The Host (Chapter 35: Tried)
"Finally," someone murmured in relief. Ian. Of course. "Hungry?"
I thought about that and then made an involuntary gagging sound.
"Oh. Never mind. Sorry. Again. We had to do it. People got all… paranoid when we took you outside."
"'S okay," I sighed.
"Want some water?"
I opened my eyes, trying to focus in the darkness. I could see two stars through the cracks overhead. Still night. Or night again, who knew?
"Where am I?" I asked. The shapes of the cracks were unfamiliar. I would swear I'd never stared at this ceiling before.
"Your room," Ian said.
I searched for his face in the darkness but could only make out the black shape that was his head. With my fingers, I examined the surface I lay on; it was a real mattress. There was a pillow under my head. My searching hand touched his, and he caught my fingers before I could withdraw them.
"Whose room is it really?"
"It used to be ours-Kyle's and mine. Kyle's being… held in the hospital wing until things can be decided. I can move in with Wes."
"I'm not taking your room. And what do you mean, until things can be decided?"
"I told you there would be a tribunal."
"Why do you want to know?"
"Because if you're going through with that, then I have to be there. To explain."
"When?" I asked again.
"First light. I won't take you."
"Then I'll take myself. I know I'll be able to walk as soon as my head stops spinning."
"You would, wouldn't you?"
"Yes. It's not fair if you don't let me speak."
Ian sighed. He dropped my hand and straightened slowly to his feet. I could hear his joints pop as he stood. How long had he been sitting in the dark, waiting for me to wake? "I'll be back soon. You might not be hungry, but I'm starving."
"You had a long night."
"If it gets light, I won't sit here waiting for you."
He chuckled without humor. "I'm sure that's true. So I'll be back before that, and I will help you get where you're going."
He leaned one of the doors away from the entrance to his cave, stepped around it, and then let it fall back into place. I frowned. That might be hard to do on one leg. I hoped Ian truly was coming back.
While I waited for him, I stared up at the two stars I could see and let my head slowly become stationary. I really didn't like human drugs. Ugh. My body hurt, but the lurching in my head was worse.
Time passed slowly, but I didn't fall asleep. I'd been sleeping most of the last twenty-four hours. I probably was hungry, too. I would have to wait for my stomach to calm before I was sure.
Ian came back before the light, just as he'd promised.
"Feeling any better?" he asked as he stepped around the door.
"I think so. I haven't moved my head yet."
"Do you think it's you reacting to the morphine, or Melanie's body?"
"It's Mel. She reacts badly to most painkillers. She found that out when she broke her wrist ten years ago."
He thought about that for a moment. "It's… odd. Dealing with two people at once."
"Odd," I agreed.
"Are you hungry yet?"
I smiled. "I thought I smelled bread. Yes, I think my stomach is past the worst."
"I was hoping you'd say that."
His shadow sprawled out beside me. He felt for my hand, then pulled my fingers open and placed a familiar round shape in it.
"Help me up?" I asked.
He put his arm carefully around my shoulders and folded me up in one stiff piece, minimizing the ache in my side. I could feel something foreign on the skin there, tight and rigid.
"Thanks," I said, a little breathless. My head spun slowly. I touched my side with my free hand. Something adhered to my skin, under my shirt. "Are my ribs broken, then?"
"Doc's not sure. He's doing as much as he can."
"He tries so hard."
"I feel bad… that I used to not like him," I admitted.
Ian laughed. "Of course you didn't. I'm amazed you can like any of us."
"You've got that turned around," I mumbled, and dug my teeth into the hard roll. I chewed mechanically and then swallowed, setting the bread down as I waited to see how it hit my stomach.
"Not very appetizing, I know," Ian said.
I shrugged. "Just testing-to see if the nausea's really passed."
"Maybe something more appealing…"
I looked at him, curious, but I couldn't see his face. I listened to a sharp crackle and a ripping sound… and then I could smell, and I understood.
"Cheetos!" I cried. "Really? For me?"
Something touched my lip, and I crunched into the delicacy he offered.
"I've been dreaming about this." I sighed as I chewed.
That made him laugh. He put the bag in my hands.
I downed the contents of the small bag quickly, and then finished my roll, seasoned by the cheese flavor still in my mouth. He handed me a bottle of water before I could ask.
"Thank you. For more than the Cheetos, you know. For so much."
"You're more than welcome, Wanda."
I stared into his dark blue eyes, trying to decipher everything he was saying with that sentence-there seemed to be something more than just courtesy in the words. And then I realized that I could see the color of Ian's eyes; I glanced quickly up at the cracks above. The stars were gone, and the sky was turning pale gray. Dawn was coming. First light.
"Are you sure you have to do this?" Ian asked, his hands already half-extended as if to pick me up.
I nodded. "You don't have to carry me. My leg feels better."
He helped me to my feet, leaving his arm around my waist and pulling my arm around his neck.
"Careful, now. How's that?"
I hobbled forward a step. It hurt, but I could do it. "Great. Let's go."
I think Ian likes you too much.
Too much? I was surprised to hear from Melanie, and so distinctly. Lately, she only spoke up like this when Jared was around.
I'm here, too. Does he even care about that?
Of course he does. He believes us more than anyone besides Jamie and Jeb.
I don't mean that.
What do you mean?
But she was gone.
It took us a long time. I was surprised by how far we had to go. I'd been thinking we were going to the big plaza or the kitchen-the usual places for congregating. But we went through the eastern field and kept going until we finally reached the big, deep black cave that Jeb had called the game room. I hadn't been here since my first tour. The biting scent of the sulfurous spring greeted me.
Unlike most of the caverns here, the game room was much wider than it was tall. I could see that now because the dim blue lights hung from the ceiling rather than resting on the floor. The ceiling was only a few feet over my head, the height of a normal ceiling in a house. But I couldn't even see the walls, they were so distant from the lights. I couldn't see the smelly spring, tucked away in some far corner, but I could hear it dribble and gush.
Kyle sat in the brightest spot of light. He had his long arms wrapped around his legs. His face was set in a stiff mask. He didn't look up when Ian helped me limp in.
On either side of him were Jared and Doc, on their feet, both with their arms hanging loose and ready at their sides. As though they were… guards.
Jeb stood beside Jared, his gun slung over one shoulder. He appeared relaxed, but I knew how quickly that could change. Jamie held his free hand… no, Jeb had his hand around Jamie's wrist, and Jamie didn't seem happy about it. When he saw me come in, though, he smiled and waved. He took a deep breath and looked pointedly at Jeb. Jeb dropped Jamie's wrist.
Sharon stood beside Doc, with Aunt Maggie at her other side.
Ian pulled me toward the edge of the darkness surrounding the tableau. We weren't alone there. I could see the shapes of many others, but not their faces.
It was strange; through the caves, Ian had supported most of my weight with ease. Now, though, he seemed to have tired. His arm around my waist was slack. I lurched and hopped forward as best I could until he picked the spot he wanted. He settled me to the floor, and then sat beside me.
"Ouch," I heard someone whisper.
I turned and could just make out Trudy. She scooted closer to us, Geoffrey and then Heath copying her.
"You look rotten," she told me. "How bad are you hurt?"
I shrugged. "I'm fine." I started to wonder if Ian had let me struggle just to make a show of my injuries-to make me testify against Kyle without words. I frowned at his innocent expression.
Wes and Lily arrived then and came to sit with my little group of allies. Brandt entered a few seconds later, and then Heidi, and then Andy and Paige. Aaron was last.
"That's everybody," he said. "Lucina's staying with her kids. She doesn't want them here-she said to go on without her."
Aaron sat beside Andy, and there was a short moment of silence.
"Okay, then," Jeb said in a loud voice meant to be heard by all. "Here's how it's gonna work. Straight-up majority vote. As usual, I'll make my own decision if I have a problem with the majority, 'cause this -"
"Is my house," several voices interjected in chorus. Someone chuckled but stopped quickly. This wasn't funny. A human was on trial for trying to kill an alien. This had to be a horrible day for all of them.
"Who's speaking against Kyle?" Jeb asked.
Ian started to stand beside me.
"No!" I whispered, tugging on his elbow.
He shrugged me off and rose to his feet.
"This is simple enough," Ian said. I wanted to jump up and clap my hand over his mouth, but I didn't think I could get to my feet without help. "My brother was warned. He was not in any doubt about Jeb's ruling on this. Wanda is one of our community-the same rules and protections apply to her as to any of us. Jeb told Kyle point-blank that if he couldn't live with her here, he should move on. Kyle decided to stay. He knew then and he knows now the penalty for murder in this place."
"It's still alive," Kyle grunted.
"Which is why I'm not asking for your death," Ian snapped back. "But you can't live here anymore. Not if you're a murderer at heart."
Ian stared at his brother for a moment, then sat on the ground beside me again.
"But he could get caught, and we'd have no idea," Brandt protested, rising to his feet. "He'll lead them back here, and we'd have no warning."
There was a murmur through the room.
Kyle glared at Brandt. "They'll never get me alive."
"Then it's a death sentence after all," someone muttered at the same time that Andy said, "You can't guarantee that."
"One at a time," Jeb warned.
"I've survived on the outside before," Kyle said angrily.
Another voice came from the darkness. "It's a risk." I couldn't make out the owners of the voices-they were just hissing whispers.
And another. "What did Kyle do wrong? Nothing."
Jeb took a step toward the voice, glowering. "My rules."
"She's not one of us," someone else protested.
Ian started to rise again.
"Hey!" Jared exploded. His voice was so loud that everyone jumped. "Wanda's not on trial here! Does someone have a concrete complaint against her-against Wanda herself? Then ask for another tribunal. But we all know she hasn't harmed anyone here. In fact, she saved his life." He stabbed one finger toward Kyle's back. Kyle's shoulders hunched, like he'd felt the jab. "Just seconds after he tried to throw her into the river, she risked her life to keep him from the same painful death. She had to know that if she let him fall she would be safer here. She saved him anyway. Would any of you have done the same-rescue your enemy? He tried to kill her, and yet will she even speak against him?"
I felt all the eyes in the dark room on my face as Jared now held his hand out, palm up, toward me.
"Will you speak against him, Wanda?"
I stared at him wide-eyed, stunned that he was speaking for me, that he was speaking to me, that he was using my name. Melanie was in shock, too, torn in half. She was overjoyed at the kindness in his face as he looked at us, the softness in his eyes that had been absent so long. But it was my name he'd said…
It was a few seconds before I could find my voice.
"This is all a misunderstanding," I whispered. "We both fell when the floor caved in. Nothing else happened." I hoped the whisper would make it harder to hear the lie in my voice, but as soon as I was done, Ian chuckled. I nudged him with my elbow, but that didn't stop him.
Jared actually smiled at me. "You see. She even tries to lie in his defense."
"Tries being the operative word," Ian added.
"Who says it's lying? Who can prove that?" Maggie asked harshly, stepping forward into the empty space beside Kyle. "Who can prove that it's not the truth that sounds so false on its lips?"
"Mag -" Jeb started.
"Shut up, Jebediah-I'm speaking. There is no reason for us to be here. No human was attacked. The insidious trespasser offers no complaint. This is a waste of all our time."
"I second that," Sharon added in a clear, loud voice.
Doc shot her a pained look.
Trudy jumped to her feet. "We can't house a murderer-and just wait around for him to be successful!"
"Murder is a subjective term," Maggie hissed. "I only consider it murder when something human is killed."
I felt Ian's arm wrap around my shoulder. I didn't realize that I was trembling until his motionless body was against mine.
"Human is a subjective term as well, Magnolia," Jared said, glowering at her. "I thought the definition embraced some compassion, some little bit of mercy."
"Let's vote," Sharon said before her mother could answer him. "Raise your hand if you think Kyle should be allowed to stay here, with no penalty for the… misunderstanding." She shot a glance not at me, but at Ian beside me when she used the word I'd used.
Hands began to rise. I watched Jared's face as his features settled into a scowl.
I struggled to raise my hand, but Ian tightened his hold around my arms and made an irritated noise through his nose. I held my palm as high as I could get it. In the end, though, my vote wasn't necessary.
Jeb counted out loud. "Ten… fifteen… twenty… twenty-three. Okay, that's a clear majority."
I didn't look around to see who had voted how. It was enough that in my little corner all arms were crossed tightly over chests and all eyes stared at Jeb with expectant expressions.
Jamie walked away from Jeb to come squeeze in between Trudy and me. He put his arm around me, under Ian's.
"Maybe your souls were right about us," he said, loud enough for most to hear his high, hard voice. "The majority are no better than -"
"Hush!" I hissed at him.
"Okay," Jeb said. Everyone went silent. Jeb looked down at Kyle, then at me, and then at Jared. "Okay, I'm inclined to go with the majority on this."
"Jeb -" Jared and Ian said simultaneously.
"My house, my rules," Jeb reminded them. "Never forget that. So you listen to me, Kyle. And you'd better listen, too, I think, Magnolia. Anyone who tries to hurt Wanda again will not get a tribunal, they will get a burial." He slapped the butt of his gun for emphasis.
Magnolia glared hatefully at her brother.
Kyle nodded, as if accepting the terms.
Jeb looked around the unevenly spaced audience, locking eyes with each member except the little group beside me.
"Tribunal's over," Jeb announced. "Who's up for a game?"