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The Host (Chapter 42: Forced)

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Ian's jaw fell slack. "You… what?"

"I'll explain in a minute. This isn't fair to you, but… please. Just kiss me."

"It won't upset you? Melanie won't bother you?"

"Ian!" I complained. "Please!"

Still confused, he put his hands on my waist and pulled my body against his. His face was so worried, I wondered if this would even work. I hardly needed the romance, but maybe he did.

He closed his eyes as he leaned toward me, an automatic thing. His lips pressed lightly against mine once, and then he pulled back to look at me with the same worried expression.

Nothing.

"No, Ian. Really kiss me. Like… like you're trying to get slapped. Do you understand?"

"No. What's wrong? Tell me first."

I put my arms around his neck. It felt strange; I wasn't at all sure how to do this right. I pushed up on my toes and pulled his head down at the same time until I could reach his lips with mine.

This wouldn't have worked with another species. Another mind wouldn't have been so easily overwhelmed by its body. Other species had their priorities in better order. But Ian was human, and his body responded.

I shoved my mouth against his, gripping his neck tighter with my arms when his first reaction was to hold me away. Remembering how his mouth had moved with mine before, I tried to mimic that movement now. His lips opened with mine, and I felt an odd thrill of triumph at my success. I caught his lower lip between my teeth and heard a low, wild sound break from his throat in surprise.

And then I didn't have to try anymore. One of Ian's hands trapped my face, while the other clamped around the small of my back, holding me so close that it was hard to pull a breath into my constricted chest. I was gasping, but so was he. His breath mingled with mine. I felt the stone wall touch my back, press against it. He used it to bind me even closer. There was no part of me that wasn't fused to part of him.

It was just the two of us, so close that we hardly counted as two.

Just us.

No one else.

Alone.

Ian felt it when I gave up. He must have been waiting for this-not as entirely ruled by his body as I'd imagined. He eased back as soon as my arms went limp, but kept his face next to mine, the tip of his nose touching the tip of mine.

I dropped my arms, and he took a deep breath. Slowly, he loosened both his hands and then placed them lightly on my shoulders.

"Explain," he said.

"She's not here," I whispered, still breathing in gasps. "I can't find her. Not even now."

"Melanie?"

"I can't hear her! Ian, how can I go back in to Jamie? He'll know that I'm lying! How can I tell him that I've lost his sister now? Ian, he's sick! I can't tell him that! I'll upset him, make it harder for him to get well. I -"

Ian's fingers pressed against my lips. "Shh, shh. Okay. Let's think about this. When was the last time you heard her?"

"Oh, Ian! It was right after I saw… in the hospital. And she tried to defend them… and I screamed at her… and I-I made her go away! And I haven't heard her since. I can't find her!"

"Shh," he said again. "Calmly. Okay. Now, what do you really want? I know you don't want to upset Jamie, but he's going to be fine regardless. So, consider-would it be better, just for you, if -"

"No! I can't erase Melanie! I can't. That would be wrong! That would make me a monster, too!"

"Okay, okay! Okay. Shh. So we have to find her?"

I nodded urgently.

He took another deep breath. "Then you need to… really be overwhelmed, don't you?"

"I don't know what you mean."

I was afraid I did, though.

Kissing Ian was one thing-even a pleasant thing, maybe, if I wasn't so racked with worry-but anything more… elaborate… Could I? Mel would be furious if I used her body that way. Was that what I had to do to find her? But what about Ian? It was so grossly unfair to him.

"I'll be right back," Ian promised. "Stay here."

He pressed me against the wall for emphasis and then ducked back out into the hallway.

It was hard to obey. I wanted to follow him, to see what he was doing and where he was going. We had to talk about this; I had to think it through. But I had no time. Jamie was waiting for me, with questions that I couldn't answer with lies. No, he wasn't waiting for me; he was waiting for Melanie. How could I have done this? What if she was really gone?

Mel, Mel, Mel, come back! Melanie, Jamie needs you. Not me-he needs you. He's sick, Mel. Mel, can you hear that? Jamie is sick!

I was talking to myself. No one heard.

My hands were trembling with fear and stress. I wouldn't be able to wait here much longer. I felt like the anxiety was going to make me swell until I popped.

Finally, I heard footsteps. And voices. Ian wasn't alone. Confusion swept through me.

"Just think of it as… an experiment," Ian was saying.

"Are you crazy?" Jared answered. "Is this some sick joke?"

My stomach dropped through the floor.

Overwhelmed. That's what he'd meant.

Blood burned in my face, hot as Jamie's fever. What was Ian doing to me? I wanted to run, to hide somewhere better than my last hiding place, somewhere I could never, ever be found, no matter how many flashlights they used. But my legs were shaking, and I couldn't move.

Ian and Jared came into view in the room where the tunnels met. Ian's face was expressionless; he had one hand on Jared's shoulder and was guiding him, almost pushing him forward. Jared was staring at Ian with anger and doubt.

"Through here," Ian encouraged, forcing Jared toward me. I flattened my back against the rock.

Jared saw me, saw my mortified expression, and stopped.

"Wanda, what's this about?"

I threw Ian one blazing glance of reproach and then tried to meet Jared's eyes.

I couldn't do it. I looked at his feet instead.

"I lost Melanie," I whispered.

"You lost her!"

I nodded miserably.

His voice was hard and angry. "How?"

"I'm not sure. I made her be quiet… but she always comes back… always before… I can't hear her now… and Jamie…"

"She's gone?" Muted agony in his voice.

"I don't know. I can't find her."

Deep breath. "Why does Ian think I have to kiss you?"

"Not kiss me," I said, my voice so faint I could barely hear it myself. "Kiss her. Nothing upset her more than when you kissed us… before. Nothing pulled her to the surface like that. Maybe… No. You don't have to. I'll try to find her myself."

I still had my eyes on his feet, so I saw him step toward me.

"You think, if I kiss her…?"

I couldn't even nod. I tried to swallow.

Familiar hands brushed my neck, tracing down either side to my shoulders. My heart thudded loud enough that I wondered if he could hear it.

I was so embarrassed, forcing him to touch me this way. What if he thought it was a trick-my idea, not Ian's?

I wondered if Ian was still there, watching. How much would this hurt him?

One hand continued, as I knew it would, down my arm to my wrist, leaving a trail of fire behind it. The other cupped beneath my jaw, as I knew it must, and pulled my face up.

His cheek pressed against mine, the skin burning where we were connected, and he whispered in my ear.

"Melanie. I know you're there. Come back to me."

His cheek slowly slid back, and his chin tilted to the side so that his mouth covered mine.

He tried to kiss me softly. I could tell that he tried. But his intentions went up in smoke, just like before.

There was fire everywhere, because he was everywhere. His hands traced my skin, burning it. His lips tasted every inch of my face. The rock wall slammed into my back, but there was no pain. I couldn't feel anything besides the burning.

My hands knotted in his hair, pulling him to me as if there were any possible way for us to be closer. My legs wrapped around his waist, the wall giving me the leverage I needed. His tongue twisted with mine, and there was no part of my mind that was not invaded by the insane desire that possessed me.

He pulled his mouth free and pressed his lips to my ear again.

"Melanie Stryder!" It was so loud in my ear, a growl that was almost a shout. "You will not leave me. Don't you love me? Prove it! Prove it! Damn it, Mel! Get back here!"

His lips attacked mine again.

Ahhh, she groaned weakly in my head.

I couldn't think to greet her. I was on fire.

The fire burned its way to her, back to the tiny corner where she drooped, nearly lifeless.

My hands fisted around the fabric of Jared's T-shirt, yanking it up. This was their idea; I didn't tell them what to do. His hands burned on the skin of my back.

Jared? she whispered. She tried to orient herself, but the mind we shared was so disoriented.

I felt the muscles of his stomach under my palms, my hands crushed between us.

What? Where… Melanie struggled.

I broke away from his mouth to breathe, and his lips scorched their way down my throat. I buried my face in his hair, inhaling the scent.

Jared! Jared! NO!

I let her flow through my arms, knowing this was what I wanted, though I could barely pay attention now. The hands on his stomach turned hard, angry. The fingers clawed at his skin and then shoved him as hard as they could.

"NO!" she shouted through my lips.

Jared caught her hands, then caught me against the wall before I could fall. I sagged, my body confused by the conflicting directions it was receiving.

"Mel? Mel!"

"What are you doing?"

He groaned in relief. "I knew you could do it! Ah, Mel!"

He kissed her again, kissed the lips that she now controlled, and we could both taste the tears that ran down his face.

She bit him.

Jared jumped back from us, and I slid to the floor, landing in a wilted heap.

He started laughing. "That's my girl. You still got her, Wanda?"

"Yes," I gasped.

What the hell, Wanda? she screeched at me.

Where have you been? Do you have any idea what I've been going through trying to find you?

Yeah, I can see that you were really suffering.

Oh, I'll suffer, I promised her. I could already feel it coming on. Just like before…

She was flipping through my thoughts as fast as she could. Jamie?

That's what I've been trying to tell you. He needs you.

Then why aren't we with him?

Because he's probably a bit young to watch this kind of thing.

She searched through some more. Wow, Ian, too. I'm glad I missed that part.

I was so worried. I didn't know what to do…

Well, c'mon. Let's go.

"Mel?" Jared asked.

"She's here. She's furious. She wants to see Jamie."

Jared put his arm around me and helped me up. "You can be as mad as you want, Mel. Just stick around."

How long was I gone?

Three days is all.

Her voice was suddenly smaller. Where was I?

You don't know?

I can't remember… anything.

We shuddered.

"You okay?" Jared asked.

"Sort of."

"Was that her before, talking to me-talking out loud?"

"Yes."

"Can she… can you let her do that now?"

I sighed. I was already exhausted. "I can try." I closed my eyes.

Can you get past me? I asked her. Can you talk to him?

I… How? Where?

I tried to flatten myself against the inside of my head. "C'mon," I murmured. "Here."

Melanie struggled, but there was no way out.

Jared's lips came down on mine, hard. My eyes flew open in shock. His gold-flecked eyes were open, too, half an inch away.

She jerked our head back. "Cut that out! Don't touch her!"

He smiled, the little creases feathering out around his eyes. "Hey, baby."

That's not funny.

I tried to breathe again. "She's not laughing."

He left his arm around me. Around us. We walked out into the tunnel junction, and there was no one there. No Ian.

"I'm warning you, Mel," Jared said, still smiling widely. Teasing. "You better stay right here. I'm not making any guarantees about what I will or won't do to get you back."

My stomach fluttered.

Tell him I'll throttle him if he touches you like that again. But her threat was a joke, too.

"She's threatening your life right now," I told him. "But I think she's being facetious."

He laughed, giddy with relief. "You're so serious all the time, Wanda."

"Your jokes aren't funny," I muttered. Not to me.

Jared laughed again.

Ah, Melanie said. You are suffering.

I'll try not to let Jamie see.

Thank you for bringing me back.

I won't erase you, Melanie. I'm sorry I can't give you more than that.

Thank you.

"What's she saying?"

"We're just… making up."

"Why couldn't she talk before, when you were trying to let her?"

"I don't know, Jared. There really isn't enough room for both of us. I can't seem to get myself out of the way completely. It's like… not like holding your breath. Like trying to pause your heartbeats. I can't make myself not exist. I don't know how."

He didn't answer, and my chest throbbed with pain. How joyful he would be if I could figure out how to erase myself!

Melanie wanted to… not to contradict me, but to make me feel better; she struggled to find words to soften my agony. She couldn't come up with the right ones.

But Ian would be devastated. And Jamie. Jeb would miss you. You have so many friends here.

Thanks.

I was glad that we were back to our room now. I needed to think about something else before I started crying. Now wasn't the time for self-pity. There were more important issues at hand than my heart, breaking yet again.

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