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The Host (Chapter 5: Uncomforted)

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Hello there, Wanderer! Won't you take a seat and make yourself at home?"

I hesitated on the threshold of the Comforter's office, one foot in and one foot out.

She smiled, just a tiny movement at the corners of her mouth. It was much easier to read facial expressions now; the little muscle twitches and shifts had become familiar through months of exposure. I could see that the Comforter found my reluctance a bit amusing. At the same time, I could sense her frustration that I was still uneasy coming to her.

With a quiet sigh of resignation, I walked into the small brightly colored room and took my usual seat-the puffy red one, the one farthest from where she sat.

Her lips pursed.

To avoid her gaze, I stared through the open windows at the clouds scuttling past the sun. The faint tang of ocean brine blew softly through the room.

"So, Wanderer. It's been a while since you've come to see me."

I met her eyes guiltily. "I did leave a message about that last appointment. I had a student who requested some of my time…"

"Yes, I know." She smiled the tiny smile again. "I got your message."

She was attractive for an older woman, as humans went. She'd let her hair stay a natural gray-it was soft, tending toward white rather than silver, and she wore it long, pulled back in a loose ponytail. Her eyes were an interesting green color I'd never seen on anyone else.

"I'm sorry," I said, since she seemed to be waiting for a response.

"That's all right. I understand. It's difficult for you to come here. You wish so much that it wasn't necessary. It's never been necessary for you before. This frightens you."

I stared down at the wooden floor. "Yes, Comforter."

"I know I've asked you to call me Kathy."

"Yes… Kathy."

She laughed lightly. "You are not at ease with human names yet, are you, Wanderer?"

"No. To be honest, it seems… like a surrender."

I looked up to see her nod slowly. "Well, I can understand why you, especially, would feel that way."

I swallowed loudly when she said that, and stared again at the floor.

"Let's talk about something easier for a moment," Kathy suggested. "Do you continue to enjoy your Calling?"

"I do." This was easier. "I've begun a new semester. I wondered if it would get tiresome, repeating the same material, but so far it doesn't. Having new ears makes the stories new again."

"I hear good things about you from Curt. He says your class is among the most requested at the university."

My cheeks warmed a bit at this praise. "That's nice to hear. How is your partner?"

"Curt is wonderful, thank you. Our hosts are in excellent shape for their ages. We have many years ahead of us, I think."

I was curious if she would stay on this world, if she would move to another human host when the time came, or if she would leave. But I didn't want to ask any questions that might move us into the more difficult areas of discussion.

"I enjoy teaching," I said instead. "It's somewhat related to my Calling with the See Weeds, so that makes it easier than something unfamiliar. I'm indebted to Curt for requesting me."

"They're lucky to have you." Kathy smiled warmly. "Do you know how rare it is for a Professor of History to have experienced even two planets in the curriculum? Yet you've lived a term on almost all of them. And the Origin, to boot! There isn't a school on this planet that wouldn't love to steal you away from us. Curt plots ways to keep you busy so you have no time to consider moving."

"Honorary Professor," I corrected her.

Kathy smiled and then took a deep breath, her smile fading. "You haven't been to see me in so long, I was wondering if your problems were resolving themselves. But then it occurred to me that perhaps the reason for your absence was that they were getting worse."

I stared down at my hands and said nothing.

My hands were light brown-a tan that never faded whether I spent time in the sun or not. One dark freckle marked the skin just above my left wrist. My nails were cut short. I disliked the feeling of long nails. They were unpleasant when they brushed the skin wrong. And my fingers were so long and thin-the added length of fingernails made them look strange. Even for a human.

She cleared her throat after a minute. "I'm guessing my intuition was right."

"Kathy." I said her name slowly. Stalling. "Why did you keep your human name? Did it make you feel… more at one? With your host, I mean?" I would have liked to know about Curt's choice as well, but it was such a personal question. It would have been wrong to ask anyone besides Curt for the answer, even his partner. I worried that I'd already been too impolite, but she laughed.

"Heavens, no, Wanderer. Haven't I told you this? Hmm. Maybe not, since it's not my job to talk, but to listen. Most of the souls I speak with don't need as much encouragement as you do. Did you know I came to Earth in one of the very first placements, before the humans had any idea we were here? I had human neighbors on both sides. Curt and I had to pretend to be our hosts for several years. Even after we'd settled the immediate area, you never knew when a human might be near. So Kathy just became who I was. Besides, the translation of my former name was fourteen words long and did not shorten prettily." She grinned. The sunlight slanting through the window caught her eyes and sent their silver green reflection dancing on the wall. For a moment, the emerald irises glowed iridescent.

I'd had no idea that this soft, cozy woman had been a part of the front line. It took me a minute to process that. I stared at her, surprised and suddenly more respectful. I'd never taken Comforters very seriously-never had a need before now. They were for those who struggled, for the weak, and it shamed me to be here. Knowing Kathy's history made me feel slightly less awkward with her. She understood strength.

"Did it bother you?" I asked. "Pretending to be one of them?"

"No, not really. You see, this host was a lot to get used to-there was so much that was new. Sensory overload. Following the set pattern was quite as much as I could handle at first."

"And Curt… You chose to stay with your host's spouse? After it was over?"

This question was more pointed, and Kathy grasped that at once. She shifted in her seat, pulling her legs up and folding them under her. She gazed thoughtfully at a spot just over my head as she answered.

"Yes, I chose Curt-and he chose me. At first, of course, it was random chance, an assignment. We bonded, naturally, from spending so much time together, sharing the danger of our mission. As the university's president, Curt had many contacts, you see. Our house was an insertion facility. We would entertain often. Humans would come through our door and our kind would leave. It all had to be very quick and quiet-you know the violence these hosts are prone to. We lived every day with the knowledge that we could meet a final end at any moment. There was constant excitement and frequent fear.

"All very good reasons why Curt and I might have formed an attachment and decided to stay together when secrecy was no longer necessary. And I could lie to you, assuage your fears, by telling you that these were the reasons. But…" She shook her head and then seemed to settle deeper into her chair, her eyes boring into me. "In so many millennia, the humans never did figure love out. How much is physical, how much in the mind? How much accident and how much fate? Why did perfect matches crumble and impossible couples thrive? I don't know the answers any better than they did. Love simply is where it is. My host loved Curt's host, and that love did not die when the ownership of the minds changed."

She watched me carefully, reacting with a slight frown when I slumped in my seat.

"Melanie still grieves for Jared," she stated.

I felt my head nod without willing the action.

"You grieve for him."

I closed my eyes.

"The dreams continue?"

"Every night," I mumbled.

"Tell me about them." Her voice was soft, persuasive.

"I don't like to think about them."

"I know. Try. It might help."

"How? How will it help to tell you that I see his face every time I close my eyes? That I wake up and cry when he's not there? That the memories are so strong I can't separate hers from mine anymore?"

I stopped abruptly, clenching my teeth.

Kathy pulled a white handkerchief from her pocket and offered it to me. When I didn't move, she got up, walked over to me, and dropped it in my lap. She sat on the arm of my chair and waited.

I held on stubbornly for half a minute. Then I snatched the little square of fabric angrily and wiped my eyes.

"I hate this."

"Everybody cries their first year. These emotions are so impossible. We're all children for a bit, whether we intended that or not. I used to tear up every time I saw a pretty sunset. The taste of peanut butter would sometimes do that, too." She patted the top of my head, then trailed her fingers gently through the lock of hair I always kept tucked behind my ear.

"Such pretty, shiny hair," she noted. "Every time I see you it's shorter. Why do you keep it that way?"

Already in tears, I didn't feel like I had much dignity to defend. Why claim that it was easier to care for, as I usually did? After all, I'd come here to confess and get help-I might as well get on with it.

"It bothers her. She likes it long."

She didn't gasp, as I half expected she would. Kathy was good at her job. Her response was only a second late and only slightly incoherent.

"You… She… she's still that… present?"

The appalling truth tumbled from my lips. "When she wants to be. Our history bores her. She's more dormant while I'm working. But she's there, all right. Sometimes I feel like she's as present as I am." My voice was only a whisper by the time I was done.

"Wanderer!" Kathy exclaimed, horrified. "Why didn't you tell me it was that bad? How long has it been this way?"

"It's getting worse. Instead of fading, she seems to be growing stronger. It's not as bad as the Healer's case yet-we spoke of Kevin, do you remember? She hasn't taken control. She won't. I won't let that happen!" The pitch of my voice climbed.

"Of course it won't happen," she assured me. "Of course not. But if you're this… unhappy, you should have told me earlier. We need to get you to a Healer."

It took me a moment, emotionally distracted as I was, to understand.

"A Healer? You want me to skip?"

"No one would think badly of that choice, Wanderer. It's understood, if a host is defective -"

"Defective? She's not defective. I am. I'm too weak for this world!" My head fell into my hands as the humiliation washed through me. Fresh tears welled in my eyes.

Kathy's arm settled around my shoulders. I was struggling so hard to control my wild emotions that I didn't pull away, though it felt too intimate.

It bothered Melanie, too. She didn't like being hugged by an alien.

Of course Melanie was very much present in this moment, and unbearably smug as I finally admitted to her power. She was gleeful. It was always harder to control her when I was distracted by emotion like this.

I tried to calm myself so that I would be able to put her in her place.

You are in my place. Her thought was faint but intelligible. How much worse it was getting; she was strong enough to speak to me now whenever she wished. It was as bad as that first minute of consciousness.

Go away. It's my place now.

Never.

"Wanderer, dear, no. You are not weak, and we both know that."

"Hmph."

"Listen to me. You are strong. Surprisingly strong. Our kind are always so much the same, but you exceed the norm. You're so brave it astonishes me. Your past lives are a testament to that."

My past lives maybe, but this life? Where was my strength now?

"But humans are more individualized than we are," Kathy went on. "There's quite a range, and some of them are much stronger than others. I truly believe that if anyone else had been put into this host, Melanie would have crushed them in days. Maybe it's an accident, maybe it's fate, but it appears to me that the strongest of our kind is being hosted by the strongest of theirs."

"Doesn't say much for our kind, does it?"

She heard the implication behind my words. "She's not winning, Wanderer. You are this lovely person beside me. She's just a shadow in the corner of your mind."

"She speaks to me, Kathy. She still thinks her own thoughts. She still keeps her secrets."

"But she doesn't speak for you, does she? I doubt I would be able to say as much in your place."

I didn't respond. I was feeling too miserable.

"I think you should consider reimplantation."

"Kathy, you just said that she would crush a different soul. I don't know if I believe that-you're probably just trying to do your job and comfort me. But if she is so strong, it wouldn't be fair to hand her off to someone else because I can't subdue her. Who would you choose to take her on?"

"I didn't say that to comfort you, dear."

"Then what -"

"I don't think this host would be considered for reuse."

"Oh!"

A shiver of horror jolted down my spine. And I wasn't the only one who was staggered by the idea.

I was immediately repulsed. I was no quitter. Through the long revolutions around the suns of my last planet-the world of the See Weeds, as they were known here-I had waited. Though the permanence of being rooted began to wear long before I'd thought it would, though the lives of the See Weeds would measure in centuries on this planet, I had not skipped out on the life term of my host. To do so was wasteful, wrong, ungrateful. It mocked the very essence of who we were as souls. We made our worlds better places; that was absolutely essential or we did not deserve them.

But we were not wasteful. We did make whatever we took better, more peaceful and beautiful. And the humans were brutish and ungovernable. They had killed one another so frequently that murder had been an accepted part of life. The various tortures they'd devised over the few millennia they'd lasted had been too much for me; I hadn't been able to bear even the dry official overviews. Wars had raged over the face of nearly every continent. Sanctioned murder, ordered and viciously effective. Those who lived in peaceful nations had looked the other way as members of their own species starved on their doorstep. There was no equality to the distribution of the planet's bounteous resources. Most vile yet, their offspring-the next generation, which my kind nearly worshipped for their promise-had all too often been victims of heinous crimes. And not just at the hands of strangers, but at the hands of the caretakers they were entrusted to. Even the huge sphere of the planet had been put into jeopardy through their careless and greedy mistakes. No one could compare what had been and what was now and not admit that Earth was a better place thanks to us.

You murder an entire species and then pat yourselves on the back.

My hands balled up into fists.

I could have you disposed of, I reminded her.

Go ahead. Make my murder official.

I was bluffing, but so was Melanie.

Oh, she thought she wanted to die. She'd thrown herself into the elevator shaft, after all. But that was in a moment of panic and defeat. To consider it calmly from a comfortable chair was something else altogether. I could feel the adrenaline-adrenaline called into being by her fear-shoot through my limbs as I contemplated switching to a more pliant body.

It would be nice to be alone again. To have my mind to myself. This world was very pleasant in so many novel ways, and it would be wonderful to be able to appreciate it without the distractions of an angry, displaced nonentity who should have had better sense than to linger unwanted this way.

Melanie squirmed, figuratively, in the recesses of my head as I tried to consider it rationally. Maybe I should give up…

The words themselves made me flinch. I, Wanderer, give up? Quit? Admit failure and try again with a weak, spineless host who wouldn't give me any trouble?

I shook my head. I could barely stand to think of it.

And… this was my body. I was used to the feel of it. I liked the way the muscles moved over the bones, the bend of the joints and the pull of the tendons. I knew the reflection in the mirror. The sun-browned skin, the high, sharp bones of my face, the short silk cap of mahogany hair, the muddy green brown hazel of my eyes-this was me.

I wanted myself. I wouldn't let what was mine be destroyed.

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