Ryan was right to ask Claire. Jared was wel known for lengthy explanations. Claire went right to the point.
Ryan’s eyes drifted away from Claire to me. “Are you okay?”
I shrugged. “Great. Fantastic, actual y. I feel like I could run a marathon.”
Ryan smiled. “That’s good.” He turned to Claire. “That’s good, right?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Why are you asking me?”
“I don’t know,” Ryan shrugged, “I thought you might know better than anyone else.”
Claire stood, laughing once. “I’m hardly the expert. It’s never been an option for me, so I didn’t bother asking my mother about the details.”
“Why wouldn’t it be an option?”
Claire rol ed her eyes. “Because I’m busy.”
“With what?” he said, dubious.
Claire placed both of her palms facedown on the bed and looked at Ryan. “Keeping you alive.”
Ryan’s hand slid slowly across the blanket. His fingers layered hers. “Wel ...what if we were together? That could make it an option.”
Claire straightened quickly and crossed her arms. “Dream on.”
The corners of his mouth turned up. He enjoyed unsettling Claire far too much for his own good. “Am I wrong?”
“First of all ,” she said, shifting her weight, “it’s never going to happen. Second, I’d have a hard time protecting you when I’m as round as a bowling bal .”
“I bet you could,” Ryan said. “I can stay out of trouble for nine months.”
Claire raised an eyebrow. “You can’t stay out of trouble for one month. You’ve been hospitalized, had major surgeries, and needed extensive rehabilitation three times in as many years.”
His eyes turned soft. “I would if I had to. I’d do it for you.”
She cupped her hand over his mouth. “Shut up.”
Jared fidgeted, feeling out of place. “Uh…we should go.”
“No!” Claire said. She pul ed back her hand and wiped it on her leggings. “No, you should stay. I’ll uh...I’ll get more chairs.”
“I’ll help you,” Jared said. He briefly kissed my cheek before fol owing Claire into the hal .
“Wow,” I said, taking a seat beside the bed. “You can clear a room better than I. And that’s saying something.”
Ryan frowned. “She’s tough. Tougher than you.”
“Without a doubt,” I nodded.
“No…I mean yes, but not in the physical way. She’s here every second while I heal. I know she has to watch over me, but she doesn’t have to sit beside my bed and hold my hand.”
“She holds your hand?”
Ryan offered a half-smile. “The first morning—when I woke up—she was holding my hand with both of hers. The second I opened my eyes, she let go. But yes, she did.”
“Okay, but you don’t have to torture her. By her actions, she must care about you. This is Claire you’re dealing with. You can’t force it.”
Ryan turned on his side, leaning on his elbow. “Nina, you’re pregnant. Some rough shit is going to go down. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day you give birth to Lil’ Bitty Saint Ryel.” He pointed to my stomach, “But I think we can all agree that taking time for granted is precarious.”
“Precarious,” I said. “I’m so impressed.”
“Shut your face,” Ryan grinned. “I love her. I want to be with her. And not just around her. It’s even worse knowing she’s not here, but she’s stil somewhere around.”
“I know the feeling,” I said. My eyes unfocused as I remembered a not-so-distant past where I struggled studying in my dorm room at Andrews Hal , knowing Jared was somewhere nearby. Talking into a microphone hanging from my wal , standing in the freezing rain. Knowing he would come.
“I think she likes me, too, she just won’t admit it. I just gotta crack that shel .”
Ryan’s voice snapped me back to reality. “Good luck,” I said.
Claire and Jared returned carrying chairs in their arms.
“I love you,” Ryan said, looking straight at Claire. She stood, speechless.
“Smooth,” I nodded.
“I…uh…,” Claire said, looking around. She sat the chairs on the floor and then looked at her brother. “Someone else might visit…I better get more chairs.”
When the door closed behind her, Ryan looked down and laughed once without humor. “So stubborn.”
“Better than stupid,” Jared said.
Ryan’s head jerked up. “Excuse me?”
“Let her do her job,” Jared said, his voice flat.
“Coming from you? That’s hysterical.”
The tension between them thickened the air in the room. “Come on, guys,” I said.
Jared’s eyes were tight, and Ryan leaned forward a bit. Any civility between them had always seemed forced. It was only a matter of time before they exchanged words.
Jared shifted. “What is that supposed to mean, exactly, Ryan?”
“You seem to forget why everyone is in this mess to begin with. If you’d done your job by the book, none of this would have happened. So how about you let us all make our own choices without judgment?”
Jared’s body was rigid; his jaw tight. I waited for him to let Ryan have it—to come back with one of his undeniable and logical retorts, but he didn’t. Without a word, he left the room.
“Final y…he’s speechless,” Ryan said, relaxing back against the bed.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said.
Ryan frowned. “Why not? Because he’s Jared? He has no problem tel ing everyone else what they’ve done wrong, but he hasn’t made the best choices, either. He insinuated I’m keeping Claire from doing her job when he was in the same situation not too long ago.”
“Then why defend him? Why can’t you just say, ‘Ryan, you’re right. Jared’s wrong.’”
“Because he’s trying his best. Because everything he does, he tries to do what’s right, and what is in everyone’s best interest. He loves me, and you rubbing it in his face after the fact is just cruel.”
“He should keep his opinions to himself,” Ryan said, crossing his arms.
“Trying to hold on to some control in a situation where he has none is not unreasonable. Claire is his baby sister. He’s loved her far longer than you have, and he has firsthand knowledge of how hard it is to be in love with your Taleh. He’s just trying to save her from what we’ve experienced.
You should think about that.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “So you regret it?”
“You regret fal ing in love with him? Knowing everything?”
“No, and no! Of course not. It’s just hard, that’s all .”
“A normal relationship?”
“What would you know about normal people?”
“I know a few!” I said. Ryan was attempting to subdue a smile. He enjoyed getting under my skin. Poor Claire. She wasn’t the most patient person, anyway, and the most annoying, argumentative, persistent butt nugget—as Bex had once cal ed him—was in love with her.
“What are you smiling about?” he said.
“Oh, nothing. Feel better,” I said, waving to him before opening the door.
“Wait! You’re going to leave me alone?”
“We’re never alone,” I smiled.
Jared stood in the hal way with Claire. She was looking up at him, whispering words of comfort. He seemed to be a bit calmer, listening to her every word.
“He’s all yours,” I smiled to Claire.
“Huh?” Claire said.
I took Jared’s hand. “He knows the exact thing to say to throw you into a rage, and you just let him.”
“It’s different with him. I can’t explain it other than pure, unadulterated hatred.”
“Once upon a time it was me he was after, and now he’s being just as annoying while pursuing your baby sister.”
“What if he wasn’t?”
“Wasn’t what?” he said, clueless as to where I was going with the conversation. A rush of exhilaration swept over me. Jared being on the wrong side of enlightenment was quite satisfying.
“In love with Claire. Honey,” I said, standing on my tiptoes to wrap my arms around his neck, “this is a very good thing.”
“For you, maybe,” Claire grumbled.
“Did you forget what it means that he loves her? They are meant to be together; not him and me. Best of all ? You would’ve had to deal with Ryan either way, but because he loves Claire, it isn’t because you’re watching him annoy the crap out of me—it’s because he’s annoying Claire.” I al owed a proud, wide smile to stretch across my face, even though Claire looked as if she wanted to shove her fist into the wal . Through my face.
Jared’s face relaxed, and he chuckled. “Al true,” he said, leaning down to kiss me. “It could be worse. Much worse.” He looked to Claire. “Sorry.
She glared at both of us as we departed down the hal .
“Er…hey, Nina?” Claire cal ed.
I turned, noticing again how tiny she was. Her skintight blue leggings and oversized, off-the-shoulder T-shirt made her seem even smal er. Her ankle-high boots scooted across the hospital floor as she approached.
She laced her fingers on top of her head, clearly exasperated. “You real y think I’m just being stubborn? You think that’s why he’s my Taleh? Because we’re meant for each other?”
“Yes,” I said. “You care about him, don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. She let one hand fal to her side; the other to her mouth. “I guess so.”.
I looked to Jared and gestured with my eyes to Claire. Jared frowned, but when I persistently jerked my head in Claire’s direction, he spoke up.
“It’s okay, Claire. I can’t say I like the guy, but I don’t see another purpose for it to happen the way it did. Do you? Because if you do, I’d love to hear — mmph,” he puffed, jerking when I elbowed him in the ribs. I didn’t hurt him, of course, but I stil enjoyed his reaction.
“No,” Claire whispered. “I don’t see another purpose.” She walked slowly to Ryan’s door, deep in thought. She turned the knob, and then shook her head. “Doesn’t mean I should muddy the waters.”
We fol owed her in, noticing her pulling her chair farther away from Ryan’s bed. She ate her burger quietly, and Ryan watched her for a moment, and then looked down when he realized he wouldn’t get the reaction he’d hoped for.
I felt bad for him. I knew all too wel how awful it felt to love someone who insisted on keeping a distance. “So you’re feeling better? When do you report back for duty?”
“They gave me a week off. Too bad I wasn’t on duty when this happened. Could have saved me a chunk of change.”
“Don’t worry about the bil , Ryan,” I said. “It’s taken care of.”
Ryan opened his mouth to argue, but he knew it was futile. He had no way to pay for what the little insurance he had wouldn’t cover. He managed a humble nod. “This is my last time. Next time it’s someone else’s turn. I’m not playin’ around. I mean it.”
Claire’s frown softened, the corners of her mouth turned up an infinitesimal amount. Her expression reminded me of the way Jared used to try to hide his emotions when he was fighting tooth and nail to stay away from me. Claire definitely had an uphil battle. Ryan was far more persistent than me.
We enjoyed our late-night dinner, teasing one another about our last few days together before Jared and I left for Little Corn. Ryan recounted his recovery, and Claire halfheartedly complained about being his nursemaid. Mentions of demons, Shax, and Isaac sprung in and out of our conversation. Discussing the paranormal elements of my life outside of the Ryels felt both a relief and strange. But, there we were: sitting around a room, discussing the sickening odor of the hundreds of misshapen creatures scaling the wal s of St. Ann’s.
“Have you heard about Father Francis?” I asked.
Claire nodded. “He’s home. The first night was touch and go, and then he came right out of it. His doctors were amazed.”
Jared touched my hand. Ryan’s eyes zeroed in on the movement.
“So,” Ryan said. “I hear you two skipped town for a while. You’re…tanner.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding once. “We went to Little Corn.”
“Again?” Ryan said.
Claire’s eyes didn’t leave Ryan’s face. She watched warily for an expression she didn’t want to see.
Jared squeezed my hand. “We decided to get married in the chapel there.”
Ryan nodded. It was obvious an inner monologue was monopolizing his thoughts. Claire didn’t move. She waited silently, but I couldn’t decide what she was waiting for.
“What’s the rush?” Ryan said.
“Didn’t you hear her say that she’s pregnant?” Claire said with disgust.
Ryan’s head jerked in her direction. “Yeah? So?”
I shrugged. “We were engaged, anyway, Ryan. It didn’t make sense to wait.”
“You’re married. To Jared.” Ryan’s eyes were wide with shock, his eyebrows as high as he could push them. Claire’s body was tense, her eyes fixed on Ryan. In the next moment, a wide grin plastered across his face.
“Congratulations, Nigh! That’s wicked awesome!”