Author's notes: Another Happy Birthday to our dear Ryalin!
"They're bound to have gotten back before us. You just had to go after those last few blackberries," accused Finn as she strode out from under the jungle canopy into the open. Malone and Veronica followed her a few steps behind.
"We're not late. And it was worth it." Malone rubbed absently at the long, deep scratch across his bare shoulder.
"Stop touching it," scolded Veronica, batting his hand away. "You'll only make it worse."
"I'm only a little allergic," he insisted. "It's not a big deal. I'll be fine by morning. My shirt, on the other hand " The garment in question was reparable but only just, and then only if Marguerite agreed to mend it. "That was a wicked thorn!"
A rustling in the bushes on the far side of the glade caused them all to freeze in their tracks and fall silent. Malone drew his gun at the same time Finn raised her crossbow and fit a bolt to it. Veronica tensed and scanned the area with her eyes.
Finn and Malone flanked her, senses keen for any signs of impending attack. "Raptors?" the girl from the future asked in an undertone.
Veronica shook her head. "I don't think so," she replied quietly. "Look there." She pointed towards the rustling shrubbery where a flash of lavender caught their eyes.
"That doesn't look like a flower."
"It looks like a piece of cloth," put in Malone. "And is that a boot over there?"
"It's Roxton's boot. And that's Marguerite's blouse." Veronica's lips curved in a smirk. "Definitely not raptors. Listen."
Her companions did and it wasn't long before they knew what caused her sly mirth.
"Is that-?" Malone began in a hushed voice, already pretty sure he was right.
"I was right," Finn declared, putting away her crossbow. "Marguerite and Roxton did get back before us." She grinned and shot Veronica a knowing look. "Think they'll take very long?"
"Not long, I expect," said Veronica, chuckling. "I doubt Roxton would be willing to go without his gun that long. Not out in the open like this."
A feminine noise of pleasure drifted to them on the light afternoon breeze.
"I'd say he's got his gun and he's using it. It's his Webleys that have the afternoon off." Finn sat on the ground, setting her pack with its load of fresh berries carefully beside her.
Veronica sat, too, and stretched her lean, tanned legs out on the warm grass. She leaned back on her elbows. "We might as well get comfortable."
Malone looked from one woman to the other, stunned and a little aghast. "We should go," he opined. "And will you keep your voices down?"
"Why?" asked Finn. "Give me your watch."
Veronica put in softly, "Ned's right. We don't want to disturb them."
Finn only paid fleeting attention as she reached up and grabbed Malone's wrist, pulling it down so he was half stooped next to her. "Don't you have a digital one?" she complained. She frowned at the watch face and worked out the time. "Little hand on the seven," she muttered to herself. "Okay."
"What are you doing?" Veronica asked, keeping her voice low. She opened her pack and popped a juicy berry into her mouth, followed it with a swallow of water from her canteen.
This time Finn followed her muted lead. "I'm taking bets. How long d'you think they'll be at it?"
"What are we betting?"
"How about tonight's chores?"
"Done." Veronica and Finn shook on it solemnly.
"What are you doing?" demanded Malone, his voice low and tense. "We should give them a little privacy!" He tried to lead by example, but couldn't get more than a step with Finn's iron grip on his wrist. For being so little, she was disturbingly strong.
"You can't go. We need your watch." Finn turned to Veronica again. "I say they'll be done in under ten minutes."
"I'm going to go with between ten and twenty," Veronica countered. "Ned? Are you in?"
Instead of answering, he pleaded, "Can we go? Please?" He was blushing scarlet down his chest and up to the roots of his blond hair.
"Come on, Ned." Veronica smiled up at him and chided gently, "We'd hardly be good friends if we left them in their current state without anyone to watch their backs."
"They obviously weren't worried about that when they started," he muttered in protest.
Another cry of pleasure reached their ears, deeper and definitely masculine. Finn checked the time. She smiled in satisfaction. "I'm gonna win."
"Can I have my arm back?" Malone asked in exasperation.
"Not yet. They're not done yet."
"Finn's right," Veronica said quietly. "We shouldn't rush them. How often do they get time out to enjoy themselves like this?"
Finn eyed her suspiciously. "You just want to win the bet."
"Of course I do." The women exchanged amused smiles. Veronica offered Finn her canteen. "Water?"
"Thanks," accepted Finn graciously.
Ned tried one more tactic. "Challenger will wonder where we are. We're due back at the treehouse really soon."
"He'll understand the delay when we explain it to him," said Veronica matter-of-factly.
Ned's flush deepened. "You're not telling him?" His exclamation, while fervent, was hissed rather than shouted.
"Why not?" She'd never understood the shy and slightly prudish attitude he displayed towards sex, especially not since they'd become physically intimate themselves.
"Why not?" he echoed incredulously.
Any reply was interrupted by a duet of blissful moaning that rose, crescendoed, and fell back into silence. Finn again pulled Ned's watch to where she could see it. He stumbled with the sudden yank and fell to his knees.
"I win!" she declared softly yet triumphantly, thrusting Ned's arm towards Veronica. "See? You have to do my chores tonight!" She crowed with quiet glee.
"They're not back yet," Veronica pointed out, enjoying another berry. "And you only have three more minutes."
Another rustle in the bushes, a flash of lavender, and the blouse was gone. The boot soon disappeared, too.
"I'm still gonna win." Finn smiled smugly.
Both women alternately watched the bushes and the timepiece, waiting to see when their friends would appear. Ned, on the other hand, was doing his best not to look at anything.
"You're running out of time," cautioned Veronica lightly.
"Come on," Finn muttered. "Come on!" The seconds ticked past. "Five four three two "
"Hello!" called Roxton as he emerged from the shrubbery. He looked slightly disheveled but was fully dressed and he was smiling from ear to ear. "We got plenty of strawberries." He held up his pack full of fruits as if trying to prove they hadn't shirked their responsibilities.
"Woo-hoo!" cried Finn exuberantly, leaping to her feet and finally releasing her grip on Ned's wrist. She did a little superiority dance where she stood.
"I had no idea you liked strawberries that much, Finn," joked Marguerite, appearing beside Roxton and surreptitiously tucking in her blouse.
Veronica looked up at Roxton in mild irritation. "You're helping me clean up tonight," she informed him as she climbed to her feet.
"You? I thought it was Finn's turn to do dishes tonight," the hunter protested in confusion. He settled his hat on his head and adjusted his shoulder holsters.
"It was. Now it's yours and mine."
"Me? What did I do?"
"Apparently not enough," grinned Finn.
Roxton looked at Malone, mystified. He held out a hand and helped the younger man to his feet. "Do you have any idea what they're talking about?"
Ned opened his mouth to reply and then closed it and shook his head. He answered with greatest sincerity, "You do not want to know."