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The Host (Chapter 57: Completed)

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It was a small tribunal this time, not like the trial for Kyle's life. Ian brought only Jeb, Doc, and Jared. He knew without having to be told that Jamie must not be allowed anywhere near these proceedings.

Melanie would have to give that goodbye for me. I couldn't face that, not with Jamie. I didn't care if it was cowardly of me. I wouldn't do it.

Just one blue lamp, one dim circle of light on the stone floor. We sat on the edge of the ring of light; I was alone, the four men facing me. Jeb had even brought his gun-as if it were a gavel and would make this more official.

The smell of sulfur brought back the painful days of my mourning; there were some memories that I would not regret losing when I was gone.

"How is she?" I asked Doc urgently as they settled in, before they could get started. This tribunal was a waste of my small store of time. I was worried about more important things.

"Which one?" he responded in a weary voice.

I stared at him for a few seconds, and then my eyes grew wide. "Sunny's gone? Already?"

"Kyle thought it was cruel to make her suffer longer. She was… unhappy."

"I wish I could have said goodbye," I murmured to myself. "And good luck. How is Jodi?"

"No response yet."

"The Healer's body?"

"Trudy took her away. I think they went to get her something to eat. They're working on finding a temporary name she likes, so we can call her something besides the body." He smiled wryly.

"She'll be fine. I'm sure she will," I said, trying to believe the words. "And Jodi, too. It will all work out."

No one called me on my lies. They knew I was saying this for myself.

Doc sighed. "I don't want to be away from Jodi long. She might need something."

"Right," I agreed. "Let's get this over with." The quicker the better. Because it didn't matter what was said here; Doc had agreed to my terms. And yet there was some stupid part of me that hoped… hoped that there was a solution that would make everything perfect and let me stay with Ian and Mel with Jared in a way that absolutely no one would suffer for. Best to crush that impossible hope quickly.

"Okay," Jeb said. "Wanda, what's your side?"

"I'm giving Melanie back." Firm, short-no reasons to argue against.

"Ian, what's yours?"

"We need Wanda here."

Firm, short-he was copying me.

Jeb nodded to himself. "That's a tricky one. Wanda, why should I agree with you?"

"If it were you, you'd want your body back. You can't deny Melanie that."

"Ian?" Jeb asked.

"We have to look at the greater good, Jeb. Wanda's already brought us more health and security than we've ever had. She's vital to the survival of our community-of the entire human race. One person can't stand in the way of that."

He's right.

Nobody asked you.

Jared spoke up. "Wanda, what does Mel say?"

Ha, Mel said.

I stared into Jared's eyes, and the strangest thing happened. All the melting and melding I had just been through was shoved aside, into the smallest part of my body, the little corner that I took up physically. The rest of me yearned toward Jared with the same desperate, half-crazed hunger I'd felt since the first time I'd seen him here. This body barely belonged to me or to Melanie-it belonged to him.

There really wasn't room enough for the two of us in here.

"Melanie wants her body back. She wants her life back."

Liar. Tell them the truth.

No.

"Liar," Ian said. "I can see you arguing with her. I'll bet she agrees with me. She's a good person. She knows how much we need you."

"Mel knows everything I know. She'll be able to help you. And the Healer's host. She knows more than I ever did. You'll be fine. You were fine before I was here. You'll survive, just like before."

Jeb blew out a puff of air, frowning. "I don't know, Wanda. Ian's got a point."

I glared at the old man and saw that Jared was doing the same. I looked away from that standoff to level a grim glance at Doc.

Doc met my eyes, and his face clenched with pain. He understood the reminder I was giving him. He'd promised. This tribunal didn't overrule that.

Ian was watching Jared-he didn't see our silent exchange.

"Jeb," Jared protested. "There's only one decision here. You know that."

"Is there, kid? Seems to me there's a whole barrel of 'em."

"That's Melanie's body!"

"And Wanda's, too."

Jared choked on his response and had to start over. "You can't leave Mel trapped in there-it's like murder, Jeb."

Ian leaned forward into the light, his face suddenly furious again. "And what is it that you're doing to Wanda, Jared? And the rest of us, if you take her away?"

"You don't care about the rest of anybody! You just want to keep Wanda at Melanie's expense-nothing else matters to you."

"And you want to have Melanie at Wanda's expense-nothing else matters to you! So, with those things being equal, it comes down to what's best for everyone else."

"No! It comes down to what Melanie wants! That's her body!"

They were both crouched halfway between sitting and standing now, their fists clenched and their faces twisted with rage.

"Cool it, boys! Cool it right now," Jeb ordered. "This is a tribunal, and we're going to stay calm and keep our heads. We've got to think about every side."

"Jeb -" Jared began.

"Shut up." Jeb chewed on his lip for a while. "Okay, here's how I see it. Wanda's right -"

Ian lurched to his feet.

"Hold it! Sit yourself back down. Let me finish."

Jeb waited until Ian, the tendons standing out in his taut neck, stiffly returned to a seated position.

"Wanda is right," Jeb said. "Mel needs her body back. But," he added quickly when Ian tensed again, "but I don't agree with the rest, Wanda. I think we need you pretty bad, kid. We got Seekers out there lookin' for us, and you can talk right to 'em. The rest of us can't do that. You save lives. I got to think about the welfare of my household."

Jared spoke through his teeth. "So we get her another body. Obviously."

Doc's crumpled face lifted. Jeb's white caterpillar eyebrows touched his hairline. Ian's eyes widened and his lips pursed. He stared at me, considering…

"No! No!" I shook my head frantically.

"Why not, Wanda?" Jeb asked. "Don't sound like a half-bad idea to me."

I swallowed and took a deep breath so my voice wouldn't turn hysterical. "Jeb. Listen to me carefully, Jeb. I am tired of being a parasite. Can you understand that? Do you think I want to go into another body and have this start all over again? Do I have to feel guilty forever for taking someone's life away from them? Do I have to have someone else hate me? I'm barely a soul anymore-I love you brutish humans too much. It's wrong for me to be here, and I hate feeling that."

I took another breath and spoke through the tears that were falling now. "And what if things change? What if you put me in some-one else, steal another life, and it goes wrong? What if that body pulls me after some other love, back to the souls? What if you can't trust me anymore? What if I betray you next time? I don't want to hurt you!"

The first part was the pure and unadorned truth, but I was lying wildly through the second. I hoped they wouldn't hear that. It would help that the words were barely coherent, my tears turned to sobs. I would never hurt them. What had happened to me here was permanent, a part of the very atoms that made up my small body. But maybe, if I gave them a reason to fear me, they would more easily accept what had to be.

And my lies worked, for once. I caught the worried glance Jared and Jeb exchanged. They hadn't thought of that-of my becoming untrustworthy, becoming a danger. Ian was already moving to put his arms around me. He dried my tears against his chest.

"It's okay, honey. You don't have to be anyone else. Nothing's going to change."

"Hold on, Wanda," Jeb said, his shrewd eyes suddenly sharper. "How does going to one of those other planets help you? You'll still be a parasite, kid."

Ian flinched around me at the harsh word.

And I flinched also, because Jeb was too insightful, as always.

They waited for my answer, all but Doc, who knew what the real answer was. The one I wouldn't give.

I tried to say only true things. "It's different on other planets, Jeb. There isn't any resistance. And the hosts themselves are different. They aren't as individualized as humans, their emotions are so much milder. It doesn't feel like stealing a life. Not like it feels here. No one will hate me. And I'd be too far away to hurt you. You'd be safer…"

The last part sounded too much like the lie it was, so I let my voice trail off.

Jeb stared at me through narrowed eyes, and I looked away.

I tried not to look at Doc, but I couldn't help one brief glance, to make sure he understood. His eyes locked on mine, clearly miserable, and I knew that he did.

As I quickly lowered my gaze, I caught Jared staring at Doc. Had he seen the silent communication?

Jeb sighed. "This is… a pickle." His face turned into a grimace as he concentrated on the dilemma.

"Jeb -" Ian and Jared said together. They both stopped and scowled at each other.

This was all just a waste of time, and I had only hours. Just a few more hours, I knew that for certain now.

"Jeb," I said softly, my voice barely audible over the spring's gushing murmur, and everyone turned to me. "You don't have to decide right now. Doc needs to check on Jodi, and I'd like to see her, too. Plus, I haven't eaten all day. Why don't you sleep on it? We can talk again tomorrow. We've got plenty of time to think about this."

Lies. Could they tell?

"That's a good idea, Wanda. I think everyone here could use a breather. Go get some food, and we'll all sleep on it."

I was very careful not to look at Doc now, even when I spoke to him.

"I'll be along to help with Jodi after I eat, Doc. See you later."

"Okay," Doc said warily.

Why couldn't he keep his tone casual? He was a human-he should have been a good liar.

"Hungry?" Ian murmured, and I nodded. I let him help me up. He latched on to my hand, and I knew he would be keeping a tight hold on me now. That didn't worry me. He slept deeply, like Jamie.

As we walked from the dark room, I could feel eyes on my back, but I wasn't sure whose.

Just a few more things to do. Three, to be precise. Three last deeds to be completed.

First, I ate.

It wouldn't be nice to leave Mel with her body uncomfortable from hunger. Besides, the food was better since I'd been raiding. Something to look forward to rather than endure.

I made Ian get the food and bring it to me while I hid in the field where half-grown sprouts of wheat replaced the corn. I told Ian the truth so that he would help me: I was avoiding Jamie. I didn't want Jamie frightened by this decision. It would be harder for him than for Jared or Ian-they each took one side. Jamie loved us both; he would be more evenly torn.

Ian did not argue with me. We ate in silence, his arm tight around my waist.

Second, I went to see Sunny and Jodi.

I expected to see three glowing cryotanks on top of Doc's desk, and I was surprised that there were still just the two Healers, set in the center. Doc and Kyle hovered over the cot where Jodi lay inert. I walked quickly to them, about to demand to know where Sunny was, but when I got closer, I saw that Kyle had an occupied cryotank cradled in one arm.

"You'll want to be gentle with that," I murmured.

Doc was touching Jodi's wrist, counting to himself. His lips pressed into a thin line when he heard my voice, and he had to begin over again.

"Yeah, Doc told me that," Kyle said, his gaze never leaving Jodi's face. A dark, matched set of bruises was forming under his eyes. Was his nose broken again? "I'm being careful. I just… didn't want to leave her alone over there. She was so sad and so… sweet."

"I'm sure she'd appreciate it, if she knew."

He nodded, still staring at Jodi. "Is there something I'm supposed to be doing here? Is there some way to help?"

"Talk to her, say her name, talk about things she'll remember. Talk about Sunny, even. That helped with the Healer's host."

"Mandy," Doc corrected. "She says it's not exactly right, but it's close."

"Mandy," I repeated. Not that I would need to remember. "Where is she?"

"With Trudy-that was a good call there. Trudy's exactly the right person. I think she's gotten her to sleep."

"That's good. Mandy will be okay."

"I hope so." Doc smiled, but it didn't affect his gloomy expression much. "I've got lots of questions for her."

I looked at the small woman-it was still impossible to believe that she was older than the body I wore. Her face was slack and vacant. It frightened me a little-she'd been so vibrantly alive when Sunny was inside. Would Mel…?

I'm still here.

I know. You'll be fine.

Like Lacey. She winced, and so did I.

Never like Lacey.

I touched Jodi's arm softly. She was much like Lacey in some ways. Olive skinned and black haired and tiny. They could almost be sisters, except that Jodi's sweet, wan face could never look so repellent.

Kyle was tongue-tied, holding her hand.

"Like this, Kyle," I said. I brushed her arm again. "Jodi? Jodi, can you hear me? Kyle's waiting for you, Jodi. He got himself in a lot of trouble getting you here-everybody who knows him wants to beat him senseless." I grinned wryly at the big man, and his lips curled up at the corners, though he didn't look up to see my smile.

"Not that you're surprised to hear that," Ian said beside me. "When hasn't that been the case, eh, Jodi? It's good to see you again, sweetheart. Though I wonder if you feel the same way. Must have been a nice break to get rid of this idiot for so long."

Kyle hadn't noticed his brother was there, attached like a vise to my hand, until Ian spoke.

"You remember Ian, of course. Never has managed to catch up to me in anything, but he keeps trying. Hey, Ian," Kyle added, never moving his eyes, "you got anything you want to say to me?"

"Not really."

"I'm waiting for an apology."

"Keep waiting."

"Can you believe he kicked me in the face, Jodes? For no reason at all."

"Who needs an excuse, eh, Jodi?"

It was oddly pleasant, the banter between the brothers. Jodi's presence kept it light and teasing. Gentle and funny. I would have woken up for this. If I were her, I would have been smiling already.

"Keep it up, Kyle," I murmured. "That's just right. She'll come around."

I wished I would get to meet her, to see what she was like. I could only picture Sunny's expressions.

What would it be like for everyone here, meeting Melanie for the first time? Would it seem the same to them, as if there were no difference? Would they really grasp that I was gone, or would Melanie simply fill the role I had?

Maybe they would find her entirely different. Maybe they would have to adjust to her all over again. Maybe she would fit in the way I never had. I pictured her, which was picturing me, the center of a crowd of friendly faces. Pictured us with Freedom in our arms and all the humans who had never trusted me smiling with welcome.

Why did that bring tears to my eyes? Was I really so petty?

No, Mel assured me. And they'll miss you-of course they will. All the best people here will feel your loss.

She seemed to finally accept my decision.

Not accept, she disagreed. I just can't see any way to stop you. And I can feel how close it is. I'm scared, too. Isn't that funny? I'm absolutely terrified.

That makes two of us.

"Wanda?" Kyle said.

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry."

"Um… why?"

"For trying to kill you," he said casually. "Guess I was wrong."

Ian gasped. "Please tell me you have some kind of recording device available, Doc."

"Nope. Sorry, Ian."

Ian shook his head. "This moment should be preserved. I never thought I'd live to see the day that Kyle O'Shea would admit to being wrong. C'mon, Jodi. That ought to shock you awake."

"Jodi, baby, don't you want to defend me? Tell Ian I never have been wrong before." He chuckled.

That was nice. It was nice to know that I'd earned Kyle's acceptance before I left. I hadn't expected that much.

There was no more I could do here. There was no point in lingering. Jodi would either come back or she would not, but neither outcome would change my path now.

So I proceeded to my third and final deed: I lied.

I stepped away from the cot, took a deep breath, and stretched my arms.

"I'm tired, Ian," I said.

Was it really a lie? It didn't sound so false. It had been a long, long day, this, my last day. I'd been up all night, I realized. I hadn't slept since that last raid; I must have been exhausted.

Ian nodded. "I'll bet you are. Did you stay up with the Heal-with Mandy all night?"

"Yeah." I yawned.

"Have a nice night, Doc," Ian said, pulling me toward the exit. "Good luck, Kyle. We'll be back in the morning."

"Night, Kyle," I murmured. "See you, Doc."

Doc glowered at me, but Ian's back was to him, and Kyle was staring at Jodi. I returned Doc's glare with a steady gaze.

Ian walked with me through the black tunnel, saying nothing. I was glad he wasn't in the mood for conversation. I wouldn't have been able to concentrate on it. My stomach was twisting and turning, wringing itself into strange contortions.

I was done, all my tasks accomplished. I only had to wait a bit now and not fall asleep. Tired as I was, I didn't think that would be a problem. My heart was pounding like a fist hitting my ribs from the inside.

No more stalling. It had to be tonight, and Mel knew that, too. What had happened today with Ian had shown me that. The longer I stayed, the more tears and arguments and fights I would cause. The better the chance that I or someone else would slip up and Jamie would find out the truth. Let Mel explain it after the fact. It would be better that way.

Thanks so much, Mel thought; her words flowed fast, in a burst, her fear marring her sarcasm.

Sorry. You don't mind too much?

She sighed. How can I mind? I'd do anything you asked me to, Wanda.

Take care of them for me.

I would have done that anyway.

Ian, too.

If he'll let me. I've got a feeling he might not like me so much.

Even if he won't let you.

I'll do whatever I can for him, Wanda. I promise.

Ian paused in the hall outside the red and gray doors to his room. He raised his eyebrows, and I nodded. Let him think I was still hiding from Jamie. That was true, too.

Ian slid the red door aside, and I went straight to the mattress on the right. I balled up there, knotting my shaking hands in front of my hammering heart, trying to hide them behind my knees.

Ian curled around me, holding me close to his chest. This would have been fine-I knew that he would end up sprawled out in all directions when he was really asleep-except that he could feel my trembling.

"It's going to be fine, Wanda. I know we'll find a solution."

"I truly love you, Ian." It was the only way I could tell him goodbye. The only way he would accept. I knew he would remember later and understand. "With my whole soul, I love you."

"I truly love you, too, my Wanderer."

He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.

"Sleep, Wanda. Save it for tomorrow. It will keep for the night."

I nodded, moving my face against his, and sighed.

Ian was tired, too. I didn't have to wait long. I stared at the ceiling-the stars had moved above the cracks here. I could see three of them now, where before there had been only two. I watched them wink and pulse across the blackness of space. They did not call to me. I had no desire to join them.

One at a time, Ian's arms fell away from me. He flopped onto his back, muttering in his sleep. I didn't dare wait any longer; I wanted too badly to stay, to fall asleep with him and steal one more day.

I moved cautiously, but he was in no danger of waking. His breathing was heavy and even. He wouldn't open his eyes till morning.

I brushed his smooth forehead with my lips, then rose and slid out the door.

It was not late, and the caves were not empty. I could hear voices bouncing around, strange echoes that might have been coming from anywhere. I didn't see anyone until I was in the big cave. Geoffrey, Heath, and Lily were on their way back from the kitchen. I kept my eyes down, though I was very glad to see Lily. In the brief glimpse I allowed myself, I could see that she was at least standing upright, her shoulders straight. Lily was tough. Like Mel. She'd make it, too.

I hurried to the southern corridor, relieved when I was safe in the blackness there. Relieved and horrified. It was really over now.

I'm so afraid, I whimpered.

Before Mel could respond, a heavy hand dropped on my shoulder from the darkness.

"Going somewhere?"

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