Definition: Life

Chapter 1: Renewed

'You touched my life.
My life reaches the skin,
Moves under your smile,
And your throat and your shoulders
And your face and your thighs,
…The spaces of the body
Are suddenly limitless…'

--Muriel Rukeyser

x x x

"Let me help you with that."

"No, it's alright. I've got it."

I grunted, the box of newly washed plates throwing my tiny body slightly off balance. A pair of large, strong hands cupped my shoulders, keeping me steady.

"Stop being so stubborn. You're going to drop them, or hurt yourself when you fall."

"I'm fine," I lied; my arms were screaming in pain. "Besides, if I'm ever going to be useful around here, I need to build up some muscles."

"And this is not the way to do it."

"It's the perfect way to do it," I disagreed.

Despite the negativity, I managed to reach the kitchen counter without too much help. Ian—unable to stand it anymore—coaxed the box of plates out from my desperate grip when I went to heave them up onto the empty bench beside Trudy, who was kneading the dough for tonight's bread rolls. I surrendered it to him willingly—I was exhausted just from that one chore. The physical limitations of this new, puny body were really starting to make the compulsory daily contribution to chores impossible for me to keep up with. Though no one seemed to mind helping me out all the time, I still felt guilty—like I was taking the luxuries of my wonderful new life without giving anything back in return. Ian stood beside me as always, his huge, calloused hands slipping under my incredibly long, curly hair and massaging gently at the back of my neck. The touch sent an automatic electric shock down my spine, making me shiver.

Ian smiled. Whether it was because of my reaction or because he was relieved I'd stopped working, I didn't know. "I think you've done enough for today, Wanda."

"No," I mumbled, hating the tiredness I could hear leaking into my voice, despite my best efforts to keep it out. "I've barely been working half the day! There has to be something else I can do!"
I wasn't surprised when I felt someone patting my head—it seemed that someone was always touching me these days. I heard Trudy laugh behind me and I stifled the urge to groan.

"Wanda…having you pass out from exhaustion will not, in any way, help us out. Go and rest. You work too hard as it is. And don't start the 'I feel guilty' crap, either"—she continued when she saw I was about to protest—"you do more than plenty for everyone in other ways, so stop worrying." I turned to see her smiling as she lightly ruffled my hair.

"Couldn't agree more," Ian added, using his huge arm to draw me into his side. My head barely cleared his waist.

"No," I tried to say firmly, but the impact of my voice could never be very strong when I sounded like a chirpy bird at my angriest. Another downside. "I want to help. If you guys won't give me a job, I'll just go and ask someone else. Jared and Melanie will give me some work."

Ian's hand moved from my neck to my shoulder, holding me tightly, trapping me against his body. "Wanda…" he sighed, exasperated. "You're going to take a break, at least. End of story. Don't force me to carry you back to our room."

Our room. The rains had stopped a few weeks ago, and I had moved in with Ian as planned. We had the whole cavern to ourselves. The thought made me blush—I still couldn't completely comprehend this new, wonderful life and all of its incredible outcomes—and then before I knew what was happening, the crippling shyness that I'd inherited from Petals Open To The Moon had my eyes glued to the floor, and my lips sealed shut.

When I didn't answer, Ian took that as conformation. "Good," he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice.

I was expecting him to let me go so I could walk out into the common room and grab something to eat before I headed off for an afternoon nap, but instead he bent down and swept his arm around my knees, knocking my legs right out from underneath me. His other arm locked tightly around my shoulders before I hit the ground.

I glared up at him, incredulous. "Ian, stop! I want something to eat! Hey, wait—oof!"

He'd shifted all of my weight into one arm easily and then slung me over his shoulder, keeping one hand firmly on my back. I heard the clink of plates rattling together on a wooden tray as he picked it up with his other free hand. I growled—my high, trilling voice turning what was supposed to be a vicious warning into nothing but a series of short squeaks. I was annoyed, but at least he had food. As he walked down the corridor and away from the common room, I could see the bobbing heads of people walking by. I recognised Jamie, Jeb, Sharon and Doc walking past, obviously on their way to lunch as well. When they looked up and saw me slung over Ian's shoulder, their expressions all morphed simultaneously into varying levels of amusement. Except Sharon. She still refused to look at me.

"Working too much again, Wanda?" Jamie asked, clearly trying not to laugh.

"No. I've done barely anything today, and I'm certainly not tired," I told them, crossing my arms defiantly. The movement shocked me a little—it brought my small, silvery coloured arms within view. It had already been a month, but I still wasn't used to seeing my new face or body. I supposed that had a lot to do with the fact that I hardly ever saw it. The caves were dark during most of the day, and there weren't any reflective surfaces save the mirrors we used to grow our food. Ian's body shook underneath me; he was laughing.

"Put me down, Ian!" I demanded. Of course he ignored me.

"We're just on our way to have something to eat and rest up before the next round of work," Ian explained, clearly enjoying himself. "Wanda's been helping out Trudy and Lily in the kitchen with the washing all morning—she's exhausted, as usual."

"I'm fine," I insisted. Nobody listened to me.

"Hey! Well why don't you guys come down to the games room when you've finished resting up? Brandt has a football!"

"Sounds like fun," Ian agreed.

I'm helping Melanie and Candy with dinner afterwards, so I won't be there," I told them smugly, happy to have a chance to prove my point.

"Aw…c'mon, Wanda!" Jamie complained, frowning. I hated it when he looked like that—it made it almost impossible to resist his pleas…and it seemed he was counting on that. "Melanie's playing, so I'm sure Candy will too. Or at least she'll be watching."

"But what about dinner?" I asked, confused. "What's everyone going to eat?"

"There's plenty of snacks and instant food in storage—we have all that stuff now you're with us, remember, Wanda?"

"No! You can't waste—" I started to object, but I was interrupted.

"It's settled then," Ian decided, patting me lightly on the back.

"See ya later, kid," Jeb called over his shoulder as he walked away with Jamie and Sharon in toe. Doc waved.

"Let's go eat," Ian said more quietly this time, his arm curling around my tiny waist protectively.

We were both silent as he made his way through the different caverns, the only sounds I could hear were his deep, steady breathing and the echoes of his footsteps bouncing off the cave walls. I knew that had I been walking, I would have still found my way easily, despite how dark it was. I'd walked this path so many times in these past weeks that I honestly couldn't imagine myself getting lost. This entire junction of caves was my home, and there hadn't been a time in all of my previous nine lives—even combined—where I was this happy or content. Bear, Dolphin, Spider or Flower…my lives had always eventually settled into a…pleasant routine. That was the only way I could think of it. It was never bad, but then I also remembered that my lives had never been particularly exciting, either, save the incident with Harness Light on the Mists Planet.

Nothing in all of those other nine worlds I'd visited could make my heart fly in my chest the way it did whenever Ian kissed me, or when we came a little too close to Seekers on our raids. The same could be said of the more negative reactions. Heartbreak, anger, jealousy, sadness…I couldn't remember anything like them…anything that could compare at all from my past. I knew that had a lot more to do with the nature of the life-forms on the other planets the Souls had…civilized; the creatures that lived on other planets were not overtly emotional beings, or in some cases, not emotional at all. Now that I was here, thinking back on it now…I shuddered at the thought of ever going back to those places. Of ever leavinghere. I knew from the moment I'd been transferred into this body—and a lot longer before that, actually—that I would never be leaving this planet. I didn't want to. I would never leave my family. I would die here. And that was okay. I wanted it to be that way.

I will never wander to another planet again.

"We're here," Ian whispered, drawing me away from my rather sombre train of thought. He bent down on his knees, loosening his grip gradually until my feet had safely touched the ground. He gave me a quick peck on the cheek before he rose to his feet again. I took the food from his other hand and he sighed, relieved, as he flexed and stretched his muscles. He opened the screen to our room to let me through and shut it quietly after he'd ducked inside. We moved to sit down on the big, double mattress that dominated the small cave of our bedroom and started to eat. The food was good today—fruit salad with yogurt and a couple of small chocolate bars that I recognised from the candy shop I had visited during the raid last week.

I tried to eat quickly, the bed a stark reminder that I was determined to prove Ian and everyone else wrong—that I wasn't tired. But the fruit salad was too good to rush, and I found that even when I got to the chocolate bars, it seemed I could only nibble away at it slowly, savouring each bite. Another borrowed memory from Pet flashed up before my eyes—a small, crystal box on a little white table in a hallway, full of miniature toffees. Pet's favourite. They tasted so good if you ate them slowly; it was almost as if they melted against your tongue…

"You planning to finish that chocolate bar this century, Wanda?" Ian joked, his voice pulling me away from the memory.

I blinked, startled at how close he was all of a sudden. "Huh…oh, ummm, yes. I'm almost done." I finished it off in two bites, ignoring the urge to save it for later. I threw my wrappings on the tray, which Ian moved to the floor beside our bed.

He reached for me immediately after, pulling me with no effort to his side and into his lap. The movement had my hair falling in my face. I went to brush it back, but my hand was stopped by another. Long, calloused fingers wrapped around my tiny ones, drawing them to his lips while another strong hand came up and tucked the loose golden strands behind my ear. I smiled—elated and blushing—while the horrible shyness had me trying to look everywhere but Ian's face. His fingers slid from my cheek down to my chin—the journey leaving tiny prin-pricks of electricity dotted across my skin—and coaxed my chin upwards until I had nowhere to look but his face. Ian leaned in slowly, leaning his forehead against mine. He pecked me once on my nose and then moved to kiss me more seriously, his lips moving in a warm, familiar way against mine. I felt the molten rock moving slowly beneath my skin again, warming my whole body and titling the world just ever so slightly off its axis…

Everything suddenly intensified when his hands tangled in my hair, pulling me recklessly close, kissing me deeply. Ian's lips were almost harsh as my tiny hands drifted of their own accord slowly down his chest, eagerly learning the contours of the strong, smooth muscles through his shirt. I felt Ian rise up onto his knees—towering over me—and use his weight to push me back onto the mattress. I let my eyes flutter closed and fell back without protest, my body going completely lax. There—trapped in between the bed and Ian's phenomenal weight, height and strength, I could feel myself melting from the sudden heat. Lava was escaping through the cracks in the flow, and the magma that had once been to deep down to feel was now burning my skin wherever Ian's touch drifted, leaving me flushed and flustered.

My heart was flying in my chest—beating so fast I was surprised the fluttery little thing didn't break down. There was so much this body wasn't used to…so much it hadn't experienced. It was strange, knowing and remembering everything that had happened before in a past life…in another body, but only just experiencing it now, physically, in this new body…it was a lot to try and take in at once, and the conflicting sensations made everything very confusing.

I was distracted when I felt Ian's hands coast down my neck and over my arms, stopping abruptly at my waist. I didn't understand why I was frustrated that he'd stopped, nor did I understand why my hands were just as suddenly wrapping themselves around his neck, trying to encourage him to continue. I was losing myself. No one was more surprised than Ian, it seemed. His lips stilled in shock for all but a second before he was kissing me with more enthusiasm then I'd ever thought possible. My breathing was far too loud—I tried to be quiet; sure that anyone who might be out in the hallway could hear me, but I couldn't care quite enough to be ashamed.

Ian's fingers suddenly slipped underneath my shirt, grazing the bare skin of my stomach. The random burning suddenly festered into an all out fire that licked hotly through my veins. The intensity and the unfamiliarity of the sensation made me gasp, the sound of it reverberating and echoing loudly off the walls in the small dark room. Ian pulled back to look right at me, my ragged breathing and whirling head made meeting his gaze impossible for a few, long minutes. I didn't realize right away that he was breathing just as hard as I was. It felt like Doc had given me more No Pain—the world was spinning and glowing; I could feel the adrenaline pumping hard through my inexperienced system, my heart quivering wildly in my chest.

We both listened to my heart-rate slow, Ian's sapphire eyes, brilliant even in the darkness, were trying to hold mine for more than a few seconds at a time. As the dizziness gradually began to wear off, a strange ache that I couldn't identify started to take its place. My throat felt oddly swollen, and I didn't think I would be able to speak. Thirty seconds went by in absolute silence…then forty; Ian was casually brushing his fingers against my forehead. When he was sure I'd calmed down enough he asked, "Wanda? You okay, honey?"

It was a moment before I could answer. I swallowed hard. "Yes," I whispered, startled to hear that same ache I could feel constricting my chest in my voice as well. I only hoped Ian couldn't hear it too. It was a vain hope.

"What's wrong?" he demanded, abruptly anxious.

And before I was even consciously aware of the answer myself, it had already slipped through my lips. "Why did you stop?"

I felt him stiffen around me, and as soon as I'd actually comprehended what I'd said, my face flashed with mortifying heat. The embarrassment had me trying desperately to bury my head in Ian's chest.

It was unbearably quiet for a moment too long while Ian processed that, and then he was laughing, his massive body shaking uncontrollably around me. All too soon, I felt the breathy rub of his lips at my ear. "Hmmm, well if it's any consolation, Wanda, I didn't want to stop," he mumbled, and I could hear the smile in his voice. I cringed even further into his chest, positive that he could probably see the glow of my cheeks through his shirt, despite how dark it was. "You distracted me."

I heard Ian sigh as he leaned in to kiss me on my forehead before his weight was suddenly gone, the abruptness of the break in proximity making me shiver. Ian groaned as he stretched, the bones in his back and neck cracking simultaneously—the sound made me cringe. He dragged me to his side almost immediately afterwards, tucking my head into the crook of his neck. I squirmed a little in his tight embrace, trying to get comfortable.

"Get some sleep now, Wanda. You really need it."

"How do you expect me to sleep now?" I grumbled in my high, reedy voice. He laughed, and I could feel his smile on the back of my neck as his lips drifted up and down the length of it. I was glad I was facing away from him—I didn't think I'd be able to keep my voice stable, otherwise.

"Well, try," he insisted. "If we're going to help out with dinner, I don't want you passing out on me like you have before," he grumbled disapprovingly.

I frowned in the darkness. "I thought you were going to play football with Jamie and the others?"

"I'm not going to leave you to struggle with the chores all by yourself, Wanda. Especially while everyone else is off having fun. That's hardly fair."

"Don't worry about me," I assured him, yawning. "The girls will help me—you should relax and play. The others will be disappointed if you don't. You know better than anyone how much Kyle hates losing."

Ian sighed again, exasperated this time, his breath blowing my hair up and over into my face. I brushed it back without thinking about it. "Just sleep for now." Ian repeated his words from before, and this time I could hear how tired he really was. "I'll fight you on it when I'm more awake…" his voice trailed off then, and a few seconds later, Ian's soft snoring filled our little cavern.

I was only lying there for a few minutes before the tempo of Ian's deep, even breathing had my whole body going lax, limb by limb. My eyelids drooped, and I suddenly realized I was much more tired that I'd originally thought, or perhaps had been willing to admit. I drifted off, perfectly content, into strangely vivid dreams that made little sense…

x x x

I woke with a start, my whole body jerking awake. My eyes adjusted gradually, the stupor of sleep a little harder to shake off because the caves were so dark—it was impossible to tell what time it was, though it was definitely some time after nightfall. I rolled onto my back slowly and peeked over my shoulder. Ian was spread out like a starfish on his stomach, still sleeping deeply like he always did. The mental image of comparing someone like Ian with a delicate creature like a starfish—I didn't actually know what that was, but Pet's memories supplied me with a picture of the creature—had me giggling away like a chipmunk and struggling to keep it quiet so I didn't wake him up.

I slid to the end of the mattress and got to my feet as carefully as I could, opening the screen to our room and shutting it as quickly as possible. Ian slept as deeply as Jamie—I would have had to really shove him to wake him up…but that was if he was really asleep. He'd done it once to me before. He was very good at pretending to be asleep, or so I'd learned from the occasional practical joke, which I'd never found very funny at all.

I tip-toed down the hallway, not daring to walk normally until I made it out into the junction that took me straight to the common room and through to the kitchen. I smiled when I saw Lily and Candy just starting to get the food ready to cook—I was just in time.

"Hi, Wanda," Candy greeted me easily with a sweet smile. "Did you sleep well?"

"I did, thank you," I told her. I moved to stand on the other side of the crate that held the raw meat for tonight's dinner, ready to help Lily lift it out onto the big tray's they already had prepared; I yawned again, still waking up.

Lily smiled attentively at me and patted my head. "Poor little Wanda," she whispered, a small, sad smile twisting the right corner of her lips up, "you work so hard. There's a football game going on down in the games room…Ian's playing, right?"—her voice faltered for a second when she said his name, and it wasn't difficult to understand why—"Why don't you go and watch? We've got dinner under control."

"No," I assured them, smiling back a little. "I want to help as much as I can—especially because I can do so little now that I'm in this new body."

Candy and Lily knew better than to argue with me after that; they both shrugged and moved to start moving the food to the tray. I shuffled after them, eager to help. Candy looked up from the wooden box when she saw me approach, and I stopped a good distance away, already recognising the expression on her face.

"Wanda, why don't you fill that pan over there with the hot water near the stove? There's a smaller pan you can use there for a cup—and the potatoes are in the bag. You can peel them while you're waiting for the water to boil."

I knew it.

I nodded, did an about face and went about my business. I found the smaller pan and started moving the almost-boiling water from one pot into the much larger one. It was hardly any effort at all. And though I felt a little guilty for having such an effortless job (especially after seeing Lily and Candy struggle with the unpacking), I was grateful for being able to contribute in any way possible. I was just starting to peel the potatoes when a very familiar voice called from out in the common room.


I sighed.

Candy and Lily started giggling.

"Wanda! I know you're in here," they called again, much close this time. "I can't believe that I actually went down to the games room first, and expected you to be there. What was I thinking?"

I turned towards the entrance, ready to face the person who I already knew wasn't going to let me off easily.

She saw me standing there in the kitchen with a peeler still in my hand and groaned, rolling her eyes. "Wanda…you've got to stop this. Come and have some fun, will you? I'm sure Ian will just come and drag you down there, anyway, when he realizes where you are."

I frowned back at her, still feeling a little strange looking back at the face and body that had been mine for over a year; her face was much higher than I was used to. "I can't play, Mel," I told her; my tone was matter-of fact as I gestured to my miniature frame. "So there's no point in my sitting around doing nothing when I can be useful elsewhere."

"But one of the reasons we picked you out that body, Wanda, was so you'd have to lay off the chores at least a little bit!"

"Of course I can't lay off the chores, Mel. I wouldn't be useful to anyone, otherwise."

"That's not what I meant, Wanda!" she groaned again, turning my name into a complaint at the same time someone else called, "Melanie!"

Jamie came tearing into the kitchen at top speed, almost running down his sister in the process.

"Hey, watch it!" she snapped, but Jamie didn't seem to be paying any attention.

"The game's about to start, guys. C'mon, Mel! Jared sent me to find you and Wanda—let's go!"

"No, thanks," I said, dodging when Melanie reached for my hand. "I'm going to stay here and help out with the food—see you both at dinner." I smiled at them both and started turning back towards the potatoes when a hand came down fast and hard on my shoulder. I sighed, annoyed. "Please, Mel—"

"Wait a second," she mumbled, cutting me off. It sounded more like she was talking to herself, though. "Jamie," she called, more loudly this time. "Could you please go and wake up Ian?"

"What?" I gasped, whirling around to face her. "You don't need to do that! I'm really quite happy helping out here. Honestly! You don't need to go waking Ian just so I'll go and watch a game!"

"What are you talking about, Wanda?" Melanie looked at me, her expression so innocent and surprised that it was almost insulting, "we need Ian for the game." She shrugged. "He wanted to play, right?"

I saw the glint in her eye—she was daring me to argue with her. My lips pressed into a thin, hard line and she grinned right back at me, triumphant.

"Of course!" Jamie suddenly piped up. "We'll get flogged without Ian's help!" He sped off out of the kitchen and into the darkness before I had a chance to stop him. Melanie looked at me pointedly, raising one of her eyebrows. I almost pointed out to her that she had Jared on her team, and that was all the power they would need to win, but there was no point now that Jamie had run off.

I was trapped. Again.

I put the potato peeler down on the kitchen counter, crossing my arms defiantly across my chest. Melanie rolled her eyes. "Let's go," she said, snatching my hand and breaking into an all out run before we'd even made it out of the common room. I stumbled and tripped trying to keep up with her, fuming at the same time that my plan to make things difficult for her had failed; she was much too strong for me in this form.

"Slow down!" I demanded, already breathless.

"We're almost there," she sighed.

I was exhausted by the time we finally made it down to the games room. Moonlight leaked through the cracks in the rock formation overhead, giving the field an eerie glow. People were already gathering on the fields, running and testing each other. Clouds of dust danced through the damp air, clouding the field in a strange mist where ever they came into contact with the light. It was really quite…pretty.

It was only then that I noticed how many people were down here—almost everyone. I listed their names off in my head as my gaze drifted around the room: Geoffrey, Lacey, Brandt, Adam, Melanie, Jamie, Kyle, Sunny, Jared, Jeb, Maggie, Sharon, Doc, Aaron, Heath, Heidi, Paige, Andy, Violetta, Freedom…

"Hey, Wanda! Hey, Mel!" Jamie called from the other side of the field, waving with both hands. I could just make out his gangly form through the shadows. "You playing?"

"Of course!" Melanie replied, already moving over towards him. She stopped suddenly and looked back at me, excited. "Are you sure you don't want to play? You could be on our team—we'd all look out for you…Ian especially, I'm sure." She smiled in encouragement, holding her hand out to me.

"I think I'll sit this one out," I told her, shaking my head slowly.

"Me too, then," someone said from behind me in a still-sleepy garble, making me jump. No. It wasn't someone. I would have recognised that voice from anywhere.

"Okay, then. Suit yourself," Melanie agreed quickly, already running over to join her brother. "I'm just glad I got you away from that kitchen," she called out over her shoulder at me, laughing. I nodded absently, not really paying attention. I noticed Jared was standing off to the side, talking quietly with Jeb. I tried unsuccessfully to make out their expressions, but something told me it was serious.

I heard a loud grunt behind me, the sound of crunching gravel drawing my eyes away from the field. Ian's huge, warm hand reached out and swallowed my small one up in its grasp, pulling me along easily until I had nowhere to go but his lap. He drew me right up against his back, one of his arms drawing around me like a tight band of steel, and the other coming up and gathering my mass of golden curls in his fist and pushing them over my shoulder. I looked up again to see that the game was about to start, and Jared and Jeb were still entrenched in their conversation, Jeb's caterpillar eyebrows furrowed down deep in thought.

I felt Ian's lips press into the base of my neck; I shivered at the pleasure the slight touch created. "What are Jared and Jeb talking about?" I asked Ian in a whisper.

"Dunno," he mumbled into my shoulder, not really paying attention. "Why?"

"Hmmm…it could just be me, but it seems like it's something serious. I'm just a little worried because it could be bad…"

"I'm sure it's nothing," Ian said softly, the palm of his hand rubbing slowly back and forth across my stomach in reassurance. "You worry too much, honey. 'Sides, Jared and Jeb can't not have a serious conversation—those two have no sense of humour when it comes to each other."

I frowned, still uncertain. "If you're sure, then…"

"I am. They're probably discussing the next raid or something." I felt Ian shrug around me. "Just business, that's all."

It was a moment before I answered. "Okay."

"Jared, let's go!" Kyle shouted from the opposite end of the field. "We'd like to start playing this century, if you don't mind."

He ran over almost immediately to stand amongst his team members. The game started, and I soon lost all my worries amongst all the hooting and cheering. Ian's laughter was loud in my ear as he watched Kyle crash to the ground with Jared holding on tightly to his legs. I cringed, amazed how they could find something so violent so entertaining. Jared's team was up by several points when Brandt finally made a…touchdown, I think Ian called it.

A flurry of movement right beside us caught my eye and I looked over to see Sunny hesitantly making her way over towards us, her eyes shifting constantly between Ian and I. She was still incredibly timid and rather skittish around humans other than Kyle. I was the only other person she seemed to be comfortable around, it seemed.

I smiled at her approach, trying to reassure her. "Hi, Sunny," I greeted her quietly.

She stopped a few paces back, fully aware of Ian. "Hi, Wanda," she squeaked, edging her way closer carefully, her eyes on Ian the entire time.

"It's alright," I told her, smiling. "He won't hurt you. I promise."

"I-I know," she stuttered. She made a more noticeable movement towards me this time. Ian watched her with a smile on his face—trying to encourage her, I guessed.

I reached my arm out to her, and Sunny took it gratefully, her grasp was incredibly tight for such a little thing, I noted with surprise. She plonked herself down on the ground next to Ian and I, still giving Ian as wider birth as possible while she held on like a vice to my hand. I had to lean a little to the side to accommodate Sunny, and this seemed to bother Ian a little; he grumbled incoherently under his breath—something about being 'that scary'. I giggled.

Sunny's eye's drifted back to the field, watching Kyle, and she almost instantly cringed away when he fell hard against the ground, tackled by Jared again. She seemed to be trying pretty hard to bury her face in my arm. "I don't like this game," she whispered—I could barely hear her. "It's so…violent. I don't like watching Kyle get hurt."

"It's alright," and it was Ian talking this time. "This is all just fun, I promise. You can't hurt Kyle. Not easily, anyway. It'd take a boulder speeding down a mountain at two hundred miles an hour to do some serious damage, but see I don't know…his head is so hard that the bolder might just shatter against it." Ian laughed out loud at the thought, which made Sunny jump in fright.

"Don't worry," I reassured her, trying not to laugh with him so I didn't startle her either. "Kyle will be fine—more than fine."

"I don't understand," Sunny mumbled meekly, looking at me with such an innocent, defenceless kind of confusion that it was hard not to jump up and give her a hug. It was such a strange impulse that I almost laughed at myself for it. But it was just that she looked so small and weak and venerable. Thinking of the way Sunny looked reminded me of Jamie's first words to me when I'd woken up in my new body—that because of the way I looked, people would naturally want to protect me. Did I really look as defenceless as Sunny? Was that actually a good thing?
This wasn't the first time I'd thought about this. I made me wonder if Jared, Jamie and Melanie hadn't taken something else into consideration when they were picking out my body. Not that they had necessarily been lying when they told me that Jared specifically liked this body's face especially because nobody could distrust it. But was there a more pertinent reason for this body? I was weak and tiny, and with my wide blue eyes, plump cheeks and full lips I looked in no way threatening. Jamie said it was the perfect body—that it fit my personality perfectly. But I also couldn't help but wonder if this new body also doubled as an insurance policy for people like Sharon and Maggie. People who, despite how long I'd been here—working just as hard as everyone else—still didn't trust me at all.

I shouldn't have felt offended. After all, I was the invader—I'd taken away their homes and families and forced them to live underground for the rest of their lives in these caves. That was understandable, but I think what I didn't understand was why they still thought of me a threat? Did they really think me so dangerous?

"Hey," Ian murmured, and I could feel the breath of his words on the back of my neck. "Relax…what's gotten you all tensed up all of a sudden?"

"Nothing," I lied, and just like always, the lie fell flat.

Ian sighed. "I don't know why you still keep trying to lie—you're really, really bad at it. Y'know that, right?"

I sighed too, unwilling. I could feel Sunny watching me as well, her eyes intent on my face. "It's not a big deal. I was just…thinking."


"About how it doesn't seem to matter what I do, there are some people here who I don't think will ever like me." I grimaced as I finished the thought, and Ian's arms tightened where they were resting loosely around my waist.

"I know what you mean," Sunny said in a low voice, leaning towards me. "Those girls…Sharon and Maggie…they scare me. But Kyle promised me he wouldn't let them hurt me, and I believe him." She practically beamed with conviction, and I couldn't deny how sweet her smile was.

"Don't worry about them." Ian spoke rather dismissively of the two women—his voice was almost a growl. "They've made no effort to get to know you. If they want to stick to their hate and prejudices, then they can. I don't care as long as I don't have to hear about it, and they don't go giving you any trouble. There's nothing you can do about them, Wanda. Don't even waste your time."

Absently, he reached for the back of my neck again, massaging the muscles lightly, seeming to know how that one action alone made me relax more than any reassurance could. I wondered idly if it had anything to do with the fact that nestled right under the skin beneath his touch was my little soul body. It was as close as anyone could get to touching me while I was embedded in a host, and the fact that it was Ian of all people who was kneading away at the thin surface that served as the only separation between his body and mine….It was an amazing feeling.

"Mmmm," I breathed, my body finally surrendering to the sensation and falling back, limp against his chest. My eyes fluttered closed and Ian chuckled. I didn't know how long I sat there like that in silence while Ian's fingers rubbed and probed all the right spots along the back of my head. The whole time, I was faintly aware of the sounds of a ball being kicked, and the occasional grunt as someone was tackled to the ground...

Someone laughed rather loudly at the same time I heard Sunny jump to her feet and exclaim, "Kyle!"

"Nice to see you away from the work for a change." Jeb's voice drifted past my ears, and I felt a small, contended smile start to form on my own lips. The game must have just finished.

"Hey Wanda," Melanie called from further away, her voice rather breathless. "Jared just asked—you want to go for a raid tomorrow?"

My eyes snapped open, focusing on the group that was suddenly crowded around me, all smiling fondly. My family…the most wonderful people I'd met in the known universe.

"Of course," I agreed wholeheartedly, shifting in Ian's arms. I was stiff from sitting still for so long. "If it'll help you all get the things you need, of course I'll go."

Everyone groaned. "That's not what she asked, Wanda," they all intoned together.