Malone was trying once again to get Veronica to remember who and what she was without spooking her into flight. It was hard to hold on to his own consciousness, much less think of a way to reach hers; he kept slipping back into the comfortable non-awareness of the bird. Still, he'd managed to hold on so far, and he was determined to bring Veronica around.
He waited until they'd both eaten (trying not to think too hard about the whole business of catching and eating raw fish) and settled down for a post-fishing preen before starting his attempt. Instead of trying to write in the dirt, he decided to attempt something else, something that would hopefully prove less frightening to the bird-awareness that held sway over Veronica's consciousness.
He launched himself into the air and hovered over the stream, only this time, instead of searching for fish, he looked for a particular shape of twig. Bits and pieces of vegetation were always floating along
He mostly let the bird-part of him take control for the dive, only retaining enough awareness to ensure that he snagged up the particular twig he wanted, instead of one of the tempting fish or a convenient insect. Securing his prize within his bill, he again tried not to think too much as he flew back up to the branch where Veronica rested. He'd already learned the hard way that if he thought too much, he couldn't fly.
Veronica looked at him inquisitively as he landed next to her on the branch, but she didn't flutter away. Encouraged, Malone carefully set down the twig on the bit of branch between them. Come on, Veronica. Recognize it. Remember who you really are.
The female kingfisher looked at the twig her mate offered to her. A trifle disappointed that it wasn't a fish, she still paused long enough to consider it. Was this for a nest? It was a fairly puny twig, not nearly strong enough for a good support, not soft enough to cushion precious eggs. And it was a funny shape, too. There was something about the shape
The images rose in her mind again, but this time she wasn't panicked to begin with, so the images didn't frighten her as much. She saw a home in a tree, and remembered feelings: loneliness, happiness, belonging. Faces emerged from the welter of kingfisher-thoughts.
V Veronica? Strength and power, memories of running, swimming, laughing. Other words and feelings hovered just behind.
She looked at the bird perched next to her, offering the twig, his whole body expectant. Hopeful. Familiar.
A rustle in the nearby bushes broke the train of her emerging awareness. Instinct, always a powerful force in the jungle-raised blonde and especially compelling now in her transformed state, rushed to the fore, smothering the beginnings of thought. The female kingfisher tensed, ready to flee.
Malone nearly dropped the twig he held out of sheer frustration. For just a moment there, he'd seen an awareness in the other bird's eyes, the strongest sense of Veronica he'd been able to detect. Now it was all he could do to not tense in similar, instinctive panic.
A rumble of human voices, and Veronica flew from the branch, seeking the shelter of concealing leaves. Malone almost followed her, but something about the voices caught and held the attention of the human mind more than it alarmed the awareness of the bird.
A few more words, and Malone didn't stop his bird-instincts from sending him flying from the branch. That's Roxton! He tried to exert just enough control to keep the twig in his beak and to send his bird-self flying towards his friends, instead of into the bushes after Veronica. It was a struggle, and Malone corkscrewed through the air like a half-fledged arrow.
"I think I hear another stream," Challenger murmured, keeping his voice low in hopes of not scaring away any birdlife.
"Yes, I'd say there's one about twenty yards ahead," Roxton confirmed, equally quietly. "Vegetation and terrain's right for it, and that's definitely the sound of water "
Roxton stopped and froze as a streak of blue caught his eye. A slight gasp told him that Challenger had seen the same thing. Keeping perfectly still, he watched as a small, blue-feathered shape flew erratically in their direction.
"Roxton!" Challenger hissed.
"Hush, George. I see it!"
The bird continued its staggering, strange flight until it came to a hover scarcely five feet away from the two men. It hung in midair, wings beating madly, tailfeathers twitching sporadically as it made any adjustments necessary to remain in the same spot. Up close, there was no mistaking the blue body, the rust-colored belly and long rusty streaks across each eye, and the brilliant patches of white at the throat and base of the neck. The kingfisher regarded the pair of men with bright, knowing eyes. It carried a twig within its long, dagger-shaped bill.
Recognizing the shape of the twig, Roxton ventured to speak. "Veronica?" he rumbled quietly in as calm and unthreatening voice as he could manage. "Is that you?"
Malone couldn't help the squeak that escaped him, equally composed of fright on the part of the bird and frustration on the part of the journalist. Veronica? Not quite! The twig dropped from his bill.
"Don't be afraid," Challenger intoned gently. "We're here to help you."
Malone lost a half-foot in altitude as relief coursed through him. They can help?
"Do you think she understands us?" Challenger continued, still in hushed tones.
She? Hello! I'm Malone! Another indignant squeak escaped him.
"Shh! Don't be afraid, sweetheart," Roxton crooned in reaction to Malone's cry before responding to Challenger. "It's hard to say. She's definitely acting strangely for a wild bird."
"We should try some simple experiments, see if we can prove she understands us," Challenger suggested.
"Good idea, but right now I'm more interested in seeing if she knows where Malone is," Roxton countered.
Between his irritation with his friend's ongoing misidentification and his concentration on their conversation, Malone was having a hard time staying airborne. As much as to accommodate his bird-instincts as to lead them towards Veronica, Malone allowed himself to fly off a few feet, back in the direction of their stream. With an effort, he managed to stop and hover again, waiting for the two men to follow.
His friends were not slow to pick up on the idea. After an initial, quickly-suppressed show of alarm at his movement, the two men looked speculatively at each other. "Do you think she wants us to follow her?" Roxton asked in a hushed whisper.
"It seems likely," Challenger agreed.
Cautiously, the two men edged closer to where he hovered. As they approached the edge of what his bird-self could tolerate, Malone flew another few feet towards the stream. After three repetitions of this, he was really starting to think it was going to work
until another blue-feathered streak dove viciously at Roxton's face, squeaking angrily.
His bird-self understood completely. His mate saw him threatened by two dangerous creatures within their territory. She would defend him and their territory both, no matter how large or dangerous the intruders were - just as he would. Instinctively, he dove to cover her, squeaking his own battle cry as he flew towards the other face
He barely managed to avoid the collision, earning a startled "Yeow!" and a duck as he swooped by. Below, Roxton shielded his face as best as he could with his hands, visibly restraining himself from swatting at his small, blue-feathered tormentor. "Hey! Malone! Easy does it! We're here to help!"
Veronica I have to get Veronica away from here! Bird and man in full accord, Malone dove again, striking against Roxton's hat with enough force to knock it from his head. As he'd guessed, the hunter instinctively dove after it. Squeaking in victory, the male kingfisher sailed upwards, calling to his mate. She joined him in the skies, satisfied that their attackers were vanquished for the time being. Together they streaked back towards their stream and the sheltering foliage on its banks.
Left behind, the two men looked at each other in comical dismay. "Well, I'd say we found Malone," Roxton said at last, dabbing gingerly at one cheek. "Ow! Damn!" He pulled his fingers away from his face, vaguely surprised to see blood. "He scratched me!"
"Yes, I seem to remember reports of alcedo atthis vigorously defending their territory from all manner of creatures," Challenger mused even as he came closer to examine the scrape. "Fortunately, this doesn't look too bad."
Roxton shook his head. "Maybe so, George, but I still can't believe he scratched me. I mean, he's no bigger than my fist!" Scooping up his hat, he looked at the crown in disbelief. "And he put a hole in my hat!"
Challenger gave him a half-smile. "Well, look at the bright side, John."
"What's that?" the hunter replied, still disgruntled at the unexpected turn of events.
"We found them."
After a startled moment, Roxton started to laugh, tension visibly melting away from his frame. "Yes, we did, didn't we?" Gradually his chuckling quieted. "But given their reactions, the next question is, how do we catch them? Somehow I don't think they're just going to come along quietly."
Challenger's eyes sparkled. "I believe I have an idea."