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The Host (Chapter 56: Welded)

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Ian glared down at the three of us with such fury that Sunny shivered in terror. It was an odd thing-as if Kyle and Ian had switched faces. Except Ian's face was still perfect, unbroken. Beautiful, even though it was enraged.

"Ian?" Kyle asked, bewildered. "What's the problem?"

Ian spoke from between his locked teeth. "Wanda," he growled, and held his hand out. It looked as if he was having a hard time keeping that hand open, not clenching it into a fist.

Uh-oh, Mel thought.

Misery swept through me. I didn't want to say goodbye to Ian, and now I would have to. Of course I had to. I would be wrong to sneak out in the night like a thief and leave all my goodbyes to Melanie.

Ian, tired of waiting, grabbed my arm and hauled me up from the floor. When Sunny seemed like she was coming along, too, still joined to my side, Ian shook me until she fell off.

"What is with you?" Kyle demanded.

Ian hauled his knee back and smashed his foot hard into Kyle's face.

"Ian!" I protested.

Sunny threw herself in front of Kyle-who was holding his hand to his nose and struggling to get to his feet-and tried to shield him with her tiny body. This knocked him off balance, back to the floor, and he groaned.

"C'mon," Ian snarled, dragging me away from them without a backward glance.

"Ian -"

He wrenched me roughly along, making it impossible for me to speak. That was fine. I had no idea what to say.

I saw everyone's startled face flash by in a blur. I was worried he was going to upset the unnamed woman. She wasn't used to anger and violence.

And then we jerked to a stop. Jared was blocking the exit.

"Have you lost your mind, Ian?" he asked, shocked and outraged. "What are you doing to her?"

"Did you know about this?" Ian shouted back, shoving me toward Jared and shaking me at him. Behind us, a whimper. He was scaring them.

"You're going to hurt her!"

"Do you know what she's planning?" Ian roared.

Jared stared at Ian, his face suddenly closed off. He didn't answer.

That was answer enough for Ian.

Ian's fist struck Jared so fast that I missed the blow-I just felt the lurch in his body and saw Jared reel back into the dark hall.

"Ian, stop," I begged.

"You stop," he growled back at me.

He yanked me through the arch into the tunnel, then pulled me north. I had to almost run to keep up with his longer stride.

"O'Shea!" Jared shouted after us.

"I'm going to hurt her?" Ian roared back over his shoulder, not breaking pace. "I am? You hypocritical swine!"

There was nothing but silence and blackness behind us now. I stumbled in the dark, trying to keep up.

It was then that I began to feel the throbbing from Ian's grip. His hand was tight as a tourniquet around my upper arm, his long fingers making the circle easily and then overlapping. My hand was going numb.

He jerked me along faster, and my breath caught in a moan, almost a cry of pain.

The sound made Ian stumble to a stop. His breathing was hoarse in the darkness.

"Ian, Ian, I…" I choked, unable to finish. I didn't know what to say, picturing his furious face.

His arms caught me up abruptly, yanking my feet out from under me and then catching my shoulders before I could fall. He started running forward again, carrying me now. His hands were not rough and angry like before; he cradled me against his chest.

He ran right through the big plaza, ignoring the surprised and even suspicious faces. There was too much that was unfamiliar and uncomfortable going on in the caves right now. The humans here-Violetta, Geoffrey, Andy, Paige, Aaron, Brandt, and more I couldn't see well as we jolted past-were skittish. It disturbed them to see Ian running headlong through them, face twisted with rage, with me in his arms.

And then they were behind us. He didn't pause until we reached the doors leaning against his and Kyle's room. He kicked the red one out of the way-it hit the stone floor with an echoing boom-and dropped me onto the mattress on the floor.

Ian stood above me, his chest heaving with exertion and fury. For a second he turned away and put the door back in place with one swift wrench. And then he was glowering again.

I took a deep breath and rolled up onto my knees, holding my hands out, palms up, wishing that some magic would appear in them. Something I could give him, something I could say. But my hands were empty.

"You. Are. Not. Leaving. Me." His eyes blazed-burning brighter than I had ever seen them, blue flames.

"Ian," I whispered. "You have to see that… that I can't stay. You must see that."

"No!" he shouted at me.

I cringed back, and, abruptly, Ian crumpled forward, falling to his knees, falling into me. He buried his head in my stomach, and his arms locked around my waist. He was shaking, shaking hard, and loud, desperate sobs were breaking out of his chest.

"No, Ian, no," I begged. This was so much worse than his anger. "Don't, please. Please, don't."

"Wanda," he moaned.

"Ian, please. Don't feel this way. Don't. I'm so sorry. Please."

I was crying, too, shaking, too, though that might have been him shaking me.

"You can't leave."

"I have to, I have to," I sobbed.

And then we cried wordlessly for a long time.

His tears dried before mine. Eventually, he straightened up and pulled me into his arms again. He waited until I was able to speak.

"Sorry," he whispered. "I was mean."

"No, no. I'm sorry. I should have told you, when you didn't guess. I just… I couldn't. I didn't want to tell you-to hurt you-to hurt me. It was selfish."

"We need to talk about this, Wanda. It's not a done deal. It can't be."

"It is."

He shook his head, clenching his teeth. "How long? How long have you been planning this?"

"Since the Seeker," I whispered.

He nodded, seeming to expect this answer. "And you thought that you had to give up your secret to save her. I can understand that. But that doesn't mean you have to go anywhere. Just because Doc knows now… that doesn't mean anything. If I'd thought for one minute that it did, that one action equaled the other, I wouldn't have stood there and let you show him. No one is going to force you to lie down on his blasted gurney! I'll break his hands if he tries to touch you!"

"Ian, please."

"They can't make you, Wanda! Do you hear me?" He was shouting again.

"No one is making me. I didn't show Doc how to do the separation so that I could save the Seeker," I whispered. "The Seeker's being here just made me have to decide… faster. I did it to save Mel, Ian."

His nostrils flared, and he said nothing.

"She's trapped in here, Ian. It's like a prison-worse than that; I can't even describe it. She's like a ghost. And I can free her. I can give her herself back."

"You deserve a life, too, Wanda. You deserve to stay."

"But I love her, Ian."

He closed his eyes, and his pale lips went dead white.

"But I love you," he whispered. "Doesn't that matter?"

"Of course it matters. So much. Can't you see? That only makes it more… necessary."

His eyes flashed open. "Is it so unbearable to have me love you? Is that it? I can keep my mouth shut, Wanda. I won't say it again. You can be with Jared, if that's what you want. Just stay."

"No, Ian!" I took his face between my hands-his skin felt hard, strained tight over the bones. "No. I-I love you, too. Me, the little silver worm in the back of her head. But my body doesn't love you. It can't love you. I can never love you in this body, Ian. It pulls me in two. It's unbearable."

I could have borne it. But watching him suffer because of my body's limitations? Not that.

He closed his eyes again. His thick black lashes were wet with tears. I could see them glisten.

Oh, go ahead, Mel sighed. Do whatever you need to. I'll… step into the other room, she added dryly.

Thanks.

I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled myself closer to him until my lips touched his.

He curled his arms around me, pulling me tighter against his chest. Our lips moved together, fusing as if they would never divide, as if separation was not the inevitable thing it was, and I could taste the salt of our tears. His and mine.

Something began to change.

When Melanie's body touched Jared's body, it was like a wildfire-a fast burn that raced across the surface of the desert and consumed everything in its path.

With Ian it was different, so very different, because Melanie didn't love him the way I did. So when he touched me, it was deeper and slower than the wildfire, like the flow of molten rock far beneath the surface of the earth. Too deep to feel the heat of it, but it moved inexorably, changing the very foundations of the world with its advance.

My unwilling body was a fog between us-a thick curtain, but gauzy enough that I could see through it, could see what was happening.

It changed me, not her. It was almost a metallurgical process deep inside the core of who I was, something that had already begun, was already nearly forged. But this long, unbroken kiss finished it, searing and sharp edged-it shoved this new creation, all hissing, into the cold water that made it hard and final. Unbreakable.

And I started to cry again, realizing that it must be changing him, too, this man who was kind enough to be a soul but strong as only a human could be.

He moved his lips to my eyes, but it was too late. It was done. "Don't cry, Wanda. Don't cry. You're staying with me."

"Eight full lives," I whispered against his jaw, my voice breaking. "Eight full lives and I never found anyone I would stay on a planet for, anyone I would follow when they left. I never found a partner. Why now? Why you? You're not of my species. How can you be my partner?"

"It's a strange universe," he murmured.

"It's not fair," I complained, echoing Sunny's words. It wasn't fair. How could I find this, find love-now, in this eleventh hour-and have to leave it? Was it fair that my soul and body couldn't reconcile? Was it fair that I had to love Melanie, too?

Was it fair that Ian would suffer? He deserved happiness if anyone did. It wasn't fair or right or even… sane. How could I do this to him?

"I love you," I whispered.

"Don't say that like you're saying goodbye."

But I had to. "I, the soul called Wanderer, love you, human Ian. And that will never change, no matter what I might become." I worded it carefully, so that there would be no lie in my voice. "If I were a Dolphin or a Bear or a Flower, it wouldn't matter. I would always love you, always remember you. You will be my only partner."

His arms stiffened, then constricted tighter around me, and I could feel the anger in them again. It was hard to breathe.

"You're not wandering off anywhere. You're staying here."

"Ian -"

But his voice was brusque now-angry, but also businesslike. "This isn't just for me. You're a part of this community, and you aren't getting kicked out without discussion. You are far too important to us all-even to the ones who would never admit it. We need you."

"No one's kicking me out, Ian."

"No. Not even you yourself, Wanderer."

He kissed me again, his mouth rougher with the return of the anger. His hand curled into a fist around my hair, and he pulled my face an inch away from his.

"Good or bad?" he demanded.

"Good."

"That's what I thought." And his voice was a growl.

He kissed me again. His arms were so tight around my ribs, his mouth so fierce against mine, that I was soon dizzy and gasping for air. He loosened his arms a little then and let his lips slide to my ear.

"Let's go."

"Where? Where are we going?" I wasn't going anywhere, I knew that. And yet how my heart pounded when I thought of going away, somewhere, anywhere, with Ian. My Ian. He was mine, the way Jared never would be. The way this body could never be his.

"Don't give me any trouble about this, Wanderer. I'm half out of my mind." He pulled us both to our feet.

"Where?" I insisted.

"You're going down the eastern tunnel, past the field, to the end."

"The game room?"

"Yes. And then you are going to wait there until I get the rest of them."

"Why?" His words sounded crazy to me. Did he want to play a game? To ease the tension again?

"Because this will be discussed. I'm calling a tribunal, Wanderer, and you are going to abide by our decision."

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