"Ugh," Marguerite groaned as she tried to wring water from her hair. "Next time you ask me to go for a walk in the middle of the rainy season, remind me to decline," she added, stuttering with cold. She could barely get the words out between shivers, but her eyes held a certain warmth that belied the tartness of her words.
"If you hadn't decided to go swimming in the stream you wouldn't be so wet, my dear," Roxton teased gently as he carefully built up a small fire from the deadwood that he'd found inside the cave. At some point in the past, some creature had dragged various branches and twigs back into the cave - for what purpose he couldn't imagine, but it was handy now. He was also thoroughly wet although the cold wasn't bothering him quite as much.
"Decide to go swimming? You're the one who said the stream was still safe to cross!" Marguerite replied indignantly. She shivered again as she remembered following Roxton, fording the swollen stream. The cold water had been up over her knees. A stone had turned beneath her feet, and she'd been unable to save herself from tumbling into the torrent. Only Roxton's quick lunge had saved her from being swept away entirely.
"As I recall, you're the one who insisted that we try and make it back to the treehouse rather than make camp."
"Camping in the rain is not my idea of a good time," Marguerite sniffed.
"Well then you should be grateful for this nice dry cave," Roxton pointed out. Satisfied that the fire was sufficiently built up and that the smoke from the fire was being drawn up the small crevasse in the ceiling, he turned to rummage through their sodden packs. "Let's hope Challenger's latest waterproofing attempt worked," he muttered to himself.
Roxton took stock of their gear as Marguerite huddled closer to the fire. Marguerite's pack was completely soaked; Challenger's attempt at waterproofing their packs had not been able to withstand the dunking in the stream. Roxton spread the contents out to dry at the back of the cave and then turned to his own pack. Grinning triumphantly, he pulled out two blankets, only slightly damp on one edge.
"Are they dry?" Marguerite asked hopefully.
"A lot dryer than what we're wearing now," Roxton confirmed. "Get out of those wet things and wrap up in this, and hopefully we can get our clothes dry by morning."
"Undress in front of you? In your dreams," Marguerite protested, but with a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth.
"Frequently," Roxton murmured, then sighed. "I'll turn my back, and if you'll turn yours, we should both be able to get undressed with a modicum of privacy."
Marguerite hesitated a moment, then made up her mind as an additional shiver shook her frame. "Very well, my lord - but no peeking!"
"Why Marguerite, would I do anything like that?" Roxton's eyes were alight with laughter as he gave her a salacious grin.
"In a heartbeat," Marguerite muttered, trying to hold back a smile. "Still, I think I can trust you this once. You must be cold too."
"Can't think of a better way to warm up " Imagining Marguerite disrobing was already increasing his internal temperature.
"All right," he sighed, torn between amusement and frustration. "But we really should consider body heat as a way of helping ourselves get warm."
Marguerite's low chuckle sent shivers up his spine. "Perhaps."
It didn't take him very long to remove his wet clothing and wrap himself in one of the blankets. He draped the wet garments near one side of the fire, being careful to keep his back to Marguerite while he did it.
"All right," Marguerite said finally. "You can turn around now."
"About time," he mock-groused, then caught his breath as all his thoughts came to a screeching halt. Marguerite was wrapped in her blanket as if it were a towel, her back to him as she spread her own wet clothes out to dry. Her wet hair glistened in the firelight, and the beads of water dotting her shoulders gleamed like jewels. The sight of her sent a warm jolt through his entire body.
Marguerite turned and caught Roxton looking at her with a decidedly bemused expression on his face. His blanket was tightly wrapped around his shoulders and body and he was holding on to the ends as if for dear life. Smiling slightly, she stepped towards him, skirting the fire.
Roxton's throat dried as Marguerite stepped closer. Just before she reached his side, he noticed the firelight catch on an angry pink mark just above where the blanket wrapped over her left breast. Frowning, he looked at it. For a moment he couldn't figure out what it was, and then realization and memory swept over him.
"It's not my idea of a vacation spot either, Marguerite, but it's a reliable source of sulphur," the hunter replied, scanning the ground for any sign of recent tracks. "The burial markers should serve to keep the natives away."
"Yeah, all except the ones who put the markers here in the first place," Marguerite snapped sarcastically. "They didn't like us much the first time."
"At least their 'queen' is gone. We'll just have to hope for the best. Beggars can't be choosers, and we need that sulphur." Roxton raised his eyes from the ground to grin at the heiress. "And as devastating as your wit is, my dear, I still prefer gunpowder when it comes to deterring dinosaurs."
Marguerite glared at him. "We could try your manners instead."
"Touché," Roxton chuckled.
The heiress sighed audibly, casting yet another nervous look at the surroundings. "Oh well, as long as we don't enter any caves I suppose we should be all right," she said quietly.
Her tone was deliberately confident, but her words cut too close to what was really bothering them, and the pair fell silent. Being so close to the cave where they had experienced such horrible hallucinations was weighing heavily on both of them. Time had not lessened the memory of what they had seen while under the influence of the strange fungus.
Roxton frowned as he saw Marguerite shiver slightly. Given the sweltering heat of the jungle, he knew it was from nerves, not cold. He wondered once again what Marguerite had seen in the cave that had so traumatized her. The memory of her turning the gun on herself still had the power to haunt him. She'd never told him what she'd seen, although once or twice she'd seemed on the verge of it. She'd come closest to telling him during that night they'd spent in the jungle, trying to catch up to the others in their quest to "save" Pearson Rice. They'd stopped to set up a rough camp, but he'd been so unsettled at the thought of seeing Rice again he'd been unable to rest. Even the temptation of sharing "body heat" with Marguerite had been drowned out by the howling of his inner demons. Marguerite had done her best to comfort and reassure him, even going so far as to voluntarily mention the cave. As she had on previous occasions, she'd told him that he couldn't allow himself to believe what he'd seen there, that it wasn't true. Caught up in the memories evoked by Rice's reappearance in his life, he hadn't been able to believe her right then. She'd guessed what he was thinking as she so often did. She'd spoken again and said that if he insisted on believing it, she'd have no choice but to believe what she'd seen was real too. The shock of her saying what she did had snapped him out of his own pain and enabled him to start thinking clearly again. Unfortunately, saying even that much had disturbed her so thoroughly that, rather than continue to talk, she'd proposed breaking camp and continuing on as neither of them was likely to sleep. At the time he'd acquiesced, still too shaken to know how to continue the conversation. It was only after Rice was dead that he'd been able to realize and regret the opportunity he'd missed. Maybe it's time to try again, he mused. We're both thinking about it; we can't help ourselves.
For her part, Marguerite was lost in similar thoughts. Her hand kept creeping up to clutch her locket, both a reminder of what she'd seen and her talisman against it. She noticed Roxton frowning worriedly at her; as always, he seemed preternaturally aware of her emotions, no matter how hard she tried to hide them. He had to be just as edgy as she was; he'd gone through the same terrible experience. She knew what he'd seen and the pain he carried to this day. How did he manage to keep putting his pain aside for others - for her? When she'd come out of her hallucination, all she'd been able to do was weep against his chest. According to what Summerlee had told her, Roxton had emerged from his hallucination and immediately rushed to her aid without so much as a tremor. Afterwards, on the journey to return the bones they'd recovered and rescue Challenger, he'd managed to overcome his own horror enough to offer to listen to hers - to take on the additional burden of her pain as well as his, if it would lessen her anguish. For one moment she'd wavered, tempted beyond measure to unburden herself and trust in his strength. Ashamed and terrified of her own weakness, she had rebuffed him soundly, inflicting greater pain on him rather than deal with her own. She regretted what she'd done even then, but she hadn't been able to help herself. She'd tried to open up to him about it a few times since, but the words would never come. John's strength was her one constant in this savage, topsy-turvy world, but it was also the thing that intimidated her the most. His strength and courage emphasized all her own flaws. She was torn between two voices: the voice of experience, which told her in no uncertain terms that weaknesses must never be shown, particularly to the strong; and a voice born of the last years, which dared to whisper that if she could find the strength to share her fears, her own weaknesses might be lessened. Maybe I should tell him about it, she pondered. It's part of a painful secret but not a dangerous one, not on its own. How he reacts might tell me which impulse is right; the impulse to trust him, or to stay silent.
"Marguerite, I wanted to ask "
"Roxton, do you remember "
The two stopped short, each flustered by speaking at the same moment.
"Go ahead," Marguerite said after a short pause.
"No, ladies first," he countered with a tentative smile.
Faced with Roxton's clear-eyed attention, Marguerite's courage started slipping away. "It's nothing very important I just um " Looking anywhere but at him, trying to force the words out, a flash of white caught her eye. Her eyes widened as a figure rose out of the jungle a dozen paces away. "John, get down!" she screamed, yanking her gun from its holster.
Seeing the fear on her face, Roxton dropped to a crouch and spun around even before her warning cry was complete. Marguerite's first shot dropped the nearest warrior, but Roxton thought he saw two or three others amongst the dense foliage. He heard a strange whizzing sound, then another, as Marguerite cried out and fired another round. Yanking out his guns, he fired at the closest warrior just as an arrow thudded into the earth six inches from his boot. "Bloody " Before he could finish his exclamation, another arrow joined the first - at an angle exactly opposite to the original arrow. "Marguerite, we're caught in a crossfire!"
A third shot from Marguerite's pistol rang out over his words, but the sound was slightly different. "I know," Marguerite gasped.
With a quick glance back at her, Roxton saw that she was crouched down, leaning up against a tree. Her back was to him and she was firing the other way. He turned back and concentrated on picking off the archers in front of him. "When did these jokers get arrows, anyways?" Roxton growled. He didn't remember them having bows the last time - or barbed weapons. He could see the wicked point on the one next to him, with jagged edges designed to hold and tear the flesh.
Several more arrows whizzed by closer than he would have liked, but the warriors couldn't shoot at him without giving him a shot in return, and Roxton didn't miss. Two more warriors fell, and the last turned tail and ran. Roxton turned to help Marguerite, only to see another fallen man and the back of a second, also fleeing back into the jungle. Marguerite herself remained crouched in the shelter of the tree trunk, gun pointed at the jungle, but holding her fire. He scanned the surroundings, searching for any signs of further trouble. Seeing none, he rose to his feet and walked over to Marguerite.
"So much for sneaking in quietly," he said lightly, "but I think our friends have left us, at least for now. Let's get that sulphur and get out of here before they come back with reinforcements, hm?"
Marguerite didn't turn to look at him or lower her gun. Alarmed, Roxton sank to a crouch next to her. "Marguerite, what ?" He looked into the jungle again, but couldn't see what she was aiming at. Turning back to her, he caught a glimpse of her face, half-hidden by her dark hair, and felt his heart lodge in his throat. Even before the gun fell from her hand, even before she started to slump, he knew. As he eased her back against him, out of the shadow of the tree, the dark wood of the arrow shaft lodged in her chest became visible - as did the crimson stain spreading rapidly across her blouse. "Marguerite !"
Roxton's tortured whisper brought Marguerite back from her momentary stupor, and she fixed her eyes on his face. She could feel the arrow throbbing in her flesh, a pain that threatened to consume her. Strangely, it hadn't hurt much when she'd first been hit, although the impact had been enough to spin her around. "S'okay," she muttered, trying to ease his frantic worry. The adrenaline that had sustained her throughout the fight was draining away rapidly, taking warmth and strength with it. Still, Marguerite refused to give in to the cold shakiness it left behind. "S'good, actually - wouldn't've seen the others without it."
Roxton could feel Marguerite's body tremble with shock and pain. Her face was extremely pale, her skin was dotted with sweat, and her grey eyes were glassy. Still, she remained aware, focused on him, and obviously determined. Her courage helped him fight down the terror and despair he'd felt when he first saw the arrow. Holding her like this, seeing her like this, was too similar to William He ruthlessly suppressed his emotions and concentrated on helping Marguerite. His fingers shook only slightly as he reached out and delicately touched the wound, trying to determine how bad it truly was. Despite his care, she hissed in pain. Trying to distract her, he spoke, not really knowing what he was saying. "Oh, was that part of your plan? Get yourself shot so you could see the others sneaking up on us?"
Marguerite made a sound that in other circumstances might have been a chuckle. "Not hardly," she breathed, panting slightly with the effort of keeping the pain at bay.
"Good, I was starting to wonder if you'd lost your mind." Drawing his knife, he carefully cut away the blouse from around the arrow shaft. What he saw only increased his worry. The angle didn't look too bad, but judging from the length of shaft visible, the arrowhead had penetrated deeply. Blood continued to ooze steadily from around the shaft. He didn't dare try and remove the arrow under these conditions; his two options of pushing the arrow entirely through or cutting the arrowhead free would both certainly worsen the bleeding, and he had no way of stopping it. Just the thought of having to hurt Marguerite further, even to help her, set his stomach roiling in protest. Better to leave it alone until he had better resources to hand. He made a pad of some of Marguerite's ruined blouse and carefully pressed lightly around the arrow shaft, trying to slow the flow of blood.
The light pressure on the wound sent a flash of agony through her, and Marguerite's vision darkened for a moment. The worst of the shock was past now; she could think again, but she could also feel every agonizing atom of flesh around the arrow. Fighting her way through it, she struggled to find something else to say. Humor deserting her, she faced her fear. "How bad is it?"
"Shh. You'll be fine," Roxton evaded a direct answer.
"How bad is it?" Marguerite insisted, gasping as she tried to look down at the wound.
"It's not good," Roxton admitted reluctantly, "but I've seen worse. I can't remove the arrow though - not without worsening the wound. Not here."
Marguerite struggled to sit up, memory bringing her strength and a new surge of adrenaline. "Then we'd better get going."
Roxton tried to hold her back without hurting her. "Are you crazy? Stay still!"
"Roxton, we can't stay here. Our 'friends' will be back, remember?"
Looking into her eyes, lucid in spite of the pain she had to be feeling, Roxton knew she was right. For a moment his control over his emotions slipped, and his eyes blurred as love and fear burned within him. "I'll carry you then," he said, his voice deepening as he struggled to regain some kind of emotional balance. Carefully, he helped her to her feet in preparation for lifting her into his arms.
Getting up was worse than she had thought it would be, but the adrenaline helped, as did Roxton's steady support. Once on her feet Marguerite shook her head, one hand pressed firmly against her wound, continuing to staunch the bleeding and holding the arrow still against any sudden movements. "Let me walk while I can," she breathed in a voice scarcely above a whisper. Fear danced around the edges of her determination, like the sparks that swirled around the edge of her vision. She ignored both. "You can carry me when "
Terror snapped all his restraint. "You're going to be fine!" he shouted, then stopped as Marguerite gave him a look so full of understanding and courage that he forgot to breathe.
His obvious fear for her gave her the rest of the strength she needed to go on. She looked at him, trying to give him the same strength, knowing her pain caused him this agony. "I'll hold you to that," she said, offering him a tiny smile with all the reassurance she could muster.
Too choked with emotions to speak, Roxton merely touched her cheek and nodded. Supporting her with one arm around her waist, they slowly walked away.
Roxton came back to an awareness of his surroundings with a rush that left him dizzy. Marguerite stood before him, touching his hand, a look of blatant concern on her face. Her grey eyes were soft, questioning. The memories had been so vivid he half-expected to see her bleeding, but she was fine, whole except for that vivid pink mark. Blinking, he tried to force an explanation around the lump that had formed in his throat. "You have a scar," he managed at last, his voice husky.
Marguerite raised an eyebrow, not understanding. "Yes?"
"I hadn't seen it before."
"I should think not," Marguerite laughed, trying to lighten his expression.
Roxton gave her a crooked smile, understanding what she was trying to do. "I was just remembering how you got it, that's all."
Marguerite's laugh dissolved into a frown. "John, don't you dare tell me you blame yourself for that." She glared at him, challenging him to admit it.
He hesitated a moment, considering. "A little," he admitted finally. "I was distracted by my thoughts. I should have seen them coming."
"Easier said than done."
She looked at him thoughtfully. "You were more deeply hurt than I."
Roxton laughed incredulously, but there was no humor or warmth in the sound. "I wasn't even scratched, and you almost died!"
Glaring at him with a mixture of aggravation and deep sympathy, Marguerite took Roxton's hand firmly in her grasp and brought it to her chest, his fingers resting on the scar. "Yes, but I didn't, and I've healed, see?" She brushed her other hand across his forehead, trying to smooth away the lines of strain she saw there. "You're the one who's still bleeding inside. Let it go."
The scar was rough and warm beneath his fingers. Fascinated, he traced it gently, feeling the contrast between it and the smooth soft skin beyond its edges. The angry-looking pink was nothing more than the tinge of new flesh, of life and recovery. As her fingers continued to brush lightly against his face, he felt himself relax. The tight knot of anxiety and remorse within him loosened, and he gave her a fragile smile. He reached out with his other hand to touch her face, and then swore and scrambled awkwardly as the blanket he'd forgotten in his emotion tried to slip to the ground.
Despite herself, Marguerite's lips twitched in an effort not to laugh. Pulling away for a moment, she sat down near the fire and patted the ground next to her, smiling up at Roxton in wordless invitation. He did not hesitate but sat down next to her without a murmur. She smiled as he surreptitiously rearranged his blanket to keep himself covered, but left his arms free. Shyly, still uncertain as to what had caused him to react so strongly, she took one of his hands in hers. "Is the scar so horrible, then?" She was pretty certain she knew the answer to that, but it seemed a good place to start.
"No!" Roxton protested immediately, appalled that she might think so. Her calm face reassured him, and he went on, hesitating at times as he hunted for the right words, trying to understand what had bothered him so. "It's just - I hadn't realized you had a scar. I mean, I knew you must, but I hadn't seen it, and I'd forgotten it must be there until I saw it. When I realized what it was, it brought back everything - how badly you were hurt, the trip back to the treehouse, how close we came to losing you to the infection " His voice trailed off into a whisper as memory resurfaced briefly, of the endless night he'd spent when the fever was at its worst, knowing there was nothing he could do but wait.
Once again, Marguerite's touch brought his attention back to the present. "I'm hard to kill."
He gave her a crooked smile. "You are at that." He brought their clasped hands up and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. "Thank goodness." Letting her hand go, he put his arm around her waist. She snuggled up to him, leaning against his side with a sigh.
They sat in companionable quiet for several minutes, just watching the fire and reveling in the comfort of each other's company. "Do you feel less guilty now?" Marguerite finally asked, breaking the silence.
"Yes," Roxton murmured, although the real answer wasn't nearly so simple.
"Good," Marguerite said with a little huff, instinctively trying to mask her relief. "I was worried."
He raised his eyebrows inquiringly. "How so?"
"Oh it was nothing really " Despite her words, she still looked uneasy.
"Obviously it wasn't 'nothing'," Roxton contradicted, turning a bit more so that he could clearly see her face. "If you were worried, it's something - and I think you still are. What is it?"
She sighed, realizing he wasn't going to let it go. "When you stopped like that, and I saw the look on your face, I thought something was wrong with you," she said slowly, then qualified her statement. "Well, not entirely with you. I thought we're in a cave, and we haven't had the best of luck with caves."
"You thought the cave might be affecting me? That there was something wrong with the cave?" he questioned.
"It's happened before, more than once," she pointed out.
He nodded, considering her words. "I don't think the cave had anything to do with it. It's not that big, and I looked around pretty carefully. It's just a cave, a place to get out of the rain."
"Good." She shivered despite the warmth of the fire and the comfort of his arm around her. "The last thing we need right now is another cursed cave filled with some mysterious plant or metal or portal or whatever else."
"I quite agree." Despite his reassurances and her apparent acceptance of them, he could still see tension reflected in her expression. "Want to talk about it?" he offered tentatively.
"About what?" she asked defensively. She pulled away from him in order to turn and look at him fully, and tried to ignore the sudden chill now that she was away from the warmth of his body.
Roxton knew he wasn't reaching her, but he needed to try. "The caves - any of them. What you're feeling right now. Why you look so scared when you think I'm not looking. Anything."
"Why would I want to talk about any of that?" she demanded, withdrawing further.
Roxton sighed in exasperation, scrubbing both hands through his hair. "Because it might help? It just helped me, and I thought I don't know, Marguerite. Maybe you don't need to talk in order to exorcise your fears. You seem determined to handle them all yourself. But if you change your mind, I'll always be willing to listen."
Marguerite opened her mouth to ridicule the idea, and then stopped. Roxton's face reflected his irritation, but also a curious vulnerability - and a deeper unhappiness. For the first time she realized that in some way he needed her to talk to him. Taking a deep breath, Marguerite found that she might just be able to talk after all. "Do you remember of course you do." Her heart was beating rapidly as she fought against years of self-protective reflexes. "Can I do you mind if I tell you what I saw in that cave, the one Cassandra sent us to?"
Roxton motioned for her to continue, afraid to interrupt.
"I saw this beautiful room, one I'd never seen before, but it had all my dolls. All throughout my childhood, I would receive dolls, beautiful expensive ones, on birthdays and holidays. It was all I ever had of my parents - that, and my locket "
Marguerite continued her tale, her voice strained but clear. Sometimes she would glance at him, but mostly she stared into the fire. He could sense her grow increasingly tense as her story went on, muscles tightening against her inner anguish until they were quivering with the effort. Eyes darkening in pain and horror at what he was hearing, he too had to fight against the impulse to interrupt, to hold and comfort her, knowing it was more important for her to finish.
" and so she told me what I've always known to be true, that there was something wrong with me, something evil; that there had always been something wrong with me, that I didn't belong and never would. She said she only had one gift she could give me, and I knew she was right. I took the gun, and I could hear her telling me it was the right thing to do, and I knew she was right " Tears were streaming down Marguerite's face, but she couldn't stop now; the words were pouring out of her with a force she couldn't control. "It was the only way to stop hurting, to finally belong, to make things right, to have my parents love me at last and I could hear her encouraging me, sounding so happy, because I was going to do the right thing at last for once in my life " In her mind's eye, she was there again, seeing the woman who'd named herself her mother reject her, hearing all the terrible, hurtful things she'd always feared were true.
She gave a hiccupping sob and looked at him. The raw anguish and self-loathing he saw in her expression shocked him. Before he could stop himself, he gripped both of her arms, steadying her, reaching out to her, frightened for her.
"Then you were there," she gasped, "and Summerlee, and I understood it was all a dream and for a moment I HATED you, because you stopped me from ending the pain. You wouldn't let me go."
He pulled her to him, feeling her weep on his shoulder much as she had that day at the cave, clinging to him like the heartbroken child he now knew she'd been. "Never," he breathed, stroking her hair, feeling her shake with the force of her sobs. "No. Please, Marguerite, no. It's all right. It wasn't real. I wouldn't let you go. I couldn't. I can't. It's okay." Rocking her gently, he continued to whisper to her until at last she ran out of tears and rested quietly in his arms. "It wasn't true," he murmured again, hoping she would hear and believe.
She pushed away from him and sat up, rubbing the traces of her tears away with her hands and sniffling as she struggled for control. "But that's just it, John. I don't know it isn't true. They were never there, and I've always been alone, and I've always been wrong. Different. Unwanted. Even you, with the kindest heart in the world, knew I should be thrown to the wolves." She tried to smile, but her eyes were bleak.
"No, Marguerite!" he protested, reaching out to her again. She shied away, shaking her head.
"Yes, John - and with reason. How can I disbelieve what I saw in the cave, when it's what I've seen my whole life?"
"Because it's not true! You know what's in your locket, what's written there. I don't know what happened to your parents to keep them away from you, but I know they loved you."
"How do you know that?" she said bitterly, fearfully. "No one ever has." Despite herself, she started to cry again.
"Because I love you, and I know they did too."
Marguerite's eyes widened in shock, and she stared at him, her face paling. "What did you just say?"
Roxton was more than a little surprised himself. He hadn't meant to say it, it had just slipped out - but it was true, and he'd known it was true for ages. He'd just never imagined telling her this way. "I love you, Marguerite. I've been in love with you for a long time." He could have said more, but he held his breath, watching her reaction. He'd dreamed of telling her so many times, and of how she would react. Now that the moment was here, he was completely at a loss to know what she would do.
Marguerite couldn't believe her ears. She searched his face for some sign of mockery, some hint of deceit or deception, some trace of ulterior motive. She found nothing of the sort, just anxious caring, palpable concern, and a deep, honest love that showed in every line and contour of his body and glowed in his eyes. Looking into those eyes, she realized that while she could doubt herself, she didn't doubt him.
Whatever Roxton had expected, Marguerite starting to cry again wasn't it. Granted these were quiet tears, but tears nonetheless, trailing down her pale cheeks.
"You really mean that," she whispered.
He nodded, his throat tight. "I do."
"Are you sure?"
She looked around wildly. "This isn't some trick of this cave?"
She stared at him again, and incredibly a tiny smile appeared on her lips even as her eyes continued to stream tears. "You'd better be right, you insufferable, adorable man, because if this is some hallucination, I don't care. I love you too, and I don't want to ever wake up," she choked out and flung herself into his arms. All at once she was laughing and crying and kissing him and clinging to him as if her life depended on it.
"It's no dream, Marguerite," Roxton murmured as he hugged her to him and kissed the top of her head, the only part of her he could reach. She was holding him so tightly he could swear he heard his ribs creak, but he didn't mind in the least. "Or if it is, we're dreaming it together, and that's all that really matters." He bent to kiss her head again - just as Marguerite loosened her death grip on his torso and brought her head up. The crack of bone on bone was clearly audible.
The two fell apart, each stunned by the blow. Roxton gingerly massaged his jaw.
"Oh," Marguerite moaned, rubbing her forehead.
"Are you all right?" Roxton mumbled, still trying to determine whether the collision had loosened any of his teeth.
She glared at him, her head aching furiously. Suddenly she began to laugh in delight as her faith in reality - and love - strengthened. "Now I know this isn't a dream."
Her mirth was infectious. Joy bubbled within him, and he laughed - and then immediately groaned as the movement aggravated his sore jaw. "Ow!"
"Here, let me look at that." Marguerite scooted next to him and held his face tenderly between both hands. She traced the line of his jaw gently, wincing herself as she detected a bit of swelling. Impulsively, she dropped a light kiss on the area. "I've always been told that a kiss can make it better."
"Is that so?" Roxton quirked his eyebrows, smiling tenderly. The pain in his jaw was forgotten. "In that case " He straightened up and kissed Marguerite gently on the forehead. "Better?"
Marguerite's breath caught as his lips brushed her skin, and she closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, they were glowing with an impish delight and something warmer. "Much better," she purred. "Still, can't be too careful. You've got an awful lot of old bumps and scrapes that have never been properly attended. I never did bind up that knife cut you got on your arm " She traced one finger up his arm until she came to an old scar, then leaned over and kissed it thoroughly.
Roxton jumped as he felt her teeth graze lightly along the length of the scar. "Marguerite!" he gasped hoarsely. His pulse accelerated madly as desire shivered through him.
She smiled up at him, her lips curved in a wicked grin. "Hold still and don't be such a baby," she cooed. "I just want to be sure it's healed all right."
His eyebrows shot up, and then he gave her a wicked grin of his own, delighted with her game and the joyful desire he saw in her face. "Ah, but it's not so easy to hold still," he murmured. "For instance, let's see you hold still for this " He lowered his head and kissed the scar on her chest.
Marguerite gasped and trembled from head to foot as Roxton's lips worked magic on the scarred flesh, but she managed to hold still until the kiss was ended. "Nothing to it," she panted.
"Of course not," Roxton chuckled deep in his throat, his breath also coming short.
Her eyes met his challengingly. "My turn again. As I recall, you had another knife cut that day "
Marguerite's lips just touched the long scar where Veronica's knife had been turned aside by the buckle and leather of his belt holster when Roxton jerked her upright, both hands beneath her arms. "You win," he groaned, and then his mouth claimed hers.
As his lips freed themselves from hers to travel in hot kisses down her neck, Marguerite laughed breathlessly. "I think we both win," she breathed, and then words, caves, and the world were all forgotten.
The warm glow inside her dimmed a bit as another part of her mind awoke. She was in love, terrifyingly so - but love didn't change facts, and love had fooled her before. As wonderful as this all was, there were consequences to any action. She wasn't sure she even understood all the consequences of this night, much less wanted to face them. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to be able to stop time and remain here forever, safe in John's arms, equally free from the future and from the past. She didn't want anything to change. She trembled, newly acknowledged love and old half-suppressed fears clashing in her mind.
Roxton had been dozing lightly. The shivering of Marguerite's body next to his brought him awake. "Marguerite?" he murmured drowsily, turning to her with a smile. Sleepiness fled as he saw the look on her face, and he sat up. "Marguerite, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," Marguerite lied unconvincingly.
He studied her, doubts rising in his own mind. "Are you sorry ?" He couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence. His heart skipped erratically in his chest, seemingly bouncing from his throat to his stomach.
Marguerite's eyes widened as she realized what he meant. "No!" she rejected the thought forcefully. "No, John! Never that. How could I be sorry for this?" She reached out for him, and he enfolded her in his arms.
They remained like that for a long moment, while Roxton's heart settled back into place. At last he let her go and studied her face intently. "If not that, then what is it, Marguerite? You can't doubt that I love you."
Marguerite smiled at his words, but then the smile faded. "No, John. I was just " She took a deep breath and admitted it. " afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"What all this means. What the future might bring. I still have " She trailed off, trying to find the words to express what she felt in a way that he could understand.
"Secrets?" Roxton guessed after a moment. Despite everything he could do, a tinge of bitterness touched his voice.
" scars," Marguerite finished with a pained look in his direction.
For a moment, the understanding and trust found earlier that evening between the two frayed under the strain of the emotion whiplashing them both. Then Roxton nodded and mustered up the ghost of a smile. "As do I. I'm not expecting you to heal overnight. Let's just try and heal together?"
Marguerite looked at him, seeing his love and determination, and smiled tremulously. "Together," she agreed, and returned to the shelter of his arms. She was still uncertain about what the future would bring, but maybe, just maybe, it would be all right if they faced it together.