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I grabbed her hand. “And I’m okay. Just like Ryan wil be.”

Claire wore what used to be a white tank top, now more of a grey-brown, and khaki utility pants with heavy, lace-up boots. A blood-stained hijab sat bunched up in the chair next to her. Her moist eyes and smeared mascara had mixed with the desert sand, but only around her eyes.

“Did Ryan recognize you?” I asked.

Claire shook her head. “I should have pul ed us out earlier. He looked up at me, but he was pretty out of it. And with the hijab…he could only see my eyes.”

Jared placed his hand on ours. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re both alive.”

“Ryan's company was conducting a raid to extract two contractors that had been missing for a few days. I made a lot of mistakes today, Jared.

They were ambushed. I should have seen it coming. I should have heard the snipers get into position, but my mind was ful of complaints and resentment.” She stared at the floor, deep in thought. “They always raid at night. Everything was off, and I missed it.”

Jared grabbed Claire's jaw in his hands. “You know better than to beat yourself up about this. What were you tel ing me in the waiting room in Providence? He’s alive, Claire. No one else could have gotten him here with a chance.”

She pul ed away from him, and looked out the window. In her mind, she was stil on that street corner, watching the extermination of Ryan's company in real time. “It was like Shock and Awe out there—one explosion after another,” she snapped her eyes shut. The memory replayed in her mind. “I could hear him, but I couldn’t see,” her eyebrows pul ed in, “I couldn’t see.”

Her eyes popped open, and she immediately wiped away her tears. “My first glimpse of Ryan didn’t surprise me: He was sprinting from the debris cloud with Tommy on his back.” She smiled. “Of course it would be Tommy. Ryan's only saved his hide three times already.” Her smiled faded. “They were close. Closer than the others. Ryan felt responsible for him.”

Jared stood, and walked to the other side of the room. He rubbed the back of his neck; the worry and memories were clearly overwhelming him.

“That was when I decided to move in,”” Claire explained, “but a sniper clicked on his sights.” Claire laughed once. “The jerkface got one off after I severed his brain stem with one bul et, Jared. That shit only happens in the movies.”

“So Ryan was hit?” I prodded. My mind raced with where the story would end. I had no idea what injuries Ryan had sustained, and with the vivid detail of bombs and bul ets, I needed her to get to the point.

“Twice. A bul et ricocheted off a rock, and clipped his right lung; the other blew straight through his shoulder. It was fate. Both injuries are going to send him packing.”

Jared glanced at me, and then returned to his seat. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “That was when you evac’d?”

Claire sniffed. “He wouldn’t let Tommy go. I had to pry al ten of his fingers from the guy’s flak jacket.”

“Figures,” Jared grumbled.

“Ryan’s whole unit was wiped out in three seconds. He needed to save one of them. It didn’t matter that Tommy was dead ten meters from the explosions…Ryan was going to carry him home.”

Tears wel ed up in my eyes and overflowed. “Can we see him?”

Jared hugged me to his side. “He can’t know you were ever here. We can’t take that chance.”

Jared's reasoning made sense. Explaining Ryan’s memories of me at his bedside in Landstuhl would be too difficult to explain away to our friends at Brown.

Claire looked at her dirty hands. “I hauled him to an empty shack off the path, stayed the night until Morning Prayer, and then back-tracked East to my Jeep.”

Colonel Brand knocked on the door jamb. Jared and Claire immediately stood, and Jared pul ed me with him.

“Colonel,” Jared and Claire said in unison, both nodding.

“He’s out of the woods for now. Doctor Vanhooser is closing, and He’ll be in to speak with you shortly. He has been informed that Sergeant Scott is to be kept unaware of your presence.”

“Thanks, Jason,” Claire said, letting out a big sigh of relief.

“There is something you should know,” Colonel Brand said. “Ryan is going to need substantial physical therapy, and after losing his entire unit, his debriefing wil be substantial.”

“What does that mean for Ryan?” I asked.

“Sergeant Scott’s chances to return to active duty are slim,” Colonel Brand said, matter-of-factly.

I was ashamed of the relief the Colonel’s words brought me. Ryan would be devastated, and I could only think of myself. Thoughts of Ryan returning to Brown on the military’s dime, and his empty seat at the Ratty being fil ed peppered my mind, and I had to cover my smile with my hand.

Jared glanced at me. He knew how Colonel Brand’s prediction had made me feel, and his eyes tightened. I sunk back into my seat, crimson splashing across my cheeks.

Claire took a walk down the colorless hal way, giving Jared the perfect chance to scold me. Before he could get the chance, my cel phone buzzed in my jacket pocket.

“Hel o?”

“Grant is out sick, you’re gone, and the Japan firm is on line two asking questions I don’t know the answers to,” Beth barked in her southern accent. “I don’t understand half of what he says, Nina. Is there some way to patch you through?”

I smiled. “Just tel him I’m out of town, and I wil call him tomorrow.”

“He said he’s been waiting on a return phone call from Grant for a week.”

“Then he can wait one more day,” I said.

“Where are you? I only have a bil ion documents for you to sign, and the bil ing on the Peterman account is messed up.”

“Ask an intern. They know the software better than the accountants.”

“Nigh,” she sighed.“Where are you?”

“Checking on an old friend,” I said. “I have to go, Beth. Oh, and…don’t ask Sasha for help. It wil give her the mistaken impression that she’s needed.”

“The friend wouldn’t be Kim, would it?”

“No. Why?”

“She’s MIA, too. Again,” Beth grumbled.