by Zakiyah


Part One
Through hours and hours of darkness
I was waiting for you

"Another glorious day in paradise," Marguerite grumbled as she adjusted the strap of her pack.

"It is quite lovely," Roxton replied with a twinkle in his eye, ignoring her sour tone.

Marguerite immediately rose to the bait, turning on the amused hunter. "Oh, yes - if you like bugs, camping out night after night on the ground, and being unable to bathe." She raked him up and down with a scathing glance. "Not that the latter would bother you."

Roxton bristled, aware that he was less than fresh and immediately defensive about it. "There was that pond two days ago," he protested.

"Yes, and given the terrain and the rate Challenger's going, that's the last bit of water large enough to bathe in we'll see for another two." She scowled at her once-pristine white blouse, now grimy and spotted with travel, and her soiled jodhpurs. "If he decides on one more detour in the name of science…"

"Now, Marguerite, this is one of the few directions we haven't thoroughly searched. Don't you want to find a way home?"

"The sooner, the better," she snapped back, "but preferably without all the bugs. Aren't there enough in the Treehouse already without Challenger collecting more?"

As the dark-haired pair continued to bicker, Veronica edged closer to where Malone leaned against a convenient tree. "Don't they ever get tired of that?" she murmured for his ears alone.

Malone shared a sympathetic grin. "Not that I've noticed."

Veronica rolled her eyes. She wasn't entirely unsympathetic to Marguerite's point of view. She too was getting tired of Challenger's innumerable stops to collect yet another species of insect, but the tone of Marguerite's complaints set her teeth on edge. Marguerite had been in a foul mood more often than not ever since that incident with the pirates, at least so far as Veronica and Roxton were concerned. She was more than willing to carry that mood over onto her other housemates, too. "Challenger had better catch that beetle and get out of the tree very soon, or Marguerite's going to be impossible for the rest of the day. Can you see him?" She craned her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the scientist's white shirt through the dense foliage.

Malone shifted slightly, also peering up through the branches. "No, not really," he admitted.

Something about the way he moved brought Veronica's attention sharply back to him. "Are you all right?"

Ned looked at her blankly. Veronica was caught between annoyance with his apparent incomprehension of why she should be concerned, and admiration of the way his striped shirt deepened the blue of his eyes. Sudden wild movement in the branches of the large tree where Challenger had disappeared distracted her before either annoyance or attraction could win out. "There he is, I think."

"Roxton! Malone! Marguerite! You won't believe it!" Challenger bellowed.

"Don't tell me. Another incredible species of bug," Marguerite muttered.

"If the old boy's not careful, he's going to fall out of that tree," Roxton remarked, scowling in concern. He hadn't liked the idea of the scientist climbing the tree in the first place, but Challenger had insisted on following the beetle himself, only allowing Roxton to throw a guideline up into the branches and give him an initial boost. "What is it, Challenger?" he called up into the tree.

"I think it's Greek!" came the shouted reply.

"What, the beetle?" Marguerite snapped.

"No, the temple!" Challenger called back, all the while continuing to scramble down the guideline far faster than any of them would have thought possible, or safe. "It's up on the next ridge - saw it from the - whoa!" A sharp crack punctuated Challenger's last exclamation as one of the branches he was using as a foothold gave way.

"Challenger, look out!" Roxton yelled, rushing forward in an instinctive but futile attempt to help him.

It was no use. The failure of the one foothold led Challenger to grab desperately for another branch, which also could not take the weight. A sequence of snapping sounds, punctuated by a panicked yell, heralded the scientist's precipitous exit from the tree. He tumbled down onto Roxton, accompanied by a small avalanche of twigs and leaves.

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