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The Host (Chapter 45: Succeeded)

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Healer Knits Fire and Cerulean walked through the door together. The Healer handed me a tall glass of water. It didn't feel as cold as the first-my fingers were cold with fear now. The dark-skinned woman had something for me, too. She handed me a flat rectangle with a handle.

"I thought you would want to see," Knits Fire said with a warm smile.

The tension flooded out of me. There was no suspicion or fear. Just more kindness from the souls who had dedicated their lives to Healing.

Cerulean had given me a mirror.

I held it up and then tried to stifle my gasp.

My face looked the way I remembered it from San Diego. The face I'd taken for granted there. The skin was smooth and peachy across my right cheekbone. If I looked carefully, it was just a little lighter and pinker in color than the tan on the other cheek.

It was a face that belonged to Wanderer, the soul. It belonged here, in this civilized place where there was no violence and no horror.

I realized why it was so easy to lie to these gentle creatures. Because it felt right to talk with them, because I understood their communication and their rules. The lies could be… maybe should be true. I should be filling a Calling somewhere, whether teaching at a university or serving food in a restaurant. A peaceful, easy life contributing to a greater good.

"What do you think?" the Healer asked.

"I look perfect. Thank you."

"It was my pleasure to heal you."

I looked at myself again, seeing details beyond the perfection. My hair was ragged-dirty, with uneven ends. There was no gloss to it-homemade soap and poor nutrition were to blame for that. Though the Healer had cleaned the blood from my neck, it was still smudged with purple dust.

"I think it's time I called the camping trip quits. I need to clean up," I murmured.

"Do you camp often?"

"In all my free time, lately. I… can't seem to keep away from the desert."

"You must be brave. I find the city much more comfortable."

"Not brave-just different."

In the mirror, my eyes were familiar rings of hazel. Dark gray on the outside, a circle of moss green, and then another circle of caramel brown around the pupil. Underlying it all, a faint shimmer of silver that would reflect the light, magnify it.

Jamie? Mel asked urgently, beginning to feel nervous. I was too comfortable here. She could see the logic of the other path laid out before me, and that frightened her.

I know who I am, I told her.

I blinked, then looked back at the friendly faces beside me.

"Thank you," I said again to the Healer. "I suppose I'd better be on my way."

"It's very late. You could sleep here if you'd like."

"I'm not tired. I feel… perfect."

The Healer grinned. "No Pain does that."

Cerulean walked me to the reception area. She put her hand on my shoulder as I stepped through the door.

My heart beat faster. Had she noticed that my pack, once flat, was now bulging?

"Be more careful, dear," she said, and patted my arm.

"I will. No more hikes in the dark."

She smiled and went back to her desk.

I kept my pace even as I walked through the parking lot. I wanted to run. What if the Healer looked in her cabinets? How soon would she realize why they were half empty?

The car was still there, in the pocket of darkness created by a gap between streetlights. It looked empty. My breath came fast and uneven. Of course it should look empty. That was the whole point. But my lungs didn't calm until I could glimpse the vague shape under the blanket on the backseat.

I opened the door and put the backpack on the passenger seat-it settled there with a reassuring clatter-then I climbed in and shut the door. There was no reason to slam the locks down; I ignored the urge.

"Are you okay?" Jared whispered as soon as the door was closed. His voice was a strained, anxious rasp.

"Shh," I said, keeping my lips as still as I could. "Wait."

I drove past the bright entrance and answered Cerulean's wave with one of my own.

"Making friends?"

We were on the dark road. No one was watching me anymore. I slumped in the seat. My hands started to shake. I could allow that, now that it was over. Now that I'd succeeded.

"All souls are friends," I told him, using my normal volume.

"Are you all right?" he demanded again.

"I'm healed."

"Let me see."

I stretched my left arm across my body, so he could see the tiny pink line.

He sucked in a surprised breath.

The blanket rustled; he sat up and then climbed through the space between the seats. He pushed the backpack out of the way, then pulled it onto his lap, testing its weight.

He looked up at me as we passed under a streetlamp, and he gasped.

"Your face!"

"It's healed, too. Naturally."

He raised one hand, holding it in the air near my cheek, unsure. "Does it hurt?"

"Of course not. It feels like nothing happened to it in the first place."

His fingers brushed the new skin. It tingled, but that was from his touch. Then he was back to business.

"Did they suspect anything? Do you think they'll call the Seekers?"

"No. I told you they wouldn't be suspicious. They didn't even check my eyes. I was hurt, so they healed me." I shrugged.

"What did you get?" he asked, opening the drawstrings on the backpack.

"The right things for Jamie… if we get back in time…" I glanced at the clock on the dashboard automatically, though the hours it marked were meaningless. "And more for the future. I only took what I understood."

"We'll be back in time," he promised. He examined the white containers. "Smooth?"

"Not a necessity. But I know what it does, so…"

He nodded, digging through the bag. He muttered the names to himself. "No Pain? Does it work?"

I laughed. "It's amazing. If you stab yourself, I could show you… That's a joke."

"I know."

He was staring at me with an expression I didn't understand. His eyes were wide, like something had deeply surprised him.

"What?" My joke hadn't been that bad.

"You did it." His tone was full of wonder.

"Wasn't that the idea?"

"Yes, but… I guess I didn't really think we were going to make it out."

"You didn't? Then why…? Why did you let me try?"

He answered in a soft almost-whisper. "I figured it was better to die trying than to live without the kid."

For a moment, my throat was choked with emotion. Mel was too overcome to speak as well. We were a family in that one instant. All of us.

I cleared my throat. No need to feel things that would only come to nothing.

"It was very easy. Probably any of you could get away with it, if you acted naturally. She did look at my neck." I touched it reflexively. "Your scar is too obviously homemade, but with the medicines I took, Doc could fix that."

"I doubt any of us could act so natural."

I nodded. "Yes. It's easy for me. I know what they expect." I laughed briefly to myself. "I'm one of them. If you trusted me, I could probably get you anything in the world you wanted." I laughed again. It was just the stress fading, making me giddy. But it was funny to me. Did he realize that I would do exactly that for him? Anything in the world he wanted.

"I do trust you," he whispered. "With all our lives, I trust you."

And he had trusted me with every single human life. His, and Jamie's, and everyone else's.

"Thank you," I whispered back.

"You did it," he repeated in wonder.

"We're going to save him."

Jamie is going to live, Mel rejoiced. Thank you, Wanda.

Anything for them, I told her, and then I sighed, because it was so true.

After reattaching the tarps when we reached the wash, Jared took over the driving. The way was familiar to him, and he drove faster than I would have. He had me get out before he pulled the car into its impossibly small hiding place under the rock slide. I waited for the sound of rock against metal, but Jared found a way in.

And then we were back in the jeep and flying through the night. Jared laughed, triumphant, as we jolted across the open desert, and the wind carried his voice away.

"Where's the blindfold?" I asked.

"Why?"

I looked at him.

"Wanda, if you wanted to turn us in, you had your chance. No one can deny that you're one of us now."

I thought about that. "I think some still could. It would make them feel better."

"Your some need to get over themselves."

I was shaking my head now, picturing our reception. "It's not going to be easy, getting back in. Imagine what they're thinking right now. What they're waiting for…"

He didn't answer. His eyes narrowed.

"Jared… if they… if they don't listen… if they don't wait…" I started talking faster, feeling a sudden pressure, trying to get him all the information before it was too late. "Give Jamie the No Pain first-lay that on his tongue. Then the Inside Clean spray-he just has to inhale it. You'll need Doc to -"

"Hey, hey! You're going to be the one giving the directions."

"But let me tell you how -"

"No, Wanda. It's not going to go down that way. I'll shoot anyone who touches you."

"Jared -"

"Don't panic. I'll aim low, and then you can use that stuff to heal 'em back up again."

"If that's a joke, it's not funny."

"No joke, Wanda."

"Where's the blindfold?"

He pressed his lips together.

But I had my old shirt-Jeb's raggy hand-me-down. That would work almost as well.

"This will make it a little bit easier for them to let us in," I said as I folded it up into a thick band. "And that means getting to Jamie faster." I tied it over my eyes.

It was quiet for a time. The jeep bounced along the uneven terrain. I remembered nights like this when Melanie had been the passenger…

"I'm taking us right to the caves. There's a place the jeep will be fairly well hidden for a day or two. It will save us time."

I nodded. Time was the key now.

"Almost there," he said after a minute. He exhaled. "They're waiting."

I heard him fumbling beside me, heard a metal clank as he pulled the gun from the backseat.

"Don't shoot anyone."

"No promises."

"Stop!" someone shouted. The sound carried in the empty desert air.

The jeep slowed and then idled.

"It's just us," Jared said. "Yes, yes, look. See? I'm still me."

There was hesitation from the other side.

"Look-I'm bringing the jeep in under cover, okay? We've got meds for Jamie, and we're in a hurry. I don't care what you're thinking, you're not going to get in my way tonight."

The jeep pulled forward. The sound changed and echoed as he found his cover.

"Okay, Wanda, everything's fine. Let's go."

I already had the pack on my shoulders. I got out of the jeep carefully, not sure where the wall was. Jared caught my searching hands.

"Up you go," he said, and lifted me over his shoulder again.

I wasn't as secure as before. He used only one arm to hold me. The other must have had the gun. I didn't like that.

But I was worried enough to be grateful for it when I heard the running footsteps approaching.

"Jared, you idiot!" Kyle shouted. "What were you thinking?"

"Ease up, Kyle," Jeb said.

"Is she hurt?" Ian demanded.

"Get out of my way," Jared said, his voice calm. "I'm in a hurry. Wanda's in perfect shape, but she insisted on being blindfolded. How is Jamie?"

"Hot," Jeb said.

"Wanda's got what we need." He was moving fast now, sliding downhill.

"I can carry her." Ian, of course.

"She's fine where she is."

"I'm really okay," I told Ian, my voice bouncing with Jared's movement.

Uphill again, a steady jog despite my weight. I could hear the others running with us.

I knew when we were through to the main cavern-the angry hiss of voices swelled around us, turning into a clamor of sound.

"Out of my way," Jared roared over their voices. "Is Doc with Jamie?"

I couldn't make out the answer. Jared could have put me down, but he was in too much of a hurry to pause for that second.

The angry voices echoed behind us, the sound constricting as we entered the smaller tunnel. I could feel where we were now, follow the turns in my head as we raced through the junction to the third sleeping hall. I could almost count the doors as they passed me invisibly.

Jared jerked to a halt and let the sudden stop slide me down from his shoulder. My feet hit the floor. He ripped the blindfold from my eyes.

Our room was lit by several of the dim blue lanterns. Doc was standing rigidly, as if he'd just sprung to his feet. Kneeling beside him, her hand still holding a wet cloth to Jamie's forehead, was Sharon. Her face was almost unrecognizable, it was so contorted with fury. Maggie was struggling to her feet on Jamie's other side.

Jamie still lay limp and red, eyes closed, his chest barely moving to pull in air.

"You!" Sharon spit, and then she launched herself from her crouch. Like a cat, she sprang at Jared, nails reaching for his face.

Jared caught her hands and twisted her away from him, pulling her arms behind her back.

Maggie looked as if she was about to join her daughter, but Jeb stepped around the struggling Sharon and Jared to stand toe-to-toe with her.

"Let her go!" Doc cried.

Jared ignored him. "Wanda-heal him!"

Doc moved to put himself between Jamie and me.

"Doc," I choked. The violence in the room, swirling around Jamie's still form, scared me. "I need your help. Please. For Jamie."

Doc didn't move, his eyes on Sharon and Jared.

"C'mon, Doc," Ian said. The little room was too crowded, claustrophobic, as Ian came to stand with his hand on my shoulder. "You gonna let the kid die for your pride?"

"It's not pride. You don't know what these foreign substances will do to him!"

"He can't get much worse, can he?"

"Doc," I said. "Look at my face."

Doc wasn't the only one who responded to my words. Jeb, Ian, and even Maggie looked and then did a double take. Maggie glanced away quickly, angry that she'd betrayed any interest.

"How?" Doc demanded.

"I'll show you. Please. Jamie doesn't need to suffer."

Doc hesitated, staring at my face, and then let out a big sigh. "Ian's right-he can't get much worse. If this kills him…" He shrugged, and his shoulders slumped. He took a step back.

"No," Sharon cried.

No one paid any attention to her.

I knelt beside Jamie, yanking the backpack off my shoulders and tugging it open. I fumbled until I found the No Pain. A bright light switched on beside me, pointed at Jamie's face.

"Water, Ian?"

I twisted the lid open and pinched out one of the little tissue squares. When I pulled Jamie's chin down, his skin burned my hand. I laid the square on his tongue and then held out my hand without looking up. Ian placed the bowl of water in it.

Carefully, I dripped enough water into his mouth to wash the medicine down his throat. The sound of his swallow was dry and painful.

I searched frantically for the thinner spray bottle. When I found it, I had the lid off and the mist sprayed into the air above him in one fast movement. I waited, watching his chest until he inhaled.

I touched his face, and it was so hot! I scrambled for the Cool, praying it would be easy to use. The lid screwed off, and I found that the cylinder was full of more tissue squares, light blue this time. I breathed a sigh of relief and placed one on Jamie's tongue. I picked up the bowl again and dribbled another mouthful of water through his parched lips.

His swallow was quicker this time, less strained.

Another hand touched Jamie's face. I recognized Doc's long bony fingers.

"Doc, do you have a sharp knife?"

"I have a scalpel. You want me to open the wound?"

"Yes, so I can clean it."

"I thought about trying that… to drain it, but the pain…"

"He'll feel nothing now."

"Look at his face," Ian leaned in beside me to whisper.

Jamie's face was no longer red. It was a natural, healthy tan. The sweat still glistened on his brow, but I knew it was just left over from before. Doc and I touched his forehead at the same time.

It's working. Yes! Exultation swept through both Mel and me.

"Remarkable," Doc breathed.

"The fever has cooled, but the infection may remain in his leg. Help me with his wound, Doc."

" Sharon, could you hand me -" he began absentmindedly. Then he looked up. "Oh. Ah, Kyle, do you mind handing me that bag right there by your foot?"

I scooted down so that I was over the red, swollen cut. Ian redirected the light so I could see it clearly. Doc and I both rustled through our bags at the same time. He came up with the silver scalpel, a sight that sent a quiver of unease down my spine. I ignored it and readied the bigger Clean spray.

"He won't feel it?" Doc checked, hesitating.

"Hey," Jamie croaked. His eyes were open wide, roaming the room until they found my face. "Hey, Wanda. What's going on? What's everyone doing here?"

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