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The Host (Chapter 38: Touched)

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"What do I think about what?"

"About our… discussion out there," Ian clarified.

What did I think about it? I didn't know.

Somehow, Ian was able to look at things from my perspective, my alien perspective. He thought I had earned a right to my life.

But he was… jealous? Of Jared?

He knew what I was. He knew I was just a tiny creature fused into the back of Melanie's brain. A worm, as Kyle had said. Yet even Kyle thought Ian had a "crush" on me. On me? That wasn't possible.

Or did he want to know what I thought about Jared? My feelings on the experiment? More details about my responses to physical contact? I shuddered.

Or my thoughts on Melanie? Melanie's thoughts on their conversation? Whether I agreed with Jared about her rights?

I didn't know what I thought. About any of it.

"I really don't know," I said.

He nodded. "That's understandable."

"Only because you are very understanding."

He smiled at me. It was odd how his eyes could both scorch and warm. Especially with a color that was closer to ice than fire. They were quite warm at the moment.

"I like you very much, Wanda."

"I'm only just beginning to see that. I guess I'm a little slow."

"It's a surprise to me, too."

We both thought that over.

He pursed his lips. "And… I suppose… that is one of the things you don't know how you feel about?"

"No. I mean yes, I… don't know. I… I -"

"That's okay. You haven't had long to think about it. And it must seem… strange."

I nodded. "Yes. More than strange. Impossible."

"Tell me something," Ian said after a moment.

"If I know the answer."

"It's not a hard question."

He didn't ask it right away. Instead, he reached across the narrow space and picked up my hand. He held it in both of his for a moment, and then he trailed the fingers of his left hand slowly up my arm, from my wrist to my shoulder. Just as slowly, he pulled them back again. He looked at the skin of my arm rather than my face, watching the goose bumps that formed along the path of his fingers.

"Does that feel good or bad to you?" he asked.

Bad, Melanie insisted.

But it doesn't hurt, I protested.

That's not what he's asking. When he says good… Oh, it's like talking to a child!

I'm not even a year old, you know. Or am I now? I was sidetracked, trying to figure out the date.

Melanie was not distracted. Good, to him, means the way it feels when Jared touches us. The memory she provided was not one from the caves. It was in the magic canyon, at sunset. Jared stood behind her and let his hands follow the shape of her arms, from her shoulders to her wrists. I shivered at the pleasure of the simple touch. Like that.

Oh.

"Wanda?"

"Melanie says bad," I whispered.

"What do you say?"

"I say… I don't know."

When I could meet his eyes, they were warmer than I expected. "I can't even imagine how confusing this all must be to you."

It was comforting that he understood. "Yes. I'm confused."

His hand traced up and down my arm again. "Would you like me to stop?"

I hesitated. "Yes," I decided. "That… what you're doing… makes it hard for me to think. And Melanie is… angry at me. That also makes it hard to think."

I'm not angry at you. Tell him to leave.

Ian is my friend. I don't want him to leave.

He leaned away, folding his arms across his chest.

"I don't suppose she'd give us a minute alone?"

I laughed. "I doubt it."

Ian tilted his head to one side, his expression speculative.

"Melanie Stryder?" he asked, addressing her.

We both started at the name.

Ian went on. "I'd like the chance to speak with Wanda privately, if you don't mind. Is there any way that could be arranged?"

Of all the nerve! You tell him I said no chance in hell! I do not like this man.

My nose wrinkled up.

"What did she say?"

"She said no." I tried to say the words as gently as they could be said. "And that she doesn't… like you."

Ian laughed. "I can respect that. I can respect her. Well, it was worth a try." He sighed. "Kind of puts a damper on things, having an audience."

What things? Mel growled.

I grimaced. I didn't like feeling her anger. It was so much more vicious than mine.

Get used to it.

Ian put his hand on my face. "I'll let you think about things, okay? So you can decide how you feel."

I tried to be objective about that hand. It was soft against my face. It felt… nice. Not like when Jared touched me. But also different from the way it felt when Jamie hugged me. Other.

"It might take a while. None of this makes any sense, you know," I told him.

He grinned. "I know."

I realized, when he smiled then, that I wanted him to like me. The rest-the hand on my face, the fingers on my arm-I still wasn't sure at all about those. But I wanted him to like me, and to think kind things about me. Which is why it was hard to tell him the truth.

"You don't really feel that way about me, you know," I whispered. "It's this body… She's pretty, isn't she?"

He nodded. "She is. Melanie is a very pretty girl. Even beautiful." His hand moved to touch my bad cheek, to stroke the rough, scarring skin with gentle fingers. "In spite of what I've done to her face."

Normally, I would have denied that automatically. Reminded him that the wounds on my face weren't his fault. But I was so confused that my head was spinning and I couldn't form a coherent sentence.

Why should it bother me that he thought Melanie was beautiful?

You've got me there. My feelings were no clearer to her than they were to me.

He brushed my hair back from my forehead.

"But, pretty as she is, she's a stranger to me. She's not the one I… care about."

That made me feel better. Which was even more confusing.

"Ian, you don't… Nobody here separates us the way they should. Not you, not Jamie, not Jeb." The truth came out in a rush, more heated than I'd meant it to be. "You couldn't care about me. If you could hold me in your hand, me, you would be disgusted. You would throw me to the ground and grind me under your foot."

His pale forehead creased as his black brows pulled together. "I… not if I knew it was you."

I laughed without humor. "How would you know? You couldn't tell us apart."

His mouth turned down.

"It's just the body," I repeated.

"That's not true at all," he disagreed. "It's not the face, but the expressions on it. It's not the voice, but what you say. It's not how you look in that body, but the things you do with it. You are beautiful."

He moved forward as he spoke, kneeling beside the bed where I lay and taking my hand again in both of his.

"I've never known anyone like you."

I sighed. "Ian, what if I'd come here in Magnolia's body?"

He grimaced and then laughed. "Okay. That's a good question. I don't know."

"Or Wes's?"

"But you're female-you yourself are."

"And I always request whatever a planet's equivalent is. It seems more… right. But I could be put into a man and I would function just fine."

"But you're not in a man's body."

"See? That's my point. Body and soul. Two different things, in my case."

"I wouldn't want it without you."

"You wouldn't want me without it."

He touched my cheek again and left his hand there, his thumb under my jaw. "But this body is part of you, too. It's part of who you are. And, unless you change your mind and turn us all in, it's who you will always be."

Ah, the finality of it. Yes, I would die in this body. The final death.

And I will never live in it again, Melanie whispered.

It's not how either of us planned our future, is it?

No. Neither of us planned to have no future.

"Another internal conversation?" Ian guessed.

"We're thinking of our mortality."

"You could live forever if you left us."

"Yes, I could." I sighed. "You know, humans have the shortest life span of any species I've ever been, except the Spiders. You have so little time."

"Don't you think, then…" Ian paused and leaned closer to me so that I couldn't seem to see anything around his face, just snow and sapphire and ink. "That maybe you should make the most of what time you have? That you should live while you're alive?"

I didn't see it coming the way I had with Jared. Ian was not as familiar to me. Melanie realized what he was going to do before I did, just a second before his lips touched mine.

No!

It wasn't like kissing Jared. With Jared, there was no thought, only desire. No control. A spark to gasoline-inevitable. With Ian, I didn't even know what I felt. Everything was muddled and confused.

His lips were soft and warm. He pressed them only lightly to mine, and then brushed them back and forth across my mouth.

"Good or bad?" he whispered against my lips.

Bad! Bad, bad!

"I-I can't think." When I moved my mouth to speak, he moved his with it.

"That sounds… good."

His mouth pressed down with more force now. He caught my lower lip between his and pulled on it gently.

Melanie wanted to hit him-so much more than she'd wanted to punch Jared. She wanted to shove him away and then kick his face. The image was horrible. It conflicted jarringly with the sensation of Ian's kiss.

"Please," I whispered.

"Yes?"

"Please stop. I can't think. Please."

He sat back at once, clasping his hands in front of him. "Okay," he said, his tone cautious.

I pressed my hands against my face, wishing I could push out Melanie's anger.

"Well, at least nobody punched me." Ian grinned.

"She wanted to do more than that. Ugh. I don't like it when she's mad. It hurts my head. Anger is so… ugly."

"Why didn't she?"

"Because I didn't lose control. She only breaks free when I'm… overwhelmed."

He watched as I kneaded my forehead.

Calm down, I begged her. He's not touching me.

Has he forgotten that I'm here? Doesn't he care? This is me, it's me!

I tried to explain that.

What about you? Have you forgotten Jared?

She threw the memories at me the way she'd done in the beginning, only this time they were like blows. A thousand punches of his smile, his eyes, his lips on mine, his hands on my skin…

Of course not. Have you forgotten that you don't want me to love him?

"She's talking to you."

"Yelling at me," I corrected.

"I can tell now. I can see you concentrate on the conversation. I never noticed before today."

"She's not always this vocal."

"I am sorry, Melanie," he said. "I know this must be impossible for you."

Again, she visualized smashing her foot into his sculpted nose, leaving it crooked like Kyle's. Tell him I don't want his apologies.

I winced.

Ian half smiled, half grimaced. "She doesn't accept."

I shook my head.

"So she can break free? If you're overwhelmed?"

I shrugged. "Sometimes, if she takes me by surprise and I'm too… emotional. Emotion makes it hard to concentrate. But it's been more difficult for her lately. It's like the door between us is locked. I don't know why. I tried to let her out when Kyle -" I stopped talking abruptly, grinding my teeth together.

"When Kyle tried to kill you," he finished matter-of-factly. "You wanted her free? Why?"

I just stared at him.

"To fight him?" he guessed.

I didn't answer.

He sighed. "Okay. Don't tell me. Why do you think the… door is locked?"

I frowned. "I don't know. Maybe the time passing… It worries us."

"But she broke through before, to punch Jared."

"Yes." I shuddered at the memory of my fist striking his jaw.

"Because you were overwhelmed and emotional?"

"Yes."

"What did he do? Just kiss you?"

I nodded.

Ian flinched. His eyes tightened.

"What?" I asked. "What's wrong?"

"When Jared kisses you, you are… overwhelmed by emotion."

I stared at him, worried by the expression on his face. Melanie enjoyed it. That's right!

He sighed. "And when I kiss you… you aren't sure if you like it. You are not… overwhelmed."

"Oh." Ian was jealous. How very strange this world was. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I told you I'd give you time, and I don't mind waiting for you to think things through. I don't mind that at all."

"What do you mind?" Because he minded something very much.

He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I saw how you loved Jamie. That was always really obvious. I guess I should have seen that you loved Jared, too. Maybe I didn't want to. It makes sense. You came here for the two of them. You love them both, the same way Melanie did. Jamie like a brother. And Jared…"

He was looking away, staring at the wall over me. I had to look away, too. I stared at the sunlight where it touched the red door.

"How much of that is Melanie?" he wanted to know.

"I don't know. Does it matter?"

I could barely hear his answer. "Yes. It does to me." Without looking at me or seeming to notice what he was doing, Ian took my hand again.

It was very quiet for a minute. Even Melanie was still. That was nice.

Then, as though a switch had been flipped, Ian was his normal self again. He laughed.

"Time is on my side," he said, grinning. "We've got the rest of our lives in here. One day you'll wonder what you ever saw in Jared."

In your dreams.

I laughed with him, happy he was joking again.

"Wanda? Wanda, can I come in?"

Jamie's voice started from down the hall and, accompanied by the sound of his jogging steps, ended right outside the door.

"Of course, Jamie."

I already had my hand held out to him before he shrugged the door aside. I hadn't seen him nearly enough lately. Unconscious or crippled, I hadn't been free to seek him out.

"Hey, Wanda! Hey, Ian!" Jamie was all grins, his messy hair bouncing when he moved. He headed for my reaching hand, but Ian was in his way. So he settled for sitting on the edge of my mattress and resting his hand on my foot. "How are you feeling?"

"Better."

"Hungry yet? There's beef jerky and corn on the cob! I could get you some."

"I'm okay for now. How are you? I haven't seen you much lately."

Jamie made a face. "Sharon gave me detention."

I smiled. "What did you do?"

"Nothing. I was totally framed." His innocent expression was a bit overdone, and he quickly changed the subject. "Guess what? Jared was saying at lunch that he didn't think it was fair for you to have to move out of the room you were used to. He said we weren't being good hosts. He said you should move back in with me! Isn't that great? I asked him if I could tell you right away, and he said that was a good idea. He said you would be in here."

"I'll bet he did," Ian murmured.

"So what do you think, Wanda? We get to be roomies again!"

"But Jamie, where will Jared stay?"

"Wait-let me guess," Ian interrupted. "I bet he said the room was big enough for three. Am I right?"

"Yeah. How did you know?"

"Lucky guess."

"So that's good, isn't it, Wanda? It will be just like before we came here!"

It felt sort of like a razor sliding between my ribs when he said that-too clean and precise a pain to be compared to a blow or a break.

Jamie analyzed my tortured expression with alarm. "Oh. No, I mean but with you, too. It will be nice. The four of us, right?"

I tried to laugh through the pain; it didn't hurt any worse than not laughing.

Ian squeezed my hand.

"The four of us," I mumbled. "Nice."

Jamie crawled up the mattress, worming his way around Ian, to put his arms around my neck.

"Sorry. Don't be sad."

"Don't worry about it."

"You know I love you, too."

So sharp, so piercing, the emotions of this planet. Jamie had never said those words to me before. My whole body suddenly felt a few degrees warmer.

So sharp, Melanie agreed, wincing at her own pain.

"Will you come back?" Jamie begged against my shoulder.

I couldn't answer right away.

"What does Mel want?" he asked.

"She wants to live with you," I whispered. I didn't have to check to know that.

"And what do you want?"

"Do you want me to live with you?"

"You know I do, Wanda. Please."

I hesitated.

"Please?"

"If that's what you want, Jamie. Okay."

"Woo hoo!" Jamie crowed in my ear. "Cool! I'm gonna go tell Jared! I'll get you some food, too, okay?" He was already on his feet, bouncing the mattress so that I felt it in my ribs.

"Okay."

"You want something, Ian?"

"Sure, kid. I want you to tell Jared he's shameless."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. Go get Wanda some lunch."

"Sure. And I'll ask Wes for his extra bed. Kyle can come back in here, and everything will be like it should be!"

"Perfect," Ian said, and though I didn't look at his face, I knew he was rolling his eyes.

"Perfect," I whispered, and felt the razor's edge again.

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