It's so different from Melanie.
Wanda misses it. She misses Mel, yes, that companionship. But she also misses - the sillier things. She misses being tall. She misses the strength. She misses the respect.
It's so soft, this body. All quiet curves and round shoulders. Small. Wide hips. Squishy stomach.
Wanda kind of likes it, sometimes. She likes looking so kind. She likes that it makes people unafraid of her.
There are other things she does not like.
Wanda's new body changes. The more she moves, runs, lives, the stronger it becomes. She sees the softness in her frame slowly disappear.
Very little else disappears.
"Here," Ian says softly one day, taking the basket of cantaloupes she was balancing on her hip.
"No, it's okay," she reassured him, with a smile, her face still habitually blushing even after all this time, "I got it."
And she really does have it, to her delight. It's wonderfully manageable. It makes her stand a little straighter.
But Ian insists, and she ends up carrying the smallest box of cantaloupe to the kitchens.
As they sit down to eat, later, she realizes how far Ian has to lean down to kiss her forehead.
She had thought that Ian was like Jaime - that nothing had changed, from Mel's body to this one. She thought he touched her just like he used to. She realizes, though, that it's different. He is softer, now. Even casually, with Mel's body, there was a presence to his touch. A grounding. Like a rod to lightning; like he wanted to latch on to her because she could have vanished in a second. Like she was a force, sudden and shocking.
He does not touch her like that, anymore. He touches her like she is paper and he is afraid of crumpling her. Like she is a china doll - thin, breakable.
She notices more. Though she is stronger, now, she is patronized more than ever. It has caused those that hated her once to be kinder, it's true, but it has also caused her to be looked down on. She is coddled, beloved, made precious, like the pet alien that, she realizes with an ache in her chest, she has been all along.
It is exhausting.
Wanda can't fall asleep.
She creeps out of her and Ian's room. She's more nervous when she gets to Melanie's door, because Jared sleeps so light he might as well be awake. When she makes it past the threshold, Jared's sleeping form shifts, and she freezes. It takes ten more minutes of heavy, constant breaths before she moves forward again, to the far side of the bed where Mel is sleeping.
Mel blinks up at her, but doesn't say anything. She looks at Jared and carefully disentangles herself from him. Wordlessly, they walk to the field of wheat. It's still growing, at this point, just brushing their calves. They walk to the edge of the vaulted room to the large stone against one of the walls. They perch on the top, staring up at the stars through the top of the ceiling.
"Wanderer?" Mel says.
"Mmh?" Wanda replies,
Mel waits another moment, giving Wanda the space if she wants to speak. When it seems like Wanda isn't willing to say the words that brought them both here, Mel begins.
"Jaime got into trouble again at school today," she says.
The mere mention of Jaime makes Wanda smile. "I know," she replies, a laugh in her voice, "he told me. He's like you."
Mel smiles tightly, still worried about Wanda. Then, she says, "It's not my fault the kid stole both a dinner roll and a rabbit and got away with it."
Wanda, still smiling, tilts her head back further, taking in the sky.
"I missed the stars. On my last planet, we were so far under the sea that nothing could be seen. It was - dark."
"With the seaweeds?"
For another moment, the fall silent. Mel takes the time to remember what she could about the Seaweeds from Wanda's memory. Dark, yes. But also kind, slow.
"When I first came to this planet," Wanda begins all at once. Mel centers her attention on her.
Wanda is still staring at the stars.
"The souls thought me brave. Strong."
Mel nods. She remembers.
"I have saved souls and - and ridden beasts."
"I know," Mel says softly, trying to understand.
It takes another moment. Wanda and Mel breathe in tandem, quiet and measured.
Finally, Wanderer speaks.
"They won't stop touching my hair," she says. Mel looks at her. Wanda's voice is just as light and unaffected as ever, but she's facing straight forward, avoiding Melanie's gaze.
And that is all.
The next morning, Mel cuts half of Wanda's hair off. It used to fall in waves past her mid-back; but after Mel hacks at it with her knife, it reaches just past her collarbone. Wanda releases a sigh, when Mel is finished, and it sounds like she's letting go of a breath that had been burning her lungs.
Then Mel makes Sharon teach her how to french braid. She'd known, she thinks, back in her old life, but she'd never been very good at it. The following morning, Mel spends 20 agonizing minutes molding the ugliest french braid ever out of Wanda's blonde hair.
People still pet her on the head. They still smile down at her like she's a child. But they don't touch her hair anymore, crooning over the color and length. Wanda runs her hand over the braid, down to the tail she twists like she used to twist her free hair in Mel's body. And it feels, strangely, like she's really at home, in this body.
Ian doesn't comment on the hair.
Wanda thinks Mel may have talked to him, because he doesn't touch her hair, now, even when it's not in a french braid. Sometimes he tucks it away behind her ear so he can kiss her cheek.
She is grateful for this.
Wanda doesn't swear. Melanie swears. Jared swears. Ian swears. Even with Melanie in her actual brain for a year, Wanda never really fell into the pattern of it.
But when she burns the back of her hand the first day she ever has kitchen duty, she wishes instinct could have made her curse. Because then it would have been rushed, silenced, and laughed off. Instead, she releases a sharp, quiet exclamation of pain that makes the three people around her abandon their tasks and rush to her side.
"I'm sorry," she keeps repeating through the blush burning her skin, and the pained tears in her eyes, "I'm so sorry, it was just a burn. I'm so clumsy. I'm fine. Yes, thank you Lily. I'm okay. I'm sorry. To Doc? Oh, no, that would be too much. Yes, I think so. Oh - oh, no, really, it's just a small - "
And then she fell silent for the rest of the conversation as the humans around her decided she must, after all, go to Doc, and take the rest of the day to rest, just in case.
"Doc, please don't waste the Heal on me. It's silly."
"Well, now, it's all right, Wanda," Doc reassures her, "you're not used to much pain. This must have been very surprising for you."
Suddenly, Wanda's jaw clenches. She wants to tell him that she does know pain. And it's more than just the cut that she inflicted on herself all that time ago, or the attack from Kyle.
Wanda remembers what it feels like to die.
Or, to come close to it. She has it from Mel's memory. Really, she lived it from Mel's memory. She felt the way her bones had cracked, the way it felt like her body was being crumpled like an aluminum can.
But this would hurt Doc, so she doesn't mention it.
She leaves with the back of her hand in pristine condition. Not even a scar; not even a disrupted freckle.
There are still tears in her eyes, though it does not hurt, any more.
When Ian finds her later that day, she is in their room, examining where the burn should be on her hand.
"Wanda?" he says tentatively. Only when she looks up at him, trying to smile, does he come and sit beside her on the bed.
"I heard you got hurt on kitchen duty today," he says softly, "Are you alright?"
"I'm so," she starts, but her voice ends there. She leans away from Ian's touch and runs her hand over her french braid.
"What is it?" he encourages.
"I feel so stupid," she finally confesses, "So clumsy. Like a kid, or something. So - ah - " she sniffs loudly.
Wanda's vision blurs. Ian's arm is calm and reassuring around her before she has time to think about it. As soon as she notices, she shakes him off.
"I'm not actually sad. It's this - stupid body," she tells him, her voice wavering, "it cries at e-everything."
"You're not clumsy," Ian tells her, "or stupid."
Wanda laughs harshly.
"Listen. I'm serious. You're not. Look."
Hesitantly, Ian shows his right hand, where, on the back, there is the twisting scar of a healed burn, exactly where Wanda's had been.
"Half of the guys who have been here for a while had one of these," Ian confesses reluctantly. "It's the way chef arranges the bread pans, right?"
Wanda nods, quiet.
This helps, a bit. But in another way, it is so much worse. If this was a normal mistake, why had they all thrown such a fit over her? Why all of this babying, this fussing? It’s not just that they healed a burn on her hand, it’s that they look at her like she is a three year old girl, like Wanda is too naive and self-sacrificing too speak for herself.
They may as well gag her; mute her. How can she say all of this in a way he will understand?
“Wanda?” Ian says, encouraging.
Something bottled inside of her bubbles out all at once.
"You treat me so different!" She wants to sound angry and like Mel, but she’s not Mel, any more, so she sounds watery and weak and tiny. “Ever since - I came back.”
It’s Pet’s body. This body that is making Ian hold back, like he always does.
"It's not this new body," Ian whispers.
Wanda tilts her head at him, already defeated.
"It isn't," he insists, gripping her tiny hand tighter.
"I've seen you, Wanda. Held you." He says this with an intensity that almost burns in his voice. "Really you. Actually you. And you were beautiful and fragile and it scared me, Wanda. How easy it would have been to hurt you. I couldn't comprehend it. I couldn't think it."
Then, softly, slowly, Ian reaches up and presses his fingertips gently to the back of her neck. Wanda blinks up at him, surprised.
For a moment, she can’t speak. His hand is warm on her skin. It seems like it will be impossible, now, to say what she knows she needs to say.
“I am a real person,” she says softly. “Please.”
And Ian speaks Wanda almost as well as Mel does, so he understands.
The next week, Wanda plays her first game of soccer. She is absolutely awful. But Ian passes the ball to her and she even scores a goal, and at the end of it she is all breathless and warm, heart beating fast like - like -
Like she is alive.