The Host (Chapter 37: Wanted)
At first it seemed to be a strained thing, for Ian at least, playing as teammates with Kyle. But after a few minutes of running in the dark, they fell into a familiar pattern-a pattern that had existed since long before I'd come to this planet.
Kyle knew what Ian would do before Ian did it, and vice versa. Without having to speak, they told each other everything. Even when Jared pulled all the best players to his side-Brandt, Andy, Wes, Aaron, Lily, and Maggie as goalie-Kyle and Ian were victorious.
"Okay, okay," Jeb said, catching Aaron's goal attempt with one hand and tucking the ball under his arm. "I think we all know the winners. Now, I hate to be a party pooper, but there's work waiting… and, to be honest, I'm bushed."
There were a few halfhearted protests and a few moans, but more laughter. No one seemed too upset to have the fun end. From the way a few people sat down right where they were and put their heads between their knees to breathe, it was clear Jeb wasn't the only one who was tired out.
People began to drift out in twos and threes. I scooted to one side of the corridor's mouth, making room for them to pass, probably on their way to the kitchen. It had to be past time for lunch, though it was hard to mark the hour in this black hole. Through the gaps in the line of exiting humans, I watched Kyle and Ian.
When the game was called, Kyle had raised his hand for a high five, but Ian had stalked past him without acknowledging the gesture. Then Kyle caught his brother's shoulder and spun him around. Ian knocked Kyle's hand away. I tensed for a fight-and it seemed like one at first. Kyle threw a punch toward Ian's stomach. Ian dodged it easily, though, and I saw that there was no force behind it. Kyle laughed and used his superior reach to rub his fist into Ian's scalp. Ian smacked that hand away, but this time he halfway smiled.
"Good game, bro," I heard Kyle say. "You've still got it."
"You're such an idiot, Kyle," Ian answered.
"You got the brains; I got the looks. Seems fair."
Kyle threw another half-strength punch. This time, Ian caught it and twisted his brother into a headlock. Now he was really smiling, and Kyle was cussing and laughing at the same time.
It all looked very violent to me; my eyes narrowed, tight with the stress of watching. But at the same time, it brought to mind one of Melanie's memories: three puppies rolling on the grass, yapping furiously and baring their teeth as if their only desire was to rip out their brothers' throats.
Yes, they're playing, Melanie confirmed. The bonds of brotherhood go deep.
As they should. This is right. If Kyle really doesn't kill us, this will be a good thing.
If, Melanie repeated morosely.
I looked up, and my heart stopped beating for a slightly painful moment. It seemed that Jared was still a believer.
I shook my head. This gave me the moment I needed to be able to speak to him. "I'm not sure why, since I've done nothing besides sit here, but I'm just tired."
He held out his hand.
Get a hold of yourself, Melanie warned me. He's just being courteous.
You think I don't know that?
I tried to keep my hand from shaking as I reached for his.
He pulled me carefully to my feet-to my foot, really. I balanced there on my good leg, not sure how to proceed. He was confused, too. He still held my hand, but there was a wide space between us. I thought of how ridiculous I would look hopping through the caves, and felt my neck get warm. My fingers curled around his, though I wasn't really using him for support.
"Ah…" I frowned. "I don't really know. I suppose there's still a mat by the ho-in the storage area."
He frowned back, liking that idea no better than I did.
And then a strong arm was under my arms, supporting my weight.
"I'll get her where she needs to go," Ian said.
Jared's face was careful, the way he looked at me when he didn't want me to know what he was thinking. But he was looking at Ian now.
"We were just discussing where exactly that would be. She's tired. Maybe the hospital…?"
I shook my head at the same time Ian did. After the past horrible days spent there, I didn't think I could bear the room I'd once misguidedly feared. Especially Walter's empty bed…
"I've got a better place for her," Ian said. "Those cots aren't much softer than rock, and she's got a lot of sore spots."
Jared still held my hand. Did he realize how tightly he was gripping it? The pressure was starting to get uncomfortable, but he didn't seem aware. And I certainly wasn't going to complain.
"Why don't you get lunch?" Jared suggested to Ian. "You look hungry. I'll take her wherever you had planned…?"
Ian chuckled, a low, dark sound. "I'm fine. And honestly, Jared, Wanda needs a bit more help than a hand. I don't know if you're… comfortable enough with the situation to give her that. You see -"
Ian paused to lean down and pull me quickly up into his arms. I gasped as the movement tugged at my side. Jared didn't free my hand. My fingertips were turning red.
"-she's actually had enough exercise for one day, I think. You go on ahead to the kitchen."
They stared at each other while my fingertips turned purple.
"I can carry her," Jared finally said in a low voice.
"Can you?" Ian challenged. He held me out, away from his body.
Jared stared at my face for a long minute. Then he sighed and dropped my hand.
Ow, that hurts! Melanie complained. She was referring to the sudden lance of pain that shot through my chest, not the return of blood to my fingers.
Sorry. What do you want me to do about it?
He's not yours.
Yes. I know that.
"I think I'll tag along," Jared said as Ian, with a tiny, triumphant smile hovering around the edges of his mouth, turned and headed toward the exit. "There's something I want to discuss with you."
Jared didn't discuss anything at all as we walked through the dark tunnel. He was so quiet, I wasn't sure he was still there. But when we broke out into the light of the cornfield again, he was right beside us.
He didn't speak until we were through the big plaza-until there was no one around but the three of us.
"What's your take on Kyle?" he asked Ian.
Ian snorted. "He prides himself on being a man of his word. Usually, I would trust a promise from him. In this situation… I'm not letting her out of my sight."
"It will be fine, Ian," I said. "I'm not afraid."
"You don't have to be. I promise-no one is ever going to do something like this to you again. You will be safe here."
It was hard to look away from his eyes when they blazed like that. Hard to doubt anything he said.
"Yes," Jared agreed. "You will."
He was walking just behind Ian's shoulder. I couldn't see his expression.
"Thanks," I whispered.
No one spoke again until Ian paused at the red and gray doors that leaned over the entrance to his cave.
"Would you mind getting that?" Ian said to Jared, nodding toward the doors.
Jared didn't move. Ian turned around so we could both see him; his face was careful again.
"Your room? This is your better place?" Jared's voice was full of skepticism.
"It's her room now."
I bit my lip. I wanted to tell Ian that of course this wasn't my room, but I didn't get a chance before Jared began questioning him.
"Where's Kyle staying?"
"With Wes, for now."
"I'm not exactly sure."
They stared at each other with appraising eyes.
"Ian, this is -" I started to say.
"Oh," he interrupted, as if just remembering me… as if my weight was so insignificant that he'd forgotten I was here. "You're exhausted, aren't you? Jared, could you get the door, please?"
Wordlessly, Jared wrenched the red door back with a bit too much force and shoved it on top of the gray one.
I now really saw Ian's room for the first time, with the noon sun filtering down through the narrow cracks in the ceiling. It wasn't as bright as Jamie and Jared's room, or as tall. It was smaller, more proportionate. Roundish-sort of like my hole, only ten times the size. There were two twin mattresses on the floor, shoved against opposite walls to make a narrow aisle between them. Against the back wall, there was a long, low wooden cupboard; the left side had a pile of clothes on top, two books, and a stack of playing cards. The right side was completely empty, though there were shapes in the dust that indicated this was a recent occurrence.
Ian set me carefully down on the right mattress, arranging my leg and straightening the pillow under my head. Jared stood in the doorway, facing the passageway.
"That okay?" Ian asked me.
"You look tired."
"I shouldn't be-I've done nothing but sleep lately."
"Your body needs sleep to heal."
I nodded. I couldn't deny that it was hard to hold up my eyelids.
"I'll bring you food later-don't worry about anything."
"Thank you. Ian?"
"This is your room," I mumbled. "You'll sleep here, of course."
"You don't mind?"
"Why would I?"
"It's probably a good idea-best way to keep an eye on you. Get some sleep."
My eyes were already closed. He patted my hand, and then I heard him get to his feet. A few seconds later, the wooden door clunked softly against stone.
What do you think you're doing? Melanie demanded.
What? What did I do now?
Wanda, you're… mostly human. You must realize what Ian will think of your invitation.
Invitation? I could see the direction of her thoughts now. It's not like that. This is his room. There are two beds here. There aren't enough sleeping areas for me to have my own space. Of course we should share. Ian knows that.
Does he? Wanda, open your eyes. He's starting to… How do I explain it so that you'll understand right? To feel about you… the way you feel about Jared. Can't you see that?
I couldn't answer for two heartbeats.
That's impossible, I finally said.
"Do you think what happened this morning will influence Aaron or Brandt?" Ian asked in a low voice from the other side of the doors.
"You mean Kyle getting a bye?"
"Yeah. They didn't have to… do anything before. Not when it looked so likely that Kyle would do it for them."
"I see your point. I'll speak to them."
"You think that will be enough?" Ian asked.
"I've saved both their lives. They owe me. If I ask them for something, they'll do it."
"You'd bet her life on that?"
There was a pause.
"We'll keep an eye on her," Jared finally said.
Another long silence.
"Aren't you going to go eat?" Jared asked.
"I think I'll hang out here for a bit… How about you?"
Jared didn't answer.
"What?" Ian asked. "Is there something you want to say to me, Jared?"
"The girl in there…" Jared said slowly.
"That body doesn't belong to her."
Jared's voice was hard when he answered. "Keep your hands off it."
A low chuckle from Ian. "Jealous, Howe?"
"That's not really the issue."
"Really." Ian was sarcastic now.
"Wanda seems to be, more or less, cooperating with Melanie. It sounds like they're almost… on friendly terms. But obviously Wanda's making the decisions. What if it were you? How would you feel if you were Melanie? What if you were the one… invaded that way? What if you were trapped, and someone else was telling your body what to do? If you couldn't speak for yourself? Wouldn't you want your wishes-as much as they could be known-respected? At the very least by other humans?"
"Okay, okay. Point taken. I'll keep that in mind."
"What do you mean, you'll keep that in mind?" Jared demanded.
"I mean that I'll think about it."
"There's nothing to think about," Jared retorted. I knew how he would look from the sound of his voice-teeth clenched, jaw strained. "The body and the person locked inside it belong to me."
"You're sure that Melanie still feels the -"
"Melanie will always be mine. And I will always be hers."
Melanie and I were suddenly at opposite ends of the spectrum. She was flying, elated. I was… not.
We waited anxiously through the next silence.
"But what if it were you?" Ian asked in little more than a whisper. "What if you were stuffed in a human body and let loose on this planet, only to find yourself lost among your own kind? What if you were such a good… person that you tried to save the life you'd taken, that you almost died trying to get her back to her family? What if you then found yourself surrounded by violent aliens who hated you and hurt you and tried to murder you, over and over again?" His voice faltered momentarily. "What if you just kept doing whatever you could to save and heal these people despite that? Wouldn't you deserve a life, too? Wouldn't you have earned that much?"
Jared didn't answer. I felt my eyes getting moist. Did Ian really think so highly of me? Did he really think I'd earned the right to a life here?
"Point taken?" Ian pressed.
"I-I'll have to think about that one."
"But still -"
Ian interrupted him with a sigh. "Don't get worked up. Wanda isn't exactly human, despite the body. She doesn't seem to respond to… physical contact the same way a human would."
Now Jared laughed. "Is that your theory?"
"She is quite capable of responding to physical contact," Jared informed him, his tone suddenly sober again. "She's human enough for that. Or her body is, anyway."
My face went hot.
Ian was silent.
"Actually… I am. Surprisingly so." Ian's voice was strained. "How would you know that?"
Now Jared hesitated. "It was… sort of an experiment."
"It didn't go the way I thought it would. Mel punched me." I could hear that he was grinning at the memory, and I could see, in my head, the little lines fanning out around his eyes.
"Melanie… punched… you?"
"It sure wasn't Wanda. You should have seen her face… What? Hey, Ian, easy, man!"
"Did you think for one moment what that must have done to her?" Ian hissed.
"No, you fool, Wanda!"
"Done to Wanda?" Jared asked, sounding bewildered by the idea.
"Oh, get out of here. Go eat something. Stay away from me for a few hours."
Ian didn't give him a chance to answer. He yanked the door out of his way-roughly but very quietly-and then slid into his room and put the door back in its place.
He turned and met my gaze. From his expression, he was surprised to find me awake. Surprised and chagrined. The fire in his eyes blazed and then slowly dimmed. He pursed his lips.
He cocked his head to one side, listening. I listened, too, but Jared's retreat made no sound. Ian waited for another moment, then sighed and plunked down on the edge of his mattress, across from me.
"I guess we weren't as quiet as I thought," he said.
"Sound carries in these caves," I whispered.
He nodded. "So…" he finally said. "What do you think?"