to see us in LA, I remember she was so thin.”

“If she fell pregnant right before the coup then it’s possible there’d be no outward signs at the time she visited us.”

“Then you think—”

“I don’t know. And to be honest, I don’t believe it. I believe Mr Raian, that she hinted at there being a child and got the money from him that way. But I think she lied to him. And I find it hard to believe if she did have a child she’d go on what she had every reason to think was a suicide mission.”

Jahni shrugged. “Grief does strange things to the mind. If there is a child it’s probably with her parents. Maybe Clive could pay them a visit. He did meet Alex when she visited Qumar.”

“That’s a pretty slight connection for him to go poking into their business at a time like this.”

“I know. But they’re Army people. That might get his foot in the door.”

Madari nodded. Yes. That could work. He stood silent for a while, finishing his ice cream. When the last mouthful was gone, he turned to Jahni.

“It doesn’t matter whether there’s a child or not. She did what she did and if we don’t help her, she’ll pay the price.”

Jahni stared. It was the first time Madari had made explicit his intention to help Alex, though Jahni must surely have expected it.

“Faris, how can we help her? She’s beyond our reach.”

“We’ll find a way. We have to. Mr Raian is not the only one whose dirty work she’s done.”


It was a quiet journey home on the plane. Madari was thoughtful and Jahni didn’t want to ask him what he was thinking about, because he suspected it might be something that couldn’t be talked out in public. He hoped they’d talk when they got home, but Madari remained quiet after they collected Zara from their neighbour and let themselves in.

“I’m tired,” Madari said. “I think I’ll go straight to bed.”

“Faris, we need to talk.”

“About Alex, yes. I’m still thinking it through, how we can help her. But I want to sleep on it first.”

“Good idea.” Jahni glanced at his watch. Only just after nine. Perhaps he’d join Faris in an early night. He stepped closer, taking Madari in his arms, leaning in for a kiss. The response surprised him. For a second Madari reacted as he usually did, relaxing into Jahni’s arms, opening his mouth. But an instant later he froze, then pulled back, out of Jahni’s arms.

“No. Ah, not tonight. I’m too tired. Too much on my mind.”

“So you need to relax. Let me help you.”

“Not tonight. I…I think I might sleep in the guest room.”

Jahni stared, took a step forward. Madari stepped back. “The guest room? Why? You don’t have to. I won’t bother you if you’re not in the mood.” Of course he’d never press his attentions if Madari was reluctant. He’d always been careful not to raise horrible ghosts from over a decade ago.

“I know. Of course not. I just think I’ll sleep better alone.”


“You will too. Get some rest and we’ll talk in the morning.”

“But, wait…” Jahni didn’t sleep better alone. He’d never slept so well in his life as he did with Madari at his side. Sleeping beside a cold empty space was too much like all those long years of waiting. But he could do nothing to stop Madari as he turned away, going into the guest room and closing the door.

Dazed Jahni went back to their bedroom. The bed looked enormous and uninviting, but he had to rest. He undressed, lay down and failed to go to sleep. What the hell just happened? Should he go and insist they talked now? They’d never spent a night apart since moving into this house and Jahni suddenly and irrationally feared they’d never spend the night together in this bed again. There had to be more to this than tiredness. Madari was out of sorts and distracted after their trip to New York. But he’d been out of sorts before, tired before, and even when he hadn’t wanted to make love he’d never wanted to spend the night in a different room from Jahni. In fact quite the opposite. They might not make love, but they’d seek comfort in each other’s arms, the heat and presence of the other’s body providing a refuge through the long difficult night.

And now this.

Jahni sat up, groaning. He feared something disastrous, Feared this was only the first sign. Alex was a prisoner, but alive. The government of Qumar was tottering, with no obvious successor to Saifullah. A tottering government needed a push in the right direction and Madari would like to give it a push. With the horrible certainty that only comes in the loneliness of the night, Jahni knew.

Madari wanted to go home.


Jahni was already up preparing breakfast when Madari rose. He had dark circles under his eyes and Madari cursed himself for allowing Jahni to lie sleepless in the big bed, while Madari did the same in the narrow single in the guest room. So foolish, to lie awake and silent in different rooms. They should have talked, but Madari didn’t know what he would say.

Guilt had made him reject Jahni last night, guilt over the choice he’d made to stay here in America when he could have gone home to fulfil the obligations of honour. Last night he’d drifted, half-asleep and picturing himself in the TV footage instead of Alex, taking his revenge, being a man.

He’d chosen love instead of duty. Now he had a chance to choose again, to redeem the honour he’d lost. It wouldn’t be easy. He’d made no plans for the long term—he might die in their operation already forming in his mind—but he was determined to try. He owed it to Alex. Money would be a problem. How much could they raise? A lot of their money was tied up in the house, but Jahni would never agree to sell it. Then he’d think of something. And if he went back, Jahni would come too, however reluctantly.

Jahni brought a plate of toast to the table, put it down.

“Kahil,” Madari said, but got no further. Jahni spoke over him as if he hadn’t heard.

“I think we should go to Qumar and rescue Alex.”

Chapter 2

“I spoke to Sijad!” Madari said, yanking the door open as Jahni approached it fumbling for his keys while carrying two bags of groceries.

“Great.” Jahni dropped the keys back into his pocket. Madari took a grocery bag from him and turned back inside. Jahni followed him to the kitchen.

“He’s in Cyprus,” Madari said. “Remember his sister married a Cypriot? Sijad’s been working for his brother in law. But he agreed at once to come on the mission.”

A week had passed since Jahni proposed the idea, and it had been like dropping a snowball at the top of a mountain. He was being swept along in the avalanche of Madari’s plans. Plans he’d clearly been making well before Jahni said anything. When he got on a roll, he could put together an operation faster than anyone except Hannibal.

“That’s almost thirty ex-Royal Guard, most of them from the Special Forces unit,” Madari said, putting away groceries, barely looking at them. Jahni followed him and removed a carton of milk from a cupboard and put it in the fridge. He removed a can of peas from the fridge.

“Should we be taking anyone who isn’t Special Forces trained?” Jahni asked. “I know Sijad was a good soldier, but he hasn’t been in combat for years.”

“Being my driver did rather put him in the line of fire.”

“And will thirty men be nearly enough?”

Madari scowled. “This was your idea.”

“Not to go on a suicide mission.”

“Kahil, we can’t wait too long. She might be executed any day. They’re probably torturing her right this minute.”

“I know.” Jahni sighed. Ride the avalanche. “But we need more men. Or rather, what we really need are officers.”

Madari nodded and poured them both coffee. They took it outside onto the deck and sat at the table.

“You’re right, Kahil. And that’s why I’ve been thinking we should talk to the A-Team about joining us.”

Jahni shook his head at once. “No way. It’s not their fight. They only met her once or twice and…I hate to say it, but they’re too old. They’re not fit enough.”

“Face and BA are no older than me. And I’m not fit enough either.”

“You could always stay behind.” Madari’s expression told him the chances of that were about the same as a snowstorm out of the bright blue sky over their heads. He tried another tack. “But you won’t stay behind, you’ll be there in command. And if Hannibal is there, he’ll want to be in command. Two colonels on one operation is one colonel too many.”

“Hannibal is not some strutting egotist. He’s made way for me before, when we were on my home turf. His tactical experience can only help us.” He shrugged. “Or he doesn’t come and the others do.”

“No chance. They’re a unit.”

“I know.” He sighed. “Kahil, I’ll be honest. It’s not the team I want, it’s Murdock.”

“Ah.” None of the unit’s pilots had escaped Qumar. They probably hadn’t survived. Had probably been murdered in the coup by men loyal to that traitor Kotekar.

“We need an experienced combat helicopter pilot.” He raised a hand as Jahni started to speak. “No, you don’t count. And anyway, you’ll be needed on the ground.”

“Would the team even want to do it? They don’t know Alex and, whatever her motivation, she committed a deliberate murder. They might balk at that.”

“I know. I’m hoping they’ll want to go in order to help us, not so much for Alex. And maybe for the adventure.” He smiled, but Jahni didn’t return it.

“Some adventure if they’re killed or captured. Do you want to have to explain that to Maggie? Or to Mrs Baracus?”

Madari grimaced. “Of course not.”

“America would be too small for us after that. I wonder if Karen’s offer to marry me to get me into Australia still stands? You can marry her aunt.”

“Please, Kahil, this is serious.” Madari leaned over the table. “But you have to agree, or I won’t pursue it. You’re going to be the one leading the force on the ground. If you don’t think you’d be able to rely on them, say so.”

Jahni sat for a while, considering it. Were the team so out of shape? Face and BA were partners in a small health club and made full use of their facilities. Murdock never seemed to age, and certainly had all his old flying skills intact. Hannibal might have to stay on the edges, with Madari, but he still had the old steel trap mind. But, their reaction times must be slower, their eyesight and hearing less than it was.

“Remember, Face, BA and Murdock are no older than Hannibal was when we first met him and he was well able to operate at full capacity in the field.”

“Yeah, but…” Jahni grinned. “That’s Hannibal.”

“He’s a force of nature. I know. We’ll probably have to tie him up to keep him from leading the charge, if he agrees to come. But Face, BA, Murdock, they’re all just as remarkable. I’d trust any of them to back me up, even now.”

“Okay, you’ve convinced me, we should at least ask them. But I get the final say. If any of them don’t measure up, I reserve the right to dump him from the squad.” He drank some coffee as Madari stared at him. “What?”

“Oh, nothing. Just wondering if that’s the bravest or the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

Dump one of the team from the squad. Now he thought of it, he’d rather face a tank armed only with a can opener.


The avalanche tumbled on. Madari set up a meeting with the A-Team for the next evening and meanwhile, he and Jahni spent the time booking accommodation in LA for the men flying in from all over the world.

Jahni did what he could to help, but began to feel frustrated about two things they lacked. Money and intel. He couldn’t plan an attack when they didn’t yet know where Alex was being held and what weapons they’d need to get to her.

He was worrying about this as he came back from his run the next morning, but forgot it all and froze when an Arab man dressed in a dark suit stepped out of a car parked in front of the house. A big man, making Jahni instantly wary. He stopped several yards away.

“Major Jahni?” He spoke in Arabic with an unmistakable northern Qumari accent. A countryman. But a friend or foe? “I have a message for you.” He had an envelope in his hand, held it out. “I was going to post it through the door, but I only just arrived as you returned.”

“Who’s it from?” Jahni asked, not making a move to take it. They’d had death threats before, though never hand-delivered.

“I work for Prince Zahir.”

Zahir? Jahni gasped and sprang forward to snatch the note. At once the messenger got back into his car, and drove away. Jahni made no move to stop him. He tore open the envelope, read the note inside then ran back into the house.

“Faris! Wake up. Get up. We have an appointment!”

An hour later they were heading out in the car, Madari at the wheel.

“I don’t trust him,” Madari said.

“Nobody trusts Zahir. But he must have a good reason to ask to see us.”

He hadn’t contacted them for months and Jahni had been glad about it, knowing Zahir had plans to retake the country, and not wanting Madari involved. America was their home now. Had Zahir simply realised he wasn’t going to persuade them to help him, or was it something else? Had he learned about their relationship and knew they were useless as allies? But he might still be a useful ally, for this mission at least.

“There’s a good chance he can tell us where Alex is being held,” Jahni said.

“There’s a good chance Zahir sent her on this mission.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me.”

Madari glared at him for being so reasonable and stayed quiet the rest of the drive as he negotiated the morning rush hour traffic.

The same man who’d delivered the note met them in the lobby of a five-star international chain hotel and gave them a key card and a slip of paper with a room number.

“Wait in the room,” he said. “You will be contacted.” He melted away into the crowd.

“Well this isn’t at all suspicious,” Madari said as they rode up in the lifts. He snorted. “Of course I should have know he wouldn’t meet us anywhere he might be seen

talking to pair of deviants like us.”

Jahni frowned at the bitter tone in his voice. “He’s probably being security conscious. Even if we’re not watched by the enemy I’d bet he is.”

“Maybe he wants to eliminate any embarrassing former allies. Allies! To think, doing business with that traitor.” He muttered various imprecations, but Jahni wasn’t listening. Zahir wouldn’t call them to a luxury hotel to murder them, would he? Though a man capable of attempting to slaughter his family members wouldn’t think twice about killing two former reluctant allies.

Jahni wished he had a gun. He did have a knife, rather a nice hunting knife he’d picked up at a flea market he’d gone to with Murdock. He also had a cosh and pair of knuckle dusters he’d bought from a less respectable source. Madari carried only a small knife, but Jahni had seen him practice with it. He would do some damage if he used it for real. Nevertheless, Jahni wished he had a gun. Close quarters weapons did you no good if you were shot dead before you got within ten feet of your enemy.

They found “their room” and Jahni opened the door. “Wait here,” he ordered Madari before slipping inside. Madari didn’t wait. He followed Jahni in and didn’t seem to mind the blistering glare Jahni gave him.

“It’s more suspicious for me to be standing out in the corridor.”

“Fine. Don’t come running to me to kiss it better if someone garrottes you.”

He regretted the words as soon as he spoke. Meant as a joke, instead they brought uncomfortable silence. Since that strange night a few days ago, they’d done little in the way of kissing. Madari had come back to sleep in their bed the night after, but some instinct told Jahni if he made a sexual advance Madari would bolt again.

Madari turned away and closed the door. When he turned back the silence became longer and more awkward. The king-sized bed dominated the room, seeming to mock Jahni with its crisp sheets begging to be rumpled. If only they weren’t here on business. If only they were here to make the best use of this bed.

Neither of them went near the bed. Jahni perched on the windowsill and Madari sat in the chair in front of the dresser. They waited, saying nothing, the bed too loud for them to talk over. By the a soft knock came at the door five minutes later Jahni would gladly have opened it if a squad of assassins waited outside to murder them.

But it was only Zahir. Alone too, interestingly. His appearance rather surprised Jahni. He wore a Western style suit and tie, and no headdress. The suit was tailored, but Jahni wouldn’t call it “flashy”. He looked quite the respectable businessman, but not like the multi-millionaire Jahni knew him to be. Low profile.

“Gentlemen,” Zahir said, shaking their hands. “I trust you are both well.”

Madari rose to greet him and shook hands, but he regarded Zahir with undisguised suspicion. Jahni had lost most of his suspicion when he saw Zahir was alone. He hadn’t come to kill them. He’d always had others do the messy work.

“I don’t think you called us here to ask about our health,” Madari said.


Zahir glanced at the bed, its pristine undisturbed surface, and Jahni was glad he hadn’t even sat on it. Zahir probably assumed they’d filled in the time waiting for him by having sex. Chance would be a fine thing. Zahir sat in the chair Madari had vacated. Madari stayed on his feet, Jahni too, staying close to the door.

“Colonel,” Zahir said, “I won’t waste any more time. I know you are assembling a squad of former Royal Guard soldiers. I know Alex Black is your friend. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out you’re planning a rescue mission.”

Madari folded his arms.

“And you think you can stop us?”

“Why no, Colonel, of course not. I want to offer you my help. Even thinking of what that heroic young woman must be suffering appals me.”

Madari snorted. “Please don’t insult my intelligence. Alex means nothing to you. If you want to offer your help then it’s because you’ll gain some kind of personal advantage.”

“Perhaps,” Zahir admitted. “It would be a severe embarrassment to the so-called government, to have her snatched from under their noses.” He smirked. “From under the nose of that stunted rodent Defence Minister Kotekar.” He said the words ‘Defence Minister” as if they were profanities and the man’s name as if it were a blasphemy against the Prophet. Jahni almost smiled at the hatred in the tone. Perhaps Zahir had some passion driving him after all, not only self interest.

“You come to us looking for us to do a dirty job for you,” Madari said. “Even though you stopped calling on us for our support months ago.”

“You made it clear you weren’t interested in going home to fight.”

“And you found out why.”

“I have no interest in your personal life. I respected your wishes not to be involved in the struggle for our country.”

One couldn’t take anything Zahir said at face value. But Jahni didn’t know that it mattered. They wanted to go back, but they all knew it couldn’t be permanent, which probably suited Zahir fine. Madari had made a formidable enemy and an uncomfortable ally. Jahni couldn’t imagine Zahir wanted him back.

“Can we move on?” Zahir said. “My offer is genuine and has no conditions attached. I will fund your operation, provide you with all the equipment you need, arrange transport. Everything. More importantly, I will put you in touch with my agents back home. Yes,” he said, when they looked surprised. “Of course I have men working for the restoration back in Qumar. And gentlemen, even if you don’t need my money, you need my agents.”

“Why?” Madari asked.

“Because they know where she is. And you don’t do you?”

They couldn’t claim otherwise. It was the biggest gaping hole in their plan.

“Where is she?” Madari asked. “Or won’t you tell us until we agree to let you…sponsor the operation and take the credit?”

“Credit, blame, call it what you will. But, no, I’m not withholding the information. I’ll give it to you right now.”

“Then do it. Where is she?”

“Somewhere you’re very familiar with. Both of you. Why this will be quite a nostalgic trip for you. I believe it’s where you first met.”


The phone was ringing as they returned from the hotel and Madari hurried inside, snatching it up, with a breathless “hello?”

“Faris, it’s Clive. Did I get the time wrong, is it the middle of the night there?”

“No, it’s lunchtime. We just walked back in the door.”

“Good. Well, I did what you asked. Went to see Alex’s family. Have to say, old chap, you asked a lot there. Not an easy time for them, not easy for me to go there.”

“I know. I’m so grateful to you. It must have been awkward.”

“They had a policeman on the door. They’ve had death threats apparently. And the reporters keep on bothering them.”

Other people might have left their home and gone into hiding, but if her family was anything like Alex then he knew they’d be the type of people who’d hold their ground.

“I think my rank’s the only thing got me past the door. Good Army family you know.”

“Yes. I hoped that would give you an advantage.”

Drummond snorted. “That and I took Kibibi along. Have to have a heart of stone to resist her smile.”

“An excellent tactical move, Brigadier.” It made Madari smile even to picture it

“Gave me an in to talk about children, you know. Their grandchildren. Got the photo albums out. All Alex’s brothers have nippers of their own, but not Alex. I asked them outright, pretended I couldn’t remember if she had any, and they said no.”

“And there was no sign of a baby in the house?”


Madari sighed. “I don’t know that it makes much difference to anything, but I feel easier in my mind to have it confirmed.” If it truly was. The child could be with one of her brothers, or some other relative or friend Madari knew nothing about. Hidden from the danger of retaliation.

“Good people they were,” Drummond said. “Fine record of service. The British government is doing what they can for the family, but I can’t say I hold out much hope they’ll ever see the lass again.”

Madari wanted to contradict him, but couldn’t be sure of the security of this phone line.

“I know. It’s a horrible situation. We can only pray for her and do what little we can to help practically.”

“Yes…” Drummond sounded a bit dubious. No wonder; the words sounded like a stilted platitude. But Madari hoped anyone overhearing would believe them to be sincere. The only person he knew was overhearing was Jahni, who’d gone into the kitchen once he realised who was on the phone, but had come back, stood waiting for the call to end.

“I’d better go,” Drummond said. “Expensive call. Kibibi and Eshe send their love.”

“Send mine and Kahil’s to them. Thank you again, Clive. I appreciate you doing this.”

They said goodbye and hung up. Madari looked up at Jahni, leaning on the wall, arms folded.

“No baby?” Jahni asked.

“No baby,” Madari confirmed. “Assuming no baby at their home means no baby at all, then Alex lied to get the funding for their operation.”

“Or Mr Raian lied to us.”


“Does it matter?” Jahni asked. “I know it’s…intriguing, but does it make any difference?”

“It might have made a difference to whether we’ll be able to recruit the A-Team. If we could have said they’d be rescuing her to be reunited with her child.”

“Good point. It might have made the job easier.”

“Kahil, haven’t you noticed by now that nothing is easy?”


The team arrived one by one early in the evening and Madari and Jahni plied them with food and drink to soften them up, not mentioning a word of why they were really here. Only after dinner, when those who wanted them had brandy and cigars, did Madari nod to Jahni and then turn to the others.

“My friends, I’m afraid I have to confess to an ulterior motive in inviting you here tonight. Kahil and I are putting together an operation to rescue Alex Black from Qumar. We’ve already recruited thirty-two of our fellow Royal Guardsmen, all exiles like us, many of them Special Forces trained.”

The team exchanged glances, didn’t exactly look surprised.

“One serious problem we have,” Madari went on, “is a shortage of officers and even NCOs. You remember I told you about the tactic of killing the officers that Saifullah’s supporters followed during the coup. Almost no Royal Guard or Special Forces unit officers survived.”

“Spit it out, Faris,” Hannibal said.

Madari rather thought he was, he would normally have danced around the subject much more, working up to his sales pitch. Perhaps there was something to be said for Jahni’s bull in a china shop approach, when it came to dealing with Americans anyway.

“Very well. We would like to recruit all of you to the operation.” The reactions were as he’d expected. Murdock looked interested, keen, Face and BA more openly dubious, Hannibal barely reacted at all.

“Can I ask that you ‘spit it out’?” Madari asked after some silent exchanges of looks between the team. Hannibal spoke around his cigar.

“There’s no question she’s guilty. We all saw her on the TV.”

“She’ll be executed,” Jahni said.

“Gets a trial?” Hannibal asked.

“Do you really think she’ll be given a fair trial?” Jahni demanded in return. His voice was tense, rising in volume. Madari gave him a look that made him sit back and relax his tense shoulders a little bit.

“Not only will her trial be unfair, she’ll be tortured before it, probably has already been. Then she’ll be hanged. They’re carrying out a lot of hangings there. Do you believe they’re all are being done by executioners skilled enough to cause instant death?”

It took him back for a moment to the jungles of Zaire, the discussion about hanging or shooting Sefu, about how hanging a man – or woman – was a specialist’s job if it wasn’t to lead to a slow strangling. He could see the team understood what he meant.

“Or they might put her in front of a firing squad,” Jahni said. Madari winced at that. Three of the team had faced that scenario themselves, he didn’t like Jahni playing on those memories.

“I know Alex chose to carry out this crime willingly,” he said. “But she suffered so much loss at the hands of Saifullah I can’t find it in myself to blame her. I should have…I mean if I was still fit, I could have been driven to do the same myself, for the same motive, for the same people.”

“Saifullah didn’t personally kill her boyfriend though, did he?” Face pointed out. “Or Sophia and her bodyguard.” He grimaced. “Sorry, Faris. But I have to say it. He didn’t kill any of those people himself.”

“He gave the order!” Jahni snapped.

“You can’t be sure of that, not about the bombing anyway.”

They couldn’t it was true, though Madari had long ago convinced himself Saifullah had targeted Sophia and sent a man to kill her. As for the coup, the traitor who killed Raian had certainly been acting under Saifullah’s orders.

“That’s all true,” he admitted. “But he is ultimately responsible for the losses she suffered. I can’t fault her for her choice of target.”

“And he’s a dictator!” Jahni said, leaning in again. “People are being hanged, like Faris said. Or given lashes for violations of sharia law.”

“It ain’t her country,” BA said. “What you’re saying, only works if she’s gotta live there. She don’t. She didn’t have to go back.”

“And come on, kid.” Hannibal shook his head. “We all know her motive was revenge. I doubt she thought for a second about ridding the people of a tyrant.”

Jahni subsided in his chair, and slugged down the glass of fine brandy in front of him, doubtless offending Face’s sensibilities, Face giving him a dirty look.

“I think we should go,” Murdock said, speaking up for the first time. “I’m guessing you’ve got no pilots, right?”

Zahir could probably get them pilots, but none Madari trusted the way he trusted Murdock under fire.

“That’s right,” Madari confirmed. “I don’t think any of our pilots survived the coup. We’ve never managed to contact any of them since then.”

“Who’s fronting you the money for this?” Face asked. “Your men might be volunteers, but it’s going to take a lot of cash. You don’t have that kind of money, even if you sold this house.”

“We’re not selling this house!” Jahni sounded more outraged than he would have at the suggestion he sell a kidney to fund the operation.

“Prince Zahir is funding us,” Madari said, and hated to say it, saw their dubious looks at once. Unsurprising when three of them had been on the wrong end of a missile attack happening on his orders.

“I know,” Madari said, raising a hand, “I don’t trust him either, but he’s attached no conditions to this. I think he’s as grateful to Alex for what she did as Kahil and I are. I’m sure he has some kind of personal agenda, but for as long as it coincides with mine at the moment, I’m willing to deal with him.”

“Where’s Alex being held?” Hannibal asked, which made Madari smile slightly. It showed he was thinking about it, perhaps wanting to know the viability of the mission first. “I don’t fancy racing around the streets of Az-Ma’ir with a machine gun.”

“Zahir has agents in the country and they are tracking her movements. Right now, she’s at our old base in the desert.”

“Oh then we’ll definitely go,” Face muttered. “I’ve been dying for a return visit to that place.”

“They made it a prison again?” Hannibal asked.

“No, not technically. Only for very special prisoners.”

“Like presidential assassins.”


“Have they been moving her around?” Hannibal asked, looking thoughtful.

“Not so far. She was held in the city for a few days then taken there to await trial. It’s a secure facility, there’s no reason for them to move her again, especially by road where they might be ambushed.”

“Shame,” Hannibal muttered. “So with your thirty men, you’re going to attack a base you once held against three hundred?”

It was an uncomfortable question. “We know the camp as well as any man stationed there. And with elite troops, we might as well be double that number.”

“Overconfidence is a killer, Faris.”

Madari grimaced. “I know. I’m sorry. Of course it will be hard, that’s why I want you to help us.”

“You take Americans along and this has the potential to turn into a diplomatic incident,” Face said. “I think we’ve used up all the favours in Washington that helps us get out of those.”

“Can we have some time to talk about it, alone?” Hannibal said, nodding to Madari and Jahni.

“Of course.” Madari rose, gathering up the last of the dishes left on the table. Jahni did the same and taking them into the kitchen, they left the team to talk.

“Do you think it went okay?” Jahni asked. “Hannibal is so guarded, I can never tell.”

Madari knew him better, but even he couldn’t be sure if Hannibal was buying into the plan. “We can only wait and see.”

The source of the funding certainly seemed to worry all of the team. It worried Madari too, but he had no other choice if he wanted the best chance of success. He needed Zahir’s money and contacts.

They washed the dishes and Madari left Jahni putting them away while he took the garbage out. One of the cans was turned over and he righted it and put in a bag that had escaped. Back inside he went to the kitchen to wash his hands. Jahni wasn’t there, but the door to the deck stood open, letting in a cool breeze. Was he smoking a cigar out there? He’d developed more of a taste for cigars lately. They usually avoided smoking in the kitchen.

“Kahil?” He stepped onto the deck, took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark before he saw Jahni, talking to a figure that could only be Murdock. Jahni turned to Madari and his moonlit face had a distinctly guilty look. Murdock moved away with a nod at Madari and stepped back through the open door into the living room.

“What’s going on?” Madari demanded.

“Nothing,” Jahni said, “We were talking about the mission that’s all.”

“He had some questions?”

“He…Look, I asked him if he’d come even if the others didn’t.” Jahni’s guilty look turned defiant. “We need him most of all.”

“You approached him away from the others? Kahil, you said it yourself, they’re a unit.”

“Maybe. Or maybe he’d come alone. It’s worth asking.”

“You shouldn’t have asked him like that. It’s disrespectful to Hannibal.”


“How do you think I would feel if Hannibal tried to recruit you for a mission without consulting me?”

The defiance on Jahni’s face changed to anger. “Consulting you? Why do you have to be consulted about what I do?”

“I’m your—”

“Commander? Not any more, Faris. That’s the past.”

“I wasn’t going to say commander.”

“Whatever you were going to say I don’t want to hear it. I don’t need your permission to do whatever I want to do.”

“I thought we were a unit, like the team.”

“Are we, Faris? Are we?”

“Guys,” Murdock appeared at the French doors again, before Madari could ask him what exactly he meant by that. “Ah, sorry to interrupt. Come on in, we’re done discussing it.” He vanished back inside. Madari followed him, and heard Jahni make a small sound, almost a growl of frustration. Didn’t matter. They could talk later. This was more urgent.

He stepped into the room, Jahni behind him, shading his eyes from the lights for a second, before he could take in the looks on their faces. BA and Face looked grim, but Hannibal smiled and held out his hand.

“When do we leave?”

Chapter 3

They didn’t leave until they’d made plans and rehearsed them. The team had friends they could call on who owned land out in the Californian desert, terrain not too dissimilar from what they’d be working in for real. So they hired a bus, and a van to stuff full of equipment and headed out there for several days of training.

The site had some old, dilapidated barracks huts they could set up camp in. Though quite used to roughing it, Jahni missed the privacy of their home. He hadn’t been able to take much advantage of that privacy recently, Faris still giving him the cold shoulder in bed, but the eyes of all the men made him uneasy. Did any of them know about him and Madari? He worried in case one of the team let something slip. Would their men follow them then?

But there was worse. Some of them were men he’d escaped from the airport with on that last terrible day. Men he’d abandoned so he could save Madari. He saw no accusations in their eyes, none of them knew. They wouldn’t be here if they did. But their very faces accused him, as did the absent faces, of their friends who’d fallen after Jahni left them. Men they talked about as they set up their gear and ate dinner the first night before they started the manoeuvres. Madari joined their talk, paying his respects to his fallen men. Jahni stayed silent.

After dinner the men fell to preparing the weapons they had for the manoeuvres while Madari, Jahni and the A-Team stood around a table with maps and plans spread across it. Some of the weapons they would only get when they arrived and Jahni clicked his tongue every time someone talked about using a weapon or piece of equipment they weren’t able to rehearse here with.

“I’m starting to wonder if there’s any point to these manoeuvres at all,” he said. “Should we point and say ‘bang’ to simulate the rocket launchers?”

“What will you do if we don’t get the rocket launchers at all?” Face standing next to him asked. “Or the night vision goggles? Abort the mission?”

“We’ll have them,” Jahni said with a scowl.

“Pretty spoiled, aren’t you?”

“Spoiled?” Jahni turned to Face. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Kahil,” Madari said, in a soft voice, warning. Jahni ignored it.

“Hey,” Hannibal said, “You two, get your minds on the plan here.” Jahni took a breath, turned away from Face as Hannibal went on. “Faris, you said you think Alex will have to be carried out?”

“It’s likely, I’d think. She’ll have been ill-treated, and won’t have been fed properly. We should assume we’ll need to carry her.”

“Okay, put a big strong fella on Kahil’s squad to do that.”

“Perhaps he’d like a gurney,” Face said, earning a scowl from Hannibal. Jahni turned on him again.

“What? What is your problem? What do you mean when you say I’m spoiled?”

“I mean you’re so used to having all the latest equipment available to you, you think you can’t do a mission without it.”

“I’m not going to apologise for always making sure my unit was well-equipped!” The men looked over as Jahni’s voice rose. He didn’t care. Face was provoking him and he wasn’t going to take it.

“You’ve forgotten what it was like to be a guerrilla,” Face said. “Forgotten how to improvise.”

“If an operation is properly planned there’s no need to improvise. And there’s no glory in going into battle ill-equipped, that’s stupid.”

“Sometimes you have no choice.”

“Will you two knock it off?” Hannibal snapped. “We’ve got work to do here.”

“Major, get a hold of your temper,” Madari said. He glanced at Hannibal, a small frown playing over his features, then looked at Face. “Lieutenant, if you have any concerns speak to me about them.”

This brought the table to absolute silence. Jahni stepped back from Face, who stared at Madari, then looked at Hannibal. Hannibal gave a small nod and Face took a step back from Jahni. He nodded.

“No offence, kid,” Face said. “Always been able to speak freely at these bull sessions. Maybe you do things differently.”

They didn’t actually, Madari had always encouraged letting anyone say what needed to be said at planning sessions and Jahni had done the same once he took command of the unit. But he wasn’t used to being challenged so directly, certainly not in front of his men. And he wasn’t used to being called “kid” any more. But he reined in his temper as Madari ordered, and simmered for the rest of the planning session.


They might not have all the equipment they’d have when they went in for real, but Madari didn’t think it mattered. The manoeuvres went well overnight, everyone learning the plan, going over and over their jobs. And most importantly they had the guns. All were loaded with blanks, but most of the men hadn’t been in combat since the coup, and they needed to get over the shock of the noise of battle before they did this for real. Remember how to function with the noise and smoke distracting them.

As dawn broke they trooped back to their camp, hungry and tired. They’d sleep for a few hours during the day, then have a debriefing and refine the plans before another night of manoeuvres. Breakfast first though.

Face and BA were talking to the men in the squads they would lead, but Jahni wasn’t with his group, Madari saw. He couldn’t see him anywhere in fact. He went to Hannibal and Murdock.

“Have you seen Kahil?”

“Think he’s outside,” Murdock said. “Seemed preoccupied.”

“You need to get him under control,” Hannibal said. “That argument with Face at the briefing, not a good sign.”

“I will talk to him,” Madari said, resenting the accusation that Jahni was out of control, and Hannibal telling him to deal with it. Perhaps Jahni had a point about there being one too many colonels on this operation.

He found Jahni outside, pacing, some distance from the barracks hut. He only stopped when Madari laid a hand on his arm.

“Come inside and eat, then get some rest. I need you in good shape for tonight’s manoeuvres.”

“Soon. I need to walk for a while.” He pulled free of Madari’s arm and began his pacing again. Madari sighed and fell into step with him.

“What’s wrong?”

“We made a mistake. Recruiting the team, I mean. We should have managed without them.”

“They did well on the manoeuvres, BA and Face—” He stopped when Jahni snorted at Face’s name. “What? Are you still sulking about what he said last night? You know Americans are more used to giving direct criticism than us.”

“That’s not what that was about and you know it.”

“I do?”

“He still has a problem with us. He doesn’t want a couple of fags giving him orders.”

“I’ve never heard Face use that word. I think you’re being harsh on him. If he felt that way about us he wouldn’t be coming on the mission.”

“He would if the rest of the team was.”

Madari walked at his side in silence for a while. Jahni might have a point. If the rest of the team had agreed to join the operation Face might come along out of loyalty to them, not because he wanted to be there himself. Did it matter? He was coming and Madari knew him enough to know he’d give the mission 100% .

“Kahil, I know you’re tense, but you have to try to calm down.” He sighed. “I wish we could be properly alone together.” He could hold Jahni, soothe him with a back rub perhaps. But that could lead to Jahni expecting more than Madari could give right now, his mind full of guilt over his choices. He had to earn back his honour. After he’d done his duty he’d once again have the right to touch his lover.

Jahni looked sideways at him. “Just be careful with everything you say or do around me. Don’t let the men guess.”

The men. Ah, another reason Jahni was so wound up, fearing the men would find out about them. Madari had been so busy thinking about the mission he’d barely given a second thought to that. Of course he’d keep it completely secret. Did Jahni think him a fool?

“I’ll be careful. Have you actually thought much about what Face said last night? Because he had a good point.”

“He had a… oh, fuck this, I’m going to get some sleep.” Jahni stalked off, back to the barracks, leaving Madari gaping at his back.


Madari woke with a gasp, sitting up on the bed. His heart pounded as he looked around a dark room he didn’t recognise, only lights coming from outside the window illuminating it. His memory returned a moment later. The hotel in Egypt. The one Zahir had arranged. He was still dressed and recalled he’d lain down on the bed after an early dinner, thinking he’d have a short nap. His watch told him five hours had passed and it was nearly two in the morning.

Rising, stretching, he walked to the window, which was streaked with rain. The hotel was a hollow square around a central courtyard and with the room behind him in darkness Madari could easily make out the other windows and balconies, some dark like his, some lit. And on one of the balconies, a figure he knew.


He leaned on the rail of a balcony across from Madari’s room, his head down, outside the shelter of the small canopy over his balcony.

An urge to be at his side overwhelmed Madari in an instant. He wanted to surge through the door in front of him and fly across the courtyard, like Superman. That was fantasy, but he could not resist the pull to go to Jahni. A call to reception got him Jahni’s room number and he grabbed his room key and almost ran, making the two turns and climbing one flight of stairs to bring him to the door. His knock sounded loud in the quiet corridor, making him grimace and hope he wasn’t disturbing half the floor.

In a few minutes Jahni opened the door. He had a white towel around his shoulders, his wet hair dripping onto it. He’d have checked the peephole before opening the door, so showed no surprise, but did frown.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Madari said, as Jahni stood aside to let him in the room. The door to the balcony stood open, rain blowing inside. “Why were you standing out in the rain?”

Jahni did look surprised then. “That’s why you came over here?”

“I was worried. Are you alright?”

“Just cooling off. It’s so hot. I’m not used to it anymore.”

Madari didn’t believe it. He had a perfectly good shower he could have used to cool off under. The rooms were air-conditioned. A man with those amenities to hand stood in the rain for reasons besides cooling off.

“Kahil, please, talk to me. Are you worried about the mission?”

Jahni turned to him, tossing aside the towel he’d been rubbing his hair with. “You think that’s what I worry about? You think of everything I have to worry about that’s why I was standing in the rain?”

“Then what else?”

“Are you going to stay? In Qumar I mean, after the mission?”

“What? No, of course not!”

“Then why haven’t you touched me for two weeks? Are you trying to see if you can do without me again?”

“Is that what this is about? Don’t you think I have more important things on my mind?” Oh no, that didn’t come out right.

“More important. I see.”

“I meant more urgent, more pressing matters.”

“No. No, that’s not it.” Jahni shook his head, sending water drops flying. “You’re changing your mind, aren’t you? About us. About America. You’re choosing duty again. You’re going to stay.”

“Kahil, I swear to you I don’t intend to stay. I chose you. I’m not changing my mind.”

“But you didn’t choose!” Jahni backed away several steps when Madari approached him. “You were unconscious. I chose! I decided for both of us. And I gave up everything I had left for you.”

“What does that mean? You…we…had nothing left.”

Jahni turned away. He went to the window and closed it, cutting off the breeze from outside. He didn’t pull the curtain, stood with one hand on the rain-streaked glass and spoke quietly.

“When we escaped from the airport I had two precious things with me. I had you and I had my honour. I got separated from the group, but had radio contact. I could have rejoined them, fought the final battle with them. But if I had, you’d have died in the back of that car.”

Madari had no memory of it. The medics had knocked him out with painkillers as the airport fell, and he’d known nothing more until he’d woken up after surgery at the hospital in Yemen. Jahni had always been reluctant to talk about what had happened between those times. Madari began to understand why.

“I didn’t rejoin them.” Jahni’s words were barely above a whisper. “I decided to save you, because you meant more to me than my honour.”

“You left your men?”

“I left them.”

Silence. Could he condemn Jahni for it? What honour did Madari have to boast of? Precious little, running into exile and leaving his murdered wife unavenged. This mission would give him some of it back. He hadn’t realised Jahni was looking for the same redemption.

“I understand,” Madari said. Jahni didn’t turn around, head still bowed. Madari went up to him and touched his shoulder, making him gasp, but not turn. “You should have told me a year ago.”

“It was desertion! You’d have despised me.”

“Never. We’ve both made choices we find hard to live with.” Jahni’s shirt was damp under Madari’s hand. He must have stood in the rain for a long time, trying to wash away his shame. “Tomorrow we both have a chance to reclaim our lost honour. After that, we make the next choice.”

Jahni turned at last, his face pale, as if revealing this secret had exhausted him. “If we live.”

“I…yes…of course.” Madari hadn’t let himself think about the idea they might die in the operation. One of them, or both of them. He’d been focused on the goal – rescue Alex. Regain his honour. Was his honour worth the risk of losing the love he’d waited so long to claim and to give?

“I don’t want to die without…without…” Jahni gave up on words and leaned in to kiss Madari. No pulling away this time. Madari met Jahni’s passion with his own. Had he earned the right to this yet? Perhaps. They’d come this far, only the mission itself to pull off. Was intention enough for redemption?

“Your clothes are wet,” Madari said. “You’ll get ill if you don’t get out of them.”

“I’ve felt that way for days,” Jahni said, smiling suddenly. He stepped back and drew the curtains across the window. “Stay with me tonight. I don’t care if anyone does find out. Let them follow us, or not. We’re still their leaders, even if we’re lovers too.”

It was a risk. Someone might easily see Madari leave here in the morning. But he couldn’t raise any objections as Jahni steered him towards the bed, kissing him again, walking him backwards. He grabbed for Jahni’s damp shirt, pulling it free of the waistband of Jahni’s pants and up over his head, as they fell onto the bed.

A loud bed, like the one in the hotel room in LA. It had been calling to him from the moment he entered the room. He’d ignored it, considering it a distraction, but he’d been wrong, so wrong. This was no distraction, he realised, as they moved up the bed to lie full length, working on each other’s clothes with eager hands, breathing fast, skin heating and flushing. This took away the distractions. Cleared his mind. Gave him the focus he needed.

As Jahni rolled onto him, his weight a familiar comfort, Madari knew what they did tonight would give him back the strength he needed to lead the mission. Tomorrow, they’d go back to where they met, and reclaim the honour they’d lost.

Chapter 4

Jahni kept an eye on Madari as they approached the drop zone. Madari had never liked parachuting much, especially not in the dark. BA had a similar nervous look, at least whenever he thought none of Madari and Jahni’s men were looking at him. He’d be leading one of the squads in the attack. He couldn’t afford to show any fear.

The BA Jahni had met at the camp would never have agreed to get on this plane and make the jump. But he’d changed – had hypnosis according to Murdock, to get him over his fear of flying. Madari had changed too, almost beyond recognition from the shattered wreck of a man Jahni had met in the camp. They’d been back there many times, even been held prisoner there for a second time. But would tonight be more difficult for him than those other times? Though if everything went to plan Madari would be in the camp for only moments.

“Five minutes!” Murdock called over the noise of the engines, coming out of the cockpit, where he’d been talking to the pilots.

“Make ready,” Madari ordered and everyone began last minute checks on their parachutes and the rest of their gear. They didn’t carry much. They should be out of the country again by dawn.

“You ready?” Jahni asked, moving close to Madari. Close enough to see the sweat shining on his skin, the tiny tremor of his hands as he checked everything. He had extra padding around his bad shoulder, but it would definitely hurt when he pulled the ripcord and the parachute deployed, jerking him to a near stop in the air.

“I’m ready.” Madari let out a shaky breath. “I hate parachuting.”

“I know. But it will be over quickly.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Don’t even say that.” Jahni shivered. “Got your radio beacon?”

Madari patted a pocket. “Got the backup?”

Jahni echoed the pocket patting. “All ready.” If Madari’s beacon to bring the men and their contact on the ground to him didn’t start up within five minutes, Jahni was to activate the backup and bring everyone to him instead.

“Drop zone!” Murdock called, as a light began to flash by the door of the plane. Time to go. Madari grabbed Jahni’s hand as everyone started to line up, squeezed it fast and let it go. No words needed. They’d said all they needed to say the night before, lying awake talking long after they made love.

Wind ripped through the plane as BA and Murdock heaved open the door. Madari hurried to the front of the queue of men, and began to count them out one by one. BA surprised Jahni by jumping first. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the agony of anticipation waiting in line for his turn would bring.

One by one they went. The men, the A-Team. One of the pilots came out of the cockpit and when only Madari and Jahni remained aboard, came to stand by the door, ready to secure it behind them.

Madari grabbed Jahni’s hand, but in a shake this time, a final gesture, too brief and too formal for Jahni. Madari turned towards the door, but Jahni grabbed him by a handful of his jacket, pulled him back around and kissed him hard. It lasted only seconds, nowhere near long enough.

“For luck,” Jahni said as Madari pulled away, staring at him.

“Yes. I… Good luck to us. See you on the ground.”

Then he was gone out of the door, leaving Jahni’s heart pounding at the sight of him vanishing into the darkness. The pilot’s eyebrows were almost in his hairline, but he said nothing as Jahni took his position by the door. The seconds he had to wait to give time for Madari and his chute to clear the plane felt like an hour, but at last the pilot gave him the nod to go. Jahni threw himself out into the night.

The jump stopped him thinking about anything else. His mind had no room for anything beyond the sensation of freefall, a kind of mindless terror coupled with exhilaration. Then the instant of feeling doomed, between pulling the ripcord and the sudden jerk as the canopy filled and slowed his fall. There was no delay, people insisted, the parachute deployed instantly on pulling the cord, but somehow Jahni’s mind found that split second of time and filled it with terror until he knew the chute would work and he wasn’t about to die. It felt like an hour.

The peace and relief that followed it overwhelmed him almost as much. He drifted slowly downwards, looking around to see if he could spot anyone else. The parachutes were black, so close to invisible, but Jahni thought he spotted the glint of moonlight off metal here and there.

The drop passed in a kind of peace he knew he’d soon be longing for again as he fell slowly towards the ground of his homeland. A place he never expected to return to and had no intention of staying in any longer than he had to. America had become his home. The land below him was hostile territory. It had been hostile for many years.

His altimeter sounded, close to his ear and he looked down to see the ground darkening as he approached. Close now. Get ready. He hit the dark zone, like dropping into a pool of ink, and seconds later his boots touched the ground. Scrambling in loose sand to keep his feet, he realised he was on a slope as he fell, rolling down the side of a dune, canopy dragging behind him. He slid to a halt at the bottom entangled in his lines, but at least with all his limbs, if not his dignity, intact.

Muttering curses for the inconsiderate desert, leaving sand dunes around for innocent parachutists to fall down the side of, he sat up and started disentangling himself. His knife made short work of the lines and he cut them away, then bundled up the parachute and buried it quickly in the sand.

By the time he’d done that, the signal from Madari’s radio beacon had started. Jahni double-checked all his equipment, making sure he hadn’t lost anything in his tumble down the dune, then set off to find Madari.


Madari looked up and smiled as Jahni walked into the pool of light created by several electric lanterns. He’d already called in, but it was good to see him safe and well. Most of the men had arrived. Some of the more experienced ones lay around if not actually sleeping, certainly relaxing. The A-Team did the same, except for Face, who sat checking his rifle and other fidgeting activity. Several men formed a perimeter guard, in case there was anyone else out here they needed to know about.

“Any sign of the contact yet?” Jahni asked, sitting down by Madari. He took a long drink from his canteen.

“He’s called in. They’ll be here any minute.”

He didn’t mention his odd suspicion that the voice on the radio had sounded familiar. It was probably a combination of bad reception and his imagination, stimulated by being back here, the feel and smell of the desert filling his mind.

“Your shoulder okay?”

Madari smiled. Always the mother hen. “It’s fine.” The chute deployment had hurt. He’d used some words he’d never use in the presence of ladies, but only a lingering ache remained.

They waited mostly in silence. No need to go over the plans again. Everyone knew them by heart. Jahni sipped water and watched Face with some suspicion. Madari hoped he wouldn’t let his belief Face didn’t approve of them, or of this mission, affect him tonight.

“Midnight,” Jahni said, a second before they heard the distant sound of engines.

“Vehicles approaching,” one of the perimeter guards reported over the radio. Tension rose. All the men who’d appeared to be asleep were instantly up and ready with their rifles. It probably was Zahir’s agent, but everyone was on the alert, in case of trouble.

“It’s the contact,” reported the same guard after a moment. “He gave the right password. Approaching your position in two minutes.”

Headlights backed up what he said, several sets, the vehicles Zahir had promised. A couple of Land Rovers and two trucks appeared, slow in the sand, but adapted for off-road work. They stopped, turned off their engines and a moment later a man stepped out of the lead vehicle and into the pool of light. He smiled.

“Welcome home, Colonel, Major.”

“Raslan?” Madari gasped.

“What the hell are you doing here, you snake?” Jahni demanded.

“That’s a nice way to talk to the man who got you two out of the country,” Raslan said, with a mock offended expression on his face. “I’m here because I’m your contact.”

“You’re one of Zahir’s agents?” Madari asked.

“I’m in charge of Zahir’s agents. I run the whole network.”

“Bullshit!” Jahni said. “Faris, we can’t trust him.”

“Is there a problem?” Hannibal asked, stepping closer.

How much of the conversation had he been able to follow? But one didn’t need to understand their words to perceive the hostility between Jahni and Raslan. Madari only partly understood why Jahni held so hard to his grudge. Raslan had helped them escape. Even if one favour didn’t redeem him for all the other times he’d plotted against them, Madari thought it should soften Jahni’s attitude towards him a little. Apparently not.

“There’s no problem,” Madari said to Hannibal. “Just some old personal issues.”

“So you know this guy?”

“Oh, we’re old friends and comrades,” Raslan said, in English to Hannibal, flashing the more charming of his smiles. “Sayeed Raslan. Pleased to meet you, Colonel Smith.”

He offered his hand and Hannibal shook it, but remained wary, not falling for Raslan’s charm. “You brought us everything we asked for, Mr Raslan?”

“Everything. The trucks here and one of the Land Rovers are at your disposal for the attack. Here.” He handed a folder to Madari. “Final confirmation of the disposition of the men at the base.”

“What about the rocket launchers?” Face asked, joining them.

“Five of them, in the trucks, as arranged. Along with the boxes of grenades you asked for. And the night vision equipment.”

“And Alex is definitely at the base?” Madari asked.

“I’ve had men watching it day and night. She hasn’t been taken out of there.”

“Are there any other prisoners?” Hannibal asked. That would be a complication they didn’t need. But Madari knew the A-Team wouldn’t go in, take Alex and leave others behind to suffer.

“No. She’s the only one.”

“Any word on her physical state?” Jahni asked. “Is she fit to be moved?”

“I don’t have her damn medical records,” Raslan snapped. “Does it matter? You’re taking her out of there, fit or not. She’s got a better chance of living longer with you than in there.”

True. Madari handed the folder to Jahni to pick out the information he needed and share it with the others.

“How are Mehdi and Javid?” he asked. He’d never lost his concern for those boys, and could only hope Raslan had not been too pernicious an influence on them.

“They’re at school in England,” Raslan said. “Janan is living there.” He showed a brief moment of pain on his face, which looked sincere, but Madari had learned long ago how good an actor Raslan was. He took the remark at face value.

“I’m sorry, that must be hard for you.”

“It’s safer,” Raslan said. “With this work I’m doing.”

Jahni expressed no sympathy, kept on glowering at Raslan. “How are you getting away with it? Why don’t they suspect you?”

“Nobody ever knew I was Zahir’s man,” Raslan said with a shrug. No, they hadn’t, because Madari had helped cover it up to protect Faraj’s children. To this day he wondered if he’d made the right choice.

“They know you were a royalist guerrilla though,” Jahni said.

“True, but that was a long time ago. The current authorities report that I’m ‘no longer politically active’.” He grinned. “The fact I’ve seen their secret report about me gives the lie to that statement.”

Madari thought of snakes lying concealed in long grass. Or scorpions lying in wait under the sand ready to strike. Face and BA and several of the Special Forces unit men had gone to inspect the vehicles and the equipment in them. Jahni should be doing the same, Madari thought, but he couldn’t seem to tear himself away from Raslan. Or he couldn’t stand to leave Madari with him.

“Okay,” Hannibal said. “I’m sure you fellas would like to chat all night about old times. But we’re wasting darkness here. Let’s get to work.”

“Of course, Colonel,” Raslan said. “If you, Colonel Madari and Captain Murdock would come with me, the rest I believe is up to Major Jahni.”

He gave Jahni a pleasant smile, instantly infuriating him further, before he led Hannibal and Murdock to the Land Rover he’d got out of. Madari hesitated, seeing the anxiety in Jahni’s face.

“Don’t worry, Kahil. I trust him tonight. He’d brought us everything we asked for.”

“You trust him?” Jahni’s tone was incredulous.

“Let’s say I trust his motivation. He has every reason to want the regime to fall.”

“And put Zahir in its place.”

“Perhaps. But that’s not something we can deal with tonight. Now go. Be careful.”

“I’ll see you at the rendezvous.” They embraced briefly, before Madari turned away and hurried to the Land Rover without looking back. He didn’t have the strength to look back and watch Jahni leaving for battle. He’d thought those days were long gone.


They couldn’t take the trucks too close to the base for fear of being heard. And they’d have to maintain radio silence, in case the radio room picked up their transmissions. So the last thing Jahni, Face and BA did before they split up to advance on foot was to synchronize watches. Jahni knew he should have some stirring words to say here before they advanced to attack, but he’d never got the hang of those. He tried his best.

“Thank you, all of you, for agreeing to fight with us again. Myself and the colonel will never forget it.” He spoke in English, for the sake of Face and BA. Most of the men had enough English to follow

He caught Face’s eye, and was glad to see a look of nervous anticipation had replaced the resentment he’d seen simmering there for the past several days. Face didn’t want to be here. But which of them did, really? Now they were here and they had to get on and get the job done.

“Lieutenant Peck and Sergeant Baracus have been an inspiration to me in my career, and my life.” Jahni saw surprise on their faces. “You couldn’t ask to be led by finer soldiers. Good luck to us all. Move out.”

With a nod to Jahni, an acknowledgement of his tribute, Face and BA led their squads away and vanished into the darkness.

“Let’s go,” Jahni said to his team, switching back to Arabic. He turned off the lantern and pulled his night vision goggles down over his face. He checked his compass and got his bearings. Without another word he set off, the men falling into single file behind him.


Jahni’s team took up position on the east side of the camp. Their objective was the blockhouse, which lay in the north east corner of the compound. Jahni trusted nobody but himself with the most crucial job of securing Alex.

“Two minutes,” he said, checking his watch. “Make ready.”

The men handling the rocket launchers secured them on tripods and began to sight the guard towers on the north east and south east corners of the compound. Taking the guard towers out was key. Everyone who’d ever tried to take or hold this camp learned that. Before they could go in they had to eliminate the enemy’s biggest advantage.

He watched the seconds tick down, remembered Hannibal lining up the big gun which had once stood in the yard, to eliminate a tower. The gun was long gone, the tower long ago rebuilt. And tonight it would be destroyed again.


The rockets streaked away, as close to simultaneous as he could make out and slammed into the towers, smashing them to splinters. On the west side of the camp Face’s squad did the same thing at the same time. All four towers disintegrated, sending debris raining down over the camp and outside the wire. A few small pieces made it as far as Jahni’s men, forcing them to duck.

Another explosion came seconds after the destruction of the towers. BA’s squad, smashing a rocket into the gates. Jahni checked his watch again, hearing the men stirring around him, hearing the alarm screaming and men yelling from the base.

“Wait for it,” Jahni said. More explosions came. Grenades, at the gates. BA’s squad. Automatic fire. The attack had begun, but not for them yet. “Wait for it,” he said again. He checked the camp with his binoculars. Soldiers were scrambling from the barracks hut, dragging on clothes. Running to the armoury, where other men were passing out rifles fast.

The urge to charge and fight fight fight was almost uncontrollable, but Jahni forced it down. Go too soon and they’d fail. Face’s squad were waiting too. Face had to make the judgement of when to go, as Jahni did. With his many more years experience was his head cooler than Jahni’s? Was his mouth not so dry?

“They’re taking the bait,” Sijad said. “They’re all heading for the gate.”

They were. Jahni grinned wolfishly. All the men were heading for the attack on the gate. The diversion. And as they all crowded into the bottleneck that led to the gates, Face’s squad struck. A couple of grenades and they were through the west wire, and behind the soldiers running to the gates, trapping them between the guardhouse and the wire.

“Now!” Jahni snapped. His squad rose as one man and charged. They tossed grenades out ahead of them, ripping a hole in the wire, so it slowed them only briefly as they reached it, ripping the hole larger, scrambling through.

Debris from the destroyed guard tower littered the ground, forcing them to dodge and jump around it as they ran for the guard house. The man guarding the door had stayed at his post and he died at it a second later as he raised his rifle in the face of the charging squad.

Six men stayed outside as Jahni barged in the door, four others followed him in. Another man inside, guarding the corridor. He was a quicker thinker than his friend outside and flung down his rifle and raised his hands at the sight of five heavily armed commandos bursting in.

“Which cell is she in?” Jahni demanded, pointing his rifle at the guard.

“Number three, number three!” The guard pointed at a door.

“Get his keys and shove him in a cell,” Jahni ordered. Sijad ran past him and ran back a second later with the guard’s bunch of keys. Jahni snatched them from him. A last minute terror came over him, fearing it would be too late, she’d be dead, or crippled, or insane. His hands shook. But he controlled the terror and rammed the key home, pulled open the heavy metal door. The cell inside was dark. The camp still had power, but there must be no bulb in the light fitting. He grabbed his flashlight and shone it around the room.

There, in the corner, Alex.

He barely recognised her. She wore rough grey clothes, and was thin and wasted, her face dark and swollen with bruises. Her hair had been shaved off, only a few days of stubbly regrowth showing. He approached her with some caution, shining his flashlight so she could see his face. Even in her weakened state she had moves she could injure him with if she didn’t know he was a rescuer. She might be in the corner hiding as a child did. Or she might have taken up the only defensible position in the bare cell, ready to attack anyone who came near.

“Alex, it’s Kahil. Do you know me?”

She raised a hand against the light which must be dazzling her. How long had she been kept in the dark?

“Kahil?” her voice was a croak.

“Yes, it’s me. I’ve come to take you out of here.”

He felt one of the men at his shoulder, glanced around to see Zahal, a big man, the one allocated to carry her if she couldn’t walk. She squinted at them, no recognition on her face. Or no belief. Perhaps she thought it was only a dream. Or a trick.

“Alex,” he said again. “It’s really Kahil.” He was close enough to reach out his hand to her. She might have attacked then, if she didn’t believe it was him, but she looked up into his eyes and he saw the recognition there at last, the belief.

“Kahil.” She lifted her hand and took his. He pulled her to her feet, and she fell into his arms. He had to get her outside. She had no shoes, he saw, and leaned heavily on him.

“Zahal,” he said and handed her to the private, who lifted her easily into his arms. Jahni pulled out his radio and in a second Madari’s voice came through.


“Hostage secured. Come in for immediate pickup.”

“Coming in. Two minutes.”

The helicopter would already be in the air, circling, waiting for Jahni’s signal.

“Outside!” Jahni ordered. They exited the blockhouse, to find the yard relatively peaceful, the fighting concentrated at the gate and the guardhouse, the soldiers bottled up between Face and BA’s squads. Now and again a man would get away from that fight and rush into the yard, only to meet Jahni’s squad, machine gun fire either downing him, or sending him rushing away to the south end of the camp to take cover.

“Here it comes!” a man called, pointing into the sky as a dark shape appeared over their heads. A moment later a beam of light stabbed down and the helicopter began to descend, right into the yard. It didn’t touch down, just hovered with the skids barely a foot off the ground. The door opened and Hannibal appeared, one foot on a skid, his rifle ready.

“Come on!” he yelled. Jahni ran with Zahal, two others following, giving covering fire. The backwash of the blades at full power whipped at Jahni’s hair and clothes, but he pushed through it and in a second was helping Zahal hand Alex into the back seat of the helicopter, Madari pulling her inside.

“Go!” Madari ordered Murdock when she was secure. His eyes met Jahni’s, no words exchanged, only a nod. See him at the rendezvous. Jahni slammed the door closed, Hannibal pulling his door closed, though hung out of the open window with his rifle. As the chopper rose he called down to Jahni.

“Nice work, now get out of there.”

Jahni ran back to his squad, speaking on his radio as he went. “Extraction complete. Withdraw. Repeat. Extraction complete. Withd—fuck!”

Pain tore through his leg. It gave out under him and he crashed down into blackness.

Chapter 5

Madari shook out the blanket they’d brought along and wrapped Alex in it. With her legs tucked up under her she was entirely cocooned in it. But he feared her shaved head would be cold, and pulled off his kuffiyah to wrap it around her head, securing it carefully.

“Thank you.” He didn’t hear it as such. She had no microphone, but he read her lips and nodded to her. She’d come into his arms as he pulled her aboard and showed no sign of wanting to move away, rather she held on with as fierce a grip as she must be able to manage. It was hardly proper, but he understood her need to hang on to him and he put his arms around her, let her lean against him.

She trembled in his arms, but seemed lucid and not hysterical, nor in pain, though it was too dark in the chopper to get much idea of her injuries. Her shaved head had startled him at first. He’d wondered for a second if she’d done it herself, before the mission, but remembered the pictures of her at the scene of the assassination. Her hair had been short, shorter than he’d seen her wear it before, but not like this.

They’d done it. He understood why. The same reason Sevchenko had been quick to strip Madari’s uniform from him—to tear down his sense of self and identity. They’d taken her hair for the same reason. He shivered to imagine what else they’d done to her and held her more closely, shame making him wish he could have suffered all of it for her.

“How is she?” Hannibal asked, turning around in his seat. The helicopter had levelled out, started a steady flight westwards towards the coast.

“She doesn’t appear badly hurt,” Madari said. “But I’ll feel happier once a doctor has examined her.”

“Flight time is nearly an hour. I guess we keep her warm, give her water and get her to the rendezvous as fast as possible.”

“Any word from back at the camp?”

“They’re starting the withdrawal. I’ll let you know if we hear anything more.” He turned back in his seat, strapping in as Murdock flew on into the night.

Madari held Alex as she drifted into exhausted sleep. He wished he could do the same. Wished he could sleep and wake only when his beloved Kahil woke him, greeting him with a smile, as he’d done on so many mornings for the last year.

Tomorrow he’d do that again.


“Major Jahni’s down!”

Dammit all to hell, Face thought, as he ran towards the centre of the yard where a couple of Jahni’s squad knelt by a third man on the ground. God almighty, don’t let him be dead. Don’t make me have to break that news to Faris.

“Leg wound,” a man said as Face skidded to a halt and dropped down beside them. The other man was applying a dressing. Alive! Thank god. The two men looked at Face and he knew what they wanted from him. Orders. Their major down, they looked to Face for command.

Well, hell, that was just terrific. He didn’t even want to come on this trip.

“Take him back the way you came in,” Face ordered. He spoke on his radio, calling the guy who’d brought them the trucks. Jahni’s withdrawal order should have signalled him and his agents to bring the trucks closer to the camp, to pick up the withdrawing squad. But not close enough.

“Mr Raslan,” Face said, “Bring a truck to the north east corner of the camp. No more than one hundred yards out.”

“The plan was five hundred yards,” Raslan protested. “Who is this?”

“Peck. I’m in charge now and the plan changed. Bring me that truck.” He changed channels on the radio as the two men lifted the unconscious Jahni from the ground, more men coming to help them. As he followed them to the hole in the fence, more of Jahni’s squad surrounding him, he spoke into his radio.

“BA, report.” He’d left BA in charge of the other two squads, to lead their withdrawal from the fight. BA’s voice came through, panting, sounding like he was running. Gunfire sounded, Face hearing it for real and over the radio at the same instant.

“We’re out. Heading for the truck position. They ain’t pursuing.”

Face had expected that. The guards would be loathe to leave the relative safety of the camp when the enemy melted away.

“See you in ten.” He clipped the radio back to his belt as he reached the wire, a small bottleneck forming while they manoeuvred Jahni out ahead of him. Shouts came from behind him, soldiers from the gates with no more enemies to fight there had seen this last party of intruders.

“Go!” Face snapped. “Move it!”

The men piled out, ran away from the wire into the darkness, away from the lights of the camp. Face worried they’d end up scattered, but lights ahead gave them all something to run toward. The headlights of the truck Face had ordered. Mr Raslan had come through. Face grinned. He liked the guy already.


Jahni woke with a cry of pain. Woke to a world of darkness, confusion and the ground beneath him jumping and jerking, which didn’t do anything for the pain in his leg, or head.

“Take it easy.” English, with an American accent and a heavy hand pressing his shoulder down told him this was BA. “He’s awake.”

“I noticed.”

Face’s voice, coming from somewhere nearby. Jahni managed to raise his head to see Face bending over him, working on his leg. Oh, yes, he’d been shot in the leg. Damn. Looking around he saw his men ranged on benches against the sides of the truck. Truck. That’s why the floor was bouncing around. They looked down at him anxiously, though some broke out in smiles, glad to see him awake.

“Keep still, dammit,” Face said. Looking down at him, Jahni saw he was bandaging the leg. Another man held up a flashlight for him to work by and it showed Face’s clothes, hands and even face and hair streaked with blood.

“It’s through and through,” Face said, “in the fleshy part, quite shallow, you’ll be fine.”

“Then why was I unconscious so long?” Jahni asked. Long enough for them to get to the trucks and start for the rendezvous. With a relatively minor wound like that he shouldn’t have been unconscious at all.

“Looks like you banged your head when you fell,” BA answered. Jahni touched the place his head hurt most, on his left temple, to find a dressing taped there. What the hell could he have banged his head on? He’d been in the middle of the wide open space of the yard. What did he do, bash it with his rifle as he fell? Between that and the fall down the sand dune he was a clown tonight! It was a bitter thought to consider how badly he’d lost his edge. The price he’d paid for a year of peace and near bliss.

“Keep still, damn you,” Face snapped, as Jahni stirred, trying again to sit up.

“Oh, sorry you have to dirty your hands with my blood,” Jahni said, his voice strained with pain and anger. Face scowled, and moved so he could bend close to Jahni to speak to him without the others being able to hear over the noise of the truck.

“Know what? You’re right, I never wanted to come, but here I am. And before you make any more sarcastic remarks about blood, maybe remember you once gave me blood to save my life. If you think I’m a man who’d forget that, you don’t know me at all. Now stop being a dick and lie still.”

For an instant, being called a dick made Jahni want to explode with rage. But the rest of Face’s words sank in and he bit his lip. He couldn’t apologise, he still felt his anger justified by Face’s earlier attitude. But the reminder that Face was indeed here, risking his life on Madari’s mission, at least in part out of gratitude for that long ago blood donation, calmed him. He lay back, his head resting on what felt like a bundled up jacket. He lay still while Face moved away and finished bandaging his leg.


Moonlight glinted off the tips of waves and the huge shape of Zahir’s yacht glowed in the water.

“There’s the landing pad,” Hannibal said, as several flares lit up to guide Murdock in to land right on the shore.

“Okay, we’re going in,” Murdock said. “Everyone ready?”

Hannibal settled his rifle in his arms to indicate his readiness. Just in case. Madari woke Alex and strapped her in for the landing.

“Don’t get out until I confirm it’s safe,” he ordered her. He pulled his handgun–actually one of Hannibal’s borrowed for the mission, his old favourite, a Browning Hi-Power–and waited, heart pounding as the helicopter descended. In the light of the flares below several men waited for them. They should be Zahir’s men, and his yacht was a reassuring sight, but they had to be on guard until they were sure.

“Keep the rotors going until I order otherwise,” Hannibal said only seconds before the skids touched the ground. Madari looked out and saw a man approaching, no weapon in his hands, fighting the downdraft. He was the same man who’d met Madari and Jahni at the hotel when they went to see Zahir. He’d also met them in Egypt and taken them to the hotel, then later to the plane they’d flown to Qumar on.

“It’s Zahir’s man,” Madari said, and Hannibal nodded.

“Everyone stay here until I signal.” He opened his door and stepped out, the rifle in his arms. Zahir’s man stopped and they had a short, shouted conversation, inaudible from inside the chopper. Hannibal looked back and gave a thumbs up.

Madari sighed with relief. All well. He undid his seatbelt as the roar of the engines and rotor blades began to fade. “Wait there,” he told Alex, before they left the chopper and ran around the front of it to the other side, to join Hannibal helping Alex out. She clutched the blanket around her as the two men supported her arms. Damn, she had no shoes.

“Hey,” Madari called to a couple of the men standing around looking tough. “Help us. She needs to be carried.”

“I can walk,” Alex said, waving the men away when they came near. Madari saw fear in her eyes.

“My dear, your feet are bare. Hannibal, support her, please.”

He let go of her and started to unlace his boots. They’d be too big, but he wouldn’t see her shred her feet on the ground.

“Please, no, Colonel,” she said, “it’s only a few steps.” It was, at least to a broken down jetty, where a small boat with an outboard motor waited. But the long abandoned jetty would be full of splinters and rough edges.

“Chair carry,” Hannibal said, slinging his rifle onto his back. “Murdock, come on and help me. Faris, your shoulder’s too weak for it. Step back.” Murdock had finished closing down the chopper’s engine and came to help Hannibal. Between them they lifted the protesting Alex and carried her along the jetty.

Madari followed them, his hand on her back, support and reassurance. For himself as much as her. Reassured he’d completed his mission. She was safe. Now he had to wait for news of the rest of his men. News of Jahni. He hurried ahead when they neared the boat, stepped into it cautiously, accepting the help of a man waiting there, and turned to help lift Alex into the bobbing craft.

The journey to the yacht took only moments and the boat stopped by a ladder leading up to the deck. A couple of men waited at the top and beckoned them to board. Hannibal went up first, wanting to check it out as usual. A moment later he leaned back over and signalled for them to join him.

“We’ll need a harness,” Madari called up.

“Oh for God’s sake.” Alex forestalled all of them, by tossing aside the blanket, standing up and starting to climb the ladder before Madari could do another thing about it. Murdock, at Madari’s side, grinned at him.

“Think she’s had enough of being fussed over, Colonel.”

“Dammit, she’s weak. If she falls…”

But she made it to the top, though slowed as she approached it, tiring quickly.

“Murdock, you next,” Madari ordered. Murdock didn’t argue, just climbed. When he vanished onto the deck Madari followed. He was the shakiest on the ladder of all of them, he realised. His damaged right shoulder had never recovered a full range of movement, and the parts he’d lost seemed to be exactly what he needed for climbing a rope ladder. But he made it, albeit slowly.

“Did you stop for coffee on the way?” Hannibal asked, grinning, giving him a hand onto the deck as he arrived.

“Where’s Alex?” Madari asked, looking around and seeing only Hannibal, Zahir and several men. “And Murdock?”

“Miss Black is with our doctor,” Zahir said. “Colonel Smith sent Mr Murdock to accompany her.” He gave Hannibal a quick frown, since accompany here meant guard, Madari knew, and Zahir resented the implication.

“Have you heard from the rest of the squad?” Madari asked.

“Yes, I was just telling Colonel Smith. They completed the withdrawal and are on the way here.”

“Casualties?” Madari had to force the word out.

“They report…” Zahir hesitated. “Ah, a few injuries. None serious. No deaths.”

Thank God. Safe. The time couldn’t pass quickly enough before he could see Jahni, his friends and his men, to know for sure they were safe.

“Come inside,” Zahir said. “There’s hot food and coffee waiting for you. And if you want to sleep—”

“No. No sleep.” A glance at Hannibal told the same story, Neither would sleep until their men returned.

One of Zahir’s men led Madari and Hannibal to a sitting room, where a servant helped them to food from a hot buffet and poured them coffee. Reclining on a luxurious couch, his rifle resting incongruously against it, Hannibal sighed.

“Much too old for this. And we had the easy part,” he added with a smile.

Maybe, but waiting while others fought on his orders had never been easy for Madari. He paced the room while Hannibal relaxed with his coffee. After a while, Murdock joined them, with Alex leaning on him for support. She had changed clothes into a plain, dark blue shalwar kameez and had soft slippers on her feet. She still wore Madari’s kuffiyah. The effect was disconcertingly masculine, and he hated to see her so stripped of her femininity. Even when she pulled the headscarf down to lie around her shoulders, the stubble that remained of her hair didn’t soften the effect.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he asked her.

“I’m hungry,” she said. “And I’d rather be with you guys anyway.”

Perhaps she felt safer with them than with strangers, even a doctor. Murdock helped her to a couch and Madari at once began to wait on her with a plate from the buffet, carefully making sure he didn’t select anything she might have trouble with. He recalled how difficult he’d found eating for so many months after his torture. Even all these years later he was nervous of choking every time he ate. He’d regained pleasure in the taste of food, but, at least in Jahni’s opinion, ate too little.

She looked initially impatient with his solicitude, but then accepted it with good grace and even smiled her thanks at him. Madari sent the servant to bring some warmed milk, deciding coffee would be too stimulating when she needed her rest.

“So what now for you, Alex?” Hannibal said. “What are your plans?”

“Perhaps I can help with that,” Zahir said, stepping through the door. Had he been eavesdropping, waiting for his moment, or overhead the conversation as he came in? The thin wooden walls of the yacht’s rooms didn’t allow for much privacy.

“Miss Black needs recovery time, medical help. And protection, as she’s also an international fugitive.”

Alex nodded. “I know I can’t go home, not yet.”

“Did you make any plans for after your mission?” Madari asked.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I planned on being shot dead at the scene. When I wasn’t, well I guess I needed to start thinking of a plan B.”

“Good thing you’ve got an expert at plan B right here,” Murdock said, grinning at Hannibal.

“If I might make a suggestion,” Zahir said. “I have a safe place you can go to recuperate. You’ll have medical treatment and the time and peace you need.”

“And after that?” she asked.

“Miss Black, I’ve never met a woman like you, a woman of such courage, daring and nerve. A woman who could plan and execute such a mission. I need people, men and women with those qualities to work inside Qumar for me.”

“What?” Madari jumped to his feet. “No! It’s too dangerous.”

“Clearly danger doesn’t worry Miss Black.”

“It should!” He turned to Alex, and to his horror saw a thoughtful look on her face. She was considering it. “Alex, no, please, you can’t even think of accepting this offer.”

“Where else am I going to go?”

“I will protect you.”

She shook her head, a sad expression in her eyes. “I know you mean that, Faris, but you can’t actually do it. You don’t have the power you had before.”

“I will find a way.”

“And I don’t want to be protected. I want to fight. Saifullah’s gone, but his cronies aren’t. If there’s more I can do—”

“Don’t you see what he’ll turn you into?”

“What? A murderer? An assassin? I turned myself into those things. It was my choice and I have no regrets.”

Madari sank back onto a couch, her words horrifying him. How could a woman speak that way? Of wanting to kill and go on killing?

“You go to work for him and you’ll end up dead,” Hannibal said—ever practical. And right. She’d end up dead, as Faraj had when he followed Zahir.

“I never expected to be alive. I am dead. This is all bonus time. Tell me more, Your Excellency.”

“Later” Zahir said. “You’re exhausted and I insist you take the doctor’s orders and rest.”

She nodded. “Okay. I am tired.” She rose, Madari at once standing up and coming to help her. She didn’t wave him off, let him take her arm and lead her from the room.

“Alex, please, promise me you won’t decide this for certain now. Sleep on it.”

“I will. But I’m not going to change my mind. What Zahir’s offering, it’s the chance I’ve always wanted. I am a soldier, Colonel, and I’ll prove that.”

“You don’t have to prove anything, not to me, not to anyone.”

They stopped at a door to a cabin close to the infirmary. “Faris, thank you for rescuing me. But I never asked you to and I’m not under your orders. I don’t have to do what you want me to. I’m sorry if that sounds ungrateful. I am grateful, but I have my own plans.” She opened the door into the cabin. “Will you wake me when the others arrive? I’d like to thank them.”

“Of course,” he said, but it was a lie. She could wait until she’d rested to see Jahni and the others. Her door closed and he waited there for a moment. Let her change her mind. He couldn’t stand the thought of her going back into Qumar, working with Raslan! Getting herself killed for a country that was not her homeland, even if she’d started to think of it that way. But, she had not only tonight, but the whole of her recovery time to think about it. When it came to the final decision she might see sense. Madari’s offer to protect her stood, though her words about him not having the power to do so stung him with their truth.

Weary in body and mind, he trudged back to the sitting room. Zahir had gone, Hannibal and Murdock remained.

“I’m sorry,” Madari said to them. “I’m sorry this may have been a fool’s errand. You’re right Hannibal. Zahir will get her killed. This whole thing will have been for nothing.”

“That’s not true,” Hannibal said. “We’ve given her a second chance. That’s all you owed her. What she does with it is up to her.”

He had a point that Madari had discharged the obligations of honour to her. She’d done what he should have done himself and he’d saved her from the worst of the consequences of it. His debt was paid. But what about the obligations of friendship? Loyalty? Tomorrow, he’d talk to her again. He reclined on one of the long couches and despite his tension and worry about Alex and about his men yet to return he fell into a doze.

Chapter 6

He awoke only an hour later to find a blanket over him and Hannibal and Murdock gone. But Zahir was there, reading some papers. He looked over when Madari sat up.

“Are the others here yet?”

“Not yet. You’ve only been asleep for an hour.”

“I wasn’t asleep.”

Zahir smiled but didn’t contradict him. “Is there anything you want? Coffee?” The buffet and coffee service had been cleared away while Madari wasn’t sleeping.

“Nothing.” He wanted nothing more from this man who’d take Alex at her most vulnerable and make her into his assassin. He pushed the blanket off and stood to stretch out his stiff back and neck. Perhaps he’d go on deck? Get away from Zahir, breath fresh air away from the smell of rampant opportunism.

“I’m glad we have a moment alone,” Zahir said, “before the rest of the squad arrive. The yacht will be somewhat crowded then.”

Definitely go on deck. Or find Hannibal and Murdock, seek their company instead of Zahir’s. What could he want to talk about? How could he think Madari would be interested in anything he had to say?

“I want to make you the same offer as I made Miss Black. Go back into Qumar. Become my agent. Fight as you did so brilliantly before.”

Madari stared. “Are you insane?”

“The fact you pulled off this mission proves you have the old skills you learned as a guerrilla.”

Many people had contributed to the success of the mission, including Zahir, but he mentioned only Madari, who at once began to feel the twitch of Zahir’s strings on his limbs. He would not let Zahir manipulate him.

“The government is tottering, Faris. The resistance can topple it, but they need better organisation. Mr Raslan is a useful man, but he doesn’t have the tactical know how you have. I want to leave him in charge of the intelligence gathering and put you in charge of the military side. Sabotage, lightning raids, everything you were so good at before.”

The flattery was close to irresistible, because deep inside he know part of him wanted this. To fight for his homeland, to see the monarchy restored. But would he fight to see Zahir on the throne? Zahir wouldn’t be putting in so much money and effort to put his brother back in charge.

“Colonel, you always knew your duty. Your country needs you. I know with your…domestic situation you may feel you wouldn’t be welcome at home. But is that more important than doing your duty?”

“I can’t fight any more,” Madari said, sitting on the couch again, but leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped together. “I can’t use a rifle. My shoulder was badly damaged.”

“You’re a commander. You fight with what’s here—” he touched his head “—not with what’s in your hands. You make the plans, others carry them out.”


“Wait, this isn’t about me, is it? It’s about Kahil.”

Zahir’s face betrayed nothing, but he didn’t deny it.

“You know he’d never go back without me, but you know I’m easier to manipulate with appeals to my patriotism. You don’t want me, you only want me to lead him back there.”

“Major Jahni is a great soldier. You may feel your career is over, but is his? Imagine the heights he could reach if you both went back and we won.”

“Stop it!” He rose, scowling at Zahir. “I am not your puppet and neither is Kahil. I won’t let you use me to force his hand. I need some air.”

He’d turned for the door, when he heard Zahir speak quietly. “Does the current situation suit you perhaps?”

Madari turned back. “What does that mean?”

“I mean your legal situation in the United States. Your asylum. Today, you’d be arrested and killed if you went back. But if the monarchy was restored, your asylum claim would no longer be valid. You could return home safely. The question is, do you want to?”

It was an uncomfortable question. He couldn’t claim to be happy to see his country under a repressive regime, but at the same time, he’d never in his life been as happy as he’d been this last year, sharing his life with Kahil at last.

“It’s true that even if Saifullah had never existed I’d eventually have been forced to make a choice between my country and my…personal happiness,” Madari said. “But can’t you see that our relationship makes us useless to you? The rest of your forces wouldn’t follow us. The government would use propaganda about us to undermine the cause.”

“If you’re worried about that, I can protect you. Even afterwards. You could come home and have him too. Surely you realise that people well-connected enough can get away with much more than ordinary men?”

The merest hint of temptation to accept the offer shocked Madari. He couldn’t become such a hypocrite! How could he live in a country where he broke the law and was protected, while other men like him went to prison?

“Would you change the law? Stop prosecutions of homosexuals?”

Zahir looked uncomfortable. “You ask too much, Faris. Perhaps there could be some softening of sentencing policy.”

Madari snorted. “No.” living under Zahir’s protection meant living under his power. And it would last only until it suited him to use them—and their relationship—for another end. It would be used against them eventually. “No. Our time is past. I can’t ever come home. You have Alex, you have Raslan. But you can’t have me or Kahil. We choose freedom.”

“You think you can speak for him?”

“Isn’t that what you intended me to do?”

Zahir sighed. “I see. Well, I concede defeat. And as you say, I have Mr Raslan and Miss Black. The most devious man in the country and the bravest woman. They will make an interesting team.”

“The most devious man?” Madari said, suddenly smiling, the tension gone, a relief flooding him. A tension he’d felt for a year. He wanted to do more than smile, he wanted to laugh and turn a cartwheel.

Zahir returned the smile. “Yes, perhaps I should say the most devious man currently resident in the country.”


Madari, Hannibal and Murdock insisted on going back to shore to greet the rest of the squad when they returned at dawn. Madari wore a smile that made Hannibal and Murdock glance oddly at him, wondering what he was so happy about.

The smile vanished when he saw Jahni being helped down from the truck, a white bandage stark against his leg and a dressing on his forehead. Instantly he whirled on Zahir, who’d come ashore to greet the returning warriors—probably hoping the gesture would help him recruit some of them to his cause.

“Did you know he was among the injured?” Madari demanded.

“Yes,” Zahir admitted. “But it’s minor and I saw no reason for you to spend the night worrying needlessly.” More manipulation, the bastard. He treated Zahir to a blistering stare, then ran to meet Kahil, who was hobbling towards him, supported between Face and BA. He gave Madari a tired smile, which couldn’t disguise the exhaustion and pain in his eyes.

“Just a scratch,” he said before Madari could speak.

“Through and through,” Face said, “And a little knock on the head. Nothing that can’t be cured by a few days of being waited on hand and foot.”

“He’ll have them.”

“Oh, thanks, Face. I won’t be able to clean my teeth without him offering to move the brush for me.” Jahni turned to Madari, going more serious. “Alex?”

“She’s aboard the yacht, resting.” He’d tell Jahni later about Zahir’s offer to her and to them. “Which you will be doing in less than ten minutes. Let’s go!” he called out. “Wounded on the first trip, bring them forward.”

It took a few trips to get everyone aboard. A couple of hours after the squad arrived the yacht was on its way, heading for Marseilles. Madari had reluctantly left Jahni to the attention of the doctor and been busy seeing to the arrangements to make everyone else comfortable. The yacht wasn’t built for so many people, and they were crammed together tightly. But it would only be for a few days. Most of the men were enjoying the unimaginable luxuries of the yacht.

How long before Zahir started talking to them about coming home to fight? Madari would not interfere, unless any of them asked his advice directly. Other people must choose their own paths.

But one person had chosen to walk the same path as Madari, hand in hand. He went to the sickbay to find a couple of the injured still there, but not Jahni.

“He’s on deck, sir,” the doctor said.

“Doesn’t he need monitoring for his head injury?”

“His American friend is with him.”

He found Jahni in a shady spot, lying on a sun lounger. He wore baggy shorts and a T shirt, looking almost like a cruise passenger relaxing in the sun, but the dressing on his head and bandage on his leg were stark reminders of the dangers he’d passed through. Madari had expected Murdock to be the ‘American friend’, but Face sat in a deck chair beside Jahni. They smiled as Madari approached.

“Faris, you look like I feel,” Face said, “But think you can manage a shift watching over him while I catch some sleep?”

“I’d be happy to.” He needed sleep too, but it could wait. Face stood and before he left, held out his hand to Madari for a shake.

“Congratulations, Colonel. Mission accomplished.”

Madari shook his hand. “Thank you, Face. And thank you for your contribution. My men can’t speak highly enough of you.” He hadn’t wanted to be here, Madari knew that, and he’d made his feelings well known while they trained. But when it came to battle, he fought as hard as any of the others

“They’re good guys,” Face said. “See you later, Kahil.”

“See you later.”

Madari watched Face go, until he was out of sight, leaving them alone on this section of deck. Voices came from somewhere nearby, but there was nobody in sight. He knelt down by Jahni’s sun lounger and took him in his arms. The kiss took Jahni by surprise, but he quickly recovered and pulled Madari closer, deepening the kiss, as if they’d been apart for months not hours. When he broke the kiss Jahni kept hold of Madari’s face between both hands, rubbing his thumbs over the smooth skin.

“Not fair. You’ve had time to shave, I’m all bristly.”

“I don’t mind.” Some of his favourite kisses with Jahni had been bristly, early morning wake-up kisses. A few bristles couldn’t diminish the joy of waking every morning with this man by his side, ready to turn into his arms. He’d been a fool to let guilt deprive him of that joy for even one night when they could have been together.

“I’ve heard about Alex,” Jahni said. “She told me herself.”

“Did you try to dissuade her?”

“I told her Zahir is a snake and Raslan a jackal.”

“It didn’t work?”

“Women never listen to me.” He smiled, kept smiling as he pulled Madari close for a kiss again. Someone might turn a corner and see them at any moment, but Madari didn’t care. Any more than Jahni had cared about the pilot on the plane seeing that good luck kiss. Such freedom was as heady as brandy.

The sun might have travelled to noon, set and risen again, for all the notice Madari was able to take of the passing of time. When they parted Jahni lay back with a sigh, clearly exhausted. Madari sat in the deckchair, but reached out and Jahni took his hand.

“Zahir made me the same offer he made Alex,” Madari said.

Jahni had closed his eyes, but they snapped open again. “What?”

“He wants us to stay in Qumar and fight. He says with our help the resistance can topple the government and we’d be able to come home.”

Jahni’s eyes widened, terror filling them. “Faris…”

“He said we could continue being together. He’d see to it a blind eye was turned to our relationship.”

“He actually suggested that to you? Doesn’t he know you at all?”

Madari smiled. “No. But it appears you do. Of course I said no. Not only to that, the whole thing.”

The fear vanished from Jahni’s eyes and he relaxed against the lounger again. “You had me worried there.”

“We can’t back to Qumar. I love my country and I’ll do what I can to help. But I’ll never go back. Not to fight. Not to live.” He missed their home, their cat, the new lives they were building. He wanted to go home, and home was no longer Qumar. A new century loomed, only months away. A new life lay ahead of them. “I’m sorry it took so long for me to make this final decision. But I’ve made it.”

“Don’t apologise for being who you are.” Jahni sat up, carefully swinging his legs off the lounger to sit on the edge of it. He took Madari’s other hand. “If you had gone back, I’d have come with you. I’d have hated it. But I’d never let you go alone.”

“I know. Zahir counted on that. He wanted you and he tried to use me to bring you to him.”

“That bastard.”

“No, I’m grateful to him for finally clarifying things for me. He raised the point that if the Saifullah government falls, our asylum claim in America would no longer be valid. I think we’d have to change the grounds of our claim.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we’d have to say if we returned home we’d be persecuted on the grounds of our sexuality.”

Jahni’s eyes widened. “They’d let us stay because of that?”

“I don’t know. But I’m prepared to make the claim.” And that was the point after all. It would be on the record. Official. Something he could never again deny or hide from. He rested a hand on Jahni’s knee, feeling proprietary and protective—a switch around when Jahni had protected him for so long. He no longer needed protection. Or rather they protected each other. Equals. Partners.

“Faris…” Jahni stopped, looked at him for a long time. “Thank you for choosing me. I know how hard it must have been for you.”

Had it been hard? Being back there in his homeland had reminded him of the blood he’d shed, his own and others’, for it. Reminded him how much he loved it. But it wasn’t the country he’d grown up in. It never would be again. In some ways it was better. But not the same. Madari shook his head. He leaned in to kiss Jahni softly, briefly, before he answered. Had it been hard?

“On the contrary, my dear Kahil. It was the easiest choice I ever made.”

The End