The shot echoed through Roxton's ears, mind, and heart, even as the world seemed to freeze. He didn't know what had alerted Captain Marchbanks; whether Marguerite had made some noise, or whether he would have turned anyway in the course of their argument, or whether he or Challenger had somehow given the game away. All he knew, as the world crashed to a halt around him, was that Marguerite, his Marguerite, had been shot at point-blank range.
He tried to lunge forward, to reach her, but he was moving so slowly through the impossibly thick air Challenger was easily able to grab his shoulders and hold him back. Even as he fought against the older man's grip, he saw Marguerite's pallor, saw the life draining away from her face, saw her knees start to buckle.
He screamed her name, the syllables tearing at his throat, clawing their way past the anguish that locked all his other muscles in place. Impossibly, her eyes flickered to his even as the light in them went out. "John..." he heard her whisper, his name both an acknowledgment and a farewell, just before her eyes closed and she crumpled lifelessly to the ground.
Gasping, Roxton sat up in bed. His heart was pounding, his body was covered in sweat, and for a moment he didn't know where he was. The night-dark shapes around him gradually resolved into the familiar confines of his room in the Treehouse, and he exhaled a huge, shuddering sigh of relief. A dream. It was just a dream. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
Not a dream, a memory, his mind whispered to him.
Yes, but she was all right, he reminded himself, trying to stave away the shaking tide of emotion with the memory of Marguerite's impossible recovery, the ghastly bullet wound in her side melting away as an incomprehensible side effect of being a ghost in Askwith's world. She was all right, he thought again.
His mind was silent, but the feelings remained. Sighing, Roxton pushed aside the bedclothes and stood. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep again until he saw her. She'd undoubtedly be asleep, and he wouldn't wake her - but he needed the evidence of his eyes to soothe his nighttime fears into quiescence. Pulling on a pair of trousers, he decided not to bother with a shirt; his undershirt would do well enough. He moved noiselessly out into the hall, his bare feet making no sound on the Treehouse's smooth floorboards, and headed towards Marguerite's room.
The light from the single candle-lantern always left lit in the great room caused him to squint a little, but his eyes quickly adjusted. As he walked, he automatically took note of the night sounds around him, on the alert for anything unusual, but everything he heard bespoke normalcy. A light nighttime breeze gently rustled through the leaves of the giant tree that supported their home and whispered through the edges of the roof thatching. Challenger's snores mingled with the familiar chirps and cries of the nocturnal dinosaurs out on the Plateau. The usual night symphony, he mused, a faint smile crossing his lips. Amazing how the sounds that kept me awake three years ago have become so soothing, so comfortable. Whenever we finally make it back to London, I think I'll even miss them. A particularly resonant snore sawed through the relative quiet of the Treehouse, and Roxton's smile widened. Well, some of them, he amended.
Roxton was still smiling slightly as he reached the drawn cloth curtain that served as the door to Marguerite's room. He paused for a few moments, listening for any sounds that might indicate she was also awake, but none reached his hopeful ears. Sighing softly, he silently slid the coarse canvas to one side. As with his own, Marguerite's room was very dark, and he stood quietly waiting for his eyes to readjust and resolve the indistinct objects into recognizable shapes. Gradually items became clear: the mirror over her dressing table, the chair, her bed...
Her empty bed.
All his dream-induced terror came racing back. Roxton took two stumbling steps into the room, straining his eyes to the utmost, frantically searching for her, but to no avail. Her bed was not only empty, but also unslept-in. She wasn't in the room.
The balcony, he thought, trying to remain calm in the face of the irrational fear that gripped him. She probably couldn't sleep and went out to the balcony. It wouldn't be the first time he'd found her there in the middle of the night, reading by lamplight or sitting and watching the stars. He hurried back up the stairs and into the great room, still moving silently, but only out of habit. The need to find her was paramount. He'd wake the whole Treehouse if it came to that.
A quick glance around the great room turned up no sign of Marguerite, and he continued out onto the night-shrouded balcony. The dim light from the great room left much of the balcony in deep shadow, but it was enough to reveal no Marguerite standing by the railing, no Marguerite curled up on her favorite bench, no Marguerite ensconced in her preferred chair. No Marguerite.
"Where the hell could she be?" Roxton muttered to himself, distractedly running one hand through his hair as he turned to look around the great room one more time. His anxiety heightened again. Maybe she went down to the ground level? Maybe -
The soft sound of Marguerite's query briefly froze Roxton with surprise. Recovering swiftly, he whirled around, seeking the source of the voice. He saw no one, and the unreasoning fear churning insistently inside him wound even tighter. "Marguerite?" he called back, desperate for an answer.
"What's wrong?" her voice came immediately in reply. Even then he didn't see her, and it was driving him mad. Before he could completely panic, a flicker of movement on the balcony caught his eye. A moment later, Marguerite's form materialized out of the darkness as she stepped into the great room. She was wearing her dark-purple robe over the lavender blouse and tan skirt she'd been wearing that day, the colors blending in perfectly with the night. Her eyes were fixed on Roxton, an expression of concern plainly written across her face. "John, are you all right?"
Roxton didn't answer in words; he couldn't find his voice, rendered mute by the varied emotions rushing through him. Instead he strode forward, pulled Marguerite into his arms, and held her tightly.
Confused, Marguerite nonetheless embraced him in return. His arms were wrapped around her shoulders, so she gently brought her own arms around his waist and ran her hands up and down his back. She felt him trembling slightly and she instinctively tightened her arms around him. She had no idea why Roxton was awake, or why he was acting so oddly, but he obviously needed to hold her and be held in return. Pressed firmly against him, she noticed his obviously slept-in undershirt was slightly dampened by sweat, and his skin felt slightly warmer than usual, but not feverish. From all this, she guessed he hadn't been awake long.
Finally Roxton found enough calm to loosen his hold on Marguerite. Keeping one arm around her, he used his free hand to brush back some of her curls stuck to his neck. Looking into her worried eyes, he knew he had to say something, but he was at a loss to explain himself. "I'm sorry," he rumbled at last.
"For what?" Marguerite asked, puzzled. When he remained silent, she pushed a little further. "John, what is it? What's wrong?"
Roxton's face reddened slightly in embarrassment. In the light of the great room, with Marguerite in his arms, his fears seemed so childish. But one look into her eyes told him that she wasn't going to let it go until he told her. "I had a bad dream," he confessed simply. At her quick frown, he elaborated a little. "More like a memory, actually." He stopped, a little unnerved by Marguerite's sudden stare.
"You, too?" she muttered, almost more to herself than to him.
"What do you mean, me, too?" Roxton queried, unsettled by her strange reaction.
Marguerite continued to stare at him for another few moments, then lowered her eyes uneasily, unsure of how he might react but sure she was right. "Let me guess. You dreamt about Captain Askwith?"
"About his world - how did you know? Did you dream it too?" Even more disturbed than before, Roxton tightened his arm around Marguerite's waist, then froze in panic as she hissed in pain. He jerked his arm away and hovered uncertainly, wanting to support her but afraid he might only cause her more discomfort. "Marguerite, what is it? Did I hurt you?"
"Not exactly," Marguerite replied as calmly as she could, breathing carefully in an attempt to alleviate the pain. Unconsciously, she brought a hand to her side.
At the movement, Roxton's eyes narrowed in concern. "You're hurt!" He gently but insistently tugged her robe open, determined to see for himself where and how she was injured. It was only when she slapped his hands away from her blouse buttons for the second time that he fully realized what he was doing, and he blushed again. "Marguerite..." he started, then stopped, frustrated.
"It's nothing serious..." Seeing the look on his face, Marguerite sighed and relented. She carefully untucked her blouse, undid the lower buttons, pushed the material back, and exposed her left side.
Roxton sucked in a breath and gently, carefully traced the egg-sized, dark-purple bruise discoloring Marguerite's ribcage. Stunned, he looked back at her face. "How did this happen? This needs to be treated!" He turned away, ready to race down to Challenger's lab and fetch the medical kit - and maybe the scientist too, while he was at it - but before he could take a step, Marguerite's hand on his arm stopped him.
"It's fine, John." Seeing his disbelief, she went on. "I already had Challenger look at it this evening. The bruise is already fading; it should be gone by tomorrow." At Roxton's hurt look, she shook her head and caressed his cheek in a silent apology. "I didn't want to worry you."
"Marguerite, I always want to know if something's hurt you, if something's happened..." Roxton's voice shook a little, and he paused to clear his throat before continuing. "What I don't understand is how you got this bruise. Did you fall?"
Marguerite shook her head, a little surprised he hadn't already guessed. Then again, who could have predicted this? A day ago I wouldn't have believed it myself. "No, John," she answered. She lightly traced the contusion, stalling briefly as she searched for the right words. At last she gave a little laugh. "I guess you could call this a souvenir." Seeing the puzzlement in his uncomprehending eyes, she reminded him, "It was a year ago today. And you dreamed of it yourself."
The dream - the memory - rushed back, and he shivered, gasping. "The shot...!"
Marguerite nodded. "Apparently even though it was another world, another time...my body remembers. Challenger said something about phantom pain, about how sometimes the body can echo an injury long since past. That's all this is, an echo." It was easier to sound calm about it now. This afternoon, when she'd felt that searing, burning pain, and the Treehouse walls had been difficult to see through the memories of Captain Marchbank's office crowding her mind, she'd been hard-put not to scream. But the pain was much less now, fading as rapidly as the mysterious bruise had appeared. She forced a smile, trying to ease the strain she saw on Roxton's face. "My own personal memento mori, if you will."
A remembrance of death... Shuddering, Roxton pulled her close again, carefully avoiding putting any pressure on her injured side but wanting to feel her in his arms. Once again the realization hit home; he really had almost lost her. He kissed her deeply, feeling her respond immediately with a need and hunger that surprised him. Moving to travel down her neck with light, fevered kisses, he realized that at least some of her eager response might be because she needed to feel alive. That thought, and the worry that he might be taking inadvertent advantage of her, gave him the strength to pull back for a moment. The turbulent mix of emotions he saw in her stormy grey eyes told him his guess was right. Smiling tenderly, he gently placed a warm hand lightly over her bruise. "Not a memento mori, Marguerite," he said in response to her questioning look. Wanting to defuse the situation, he struggled to remember some of his rusty schoolboy Latin. "More like a memento vive," he offered hesitantly.
"A memento vivere," Marguerite corrected absently, a little stunned by his actions and what she saw in his expression. John, you really are a gentleman! She nodded her head and took his hand in her own. "Yes, I think tonight I'd much rather remember life than death." Choosing her next words carefully, she returned his smile with one of her own, one full of possibilities. "Care to sit with me out on the balcony, watch the stars...and remember life?"
Roxton felt the last of his night-terrors dissolve under the power of that smile. "Yes," he agreed. "I think I'd like that." Hand-in-hand, they made their way to the balcony to share with each other the remnant of the night.