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I dig deep for strength and swing my fist, knock him back against the seat. Then I lean up and snatch Benny’s pistol from its holster on his hip before he can react. Tension fills the Humvee as I press the barrel to Derek’s forehead.
“Turn. Around. ” The words are low, grated, filled with whispering death. “I swear to f**king Christ I will kill you if you don’t. ”
Derek pales. “Fuck, man, okay. Okay. Turn around, Dusty. We’re going back. ”
No one says a word as Dusty slews the vehicle into a skidding, fishtailing U-turn. He drives recklessly fast now. The men grip weapons, slam fresh clips home.
“She’s important to you, huh, bud?” Derek says, after I lower the pistol.
“You have no idea. ” She’s alone. Her brother is dead by now. The other locals will be scared and angry. She’ll be an easy target.
“She was pretty fine, wasn’t she?” Derek is trying to cajole me into a better mood. “Did you tap that ass, Hunt?”
I snarl at him, a feral sound. “Shut your goddamn mouth about her, Derek. You have no f**king idea about her. None. So shut the f**k up. ”
Derek slumps back, confused; I’ve never acted like this before. “Jesus, dude. Take a pill. It was a joke. We’ll get her back, bro. We’re almost there. We’ll get her. Stay in the f**kin’ truck. ”
I hear shouts in Arabic, and then the Hummer slides to a stop and the boys pile out. I’m out with them somehow, moving on pure panicked rage and protective instinct. The pistol is gripped in my fist. I see red. A crowd is gathered in a semicircle, and now that the battle seems to be over, they don’t pay us much mind. I shove through them.
A knot of Iraqi men are clustered around a prone figure. Kicks fly. I see skin, blood, ripped cloth, a flash of blonde.
I fire, unthinking. A head bursts pink and a body thumps. The men turn from Rania, but I’m too enraged. I fire again, and then the pistol is stripped from me and arms wrap around me, but I fling them off and I’m attacking hand and foot. I feel no pain. Punch, kick, head butt, knee. Bodies scatter, curses in Arabic and English boil loud around me. The crowd is angry, restless, but the guys are holding them back, playing the familiar role of crowd control.
I slump to my knees next to Rania, who has split lips, puffy, bruising eyes, blood running from her mouth. Her clothes are ripped, and I can see bruises on her skin.
I scoop her up into my arms. Tears prick my eyes, and I blink them away. And then she rolls her head to look at me, and she smiles.
“You came. ” Arabic, but simple enough that I understand, even through my adrenaline and rage and pain and panic and fear. And love.
“I came. I’m here. ” I think some of that was Arabic, some was English. Don’t know, don’t care.
“Come on, man, move it. ” Chink, bumping into me from behind, his back to mine. “These folks are pissed. Go. ”
I stumble, move with Rania’s precious form to the Humvee. My legs betray me, and I falter, shuffle. Derek is there, catches me, takes Rania from me, cradling her carefully, and climbs into the truck.
I’m empty now, past empty. Agony washes white over my vision, and I vomit into the dust, collapsing.
Hands haul me into the Humvee, and I can’t see anything, but I smell Rania, sense her, hear her. I’m sitting and I feel her move, collapse on top of my legs. I nearly pass out again, but manage to hang on.
The rest climb in, and we’re moving, Dusty driving insanely fast, skidding around corners. Shots ring out, ping off the sides, spider-web the glass, and then we’re out of range there’s only the rumble of tires and silence and breathing.
Rania’s head is on my lap, her soft brown eyes looking up at me. Her head sways with the bumping of the road, and darkness encroaches on me, numbness spreading through me. I’ve pushed myself past the limit, but she’s safe now, okay now.
I can stop.
The last thing I see before blackness takes me is Rania’s sweet smile, blonde hair stuck to her lips and forehead and chin and splayed across her finely sculpted cheeks.
Hunter sleeps for a long time, healing. He took another bullet, I am told. His friend, Derek, says that the American doctors are amazed that he is alive at all. He should not have been able to do the things he did. Derek speaks to me through the translator, who is a Kurd named Suran, a short, squat man with a thin and wispy black beard, gap-toothed, intelligent enough to speak his native Kurdish, plus Arabic, Urdu, English, and several other dialects.
My Hunter is strong. I feel pride for him. He endured much, and still came back for me. I get to know Derek in the days of Hunter’s long sleep. Suran spends many hours translating for us. Derek wants to know about me, about how I saved Hunter, and why, what happened.
I tell him, strangely. I did not expect to like him at first, this friend of Hunter’s. But I do. He has kindness, but it is buried deep. He risked his life, and that of three other men, to save his friend. He is courageous. And so I tell him. The words pour out, and Suran translates it all faithfully. It is easier to say it all in Arabic and let Suran translate. I speak enough English to know he tells it true. I speak of the photographer, the man I killed so long ago. Hassan becoming a soldier as a boy of only twelve. Starvation. Desperation. I tell him, haltingly, of Malik. The strange sort of not-quite kindness he showed me in giving me food, making me pay for it with my body, and in the process showing me a way to survive when I would have surely starved otherwise. I hate being a whore, but it kept me alive. Malik saved me, but at a high cost. I am not sure if I would thank him, if I saw him again.
Then I look down at Hunter’s slack face, handsome in repose, and I know I would. I survived so I might know Hunter, and he saved me.
One day, past noon, Hunter wakes up. I am next to him, as I always am, unless eating or sleeping.
“Rania?” He looks around, finds me. “Are you okay?”
I nod. “I am well. ” I move my chair closer and brush a strand of hair from his face. “How do you feel?”
“Better. It’ll be a while before I’m back at a hundred percent, but I’ll live. ”
I have to guess at much of that, as it is in quick English. I cannot help but lean down and kiss him, and at first it is gentle, tender, but then it turns hungry, desperate.
I think of that night in my house, lying in the dim gray dark with his hands on me and the incredible ecstasy he showed me, the gift of pleasure he gave me, all without taking anything for himself.
I want him. I need him. I want to kiss him until I am breathless, until I melt into him. Now, I have felt desire, and I have known what my body can feel under the tutelage of his hand and his lips, and I want it. I am not afraid. I want to know his love, his touch. I want…
I want to be bare to him. My skin layered over his, moving against his, my body whispering above his. I want this, this thing, this act.
For once in my life, I want to have sex. To make love. I need it with Hunter. It would bind us, bring our odd journey to completion.
Hunter pulls away when Derek clears his throat behind us.
“Sorry to break it up, you two, but we gotta talk. ” I catch most of this from Derek.
Hunter struggles to sit up, takes my hand. He has an expression on his face which I take to mean he knows what is coming, although I do not.
Suran appears from nowhere, sidling up next to me. He reeks of cigarettes. He whispers a translation into my ear.
Derek pulls a chair up next me on the other side of Suran, facing it away so he straddles it. “She can’t stay here indefinitely, Hunt. You know that. ”
Hunter nods. Fear hits me. He will send me away now. “Yeah. Sarge told you that?”
“No. Comes straight from the Colonel. Our little…escapade didn’t go unnoticed, you know. People are pissed. She’s a local, but she’s not connected to anything here. She’s just…here. Now that you’re awake, they want her g