Round 3 - Zakiyah
The darkness was so comfortable, and he was so tired. But something wouldn't let him rest. He felt himself being dragged back to consciousness, inexorably drawn by an irregular sound. What is it? Drifting closer to rational awareness, he finally recognized the noise. Someone's groaning. With an effort, he opened his eyes.
Dim light, thick blankets, strange tapestries on the wall Memory returned in a flood of images and emotions, and Roxton sat up in a rush. The effort to do so left him shaking, but unlike the last time he'd awakened, he managed to stay upright. Shifting slightly, he turned his attention to his moaning bedmate, relieved to see that the scientist was indeed showing signs of waking up.
"Easy, George," he said soothingly as the red-haired scientist's eyelids flickered rapidly before opening at last. "You're all right, but you're a bit worse for wear, and you've got quite the bump on your head."
Confused, Challenger tried to look around, but found he lacked the strength even to turn his head. He swallowed, trying to moisten his dry lips and throat. "Roxton?" he finally croaked, his normally resonant voice weak and hollow.
"Yes, it's me," the hunter confirmed.
"What ?" Challenger's voice failed him. He licked his lips and tried again, his mind's need for knowledge superseding his body's demands for rest. "Where ?" He coughed dryly, grimacing at the pain the movement caused in his head and abdomen. "Thirsty."
"Shh. Save your strength, George," Roxton hushed his friend, worried by the older man's continued pallor and haggard looks. Slight scratches on Challenger's cheek contrasted vividly with the paleness of his skin. "I don't know where we are, exactly. The last thing I remember before waking up here is falling, and everything was white." Glancing about for anything that might help the weakened scientist, he saw a pottery bowl filled with a clear liquid, set on a stool right next to his side of the bed. Leaning over carefully, he managed to grip the bowl with both hands and lift it off the stool and onto his lap. The effort left him lightheaded. He dipped one finger into the liquid and carefully brought a drop to his lips - a task made much more difficult by the persistent trembling of his fingers. It tastes like water - it seems safe enough, he decided. He turned his head back towards Challenger. "There's water here. If I raise this bowl to your lips, do you think you can drink? Just nod yes or no."
Focusing all his considerable willpower, Challenger was able to shake his head slightly. "Need to be higher," he rasped.
"Damn," Roxton muttered to himself. "All right, we'll manage somehow."
It took more effort than Roxton could have ever believed possible to replace the bowl on the stool, move George slightly so his head was propped against Roxton's side, and bring the bowl back over so George could drink from it. By the time the scientist managed to swallow a few mouthfuls of water, Roxton felt on the edge of collapse. What the hell is wrong with me? he wondered, near despair. I can't rest - I have to find out what happened to Marguerite!
Challenger finished drinking and let his head fall back against Roxton's chest. He felt much better for the water; his mind was clearer, although his head and side hurt abominably, and he was astonishingly weak. "Falling," he mused, repeating Roxton's words from earlier. "Yes. I remember that."
Despite his frustration and anxiety, Roxton's lips curved upward in a small, relieved smile. "That's a good sign." The hunter carefully lifted the bowl away from the scientist and tried to move it back to the stool. "That bruise on your forehead must look worse than it is."
"Maybe," Challenger said doubtfully. His head still ached, and he was unable to keep it from lolling sideways against Roxton's lower chest as the hunter moved the bowl back to the stool. He closed his eyes momentarily, trying to muster up the strength to raise himself up. He was so tired, though, and the warmth felt good against his abraded cheek The scientist's eyes popped back open with a start. Moving his eyes, he looked at the hunter's chest, and then down at himself. "Uh, John?"
"Yes, George?" Roxton answered distractedly, trying to lean towards the stool without losing his balance or his grip on the bowl.
"What happened to our clothes?"
Startled and distracted by the reminder of their unclothed state, Roxton lost his precarious grip on the bowl. It fell to the floor with a sloshy clunk, but did not break. "I'd like to know that myself, old boy," he joked with momentary humor. "They were gone when I woke up, and the few people I saw weren't exactly communicative."
"You've seen the inhabitants of this place?" Challenger forgot his embarrassment in his curiosity. "What are they like?"
"Silent," Roxton replied tersely as he eased Challenger's head back down to the pillows. "Well, all but one - and he wouldn't answer any of my questions either."
Helpless with fatigue and injury, Challenger nonetheless overflowed with questions. "You understood him? He spoke English? Or did Marguerite translate Good Lord." The scientist's excitement turned quickly to concern as he saw the muscles in Roxton's jaw tighten at the sound of Marguerite's name. "Marguerite - she is all right, isn't she? She's here?"
"I don't know." Roxton's voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before continuing. "And I'm not going to wait any longer to find out." Pushing back the covers with determination, Roxton swung his legs over the side of the bed. "You'll be all right on your own for a while, Challenger?"
"Of course," the scientist scoffed with more heartiness than he felt. He tried again to raise his head, and failed. "Go find Marguerite. I'm sure she's here somewhere, doing just fine." He knew he wasn't fooling Roxton; both men knew full well that if Marguerite were wherever they were and well, she'd be in the room, watching over them. "Go find her," he repeated, unable to keep the worry out of his voice.
"I will," Roxton answered grimly. Taking a deep breath, he levered himself to his feet. I can do this. I have to do this. I have to find Marguerite. He kept one hand on the bed as he waited for yet another wave of dizziness to pass.
Challenger bit back an exclamation as he saw the extent of the hunter's injuries. The dark-haired lord was covered with bruises and abrasions from his shoulders down. What happened to him - to us? I hope Marguerite has fared better than we. Challenger was amazed that Roxton was on his feet at all, but he also knew exactly what was driving the man. As he'd told Veronica, he'd never seen two people more in love than Roxton and Marguerite. And with her fate unknown He cut off that train of thought. "You look as bad as I feel," he commented instead.
"Huh?" Surprised, Roxton looked down at himself, only now seeing for the first time the network of colorful bruises and scrapes. Despite the relative chill of the room compared to the snugness of the bed, he felt himself breaking out into a sweat as his exhausted and injured body protested the strain. "I'll be fine," he said dismissively, trying to reassure his friend as well as himself. Pulling a furred animal skin from the top layer of blankets, he clumsily wrapped it around his waist before walking away from the bed.
He made it four steps. On the fifth, his legs buckled, the fur fell to the ground, and he crumpled, too near fainting even to swear as his battered body dropped heavily onto the hard-packed earth of the floor. Over the hammering pulse ringing in his ears he heard Challenger repeatedly calling his name, but he couldn't find the strength to answer him. Suddenly, he felt strong hands grasp his shoulders. Before he could understand what was happening, he was lifted up like a child and brought back to the bed. He could do nothing but pant for breath as one of the young, silent men he'd seen earlier firmly tucked the blankets over his shaking body before turning away and departing the room with his equally silent companion, leaving Challenger's many hastily-asked questions as unanswered as Roxton's before him.
Challenger looked anxiously at Roxton, who was as pale as he'd ever seen him, and silently damned his own helpless state. "John? Roxton, are you all right?" he called again, putting as much energy as he could muster behind his words. "Roxton!"
Roxton finally regained the ability to speak, but refused to give voice to any of the thoughts boiling up inside him. No, I'm not all right. Marguerite could be in danger - she could be and I can't do anything but lie here. I can't help her; I can't help Challenger; I can't even help myself. "I'll live," he mumbled at last, emotion and exhaustion roughening his voice.
Beside him, Challenger guessed much of his friend's state of mind. He had a strong urge to reach out to the hunter, and it frustrated him no end that he couldn't do so. And if he felt frustrated, he could only imagine how Roxton must feel, wanting - needing - to act, not knowing what had become of Marguerite, and betrayed by his own body. Unsure what to say, he chose to say nothing at all, and the room lapsed into a strained silence.
Finn mopped her forehead with her overly long sleeve for the fifth time in as many minutes. "This is stupid," she muttered.
Ahead of her on the trail, Veronica didn't even bother to turn around, too focused on the trail and on trying to ignore the sweltering heat and discomfort. "What did you say?" she called back distractedly.
Enough is enough! The short-haired blonde stopped dead on the trail and placed her fists on her hips. "I said this is stupid," she answered in a clear, firm voice. "Any more of this and I'm gonna sweat to death. I'm taking off these clothes."
Startled, Veronica spun around to face her younger companion. "Finn, I told you we're going to need these clothes! It's cold in the mountains "
"But it sure ain't cold here," Finn interrupted firmly, her accent becoming even more pronounced as she glared defiantly at her friend. "I'll carry 'em if I'm gonna need 'em, but there's no way I'm gonna keep wearing 'em. You can go ahead and broil yourself if you wanna by wandering through the jungle in all that gear, but I'm done."
"But but " Veronica sputtered, her anger also rising. Doesn't Finn understand how important this is - that our friends could be in danger? She was on the verge of opening her mouth to say exactly that when sweat trickled down into her eyes, making them sting. The abrupt discomfort distracted her from her worry and temper for a brief moment while she tried to blink her eyes free of the irritant. By the time her eyes were clear, so was her mind, and she realized how unreasonable she was being. "You're right, Finn. This is ridiculous. It's just "
Finn looked up from wriggling out of Challenger's shirt, a hesitant, gamine grin on her face. "I know, Vee. You're worried about them, and you want to get where they were going as fast as we can. So do I - and I think we'll get there faster if we don't drop from heatstroke." Her blue eyes showed a mixture of understanding and uncertainty; standing up to her idol was difficult even when she knew she was in the right. I know what's got you in such a bother, Vee. The others told me how you got left behind by your parents one day - how they never came back, how you don't know what happened to them. You don't want that to happen again. Uncomfortable with her thoughts, although shrewd enough to know they were correct, she shrugged her shoulders lopsidedly.
Sensing Finn's need for reassurance, Veronica reached out and ruffled the other woman's short blonde hair. "I already said you were right," Veronica teased gently. "Don't overdo it."
"This?" Finn scoffed, her eyes twinkling merrily as she quickly regained her confidence. "This ain't nothing." She continued to squirm energetically as she swiftly stripped herself out of her upper layers of clothing until she was wearing nothing more than her customary black top. "I'm sure they're all fine. Roxton wouldn't let anything happen, and they've got Challenger with them. If something came up, I'm sure he'd know all about it. And Marguerite's a pretty tough customer, too."
"Uh-huh," Veronica agreed dryly, chuckling at the understatement. "That's putting it mildly." She finished unbuttoning the second of her two shirts and drew them off together with a sigh of relief. I might as well leave the one inside the other; it will make them easier to carry, she thought as she reveled in the air cooling her overheated flesh. Her leather top was damp with sweat, and she fanned a hand in front of her chest.
Finn giggled even as she undid her belt and shimmied out of Challenger's trousers. "I wouldn't want to get Marguerite mad at me, that's for sure. But that's all the more reason I'm sure she's fine." She scowled, tugging at the rolled ends of cloth around her ankles and trying to get them over her boots before looking up at Veronica with an impish smile. The older blonde had looked away from her for the moment, foregoing fanning herself for fussing with her extra clothes. "In fact, I'm so sure she's okay "
Veronica looked up from tying the two shirts around her hips, carefully avoiding fouling her knives or her belt, startled by the sound of ripping cloth. She was just in time to see Finn use her knife to slice off the second roll of extra material from Challenger's trousers. "Finn!"
"What? That'll be much better when I have to put these pants back on again," Finn said with deliberate nonchalance. Now that she no longer had several rolls of material at the ends of the pants, the trousers slipped over her boots with relative ease. "And Marguerite can sew the extra back on again once we find them. Problem solved."
Despite herself, Veronica had to laugh, and she felt some of the tight knot of anxiety in her belly loosen up as she did so. "There's only one problem with that idea, Finn," she pointed out.
"Oh? What's that?" Finn tucked the extra trouser material into a shirt pocket, rolled up the shirts and trousers together into a neat roll, then cinched the belt around it to keep it secure. Rising to her feet, she looped the belt back around her waist and ran it through the buckle once more, satisfied to see that she had more than enough length in the belt to finish the job. "And aren't you going to take your pants off?"
"No, I had to leave my skirt behind in the Treehouse. Unlike your shorts, it didn't fit underneath the pants." She shifted her legs a little, still unused to the sensation of cloth encasing her legs, then shrugged. "It's not so bad now that I'm not wearing several shirts."
Finn beamed. "See? I told you so!"
Veronica grinned back. "You did. And remember that I told you so when Marguerite makes you sew the ends of Challenger's trouser legs back on. Just because she can sew doesn't mean she'll want to do it for you."
Finn's jaw dropped, and a comical look of dismay spread over her face. "She wouldn't really?"
"She will if you don't ask her exactly right. If I were you, I'd start practicing what you're going to tell her right now."
"Oh, man!" Finn heaved a big sigh before turning her best innocent, woebegone look on Veronica. "Vee, can you help me think of what to say to her?"
Veronica chuckled at her blatant ploy. "Somehow I don't think you're going to need much help but okay."
All smiles again, Finn was about to say something else when she saw Veronica abruptly tense, one hand reaching for one of the knives on her belt. Taking her cue from her friend, Finn immediately fell silent and looked around, reaching for her crossbow even as the utter hush of the jungle around them sent goose pimples rising on her arms. She had just placed one hand on her weapon when a loud crackling sound in the bushes next to her sent her leaping backwards.