Window of Opportunity
A Lost World Fanfiction in Honor of Ryalin’s Birthday
Rating: PG, to be safe.
"So we’re all agreed on the plan, then?" Malone’s eyes twinkled as he looked at each of the three other people huddled conspiratorially around the breakfast table.
"Yes, Ned," Veronica answered yet again, affectionate amusement shining in her blue eyes.
"We’re ready," Roxton reassured him with a wink. "We’ve got all the materials we’ll need stashed at the windmill."
"And you, Marguerite?" Malone pressed.
Marguerite favored him with a withering glance. "I already said I’d keep him away from the Treehouse all day," she pointed out acidly, cradling her coffee cup between her hands. From Marguerite’s point of view, this morning conference was both unwelcomely early and entirely unnecessary; all the details had been worked out the day before. She had no compunction about letting her displeasure be known, either.
Malone winced at the edge to her voice and hastily scrambled to make amends. "Sorry, Marguerite," he apologized with a winning smile. "I guess I’m just a little excited."
"A little?" Marguerite muttered, but quietly.
"It’s been a long time since we’ve celebrated this way," Veronica pointed out in Malone’s defense. "I’m looking forward to it, too. It will be wonderful." She smiled at the reporter. An unspoken message flashed between them, and Malone reddened.
"Yeah," he agreed softly.
Yeah, Marguerite mocked silently in the privacy of her thoughts, knowing what they were remembering. I remember how well it turned out the last time they tried something like this! For their sakes I hope it goes better this time. "Just so long as we don’t have any unexpected events," she grumbled. Or guests. Definitely no uninvited guests this time.
"Are you saying you might not be able to manage your end of things?" Roxton teased, doing his best to distract Marguerite from her annoyance with Malone.
It worked. "Of course I can handle it!" she huffed.
"Then we have nothing to worry about," Roxton replied, grinning at her. Marguerite snorted, inwardly mollified but not quite ready to give up the fun of complaining.
"Shh! Here he comes!" Veronica hissed, hearing familiar footsteps on the staircase leading up from the laboratory.
Moments later, Challenger appeared at the table, just in time to catch the end of Marguerite’s glare at Roxton. "Good morning," he said cheerily, hoping he’d misunderstood what he’d seen. Uh-oh. I hope those two aren’t quarrelling again.
"Good morning," Malone replied instantly, somewhat flustered. "Uh, want some coffee?"
His immediate attention, the offer of a beverage the reporter well knew Challenger despised, and the unease he was obviously trying to conceal all confirmed the scientist’s suspicions. Oh dear. Not just a little quarrel, either; and judging from Malone’s demeanor, he must think he set them off. "No, thank you," he replied, choosing to deliberately ignore the undercurrents for the moment. "I’ve already had my morning tea. Is everyone ready to go? I’d like to get to the grove by mid-morning at the latest; it should be the best time to gather the samples I want."
Roxton looked extremely uncomfortable. "I’m sorry, Challenger, but Veronica informed me this morning that the larder is quite low. And while fruits and nuts are fine as far as they go, well, I’d prefer the option to add a nice juicy steak to the menu." He gave the vegetarian blonde an apologetic half-smile.
Veronica returned the smile before turning to face Challenger. "And I’m afraid I’m going to need Malone’s help today. The Treehouse thatching is getting a little thin in places, and while I have a lot of practice in mending it alone, it’s really best as a two-person job."
"Oh, of course!" Challenger exclaimed, distinctly nonplussed at the idea of Veronica scrambling around alone on top of the slippery roofing material, no matter how practiced she was at it. His face fell as he reached the obvious conclusion. "Oh. Oh well, perhaps this isn’t the best day for an excursion. I have some notes I should update, some chores to take care of in the lab..." He saw Veronica, Roxton, and Malone exchange a look, but before any of them could speak, Marguerite chimed in unexpectedly.
"Oh nonsense, George. The others might have forgotten your trip, but I haven’t. I’ll come with you."
Challenger tried not to stare at the dark-haired woman. Marguerite, volunteering to hike through the jungle and help me gather specimens? That really must have been some quarrel! "Are you sure?" he asked hesitantly, not wanting to give offense.
"Of course I’m sure. My pack is all ready to go, too." She nodded towards the elevator, where her pack rested against the wall. "I could use some fresh air...and as it happens, if I remember correctly there are some interesting-looking mineralogical deposits not too far from that grove of yours."
Challenger sighed inwardly in relief. He really did want to gather those specimens, but not if it had meant being stuck in the company of a fuming Marguerite all day. However, given an interest of her own, they should both be all right. And maybe by the time we get back, she and Roxton will have forgotten whatever started them arguing in the first place. Pleased with the thought of being able to further his research and help his friends all at the same time, Challenger grinned at Marguerite. "Well then, let’s be on our way, shall we? The sooner we get started, the better."
"Be careful," Roxton called after them as they entered the elevator.
"Of course. We’ll be back by early afternoon at the latest," Challenger called back as the elevator started to descend. Unseen by Challenger, Marguerite winked at the other three as the lift disappeared from sight.
"That’s what he thinks," Roxton interpreted the meaning of Marguerite’s wink aloud as soon as the two were gone. The three remaining friends shared a laugh before rising to start their work. They had a lot to do.
Challenger was pleasantly surprised with Marguerite’s company as they hiked towards their destination. He’d expected her to complain vociferously, or to lapse into sullen silence; both were common reactions after she and Roxton had an argument. However, whatever her annoyance with the hunter was today, she seemed disinclined to carry it over into the rest of her morning; asking instead about details of the botanical quest that had sent them towards this particular part of the jungle. Challenger was more than happy to oblige.
His explanation of his continuation of Summerlee’s work with orchids, his own lack of success in determining the pollination mechanism of one particular species, and his determination to try and solve the mystery by re-visiting the orchid’s natural habitat took up most of the outward trek. In fact he was so engrossed in relating his research to Marguerite that they had to backtrack twice after wandering off-course. Even then Marguerite showed no signs of irritation, continuing to ask him intelligent questions about his research, although after the second mistake she did take charge of the map. That led him into a speculative discussion of the strange inaccuracies that kept turning up in their various maps of the plateau, and his recent theories regarding one possible single underlying cause of all the Plateau’s many mysteries. All in all, he could scarcely remember the last time he’d spent so pleasant a morning. Even discovering they’d gone slightly off-course once again couldn’t disturb his good humor.
"Never mind, Challenger," Marguerite said after consulting the map once again. "Our last little detour brought us very near that site I was telling you about. Do you mind if I look it over before we continue on to the orchid habitat?"
Considering how gracious she’d been on the hike, Challenger felt he could hardly refuse. "Of course not."
Marguerite rewarded him with a bright smile that concealed her inner merriment. Perfect! At this rate I won’t have to do anything at all to keep us from returning until early evening; if Challenger is half as talkative on the way back as he was on the way here, he won’t notice if I detour all over the Plateau! Of course, if I let him lead the way again, I expect we will wind up detouring all over the Plateau... "Don’t worry, this shouldn’t take long. I know we need to get to the habitat soon."
"What exactly are you looking for?" Challenger inquired.
Marguerite shrugged evasively. "Oh, it was just an interesting-looking formation. Very suggestive. If it proves to be what I think it is, you’ll know soon enough. Until then, I’d rather not say, if you don’t mind. Now what were you saying about a single underlying cause? As you explain the magnitude of it, it seems like quite a stretch that there could be one single cause for what you call temporal displacements, random topographical shifts, and the influx of so many differing cultures."
As Marguerite fully expected, her question was enough to set Challenger off again. "Oh, but I don’t think the topographical shifts are random at all! Rather, I suspect that they might be symptomatic of..."
His voice trailed off into the distance as the two made their way farther into the dense jungle forest.
Veronica sighed as she finished checking the level of the board. She’d thought Malone had gone crazy when he’d used some of Challenger’s laboratory equipment to determine a "perfectly level" surface, and was sure of it when he had then proceeded to fill a flask partway with water, set it on that surface, and used his pencil to mark the level of the water within it. Now, however, she could see how useful it was...once a board was placed and braced. "Hey, I could use some help securing this into place!" she called.
"Ooops - sorry, Veronica, I’ll be right there," Malone’s voice came from somewhere behind her. He appeared at her side moments later and sank into a half-crouch at one end of the board. "Keep it steady now," he said absently as he hammered a thin piece of wood underneath the board.
Veronica tried not to roll her eyes. "Of course, Ned."
Malone flinched and shot her an apologetic look. "I’m sorry, Veronica. That was a stupid thing to say."
She gave him a smile. "It’s all right, Ned. Better that you say it just in case, I guess." Inwardly, though, she was puzzled. Lately she and Ned had had a few misunderstandings, which was unusual for them. He’d changed since his return from the spirit world, grown more reckless and abrupt, as if convinced he needed to prove himself somehow. So far, Veronica’d had little success in convincing him that as far as she was concerned he didn’t need to prove anything. If anything, her efforts along those lines had only made it worse, and she had no idea why.
Malone flushed a little, but smiled back before returning most of his attention to his task. Idiot! he berated himself. Why can’t I say something right for a change? It seemed like every time he tried to show Veronica how much he’d changed, how much he’d matured, how much he was determined to be the man she deserved, he did something wrong instead. Never mind. Focus on the job at hand. At least do that right. He finished placing the slim piece of wood, then moved to place the other piece...only to discover there wasn’t enough room to fit in between Veronica and the other end. With all the various equipment and building materials around, not to mention the proximity to the corner, there just wasn’t space for his body between Veronica and the wall. "Um, I’m going to have to kind of reach around you to do this, okay?"
"Okay," Veronica agreed, splitting her attention between holding the board steady and watching the blond reporter reach around her.
By crouching directly behind her, reaching his right arm around her legs so he could use his right hand to hold the wood, and awkwardly using his left hand to hammer, Ned managed to get the second piece of wood into place. "That should do it!" he sighed at last, "at least enough to hold things while we make any final adjustments." He only then realized how close he was to Veronica, what position he was in, where his face was in relation to her. His cheeks turned red. "Uh..."
His embarrassment increased as Veronica turned around to face him. She looked at him briefly but with the light directly behind her head, Malone couldn’t make out her expression. Then she extended both hands to him and helped him to his feet. "Nice job," she said, her voice a throaty purr. She didn’t let go of his hands. The two stood face to face, nearly pressed together, gazing into each other’s eyes. The red in Malone’s cheeks faded as he forgot all about thinking.
Roxton caught sight of them just as he was stepping through the doorway. He immediately backtracked, hoping the two hadn’t seen him. Judging from their proximity and their expressions, he rather doubted they had. Now that’s a nice sight to see, he thought appreciatively. Wouldn’t do to disturb them; I know too well how that feels! He smiled knowingly - a smile that turned into a grin as he realized he had the perfect opportunity to give them even more time alone and take care of a few other things all at the same time. Retreating on swift and silent feet all the way to the elevator, he only then raised his voice. "Veronica, Malone, I’m going down for more supplies," he shouted casually, and activated the mechanism. "I won’t be back for a while!"
Subtlety wasn’t exactly Lord John Roxton’s strong suit...but neither of the two left in the Treehouse noticed, or cared.
Marguerite spared a moment from her endeavors to glare over at Challenger, seated comfortably a dozen yards away. The man was supposed to be keeping watch while she worked on this deposit, but as she’d suspected, he had his nose buried in one of his scientific notebooks. She seriously doubted he’d notice if a T-Rex came walking past him. Not that he’d have time to notice, if one of those creatures really did appear... She almost opened her mouth to say something cutting; and then she remembered why she was here, the purpose of this excursion, and bit her tongue instead. I can keep an eye out and still get what I came for, she acknowledged silently to herself. Her lips quirked in wry amusement. Challenger, I hope you’re enjoying yourself - because it’s going to be a very cold day on the Plateau before I ever let you get away with something like this again! She snorted in self-derision before returning to work.
A short time later, Marguerite’s bag was filled with a sufficient quantity to make all her efforts worthwhile. The quality had improved further into the deposit, and she suspected she’d barely scraped the surface...but she had enough for now, and she had promised to get Challenger to his orchid habitat more or less on time. Mischievously, she skirted the rock he was sitting on, moving silently until she was directly behind him. "Ready to go, George?" she asked sweetly.
Challenger nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Marguerite’s voice behind him. Leaping to his feet, he spun around to face her, guiltily aware that he hadn’t been keeping any kind of watch. He fully expected to see Marguerite in one of her raging tempers...but underneath the considerable coating of grime and sweat she’d acquired, she didn’t seem angry at all. In fact, if he’d been pressed for a description, he would have said she looked remarkably like the cat who’d swallowed the cream. The observation unsettled him even more, and he groped for words. "Marguerite! Yes, yes, I’m ready; just let me put away this notebook... Did you find what you were looking for?"
"Oh yes," Marguerite confirmed, inwardly enjoying watching George Challenger scramble about like a guilty ten-year-old. "It’s definitely a valuable find," she added coyly. After such a deliberately mysterious statement, Marguerite expected Challenger to ask her for details. She was rather looking forward to his reaction when he saw her find. She was sure he’d appreciate it.
"Excellent," Challenger acknowledged. He was very curious to know what Marguerite had found, but he knew how secretive she was about her treasure, and he still felt guilty about being caught out on watch. The least he could do to make up for it was show some gentlemanly reticence about pressing for details he knew she wouldn’t want to give. Besides which, judging from the sunlight it was getting well into the best time for specimen-gathering and observation. "Then let’s press on, shall we? I’m most anxious to get to the orchids."
Completely nonplussed, Marguerite bit her tongue again, this time to keep from expressing her outrage. "Of course," she gritted out as pleasantly as she could muster. Of all the self-absorbed, arrogant...! She took a deep breath. Temper, Marguerite. Remember why you’re here, and let it go. I can let this go. She shot a glare at the oblivious scientist’s back that should have left scorch marks, followed by an unpleasant smile. Yes, I can let this go, at least until tomorrow.
Roxton walked quietly through the jungle, searching out the supplies he wanted. Unlike the rest of the things he needed today, this wasn’t something he’d been able to store at the windmill. He’d originally planned to ask Veronica for assistance - this wasn’t his area of expertise, and she’d undoubtedly know just where to find exactly what he was looking for - but that notion had been nipped neatly in the bud. He laughed a little at his own joke even as he hurried, aware that he was taking more time than he’d planned, and trusting Marguerite to keep Challenger away from the Treehouse as long as she’d said she could. I hope Ned and Veronica are appreciating the extra time alone together, and that Ned has the sense to use it wisely, he thought. And I hope Challenger isn’t giving Marguerite too much trouble.
"Ugh!" Marguerite slapped irritably at her neck before looking at her palm and grimacing at the smashed remnants of what had been a large insect. "There certainly are a lot of insects here, George," she said dryly, still valiantly suppressing her distaste for all of her current situation. Challenger never mentioned this part!
"Yes, that’s one of the reasons why Summerlee was never able to determine the pollinator for this particular species," Challenger replied pedantically. "If we can just manage to collect enough living samples of the insect life, I ought to be able to set up a controlled environment in my laboratory and determine which species is responsible."
"What if it’s a combination of species?" Marguerite pointed out sarcastically.
Startled, Challenger straightened up from his examination of some of the orchids in situ and shook his head at Marguerite. "Oh no," he denied quickly. "Each plant and pollinator species evolves in a mutually beneficial relationship, one that oftentimes becomes necessary for both species’ survival. An orchid that depended on two species for pollination...well, even here on this Plateau, I can only think of one word to describe such a plant."
Despite her aggravation, Marguerite couldn’t help smiling at his quip. "All right then, so it must be one of these kinds of bugs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to settle down and watch for a while, before disturbing everything with collection jars and capture attempts?"
"Well yes, although it might take quite some time. But we’ll have to be very close to the plants; the pollinator could be quite tiny, and of course we’d want to be in position to catch the insect in question once we’ve determined it could be the pollinator species. And we’ll have to hold very still, so we don’t wind up disturbing the normal behavior..."
"Then we’d better stop talking and start sitting," Marguerite interjected. Good. More time spent away from the Treehouse, and at his suggestion. I should be able to keep him here for at least an hour without even trying. And all I have to do is sit here; not a bad way to spend the day. Well, I could use less bugs, and the ground could be drier...but it could be much worse. A pretty good plan, if I do say so myself.
Half an hour later, Marguerite had discovered her plan was full of flaws. She could have coped with most of them - the dampness, the bugs flying everywhere - but the fundamental flaw was George Edward Challenger himself. The man literally could not sit still for more than five minutes at a time. Something would catch his eye, and he’d immediately forget all about holding still and move to get a closer look at whatever it was...and he had the gall to wonder why they hadn’t yet identified any potential pollinating species!
"I don’t know, Marguerite. The orchid might be one of the night-pollinating species, although its current level of fragrance would argue against that. I can’t understand why we haven’t seen any insects approach them," Challenger complained. A brief glimpse of movement caught his eye; something black and shiny was moving through the dense foliage on his left, a few feet away. He squirmed closer to try and get a look at it, and missed Marguerite roll her eyes upwards, silently asking for patience.
"Maybe if we moved a little farther away, Challenger..." Marguerite started, then stopped as something in the tree branches immediately above them caught her attention. That’s a funny pattern on the bark of that branch. She looked back towards Challenger for a moment, intending to ask him what he thought - only to discover the man had lost his focus once again. He was now almost directly underneath the branch in question. Sighing in exasperation, she focused back up at the branch. At least it’s kind of interesting, almost pretty, with those markings... Her eyes widened. "Challenger!"
Is that a beetle? It can’t be, it’s too big. What else could it be, though? If I could just get a decent look at it! Completely engrossed in his efforts to identify the tantalizingly-glimpsed insect, Challenger didn’t hear Marguerite’s first comment, and only barely registered her second, sharper calling of his name. "Just a moment, Marguerite, there’s a fascinating insect over here, I think it might be a beetle..."
An ear-shattering explosion came on the echoes of the cry, followed immediately by a heavy, pliant weight smashing him down face-first into the foliage. Snorting and spluttering, he tried to push himself up, but only managed to get himself turned over onto his side. Craning his head from that position, he saw Marguerite hastily holstering her pistol before hurrying over to him. "Are you all right, George?"
"I think so," the scientist answered, slowly regathering his wits. "What happened? Mother of Science!" He finally registered the mottled brown, cream, and black mass pinning him down as Marguerite started pulling it away from him. "What is that?" He stared at it in utter fascination.
"Well, it used to be a snake," Marguerite answered wryly, infinitely relieved to see that Challenger appeared to be intact.
"Good heavens. It’s the biggest member of the boa constrictor family I’ve ever seen," Challenger agreed, finally getting to his feet. "What a remarkable specimen!" He looked at it regretfully. "Too bad you had to kill it."
"Better it than you," Marguerite retorted tartly. At Challenger’s startled look, she clarified her statement. "It definitely had you on its menu. Now we can have it on ours. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m ready for a little lunch."
"Hand me another peg, would you please?" Malone asked quietly.
Veronica placed a smooth wooden peg into his hand, avoiding looking him in the eye as she did so. "Here you are."
"Thanks," he said, trying to catch her eye. When that failed, he sighed inwardly and pounded the peg into place with rather more force than necessary. Dumb, dumb, dumb, he thought with every blow of the mallet. Stupid reporter. Always have to think, can’t just act. Some man of action. Why did I have to make that stupid remark about getting back to work? Why didn’t I just keep kissing her? She’ll never take me seriously now. Dumb, dumb, dumb!
What did I do? Veronica wondered to herself, silently studying Malone’s face and easily reading the frustration there. Maybe I shouldn’t have kissed him back the way I did? I only wanted to show him it was okay, that I wanted it, too, but maybe it was too forward. Maybe that’s not how it’s done in his world. She thought back wistfully to the easy and slightly risqué banter they’d shared just a few short days ago, when she’d made that joke about how Marguerite and Roxton didn’t need Challenger to provide any excitement for them. He hadn’t seemed to mind her gentle advances then, acknowledging her words with a flirtatious and appreciative grin. But she hadn’t pressed then, and maybe she shouldn’t have pressed now. Taking a deep breath, she acknowledged her deepest fear. Maybe his feelings have really changed since he came back from the spirit world. Maybe he just wants to be friends now, nothing more. The thought sent a stab of pain through her, but she faced it bravely, as she had faced all the challenges and hurts life here on the Plateau had sent her. If that’s what he wants, I’ll just have to accept it...but I won’t stop loving him. I can’t.
After gutting the carcass of the huge snake, they’d removed themselves from the orchid grove, hiking a short distance to a clear spot near a small stream. Marguerite had put Challenger in charge of building a cooking fire and roasting two chunks of boa fillet, while she volunteered herself for the tricky task of dealing with the rest of the carcass.
"I’m no judge of campfire cooking, but I think the snake looks about done," Challenger called over to where Marguerite was dealing with the remainder of the snake.
"Good; I’m just about done here, and I’m starved," Marguerite replied. Challenger watched curiously as she slowly rolled up the snake carcass as if it were a bedroll, sprinkling something over it as she rolled it up. When she finished, she tied the whole of the substantial cylinder up in large leaves, sealing it up as best she could with such crude wrapping material. The end result was a surprisingly neat bundle.
She stopped briefly by the stream to carefully wash her hands and arms, then joined Challenger at the campfire. "Mm, smells surprisingly good, all things considered," she commented as Challenger handed her a piece of snake-on-a-stick. "Still, I think it might be improved by a little of this." She reached into her pack and pulled out a pinch of small, coarse, whitish crystals, which she proceeded to sprinkle lightly on both Challenger’s snake-skewer as well as hers.
Really curious now, Challenger gingerly extended his tongue and touched it to a little of the white substance, noticing even as he did so that it was dissolving quickly. He immediately recognized the taste, and turned to stare at Marguerite in astonishment. "Marguerite, this is salt! Why do you have salt with you?"
Marguerite gave Challenger a pleased smile before taking an experimental nibble of her cooked snake. The flesh was surprisingly savory, particularly with the salt to enhance the flavor, and she chewed appreciatively before swallowing. "To be precise, this is halite - also known as rock salt. I told you that formation looked promising." Her voice was smug - she couldn’t help it.
Challenger was elated. "What a fantastic discovery! Marguerite, do you have any idea what this means?"
Marguerite nearly choked on her next bite of snake. "Of course I know what it means!" she snapped as soon as she’d cleared her mouth. "I am the one who does most of our trading, George - and one of the items we trade most heavily for is salt. Now we won’t have to. The deposit I found should more than meet our needs." Unbidden, the memory of one particular salt-trading mission sprang to mind, the one where they’d discovered the supposed "Tom Layton" on their return trek.
Challenger took one look at her stormy expression and hastily apologized. "I’m sorry - of course you know. Forgive me, I was just a little excited - and surprised. I had no idea that was what you were looking for today. I thought -" Realizing his mistake just before he completely put his foot in it, he abruptly cleared his throat. "Um, yes. Well done."
"You thought I was looking for gems," Marguerite answered his unspoken assumption without rancor. She gave him a wicked smile, her eyes twinkling merrily. "A logical assumption - but remember, Challenger, not everything or everyone is as predictable as you think."
"Especially not here," Challenger agreed, grinning in wry acknowledgement of her words.
The two sat eating in companionable silence, but Marguerite’s words lingered in Challenger’s mind, and he spent most of the meal studying them - and her - thoughtfully. Marguerite was as complicated a mystery to him as any on the Plateau. Over the years he had recognized a certain similarity between them, a strength of will and purpose that could easily overwhelm other, less focused personalities; but unlike his own scientific aspirations, her motivations for such drive remained unclear. Most of the time he let it go at that, too absorbed in his other work, and ruefully aware that his strengths lay in unravelling scientific enigmas, not interpersonal ones. However, her actions today forced him out of his usual absorption, and he found himself puzzled yet again by her behavior. She’d been unusually patient with this whole excursion in general and with him in particular, not to mention her hard work on behalf of the entire party, finding and excavating that rock salt...
I never even thanked her for saving my life, he realized abruptly. Not that she seems to mind - she probably doesn’t expect it, he realized with sardonic self-reflection. He was fully aware that the others regarded his habitual confident attitude - face it, old boy, your arrogance - as just another daily fact of life here on this Plateau. Which it was and would likely always be, he acknowledged honestly to himself. It was a basic part of his personality, one even his beloved Jessie couldn’t help him learn to control. But today he wanted to acknowledge what she’d done in some meaningful way - reciprocate for everything she’d done this day, not just save him from the snake. Unfortunately, he hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about it. "Thank you" just didn’t seem adequate, somehow - and he knew her well enough to know she’d just shrug it off. But what could he do?
A dirty and disheveled Roxton peered cautiously out of the elevator as it reached the main floor of the Treehouse. Seeing no one but hearing sounds of industry, he called out a greeting and quickly made his way to his room, not wanting to answer any questions from Veronica and Malone if he could avoid it. Who knew how sticky and filthy you could get gathering these things? he mused, looking ruefully at his splotched hands and stained shirt. Well, first I’d better store these, and then I’m definitely going to have to spend some quality time at the kitchen spigot. Maybe later I can take advantage of Challenger’s shower, but I’d better help Malone and Veronica with the rest of the work first. I doubt they’ve accomplished much while I’ve been away - well, at least not on the project. He smirked to himself, pleased with how the day was progressing.
Ten minutes later, a nice arrangement of the flowers he’d gone to collect placed in a jar on the main room table, and hands and sleeves much damper but less sticky and stained than they had been, Roxton went to join Veronica and Malone. Much to his dismay, he found them working diligently, with the project almost complete. He shook his head, giving Malone a disappointed look. Neddy-boy, I can’t believe I gave you such a window of opportunity and you didn’t take advantage of it! Noticing some tension between the two, he quickly revised his opinion. Or maybe you did try to take advantage of it, but it doesn’t look like things came out they way they should have. I wonder why? Maybe Ned and I need to have a little talk. At this rate, those two are going to wind up stuck as ‘just friends’ forever, in spite of themselves!
"We should think about heading back fairly soon," Challenger said, making idle conversation as he continued to ponder the problem of how to thank Marguerite.
Marguerite glanced over at him, idly poking the fire with her now-empty wooden stick. "Oh, I don’t think there’s any need to hurry," she responded lightly. "I doubt the others will miss our company this afternoon. As long as we’re back by evening, we should be able to avoid the wrath of Roxton."
The last was said with noticeable irony, and Challenger abruptly remembered the evidence of a quarrel between Roxton and Marguerite that morning. This was how he could repay her - by helping smooth over whatever trouble had arisen between his two stubborn, temperamental, deeply-in-love-but-wouldn’t-admit-it friends. It’s about as out of character for me to try this as it is for Marguerite to spend the morning hiking and mining for the benefit of others, not just herself, a snide voice acknowledged inside his head. I only hope I do as good a job of it. Taking a deep breath, he ventured a start into this unfamiliar territory. "You know, Roxton really does mean well."
Marguerite dropped her stick, startled at Challenger’s hesitant tone. "I know that," she said warily. A swift glance at Challenger revealed that he looked very uncomfortable, almost uncertain. What’s going on here?
Grasping at straws at what might have started the quarrel, Challenger fumbled his way along. "You know, he sometimes does or says things that might seem a little overbearing. He’s just being protective. But I could see how it might irritate you."
"Roxton can be very irritating," Marguerite mocked gently, playing along. Inwardly, she was entirely bewildered. Not knowing Challenger thought she and Roxton had quarrelled, she had no idea what had sparked this unusual conversation.
"But you do know that it’s only because he, um..." Challenger was rapidly losing courage, starting to stumble over his words. "He, uh, feels strongly about things...?"
"Yes, he’s quite opinionated," Marguerite agreed.
Now entirely flustered, Challenger still gamely tried to forge ahead. "No, no...I mean, yes he is, but that’s not what I meant."
Glad of the opening, Marguerite asked the obvious. "Just exactly what do you mean, George?"
Scarlet-cheeked, Challenger gave up trying to be subtle. "I mean even though you two might argue about things, he always has your best interests at heart." At Marguerite’s blank look of incomprehension, he added, "I noticed you two quarrelling this morning. Or glaring, anyway...I just thought maybe...never mind."
Frantically searching her mind for what he could possibly mean - and what he might have overheard - Marguerite recalled how she had been baiting Malone, how Roxton had intervened...when Challenger had appeared in the kitchen, and what had happened in the conversation afterwards. With a much better understanding of social dynamics than the scientist, she quickly guessed what he must have assumed, and her mouth dropped open slightly in shock. Challenger thinks Roxton and I were arguing this morning, and he’s trying to help us patch things up? An unexpected wave of warmth swept over her even as she fought the urge to laugh. How...sweet. How very unexpected. A cynical corner of her mind added, I wonder if that snake was safe to eat after all? But she quickly ignored it in favor of wondering what on earth to do now. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt Challenger’s feelings when he’d made so unexpected and uncharacteristic a gesture. Thinking rapidly, she stalled for time. "I didn’t think you’d seen that," she said cautiously.
"Well, only a little, and I might not have noticed, if the others hadn’t been so uncomfortable," Challenger admitted, relieved that Marguerite wasn’t dressing him down for his presumption.
"I see," Marguerite said, his words confirming her suspicions about what Challenger was thinking - and alerting her to the fact that Challenger had been aware the others had been acting oddly this morning. I should have guessed he might have noticed, she mused. Roxton’s no liar, and if anything, Malone is worse. I should have insisted on handling it all myself. But what do I do now? I have to let him go on thinking he’s right, or he’ll be doubly suspicious of what the others were up to. Casting her mind back for a plausible quarrel to share, she didn’t have to go very far - just to the previous evening. It wasn’t an argument, exactly, but Roxton had been asking her questions, personal ones. Ones that she didn’t have answers to, not that she’d ever admit that to him; it would reveal too much. Ones she should have been expecting, really, given the nature of their planning for today, but she hadn’t, and it had caught her painfully off-guard. She’d brushed him off with the usual adage about a gentleman never asking a lady about certain things, but he hadn’t been happy about it. "I know he means well," she acknowledged carefully, feeling her way. "That doesn’t always justify his curiosity. I don’t have to answer all his questions."
Questions - of course! I knew Malone looked guilty; he must have asked something Marguerite didn’t want to answer, as usual - and for some reason Roxton wouldn’t let it go. "Of course not," he agreed, relieved to be on more solid ground. "It’s only natural that he should be curious, want to know more - but I’m sure he doesn’t mean to pry. He’d never mean to, um, cross that line."
Marguerite paused a moment for effect, then nodded. "I’m sure you’re right. Thank you, George." She smiled at him in thanks, a little surprised at how genuine it was. Although she’d never considered discussing this with anyone - she had in fact pushed the incident out of her mind - it felt surprisingly good to share it all the same. Although he doesn’t really know what we’re talking about, George is right. Roxton doesn’t mean to pry; he just can’t help it. He has no idea how painful his questions are; they’re commonplace, trivial, to everyone but me. Pushing away that train of thought, she rose to her feet. "We’d better put out the fire and start back towards the Treehouse. We wouldn’t want to keep his Lordship waiting."
Her deliberate humor was rewarded by Challenger’s relieved smile as he bounded to his feet with alacrity. Thank goodness that’s over. And it really went better than I expected. "Yes, it’s time to go home. The mystery of this particular orchid’s pollination will just have to wait for another day. We can always investigate again when we come back for more rock salt."
With an effort, Marguerite kept her smile from turning into a grimace. "Of course," she agreed, inwardly adding, In a pig’s eye. Next time, Roxton or Malone can collect all the bug bites!
The light outside the Treehouse was sharply slanted, mellowing slowly but surely towards the colors of early evening. Inside the Treehouse, everything was long since ready - and the three occupants were fidgeting, fighting worry.
"Where can they be? It’s past time for them to be back," Roxton muttered.
"Marguerite did say she’d keep Challenger out all day," Veronica offered. "Knowing Marguerite, that’s exactly what she’ll do."
"When Marguerite does something, she’s pretty thorough about it," Malone chimed in, supporting Veronica’s assumption. The two exchanged glances, their earlier misunderstanding forgotten in the need to keep Roxton calm, and in the face of their own concerns.
"The bloody woman doesn’t know when enough is enough," Roxton grumbled. "It will be dark in less than two hours. If we don’t see them soon - " He stopped abruptly, an intent expression on his face, then rushed to the balcony. Veronica and Malone followed right on his heels.
Once there, they could all hear what Roxton’s keen ears had detected - the sound of Challenger and Marguerite talking animatedly as they made their way through the gate of the electric fence. Roxton’s face tightened as he noted Marguerite’s use of a heavy stick as a cane, leaning on it with every other step.
Noting Roxton’s concern, Malone elbowed him gently in the ribs, smiling when the hunter turned to scowl at him. "Five’ll get you ten that’s another of Marguerite’s delaying tactics," he hypothesized shrewdly. "She sounds fine from here."
After a moment, Roxton’s face lightened into his customary grin. "No bet."
"Come on, you two, let’s get into place!" Veronica interrupted excitedly. Now that she was sure everyone was safe, all her earlier enthusiasm had returned full-force.
As the elevator rumbled to the top of the shaft and stopped, George Challenger stopped in the middle of his sentence about the evolutionary path of nocturnal orchid pollination, astonished at what he saw. The decorations, the flowers on the table, the large sign hanging from the rafters... Before he could regain his speech, Marguerite sidled out of the lift to stand with the other three underneath the sign.
"Three cheers for George Edward Challenger - " she called.
"Hip, hip, hurrah!"
"Hip, hip, hurrah!"
"Hip, hip, hurrah!" all of them cheered.
By the end of the traditional salute, Challenger’s cheeks were bright scarlet for the second time that day. "My word," he said at last. "What an unexpected surprise. I’m speechless."
"That’s a first," Malone joked, causing everyone to laugh.
"Dinner’s ready, but first we have another surprise for you in the laboratory," Veronica bubbled.
"Another surprise? But really, this is all too much already," Challenger exclaimed as Malone and Veronica shepherded him towards the stairs.
Seeing that Roxton made no move to follow, Malone raised an interrogative eyebrow, to which Roxton replied with a slight tilt of his head in Marguerite’s direction. Nodding, Malone followed Veronica and Challenger down the stairs. He too had noted Marguerite’s slight limp as she’d moved to join the rest of them. Good thing Roxton didn’t take that bet after all.
As the others disappeared from view, Roxton turned to Marguerite. "Are you all right? We were starting to worry - and I saw you using that stick. What happened?"
Marguerite shrugged offhandedly. "I turned my ankle when I accidentally stepped into a dinosaur footprint," she admitted. "It’s nothing serious, just a mild strain I think - but I admit I played it up in order to make sure you and the others had enough time. I take it you did?"
"This is wonderful!" Challenger’s voice bellowed up clearly from his laboratory. "I’ve been meaning to do this for months!" The red-headed scientist bounded up the stairs again, beaming. "Marguerite, as soon as your ankle can support it, you really will have to come see it. They’ve put a window in my lab!"
"I know, George," Marguerite laughed. "I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself."
The other two came back upstairs with identical grins on their faces. "No question, he definitely likes it," Malone whispered to Veronica. "Your idea was perfect."
"You’re the one who pointed out how easy it would be," Veronica whispered in response, beaming.
"You knew - ?" Challenger gaped, then let loose one of his rich, hearty laughs. "Of course you did."
"Congratulations, old boy," Roxton joked. "Now I think there’s just enough time to wash up before dinner is served. Marguerite?" He gallantly offered her his arm with a grin, which she formally accepted with a smile of her own.
Challenger cleared his throat. "Yes - but before we do anything else, I really must thank you all. This is quite extraordinary. I can’t believe you planned all this - and without my knowing! I’ve never felt so honored. How did you think of it?"
"It was Veronica’s idea..." Malone started.
"But everyone helped," Veronica quickly interjected.
As the others explained the plot, Roxton guided Marguerite towards her room. "Are you sure you don’t need me to take a look at that ankle?" he asked as he paused at her door.
She smiled appreciatively at his concern. "It will wait until after dinner. I don’t want to keep anyone waiting. But if you still want to examine it after the party..."
Roxton leered affectionately at her. "I think my calendar is free. After dinner it is." He hesitated a moment, then gestured towards her room. "Go ahead and wash up. Do you need an escort back?"
"I’ll be fine," she reassured him.
He smiled at her again. "Then I’ll see you at dinner." With one more lingering look, he retreated back to the main room.
Marguerite sighed as she moved past the curtain that screened her room from the rest of the Treehouse. Her ankle really was sore, but she knew from past experience it wasn’t anything serious - and she’d definitely feel better after a change of clothes and a quick wipedown. Moving to the washbasin and pitcher on her dresser, she stopped short as she realized there was a second pitcher crowded onto the surface...a pitcher filled with a wild array of flowers. She recognized the second pitcher as the one from Roxton’s room even before she spotted the note in the basin.
You were right. There are some questions a gentleman is never supposed to ask a lady. But since I, perhaps selfishly, wanted you to have a remembrance in spite of your wishes, I’m taking the liberty of borrowing from Lewis Carroll. In his words, Happy Un-Birthday.
Marguerite buried her face in the flowers, her eyes prickling with the onrush of a gamut of emotions. Taking a deep breath of their fragrance, she calmed herself. She’d have to think of a way to thank him later. For now, she needed to clean up and rejoin the others in celebration of George Edward Challenger’s birthday.