The Host (Chapter 46: Encircled)

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Jamie started to sit up.

"Easy there, kid. How you feelin'?" Ian moved to press Jamie's shoulders against the mattress.

"I feel… really good. Why is everyone here? I don't remember…"

"You've been sick. Hold still so we can finish fixing you."

"Can I have some water?"

"Sure, kid. Here you go."

Doc was staring at Jamie with disbelieving eyes.

I could barely talk, my throat was so tight with joy. "It's the No Pain," I muttered. "It feels wonderful."

"Why does Jared have Sharon in a headlock?" Jamie whispered to Ian.

"She's in a bad mood," Ian stage-whispered back.

"Hold very still, Jamie," Doc cautioned. "We're going to… clean out your injury. Okay?"

"Okay," Jamie agreed in a small voice. He'd noticed the scalpel in Doc's hands. He eyed it warily.

"Tell me if you can feel this," Doc said.

"If it hurts," I amended.

With practiced skill, Doc slid the scalpel gently through the diseased skin in one swift movement. We both glanced at Jamie. He was staring straight up at the dark ceiling.

"That feels weird," Jamie said. "But it doesn't hurt."

Doc nodded to himself and brought the scalpel down again, making a cross cut. Red blood and dark yellow discharge oozed from the gash.

As soon as Doc's hand was clear, I was spraying Clean back and forth across the bloody X. When it hit the oozing secretion, the unhealthy yellow seemed to sizzle silently. It began to recede. Almost like suds hit by a spray of water. It melted. Doc was breathing fast beside me.

"Look at that."

I sprayed the area twice for good measure. Already the darker red was gone from Jamie's skin. All that was left was the normal red color of the human blood that flowed out.

"Okay, Heal," I muttered. I found the right canister and tipped the little spout over the gashes in his skin. The clear liquid trickled in, coating the raw flesh and glistening there. The bleeding stopped wherever the Heal spread. I poured half the container-surely twice as much as was needed-into the wound.

"Okay, hold the edges together for me, Doc."

Doc was speechless as this point, though his mouth hung wide. He did as I asked, using two hands to get both cuts.

Jamie laughed. "That tickles."

Doc's eyes bulged.

I smeared Seal across the X, watching with deep satisfaction as the edges fused together and faded to pink.

"Can I see?" Jamie asked.

"Let him up, Ian. We're almost done."

Jamie pulled himself up on his elbows, his eyes bright and curious. His sweaty, dirty hair was matted to his head. It didn't make sense now, next to the healthy glow of his skin.

"See, I put this on," I said, brushing a handful of glitter across the cuts, "and it makes the scar very faint. Like this." I showed him the one on my arm.

Jamie laughed. "But don't scars impress girls? Where did you get this stuff, Wanda? It's like magic."

"Jared took me on a raid."

"Seriously? That's awesome."

Doc touched the glistening powder residue on my hand, then held his fingers to his nose.

"You should have seen her," Jared said. "She was incredible."

I was surprised to hear his voice close behind me. I looked around for Sharon automatically and just caught sight of the flame of her hair leaving the room. Maggie was right behind her.

How sad. How frightening. To be filled with so much hate that you could not even rejoice in the healing of a child… How did anyone ever come to that point?

"She walked right into a hospital, right up to the alien there, and asked them to treat her injuries, bold as anything. Then, when they turned their backs, she robbed them blind!" Jared made it sound exciting. Jamie was enjoying it, too; his smile was huge. "Walked right out of there with medicine enough to last us all for a long time. She even waved at the bugger behind the counter as she drove away." Jared laughed.

I couldn't do this for them, Melanie said, suddenly chagrined. You're of more value to them than I would be.

Hush, I said. It was not a time for sadness or jealousy. Only joy. I wouldn't be here to help them without you. You saved him, too.

Jamie was staring at me with big eyes.

"It wasn't that exciting, really," I told him. He took my hand, and I squeezed his, my heart swollen with gratitude and love. "It was very easy. I'm a bugger, too, after all."

"I didn't mean -" Jared started to apologize.

I waved his protest away, smiling.

"How did you explain the scar on your face?" Doc asked. "Didn't they wonder why you hadn't -"

"I had to have fresh injuries, of course. I was careful to leave them nothing to be suspicious about. I told them I'd fallen with a knife in my hand." I nudged Jamie with my elbow. "It could happen to anyone."

I was really flying high now. Everything seemed to glow from inside-the fabrics, the faces, the very walls. The crowd inside and outside the room had begun to murmur and question, but that noise was just a ringing in my ears-like the lingering sound after a bell is struck. A shimmer in the air. Nothing seemed real but the little circle of people I loved. Jamie and Jared and Ian and Jeb. Even Doc belonged in this perfect moment.

"Fresh injuries?" Ian asked in a flat voice.

I stared at him, surprised at the anger in his eyes.

"It was necessary. I had to hide my scar. And learn how to heal Jamie."

Jared picked up my left wrist and stroked his finger over the faint pink line a few inches above it. "It was horrible," he said, all the humor suddenly gone from his sober voice. "She about hacked her hand off. I thought she'd never use it again."

Jamie's eyes widened in horror. "You cut yourself?"

I squeezed his hand again. "Don't be anxious-it wasn't that bad. I knew it would be healed quickly."

"You should have seen her," Jared repeated in a low voice, still stroking my arm.

Ian's fingers brushed across my cheek. It felt nice, and I leaned into his hand when he left it there. I wondered if it was the No Pain or just the joy of saving Jamie that made everything warm and glowing.

"No more raids for you," Ian murmured.

"Of course she'll go out again," Jared said, his voice louder with surprise. "Ian, she was absolutely phenomenal. You'd have to see to really understand. I'm only just beginning to guess at all the possibilities-"

"Possibilities?" Ian's hand slid down my neck to my shoulder. He pulled me closer to his side, away from Jared. "At what cost to her? You let her almost hack her own hand off?" His fingers flexed around the top of my arm with his inflections.

The anger didn't belong with the glow. "No, Ian, it wasn't like that," I said. "It was my idea. I had to."

"Of course it was your idea," Ian growled. "You'd do anything… You have no limits when it comes to these two. But Jared shouldn't have let you -"

"What other way was there, Ian?" Jared argued. "Did you have a better plan? Do you think she'd be happier if she was unhurt but Jamie was gone?"

I flinched at the hideous thought.

Ian's voice was less hostile when he answered. "No. But I don't understand how you could sit there and watch her do that to herself." Ian shook his head in disgust, and Jared's shoulders hunched in response. "What kind of a man -"

"A practical one," Jeb interrupted.

We all looked up. Jeb stood over us, a bulky cardboard box in his arms.

"It's why Jared's the best at getting what we need. Because he can do what has to be done. Or watch what has to be done. Even when watching's harder than doing.

"Now, I know it's closer to breakfast than supper, but I figured some of you haven't eaten in a while," Jeb went on, changing the subject without subtlety. "Hungry, kid?"

"Uh… I'm not sure," Jamie admitted. "I feel real hollow, but it doesn't feel… bad."

"That's the No Pain," I said. "You should eat."

"And drink," Doc said. "You need liquids."

Jeb let the unwieldy box fall onto the mattress. "Thought we might have a bit of a celebration. Dig in."

"Wow, yum!" Jamie said, pawing through the box of dehydrated meals of the sort that hikers used. "Spaghetti. Excellent."

"Dibs on the garlic chicken," Jeb said. "I've been missin' garlic quite a bit-though I imagine no one misses it on my breath." He chuckled.

Jeb was prepared, with bottles of water and several portable stoves. People began to gather around, squeezing together in the small space. I was wedged between Jared and Ian, and I'd pulled Jamie onto my lap. Though he was much too old for this, he didn't protest. He must have sensed how much both of us needed that-Mel and I had to feel him alive and healthy and in our arms.

The shimmering circle seemed to widen, enveloping the entire late-night supper party, making them family, too. Everyone waited contentedly for Jeb to prepare the unexpected treats, in no hurry. Fear had been replaced by relief and happy news. Even Kyle, compressed into the small space on the other side of his brother, was not unwelcome in the circle.

Melanie sighed in contentment. She was vibrantly aware of the warmth of the boy in my lap and the touch of the man who still stroked his hand against my arm. She wasn't even upset by Ian's arm around my shoulders.

You're feeling the No Pain, too, I teased her.

I don't think it's the No Pain. Not for either of us.

No, you're right. This is more than I've ever had.

This is so much of what I lost.

What was it that made this human love so much more desirable to me than the love of my own kind? Was it because it was exclusive and capricious? The souls offered love and acceptance to all. Did I crave a greater challenge? This love was tricky; it had no hard-and-fast rules-it might be given for free, as with Jamie, or earned through time and hard work, as with Ian, or completely and heartbreakingly unattainable, as with Jared.

Or was it simply better somehow? Because these humans could hate with so much fury, was the other end of the spectrum that they could love with more heart and zeal and fire?

I didn't know why I had yearned after it so desperately. All I knew was that, now that I had it, it was worth every ounce of risk and agony it had cost. It was better than I'd imagined.

It was everything.

By the time the food was prepared and consumed, the late-or rather early-hour had gotten to us all. People stumbled out of the crowded room toward their beds. As they left, there was more space.

Those remaining slouched down where we were as room became available. Gradually, we melted in place until we were horizontal. My head ended up pillowed on Jared's stomach; his hand stroked my hair now and then. Jamie's face was against my chest, and his arms were around my neck. One of my arms wrapped around his shoulders. Ian's head was cushioned on my stomach, and he held my other hand to his face. I could feel Doc's long leg stretched beside mine, his shoe by my hip. Doc was asleep-I could hear him snoring. I may have even been touching Kyle somewhere.

Jeb was sprawled on the bed. He belched, and Kyle chuckled.

"Nicer night than I was plannin' for. I like it when pessimism goes unrewarded," Jeb mused. "Thanks, Wanda."

"Mmm," I sighed, half asleep.

"Next time she raids…" Kyle said, somewhere on the other side of Jared's body. A big yawn interrupted his sentence. "Next time she raids, I'm coming, too."

"She's not going out again," Ian answered, his body tensing. I brushed my hand against his face, trying to soothe him.

"Of course not," I murmured to him. "I don't have to go anywhere unless I'm needed. I don't mind staying in here."

"I'm not talking about keeping you prisoner, Wanda," Ian explained, irritated. "You can go anywhere you want as far as I'm concerned. Jogging on the highway, if you'd like that. But not a raid. I'm talking about keeping you safe."

"We need her," Jared said, his voice harder than I wanted to hear it.

"We got by fine without her before."

"Fine? Jamie would have died without her. She can get things for us that no one else can."

"She's a person, Jared, not a tool."

"I know that. I didn't say that -"

"'S up to Wanda, I'd say." Jeb interrupted the argument just as I was about to. My hand was holding Ian down now, and I could feel Jared's body shifting under my head as he prepared to get up. Jeb's words froze them in place.

"You can't leave it up to her, Jeb," Ian protested.

"Why not? Seems like she's got her own mind. 'S it your job to make decisions for her?"

"I'll tell you why not," Ian grumbled. "Wanda?"

"Yes, Ian?"

"Do you want to go out on raids?"

"If I can help, of course I should go."

"That's not what I asked, Wanda."

I was quiet for a moment, trying to remember his question to see how I'd gotten it wrong.

"See, Jeb? She never takes into account her own wants-her own happiness, her own health, even. She'd do anything we asked her to, even if it got her killed. It's not fair to ask her things the way we'd ask each other. We stop to think about ourselves. She doesn't."

It was quiet. No one answered Ian. The silence dragged on until I felt compelled to speak for myself.

"That's not true," I said. "I think about myself all the time. And I… I want to help. Doesn't that count? It made me so happy to help Jamie tonight. Can't I find happiness the way I want to?"

Ian sighed. "See what I mean?"

"Well, I can't tell her she can't go if she wants to," Jeb said. "She's not a prisoner anymore."

"But we don't have to ask."

Jared was very quiet through all this. Jamie was quiet, too, but I was pretty sure he was asleep. I knew Jared wasn't; his hand was tracing random patterns on the side of my face. Glowing, burning patterns.

"You don't need to ask," I said. "I volunteer. It really wasn't… frightening. Not at all. The other souls are very kind. I'm not afraid of them. It was almost too easy."

"Easy? Cutting your -"

I interrupted Ian quickly. "That was an emergency. I won't have to do that again." I paused for a second. "Right?" I checked.

Ian groaned. "If she goes, I'm going, too," he said in a bleak tone. "Someone has to protect her from herself."

"And I'll be there to protect the rest of us from her," Kyle said with a chuckle. Then he grunted and said, "Ow."

I was too tired to lift my head to see who had hit Kyle now.

"And I'll be there to bring you all back alive," Jared murmured.

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