Sam turned around, stacks of law books between him and the intern. "Yes?"
"Were you in the Marines?"
Sam tucked the dog tags back inside his shirt. "They're not mine."
"How did you get them?"
He pressed his lips together, a touch of melancholy in his eyes. Spring break would start soon, and the manicured lawns of Stanford, so unlike his home country, stretched in either direction outside the window. "It's a long story."
First Lieutenant Dean Smith had just run out of ammunition when a bullet ricochetted off the building and caught his leg. He squeezed the wound shut and spoke into the walkie talkie on his shoulder.
"Commander Barnes, how many we got on that ridge?"
"Thirty," she said, peering through her binoculars on the roof, "They've destroyed the east bridge and put some guys on both sides of the interstate, you'll have to find another exit. Where are the hostages?"
"I got them onto the convoy an hour ago, they should be at the embassy any second but...I can't walk."
"You're gonna have to."
Dean watched blood ooze between his fingers, and somewhere a muezzin sang the afternoon call for prayer. "I can't."
"Get up you fairy fuck!" she shouted, voice crackling over the radio, "I can see a courtyard to your left, get over the gate, break the window, and get inside until we can send someone down for your ass."
"Okay, lemme just bind this up---" he began, just as a bullet zinged past his ear and hit the walkie-talkie. He scrambled away, bleeding a trail as more bullets peppered the dusty street, and curled his hands around the bars of the steel gate as men's voices approached. His knife wouldn't do much good and his radio was a clump of smoking wires. The call for prayer ended, and shutting his eyes Dean made peace with the world.
Then a rifle cracked from the opposite direction, pow, pow, pow, and three bodies fell to the ground. Dean shielded his eyes against the sun, and a tall figure held his hand out to him.
"You all right?"
Dean took Sam's hand and let himself be pulled up. A local student assigned to Dean's unit to act as interpreter, Sam Al-Bayati had joined the American soldiers in a number of firefights and proved himself an able marksman, fixer, and, to Dean at least, a friend.
"I got shot..."
"Here," said Sam, whipping off his shirt to reveal miles of lean, brown muscle, "Press this against your leg."
Dean's mouth watered. He recalled a conversation he'd had the other night with Commander Barnes, bitching over all the red tape Sam had gone through to secure a visa out of Iraq. "It'll be years before Immigration Services gets their act together, you're better off smuggling him into Canada," said Pamela, sucking the foam from her beer, "Or marrying him."
"Give me your belt." said Sam. Removing his own belt as well, Sam improvised a harness and strapped Dean to his back, his bare chest gleaming in the desert sun. "Okay," he said, pumping the slide on his rifle to check for a chambered round, "We're going to have to go through."
"You can't run through an ambush."
"My car's just on the other side."
"And what if they shoot me in the ass?"
"I have other shirts."
"I hate this place."
"I imagine you have extremists in your home as well."
"Sure," Dean joked, casting about the ancient architecture lined with palm-trees and bricks burned white by the sun, the kind of city he thought only existed in the Old Testament, "It's just like Kansas, except I can't buy bacon."
Snipers rested in windows over Sam's head, but he picked them off one by one, his breathing steady, a smudge of dirt as he wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. Eventually they got to the car, only to find that his back tires had been slashed.
"My commander is sending someone for me, if we stay---"
"There is no time," said Sam, looking left and right, "The river is this way, we can steal a boat."
They hacked their way through the jungle, the gunfire dying away in the distance. But without a map, neither of them were very familiar with the off-road geography of the area, and they soon got turned around.
"Where the hell are we?" asked Dean, green light dappling his face through the trees.
"I'm not sure," said Sam, "I see a house up ahead." Flowery tendrils wound over an arched entrance, the door having rotted away centuries ago. Sam ducked his head and let his eyes adjust to the gloom. "It's a tunnel."
They spied the faint outline of a second door, and letting Dean down they slowly walked single file, though by the time they emerged on the other side Dean felt like hours had passed.
Dean swayed, white from bloodloss. "Is this place real?"
A waterfall split between two spiraling marble staircases, kicking up rainbows into a green pool where shadows played over fish as transparent as glass. Lions and sloe-eyed stone maidens lounged beside sloping fountains, lavender and roses coiling around their supple limbs like pre-Adamite temple guardians. A flock of doves burst from the trees to pass over their heads, and dew lifted from the grass and glittered in the sun as if lit from within.
Dean took a step forward, one hand outstretched to test this strange apparition, and then fell into Sam's arms.
"Let me get you some water."
"No," Dean rasped, clutching his shoulder to remain upright, "Stay with me."
"The command center should have a lock on your GPS coordinates."
"Our ride could be hours from here, and if I don't make it..." said Dean, "There's something I have to do."
"What is it?"
Something, perhaps his near death experience or the pain in his leg or the inherant holiness of this hidden place, sparked an old lonliness in Dean. "My unit's shipping out after this assignment," he said, "We've got the hostages. They're reassigning me elsewhere."
"That's a good thing."
"No. Because I know the second we pull out the crazies are gonna double down on sympathizers, anyone who helped the Americans," he said, his eyes swimming with gray tears, "Anyone like you."
"No one forced me to this way of life."
"You don't have to die doing it. I can get you into the states."
Sam looked away. "I'm not afraid to die."
"Well I am, and you're an idiot to think otherwise."
Sam's face was unreadable, though something burned far in the back of his eyes.
"When the chopper gets here you're gonna tell 'em what I'm about to tell you," said Dean, "And if that doesn't get your ass to safety...
"Tell them what?"
"That I declare my consent before all living creatures here. That I am of sound mind and do this of my own free will. That you're the best damn shot I ever met and you saved my ass a dozen different ways in the field. That if you die tomorrow and I live to be a hundred, not a day will pass when I won't think of you, and when it's my time to go I will forsake all others and seek you out like the hound of Heaven," he said, and for the first time since the war began, Dean smiled, "That you're mine."
Sam stood perfectly still, a lock of hair falling over one eye. Clouds parted and sent trunks of lights spilling over the garden where, in a few hours, Sam would have to dig a grave. Dean fell to one knee and clasped both of Sam's hands in his, the birds paying silent witness.
"Will you marry me?"