Between a Cave and a Cliffhanger
Summary: A short fic in response to CMS's challenge. Veronica tries to find out from Marguerite just what happened in that cave during Trapped.
It was another sunny morning at the Treehouse. The midmorning sunlight slanted in, illuminating the common room and the three women busily bundling piles of clothes into loosely-woven baskets.
"I don't see why we have to be the ones to wash the clothes," Finn grumbled, looking at the half-filled basket in disgust. "I'd much rather work in the garden or help Roxton chop firewood. Or help Challenger in the lab!" Her blue eyes brightened, and she looked at Veronica hopefully. "Maybe I could do that instead?"
"We all have to help with the chores, Finn," Veronica chided gently, amused by the younger woman's wheedling attempt to get out of a chore she evidently despised. She was also curious; more often than not Finn followed her wherever she went. What was stopping her now? "Challenger doesn't need any help today; he's working on some weather calculations. What's so wrong about doing laundry?" she asked, absentmindedly fingering the Trion on its cord around her neck.
The young woman shuddered dramatically, shaking her head and sending her short blonde hair flying. "I hate getting wet," she admitted reluctantly. Even after all the time she'd spent in this idyllic past, she couldn't get over her instinctive fear of free-flowing water. In her own time, getting wet in a river or a pond was a sure way to come down with a skin rash at best, and a fatal case of something at worst. Even the rain could kill you. Only doubly-distilled and treated water was safe. "Please V, can't you and Marguerite do this on your own? I'll do all the weeding - yours and Marguerite's!" She sent a pleading look towards the dark-haired older woman, then focused her efforts on Veronica again as it became evident that Marguerite wasn't paying her any attention.
Veronica paused, watching the oblivious heiress mechanically adding clothes to her already-full basket. At a casual glance, there was nothing unusual about her. Marguerite looked much the same as ever, dark hair braided and tied back out of her way. She was slightly less elegant than usual, dressed for doing laundry in patched safari trousers and a much-mended white blouse, but still managed to seem well-dressed and neat. It was her manner that had changed. She seemed distracted, displaying a lack of awareness of her surroundings that was quite unlike the sharp-witted woman. Veronica wasn't sure when it had started, but she'd been growing more aware of it for several days. "Marguerite, is that okay with you?" she asked loudly.
It was like flipping a switch on one of Challenger's inventions. Marguerite looked up from her basket, still holding one of Roxton's dirty shirts in her hands. "Is what okay with me?" she asked in a perfectly normal voice, her grey eyes looking from Veronica to Finn without any indication of her previous preoccupation.
"I'll do the weeding if you and Veronica will do the laundry," Finn offered, sensing that her chances to escape the dreaded chore had just improved.
Marguerite shrugged. She'd never liked weeding, and as chores went, laundry wasn't so bad. If Finn wanted to grub around in the dirt rather than take the opportunity to cool off at the pond, Marguerite was happy to oblige her. "It's fine with me, Finn," Marguerite answered, using the peculiarly gentle tone she reserved only for their newest expedition member. "Veronica?"
The ongoing mystery of Marguerite's behavior decided her. Veronica wanted to know what was going on, and she knew Marguerite well enough to know she had no chance of finding out if Finn was with them. She smiled merrily at the young blonde. "Okay, Finn. Just don't pull up the squash with the dandelions."
"I won't, V! I'll do a great job, you'll see!" Finn cried, literally bouncing with excitement. V's trusting me with her garden! And I don't have to get wet! "I'll go get into my gardening clothes now!" She rushed off to change into the garments the others had scrounged together for her after the first time she'd spent all day in the garden and obtained a bad sunburn doing it. The long-sleeved, light cotton work shirt, shortened cotton trousers (that she called 'shorts') and straw hat looked rather strange on her - particularly the trousers, cut down and pieced together as they were from a ruined pair of Challenger's pants - but she hadn't been burned once while gardening since the others gave them to her. Besides, just knowing the others had given them to her - hers, for her very own! - made her feel happier than she had in years. She cartwheeled out of the main room for the sheer joy of it.
Left in her wake, the two remaining women grinned at each other. "To each their own," Marguerite joked wryly. "If I had known giving her my share of the weeding would make her so happy, I'd have done it weeks ago."
Veronica laughed and hoisted her basket. The comment was so Marguerite that she briefly wondered if she'd been imagining things after all. "I'll bet. With just two of us, though, we're going to have to carry down more than one load."
"We might as well get the first batch washed and hung to dry before coming back for the rest," Marguerite agreed, picking up her overfull bundle with no sign of resentment.
The two women headed for the elevator and started down, chatting amiably about trivial things. With a pang, Veronica realized it had been quite a while since she and Marguerite had had a chance to talk together, without anyone else around.
Since coming back with the Trion, almost all of Veronica's free time had been taken up by Finn, who wanted to follow her everywhere. While she enjoyed Finn's companionship, finding in her both an eager pupil and a desperately needed antidote to Malone's continued absence, she valued Marguerite's friendship, too. If Finn filled the role of a younger sister eagerly looking to her for guidance and approval, Marguerite held the role of older sister in Veronica's heart. Often infuriating and sometimes incomprehensible, Marguerite was also a source of womanly knowledge and comfort, and Veronica knew inwardly that Marguerite would never let her down when it counted. Had her hard-won closeness with the heiress been damaged somehow? Veronica inwardly acknowledged that she had been neglecting the older relationship in favor of the new. Maybe that's why Marguerite has been distant? Maybe it's me. Maybe she's feeling hurt because I've spent so much time with Finn. Given the prickly, convoluted nature of her friend, it was entirely possible, and Veronica inwardly pledged to do what she could to make it up to Marguerite.
The elevator finished its downward journey, and the two women emerged into the dappled sunlight beneath the Treehouse. The repetitive thunking sound of an axe striking wood announced Roxton's presence at one end of the fenced compound, steadily reducing a pile of thick branches into manageable pieces. Clad only in trousers, boots, and his ever-present hat, the smooth play of the muscles in his back were clearly visible as he swung the axe. His discarded shirt lay crumpled in a casual heap a few feet away from him, a stark contrast to the careful positioning of his rifle propped against a nearby tree trunk.
Marguerite snorted softly as she noticed the shirt lying on the ground. "Men. Why can they never learn to take better care of their clothing?" The dark-haired woman strode purposefully across the compound towards the oblivious hunter.
"Nature of the beast?" Veronica offered, but Marguerite was already halfway towards her goal and didn't hear. The blonde trailed behind her, trying not to grin.
"By all rights I ought to leave that shirt lying there collecting splinters," Marguerite said sarcastically as she neared the laboring man. "Maybe you'd learn better when you put it on and it stuck you in half-a-dozen places."
Roxton casually brought his axe down into the branch he was working on, left it stuck there, and turned to face the two women. His torso and face were glistening with sweat, but he seemed more amused than annoyed by the interruption. He glanced down at the offending item and then grinned at Marguerite, his eyes dancing with mischief. "It wouldn't be the only prickly thing around here," he teased, pushing back his hat.
"Not by a long shot," Marguerite shot back, with a significant look at Roxton's prominent stubble. "Your beard is growing quite out of hand. Any longer and I might start mistaking you for an ape-man." A subtly amused glint shone in her grey eyes, and the corner of her mouth twitched in an effort to repress her smile.
"Hm, yes, I could use a shave," he acknowledged ruefully, rubbing one hand across his chin. "Did you come over here just to rescue me from the effects of my folly?"
"No, I came over here to spare myself the additional effort of picking out even more wood chips from your shirt." She shifted the basket in her arms and nudged the discarded shirt with the toe of her boot. "The least you could do is put it in the basket for me. I'll wash it in the stream with the rest of the clothes."
"Looks like you already have quite the load there," Roxton commented, stooping to retrieve the shirt, and taking advantage of the proximity and angle of the view to surreptitiously appreciate Marguerite's body. The old clothes she wore were relatively threadbare, and the way Marguerite held the basket caused her blouse to pull tightly across her chest. His eyes were bright as he straightened up, the shirt dangling from his hands. "Are you sure you don't have more than you can handle already?" he asked suggestively.
Marguerite shifted her feet a little, enjoying the banter but well aware of Veronica's presence nearby. "I think Veronica and I can handle it," she said, sending him a subtle hint about their audience.
Reminded, Roxton smiled at Veronica, then looked around in puzzlement. "Where's Finn?" He absently placed the shirt in Marguerite's basket, searching the clearing for the young blonde.
"Gardening," Veronica answered.
"Apparently she'd rather get clothes dirty than help clean them," Marguerite added dryly.
He frowned, looking from one heavily-burdened woman to the other. Both had their hands full just carrying the baskets of dirty laundry. "Maybe I should come with you as far as the pond."
Marguerite gave him a skeptical look. "To help carry laundry?"
"To help guard against anything that might want to prevent you from doing laundry," Roxton corrected with a nod towards his rifle.
"Don't worry, Roxton. If anything looks threatening, I'll drop the clothes in favor of my gun." Marguerite wrinkled her nose. "Better yet, I'll throw the laundry at any attackers first. I'm sure the smell would scare them away."
"Marguerite " Roxton protested.
She cut him off. "We'll be fine - and you've got a lot of firewood yet to chop."
"But - " The dark-haired lord scowled, clearly frustrated by her conclusion.
"Chop-chop," Marguerite repeated in a sweet, sing-song voice, and turned to Veronica. "Shall we be on our way?"
Veronica laughed. "After you." She gave Roxton a reassuring smile. "We'll be fine, Roxton."
"After all, we've been doing laundry for years," Marguerite tossed back over her shoulder as the two women headed for the gate.
Veronica could feel Roxton's eyes on them as they struggled briefly with the gate's latch, opened it, closed it, and moved on into the jungle. Marguerite never once looked back, but she could sense the older woman was also aware of the hunter's attention. It showed in the way that she walked and in the saucy way she tossed her hair back over her shoulder as they left the Treehouse behind.
Those two, Veronica thought with amusement, then frowned slightly. Those two. Roxton's been acting a little differently, too, now that I think of it. He hasn't suggested a single trip away from the Treehouse recently; he didn't even accompany Finn, Challenger and me on that overnight trip to the Zanga village. Every time I've seen him, he's been somewhere in Marguerite's vicinity - if not actually with her, then somewhere nearby. He's been watching her constantly.
Her frown deepened as she thought over the recent past, her mind conjuring half-a-dozen images of Roxton watching Marguerite from a distance, not approaching her, a brooding expression on his face. He's always been protective of her, but this is different. Maybe he's worried about something? Some danger or threat? But if so, why hasn't he alerted the rest of us? Why hasn't he said anything to me? As the usual defenders of their group, she and Roxton habitually conversed about any safety issues or concerns. She bit her lip, her conscience reminding her of her failure to help Roxton and Marguerite out of that pit. Maybe he's lost confidence in me? Maybe that's why he's acting this way - because he doesn't trust me as much? That might explain why he wanted to guard us on the way to the pond - which is completely ridiculous! I've been going to the pond for years before they ever got here!
The association of ideas brought Veronica out of her thoughts. Guiltily, she scrutinized the area, well aware that she hadn't been paying as close attention as usual to their surroundings. Fortunately all was calm, and she relaxed somewhat. Maybe Roxton's right to doubt me. Maybe that's why Marguerite is acting differently; maybe she doesn't trust me as much either. Neither one has said much about what happened to them, but judging from their state when they got out, they must have had a very close call. Both Roxton and Marguerite had been unusually weak and shaken after their ordeal - and noticeably happy to be alive. Veronica smiled as she remembered glimpsing Marguerite leaning over to give Roxton a gentle kiss on the cheek. That was unusual, too - she didn't care if anyone saw. Not that it lasted; they've gone back to sneaking kisses on the balcony. She sighed, thinking wistfully of Malone, then brought her mind back to the problem of what to do to make amends to her friends. I guess I should start by apologizing, and then see where things go from there.
"Veronica?" Marguerite called.
"Hm?" Veronica replied, looking over to see Marguerite standing by the pond, eyeing her quizzically. She'd already set down her basket of dirty clothes, and had folded her arms across her chest. Bright sunlight filtered down from overhead, turning the waters of the pond a brilliant blue-green and striking reddish highlights in Marguerite's hair.
"Are you planning on doing your part of the laundry at the Zanga village?" her friend asked with a suggestive lift of her chin, indicating the distance between them.
I did it again! Chagrined, Veronica realized she had once again been so involved with her thoughts that she had automatically continued to follow the path past the pond. "Uh, no! I'm sorry. I was just thinking, and I guess I wasn't paying attention to where I was going." She hastened back to the pond's edge, fussing with her laundry in order to conceal her burning cheeks.
"That's not like you," Marguerite remarked, a touch of concern in her voice as she studied the younger woman. Veronica's hair shone bright gold in the clear light, but her face was troubled. "Is something wrong?"
It was the perfect opening, and Veronica took it without hesitation. "Actually, I was wondering the same thing about you. We haven't had many chances to talk recently, and I've noticed " Veronica paused, searching for the right words to articulate what she felt. As was becoming her habit, one hand stole upwards to finger the Trion on its thong around her neck.
Marguerite stared at her for a moment before crouching down at the pond's edge to empty her laundry basket. "Noticed what?" she asked warily, ostensibly concentrating on the dirty clothes.
"Are you mad at me?" Veronica blurted out.
Astonished, Marguerite stopped emptying her basket and looked up at Veronica. "Why on earth would I be mad at you?"
Faced with Marguerite's obvious bewilderment, Veronica flushed deeply enough even her tan couldn't hide her embarrassment. "I thought never mind."
Tiny frown lines appeared between Marguerite's brows as she rapidly reviewed the last few days, trying to figure out what had caused Veronica to make such an extraordinary statement. "Why did you think I was angry with you?"
Veronica sighed, settled down next to the pond's edge close to Marguerite, and wetted one of the dirty shirts. Once wet, she started scrubbing it with one of the bars of hard soap they used for washing clothes, trying to think of a way to explain when she herself didn't fully understand. "I just realized I've been spending most of my time with Finn, and I haven't included you."
Marguerite laughed briefly, swishing a pair of pants back and forth in the water. "Don't worry about me! You're far more suited to keeping up with that bouncing bundle of energy than I," she pointed out dryly.
"Maybe - but I miss talking with you."
Grey eyes widened in surprise, and a gentle smile illuminated Marguerite's face. "I miss it, too," she admitted shyly. "I'm sorry; I've been preoccupied lately." With John, she added silently.
"I've noticed; it's one of the reasons I thought you might be mad. I wouldn't blame you if you were; I've been pretty busy with Finn, and we didn't help you out of that pit " Seeing Marguerite's questioning look, Veronica briefly summarized the worries that had led to her sudden query. "I don't know what we were thinking, just sitting there and watching you and Roxton struggle out on your own," she concluded, shaking her head in vexation.
Marguerite shrugged. "It was a pretty powerful explosion," she reminded her friend. "I'm not surprised you were stunned by it. George was knocked out cold." She vividly remembered what the explosion had been like on the other end, ducking under the glowing water just before the cavern above them exploded into a mass of light and fire. Even underwater, the pressure wave from the explosion had battered them both, forcing them down into the shining depths of the pool. Dazed, bruised, and disoriented, she might never have made it back to the surface if not for John's insistent tugging on her hand, pulling her up. True to his word, he never let me go.
"At least Challenger had the excuse of being hit on the head by a rock," Veronica disagreed, vigorously rinsing out the shirt she'd scrubbed.
"Oh, I suppose you'd feel better about it if you'd been hit by rocks, too?" Marguerite asked ironically.
Veronica giggled, brought out of her recriminatory mood by Marguerite's deliberate absurdity. "I guess not. You're really not angry with me, then?"
"No, Veronica," Marguerite reassured her. Her lips quirked into a wry grin. "I never thought I'd see the day where I'd have to convince someone I wasn't mad at them. Usually people have no trouble telling when I'm angry!"
The two women laughed companionably, and Veronica felt enormously relieved. "So what did happen in that cave? Neither you nor Roxton have said much about it."
Marguerite ducked her head over her laundry again, a move that instantly roused Veronica's suspicions. "Nothing much to tell. We were trapped inside a coal-gas-leaking cave by an explosion. We eventually figured out how to cause another explosion to blast ourselves free."
"There must have been more to it than that," Veronica protested. I know I haven't been imagining all these changes!
"Why?" Marguerite asked innocently. Her expression was candid and her eyes were steady, but Veronica wasn't fooled.
"C'mon, Marguerite. I saw the state you and Roxton were in after you got out of the cave. You were both on the verge of collapse, but neither of you would let the other out of your sight. And you both couldn't wait to get away from there."
"It was a harrowing experience," Marguerite protested weakly. Were we that obvious? Thoughts of the cave still made her shiver even as other memories of it made her tingle.
Seeing the reminiscent look on Marguerite's face and recognizing her weak evasion for what it was, Veronica pressed her advantage. "I saw you kiss him." Veronica blushed a little at Marguerite's startled look, but continued on despite it. "I saw the way he held you, just after you got out of the cave, and I've seen you around the Treehouse since." She stopped washing clothes and looked at Marguerite until the older woman met her level gaze. "You've both been acting differently. I think something more happened than just an explosion."
Oh, more than one explosion happened that day! Marguerite had rarely felt as flustered as she did at that moment. She's seen us around the Treehouse? She can't mean no. She must have seen John and me on the balcony; if she'd seen any more than that, she wouldn't need to be asking questions! She bit her lip to keep from smiling, thinking about a few of their stolen moments together since that day in the cave. They hadn't been overly indiscreet when the others were in the Treehouse - yet - but the temptation was constant, and they'd made plenty of little 'side trips' together over the last few days. Still, she's obviously seen enough to wonder. If she, the jungle innocent, suspects, I wonder what the others think?
Unnerved by Marguerite's long silence, Veronica started to wonder if she'd said the wrong thing. Maybe Marguerite wasn't ready to talk to her about it. The idea hurt, but she tried to hide it. "You don't have to tell me about it, but I was kind of hoping we could talk if you wanted to." Despite herself, she couldn't completely mask the hesitancy in her voice.
Alerted by Veronica's tone, Marguerite instinctively acted to mitigate the hurt she sensed. "Of course we can talk," she started, then stopped short as she realized she really wasn't sure what to say. Marguerite was shocked to realize that part of her welcomed the idea of talking to Veronica. She hadn't discussed a relationship with a female friend since her girlhood days with Adrienne. The thought of sharing some of her feelings suddenly held enormous appeal, although Marguerite had no illusions that Veronica was even half as worldly or experienced as her dead friend. She might not understand all of it, but anything Veronica does say will come from the heart. The question is, how much should I reveal? "I'm just not sure where to start," Marguerite admitted with a short laugh.
"At the beginning?" Veronica quipped hopefully.
Marguerite splashed a little water at her. "You already know that part," she chided with a mocking grin. "Roxton and I accidentally set off an explosion when his torch ignited coal gas escaping from the cave." She still shied away instinctively from referring to it as a tomb, or mentioning any aspect of the Druid connection they'd found.
"It's amazing you weren't killed on the spot," Veronica said with a shiver. She absently wrung out the shirt she'd been working on.
"Yes," Marguerite assented softly, "but we were stuck behind a solid fall of rock, and the rest of the area near the collapsed entrance wasn't very stable. We called to Challenger, but we didn't know if he'd made it out. We started trying to dig our way out, but the area kept collapsing, just adding more rock between us and the rest of the world." Even at this remove, Marguerite shook a little with remembered terror. "It looked pretty hopeless."
Veronica's eyes widened as Marguerite's description sank in. "You really thought you were going to die," she realized. No wonder they've been acting differently!
"We did - or at least I did." The admission was difficult, but she managed to force it out.
"What did you do?"
"What, in between causing more cave-ins and trying to plug up the cracks in the wall that were leaking coal gas?" Marguerite laughed, then paused as she considered Veronica's question more seriously. "Sometimes we just sat together, trying to conserve our energy and air " Particularly after we exhausted ourselves making love. The unspoken part of the sentence remained firmly in Marguerite's mind. Do I tell her? Do I even have the words? She's such an innocent!
Unnerved by the idea of discussing something never spoken of in polite society, Marguerite searched her mind briefly for harmless euphemisms or common phrases that might suggest a direction to take. Unfortunately, all her mind could conjure at the moment were bits and pieces from such works as The Carnal Prayer Mat and The Lustful Turk, and she nearly laughed aloud. Somehow I don't think Veronica's ready for that. She wouldn't know what a 'jade whisk' was - not that I'm going to go into details of John's anatomy! I don't even know if she knows what jade is, much less how precious and valuable it is to the Chinese, or how really high-quality jade is so smooth and warm and magical to the touch Hm. Maybe that term isn't so far-fetched after all. The thought led to memories of their lovemaking, a desperate reaching out to each other to seize what might be their only moment. The feeling of John's lips on her skin, their frenzied mutual disrobing, the emotional and physical satisfaction of feeling him move within her at last Three years of pent-up attraction and frustration, the awareness of the danger of their situation, and the emotional giddiness of finally confessing her deep love for him; all culminated in the joining of his body to hers and the frantic, glorious dance to release.
The laundry sat forgotten as Veronica stared at Marguerite, fascinated. The older woman had gone dreamy-eyed and silent. Her lips curved up in a tender smile unlike any Veronica had ever seen on her face, and her normally pale skin was flushed.
The awareness of being watched finally brought Marguerite out of her reminiscences, and she blushed a bit more. Oh great. If she hadn't figured it out already, she's got no excuse for not knowing now! She considered her next words carefully. "There are things you say and do when you think you're not going to survive, that you might not have the courage for under normal circumstances," she ventured at last.
Veronica's eyes shone with empathy. They must have finally admitted how the feel about each other! "Did you and Roxton say things like that to each other?"
Marguerite was nearly scarlet, but didn't try to hide her face. "Yes."
"That's wonderful," Veronica enthused, barely resisting the urge to hug her friend. Marguerite was often uncomfortable with such gestures, and the older woman already looked skittish and unsure. Why would she feel skittish? It's obvious how they feel about each other - it's been obvious to all of us for ages! Maybe she still doesn't believe it, because of the circumstances? "I'm sure whatever Roxton said, he meant," she said reassuringly. "He wouldn't lie or keep secrets, particularly not under those circumstances."
"I've put up with your contradictions, your deceptions, your mixed signals, your bloody secrets I know more about you than I ever wanted to know all you do is take, you never give one miserable inch you're just not worth the effort! You're cold, you're empty, and if we ever get out of here, we are finished!!!" The scattershot remembrance of Roxton's words overwhelmed Marguerite's happier thoughts, and she stiffened. Veronica's right; John certainly didn't keep any secrets about how he sees me, she thought sadly. He did apologize, and maybe he didn't mean all of it but how can I know? How can I know which words were real?
She thought over other things he'd said while they were trapped, trying not to flinch away from the emotional turmoil they roused. "I'd never leave you behind, although sometimes I'd like to " Too much a gentleman to, perhaps - and what happens if we ever return to civilization? How can he not leave me behind then? How can I not leave him behind, if only for his own good? I'll be a marked woman from the moment of our return, if we ever find a way off of this Plateau!
Another memory surfaced, one so powerful she couldn't help but answer it in her mind. "I love you, Marguerite. Don't you say I can't. Don't pretend you can't hear me." I heard you, John, but how can you love me when you think I'm empty and cold? And if you think Marguerite Krux is so horrible, always taking and never giving, how will you deal with all the others I've been? How will you cope with whoever I turn out to be - particularly when I don't even know who I really am?
Forcing these thoughts away, Marguerite gave Veronica a smile that didn't manage to reach her eyes. "I'm sure you're right." She turned back to her laundry and started attacking it with vigor, clearly ending the conversation.
For her part, Veronica had watched the effect of her 'reassuring' words with some alarm, and was even more dismayed by the dark-haired woman's reply. Marguerite had reacted much as if she'd poured a bucket of ice water down her back. What did I say? Oh, I didn't mean to remind her of her own secrets! Guiltily, she reached out to touch Marguerite on the shoulder. "I know he cares about you, Marguerite, and that you care about him."
Marguerite did not pause in her efforts to remove a stain from one of Challenger's vests. "Yes," she agreed flatly. I know John thinks he loves me. And I can't deny that I love him. I just wish I could believe love will be enough.
Preoccupied with their own thoughts and diligently scrubbing cloth in lieu of conversation, the two women did not notice they were being watched.
A loud crack heralded the imminent sundering of the last of the large logs, and Roxton grunted in satisfaction as he brought the axe down a final time. The log obligingly dropped into two pieces. Roxton left his axe sticking in the chopping block and reached back for his canteen, hanging near his rifle. As he drank, he surveyed the results of his efforts with satisfaction. All the pieces were manageable now. Most of them still needed to be split into smaller pieces for the cookstove, but that was a much simpler task. Lowering the canteen, he wiped his mouth and forehead with the back of his hand. He leaned against a tree to rest for a minute, feeling the light breeze cooling the sweat that beaded his chest and trickled down his neck and back.
That breeze feels good, Roxton mused. A swim down at the pond would feel better, though - and I could certainly use the wash. He glanced down ruefully at his splinter-and-sweat-covered body, then considered the woodpile waiting for him. Better finish the job first. Maybe by then Marguerite will be done with laundry, and we can take a little swim together.
He smiled, visions and fantasies of the beautiful heiress flitting through his head. Despite repeated proof to the contrary, part of him still couldn't believe they had finally come together. He'd worried a little that she might regret what had happened between them in the cave, but two nights after the incident, all those fears had been set to rest. Veronica had taken Finn to be introduced to the Zangas, and Challenger had decided to accompany them to the village. He and Marguerite had been left behind at the Treehouse, ensured of privacy for almost two days. The other three hadn't been gone an hour before a teasing, casual kiss in the kitchen had metamorphosed into blazing desire. He'd had just enough presence of mind left to sweep her into his arms and carry her off to his bedroom before things got entirely out of control.
A delicious shiver ran through him as he remembered the long, loving hours that had followed, sometimes languorous, sometimes lively, learning each other in the most intimate ways. With my body, I thee worship, he remembered thinking, and he had; kissing and caressing every inch of her, discovering what made her gasp, what made her giggle, what made her moan and move against him. She had done the same, her delight in him obvious in every touch of her hands and brush of her lips. Closing his eyes, he could still feel the sensation of her skin against his, remember the contrast between his sun-bronzed flesh and her paler coloring as they twined together
The sudden uncomfortable tightness of his old cotton trousers forcibly reminded Roxton that he'd better get his thoughts under control. He shifted and glanced around, glad no one was nearby to notice the obvious bulge. Maybe I should take a quick walk. I could check on Marguerite and Veronica at the pond, make sure they're okay. He grinned again; even he could recognize the lameness of the excuse. Seeing Marguerite isn't likely to help my condition! Lord, I'm as bad as a sixteen-year-old boy! He frowned, the analogy reminding him all at once of his failure and why he had extra reason to be concerned for Marguerite. He hadn't withdrawn in the cave. He'd intended to, but when the time came, it hit him so quickly and so powerfully La petite mort, the French called it, the little-death, and it had overwhelmed him completely. When he managed to regain some sense of himself, he was half-collapsed over Marguerite, gasping for breath, still sheathed deep within her, and feeling her tremble beneath him with her own after-reaction. Given their circumstances, it hadn't seemed too important at the time, and he'd buried the worry beneath the more pressing concerns of immediate survival. He'd been careful ever since, but the possibility remained; Marguerite could be carrying his child.
The very idea terrified and elated him all at once. Rationally, he knew it was a complication they didn't need, that their relationship was still too new, that they had far too many issues still to work out between them, and that the addition of a child could just as easily rip them apart as bring them closer together. Realistically, he knew the jungle was no place for a child, and certainly not the place he'd want Marguerite to risk pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnancy would slow her down, making her easier prey for the many threats of the Plateau; and childbirth was dangerous enough even with doctors and hospitals to hand if anything went wrong. Emotionally, he was torn between a number of selfish desires; the wish to keep Marguerite all to himself for a while, the hope that a child would serve as an additional tie between them; and the visceral, instinctive appeal of a child of their own, dark-haired, with Marguerite's beautiful eyes and his smile
Roxton firmly suppressed that daydream. Not yet, he told himself. Not here, and not now. With any luck, someday soon, when we're both ready and safely back in England.
With a heavy sigh, he pushed away from the tree and hung his canteen back up. Sauntering back over to the chopping block, he braced one foot against it and used the leverage to free the axe from the wood. At least Marguerite doesn't seem worried about it, he thought to himself. They'd discussed the possibility briefly, but the heiress didn't seem nearly as concerned as he felt. In fact, she'd been the one to reassure him and tell him not to worry, that it wasn't likely, and there wasn't anything to do about it anyway.
He shook his head, setting a large piece of wood upright on the chopping block. That's my Marguerite, he thought appreciatively. Pragmatic, feisty, and braver than anyone I've ever known. She never shows fear and never gives up except in that blasted cave. Her uncharacteristic behavior still bothered him. He'd never realized quite how much he relied on her indomitable spirit until it had inexplicably vanished after the cave-in, replaced by a fearful defeatist side he'd never seen before. Having one of the mainstays of his world cut out from under him had only heightened his own frustration and fear, particularly since he hadn't fully realized what was going on. It was only later he'd been able to realize the extent to which the cave was acting on her.
What was it she said was written on the cave entrance? Something about the 'gate of suffering' and 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here'? More like a curse than a warning, maybe. Certainly Marguerite lost hope; she just gave up. She was so afraid! And then there was the body, and the birthmark, and the dream of the Druids, and her absolute terror of the water - Marguerite, who swims like a mermaid! Something definitely had not been right in that cave, and it had affected both of them, Marguerite most of all. He'd come close to despair, too; first when he'd had to admit to Marguerite that he couldn't save them; second and most powerfully when he'd looked away from the rock-choked shaft to see Marguerite sprawled on the floor. From that distance he hadn't been able to tell if she was still breathing. Even now he couldn't remember scrambling to her. All he remembered was an overwhelming panic, and then reaching out to touch her face and hesitating out of the fear she really was gone. If she had been dead, Roxton wasn't sure if he'd have continued the struggle to escape - a doubt very much at odds with his personal beliefs.
He shrugged his shoulders impatiently, trying to dismiss these dark thoughts, but he couldn't shake the unease he felt about Marguerite and that cave. Not surprising, as he'd felt it ever since they'd managed to escape. He had an instinctive and very strong reluctance to have her go anywhere near the place again; it was dangerous for her, he was sure of it. Not that they were likely to need to return to a gas-laden tomb, now that he'd retrieved his hat, rifle, and their packs from its depths. He reached up and patted his hat fondly. Still with me, and none the worse for a little mud bath. Again, not unlike Marguerite!
His lascivious musings on mud were abruptly interrupted by a sharp cracking sound cutting through the air. Several more reports followed, and Roxton lunged for his rifle, scarcely noticing as his hat came tumbling off. That was Marguerite's pistol! Rifle in hand, he sprinted for the gate, headed for the pond as fast as his legs could carry him.
Over in the garden, Finn looked up at the sound of the first pistol shot. Isn't that ? More shots rang out, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Roxton leap as if he'd been stung and take off at full speed. It's gunshots all right! V and Marguerite must be in trouble! Grabbing her crossbow from where she'd left it nearby, she went running after Roxton, hanging on to her precious straw hat with one hand.
Up in the lab, Challenger vaguely noted an unusual series of noises, but being fully involved in his calculations, it took several minutes for their import to register. When he finally did realize they might be gunshots, he hastened to the laboratory window and peered out. No one was in sight, but Roxton's hat caught his eye, lying abandoned by the chopping block. "Gracious heavens! It must be something serious; Roxton would never leave his hat behind." He looked around, vainly searching for some clue as to where his friends had gone. Not seeing any indication, he hurried upstairs to retrieve a rifle. I'll take a look from the balcony; maybe I'll be able to see something from there.
"Well, we've certainly got supper for the next few days, and breakfast and lunch besides," Marguerite grumbled in annoyance as she shoved ineffectually at the dead carcass pinning her to the ground. Dark blood dribbled from several bullet wounds in the large beast's vividly striped hide, and one of Veronica's knives protruded from the visible eye socket. "If we can only figure out how to get the bloody thing off of me!"
"Marguerite, are you sure you're all right?" Veronica asked, tugging at the dead dinosaur while scanning her friend for injury.
"Do I look all right?" Marguerite snarled in exasperation, then softened her tone at Veronica's alarmed look. "Aside from being stuck, I think I'm fine."
A loud crashing caused both women to look up in alarm. "Another of these things?" Veronica guessed, crouching for action.
A muffled curse, a bellow of "Marguerite! Veronica!", and Marguerite's lips quirked up in a wry smile. "A different kind of beast," she joked, then gasped. "Veronica!"
"What?" Veronica asked, baffled by Marguerite's meaningful stare. Then she remembered. She dove into the pond just before Roxton ran into sight, rifle at the ready.
"Marguerite!" he cried again, looking around wildly.
"Over here. I think you won't have to do any hunting for a while," she called, "but I hope you have some ideas about how to move this thing!"
"Oh no Are you all right?" he demanded, hurrying to her side. "What happened? What is that thing? Where are you hurt?" Even as he boiled over with frantic questions, he knelt down next to her and reached out to touch her face, anxiously searching for any sign of pain. Her blouse was torn at the shoulder, and she was pinned from mid-thigh down by the body of the mysterious animal. It was like none Roxton had ever seen. "Did it attack you?"
"Either that, or it really liked the smell of our laundry soap. I'm not sure which." Seeing Roxton's continued worry, she smiled up at him as best as she could. "I'm all right, John," Marguerite reassured him, "except for being stuck. I slipped in the mud, and the stupid beast fell across my legs when it decided to die. Good thing the ground here is soft. It's really heavy, but I don't think anything is broken."
"Thank God," he sighed in relief, seeing she looked more annoyed than hurt. "How did this happen? Where's Veronica?"
"V? V! Answer me!" Finn's high, anxious voice shouted, and Roxton turned to see the young woman desperately looking around for her friend, a deeply worried expression on her face. "V!"
"I'm all right, Finn," Veronica's calm voice came from the pond. Her sleek blond head bobbed above the water, but she made no move to swim to shore.
"What on earth are you doing - ?" Roxton started, only to stop as Marguerite poked him in the ribs.
"Sh! And don't look over there!" she hissed.
"Why not?" Roxton asked back in a low voice, mystified but obediently turning his attention back to the trapped heiress.
"Because Veronica was washing her clothes when this happened."
"So?" Roxton was more puzzled than ever.
Marguerite gave him a sardonic look. "Just how many of those little leather numbers do you think she has?"
"Huh? Oh!" Roxton flushed. "I, er, never thought about that."
"I'm sure you didn't." Marguerite was amused despite the discomfort of her situation. She raised her voice. "Roxton, why don't you go find something to lever this thing off of me? A good long tree branch should do the trick."
Roxton groaned, thinking of all the sturdy tree branches he'd just finished chopping into short lengths, but rose to his feet with a nod. "I'll do that," he said, also loudly. "I'd better bring George, too. It might take all of us to shift that thing safely - and I'm sure he'll want to take a good look at it. Maybe he'll know what it is." He hesitated a moment, then stooped quickly and planted a swift kiss on Marguerite's lips. "Stay safe," he whispered. "I'll be back as quick as I can - but not too quickly for Veronica, I hope."
"Don't worry," Marguerite said gently, seeing his reluctance to leave her. "Finn will stand guard until you get back."
She watched him hurry off back towards the Treehouse, still tasting his kiss on her lips. Over on the other side of the pond, Finn reached out a hand to Veronica as she rose from the shallows, goggling a little at the older blonde's nudity. The two quickly started rooting around for something for Veronica to wear, only pausing to check and make sure Marguerite was still okay.
Marguerite squirmed a bit, trying to ease the pressure on her trapped limbs, then settled back with a frustrated sigh. Her legs itched fiercely with the pins-and-needles sensation of restricted blood flow, adding to her discomfort. Figures. Maybe I shouldn't worry about what will happen when or if we get off this Plateau; I've got more than enough to keep me occupied now. She snorted softly. With everything that happens around here, the future - and the past - are the least of my worries!
"I don't understand why you don't just get back into your own clothes, V," Finn questioned.
"You've obviously never tried to put on wet leather," Marguerite surmised.
Veronica laughed, more surprised by Marguerite's understanding than by Finn's puzzlement. "It would be very difficult - even if it were all here. Unfortunately my top is somewhere down at the bottom of the pond; I hope I can find it again. In the meantime, I really do need something to wear."
"One of my skirts should work well enough, but I don't think any of my blouses would fit," Marguerite offered, trying to be helpful. "There's one - right next to your leg."
Veronica reached down and held the tan skirt against her waist. "I guess so," she said dubiously.
Finn pulled out Roxton's red-and-white-striped shirt from the laundry pile. "Here, this one's still dry, and it doesn't look too dirty."
"But - " Veronica looked at the clothes she held, then at her two friends. A comical expression of dismay crossed her face as she contemplated trying to help free Marguerite, encumbered by the long skirt and the overly large shirt.
Marguerite tried not to laugh at the look on Veronica's face. "Go on. Hurry up and get those on. No, they're not what you usually wear, but you've got to get something on before Roxton and Challenger arrive."
"I'd lend you my regular shorts, but they're back at the Treehouse," Finn added sympathetically. Watching Veronica struggle into the unfamiliar clothes, she nodded to Marguerite with new respect. "I don't know how you manage out here, tangled up in all that cloth."
"Lots of practice - and a strong dislike of being scratched by every bush, twig and thorn. I don't know why you and Veronica aren't regularly covered with welts, running around like you do," Marguerite commented.
"Lots of practice," Veronica threw back Marguerite's words with a grin. "Don't laugh," she added as she finished dressing.
"It's not so bad, V," Finn encouraged. "The color of that shirt suits you."
"Trust me, as long as you're helping me get free of this carcass, I don't care what you look like. You could have stayed in the altogether for all I care - except then Roxton and Challenger couldn't help, and I think it's going to take all of you." Marguerite wriggled again, trying to relieve the numbing tingling in her lower limbs. "This thing feels like it's getting heavier," she complained.
Veronica walked around the carcass, inwardly grumbling as the skirt tried to tangle between her legs. It was just as much of a nuisance as she'd feared. "The body doesn't look as if it's shifted at all. Try to hold still though, just in case."
"Like I have a choice!"
"They're over here, George, by the pond," Roxton's voice came unnaturally loudly to their ears. "The creature isn't like any I've ever seen; small head, bulky body, thick tail "
"Did you get a look at its feet? How many toes? Is it bipedal or quadrupedal?" Challenger's excitement was obvious - as was the fact that he was also deliberately projecting his voice.
"Hurry up, you two!" Marguerite yelled, appreciating their gentlemanly efforts to make sure Veronica was adequately clothed before they appeared on the scene, but really tired of being squished. "I don't want to be stuck here all day!"
On cue, Roxton and Challenger came into view carrying several long poles. "Mother of Science!" Challenger exclaimed as he got his first glimpse of the beast, so excited he almost dropped his end of the poles. "Look at that!"
"I am. I can't help it. And I'd like not to be, thank you very much!" Marguerite snapped.
"Oh, of course," Challenger said, momentarily abashed. He nodded a greeting to Veronica and Finn, handing them one of the poles. "If we place a lever on either side of Marguerite, we should be able to minimize the risk of the carcass slipping down onto her when we lever it up."
"Marguerite, do you think you'll be able to scoot out on your own?" Roxton asked, only slightly reassured by his lady's healthy temper. The duration of his trip to and from the Treehouse had given him too much time to think and worry, and he was even more anxious to free her and make sure she really was all right.
"Maybe," Marguerite replied doubtfully. "My legs are asleep."
"Better not risk it," Veronica chimed in. "Roxton, if you take one lever, and Challenger and I work the other, Finn should be able to pull Marguerite free as soon as we raise it high enough."
"Hey! I'm strong enough to work a lever!" Finn objected.
"I know, Finn - but you're also the smallest of us. You can fit down between us all while we use the levers, and it might take a lot of strength to pull Marguerite free if we can't raise the creature very high," Veronica explained calmly.
"Oh. Okay, I can do that," Finn agreed, her pride soothed by Veronica's words.
Veronica was right to be worried about their ability to raise the creature. The soft ground made it difficult to get any purchase with the poles, and the dead beast was even heavier than its appearance suggested. After much heaving, sweating, readjusting and organizing, Finn finally managed to pull Marguerite out. Both women groaned loudly as she slithered free at last.
"Wow - good thing I'm strong. You're heavy!" Finn commented, picking herself up from where she had sprawled.
If looks could kill, Finn would have died on the spot. "Thanks," Marguerite said darkly. She tried shifting her legs and winced. Sure enough, they were completely asleep - and yet somehow still sore. However, she was cheered by the fact that she could move her knees, ankles, and toes, albeit clumsily. I'll be able to walk in a few minutes, she determined. She watched the others lower the creature back down to the ground and frowned. "Hey, wait a minute - my boots are still stuck under there!"
"We'll get them later," Roxton promised, leaving his pole and hurrying to her side. "Are you sure you're okay?" Her trousers were a mess of grass and dirt stains, and had acquired several new rips, but the only blood he could see looked to be that of the dead animal.
"As far as I can tell with my legs asleep, I'm fine," she replied, meeting his eyes with her own candid grey gaze.
"Better not take any chances." Kneeling down, he took her up into his arms then turned to face the others. "I'll take Marguerite back to the Treehouse."
"Finn, can you help me gather up the laundry? We're going to have to do it someplace else, what with this carcass right by the pond. Given how heavy the creature is, we'll have to butcher it here and then drag off the remains."
"Sure thing, V," Finn agreed happily. "Let's gather up the clothes and then help Challenger carve up the beastie. We can help with the dissection, right, Challenger?"
"Hm, yes, I'll want to dissect it. Fascinating," Challenger muttered, never taking his eyes from the carcass.
"Any idea what it is?" Roxton asked, skillfully getting to his feet with Marguerite balanced carefully in his hold.
"I've never seen anything like it," Veronica admitted.
Challenger shook his head in wondering bafflement. "I can't say for certain until I get a much better look at it, but at a very early guess, it looks to be a synapsid of some kind - a pelycosaur. Maybe a member of the Ophaicodontidae or Caseidae families." He ran one hand down the creature's side, blue eyes bright with curiosity. "But the pelycosaurs all died out during the Permian period - millions of years before the Mesozoic Era, the age of the dinosaurs. I've never seen anything this ancient in our time here. How very strange!"
"Maybe it's just visiting," Finn suggested. "I'm sure you'll figure it out."
"I'll be back later to help with the meat, after I've got Marguerite settled," Roxton told the others. "In the meantime, keep a sharp lookout - I'm surprised the smell of blood hasn't attracted any visitors yet."
"Thank you all," Marguerite added, placing an arm around Roxton's shoulders to help support her own weight.
At that, Challenger did look up from the mysterious animal, a smile on his face. "You're welcome."
"I'm glad you're all right." Veronica beamed at her friend and at the picture Marguerite and Roxton made, the hunter holding the heiress close in his arms.
"Yeah, you could have really been squished!" Finn bubbled. "C'mon V, let's see who can pick up the most laundry the fastest!" With a giggle, the young woman started racing around the area, haphazardly scooping up clothes. Rolling her eyes, Veronica also started gathering laundry, albeit in a much more methodical fashion.
"Oh, and bring back my large knives when you return, will you?" Challenger called as Roxton and Marguerite started back towards the Treehouse.
"Will do, George," Roxton called back.
"Don't forget my boots!" Marguerite shouted as they moved out of sight.
Silence settled over them as Roxton retraced the path to the Treehouse. Marguerite tried to hide her discomfort as the pins-and-needles feeling returned to her legs, signaling returning circulation.
A futile effort, as Roxton immediately noticed her surreptitious shifting. "What is it?"
"Just the sensation returning to my legs."
"That's good," he said, relieved.
"That itches," she contradicted.
"I was worried about you," he confessed abruptly. "When I think what could have happened "
"It didn't," she cut him off. "Veronica and I handled it, and I'm fine. I'm not made of glass."
"No, something much tougher and pricklier," he teased. His anxiety for her was fading, leaving behind an almost giddy happiness.
Marguerite scowled, knowing he was missing the point. "I can probably walk, you know."
"Probably," he agreed smugly, "but we wouldn't want to risk you stubbing those pretty little toes of yours." He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head and hugged her to him a little more tightly. "Besides which, this position has some advantages."
"Yeah, I can get dirt all over you, and you can get splinters all over me," Marguerite said lightly, trying to ignore the sudden acceleration of her heartbeat. Her irritation at his overprotectiveness rapidly melted away in the sudden heat of the moment.
Roxton leisurely looked her over, a lascivious grin on his lips and a definite twinkle in his eye. "Seems like we both need a shower. And since I don't want to risk you taking a fall, trying to stand on those poor abused legs of yours "
Marguerite looked Roxton boldly in the eye. "Why Lord Roxton! Are you offering to wash my back for me?"
"Something like that," he agreed. He shifted her slightly in his arms as he worked the latch on the electric fence and pushed open the gate.
"Well then " Marguerite stretched up and whispered into his ear as the gate closed behind them.
Roxton's eyebrows rose as high as they could go. "Really? That's not very ladylike," he joked, his breath coming swifter - and not from the strain of carrying her.
"But very enjoyable," Marguerite purred. "Trust me."
"Absolutely. Always." He hurried them into the elevator. Marguerite's delighted laughter rose into the air as the lift carried them upwards.