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The Host (Chapter 39: Worried)

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Perfect, I grumbled to myself. Just perfect.

Ian was coming to join me for lunch, a big smile glued into place on his face. Trying to cheer me up… again.

I think you're overdoing the sarcasm lately, Melanie told me.

I'll keep that in mind.

I hadn't heard from her much in the past week. Neither of us was good company right now. It was better if we avoided social interaction, even with each other.

"Hey, Wanda," Ian greeted me, hopping up onto the counter beside me. He had a bowl of tomato soup in one hand, still steaming. Mine was beside me, cooled and half full. I was toying with a piece of roll, ripping it into tiny pieces.

I didn't answer him.

"Oh, come on." He put his hand on my knee. Mel's angry reaction was lethargic. She was too used to this kind of thing to really work up a good fit anymore. "They'll be back today. Before sunset, without a doubt."

"You said that three days ago, and two days ago, and again yesterday," I reminded him.

"I have a good feeling about today. Don't sulk-it's so human," he teased.

"I'm not sulking." I wasn't. I was so worried I could barely think straight. It didn't leave me energy to do anything else.

"This isn't the first raid Jamie's gone on."

"That makes me feel so much better." Again with the sarcasm. Melanie was right-I really was overusing it.

"He's got Jared and Geoffrey and Trudy with him. And Kyle's here." Ian laughed. "So there's no way they'll get into any trouble."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Okay."

He turned his attention to his food and let me stew. Ian was nice that way-always trying to give me what I wanted, even when what I wanted was unclear to either of us. His insistent attempts to distract me from the present anxiety excepted, of course. I knew I didn't want that. I wanted to worry; it was the only thing I could do.

It had been a month since I'd moved back into Jamie and Jared's room. For three weeks of that time, the four of us had lived together. Jared slept on a mattress wedged above the head of the bed where Jamie and I slept.

I'd gotten used to it-the sleeping part, at least; I was having a hard time sleeping now in the empty room. I missed the sound of two other bodies breathing.

I hadn't gotten used to waking up every morning with Jared there. It still took me a second too long to return his morning greeting. He was not at ease, either, but he was always polite. We were both very polite.

It was almost scripted at this point.

"Good morning, Wanda, how did you sleep?"

"Fine, thank you, and you?"

"Fine, thanks. And… Mel?"

"She's good, too, thanks."

Jamie's constant state of euphoria and his happy chattering kept things from becoming too strained. He talked about-and to-Melanie often, until her name was no longer the source of stress it had once been when Jared was present. Every day, it got a little bit more comfortable, the pattern of my life here a little bit more pleasant.

We were… sort of happy. Both Melanie and I.

And then, a week ago, Jared had left for another short raid-mostly to replace broken tools-and taken Jamie with him.

"You tired?" Ian asked.

I realized I was rubbing at my eyes. "Not really."

"Still not sleeping well?"

"It's too quiet."

"I could sleep with you-Oh, calm down, Melanie. You know what I meant."

Ian always noticed when Melanie's antagonism made me cringe.

"I thought they were going to be back today," I challenged.

"You're right. I guess there's no need for rearranging."

I sighed.

"Maybe you should take the afternoon off."

"Don't be silly," I told him. "I've got plenty of energy for work."

He grinned as though I'd said something that pleased him. Something he'd been hoping I would say.

"Good. I could use some help with a project."

"What's the project?"

"I'll show you-you finished there?"

I nodded.

He took my hand as he led me out of the kitchen. Again, this was so common that Melanie barely protested.

"Why are we going this way?" The eastern field did not need attention. We'd been part of the group that had irrigated it this morning.

Ian didn't answer. He was still grinning.

He led me down the eastern tunnel, past the field and into the corridor that led to only one place. As soon as we were in the tunnel, I could hear voices echoing and a sporadic thud, thud that it took me a moment to place. The stale, bitter sulfur odor helped link the sound to the memory.

"Ian, I'm not in the mood."

"You said you had plenty of energy."

"To work. Not to play soccer."

"But Lily and Wes will be really disappointed. I promised them a game of two-on-two. They worked so hard this morning to free up the afternoon…"

"Don't try to make me feel guilty," I said as we rounded the last curve. I could see the blue light of several lamps, shadows flitting in front of them.

"Isn't it working?" he teased. "C'mon, Wanda. It will be good for you."

He pulled me into the low-ceilinged game room, where Lily and Wes were passing the ball back and forth across the length of the field.

"Hey, Wanda. Hey, Ian," Lily called to us.

"This one's mine, O'Shea," Wes warned him.

"You're not going to let me lose to Wes, are you?" Ian murmured.

"You could beat them alone."

"It would still be a forfeit. I'd never live it down."

I sighed. "Fine. Fine. Be that way."

Ian hugged me with what Melanie thought was unnecessary enthusiasm. "You're my very favorite person in the known universe."

"Thanks," I muttered dryly.

"Ready to be humiliated, Wanda?" Wes taunted. "You may have taken the planet, but you're losing this game."

Ian laughed, but I didn't respond. The joke made me uneasy. How could Wes make a joke about that? Humans were always surprising me.

Melanie included. She'd been in just as miserable a mood as I was, but now she was suddenly excited.

We didn't get to play last time, she explained. I could feel her yearning to run-to run for pleasure rather than in fear. Running was something she used to love. Doing nothing won't get them home any faster. A distraction might be nice. She was already thinking strategy, sizing up our opponents.

"Do you know the rules?" Lily asked me.

I nodded. "I remember them."

Absently, I bent my leg at the knee and grabbed my ankle behind me, pulling it to stretch out the muscles. It was a familiar position to my body. I stretched the other leg and was pleased that it felt whole. The bruise on the back of my thigh was faded yellow, almost gone. My side felt fine, which made me think that my rib had never really been broken.

I'd seen my face while I was cleaning mirrors two weeks ago. The scar forming on my cheek was dark red and as big as the palm of my hand, with a dozen jagged points around the edges. It bothered Melanie more than it did me.

"I'll take the goal," Ian told me, while Lily fell back and Wes paced beside the ball. A mismatch. Melanie liked this. Competition appealed to her.

From the moment the game started-Wes kicking the ball back to Lily and then sprinting ahead to get around me for her pass-there was very little time to think. Only to react and to feel. See Lily shift her body, measure the direction this would send the ball. Cut Wes off-ah, but he was surprised by how fast I was-launch the ball to Ian and move up the field. Lily was playing too far forward. I raced her to the lantern goalpost and won. Ian aimed the pass perfectly, and I scored the first goal.

It felt good: the stretch and pull of muscle, the sweat of exertion rather than plain heat, the teamwork with Ian. We were well matched. I was quick, and his aim was deadly. Wes's goading dried up before Ian scored the third goal.

Lily called the game when we hit twenty-one. She was breathing hard. Not me; I felt good, muscles warm and limber.

Wes wanted another round, but Lily was done.

"Face it, they're better."

"We got hustled."

"No one ever said she couldn't play."

"No one ever said she was a pro, either."

I liked that-it made me smile.

"Don't be a sore loser," Lily said, reaching out to tickle Wes's stomach playfully. He caught her fingers and pulled her closer to him. She laughed, tugging away, but Wes reeled her in and planted a solid kiss on her laughing mouth.

Ian and I exchanged a quick, startled glance.

"For you, I will lose with grace," Wes told her, and then set her free.

Lily's smooth caramel skin had taken on a bit of pink on her cheeks and neck. She peeked at Ian and me to see our reaction.

"And now," Wes continued, "I'm off to get reinforcements. We'll see how your little ringer does against Kyle, Ian." He lobbed the ball into the far dark corner of the cave, where I heard it splash into the spring.

Ian trotted off to retrieve it, while I continued to look at Lily curiously.

She laughed at my expression, sounding self-conscious, which was unusual for her. "I know, I know."

"How long has… that been going on?" I wondered.

She grimaced.

"Not my business. Sorry."

"It's okay. It's not a secret-how could anything be a secret here, anyway? It's just really… new to me. It's sort of your fault," she added, smiling to show that she was teasing me.

I felt a little guilty anyway. And confused. "What did I do?"

"Nothing," she assured me. "It was Wes's… reaction to you that surprised me. I didn't know he had so much depth to him. I was never really aware of him before that. Oh, well. He's too young for me, but what does that matter here?" She laughed again. "It's strange how life and love go on. I didn't expect that."

"Yeah. Kind of funny how that happens," Ian agreed. I hadn't heard him return. He slung his arm around my shoulders. "It's nice, though. You do know Wes has been infatuated with you since he first got here, right?"

"So he says. I hadn't noticed."

Ian laughed. "Then you're the only one. So, Wanda, how about some one-on-one while we're waiting?"

I could feel Melanie's wordless enthusiasm. "Okay."

He let me have the ball first, holding back, hugging the goal area. My first shot cut between him and the post, scoring. I rushed him when he kicked off, and got the ball back. I scored again.

He's letting us win, Mel grumbled.

"Come on, Ian. Play."

"I am."

Tell him he's playing like a girl.

"Playing like a girl."

He laughed, and I slipped the ball away from him again. The taunt wasn't enough. I had an inspiration then, and I shot the ball through his goal, guessing it would probably be the last time I got to do it.

Mel objected. I don't like this idea.

I'll bet it works, though.

I put the ball back at center field. "You win, and you can sleep in my room while they're gone." I needed a good night's rest.

"First to ten." With a grunt, he launched the ball past me so hard that it rebounded off the distant, invisible wall behind my goal and came back to us.

I looked at Lily. "Was that wide?"

"No, it looked dead center to me."

"One-three," Ian announced.

It took him fifteen minutes to win, but at least I got to really work. I even squeezed in one more goal, of which I was proud. I was gasping for air when he stole the ball from me and sailed it through my goalposts for the last time.

He wasn't winded. "Ten-four, I win."

"Good game," I huffed.

"Tired?" he asked, the innocence in his tone a bit overdone. Being funny. He stretched. "I think I'm ready for bed myself." He leered in a melodramatic way.

I winced.

"Aw, Mel, you know I'm joking. Be nice."

Lily eyed us, mystified.

"Jared's Melanie objects to me," Ian told her, winking.

Her eyebrows rose. "That's… interesting."

"I wonder what's taking Wes so long?" Ian muttered, not taking much notice of her reaction. "Should we go find out? I could use some water."

"Me, too," I agreed.

"Bring some back." Lily didn't move from where she was half sprawled on the floor.

As we entered the narrow tunnel, Ian threw one arm lightly around my waist.

"You know," he said, "it's really unfair for Melanie to make you suffer when she's angry at me."

"Since when are humans fair?"

"Good point."

"Besides, she'd be glad to make you suffer, if I'd let her."

He laughed.

"That's nice about Wes and Lily, don't you think?" he said.

"Yes. They both seem very happy. I like that."

"I like it, too. Wes finally got the girl. Gives me hope." He winked at me. "Do you think Melanie would make you very uncomfortable if I were to kiss you right now?"

I stiffened for a second, then took a deep breath. "Probably."

Oh, yes.

"Definitely."

Ian sighed.

We heard Wes shouting at the same time. His voice came from the end of the tunnel, getting closer with each word.

"They're back! Wanda, they're back!"

It took me less than a second to process, and then I was sprinting. Behind me, Ian mumbled something about wasted effort.

I nearly knocked Wes down. "Where?" I gasped.

"In the plaza."

And I was off again. I flew into the big garden room with my eyes already searching. It wasn't hard to find them. Jamie was standing at the front of a group of people near the entrance to the southern tunnel.

"Hey, Wanda!" he yelled, waving.

Trudy held his arm as I ran around the edges of the field, as if she were holding him back from running to meet me.

I grabbed his shoulders with both hands and pulled him to me. "Oh, Jamie!"

"Did ya miss me?"

"Just a tiny bit. Where is everyone? Is everyone home? Is everyone okay?" Besides Jamie, Trudy was the only person here who was back from the raid. Everyone else in the little crowd-Lucina, Ruth Ann, Kyle, Travis, Violetta, Reid-was welcoming them home.

"Everyone's back and well," Trudy assured me.

My eyes swept the big cave. "Where are they?"

"Uh… getting cleaned up, unloading…"

I wanted to offer my help-anything that would get me to where Jared was so I could see with my own eyes that he was safe-but I knew I wouldn't be allowed to see where the goods were coming in.

"You look like you need a bath," I told Jamie, rumpling his dirty, knotted hair without letting go of him.

"He's supposed to go lie down," Trudy said.

"Trudy," Jamie muttered, giving her a dark look.

Trudy glanced at me quickly, then looked away.

"Lie down…?" I stared at Jamie, pulling back to get a good look at him. He didn't seem tired-his eyes were bright, and his cheeks flushed under his tan. My eyes raked over him once and then froze on his right leg.

There was a ragged hole in his jeans a few inches above his knee. The fabric around the hole was a dark reddish brown, and the ominous color spread in a long stain all the way to the cuff.

Blood, Melanie realized with horror.

"Jamie! What happened?"

"Thanks, Trudy."

"She was going to notice soon enough. C'mon, we'll talk while you limp."

Trudy put her arm under his and helped him hop forward one slow step at a time, keeping his weight on his left leg.

"Jamie, tell me what happened!" I put my arm around him from the other side, trying to carry as much of his weight as I could.

"It's really stupid. And totally my fault. And it could have happened here."

"Tell me."

He sighed. "I tripped with a knife in my hand."

I shuddered. "Shouldn't we be taking you the other way? You need to see Doc."

"That's where I'm coming from. That's where we went first."

"What did Doc say?"

"It's fine. He cleaned it and bandaged it and said to go lie down."

"And have you walk all this way? Why didn't you stay in the hospital?"

Jamie made a face and glanced up at Trudy, like he was looking for an answer.

"Jamie will be more comfortable on his bed," she suggested.

"Yeah," he agreed quickly. "Who wants to lie around on one of those awful cots?"

I looked at them and then behind me. The crowd was gone. I could hear their voices echoing back down the southern corridor.

What was that about? Mel wondered warily.

It occurred to me that Trudy wasn't a much better liar than I was. When she'd said the others from the raid were unloading and cleaning up, there was a false note to her voice. I thought I remembered her eyes flickering to the right, back toward that tunnel.

"Hey, kid! Hey, Trudy!" Ian had caught up to us.

"Hi, Ian," they greeted him at the same time.

"What happened here?"

"Fell on a knife," Jamie grunted, ducking his head.

Ian laughed.

"I don't think it's funny," I told him, my voice tight. Melanie, frantic with worry in my head, imagined slapping him. I ignored her.

"Could happen to anybody," Ian said, planting a light punch on Jamie's arm.

"Right," Jamie muttered.

"Where's everybody?"

I watched Trudy from the corner of my eye as she answered him.

"They, uh, had some unloading to finish up." This time her eyes moved toward the southern tunnel very deliberately, and Ian's expression hardened, turned enraged for half a second. Then Trudy glanced back at me and caught me watching.

Distract them, Melanie whispered.

I looked down at Jamie quickly.

"Are you hungry?" I asked him.

"Yeah."

"When aren't you hungry?" Ian teased. His face was relaxed again. He was better at deception than Trudy.

When we reached our room, Jamie sank gratefully onto the big mattress.

"You sure you're okay?" I checked.

"It's nothing. Really. Doc says I'll be fine in a few days."

I nodded, though I was not convinced.

"I'm going to go clean up," Trudy murmured as she left.

Ian propped himself against the wall, going nowhere.

Keep your face down when you lie, Melanie suggested.

"Ian?" I stared intently at Jamie's bloody leg. "Do you mind getting us some food? I'm hungry, too."

"Yeah. Get us something good."

I could feel Ian's eyes on me, but I didn't look up.

"Okay," he agreed. "I'll be back in just a second." He emphasized the short time.

I kept my gaze down, as if I were examining the wound, until I heard his footsteps fade.

"You aren't mad at me?" Jamie asked.

"Of course not."

"I know you didn't want me to go."

"You're safe now; that's all that matters." I patted his arm absentmindedly. Then I got to my feet and let my hair, now chin length, fall forward to hide my face.

"I'll be right back-I forgot something I wanted to tell Ian."

"What?" he asked, confused by my tone.

"You'll be okay here by yourself?"

"Course I will," he retorted, sidetracked.

I ducked out around the screen before he could ask anything else.

The hall was clear, Ian out of sight. I had to hurry. I knew he was already suspicious. He'd noticed that I'd noticed Trudy's awkward and artificial explanation. He wouldn't be gone long.

I walked quickly, but didn't run, as I moved through the big plaza. Purposeful, as if I were on an errand. There were only a few people there-Reid, headed for the passageway that led to the bathing pool; Ruth Ann and Heidi, paused by the eastern corridor, chatting; Lily and Wes, their backs to me, holding hands. No one paid me any attention. I stared ahead as if I were not focused on the southern tunnel, only turning in at the very last second.

As soon as I was in the pitch-black of the corridor, I sped up, jogging along the familiar path.

Some instinct told me this was the same thing-that this was a repeat of the last time Jared and the others had come home from a raid, and everyone was sad, and Doc had gotten drunk, and no one would answer my questions. It was happening again, whatever I wasn't supposed to know about. What I didn't want to know about, according to Ian. I felt prickles on the back of my neck. Maybe I didn't want to know.

Yes, you do. We both do.

I'm frightened.

Me, too.

I ran as quietly as I could down the dark tunnel.

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