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The Host (Chapter 14: Disputed)

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It was too much for both of us, seeing him here, now, after already accepting that we'd never see him again, after believing that we'd lost him forever. It froze me solid, made me unable to react. I wanted to look at Uncle Jeb, to understand his heartbreaking answer in the desert, but I couldn't move my eyes. I stared at Jared's face, uncomprehending.

Melanie reacted differently.

"Jared," she cried; through my damaged throat the sound was just a croak.

She jerked me forward, much the same way as she had in the desert, assuming control of my frozen body. The only difference was that this time, it was by force.

I wasn't able to stop her fast enough.

She lurched forward, raising my arms to reach out for him. I screamed a warning at her in my head, but she wasn't listening to me. She was barely aware that I was even there.

No one tried to stop her as she staggered toward him. No one but me. She was within inches of touching him, and still she didn't see what I saw. She didn't see how his face had changed in the long months of separation, how it had hardened, how the lines pulled in different directions now. She didn't see that the unconscious smile she remembered would not physically fit on this new face. Only once had she seen his face turn dark and dangerous, and that expression was nothing to the one he wore now. She didn't see, or maybe she didn't care.

His reach was longer than mine.

Before Melanie could make my fingers touch him, his arm shot out and the back of his hand smashed into the side of my face. The blow was so hard that my feet left the ground before my head slammed into the rock floor. I heard the rest of my body hit the floor with dull thumps, but I didn't feel it. My eyes rolled back in my head, and a ringing sound shimmered in my ears. I fought the dizziness that threatened to spin me unconscious.

Stupid, stupid, I whimpered at her. I told you not to do that!

Jared's here, Jared's alive, Jared's here. She was incoherent, chanting the words like they were lyrics to a song.

I tried to focus my eyes, but the strange ceiling was blinding. I twisted my head away from the light and then swallowed a sob as the motion sent daggers of agony through the side of my face.

I could barely handle the pain of this one spontaneous blow. What hope did I have of enduring an intensive, calculated onslaught?

There was a shuffle of feet beside me; my eyes moved instinctively to find the threat, and I saw Uncle Jeb standing over me. He had one hand half stretched out toward me, but he hesitated, looking away. I raised my head an inch, stifling another moan, to see what he saw.

Jared was walking toward us, and his face was the same as those of the barbarians in the desert-only it was beautiful rather than frightening in its fury. My heart faltered and then beat unevenly, and I wanted to laugh at myself. Did it matter that he was beautiful, that I loved him, when he was going to kill me?

I stared at the murder in his expression and tried to hope that rage would win out over expediency, but a true death wish evaded me.

Jeb and Jared locked eyes for a long moment. Jared's jaw clenched and unclenched, but Jeb's face was calm. The silent confrontation ended when Jared suddenly exhaled in an angry gust and took a step back.

Jeb reached down for my hand and put his other arm around my back to pull me up. My head whirled and ached; my stomach heaved. If it hadn't been empty for days, I might have thrown up. It was like my feet weren't touching the ground. I wobbled and pitched forward. Jeb steadied me and then gripped my elbow to keep me standing.

Jared watched all this with a teeth-baring grimace. Like an idiot, Melanie struggled to move toward him again. But I was over the shock of seeing him here and less stupid than she was now. She wouldn't break through again. I locked her away behind every bar I could create in my head.

Just be quiet. Can't you see how he loathes me? Anything you say will make it worse. We're dead.

But Jared's alive, Jared's here, she crooned.

The quiet in the cavern dissolved; whispers came from every side, all at the same time, as if I'd missed some cue. I couldn't make out any meanings in the hissing murmurs.

My eyes darted around the mob of humans-every one of them an adult, no smaller, younger figure among them. My heart ached at the absence, and Melanie fought to voice the question. I hushed her firmly. There wasn't anything to see here, nothing but anger and hatred on strangers' faces, or the anger and hatred on Jared's face.

Until another man pushed his way through the whispering throng. He was built slim and tall, his skeletal structure more obvious under his skin than most. His hair was washed out, either pale brown or a dark, nondescript blond. Like his bland hair and his long body, his features were mild and thin. There was no anger in his face, which was why it held my eye.

The others made way for this apparently unassuming man as if he had some status among them. Only Jared didn't defer to him; he held his ground, staring only at me. The tall man stepped around him, not seeming to notice the obstacle in his path any more than he would a pile of rock.

"Okay, okay," he said in an oddly cheery voice as he circled Jared and came to face me. "I'm here. What have we got?"

It was Aunt Maggie who answered him, appearing at his elbow.

"Jeb found it in the desert. Used to be our niece Melanie. It seemed to be following the directions he gave her." She flashed a dirty look at Jeb.

"Mm-hm," the tall, bony man murmured, his eyes appraising me curiously. It was strange, that appraisal. He looked as if he liked what he saw. I couldn't fathom why he would.

My gaze shied away from his, to another woman-a young woman who peered around his side, her hand resting on his arm-my eyes drawn by her vivid hair.

Sharon! Melanie cried.

Melanie's cousin saw the recognition in my eyes, and her face hardened.

I pushed Melanie roughly to the back of my head. Shhh!

"Mm-hm," the tall man said again, nodding. He reached one hand out to my face and seemed surprised when I recoiled from it, flinching into Jeb's side.

"It's okay," the tall man said, smiling a little in encouragement. "I won't hurt you."

He reached toward my face again. I shrunk into Jeb's side like before, but Jeb flexed his arm and nudged me forward. The tall man touched my jaw below my ear, his fingers gentler than I expected, and turned my face away. I felt his finger trace a line on the back of my neck, and I realized that he was examining the scar from my insertion.

I watched Jared's face from the corner of my eye. What this man was doing clearly upset him, and I thought I knew why-how he must have hated that slender pink line on my neck.

Jared frowned, but I was surprised that some of the anger had drained from his expression. His eyebrows pulled together. It made him look confused.

The tall man dropped his hands and stepped away from me. His lips were pursed, his eyes alight with some challenge.

"She looks healthy enough, aside from some recent exhaustion, dehydration, and malnourishment. I think you've put enough water back into her so that the dehydration won't interfere. Okay, then." He made an odd, unconscious motion with his hands, as if he were washing them. "Let's get started."

Then his words and his brief examination fit together and I understood-this gentle-seeming man who had just promised not to hurt me was the doctor.

Uncle Jeb sighed heavily and closed his eyes.

The doctor held a hand out to me, inviting me to put mine in his. I clenched my hands into fists behind my back. He looked at me carefully again, appraising the terror in my eyes. His mouth turned down, but it was not a frown. He was considering how to proceed.

"Kyle, Ian?" he called, craning his neck to search the assembly for the ones he summoned. My knees wobbled when the two big black-haired brothers pressed their way forward.

"I think I need some help. Maybe if you were to carry -" the doctor, who did not look quite so tall standing beside Kyle, began to say.

"No."

Everyone turned to see where the dissent had come from. I didn't need to look, because I recognized the voice. I looked at him anyway.

Jared's eyebrows pressed down hard over his eyes; his mouth was twisted into a strange grimace. So many emotions ran across his face, it was hard to pin one down. Anger, defiance, confusion, hatred, fear… pain.

The doctor blinked, his face going slack with surprise. "Jared? Is there a problem?"

"Yes."

Everyone waited. Beside me, Jeb was holding the corners of his lips down as if they were trying to lift into a grin. If that was the case, then the old man had an odd sense of humor.

"And it is?" the doctor asked.

Jared answered through his teeth. "I'll tell you the problem, Doc. What's the difference between letting you have it or Jeb putting a bullet in its head?"

I trembled. Jeb patted my arm.

The doctor blinked again. "Well" was all he said.

Jared answered his own question. "The difference is, if Jeb kills it, at least it dies cleanly."

"Jared." The doctor's voice was soothing, the same tone he'd used on me. "We learn so much each time. Maybe this will be the time -"

"Hah!" Jared snorted. "I don't see much progress being made, Doc."

Jared will protect us, Melanie thought faintly.

It was hard to concentrate enough to form words. Not us, just your body.

Close enough… Her voice seemed to come from some distance, from outside my pounding head.

Sharon took a step forward so that she stood half in front of the doctor. It was a strangely protective stance.

"There's no point in wasting an opportunity," she said fiercely. "We all realize that this is hard for you, Jared, but in the end it's not your decision to make. We have to consider what's best for the majority."

Jared glowered at her. "No." The word was a snarl.

I could tell he had not whispered the word, yet it was very quiet in my ears. In fact, everything was suddenly quiet. Sharon's lips moved, her finger jabbed at Jared viciously, but all I heard was a soft hissing. Neither one of them took a step, but they seemed to be drifting away from me.

I saw the dark-haired brothers step toward Jared with angry faces. I felt my hand try to rise in protest, but it only twitched limply. Jared's face turned red when his lips parted, and the tendons in his neck strained like he was shouting, but I heard nothing. Jeb let go of my arm, and I saw the dull gray of the rifle's barrel swing up beside me. I cringed away from the weapon, though it was not pointed in my direction. This upset my balance, and I watched the room tip very slowly to one side.

"Jamie," I sighed as the light swirled away from my eyes.

Jared's face was suddenly very close, leaning over me with a fierce expression.

"Jamie?" I breathed again, this time a question. "Jamie?"

Jeb's gruff voice answered from somewhere far away.

"The kid is fine. Jared brought him here."

I looked at Jared's tormented face, fast disappearing into the dark mist that covered my eyes.

"Thank you," I whispered.

And then I was lost in the darkness.

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