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The Host (Chapter 36: Believed)

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The congregation relaxed, and a more enthusiastic murmur ran around the half circle.

I looked at Jamie. He pursed his lips and shrugged. "Jeb's just trying to get things back to normal. It's been a bad couple of days. Burying Walter…"

I winced.

I saw that Jeb was grinning at Jared. After a moment of resistance, Jared sighed and rolled his eyes at the strange old man. He turned and strode quickly from the cave.

"Jared got a new ball?" someone asked.

"Cool," Wes said beside me.

"Playing games," Trudy muttered, and shook her head.

"If it eases the tension," Lily responded quietly, shrugging.

Their voices were low, close beside me, but I could also hear other, louder voices.

"Easy on the ball this time," Aaron said to Kyle. He stood over him, offering his hand.

Kyle took the offered hand and got slowly to his feet. When he was standing, his head almost hit the hanging lanterns.

"The last ball was weak," Kyle said, grinning at the older man. "Structurally deficient."

"I nominate Andy for captain," someone shouted.

"I nominate Lily," Wes called out, getting to his feet and stretching.

"Andy and Lily."

"Yeah, Andy and Lily."

"I want Kyle," Andy said quickly.

"Then I get Ian," Lily countered.

"Jared."

"Brandt."

Jamie got to his feet and stood on his toes, trying to look tall.

"Paige."

"Heidi."

"Aaron."

"Wes."

The roll call continued. Jamie glowed when Lily chose him before half the adults were taken. Even Maggie and Jeb were picked for teams. The numbers were even until Lucina came back with Jared, her two small boys bouncing in excitement. Jared had a shiny new soccer ball in his hand; he held it out, and Isaiah, the older child, jumped up and down trying to knock it from his hand.

"Wanda?" Lily asked.

I shook my head and pointed to my leg.

"Right. Sorry."

I'm good at soccer, Mel grumbled. Well, I used to be.

I can hardly walk, I reminded her.

"I think I'll sit this one out," Ian said.

"No," Wes complained. "They've got Kyle and Jared. We're dead without you."

"Play," I told him. "I'll… I'll keep score."

He looked at me, his lips pressed into a thin, rigid line. "I'm not really in the mood for playing a game."

"They need you."

He snorted.

"C'mon, Ian," Jamie urged.

"I want to watch," I said. "But it will be… boring if one team has too much advantage."

"Wanda." Ian sighed. "You really are the worst liar I've ever met."

But he got up and started stretching with Wes.

Paige set up goalposts, four lanterns.

I tried to get to my feet-I was right in the middle of the field. Nobody noticed me in the dim light. All around, the atmosphere was upbeat now, charged with anticipation. Jeb had been right. This was something they needed, odd as it seemed to me.

I was able to get onto all fours, and then I pulled my good leg forward so I was kneeling on the bad. It hurt. I tried to hop up onto my good leg from there. My balance was all off, thanks to the awkward weight of my sore leg.

Strong hands caught me before I could fall on my face. I looked up, a little rueful, to thank Ian.

The words caught in my throat when I saw that it was Jared whose arms held me up.

"You could have just asked for help," he said conversationally.

"I -" I cleared my throat. "I should have. I didn't want to…"

"Call attention to yourself?" He said the words as if he were truly curious. There was no accusation in them. He helped me hobble toward the cave entrance.

I shook my head once. "I didn't want to… make anyone do anything, out of courtesy, that they didn't want to do." That didn't explain it exactly right, but he seemed to understand my meaning.

"I don't think Jamie or Ian would begrudge you a helping hand."

I glanced back at them over my shoulder. In the low light, neither had noticed I was gone yet. They were bouncing the ball off their heads, and laughing when Wes caught it in the face.

"But they're having fun. I wouldn't want to interrupt that."

Jared examined my face. I realized I was smiling in affection.

"You care about the kid quite a bit," he said.

"Yes."

He nodded. "And the man?"

"Ian is… Ian believes me. He watches over me. He can be so very kind… for a human." Almost like a soul, I'd wanted to say. But that wouldn't have sounded like the compliment it was to this audience.

Jared snorted. "For a human. A more important distinction than I'd realized."

He lowered me to the lip of the entrance. It made a shallow bench that was more comfortable than the flat floor.

"Thank you," I told him. "Jeb did the right thing, you know."

"I don't agree with that." Jared's tone was milder than his words.

"Thank you also-for before. You didn't have to defend me."

"Every word was the truth."

I looked at the floor. "It's true that I would never do anything to hurt anyone here. Not on purpose. I'm sorry that I hurt you when I came here. And Jamie. So sorry."

He sat down right beside me, his face thoughtful. "Honestly…" He hesitated. "The kid is better since you came. I'd sort of forgotten what his laugh sounded like."

We both listened to it now, echoing above the lower pitch of adult laughter.

"Thank you for telling me that. It's been my… biggest worry. I hoped I hadn't damaged anything permanently."

"Why?"

I looked up at him, confused.

"Why do you love him?" he asked, his voice still curious but not intense.

I bit my lip.

"You can tell me. I'm… I've…" He couldn't find the words to explain. "You can tell me," he repeated.

I looked at my feet as I answered. "In part because Melanie does." I didn't peek to see if the name made him flinch. "Remembering him the way she does… that's a powerful thing. And then, when I met him in person…" I shrugged. "I can't not love him. It's part of my… the very makeup of these cells to love him. I hadn't realized before how much influence a host had on me. Maybe it's just human bodies. Maybe it's just Melanie."

"She talks to you?" He kept his voice even, but I could hear the strain now.

"Yes."

"How often?"

"When she wants to. When she's interested."

"How about today?"

"Not much. She's… kind of mad at me."

He barked out a surprised laugh. "She's mad? Why?"

"Because of…" Was there such a thing as double jeopardy here? "Nothing."

He heard the lie again and made the connection.

"Oh. Kyle. She wanted him to fry." He laughed again. "She would."

"She can be… violent," I agreed. I smiled, to soften the insult.

It was no insult to him. "Really? How?"

"She wants me to fight back. But I… I can't do that. I'm not a fighter."

"I can see that." He touched my battered face with one fingertip. "Sorry."

"No. Anyone would do the same. I know what you must have felt."

"You wouldn't -"

"If I were human, I would. Besides, I wasn't thinking of that… I was remembering the Seeker."

He stiffened.

I smiled again, and he relaxed a little. "Mel wanted me to throttle her. She really hates that Seeker. And I can't… find it in myself to blame her."

"She's still searching for you. Looks like she had to return the helicopter, at least."

I closed my eyes, clenched my fists, and concentrated on breathing for several seconds.

"I didn't used to be afraid of her," I whispered. "I don't know why she scares me so much now. Where is she?"

"Don't worry. She was just up and down the highway yesterday. She won't find you."

I nodded, willing myself to believe.

"Can you… can you hear Mel now?" he murmured.

I kept my eyes closed. "I'm… aware of her. She's listening very hard."

"What's she thinking?" His voice was just a whisper.

Here's your chance, I told her. What do you want to tell him?

She was cautious, for once. The invitation unsettled her. Why? Why does he believe you now?

I opened my eyes and found him staring at my face, holding his breath.

"She wants to know what happened to make you… different now. Why do you believe us?"

He thought for a moment. "An… accumulation of things. You were so… kind to Walter. I've never seen anyone but Doc be that compassionate. And you saved Kyle's life, where most of us would have let him fall just to protect ourselves, intended murder aside. And then you're such an appalling liar." He laughed once. "I kept trying to see these things as evidence of some grand plot. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and feel that way again."

Mel and I flinched.

"But when they started attacking you today… well, I snapped. I could see in them everything that shouldn't have been in me. I realized I already did believe, and that I was just being obstinate. Cruel. I think I've believed since… well, a little bit since that first night when you put yourself in front of me to save me from Kyle." He laughed as if he didn't think Kyle was dangerous. "But I'm better at lying than you are. I can even lie to myself."

"She hopes you won't change your mind. She's afraid you will."

He closed his eyes. "Mel."

My heart thudded faster in my chest. It was her joy that sped it, not mine. He must have guessed how I loved him. After his questions about Jamie, he must have seen that.

"Tell her… that won't happen."

"She hears you."

"How… straightforward is the connection?"

"She hears what I hear, sees what I see."

"Feels what you feel?"

"Yes."

His nose wrinkled. He touched my face again, softly, a caress. "You don't know how sorry I am."

My skin felt hotter where he had touched it; it was a good heat, but his words burned hotter than his touch. Of course he was sorrier for hurting her. Of course. That shouldn't bother me.

"C'mon, Jared! Let's go!"

We looked up. Kyle was calling to Jared. He seemed utterly at ease, as if he had not been on trial for his life today. Maybe he'd known it would go his way. Maybe he was quick to get over anything. He didn't seem to notice me there beside Jared.

I realized, for the first time, that others had.

Jamie was watching us with a satisfied smile. This probably looked like a good thing to him. Was it?

What do you mean?

What does he see when he looks at us? His family, put back together?

Isn't it? Sort of?

With the one unwelcome addition.

But better than it was yesterday.

I guess…

I know, she admitted. I'm glad Jared knows I'm here… but I still don't like him touching you.

And I like it too much. My face tingled where Jared's fingers had brushed it. Sorry about that.

I don't blame you. Or, at least, I know I shouldn't.

Thanks.

Jamie wasn't the only one watching.

Jeb was curious, that little smile gathering up the corners of his beard.

Sharon and Maggie watched with fire in their eyes. Their expressions were so much the same that the youthful skin and bright hair did nothing to make Sharon look younger than her grizzled mother.

Ian was worried. His eyes were tight, and he seemed on the verge of coming to protect me again. To make sure Jared wasn't upsetting me. I smiled, to reassure him. He didn't smile back, but he took a deep breath.

I don't think that's why he's worried, Mel said.

"Are you listening to her now?" Jared was on his feet but still watching my face.

His question distracted me before I could ask her what she meant. "Yes."

"What's she saying?"

"We're noticing what the others think of your… change of heart." I nodded toward Melanie's aunt and cousin. They turned their backs on me in synchronization.

"Tough nuts," he acknowledged.

"Fine, then," Kyle boomed, turning his body toward the ball that sat under the brightest spot of light. "We'll win it without you."

"I'm coming!" Jared threw one wistful glance at me-at us-and ran to get in on the game.

I wasn't the best scorekeeper. It was too dark to see the ball from where I sat. It was too dark even to see the players well when they weren't right under the lights. I began counting from Jamie's reactions. His shout of victory when his team scored, his groan when the other team did. The groans outnumbered the shouts.

Everyone played. Maggie was the goalie for Andy's team, and Jeb was the goalie for Lily's. They were both surprisingly good. I could see their silhouettes in the light from the goalpost lamps, moving as lithely as if they were decades younger. Jeb was not afraid to hit the floor to stop a goal, but Maggie was more effective without resorting to such extremes. She was like a magnet for the invisible ball. Every time Ian or Wes got off a shot… thunk! It landed in her hands.

Trudy and Paige quit after a half hour or so and passed me on their way out, chattering with excitement. It seemed impossible that we'd started the morning with a trial, but I was relieved that things had changed so drastically.

The women weren't gone long. They came back with arms full of boxes. Granola bars-the kind with fruit filling. The game came to a halt. Jeb called halftime, and everyone hurried over to eat breakfast.

The goods were divvied up at the center line. It was a mob scene at first.

"Here you go, Wanda," Jamie said, ducking out of the group. He had his hands full of the bars, and water bottles tucked under his arms.

"Thanks. Having fun?"

"Yeah! Wish you could play."

"Next time," I said.

"Here you go…" Ian was there, his hands full of granola bars.

"Beat ya," Jamie told him.

"Oh," Jared said, appearing on Jamie's other side. He also had too many bars for one.

Ian and Jared exchanged a long glance.

"Where's all the food?" Kyle demanded. He stood over an empty box, his head swiveling around the room, looking for the culprit.

"Catch," Jared said, tossing granola bars one by one, hard, like knives.

Kyle plucked them out of the air with ease, then jogged over to see if Jared was holding out on him.

"Here," Ian said, shoving half of his haul toward his brother without looking at him. "Now go."

Kyle ignored him. For the first time today, he looked at me, staring down at me where I sat. His irises were black with the light behind him. I couldn't read his expression.

I recoiled, and caught my breath when my ribs protested.

Jared and Ian closed ranks in front of me like stage curtains.

"You heard him," Jared said.

"Can I say something first?" Kyle asked. He peered down through the space between them.

They didn't respond.

"I'm not sorry," Kyle told me. "I still think it was the right thing to do."

Ian shoved his brother. Kyle reeled back but then stepped forward again.

"Hold on, I'm not done."

"Yeah, you are," Jared said. His hands were clenched, the skin over his knuckles white.

Everyone had noticed now. The room was hushed, all the fun of the game lost.

"No, I'm not." Kyle held his hands up, a gesture of surrender, and spoke to me again. "I don't think I was wrong, but you did save my life. I don't know why, but you did. So I figure, a life for a life. I won't kill you. I'll pay the debt that way."

"You stupid jackass," Ian said.

"Who's got the crush on a worm, bro? You gonna call me stupid?"

Ian lifted his fists, leaning forward.

"I'll tell you why," I said, making my voice louder than I wanted to. But it had the effect I was after. Ian and Jared and Kyle turned to stare at me, fight forgotten for the moment.

It made me nervous. I cleared my throat. "I didn't let you fall because… because I'm not like you. I'm not saying that I'm not… like humans. Because there are others here who would do the same. There are kind and good people here. People like your brother, and Jeb, and Doc… I'm saying that I'm not like you personally."

Kyle stared at me for a minute and then chuckled. "Ouch," he said, still laughing. He turned away from us then, his message given, and walked back to get some water. "Life for a life," he called over his shoulder.

I wasn't sure I believed him. Not sure at all. Humans were good liars.

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