The Host (Chapter 33: Doubted)

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Another splash. Kyle's weight tortured my arms.

"Wanda? Wanda!"

"Help me! Kyle! The floor! Help!"

I had my face pressed against the stone, my eyes toward the cave entrance. The light was bright overhead as the day dawned. I held my breath. My arms screamed.

"Wanda! Where are you?"

Ian leaped through the door, the rifle in his hands, held low and ready. His face was the angry mask his brother had worn.

"Watch out!" I screamed at him. "The floor is breaking up! I can't hold him much longer!"

It took him two long seconds to process the scene that was so different from the one he'd been expecting-Kyle, trying to kill me. The scene that had been, just seconds ago.

Then he threw the gun to the cave floor and started toward me with a long stride.

"Get down-disperse your weight!"

He dropped to all fours and scuttled to me, his eyes burning in the light of dawn.

"Don't let go," he cautioned.

I groaned in pain.

He assessed for another second, and then slid his body behind mine, pushing me closer to the rock. His arms were longer than mine. Even with me in the way, he was able to get his hands around his brother.

"One, two, three," he grunted.

He pulled Kyle up against the rock, much more securely than I'd had him. The movement smashed my face into the pillar. The bad side, though-it couldn't get much more scarred at this point.

"I'm going to pull him to this side. Can you squeeze out?"

"I'll try."

I loosened my hold on Kyle, feeling my shoulders ache in relief, making sure Ian had him. Then I wriggled out from between Ian and the rock, careful not to put myself on a dangerous section of the floor. I crawled backward a few feet toward the door, ready to make a grab for Ian if he started slipping.

Ian hauled his inert brother around one side of the pillar, dragging him in jerks, a foot at a time. More of the floor crumbled, but the foundation of the pillar remained intact. A new shelf formed about two feet out from the column of rock.

Ian crawled backward the way I had, dragging his brother along in short surges of muscle and will. Within a minute, we were all three in the mouth of the corridor, Ian and I breathing in gasps.

"What… the hell… happened?"

"Our weight… was too… much. Floor caved in."

"What were you doing… by the edge? With Kyle?"

I put my head down and concentrated on breathing.

Well, tell him.

What will happen then?

You know what will happen. Kyle broke the rules. Jeb will shoot him, or they'll kick him out. Maybe Ian will beat the snot out of him first. That would be fun to watch.

Melanie didn't really mean it-I didn't think so, anyway. She was just still mad at me for risking our lives to save our would-be murderer.

Exactly, I told her. And if they kick Kyle out for me… or kill him… I shuddered. Well, can't you see how little sense that would make? He's one of you.

We've got a life here, Wanda. You're jeopardizing that.

It's my life, too. And I'm… well, I'm me.

Melanie groaned in disgust.

"Wanda?" Ian demanded.

"Nothing," I muttered.

"You're a rotten liar. You know that, right?"

I kept my head down and breathed.

"What did he do?"

"Nothing," I lied. Poorly.

Ian put his hand under my chin, pulled my face up. "Your nose is bleeding." He twisted my head to the side. "And there's more blood in your hair."

"I-hit my head when the floor fell."

"On both sides?"

I shrugged.

Ian glared at me for a long moment. The darkness of the tunnel muted the brilliance of his eyes.

"We should get Kyle to Doc-he really cracked his head when he went down."

"Why are you protecting him? He tried to kill you." It was a statement of fact, not a question. His expression slowly melted from anger to horror. He was imagining what we had been doing on that unstable shelf-I could see that in his eyes. When I did not answer, he spoke again in a whisper. "He was going to throw you in the river…" A strange tremor shook his body.

Ian had one arm around Kyle-he'd collapsed that way and seemed too tired to move. Now he shoved his unconscious brother away roughly, sliding farther from him in disgust. He slid into me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders. He pulled me close against his chest-I could feel his breath go in and out, still more ragged than normal.

It felt very strange.

"I should roll him right back in there and kick him over the edge myself."

I shook my head frantically, making it throb in pain. "No."

"Saves time. Jeb made the rules clear. You try to hurt someone here, there are penalties. There'll be a tribunal."

I tried to pull away from him, but he tightened his grip. It wasn't frightening, not like the way Kyle had grabbed me. But it was upsetting-it threw me off balance. "No. You can't do that, because no one broke the rules. The floor collapsed, that's all."

"Wanda -"

"He's your brother."

"He knew what he was doing. He's my brother, yes, but he did what he did, and you are… you are… my friend."

"He did nothing. He is human," I whispered. "This is his place, not mine."

"We're not having this discussion again. Your definition of human is not the same as mine. To you, it means something… negative. To me, it's a compliment-and by my definition, you are and he isn't. Not after this."

"Human isn't a negative to me. I know you now. But Ian, he's your brother."

"A fact that shames me."

I pushed away from him again. This time, he let me go. It might have had something to do with the moan of pain that escaped my lips when I moved my leg.

"Are you okay?"

"I think so. We need to find Doc, but I don't know if I can walk. I-I hit my leg, when I fell."

A growl strangled in his throat. "Which leg? Let me see."

I tried to straighten out my hurt leg-it was the right one-and groaned again. His hands started at my ankle, testing the bones, the joints. He rotated my ankle carefully.

"Higher. Here." I pulled his hand to the back of my thigh, just above the knee. I moaned again when he pressed the sore place. "It's not broken or anything, I don't think. Just really sore."

"Deep muscle bruise, at least," he muttered. "And how did this happen?"

"Must have… landed on a rock when I fell."

He sighed. "Okay, let's get you to Doc."

"Kyle needs him more than I do."

"I have to go find Doc anyway-or some help. I can't carry Kyle that far, but I can certainly carry you. Oops-hold on."

He turned abruptly and ducked back into the river room. I decided I wouldn't argue with him. I wanted to see Walter before… Doc had promised to wait for me. Would that first dose of painkiller wear off soon? My head swam. There was so much to worry about, and I was so tired. The adrenaline had drained, leaving me empty.

Ian came back with the gun. I frowned because this reminded me that I'd wished for it before. I didn't like that.

"Let's go."

Without thinking, he handed the gun to me. I let it fall into my open palms, but I couldn't curl my hands around it. I decided it was a suitable punishment, to have to carry the thing.

Ian chuckled. "How anyone could be afraid of you…" he mumbled to himself.

He picked me up easily and was moving before I was settled. I tried to keep the tenderest parts-the back of my head, the back of my leg-from resting on him too hard.

"How'd your clothes get so wet?" he asked. We were passing under one of the fist-sized skylights, and I could see the hint of a grim smile on his pale lips.

"I don't know," I muttered. "Steam?"

We passed into darkness again.

"You're missing a shoe."


We passed through another beam of light, and his eyes flashed sapphire. They were serious now, locked on my face.

"I'm… very glad that you weren't hurt, Wanda. Hurt worse, I should say."

I didn't answer. I was afraid of giving him something to use against Kyle.

Jeb found us just before we hit the big cave. There was enough light for me to see the sharp glint of curiosity in his eyes when he saw me in Ian's arms, face bleeding, the gun resting gingerly on my open hands.

"You were right, then," Jeb guessed. The curiosity was strong, but the steel in his tone was stronger. His jaw was tight beneath the fan of his beard. "I didn't hear a shot. Kyle?"

"He's unconscious," I said in a rush. "You need to warn everyone-part of the floor collapsed in the river room. I don't know how stable it is now. Kyle hit his head really hard trying to get out of the way. He needs Doc."

Jeb raised one eyebrow so high it almost touched the faded bandanna at his hairline.

"That's the story," Ian said, making no effort to conceal his doubt. "And she's apparently sticking to it."

Jeb laughed. "Let me take that off your hands," he said to me.

I let him have the gun willingly. He laughed again at my expression.

"I'll get Andy and Brandt to help me with Kyle. We'll follow behind you."

"Keep a close eye on him when he wakes up," Ian said in a hard tone.

"Can do."

Jeb slouched off, looking for more hands. Ian hurried me toward the hospital cave.

"Kyle could be really hurt… Jeb should hurry."

"Kyle's head is harder than any rock in this place."

The long tunnel felt longer than usual. Was Kyle dying, despite my efforts? Was he conscious again and looking for me? What about Walter? Was he sleeping… or gone? Had the Seeker given up her hunt, or would she be back now that it was light again?

Will Jared still be with Doc? Mel added her questions to mine. Will he be angry when he sees you? Will he know me?

When we reached the sunlit southern cave, Jared and Doc didn't look like they'd moved much. They leaned, side by side, against Doc's makeshift desk. It was quiet as we approached. They weren't talking, just watching Walter sleep.

They started up with wide eyes as Ian carried me into the light and laid me on the cot next to Walter's. He straightened my right leg carefully.

Walter was snoring. That sound eased some of my tension.

"What now?" Doc demanded angrily. He was bending over me as soon as the words were out, wiping at the blood on my cheek.

Jared's face was frozen in surprise. He was being careful, not letting the expression give way to anything else.

"Kyle," Ian answered at the same time that I said, "The floor -"

Doc looked back and forth between us, confused.

Ian sighed and rolled his eyes. Absently, he laid one hand lightly on my forehead. "The floor crumbled by the first river hole. Kyle fell back and cracked his head on a rock. Wanda saved his worthless life. She says she fell, too, when the floor gave." Ian gave Doc a meaningful look. "Something," he said the word sarcastically, "bashed the back of her head pretty good." He started listing. "Her nose is bleeding but not broken, I don't think. She's got some damage to the muscle here." He touched my sore thigh. "Knees sliced up pretty good, got her face again, but I think maybe I did that, trying to pull Kyle out of the hole. Shouldn't have bothered." Ian muttered the last part.

"Anything else?" Doc asked. At that moment, his fingers, probing along my side, reached the place where Kyle had punched me. I gasped.

Doc tugged my shirt up, and I heard both Ian and Jared hiss at what they saw.

"Let me guess," Ian said in a voice like ice. "You fell on a rock."

"Good guess," I agreed, breathless. Doc was still touching my side, and I was trying to hold back whimpers.

"Might have broken a rib, not sure," Doc murmured. "I wish I could give you something for the pain -"

"Don't worry about that, Doc," I panted. "I'm okay. How's Walter? Did he wake up at all?"

"No, it will take some time to sleep that dose off," Doc said. He took my hand and started bending my wrist, my elbow.

"I'm okay."

His kind eyes were soft as he met my gaze. "You will be. You'll just have to rest for a while. I'll keep an eye on you. Here, turn your head."

I did as he asked, and then winced while he examined my wound.

"Not here," Ian muttered.

I couldn't see Doc, but Jared threw Ian a sharp look.

"They're bringing Kyle. I'm not having them in the same room."

Doc nodded. "Probably wise."

"I'll get a place ready for her. I'll need you to keep Kyle here until… until we decide what to do with him."

I started to speak, but Ian put his fingers on my lips.

"All right," Doc agreed. "I'll tie him down, if you want."

"If we have to. Is it okay to move her?" Ian glanced toward the tunnel, his face anxious.

Doc hesitated.

"No," I whispered, Ian's fingers still touching my mouth. "Walter. I want to be here for Walter."

"You've saved all the lives you can save today, Wanda," Ian said, his voice gentle and sad.

"I want to say… to say good-goodbye."

Ian nodded. Then he looked at Jared. "Can I trust you?"

Jared's face flushed with anger. Ian held up his hand.

"I don't want to leave her here unprotected while I find her a safe place," Ian said. "I don't know if Kyle will be conscious when he arrives. If Jeb shoots him, it will upset her. But you and Doc should be able to handle him. I don't want Doc to be on his own, and force Jeb's hand."

Jared spoke through clenched teeth. "Doc won't be on his own."

Ian hesitated. "She's been through hell in the past couple of days. Remember that."

Jared nodded once, teeth still clamped together.

"I'll be here," Doc reminded Ian.

Ian met his gaze. "Okay." He leaned over me, and his luminous eyes held mine. "I'll be back soon. Don't be afraid."

"I'm not."

He ducked in and touched his lips to my forehead.

No one was more surprised than I, though I heard Jared gasp quietly. My mouth hung open as Ian wheeled and nearly sprinted from the room.

I heard Doc pull a breath in through his teeth, like a backward whistle. "Well," he said.

They both stared at me for a long moment. I was so tired and sore, I barely cared what they were thinking.

"Doc -" Jared started to say something in an urgent tone, but a clamor from the tunnel interrupted him.

Five men struggled through the opening. Jeb, in front, had Kyle's left leg in his arms. Wes had the right leg, and behind them, Andy and Aaron worked to support his torso. Kyle's head lolled back over Andy's shoulder.

"Stars, but he's heavy," Jeb grunted.

Jared and Doc sprang forward to help. After a few minutes of cursing and groaning, Kyle was lying on a cot a few feet away from mine.

"How long has he been out, Wanda?" Doc asked me. He pulled Kyle's eyelids back, letting the sunlight shine into his pupils.

"Um…" I thought quickly. "As long as I've been here, the ten minutes or so it took Ian to carry me here, and then maybe five more minutes before that?"

"At least twenty minutes, would you say?"

"Yes. Close to that."

While we were consulting, Jeb had made his own diagnosis. No one paid any attention as he came to stand at the head of Kyle's cot. No one paid any attention-until he turned an open bottle of water over Kyle's face.

"Jeb," Doc complained, knocking his hand away.

But Kyle sputtered and blinked, and then moaned. "What happened? Where did it go?" He started to shift his weight, trying to look around. "The floor… is moving…"

Kyle's voice had my fingers clenching the sides of my cot and panic washing through me. My leg ached. Could I limp away? Slowly, perhaps…

"'S okay," someone murmured. Not someone. I would always know that voice.

Jared moved to stand between my cot and Kyle's, his back to me, his eyes on the big man. Kyle rolled his head back and forth, groaning.

"You're safe," Jared said in a low voice. He didn't look at me. "Don't be afraid."

I took a deep breath.

Melanie wanted to touch him. His hand was close to mine, resting on the edge of my cot.

Please, no, I told her. My face hurts quite enough as it is!

He won't hit you.

You think. I'm not willing to risk it.

Melanie sighed; she yearned to move toward him. It wouldn't have been so hard to bear if I weren't yearning also.

Give him time, I pleaded. Let him get used to us. Wait till he really believes.

She sighed again.

"Aw, hell!" Kyle grumbled. My gaze flickered toward him at the sound of his voice. I could just see his bright eyes around Jared's elbow, focused on me. "It didn't fall!" he complained.

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