A (Special) Day in the Life
Standard Disclaimer: All characters herein are the exclusive property of Coote/Hayes, New Line Television, and anyone else who has a stake in 'Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World'. No copyright infringement is intended.
"But is it her birthday?" Malone surveyed the group around the table and got only blank looks and one shrug in response. "Did anyone even think to ask her?"
"I did," said Veronica. "She looked at me like I'd just sprouted horns. I don't think they celebrate birthdays in her time."
"From what we saw, they didn't have much of anything to celebrate," put in Roxton.
"But did she know when her birthday actually is?" Ned persisted.
"No," replied the blonde woman.
"It doesn't matter when it is," Marguerite opined. "It's like being adopted. The adoption date becomes your birthday. It'll be one year tomorrow since we brought her back with us. That's good enough for me."
Roxton put an arm around the dark-haired woman beside him, knowing what it still cost her to admit to knowing things like she'd just revealed. She didn't even know her own birthday, and here she was actively engaged in planning a celebration for someone else's. "That works for me," he said with a smile.
"Then I guess it's settled. Who wants to handle what part of the preparations?" asked Malone.
"I'll bake a cake," offered Veronica.
"I'll go hunting. Make sure we have something fresh and hopefully non-lizard to eat," Roxton said.
Malone turned expectantly to the fourth member of their conspiracy.
"Whatever he brings home, don't expect me to cook it!" declared Marguerite.
"We don't. Trust me." The irony in his tone wasn't lost on the brunette, and her eyes narrowed. Ned had changed a lot during his absence from the Treehouse, but his sense of humor hadn't. In truth she had missed him enough that she didn't mind his occasional barbs, but she wasn't about to let him know it. "I'll cook," Malone added. "I got a lot of practice while I was on my own, although cooking for six is pretty different from cooking for one. Can you come up with something to distract her and keep her out of the Treehouse while we're preparing everything?"
"Actually, I volunteer Challenger for that."
"You do?" Malone was skeptical.
"I do. He can take her bug hunting or something. I'll stay here and decorate."
"All right. So we're agreed?" There were nods around the table. "Perfect. Now, who's going to tell Challenger?"
Challenger and Finn were unaware of the plans being made for them only one floor above their heads. More accurately, Finn was unaware. Challenger knew the others were plotting a birthday celebration; he just didn't know of his role in it yet.
"Hey, Professor," said Finn eagerly. "How's this?" She held up the notebook in which she'd been writing, painstakingly copying out a page of Challenger's notes.
"That's fine, Finn," the scientist said with a smile. "Your penmanship has certainly improved."
"Cool!" The young woman grinned, proud to have earned the compliment. She set down the notebook and crossed the lab. She leaned on the table across from where Challenger was working. "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to find something Arthur will eat."
"But he already eats lots of things."
"Not lately, I'm afraid." Challenger raised the beaker he held up to the light, swirled it around to mix the ingredients, and then lowered it. He took an eyedropper and added three drops of a dull orange fluid before swirling the mixture once more. "He's been terribly listless of late. I'm quite concerned."
"Maybe he's just old," suggested Finn with a shrug. She peered intently into the terrarium that was Arthur's home—she knew better than to tap on the glass. The beetle didn't move. "How long do beetles usually live, anyway?"
"Oh, it varies by species." The scientist set down the beaker and carefully removed the cover from Arthur's pen. The bug remained completely still.
"Are you sure he's not just dead?"
"Quite sure," replied Challenger in mild annoyance. He retrieved the beaker and a clean eyedropper. Slowly, so as not to startle Arthur, he released four drops of liquid onto the branch directly in front of the carapaced insect. The bug moved sluggishly forward, inspected the offering, and then returned to his former position.
"So much for that," said Finn matter-of-factly.
"Indeed," the ginger-haired man reluctantly agreed.
"Maybe he's lonely?"
"Finn, the average insect doesn't have the higher reasoning capacity needed to feel complex emotions such as loneliness."
"So who says Arthur is the average insect? You said yourself you'd never seen anything like him when you brought him home. I remember."
"So I did." Now Challenger was thinking hard. "So I did indeed."
"And that whole cocoon thing he did! What about that?" the blonde persisted. "That wasn't average, was it?"
The scientist nodded thoughtfully. "You know, Finn, you may be on to something. Perhaps Arthur here needs a companion—a mate." He looked at his young disciple. "How about you and I go looking for one tomorrow?" he asked, forgetting the others were planning a celebration for the following day.
Finn was eager for some adventure. She'd been cooped up inside more than long enough for her taste. "It finally stopped raining," she said. "Why don't we go now?"
"Because it will be too dark soon. Better to get a fresh start in the morning."
"Okay." She was disappointed, but she figured she could wait a little longer without going completely stir-crazy.
At that moment, Veronica descended the stairway to the lab. "Hey, you two. Dinner's about ready. You should get washed up." As she spoke, she approached them at the table. "How's Arthur?" she asked, looking into the open pen.
"The same, I'm afraid," replied Challenger as he replaced the lid on the terrarium.
"We're gonna find him a girlfriend," Finn announced.
Veronica looked at the younger woman in bemusement. "Excuse me?"
"We think he's lonely," Finn elucidated, shooting Challenger a look that dared him to contradict her. The scientist chuckled and let her declaration slide. "We're gonna try finding him a mate."
"And when were you planning to do this?"
"Dinner's on the table!" called Marguerite suddenly from the top of the stairs.
"Coming!" hollered Finn. "Last one there's a rotten egg!" She grinned at her older companions and sprinted up the stairs.
Veronica and Challenger exchanged amused glances, and George turned to follow the girl. Veronica's hand on his arm caused him to pause. He gave her an inquisitive look.
"This is perfect," she said in an undertone. "You can take her out hunting for bugs while the rest of us get the party ready."
In his excitement over the proposed expedition, Challenger had forgotten what the others had been up to while he and Finn were working. "Everything's settled then?" he asked, pleased that his momentary lapse didn't appear to have upset their plans.
"Yep. It'll be a birthday she'll never forget." Veronica grinned.
The sky was a cloudless pale lavender just turning to blue—a pleasant change from the dark, rainy spell they'd been experiencing. At the table in the Treehouse's common room, Roxton did a final check of his pack and his rifle.
"Good hunting," said Veronica in a soft voice. She stood at the balcony, the morning sun just beginning to tinge the air around her like an aura.
"Thanks. Any special requests?" he replied equally quietly. Neither wanted to wake anyone else—particularly Finn—and risk alerting her to what was up.
"Anything but raptor or iguanadon."
Roxton grinned. "I'll see what I can do."
"And hurry home. I want everyone here and ready before Challenger and Finn get back."
"Veronica, Challenger and Finn haven't left yet."
"I know. Now shoo! You've got hunting to do." She left her spot at the balcony and hurried Roxton to the elevator. The tall man chuckled softly and allowed himself to be pushed into the lift.
"I'll be back as soon as I can," he said.
Veronica smiled and nodded as Roxton released the mechanism and descended to the jungle floor.
A voice came from behind her. "Good morning." Veronica started and spun around. "Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"It's okay," she said as her heartbeat returned to normal. She smiled warmly at the new arrival. "I didn't hear you over the noise of the elevator. How did you sleep?"
"Pretty well. It's nice to have a real bed to sleep in again." Malone had been home for over a month now, but he was still marveling at all the things he'd missed while he was away—particularly the woman before him. "You're beautiful," he said suddenly, looking deeply into Veronica's dark blue eyes.
The huntress burst out laughing, then immediately tried to stifle it with a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry," she said through her giggles. "That's not what I expected to hear—especially not so early in the morning."
Ned chuckled, too. "Sorry. I'll make sure never to call you beautiful before noon ever again."
"You don't have to go that far!"
Marguerite entered in time to overhear their shared laughter, if not their words. "What are you two so cheerful about at this hour?" she inquired sullenly. "And why aren't you " She pointed an accusing finger at Malone. " making coffee?"
"I was just on my way to the kitchen," the reporter said placatingly.
"Good morning to you, too, Marguerite," added Veronica.
"There's no such thing," the brunette sniped back, taking a seat at the large table.
Malone and Veronica exchanged amused smirks before Ned headed into the kitchen to make coffee. It was at that moment Challenger bounded into the room, too full of energy for Marguerite's taste. She rose and announced, "I'm going to take a shower." As she passed the kitchen she added loudly, "And there better be fresh coffee when I get out."
When the sound of running water reached their ears, Veronica said in an undertone, "I envy you today, Challenger. You get to leave."
"Quite right. Where's my research assistant?" The ginger-haired scientist looked about the room as if he expected Finn to materialize out of the air—which was a fair expectation, as that was basically how they'd brought her there in the first place.
"I'll go wake her up," Veronica offered, and disappeared in the direction of Finn's room.
Thirty minutes later Challenger and Finn were ready to go, and the others were equally anxious for them to depart.
"Have fun!" Veronica called after the pair descending in the elevator.
"Take your time," Marguerite added so only those left in the Treehouse could hear her.
Malone watched surreptitiously from the balcony until Challenger and Finn had passed the electric fence. "I think we're clear," he announced to his companions.
Veronica immediately headed to the kitchen. "I'll start the cake. It'll need time to cool before I can frost it, and hopefully I'll be out of your way when Roxton gets back with fresh meat."
"Well, I'm stuck until that's done. Marguerite, you want some help decorating?"
"That would be lovely." Her present good mood had lit upon her shortly after she'd finished her coffee. She felt unusually amiable toward the man who'd prepared it. "Thank you."
"Here, piggy," muttered Roxton under his breath. He'd been on the trail of a young wild pig for about half an hour. Now the animal was snuffling around the base of a large, wide-spreading tree. Roxton crouched behind another jungle giant and slowly raised his rifle to his shoulder, sighting on the beast. "That's it," he barely breathed.
Hunter and prey alike glanced quickly toward the sound. A raptor leapt into the small clearing under the same tree the pig had been exploring. The vicious lizard screeched and dove at the pig, but Roxton was faster. Weapon already trained, he fired twice. The raptor screeched again, this time in fury and pain, and fell dead to the jungle floor.
In the chaos the wild pig made its escape, scampering off squealing through the underbrush.
"Damn!" swore the hunter. He rose from his hiding place. The smell of raptor blood would attract scavengers very quickly, and he had other quarry to find. He regretted leaving the fresh kill, but he was in a hurry and he'd promised not to bring home raptor or iguanadon. "All right, piggy, which way did you go?" Working quickly, he reloaded his rifle and began to search the ground around the dead lizard. "Ah-ha," he exclaimed softly. "This way." Eyes wide for sign of his prey or anything that might want to make him its prey, he headed off on the trail of the pig.
"Do you have any idea where to look?" They were two hours out from the Treehouse, and Finn was beginning to wonder if Challenger was leading them on a wild goose chase.
"Of course. I remember very well where I first found Arthur. It is reasonable to assume we might find another like him in the same area."
Finn considered this for a moment before nodding. "Makes sense."
"Yes! I'm quite right. Look at that!" He pointed to a stone outcropping at the base of which was a large pit nearly six feet across. "That looks very familiar. We must be in the right area."
Finn looked at him disparagingly. "After a while everything looks familiar around here." Still, she glanced about her, memory beginning to shape itself. "You're right." She raced the last few yards to the pit, her crossbow bumping lightly against her hip. "It's familiar, but not because of Arthur. This is the hole where we found Marguerite and Roxton that time."
Challenger shook his head. "I'm afraid you'll have to narrow it down for me, Finn." Each one of them had escaped too many pits and caves and the like in the more than three years since the expedition had reached the Plateau for him to instantly recognize this one.
"That time you got hit on the head and thought Veronica and I were your daughters," she clarified. "I'm not surprised you forgot about it. Your memory that day wasn't the greatest," she added teasingly.
"Yes well I " the stymied scientist sputtered. While he didn't personally remember the specifics of his behavior during his period of amnesia, Veronica and Finn had gone to great lengths to tell him—and the other inhabitants of the Treehouse—all about it in great detail.
Finn stood at the edge of the pit, staring into its depths. She squatted down, elbows resting on her bent knees. "Wonder what's down there, anyway?" she mused. "They never would say what happened."
Challenger approached her, but kept back from the brink of the hole. "Be careful. There's no guarantee that lip is stable."
"Don't worry, Professor. I'm not gonna fall." She rose from her crouch and walked along the rim away from the concerned scientist. "I have great balance. Whoa!" She flailed her arms suddenly, tipping to one side.
"Finn!" shouted Challenger. He reached for her, but she was too far away.
Suddenly she righted herself, laughing. "Just kidding!" She grinned.
Challenger took a deep breath. "That's not funny, Finn," he scolded her. "Now come away from there. We have work to do."
"Okay." The young woman shrugged. She went to step away from the edge, but a loose rock shifted unexpectedly under her foot. "Whoa!"
"Finn " There was a note of warning in the scientist's voice.
"Challenger!" The panic in Finn's voice was clear; she wasn't playing this time.
"Finn!" Challenger raced around the hole, but he was too slow. The rocky edge went out from under the girl, and she slipped, screaming, into the pit.
The Treehouse's three occupants all leapt at the sound of the elevator. Ned rushed in from the kitchen where he'd been prepping ingredients to go with whatever game Roxton might bring back. Veronica leapt from the chair on which she'd been standing to hang colored ribbons. Even Marguerite dropped the needle she'd been using to string dried berries and fresh flowers and stood, putting herself between the newcomer and her project.
"What are you all standing around for?" asked Roxton, surveying the scene as the lift ground to a halt.
The trio awaiting him let out a collective sigh of relief.
"Thank goodness it's just you," said Veronica.
Marguerite sat down again and fished her needle from the bowl of berries. "We were afraid it was Challenger and Finn, and as you can see, we're not ready."
"Well, I brought dinner," the hunter declared. He held up the wild pig he'd finally managed to track down and kill. He'd even taken the time to skin and gut it before bringing it home.
"Great!" exclaimed Malone appreciatively. He came forward and claimed the trussed animal. "This will be perfect! And there's enough here to last us more than a week, if we use it wisely. We can barbecue the shoulder today, smoke the belly to make bacon " His eyes were alight with possibilities.
From her seat at the table, Marguerite chuckled. "If we'd known that when you went away to find yourself you would discover a gourmet cook, we'd have sent you off on your own long ago."
"Speaking of which," interjected Roxton, "you'll never believe what I found." He set his rifle aside and slung his pack off his back, setting it on the end of the table opposite Marguerite. "Or I should say what our dinner there found." He opened up the pack and pulled out three large, knobbly items.
Marguerite's eyes widened. "Are those what I think they are?"
"What?" asked Veronica, coming over to peer at the items Roxton held. Malone, too, joined the group around the large rectangular table.
The hunter brushed a bit of dirt from the objects and set them on the table. His hazel eyes met Marguerite's grey ones. "They are," he told her.
"Truffles?" the brunette exclaimed. She leaned forward to get a better look. "I don't believe it!"
"Believe it!" exclaimed Ned with a grin. He reached out his empty hand and picked up a truffle. It was a rich, dark brown in color—almost black. Malone inhaled the scent, and his grin widened. "This is going to be a birthday feast fit for a king!" he declared.
"But where did they come from?" the brunette persisted.
Veronica finally spoke up. "It is funny we've never found them before."
"It's the Plateau," Malone answered as if it explained everything.
"He has a point," said Roxton. "And why question when such a delicacy appears? I can think of much worse things that wild pig might have sniffed out."
"I suppose you're right," Marguerite begrudgingly agreed.
"You three can debate all you want to," said Malone. "I'm going to start dinner. The others could be on their way back as we speak."
"Finn!!" Immediately the scientist was on his belly at the rim of the pit. "Finn!" he called down. He coughed, choking on the dust that had risen in the wake of Finn's fall. He waved a hand in front of his face, trying to clear his vision. "Finn! Can you hear me?" He waited. "Finn!"
A small, distant voice answered him. "Here!"
"Are you all right?"
"Uhh " Finn looked around her. "Depends on your definition," she shouted back. She was hanging by a dry root, her back to the tunnel wall and her heels scrabbling for a foothold. Her hands grasped the slim lifeline tightly. She awkwardly turned her body to face the wall so her feet would have a better chance of finding support. Her skin stung where she'd scraped the stone wall in her descent, and her wrists and shoulders ached from her abrupt halt. "Some help would be good right about now!"
Up above, Challenger looked for something he could use to reach the girl. He spotted a sapling not far off. With luck, he could pull it from the ground and hold it over the edge for Finn to grab. "Hang on!" he called down to her, and then scrambled back from the ledge.
"Like there's anywhere to go but down if I don't," muttered the young woman to the dirt and stone pressing into her cheek.
Challenger shrugged out of his pack and tossed it aside. Pulling his knife from the sheath on his belt, he worked quickly to loosen the dirt at the base of the little tree. It took only moments to dislodge the roots enough to pull the sapling from the earth. Prize in hand, he lay down by the pit. He grasped the base of the sapling tightly, dug his toes into the dirt, and reached out.
"Finn, I'm lowering a sapling to you," he called down. "Can you reach it?"
Finn wriggled around, trying to look up towards the light and the sound of the scientist's voice. Dirt fell in her eyes and she blinked rapidly, trying to clear them. When she did, what she saw didn't encourage her. "No! It's too high up still! Can you lower it more?"
Challenger inched forward, stretching his long body as far over the side as he dared. "How about now?"
"Maybe " Making certain her left hand and wrist were securely wrapped up with the root, Finn let go with her right and reached out. Her fingers brushed the leaves of the little tree, but she couldn't get a hold on it. Stretching with every muscle in her body, she made another attempt. This time, she was successful. "I got it!" she exclaimed. "I'm letting go of the other line. Don't drop me!"
"I won't! I promise!" shouted Challenger.
Cautiously, the girl released her hold on the root completely, transferring her weight to the sapling. Above, the scientist felt the change and dug his toes into the ground with renewed force. Slowly he began to wriggle away from the edge of the pit, using his feet and elbows to pull himself back and his burden up.
Inch by tortuous inch, he dragged Finn to the top. As soon as she could get a hold, she released one hand from the tree and clung to the rim of the pit. Challenger saw and felt the change at the same moment. Using his own weight to anchor the sapling, he crawled forward over it, reaching out a hand to the blonde. With him pulling and her pushing with her feet, they got Finn up onto solid ground once more.
Both lay there, panting, hearts slowing their frantic pace until they had reached a reasonable level of calm.
"Whew!" exclaimed Finn, pushing herself up onto her knees and dusting herself off. "That'll wake you up in the morning."
"Are you all right?" asked Challenger.
"Yeah. I think so." She stood and checked herself over. "Nothing broken. Could use some cleaning up, but nothing serious." She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head, looking down at the still prostrate scientist. "What are we waiting for? We've got bugs to find."
Veronica stood in the entrance to the kitchen and leaned one shoulder against the doorframe. Malone was too busy chopping vegetables to notice her watching him. Several minutes passed as she waited there, smiling at this bizarre turn to domesticity Ned had taken. She found she liked it.
She waited until he set down the knife he'd been using before speaking. "Hi," she said. As she'd expected, he started at the sound and spun to face her. "Sorry."
"It's okay," he assured her. "I didn't hear you come in."
"Turnabout is fair play," she quipped, recalling the moment he'd startled her that morning. "I was wondering if you needed any help?"
"Sure! Would you rather butcher the pig or cut up fruit for a big salad?"
"I'll take the fruit," the blonde woman replied, pushing away from the wall. "What are you planning to do with the pig tonight?"
"I thought I'd use the top of the shoulder," he answered, moving to where the gutted pig hung over a large bucket and pointing to the area he meant. "Here, just behind the neck. I thought we could barbecue it with the sauce I just made."
Veronica chuckled. "You really have become a jungle gourmet, haven't you?"
"It's nothing special," the reporter said with a self-deprecating shrug. "I learned it from the Indrani tribe, although they didn't have truffles," he added with a grin. He chose the sharpest kitchen knife and set to work on the pig.
Veronica picked out a heavy cleaver to split a large melon in two; it took some strength and concentration to avoid slipping and slicing her hand in the process. When she had two halves before her, she asked over her shoulder, "Shall we use the melon rind as the bowl for the salad? It'll save having to wash another bowl, and I think it will be pretty."
Ned glanced up and smiled. "Perfect."
"Here! This is the one!" Finn was nearly dancing with delight at her discovery. Her earlier brush with death seemed to have left her unaffected beyond a few scrapes and bruises. She pulled a leaf from a young tree and rushed with it back to Challenger.
For his part, the scientist was feeling a bit worse for the morning's wear. His muscles ached with the strain of hauling Finn from the pit, and he wanted little more than to return to the Treehouse for cup of tea, a bath, and a nap. But he'd promised the others he'd keep Finn out and about as long as he could today, and they still hadn't seen a single beetle of the type they were seeking.
"This is right, isn't it?" the young woman asked, pressing the leaf into his hand. He held it up and regarded it closely.
"Yes," he said finally. "This is just the one we're looking for. If we're lucky, we'll find another of Arthur's species somewhere in the vicinity."
"And we're pretty lucky," declared Finn. At Challenger's doubtful look, she explained. "It was lucky I didn't fall any farther down that hole, right? And lucky there was a root to catch, and a tree nearby that was long enough for you to reach me, and—"
"I get the idea, Finn," the scientist said with tolerant amusement. Personally he'd have felt more lucky had the girl never fallen down the pit in the first place, but he supposed it was all in how you looked at it. "Let's spread out a bit," he suggested, getting back to the subject of their excursion. "You check this side of the clearing while I check around that large tree."
"Let me take the tree, Professor. I'm good at climbing, and Arthur's potential sweetheart might be higher up."
"Are you certain you're comfortable with that? After all, you've fallen once already today."
"No problem," Finn said dismissively.
"Let me give you a leg up, in any case," suggested Challenger. "That first branch is a bit high, I think."
The petite blonde eyed the branch in question. "No problem," she repeated. She took several steps back and sized it up again. Taking a deep breath, she sprinted directly for the trunk. She managed to take two strides up its side before she jumped, leaping for the branch and catching it with both hands. Lithely she pulled herself up and around to sit on the tree limb, then looked down at the stunned scientist. "See?" she said with a grin. "Now go on. You search down there and I'll search up here." Without waiting for a reply, she rose to her feet and began her examination of the deeply scored bark of the tree trunk.
Challenger watched her in astonishment for a few seconds before shaking his head in utter disbelief. Even when he'd been that young, he'd never had the energy or agility of the Plateau-born girl from the future. He shook himself from his reverie and removed his pack, setting it down against a fallen log.
Before he could even begin his search, he heard a cry from above him. Challenger looked toward the sound just in time to see Finn leap from the branch on which she'd perched and land heavily on the ground.
"Are you all right?" he asked urgently, rushing to her aid.
The young woman held one arm out in front of her, shaking her hand vehemently. "Something bit me!" she announced indignantly.
"Let me see." He caught her wrist in his hand and examined the small wound at the base of her thumb. "Did you see what it was?"
"Yeah. That." With her free hand she pointed at the snake that was hanging directly over their heads. They only just leapt aside in time as it dropped to the ground at their feet. Reacting with instincts honed on the treacherous streets of New Amazonia, Finn reached down and grabbed the snake just behind its head. She looked closely at the animal, recognizing it from Veronica's zoology lessons.
"Oh. That's good. It's not poisonous." She negligently tossed the snake into the nearby brush and it slithered indignantly away. "Well, back up I go." She was about to make another run at the tree when Challenger stopped her.
"Actually, I found Arthur closer to the ground. I don't expect we'll have much luck up so high."
Finn shrugged dismissively. "If you say so."
"You start over there." He gestured to an area devoid of trees but with several low-growing plants with large leaves that might hide a wily beetle. "And I'll look here."
"Okay." She scampered off to the area he'd indicated, her snakebite forgotten.
Challenger shook his head at her and turned to the task of finding Arthur a mate.
"Here." Marguerite handed Roxton one end of the berry and flower garland.
"What do you want me to do with this?" he asked, at a loss.
"Hang it up, please," she said clearly as if he were a little slow.
"On what?" The hunter echoed her tone.
"I don't know. Find a nail or a hook and just attach it. I want to string it diagonally across the room."
Roxton eyed the garland doubtfully. "It's a bit long for that, isn't it?"
"I don't just want it to hang straight," she informed him. "It's meant to drape in nice loops from the ceiling beams."
"I see," said Roxton knowingly. "Why do I think you have no intention of nailing it up there yourself?"
"Isn't that what big strong men are for?" Marguerite asked in mock innocence. She gave him the most ingenuous smile she could manage.
The two stared at each other, but neither could hold the look very long before both burst out laughing.
"You're losing your knack," John informed the brunette beauty, still chuckling.
"Only around you. You're too clever by half." She took a step, halving the already short distance between them.
"You like clever men. We're more interesting." Roxton stepped in, halving the distance again.
"Is that what you think?" Another step.
"I do." And another.
Marguerite gazed up into John's eyes. They stood close enough that she could feel his growing arousal. "Say that to me again sometime when the moment's just right," she said barely above a whisper.
He inhaled the scent of her hair, reveling in the sweet aroma of the floral soap she liked to use. He answered her equally softly, his words barely more than a gentle breeze across her ear as he leaned into her. "When would that be?"
"I'll let you know." Abruptly Marguerite broke the spell. Speaking in her usual brisk tone, she announced, "It certainly won't be until sometime after you get this garland hung up. Now hop to it!" She left the hunter standing dumbfounded as she strode purposefully toward the stairs. "I'll find you some nails and a hammer," she said as she descended.
Left completely nonplussed, it took Roxton a moment to gather his wits. More amused than angry, he shook his head at the departed woman. "You better hope I don't use that hammer on your thick skull," he muttered—not quite loudly enough for anyone else to hear.
Challenger never thought he'd meet someone with more single-minded drive than himself. He was learning how wrong he'd been. It was well past mid-day and still Finn was going strong. The pair had stopped briefly for a quick lunch break, then returned to their search. George would have called it a day over an hour ago had it not been for Finn's seemingly limitless enthusiasm for the project, and his own promise to the rest of their friends.
He sat heavily on the log he was examining and wearily withdrew his pocket watch. He gave a resigned sigh at the time. One more hour, he decided. One more hour, and they had simply better be ready.
"Whacha doin'?" inquired Finn, bounding up next to him and leaping to stand on the log next to where he sat.
"Just resting for a moment. Did you have any luck with that decaying tree stump?"
"Nah. I don't think Arthur would like a girl from a stinky old stump anyway." She jumped the short distance to the ground. "Maybe we'll have better luck over by the pond."
"Yeah. It's not far. I spotted it while I was up on that big rock over there." She gestured absently in the general vicinity of a half-buried boulder before she headed off in the direction of the pond. "C'mon!"
Challenger hauled himself to his feet and trudged after her.
Finn reached the pond in no time and had to wait for the scientist to catch up. "Hurry up, Challenger!" she called impatiently over her shoulder.
"I'm coming," the ginger-haired man replied.
"I bet we find another beetle here for sure," the young woman declared with certainty. She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the area with her eyes. "Yeah."
Challenger reached her and looked around, too. "Less like a pond and more like a swamp," he said. "Watch your step. The ground probably isn't as sturdy everywhere as it might appear."
"Okay. You want to scout that way and I'll go this way?" She pointed first off to her left and then to her right.
"All right, but we keep each other in sight. I've had enough surprises for one day."
They spread out, eyes peeled for their quarry. Challenger renewed his efforts to find the insect they sought—not so much for the sake of science, or even in the hopes of improving Arthur's condition. For once his motives were completely selfish; he wanted to find the damn bug so he and Finn could head back to the Treehouse as soon as possible.
Finn was determined to find Arthur a mate. She had no real sympathy for the beetle—after all it was just a bug—but she knew finding one would make Challenger happy, and she wanted to please the man she'd come to think of as her adopted father.
The blonde's eyes widened suddenly as she saw a familiar shape just ahead on a twig. "There you are," she whispered, reaching out a hand very slowly. So intent was she, she never saw the tentacle slithering toward her through the nearby muck at the pond's edge.
As one, the hunters pounced. Finn grabbed the beetle in one hand at the same moment the tentacle snaked around her ankle. Before she could so much as gasp, the thing had pulled her foot out from under her, yanking her to the ground with a thud. "Challenger!" she hollered, one hand scrabbling for a hold on the shore. With the heel of her free foot she dug into the soft ground, trying to anchor herself. "Challenger!"
Several yards away, Challenger had spotted an interesting insect. Not the beetle he'd hoped for, but something that looked intriguing on its own. He had just pulled out a specimen jar when he heard Finn's cry. "Finn?" He turned, scanning the direction the girl had gone. At first he saw nothing. A flash of movement caught his eye and he looked lower. "Finn!" He dropped the jar and rushed toward his young companion, drawing his pistol as he ran.
"Hold still!" he ordered.
Instantly, she ceased her frantic flailing, but the moment she stopped fighting, the thing that gripped her drew her inexorably closer to the water. Challenger took careful aim.
"Challenger!" Finn's voice was panicked now as she was pulled into the muddy water.
The scientist fired repeatedly into the water. With a satisfying gurgle, the tentacle released its hold on Finn and slipped into the murky depths. He holstered his gun, rushed to the edge, and grasped Finn's reaching hand. He hauled her bodily from the muck.
"Ew! Yuck!" exclaimed Finn, climbing to her feet.
Challenger let go of her wrist and she used the freed limb to brush ineffectually at the mud still clinging to her. "Are you all right?" he asked, wondering just how many times he'd uttered those words today. He led her several steps away from the edge of the treacherous pond.
"Yeah. Oh and hey!" Her eyes lit up with delight. "I got your bug!"
Challenger's eyes, too, lit like candles. "You did?"
"The specimen jar is over this way." Together they tromped quickly back to where the scientist had left his pack. He found the discarded jar and unscrewed the lid. "Here."
Careful not to let the insect escape, Finn placed her loose fist over the opening and slowly opened her hand. A large, familiar-looking black beetle fell into the jar, and Challenger quickly secured the lid. He held it up and the pair gazed at the bug, nearly identical grins on their faces.
"Where are they?" wondered Veronica for the umpteenth time. She leaned against the balcony railing and stared out into the jungle.
"I'm sure they'll be back any minute," Roxton said reassuringly.
"It'll be dark soon."
"Challenger knows when to come in from the dark."
"Not when he's caught up in an experiment," countered the blonde. "Or when he's on a specimen gathering trip."
"I have to admit I'm getting a little anxious, too," put in Malone. He rose from where he'd been sitting at the table trying to write and joined Veronica at the railing.
Marguerite remained where she was on the small sofa, reading contentedly.
Silence descended over the Treehouse inhabitants.
Suddenly Malone exclaimed, "Here they come!"
Everyone leapt into action. Roxton took his place, back flat against the wall to one side of the elevator. Ned went to stand just inside the kitchen, while Marguerite rose and took a few steps down toward the lab. They were all cleverly placed to be just out of the line of sight of anyone coming up.
"Something's strange," said Veronica from her post on the balcony.
"Are they both coming?" asked Marguerite practically.
"Is there anyone else with them?"
"Do either of them look injured?"
"Then everything's fine. Come on."
Reluctantly, the blonde gave up her post and went to stand beside Marguerite.
On the jungle floor, an exhausted Challenger and a filthy Finn passed through the electric fence and entered the Treehouse compound.
"I bet Arthur will like his new girlfriend," said Finn. Despite all her adventures and mishaps, she was still smiling and as energetic as she'd been when they'd set out that morning.
"I'm sure he'll be quite pleased to have the company," Challenger agreed tiredly; he didn't have the strength to argue again about insects and emotions.
They stepped into the elevator and waited as it slowly ascended. They reached the common area and the lift jerked to a halt. Finn stepped out.
"It's awfully quiet. I wonder where everyone—" She got no further.
"Surprise!" shouted Marguerite, Veronica, Roxton, and Malone, all leaping from their hiding places.
"What the hell?" Finn exclaimed. "You scared the crap out of me! What are you doing?"
"Happy Birthday, Finn," said Veronica—the first to come forward. She was about to embrace her young friend warmly when she finally got a good look at her. Finn was covered in drying mud, and what little the huntress could see of her skin through the coating was either scraped or bruised. "What on Earth happened to you?" Veronica shot Challenger an accusatory glance. The scientist didn't even try to defend himself. He simply stepped out of the elevator and crossed the room, dumping his pack unceremoniously on the table as he went. He collapsed onto the sofa with a grunt of satisfaction.
"I fell down a hole," announced Finn, answering Veronica's question. "Challenger pulled me out. Then later I got bit by a snake." At everyone's worried looks, she added, "It wasn't poisonous. And then I found the bug we were looking for, but I got pulled into a pond by some big, slimy thing. Challenger shot it, and it let me go. And I still got the bug!" she declared proudly. She dug through the scientist's discarded pack and pulled out the specimen jar containing the shiny shelled insect. "See?" She turned to Challenger. "Should I put her in the lab, Professor?"
But it was Marguerite who answered. "Let me. You need to get cleaned up so we can all celebrate your birthday." She claimed the jar.
"But it's not my birthday," Finn said, confused. It was only now she noticed the decorations.
"You told me you didn't know when your birthday was," said Veronica.
"So how do you know it isn't today?"
"Besides," Roxton spoke up, "it was a year ago today you joined our unusual household. That sounds like cause for a celebration to me. And Neddy-boy's been cooking up a storm all day. Barbecued pork and black truffles," he said with relish. "Wouldn't want the feast to go to waste."
"Or the cake Veronica made," the reporter added, giving credit where it was due. "Oh! Don't forget the card!"
Veronica retrieved the card she'd made from its hiding place on the bookshelf. She handed it to Finn. "For you."
Slowly a smile spread across Finn's face. "You guys did all this for me?" They all nodded. Eagerly, the young woman opened the envelope and drew the card from it. The front had a charcoal sketch of all six of them plus one person she only recognized from photographs—Arthur Summerlee, for whom Challenger had named his beetle. She opened the card and read the words inside, her lips moving as she read:
It was followed by the signatures of her five companions.
"This is the best day ever!" she declared with a grin. "When do we eat?"
"As soon as you've had a shower!" exclaimed Veronica.
Finn's face fell. "I take it back."
"Come on." Veronica took the card from the younger woman and set it on the table. "The sooner you clean up, the sooner we all eat." She ushered Finn out of the common room and toward the shower.
When they'd gone Malone said practically, "Might as well set the table."
"I'll give you a hand," replied Roxton. The two men disappeared into the kitchen and returned shortly with plates and cutlery. They began to lay the table for the birthday banquet.
"Challenger," said Marguerite, strolling slowly toward the exhausted scientist. She'd been eyeing the prize insect in the jar very closely. "This beetle "
"Don't say a word!" Challenger ordered with enough force that he even startled himself.
"What is it?" asked Malone at the same moment Roxton inquired, "What's wrong?"
"It's—" the brunette began.
"Marguerite " Challenger warned her.
But her mischievous streak would not be put down. A small smile quirked her lips as she said, "It's not a female, is it, George?"
"What?" exclaimed Ned.
"It's the shell. It's exactly the same as Arthur's—right down to the markings. Look." She held up the specimen jar and Roxton and Malone peered intently at the bug within. It was indeed identical to the one already residing in Challenger's lab, from the markings on the carapace to the indignant expression on its tiny face. "All that effort, and you still don't have what you went looking for," Marguerite continued, shooting the scientist an amused look. The expression on Challenger's face was all the confirmation she needed. She laughed. She couldn't help it. Slowly, Roxton and Malone joined in. Eventually even Challenger managed a weak chuckle.
"If any one of you," he began firmly, "says anything to Finn about it, I'm sending you out with her to find another one! Once is enough for me."
"Word of honor, George," said Roxton through his mirth.
At that moment, Veronica returned. "Finn's in the shower." She eyed the group suspiciously. "What are you all laughing about?"
Her friends looked at each other and all burst out laughing once again.