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The Host (Chapter 17: Visited)

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The heat hit me first-like a wall of steam, the moist, thick air rolled over me and dewed on my skin. My mouth opened automatically as I tried to pull a breath from the abruptly denser air. The smell was stronger than before-that same metallic tang that clung in my throat and flavored the water here.

The murmuring babble of bass and soprano voices seemed to issue from every side, echoing off the walls. I squinted anxiously through the swirling cloud of moisture, trying to make out where the voices came from. It was bright here-the ceiling was dazzling, like in the big room but much closer. The light danced off the vapor, creating a shimmering curtain that almost blinded me. My eyes struggled to adjust, and I clutched at Jeb's hand in panic.

I was surprised that the strangely fluid babble did not respond in any way to our entrance. Perhaps they couldn't see us yet, either.

"It's a bit close in here," Jeb said apologetically, fanning at the steam in front of his face. His voice was relaxed, conversational in tone, and loud enough to make me jump. He spoke as if we were not surrounded. And the babble continued, oblivious to his voice.

"Not that I'm complaining," he continued. "I'd be dead several times over if this place didn't exist. The very first time I got stuck in the caves, of course. And now, we'd never be able to hide out here without it. With no hiding place, we're all dead, right?"

He nudged me with his elbow, a conspiratorial gesture.

"Mighty convenient, how it's laid out. Couldn't have planned it much better if I'd sculpted it myself out of play dough."

His laugh cleared a section of mist, and I saw the room for the first time.

Two rivers flowed through the dank, high-domed space. This was the chatter that filled my ears-the water gushing over and under the purple volcanic rock. Jeb spoke as if we were alone because we were.

It was really only one river and one small stream. The stream was closest; a shallow braided ribbon of silver in the light from above, coursing between low stone banks that it seemed constantly in danger of overrunning. A feminine, high-pitched murmur purred from its gentle ripples.

The male, bass gurgle came from the river, as did the thick clouds of vapor that rose from the gaping holes in the ground by the far wall. The river was black, submerged under the floor of the cavern, exposed by wide, round erosions along the length of the room. The holes looked dark and dangerous, the river barely visible as it rushed powerfully toward an invisible and unfathomable destination. The water seemed to simmer, such was the heat and steam it produced. The sound of it, too, was like that of boiling water.

From the ceiling hung a few long, narrow stalactites, dripping toward the stalagmites beneath each one. Three of them had met, forming thin black pillars between the two bodies of flowing water.

"Got to be careful in here," Jeb said. "Quite a current in the hot spring. If you fall in, you're gone. Happened once before." He bowed his head at the memory, his face sober.

The swift black eddies of the subterranean river were suddenly horrible to me. I imagined being caught in their scalding current and shuddered.

Jeb put his hand lightly on my shoulder. "Don't worry. Just watch your step and you'll be fine. Now," he said, pointing to the far end of the cavern, where the shallow stream ran into a dark cave, "the first cave back there is the bathing room. We've dug the floor out to make a nice, deep tub. There's a schedule for taking baths, but privacy's not usually an issue-it's black as pitch. The room's nice and warm so close to the steam, but the water won't burn you like the hot spring here. There's another cave just past that one, through a crevice. We've widened the entrance up to a comfortable size. That room is the farthest we can follow the stream-it drops underground there. So we've got that room fixed up as the latrine. Convenient and sanitary." His voice had assumed a complacent tone, as if he felt credit was due to him for nature's creations. Well, he had discovered and improved the place-I supposed some pride was justified.

"We don't like to waste batteries, and most of us know the floor here by heart, but since it's your first time, you can find your way with this."

Jeb pulled a flashlight from his pocket and held it out. The sight of it reminded me of the moment he'd found me dying in the desert, when he'd checked my eyes and known what I was. I didn't know why the memory made me sad.

"Don't get any crazy ideas about maybe the river taking you out of here or something. Once that water goes underground, it doesn't come back up," he cautioned me.

Since he seemed to be waiting for some acknowledgment of his warning, I nodded once. I took the flashlight from his hand slowly, being careful not to make any quick movements that might startle him.

He smiled in encouragement.

I followed his directions quickly-the sound of the rushing water was not making my discomfort any easier to bear. It felt very strange to be out of his sight. What if someone had hidden in these caves, guessing I would have to come here eventually? Would Jeb hear the struggle over the cacophony of the rivers?

I shone the flashlight all around the bathing room, looking for any sign of an ambush. The odd flickering shadows it made were not comforting, but I found no substance to my fears. Jeb's tub was more the size of a small swimming pool and black as ink. Under the surface, a person would be invisible as long as they could hold their breath… I hurried through the slender crack at the back of the room to escape my imaginings. Away from Jeb, I was nearly overwhelmed with panic-I couldn't breathe normally; I could barely hear over the sound of my pulse racing behind my ears. I was more running than walking when I made my way back to the room with the rivers.

To find Jeb standing there, still in the same pose, still alone, was like a balm to my splintered nerves. My breathing and my heartbeat slowed. Why this crazy human should be such a comfort to me, I couldn't understand. I supposed it was like Melanie had said, desperate times.

"Not too shabby, eh?" he asked, a grin of pride on his face.

I nodded once again and returned the flashlight.

"These caves are a great gift," he said as we started back toward the dark passageway. "We wouldn't be able to survive in a group like this without them. Magnolia and Sharon were getting along real well-shockingly well-up there in Chicago, but they were pushing their luck hiding two. It's mighty nice to have a community again. Makes me feel downright human."

He took my elbow once more as we climbed the rough stair-case out.

"I'm sorry about the, um, accommodations we've got you in. It was the safest place I could think of. I'm surprised those boys found you as quick as they did." Jeb sighed. "Well, Kyle gets real… motivated. But I suppose it's all for the best. Might as well get used to how things are going to be. Maybe we can find something more hospitable for you. I'll think on it… While I'm with you, at least, you don't really have to cram yourself into that little hole. You can sit in the hall with me if you prefer. Though with Jared…" He trailed off.

I listened to his apologetic words in wonder; this was so much more kindness than I'd hoped for, more compassion than I'd thought this species was capable of giving their enemies. I patted the hand on my elbow lightly, hesitantly, trying to convey that I understood and wouldn't cause a problem. I was sure Jared much preferred to have me out of sight.

Jeb had no trouble translating my wordless communication. "That's a good girl," he said. "We'll figure this all out somehow. Doc can just concentrate on healin' human folks. You're much more interesting alive, I think."

Our bodies were close enough that he was able to feel me tremble.

"Don't worry. Doc's not going to bother you now."

I couldn't stop shivering. Jeb could only promise me now. There was no guarantee that Jared would not decide my secret was more important than protecting Melanie's body. I knew that such a fate would make me wish Ian had succeeded last night. I swallowed, feeling the bruising that seemed to go all the way through my neck to the inside walls of my throat.

You never know how much time you'll have, Melanie had said so many days ago, when my world was still under control.

Her words echoed in my head as we reentered the big room, the main plaza of Jeb's human community. It was full, like the first night, everyone there to glare at us with eyes that blazed anger and betrayal when they looked at him and murder when they looked at me. I kept my gaze down on the rock under my feet. From the corner of my eye, I could see that Jeb held his gun ready again.

It was only a matter of time, indeed. I could feel it in the atmosphere of hate and fear. Jeb could not protect me long.

It was a relief to scrape back through the narrow crevice, to look forward to the winding black labyrinth and my cramped hiding place; I could hope to be alone there.

Behind me, a furious hissing, like a nest of goaded snakes, echoed in the big cavern. The sound made me wish Jeb would lead me through the labyrinth at a quicker pace.

Jeb chuckled under his breath. He seemed to get stranger the longer I was around him. His sense of humor mystified me as much as his motivations did.

"It gets a bit tedious down here sometimes, you know," he murmured to me, or to himself. With Jeb, it was hard to tell. "Maybe when they get over being cheesed off at me, they'll realize they appreciate all the excitement I'm providing."

Our path through the dark twisted in a serpentine fashion. It didn't feel at all familiar. Perhaps he took a different route to keep me lost. It seemed to take more time than before, but finally I could see the dim blue light of the lamp shining from around the next curve.

I braced myself, wondering if Jared would be there again. If he was, I knew he would be angry. I was sure he wouldn't approve of Jeb taking me for a field trip, no matter how necessary it might have been.

As soon as we rounded the corner, I could see that there was a figure slumped against the wall beside the lamp, casting a long shadow toward us, but it was obviously not Jared. My hand clutched at Jeb's arm, an automatic spasm of fear.

And then I really looked at the waiting figure. It was smaller than me-that was how I'd known it was not Jared-and thin. Small, but also too tall and too wiry. Even in the dim light of the blue lamp, I could see that his skin was dyed to a deep brown by the sun, and that his silky black hair now fell unkempt past his chin.

My knees buckled.

My hand, grasping Jeb's arm in panic, held on for support.

"Well, for Pete's sake!" Jeb exclaimed, obviously irritated. "Can't nobody keep a secret around this place for more'n twenty-four hours? Gol' durn, this burns me up! Bunch of gossipmongers…" He trailed off into a grumble.

I didn't even try to understand the words Jeb was saying; I was locked in the fiercest battle of my life-of every life I'd ever lived.

I could feel Melanie in each cell of my body. My nerve endings tingled in recognition of her familiar presence. My muscles twitched in anticipation of her direction. My lips trembled, trying to open. I leaned forward toward the boy in the hall, my body reaching because my arms would not.

Melanie had learned many things the few times I'd ceded or lost my command to her, and I truly had to struggle against her-so hard that fresh sweat beaded on my brow. But I was not dying in the desert now. Nor was I weak and dizzy and taken off guard by the appearance of someone I'd given up for lost; I'd known this moment might come. My body was resilient, quick to heal-I was strong again. The strength of my body gave strength to my control, to my determination.

I drove her from my limbs, chased her from every hold she'd found, thrust her back into the recesses of my mind, and chained her there.

Her surrender was sudden and total. Aaah, she sighed, and it was almost a moan of pain.

I felt strangely guilty as soon as I'd won.

I'd already known that she was more to me than a resistant host who made life unnecessarily difficult. We'd become companions, even confidantes during our past weeks together-ever since the Seeker had united us against a common enemy. In the desert, with Kyle's knife over my head, I'd been glad that if I had to die I would not be the one to kill Melanie; even then, she was more than a body to me. But now it seemed like something beyond that. I regretted causing her pain.

It was necessary, though, and she didn't seem to grasp that. Any word we said wrong, any poorly considered action would mean a quick execution. Her reactions were too wild and emotional. She would get us into trouble.

You have to trust me now, I told her. I'm just trying to keep us alive. I know you don't want to believe your humans could hurt us…

But it's Jamie, she whispered. She yearned for the boy with an emotion so strong that it weakened my knees again.

I tried to look at him impartially-this sullen-faced teenager slumped against the tunnel wall with his arms folded tightly across his chest. I tried to see him as a stranger and plan my response, or lack of response, accordingly. I tried, but I failed. He was Jamie, he was beautiful, and my arms-mine, not Melanie's-longed to hold him. Tears filled my eyes and trickled down my face. I could only hope they were invisible in the dim light.

"Jeb," Jamie said-a gruff greeting. His eyes passed swiftly over me and away.

His voice was so deep! Could he really be so old? I realized with a double pang of guilt that I'd just missed his fourteenth birthday. Melanie showed me the day, and I saw that it was the same day as the first dream with Jamie. She'd struggled so hard all through the waking hours to keep her pain to herself, to cloud her memories in order to protect the boy, that he'd come out in her dream. And I'd e-mailed the Seeker.

I shuddered now in disbelief that I'd ever been so callous.

"Whatcha doing here, kid?" Jeb demanded.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Jamie demanded back.

Jeb went silent.

"Was that Jared's idea?" Jamie pressed.

Jeb sighed. "Okay, so you know. What good does that do you, eh? We only wanted to -"

"To protect me?" he interrupted, surly.

When did he get so bitter? Was it my fault? Of course it was.

Melanie began sobbing in my head. It was distracting, loud-it made Jeb and Jamie's voices sound farther away.

"Fine, Jamie. So you don't need protecting. What do you want?"

This quick capitulation seemed to throw Jamie off. His eyes darted between Jeb's face and mine while he struggled to come up with a request.

"I-I want to talk with her… with it," he finally said. His voice was higher when he was unsure.

"She doesn't say much," Jeb told him, "but you're welcome to try, kid."

Jeb pried my fingers off his arm. When he was free, he turned his back to the nearest wall, leaning into it as he eased himself to the floor. He settled in there, fidgeting until he found a comfortable position. The gun stayed balanced in the cradle of his lap. Jeb's head lolled back against the wall, and his eyes closed. In seconds, he looked like he was asleep.

I stood where he'd left me, trying to keep my eyes off Jamie's face and failing.

Jamie was surprised again by Jeb's easy acquiescence. He watched the old man recline on the floor with wide eyes that made him look younger. After a few minutes of perfect stillness from Jeb, Jamie looked back up at me, and his eyes tightened.

The way he stared at me-angry, trying hard to be brave and grown-up, but also showing the fear and pain so clearly in his dark eyes-had Melanie sobbing louder and my knees shaking. Rather than take a chance with another collapse, I moved slowly to the tunnel wall across from Jeb and slid down to the floor. I curled up around my bent legs, trying to be as small as possible.

Jamie watched me with cautious eyes and then took four slow steps forward until he stood over me. His glance flitted to Jeb, who hadn't moved or opened his eyes, and then Jamie knelt down at my side. His face was suddenly intense, and it made him look more adult than any expression yet. My heart throbbed for the sad man in the little boy's face.

"You're not Melanie," he said in a low voice.

It was harder not to speak to him because I was the one who wanted to speak. Instead, after a brief hesitation, I shook my head.

"You're inside her body, though."

Another pause, and I nodded.

"What happened to your… to her face?"

I shrugged. I didn't know what my face looked like, but I could imagine.

"Who did this to you?" he pressed. With a hesitant finger, he almost touched the side of my neck. I held still, feeling no urge to cringe away from this hand.

"Aunt Maggie, Jared, and Ian," Jeb listed off in a bored voice. We both jumped at the sound. Jeb hadn't moved, and his eyes were still closed. He looked so peaceful, as if he had answered Jamie's question in his sleep.

Jamie waited for a moment, then turned back to me with the same intense expression.

"You're not Melanie, but you know all her memories and stuff, right?"

I nodded again.

"Do you know who I am?"

I tried to swallow the words, but they slipped through my lips. "You're Jamie." I couldn't help how my voice wrapped around the name like a caress.

He blinked, startled that I had broken my silence. Then he nodded. "Right," he whispered back.

We both looked at Jeb, who remained still, and back at each other.

"Then you remember what happened to her?" he asked.

I winced, and then nodded slowly.

"I want to know," he whispered.

I shook my head.

"I want to know," Jamie repeated. His lips trembled. "I'm not a kid. Tell me."

"It's not… pleasant," I breathed, unable to stop myself. It was very hard to deny this boy what he wanted.

His straight black eyebrows pulled together and up in the middle over his wide eyes. "Please," he whispered.

I glanced at Jeb. I thought that maybe he was peeking from between his lashes now, but I couldn't be sure.

My voice was soft as breathing. "Someone saw her go into a place that was off-limits. They knew something was wrong. They called the Seekers."

He flinched at the title.

"The Seekers tried to get her to surrender. She ran from them. When they had her cornered, she jumped into an open elevator shaft."

I recoiled from the memory of pain, and Jamie's face went white under his tan.

"She didn't die?" he whispered.

"No. We have very skilled Healers. They mended her quickly. Then they put me in her. They hoped I would be able to tell them how she had survived so long." I had not meant to say so much; my mouth snapped shut. Jamie didn't seem to notice my slip, but Jeb's eyes opened slowly and fixed on my face. No other part of him moved, and Jamie didn't see the change.

"Why didn't you let her die?" he asked. He had to swallow hard; a sob was threatening in his voice. This was all the more painful to hear because it was not the sound a child makes, frightened of the unknown, but the fully comprehending agony of an adult. It was so hard not to reach out and put my hand on his cheek. I wanted to hug him to me and beg him not to be sad. I curled my hands into fists and tried to concentrate on his question. Jeb's eyes flickered to my hands and back to my face.

"I wasn't in on the decision," I murmured. "I was still in a hibernation tank in deep space when that happened."

Jamie blinked again in surprise. My answer was nothing he'd expected, and I could see him struggling with some new emotion. I glanced at Jeb; his eyes were bright with curiosity.

The same curiosity, though more wary, won out with Jamie. "Where were you coming from?" he asked.

In spite of myself, I smiled at his unwilling interest. "Far away. Another planet."

"What was -" he started to ask, but he was interrupted by another question.

"What the hell?" Jared shouted at us, frozen with fury in the act of rounding the corner at the end of the tunnel. "Damn it, Jeb! We agreed not to -"

Jamie wrenched himself upright. "Jeb didn't bring me here. But you should have."

Jeb sighed and got slowly to his feet. As he did so, the gun rolled from his lap onto the floor. It stopped only a few inches from me. I scooted away, uncomfortable.

Jared had a different reaction. He lunged toward me, closing the length of the hallway in a few running strides. I cowered into the wall and covered my face with my arms. Peeking around my elbow, I watched him jerk the gun up from the floor.

"Are you trying to get us killed?" he almost screamed at Jeb, shoving the gun into the old man's chest.

"Calm down, Jared," Jeb said in a tired voice. He took the gun in one hand. "She wouldn't touch this thing if I left it down here alone with her all night. Can't you see that?" He stabbed the barrel of the gun toward me, and I cringed away. "She's no Seeker, this one."

"Shut up, Jeb, just shut up!"

"Leave him alone," Jamie shouted. "He didn't do anything wrong."

"You!" Jared shouted back, turning on the slim, angry figure. "You get out of here now, or so help me!"

Jamie balled his fists and stood his ground.

Jared's fists came up, too.

I was rooted in place with shock. How could they scream at each other this way? They were family, the bonds between them stronger than any blood tie. Jared wouldn't hit Jamie-he couldn't! I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what to do. Anything that brought me to their attention would only make them angrier.

For once, Melanie was calmer than I was. He can't hurt Jamie, she thought confidently. It's not possible.

I looked at them, facing off like enemies, and panicked.

We should never have come here. See how unhappy we've made them, I moaned.

"You shouldn't have tried to keep this a secret from me," Jamie said between his teeth. "And you shouldn't have hurt her." One of his hands unclenched and flew out to point at my face.

Jared spit on the floor. "That's not Melanie. She's never coming back, Jamie."

"That's her face," Jamie insisted. "And her neck. Don't the bruises there bother you?"

Jared dropped his hands. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "You will either leave right now, Jamie, and give me some space, or I will make you leave. I am not bluffing. I can't deal with any more right now, okay? I'm at my limit. So can we please have this conversation later?" He opened his eyes again; they were full of pain.

Jamie looked at him, and the anger drained slowly from his face. "Sorry," he muttered after a moment. "I'll go… but I'm not promising that I won't come back."

"I can't think about that now. Go. Please."

Jamie shrugged. He threw one more searching look at me, and then he left, his quick, long stride making me ache again for the time I'd missed.

Jared looked at Jeb. "You, too," he said in a flat voice.

Jeb rolled his eyes. "I don't think you've had a long enough break, to be honest. I'll keep an eye on -"

"Go."

Jeb frowned thoughtfully. "Okay. Sure." He started down the hall.

"Jeb?" Jared called after him.

"Yeah?"

"If I asked you to shoot it right now, would you do it?"

Jeb kept walking slowly, not looking at us, but his words were clear. "I'd have to. I follow my own rules. So don't ask me unless you really mean it."

He disappeared into the dark.

Jared watched him go. Before he could turn his glower on me, I ducked into my uncomfortable sanctuary and curled up in the back corner.

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