TITLE: Reasons Why
AUTHOR: Susan Zell
DISCLAIMER: All characters from "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World" series are the property of John Landis, Telescene, Coote/Hayes, DirecTV, New Line Television, Space, Action Adventure Network, Goodman/Rosen Productions, and Richmel Productions. No profit has been made by this venture. I've only borrowed the explorers to tell a long Lost Tale. All toys will be returned to their rightful place in the toy box at the conclusion of playtime. (Okay, maybe I'll keep the Roxton doll!)
SUMMARY: Roxton and Marguerite are forced to face some hard truths about each other when new predators stalk the plateau and trap the explorers in a no win situation.
SPOILERS: Prequel to Barbarians at the Gate
RATINGS: PG-13
TYPE: Action/Adventure, Hurt/Comfort, Romance
WARNINGS: Violence, Language
NOTES: As always, I'm still minus much of the first season episodes so please ignore my blatant errors in continuity.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: To California Girl, Lex and June, my faithful betas whose patience and sharp eyes keep my stories readable and on track. Bless you all.
COMMENTS: This story develops some reasons for why Marguerite and Roxton's relationship suddenly changed from the "All-caring" Season One to the "Do I know you?" Season Two. I've often believed that Marguerite pulled back from Roxton due to his "death" at the bridge. She finds what she wanted in this fanfiction and then loses it as she sees Roxton fall in "Barbarians at the Gate." His seeming death would be enough to drive a wounded soul back into its shell. This story fans the flames of that belief and explores what their mindset was just before that fated episode. I've also toyed with another continuity error, but I'll comment on that one at the end of the story so as not to give it away. evil grin



Reasons Why
By
Susan Zell


Marguerite Krux knew how to entertain herself. She rarely went looking for it, but given enough time, some diversion would always present itself. And in that respect, she was a woman of infinite patience. She leaned on the railing of the treehouse and stared down at the ground intently. A contented sigh slipped through her lips and a smile of sweet satisfaction spread across her face.

Yes, she thought, this was very entertaining.

"Marguerite?"

Marguerite jerked upright off the rail with a startled cry and spun to face the person calling her. "What?" she stammered, looking for all intents and purposes like a kid with a hand caught in the cookie jar.

Veronica stood watching her, arms crossed and scowling. "Didn't you hear me? I was talking to you." The young blonde studied the displaced heiress who seemed almost nervous.

"Were you? Well, I didn't hear. What is it you want?"

Curious, Veronica moved closer. "What were you looking at?"

"I was just...um...watching some...um...birds." Marguerite moved away from the overlook and headed toward Veronica. "Very fascinating."

"Right," Veronica answered slowly. She turned away. "I came to see how supper was coming along before I head out to Assai's village. If you want to get everything done before the men return, you need to peel those vegetables."

"Oh fine," Marguerite huffed with exasperation, obviously reluctant to leave her perch, but realizing she had little choice in the matter. "Come on, let's go." She tried to loop her arm around the younger woman, to coax her aside, but Veronica easily eluded her.

"You go ahead. I'll be right there. I need to get my pack. It's in my room."

Marguerite stared at her with distrustful eyes, but then relented, realizing that her actions were only casting more suspicion her way. She spun on her heel and marched into the kitchen.

Veronica went upstairs and it was there that she heard something outside. Walking to the upper railing of the treehouse she cast her gaze downward.

Below her on the jungle floor, John Roxton, hunter, warrior, reluctant Lord, was chopping wood.

It was a hot day, hotter than most, but the cooking fires still needed wood and Roxton had volunteered to refill the woodbin. In the small clearing he had arranged a chopping block and had collected a number of dry logs, one of which rested on the block. He had shrugged off his suspenders so that they hung loosely around his hips and he had shirked his shirt in the strong, afternoon heat. After so long on the plateau, his skin had turned almost berry brown under the warm sun. It was almost as tanned as her own. Veronica watched him, mesmerized.

Sweat drenched muscles bunched, lifting the axe overhead. He slammed it heavily into the log in front of him. Wood chips scattered onto the ground and a loud thunk rent the air. His body nearly vibrated with the force of it. Small beads of sweat glistened off his back in the bright sun. He yanked on the axe helve till it was free, lifted and followed through again. The head of the axe found its target once more and the log split in half.

He bent down and grabbed hold of the cut wood and threw it into a growing pile beside him. He then paused and removed his hat to wipe the sweat collecting on his brow. His long hair was curling at the nape of his neck. He glanced up and saw Veronica. Smiling, he waved.

Veronica jerked back off the railing, embarrassed that she had been caught staring at John Roxton. She grabbed the pack she needed off the table and hurried downstairs. As she came into the kitchen, she was brought up short by Marguerite. The dark-haired, older woman was looking at her intently. Veronica's hand reached up to touch her flushed face. The lifting of Marguerite's inquisitive eyebrow only worsened the condition.

There was a sudden loud thunk again from outside and both women jumped. Glancing at each other, they realized they both knew one another's secret.

Veronica felt her face grow hotter. It was a bad time to be wearing so revealing an outfit. Her embarrassment was all too plain.

Marguerite smiled. "Fascinating plumage out there, eh?"

Veronica wasn't sure what to say. It was obvious Marguerite had been brazenly watching Roxton for some time while he labored. Veronica, on the other hand, had only stumbled upon the scene by accident and had only watched for less than a minute. She didn't understand then why she felt so guilty.

Marguerite continued to peel the vegetables, commenting, "There are times I long for Challenger's camera. I certainly know what wild life I'd be photographing."

Veronica stared at her in surprise, realizing all too well what Marguerite was implying. For a woman of high society, Marguerite Krux could certainly walk the gutter at times. And worse, she relished it.

"Really, Marguerite," Veronica said with exasperation, setting the pack on the table.

Marguerite cast her a knowing glance. "Oh, there's just something about a hot summer day, wouldn't you agree?"

Veronica frowned. "Just concentrate on dinner." That annoying smile of Marguerite's didn't fade away.

"Yes," the older woman sighed. "The men will certainly be hungry after such a strenuous day." She was having great fun at Veronica's expense. This afternoon was certainly entertaining in many ways.

Rolling her eyes, Veronica put a few things in her pack.

"There's nothing wrong with appreciating good scenery," Marguerite commented blithely.

The young woman made a point of ignoring her. "Did you remember all the ingredients I told you?"

Marguerite waved a hand dismissively. "Of course. Most of them anyway. I even embellished a bit."

Oh Lord. Veronica couldn't keep the grimace from her face. "What did you put in?"

"Just some special things I found in the pantry."

"Marguerite, some of those things shouldn't be ..."

The elevator mechanism suddenly engaged. A moment later Roxton stepped out, his arms laden with fresh firewood. He appraised their present work in the kitchen. "Looks like I arrived just in time." His shirt and suspenders were back in place. The blue shirt clung to his damp skin, hanging out of his pants in a rumpled way. Dumping his load in the bin by the hearth, he wiped his dusty hands down the length of his pants. He came over and peered over Marguerite's shoulder.

"Smells good," he said, reaching around Marguerite to snatch a freshly peeled vegetable. "What's for dinner?" He popped the hard root into his mouth and munched loudly. It was sweet and filling. He grabbed a handful more.

"Soup," replied Marguerite irritably. Her pile of hard work was rapidly disappearing. She pulled the rest of the peeled vegetables closer to her for protection.

Roxton cocked his head slightly, bemused at her actions. "Yes, but what kind of soup?" he inquired.

"A soup soon without vegetables. Now go away."

Veronica took the time to answer him. "It's yacouza soup."

"Is that the one Assai made once?" he asked. He remembered it well. It was damn good.

Veronica nodded. Her native friend was a renowned cook in her tribe. The Zanga had long discovered the many various combinations of native foods and herbs to create some fantastic dishes. Of course, there was no telling what Marguerite had done to this one.

"Can't wait," Roxton said with sincerity. He went over to the cauldron and lifted the lid, grabbing a spoon with his other hand.

Marguerite watched him with eager anticipation. Veronica just braced herself, debating whether she should warn him. But then she decided the rest of them needed a guinea pig and Roxton's impatience was his own downfall.

He scooped some of the liquid, blew on it to cool it, and then put it in his mouth. Standing there for a second or two, he had a confused look on his face. Then it twisted abruptly. Grabbing a cup, he spit the soup violently into it. "Dear Lord, what is in that?" he shouted after a moment of gagging. "That's god awful!"

Marguerite's face locked with outrage and anger. "What did you say?"

"That's not yacouza soup! What the hell is that?" He waited for Veronica's explanation.

The tall blonde shook her head and pointed to Marguerite. "It's her turn to cook," she reminded him. "Not mine."

Roxton's look of comprehension and dismay only served to further infuriate Marguerite. She slammed her knife into the cutting board so hard the handle vibrated. Stepping up to Roxton, she confronted him. "That's right! I cooked! You have something to say about it?"

He stared her square in the eye and admitted. "It's bloody terrible."

She couldn't decide whether she should deck him or run him through with the knife. After all the time she had spent on that soup too. She had so wanted to please him with this special meal. It was his favorite. How dare he mock her!

"You can't honestly expect us to eat that?" he demanded of her with a raised eyebrow, completely oblivious.

Could the man not make matters worse? Marguerite thought. Her hand fumbled for the knife beside her. "You can eat nothing for all I care," she snarled.

Roxton finally realized the danger he was in and backed away. "Well, um ladies, it looks like you have things well in hand."

"Where are you going?" Marguerite demanded, still bristling, knife now clutched in her fist.

"Uh, to wash up," he admitted, pulling the shirt away from his skin. "And to cool down. I'll be back ... after supper." Grabbing his pack hurriedly, he moved toward the exit. He picked up his rifle and slung it over his shoulder, resettling his hat on his head. Giving a final lift of his hand for farewell, he disappeared into the elevator, leaving the women, his relieved sigh drifting back to them.

Marguerite huffed loudly, returning to her work. Veronica glanced at her, watching the older woman's peeling intensity increase dangerously. The way she attacked that carrot, the woman was going to snap it right in half.

"The plumage isn't as attractive suddenly, is it, Marguerite?" Veronica commented nonchalantly, suppressing a small laugh.

Marguerite raised her head sharply. "Oh, the plumage is fine, it just needs a good trimming." An evil glint danced in her eye. "Something all too easily remedied." She dropped her knife on the table and wiped her hands.

Veronica regarded her with suspicion. "What are you doing?"

"Oh, we have more than enough vegetables, even with that big cow that just grazed through here."

"Marguerite," she warned.

"I'll be right back. Just watch the soup." Marguerite darted for the elevator, grabbing her pistol from the rack as well as something shiny off the table.

Veronica shouted after her, but it was to no avail. Marguerite had left her high and dry...again. Lord, why do I bother?

She went over to the hearth. Maybe it wasn't that bad. Maybe she could fix whatever it was that Marguerite had screwed up. She gingerly sampled it. A second later she grabbed Roxton's spit cup and followed suit. What had that woman done? Why couldn't she just follow the simple recipe? Was that so blasted hard? What had they done to deserve being stranded with that woman?

Continuing to rant inwardly, she pulled the soup off the fire. They could eat fruit again tonight if they had to. With a disgusted curse she left the treehouse. Maybe she would be in time for dinner at the Zanga village.


****


Ned Malone, Professor George Challenger, and Professor Arthur Summerlee hiked through the jungle. They were on their way back from a little excursion to a hilltop a few miles distant from the treehouse.

Professor Summerlee was interested in the changing weather patterns. It was his belief that the turbulent updrafts that continued to trap them on this plateau were abating. From their position on the hill near the waterfall, he had taken a number of readings.

And Challenger had brought his camera in hopes of snapping a shot of a particularly elusive dinosaur, but so far their luck had been abominable.

This particular dinosaur rarely came out during the daytime hours, being a more nocturnal hunter. But Challenger needed the sunlight for a worthy photo. The Zanga had told him that the reptile was partial to this area and would at times emerge when suitably hungry. The red bearded man had spent much of his time these last few weeks hoping to catch sight of it. All for naught now.

Ned shouldered the heavy camera and dutifully followed the two chattering professors. "We might have better luck tomorrow, Challenger. The temperature is supposed to drop a bit tonight and Assai says that it tends to move around more when it's cooler."

Summerlee took off his bandana to wipe his face. "Yes, it certainly is much too hot for anything strenuous. Even the raptors seem to have gone to ground for the day."

Just at the mere mention of the vicious predators, Ned glanced around him nervously. "Well, let's just hope it stays that way. This heat has sapped any motivation to make a mad dash for the treehouse."

Challenger chuckled. "It must be hot for you to say such a thing." The lad was always full of energy. The older man envied his seemingly inexhaustible reserves.

There was a chirping sound and a rattle of dry brush to their left. Immediately, Challenger lifted his rifle. Ned eased into the camera straps to secure the equipment onto his back and then slowly brought his own rifle up. Summerlee stepped back behind them.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," Challenger answered in a hushed voice. "I don't recognize it."

"Well, whatever it is, it doesn't sound too scary. Sounds more like a bird," Ned observed.

A small dinosaur popped out of the brush no more than fifteen feet from them. It was the size of a small housecat, approximately three feet in length. Its tiny head bobbed on a long, flexible neck.

"Well, that's a new one. What kind is that, Professor?" Ned asked.

Challenger was intrigued. "It looks like a compsognathus. Dr. Oberndorfer first discovered it in limestone deposits in southern Germany in the late 1850's. Absolutely fascinating." He took a step forward but Summerlee grabbed his arm.

"No, George. I don't think that's a wise idea." He shifted his gaze around them worriedly.

Ned was beginning to get a terrible feeling. He hated it when Summerlee got nervous. "But it's so small. Surely one can't be a threat to us."

"Not one," Summerlee insisted. "Many." He pointed to a small ridge to their left. A small pack of the creatures gathered, about thirty in all.

Ned grabbed Challenger's other arm. "Um, maybe we should do as Summerlee says, Professor."

"Nonsense. Compsognathus wouldn't eat something our size. Yes, it's a carnivore, but it ate small animals, including insects and lizards."

"Yes, but compys were thought to be coordinated hunters. It was theorized that they could bring down larger game when motivated." Summerlee pulled his colleague back.

Swallowing nervously, Ned asked the obvious question. "What would properly motivate them?"

"Lack of water. Ravenous hunger."

"Compsognathus?" Challenger asked. "Doesn't that mean--?"

"Land piranhas," the elder man answered.

They had been steadily backing up, but as the pack rushed them, the men turned and fled. The compys surged forward as one, chirping loudly and running on fleet hind legs.


****

Marguerite maneuvered through the jungle. She knew where Roxton was going. There were only two pools safe enough to bathe in around the treehouse. He would head for the farthest one, she surmised. It was the deepest and coolest. Just the thing he needed. The water levels had receded quite a bit over the last few months of drought. They would be in trouble if it didn't rain soon.

She heard subtle splashing in the distance and knew she had chosen wisely. Creeping closer through the foliage, she peered between the leaves. There was a bare-chested Roxton standing in the waist deep pool. He was scrubbing at the shirt in his hands. His hair was wet and clean and he stood there glistening in the sun. Small diamonds of crystal clear water sparkled on his tanned flesh making her eyes hurt just to look at him.

The smile plastered on her face was practically leering. She loved catching him unawares, loved the blank look in his eyes, the release of tension in his tight jawline. When he let his guard down for just a split second, she caught a glimpse of the man's true soul. His usual wall was erected with far too much strength and confidence, a safer front to be sure, but misleading at times.

She was slowly beginning to know the real John Roxton. There was a time when she believed he pursued her for the obvious reasons. She was a stunning, elusive woman. But lately she realized there was something else driving him. He cared. He had a soft side, a compassionate side that she found at once very alluring and yet also very disturbing, especially when it was directed at her. She wasn't used to that.

She looked to the shore and saw his freshly laundered pants lying on some rocks to dry in the sun. There were just within reach. With a steady hand she reached out and snagged them. Holding them up, she noticed they were looking rather rough in places, much like the man himself.

Lord John Roxton carried new scars, courtesy of the Lost World. Out of all of them, he had changed the most physically. He was thinner now than when he first came to the plateau, the weight dropping steadily off until he was lean and muscular. Fleeing voracious dinosaurs and angry natives on a daily basis had that effect. They were all a little different now since that had arrived over six months ago. She wondered if London society would even recognize them anymore if they returned. She wondered if she really cared one way or another.

There was a rattle above her and she shrieked. Lord John Roxton stood there, water slowly running down his chiseled chest to disappear into his waistline. There was a bush between them, strategically covering his more masculine features. His angular face was brimming with annoyance. He held out his hand.

"My pants if you please, Marguerite."

She feigned surprise. If he thought that a little glimpse of him bare-assed was going to frighten her, he was sorely mistaken. "Are these yours?" she asked sweetly.

"You know damn well they are." With a hand that blurred with speed, he snatched them from her hands, making the bushes rattle. Making sure she stayed where she was for a moment, he watched her out of the corner of his eye as he pulled on his barely dry pants. He was distracted for a moment as he had to wiggle a bit to pull them up over his hips. When he looked back at her she was standing there with her arms crossed and a self-satisfied smirk plastered on her face.

"Shouldn't you be brushing up on your cooking skills?" he asked, hoping to fire her indignation at the notion.

Marguerite didn't fall for it. "Veronica can do that. I'm sure she'll be able to fix the thing before she leaves to see Assai. Lord knows I have more important matters to attend to."

"Yes, like coming down here to play the peeping tom."

"Really, Roxton. As if I have nothing better to do!"

His eyebrow arched. "Sometimes I wonder."

"Oh please. You're not the only one who wants to cool off on an extremely hot day. How was I to know which watering hole you were at?"

"So why were you hiding in the bushes?"

"I had to make sure it was you and not some burly, marauding native infringing on our territory."

"And if I had been some burly, marauding native?" He stepped past her back to the waterline where he dropped his shirt.

She pulled a shiny pair of scissors from her pocket. "I would have run you through with these." She gave then a quick snap for effect.

He glanced back at her over his shoulder, a bemused expression on his face. "If it was anyone else brandishing them, I wouldn't be worried, but--." He shrugged.

"Oh very funny."

"Why did you bring those along?" He flipped his wet shirt over his shoulder.

"I wanted to wash my hair and cut it a bit. This length is getting a bit troublesome in all this heat, even for me." Her hand brushed through her long, black tresses.

Disappointment flared in his eyes. "You're going to cut it short?"

"Just a trim," she assured him. She nodded in his direction. "Something you should think about too. You're looking almost feral, Lord Roxton." Her long eyelashes lowered as she stared at him with smoky, sultry eyes.

He became a trifle self-conscious and ran his hand down the length of his dark brown locks. "It has gotten a bit long."

She stepped out of the bush and went to stand next to a pile of logs. "Come on, I'll give yours a trim and then you can help me with mine." Marguerite carefully kept her expression demure and sweet.

Roxton stood there at the water's edge like a wary bull elk, weighing his options and sniffing the air for deceit. He was hesitant, but she had carefully thrown in the opportunity for him to cut her hair. It was something that was almost too much for him to resist.

She had planned this well. It was obvious he was contemplating the chance to touch her long, luxuriant hair without repercussions. He rubbed his hand roughly over his mouth and she knew she had him.

"Alright," he announced, stepping forward. He hung his shirt over one of the branches to dry. Then he sat down on one of the logs and reclined back against another.

Marguerite stood behind him where he could not see her and she was finally able to express the evil grin she had been concealing. She was going to enjoy clipping his wings a little. "Just relax," she purred.

She ran her fingers through his hair to comb it out. Even damp, it was thick and soft, much more so than she had anticipated. She lost herself in it for a moment, using both hands to gently smooth the hair.

Roxton sighed at her touch, so light and soothing. He had dreamed of this. Of Marguerite's long fingers winding in his hair. He would twist around and catch her face with his hands, rising up to kiss her just as she bent down to meet his lips. Hers were soft like dew drenched leaves and tasted like mulled wine.

He continued to let the fantasy play out as she cut his hair, just distantly hearing the steady snip, snip, snip of the scissors. Her gentle touch was bewitching, calming and seductive. The world around him melted away.

Marguerite smiled down at her thoroughly relaxed charge. His lips parted as a soft sigh escaped between them. She could ask him anything right now and it would be hers for the taking.

But she had other things in mind.

She quickly worked her way through his long locks, each snip bringing it shorter and shorter till they just barely fit between her fingers. He was going to kill her for this.

She only smirked.

Finally she was finished. Using a soft. leafy branch she brushed aside the excess hair from his shoulders. There was a lot of it. Her hand ran gently one last time over what she had wrought. Its shorter ends still soft but now a little stiffer. There were a few slips of early gray gracing the edge of his temples, making his hair almost shine. She brushed over it seductively, and then with a sad sigh of her own, let her hand fall reluctantly away. It was time. Bracing herself for what was to come, she patted him on the shoulder.

"Done," she announced.

Slowly, as if he had been dozing, he opened his eyes, blinking them heavily against the bright sun and the oppressive heat. He straightened up off the log, looking up at her. "Thank you."

Marguerite inclined her head and then watched as his hand slowly rose to his head. He was staring at her in puzzlement. He was just starting to realize that things were suddenly a whole lot lighter. A smile wormed its way around her lips.

Here it comes.

His hand brushed along the back of his head and Roxton stiffened. The quizzical look that he had upon rising dissolved slowly into one of shock and horror. His eyes narrowed as they locked on her. "Bloody hell, Marguerite! You said a trim!" His voice was a near shattering roar.

She casually shrugged her slender shoulders. "Whoops. The scissors must have slipped."

"S-slipped?" he stuttered, his anger so intense he could hardly speak. "What the hell is the matter with you?"

Hands on hips, she challenged him. "Maybe next time you'll be more considerate around dinner time."

"You did this because of that? You're absolutely mad!"

"Don't be so damned dramatic. It will grow back, you know."

"That's not the point!" He grabbed his boots and slammed his feet in. "You've gone too far this time, Marguerite."

"Did you ever think that maybe it looks good like that?"

Roxton didn't even pause in collecting his things. "You just don't get it, do you?" He shrugged on his damp shirt and roughly drew up his suspender straps.

Marguerite crossed her arms. "Get what?"

"Forget it." Shaking his head, he stalked out of the clearing.

"What?" she shouted after him. But Roxton didn't acknowledge her. He disappeared into the jungle, dismissing her question.

She chuckled. Oh, that had been delicious. His stunned, little expression at the loss of his precious hair had been worth everything.

There was a shout and a crash from the trail, followed immediately by a string of crude curses, so raw that even Marguerite colored at bit. The cursing was so loud that it flushed a flock of birds. Marguerite covered her laughter with her hand. Roxton must have tripped. By the sound of the ruckus continuing down the trail, he must not have been hurt too badly. The poor man and his size eleven boots. She stifled another round of giggles.

She turned back to the cool, inviting pool with every intention of taking a dip herself. There was no sense going back to the treehouse right now. They'd only make her cook again or worse, clean house, and she used that term loosely.

Unbuttoning her blouse, she looked at the clean water sparkling in the hot sun. It looked absolutely inviting. She stepped closer pulling her blouse out from her waist. It was then she heard something to her right. At first she thought it was Roxton, but then she dismissed it. He was so angry she doubted he'd talk to her for weeks. What a pleasant respite that was going to be. But then she reconsidered. He'd be evil enough to try and get some revenge, thinking to catch her unawares.

The bushes rustled and she jumped back with a slight cry. Her hand fell abruptly to the pistol at her side.

"Roxton? Is that you?" It would be just like him to try and scare her to teach her a lesson. She clutched her open blouse tightly together with one hand and jerked out her pistol with the other. Aiming at the bush, she shouted, "I'll shoot! I mean it!"

The bush stopped moving.

Marguerite relaxed. The man had obviously come to his senses. Nothing like a loaded pistol to make you see the light, she thought. "Come out of there right now."

A high-pitched chirp pierced the air.

That didn't sound like Roxton but nor did it sound like a dinosaur. It actually sounded like a bird. Her fear dissipated. Things ferocious and dangerous in the Lost World rarely sounded that sweet.

With a final rustle, the bush expelled a small dinosaur. It walked upright on two slender legs and had a long, thin neck. A small, diamond-shaped head swiveled around to look at her with dark, black eyes. It was about the size of a chicken. Marguerite eyed it warily though she had little doubt that she could take on the little creature and emerge victorious.

It chirped again, it's whole body lifting up at the effort.

"Well, aren't you just ... cute," she remarked sarcastically. "Scaring me half to death. Get out of here. Go on. Shoo!" She waved her hand at it. To her surprise, it darted off back into the bushes.

Pleased with herself, she holstered her pistol. She wished that more of the plateau's denizens were that obliging, particularly Lord John Roxton. Sighing, she turned back to the water, intent on continuing with her original plan now that she had the watering hole to herself finally.

Two of the creatures suddenly shot across in front of her and stood there chirping.

Marguerite pulled up short and then groaned at the sight of them. "Wonderful, you brought a friend." She waved her hands at them in hopes of driving them away again, but without the same luck. They bounded away a few feet and then stopped, still chirping loudly. Marguerite was getting annoyed.

"Must you make all that racket?"

Suddenly she realized that ten more of the creatures had emerged from the surrounding jungle. It was then she noticed their sharp teeth. One took a savage snip at another.

Nervously, she retrieved her weapon. "Guess you're all thirsty, eh? Tell you what. I'll just let you drink first." She slowly began to back away. But it was too late.

As one, like a flock of birds, they descended on her. She barely had time to scream.

*****


John Roxton was fuming as he stuffed his shirt down his pants. Marguerite Krux had gone too far! This was beyond their normal bickering. Some things you just couldn't tolerate in a woman, and petty revenge was one of them. There were times he wondered what he saw in her.

He slapped aside branches and stomped through the undergrowth. The jungle was quick to take back what it owned, and despite their calling it a trail, it was really just an underused dinosaur path. When no big dinosaurs came through, the vines and vegetation gnarled their way around the opening again in record speed. But its tangled weave didn't stop Roxton. He took his anger out on it and shoved his way through, practically losing his hat three times on the thorny branches. Either that or his head had shrunk in size thanks to her pettiness. Damn the woman!

Finally, two hundred feet or so down the trail, he paused, taking deep breaths and struggling to let go of the anger that filled him. His irritation was exactly what that harpy wanted. And he had fallen right into her trap. The woman infuriated him at times. One minute he loved her so completely his soul literally ached, and the next she would enrage him so fiercely that he was burned by his own fury.

Enough so that one of these days he was going to take her over his knee and tan the hide off her sweet ass. Upon consideration, it was something that should have been done this time. It certainly would have been warranted. He glanced back behind him. In fact, it was still a viable option.

Granted, he shouldn't have done what he did at the treehouse. She had obviously gone to great lengths to cook that meal and had been proud of it. She just couldn't help the fact that she was terrible cook. He had no right to expect that of her, and in truth, he didn't. He couldn't care less if she ever cooked him a meal. It was probably safer if she didn't. No chance of her poisoning him one day in a fit of rage. He ran a hand over his new, close-cropped haircut. If a woman could do that, then there was no telling what else she was capable of at any given moment.

He continued walking again, a little slower, feeling a tad more relaxed. He loved Marguerite for many reasons. But she tasked him at times. She really did. He breathed deeply, and though the air was hot and dry, he still felt fairly cool.

It felt odd to feel air brushing across the nape of his neck. He had to admit it felt good. It was much cooler than having his long hair curling on his sweaty neck or drooping into his eyes at inopportune moments. Course, if he admitted that, then he would be admitting that what Marguerite did was acceptable and he didn't want that. Still, it might also annoy the crap out of her if he wound up liking the practicality of the haircut. And that was a good thing.

When he heard her scream rend the air, his thoughts scattered to the winds and his gut fell to his boots. He quickly spun around and headed back to the clearing at a dead run. Without a break in stride, he slapped the rifle off his shoulder and brought it up to bear.

Pistol shots shattered the air and her scream came again, but it wasn't one of fear but of intense pain. He fairly flew over the tangled terrain, his footing now sure, dodging low limbs and moss covered rocks. His blood pounded in his ears, urging him faster.

He erupted into the clearing, expecting raptors or apemen, but instead he saw about twenty-five small creatures, massing in a group over a small mound. They stopped what they were doing and looked up curiously at him. And then without a trace of fear went back to what they were doing.

With a cry of horror, he realized what it was they were milling over and biting with abandon.

"Marguerite!"

*****

"Which way?" Ned shouted as they ran. They were running along a ridge that eventually would place them perpendicular to the very large waterfall.

Summerlee came up beside him breathless and frightened. He pointed. "There! A path that leads down. It's very narrow."

"Good," Challenger said. "We'll be able to defend it." He glanced back to find their pursuers only a few hundred yards behind them. "Hurry!" he shouted.

The three men sprinted down onto the path that ran along the side of the cliff wall heading down to the bottom. It was more a ledge than anything else. Ned let Summerlee go first and then took up the rear.

He was seriously considering dumping Challenger's camera. It was heavy and it was slowing him down. His lungs felt as if they were going to burst at any moment. He knew Challenger would be furious, but drastic times called for drastic measures. He was about to loosen the straps and shrug it off, when he saw the compys mass at the trailhead fifteen feet behind them.

"They're here!" he shouted. He lifted his rifle and fired into the pack.

The first one fell and while some of the creatures immediately pounced on their wounded brethren to feed, the rest surged forward. They were so aggressive in their haste to get another meal, some of them were shoved off the narrow ledge.

"Keep going!" Ned shouted, continuing to fire into the mass of dinosaur flesh as he steadily backed up. He was barely slowing them down. Finally he spun around and ran after Challenger and Summerlee who were about twenty feet ahead of him. The rocks were slick with spray from the waterfall, which was only a hundred feet or so to his right.

They approached the maw of a cave and Challenger immediately veered into it.

"This way!" he shouted.

Summerlee had numerous trepidations about entering an unknown cave, but knowing what was behind them meant their death, he willingly followed his colleague.

The cave was dark and damp. There was steam everywhere. It felt like the sauna at the gentlemen's club, Summerlee thought.

Ned, his long rifle booming, fired one last shot and darted into the cave behind them. He continued to face the opening, waiting for the compys to fill the entrance. He wished he had a shotgun. Its wide spray would take out far more than just his rifle.

"Challenger, if you have an idea, now's the time to implement it!"

Challenger looked around frantically; he had hoped for a way out which they could then seal behind them, but that wasn't in their cards. Still the close quarters gave them a better defensible position.

"There's no way out!" Summerlee shouted fearfully. He looked over in annoyance at Challenger. Why did the fool bring them in here?

"Concentrate your fire on the cave entrance!" Challenger commanded.

"That's the plan?" Ned asked incredulously.

"There's been a slight miscalculation." Challenger merely shrugged. He was quickly searching the cave for other possible solutions to their rather dire situation.

A deep pit was in the center of the cave. Far below in its depths they could see the glowing red of the earth's magma flowing past, which generated the ferocious heat. Surprisingly, there was some sort of vegetation growing partway down the sides.

"Over here," Challenger called out. "Get on this side." They quickly took up positions behind the pit keeping it between them and the entrance. Their weapons remained aimed at the opening.

It wasn't long before four compys filled the circle of light. Quickly, the men shot them. The fourth leaped aside and chattered loudly. Ned fired again and the thing fell silent. But then the rest of the pack arrived. The men were able to keep the tide away for a time and the air filled with gunsmoke. The compys seemed almost reluctant to enter into the cave. However, hunger and desperation won out and they swarmed inside. There was little the explorers could do about it.

Ned shouted for the professors to fall back when a weight struck him on the shoulders and drove him to his knees. A chirping sounded loudly in his ears. The compys had finally reached their prey. More swarmed over him, biting and clawing. He couldn't help the cry of pain that fell from his lips.

Challenger saw Ned fall and swung back. But more compys surged forward and soon engulfed him and Summerlee as well. Challenger tried to fend off the creatures but they seemed to be everywhere. Unconsciously and unaware of the danger, he took a step back. His left foot slipped off into empty space. Challenger realized his mistake too late. His back was to the edge of the pit. He was going to go over. He let out a shout.

Suddenly Summerlee's hand darted out and grabbed him. The two teetered over the abyss. More compys piled on them. They were off balance. The two men looked at each other and realized they were doomed. They flailed for any solid purchase but there was none.

They fell.

Ned saw it. With a strangled cry, he struggled to his feet. Through sheer determination he stood upright. Luckily, the compys attacking him were more interested in the camera and his pack, not realizing it wasn't actually part of their prey. So long as he held off the ones in front of him, Ned wasn't taking as much damage. Laboring under the extra weight of the determined compys, Ned staggered to reach where Challenger and Summerlee went over. He knew he wasn't going to make it.

Their combined weight was bringing him down. With a sick feeling, he realized he was going to die and be eaten alive by the vicious things. For an instant he envied Summerlee and Challenger. They had died in the boiling magma.

Ned came to a sudden realization that the dinosaurs seemed hesitant to get too near the pit and the excessive heat radiating from it. He took the one chance he could come up with. He grabbed hold of the vegetation on the side of the pit. He only wished he had thought of this before both professors had fallen to their deaths. Of course, there could have been a reason why neither of them had tried it, but it was too late to think of that now. Ned had little choice. Any chance was better than none at all. And that's what he had here. If he stayed up top, he was dead.

He shoved aside another compy reaching for his face. It flew back and quickly two more attacked in its place.

He climbed down into the pit, closer to the lava, praying the roots of the vegetation were strongly anchored into the rock walls. He threw the last determined compy clinging to his back down into the distant magma. He was safe. The compys chattered angrily above him. He just had to hang here till they gave up.

He let out a small whoop of elation and that's when the root he was clinging to ripped free from the rocks. He swung wildly out and then slammed his back into the wall, only one arm now holding him in place above the lava. He craned his head upward to find a better purchase. To his dismay he ran out of time. The last root gave way and he dropped with a scream.

*****


Roxton fired his rifle into the air and the compys scattered a few feet but then immediately flocked back together. He ran forward with a hoarse shout. He shot at one that was loitering on the outskirts, but it leaped lithely away and rushed back toward its meal.

He caught a glimpse of Marguerite when they had scattered. She had not stirred, but lay huddled on the ground, curled up in a tight ball. Splashes of red coated her clothes. Then she was buried again beneath the swarming dinosaurs.

Roxton barreled into the melee, grabbing one of the creatures by its long neck and flinging it aside. He used the butt of his gun to slam two others away.

The sharp teeth of another bit into his right thigh. He ignored it, reaching instead for Marguerite. Their nails dug into him as more leaped onto his body, claws catching on his clothes and the flesh beneath. Grabbing Marguerite's arm, he pulled her upright, praying she was still alive.

To his relief, her eyes flew open and she shrieked. Her blood-flecked face stared at him in wild disbelief.

"Roxton!" Her eyes held true fear. She swung wildly at him with her fists and one connected before he could duck. It was a glancing blow and then he realized she was not striking at him but what was on his shoulder. A compy went flying with a screech.

He shoved Marguerite to the edge of the pool as the beasts swarmed again. "Get in the water!" he shouted. Two more jumped on Roxton and he felt their sharp claws rake his arm and chest before he managed to dislodge them.

Another leaped onto Marguerite's back as she ran into the water. It landed in her hair and she stumbled. Screaming, she flailed madly at it as the weight of the creature drove her under. Water filled her mouth as she tried to shout to Roxton one last time. She panicked, unable to find her feet as the creature savagely bit her neck.

Suddenly a hand pulled her upright and blessed air flowed once more into her starving lungs. She immediately began coughing.

Roxton hauled Marguerite to the surface with one hand. The creature on her shoulder immediately turned and bit cruelly into his hand, twisting its head back and forth, forcing the teeth deeper into its meal. Blood swiftly welled. With a strangled curse, he grabbed it with his other hand and yanked it off both him and Marguerite. He threw it as hard as he could and the thing bounced off a rock with a wet smear and lay still. The others descended on it, incensed by the smell of blood.

Roxton and Marguerite struggled to the deeper part of the pool and stood gasping in its center, holding each other upright. The compys seemed content to stay on the shore.

"Are you okay?" he asked her breathlessly, trying to look her over.

"What are those things?" she demanded in a ragged shout. Clutching onto Roxton's arms for support, she shuddered. He couldn't tell if she was shaking from fear or anger. Maybe a little of both, he decided.

"Are you okay?" he insisted again. She was covered in bite marks and smeared with blood, but from the amount, none of them seemed excessively deep.

She regarded him with a dazed expression as shock began to settle in and she realized how close she had come to being dinner. "I-I think so."

They were up to their hips in the water. He scooped up some to wash away her blood and get a better look at the wounds as well. Not to mention it was a pathetic attempt to clean them and stave off infection.

"Take off your blouse so I can get at the rest," he told her.

She gave a small snort of incredulity. "My, my," she retorted, "aren't we moving a bit fast?" There was the barest of smiles on her bloody lips.

Her biting sarcasm had instinctually returned. It was a good sign. A warm, relieved grin crept over Roxton. "Not fast enough, I'd say."

She rallied to his wit, gathering her strength and taking a step back from him. "So typical," she chided in a shaky voice. "If it were up to you the train would be in the station before the station was even built."

"Punctuality is everything, Marguerite."

She paused and her smile faded. Her hand fell back on his arm. "And for once I'm glad you feel that way." The realization struck her again that if Roxton hadn't come back when he did, she'd be dead.

"I'll find a way to make you pay me back in full," he assured her with a cocky eyebrow.

Her smile returned. "Yes, I'm sure you will."

With trembling fingers she removed her blouse. She tried not to think about how water logged she was. The thin camisole would hide very little from his sharp eyes.

But Roxton was ever the gentleman at the moment. He washed out her cuts with a tender hand and never once dawdled where he shouldn't. Marguerite's face held a steady pout throughout his ministrations.

Promises, promises, she thought.

The cuts burned and she winced as he scrubbed at them. "How bad?" she hesitatingly inquired.

He glanced up at her. "Not too bad. You must not taste as good as you look."

Scowling, she pointed at his own wounds. "You on the other hand must be like ambrosia." There was blood welling all over him as well. She raised a quick eyebrow. "Well, there's no accounting for taste."

The hand that was helping to support her had a ragged bite mark and seeped a steady stream of blood. She eased it off her and stuck it under the water to rinse it off. The water immediately bloodied and as soon as he brought it out, more welled up on the surface of his skin.

"I've had worse," he commented, trying to ease her concern.

Marguerite offered a mocking huff and then ripped a piece of her blouse to serve as a bandage. She wrapped his hand up tightly, so much so that he actually grunted.

"You're running out of blouses," he pointed out through clenched teeth.

"Don't remind me."

"Perhaps soon, I'll have you running around in a little number like Veronica's." His eyes flashed with the gleam of a wolf.

"Oh you wish," she responded quickly.

He just cocked his head at her while a mischievous grin danced upon his face. Ripping a few more pieces off her already ruined blouse, he bound up the worst of her injuries.

She shook her head with exasperation, but then secretly laughed. His ploy was working; her nerves were settling. Her irritation at his amorous fantasies had been enough to subdue her shock and for that she was grateful. Her terror was abating now that he was here.

She turned her gaze to the shore. "What are those things? We've never seen them before."

Roxton adjusted his rifle, bringing it higher out of the water. "I don't know."

"Well what are we going to do?"

"Get out of here first of all. All this blood will bring more than just those little buggers."

"Oh wonderful," she whispered. The thought of adding a raptor to their little party made her stomach churn.

He pointed at the opposite side of the pool. "Let's get out over there. They might not pay us any more mind now that they've eaten some of their friends."

"Filthy, disgusting things."

"They're just practical which is why dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years. We're just infants in comparison."

"You know, you're beginning to sound like Challenger," she complained. "Stop it."

"Sorry. He must be rubbing off on me."

"Heaven forbid. An intelligent John Roxton."

They waded slowly to the other side. Roxton kept a steadying hand on Marguerite's arm. She didn't pull away. He also kept a wary eye on the small pack of dinosaurs and let out a soft curse as they noticed their movement and quickly ran around the pool's edge to cut them off, waiting expectantly on the other side.

Marguerite groaned when she saw them, pulling up short. "Great." She suppressed a moan. "I do not want to stay out here all night, Roxton." She crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to shiver. She regarded him, hoping he had another plan.

"I'd hate to waste the bullets, but I could always shoot a few more of them and maybe when the rest have eaten, they'll leave us alone."

"And then we'd be out of bullets when the raptors came after us."

"Exactly."

"What else?"

"Else?"

"Yes, what other clever plans do you have?"

"I don't. That was mine. Why don't you come up with something?"

"Me?" She sighed. "Some Challenger you are," she muttered under her breath.

"Don't tell me your little, twisted mind can't concoct something?"

She scowled at him and then she rose to the challenge. Pointing to a low branch over the pool, she suggested, "We can climb that tree and at least get out of this water."

"I thought you wanted to take a swim on such a hot day."

"Not if we're going to be here till those little creeps get bored. It could be hours. I am not standing in this pool the entire time."

He took pity on her. Besides she had a point. Night was coming on and it could be a while before they were missed. Challenger, Summerlee and Ned weren't due back for a couple more hours and Veronica wouldn't start being concerned by their absence for at least another three hours. And they couldn't stand here the entire time waiting. The blood loss was already taking its toll on Marguerite. She was pale and shaking despite the heat of the day.

He nodded. "Good plan."

"Really?" She grinned triumphantly and started wading to the tree branch.

"Unless of course they can climb. They did jump all over us."

She stopped and looked back at him in fear.

But then he shrugged, walking past her. "Oh well, some things are worth the risk. We can always jump back in the water."

With a heavy, defeated sigh, she trudged after him. The creatures circled and chirped at them, excited now that they were moving again, anticipating a fine meal.

Under the branch, Roxton lifted up Marguerite. She squirmed onto the branch and then made room for Roxton. Using his muscular arms, he heaved himself up to sit beside her, but wound up bumping his head on the branch above him. The loud thump filled the air. He cursed loudly and clutched the branch before he toppled off. Marguerite tried to steady him. He settled himself carefully on the branch before rubbing his head.

"Are you okay?" Marguerite stared at him wide-eyed. He was never this clumsy before. At least not this badly.

He nodded with a disgusted grunt. He hadn't taken his eyes off the compys circling the base of the tree. One wrong move on their part and he was going to dump Marguerite back into the water and follow right after her.

The creatures ran back and forth, obviously trying to work out the problem, but since they hadn't immediately tried climbing the tree, Roxton felt a bit safer. It wasn't something natural for them. Hopping around and climbing up a tree were two different things. They would have to work out the problem. It would buy them some time.

Still he wanted to get higher up. Balancing precariously on the bobbing limb, he motioned her up. "Keep climbing."

"What? Why?"

"If a T-rex comes by or even a raptor, we won't have time to escape. This water's not deep enough to dissuade either of them. See that knot in the tree about five branches up? That's a good spot."

"You've got to be kidding me." But she wearily complied. Roxton was right. Being a meal for any stupid dinosaur, big or small, was not overly appealing. Still, she didn't have to like it.

"Come on. You can do it." With a firm hand he helped push her up to the next higher branch.

"Hey! Watch the hands!"

"Sorry."

"Oh yeah, right!"

Roxton didn't even bother to hide his smirk. He just enjoyed the view while he could. Then he climbed up beside her. They continued that way till they were high enough and secure enough to wait out any hungry dinosaurs.

Marguerite was exhausted and she was horribly cold suddenly. She could barely stop trembling in her damp clothes. Roxton could only suspect it was the delayed shock and the blood loss. Her cuts had stopped bleeding for the most part, which was a relief, but her porcelain skin was paler than usual.

He leaned against the tree trunk and then eased her back against him. She hesitated briefly and then willingly sank against him. There was a great deal of heat radiating from him despite his soaking state. She basked in it and tried to relax. They were out of danger for the moment. Nothing was going to attack them up here.

Shivering uncontrollably, she tried to close her eyes.

He wrapped his arms around her and murmured in her ear. "Try to get some rest, Marguerite. I'll keep watch."

She gently touched his injured hand as it lay against her chest. "You need to rest too," she mumbled sleepily.

"All in good time, your highness. Now be quiet and close your eyes." He felt her nod and it wasn't long before she was asleep, her chest rising and falling steadily against his arms.

He leaned his head back against the rough trunk of the tree and tried to forget how much pain he really was in. His hand and thigh were throbbing to excess. Warm blood slowly oozed through his clammy pants. He should have bound the bite on his leg also, but hadn't thought of it. He had been more worried about Marguerite at the time. Once Marguerite awoke, he'd take care of it. An hour or two wouldn't make too much of a difference. With any luck, it would stop bleeding on its own accord.

While she slept he studied her. She looked small and frail suddenly in his arms. It was so unlike her. She was always strong and unyielding, a fact he relied upon more often than he cared to think about. Sure, she was a pain in the ass, but that was one of the things he loved about her. Her guile. He smirked and gently kissed her hair. Even wet, it smelled of flowers and clean soap. He loved her long tresses and they felt soft against his cheek. He felt the soft curve of her breast beneath the silky camisole. He shifted a hand, cupping its fullness. He loved this woman, against all reason he loved her.

They were wasting precious time with the games they played. The Lost World permitted them only moments. They should be taking advantage of them. Why squander them in fear? So what if they weren't a match made in heaven. It was better to have lived and loved then to be forever alone in the world. Her continuous resistance to his advances was frustrating. He understood her apprehension, but she was wrong on this. He knew it deep in the core of his soul.

He had almost lost her today. It made him physically ill just to think about how close it came. He had almost failed her, storming away in a huff, leaving her alone in the jungle. Some things he knew she could handle, but there was quite a bit in this hellish place that she couldn't. Even he had his doubts out here once in a while. The plateau was a merciless place. Someday, their luck would just run out. He had sworn to protect them all but even he couldn't be everywhere at once. The relentless Lost World could claim one of them at any moment. And it would be his fault if they did.

He should have gotten them all home by now. Six months had gone by and they were nowhere nearer to finding their goal. The longer it took, the higher the risk. One by one the plateau and its many evils would pick them off. Of that he had no doubt. It was a patient predator. He morbidly wondered who would be first. He hoped it would be himself. The agony of watching someone else perish because he had failed them would be unbearable. He had lived with the guilt of his own brother's death for so long and it ate away at him steadily, day after day. To add to it would make his soul crack under the strain. Especially if it was Marguerite.

He tightened his grip around her and shuddered. She mumbled something but didn't waken.

"I'm sorry, Marguerite. I should have been there," he whispered to her as the gathering dusk surrounded them. He could barely see through the increasing gloom. It isolated them and suddenly he felt very small.


*****

Consciousness came slowly to Ned. It always did. You'd think he'd get used to the sensation by now, as often as it happened to him. He was forever struggling up from a crater of darkness. You'd think he'd be better at it too. He tried harder to collect his thoughts and memories of what happened.

He distinctly remembered falling but that was it. Struggling to move, he had the oddest feeling he was floating. Stifling heat swirled all around him, his face damp and dripping in the churning steam. He determined he was still alive. Moving a bit more, he realized it wasn't that he was floating, it was more like his limbs seemed to be dangling.

Well then, he commanded himself silently, open your damn eyes. Take a look!

A part of him was afraid to, but he convinced himself it was for the best. Waves of pain were emitting from his left shoulder. If he wanted it to stop he had best wake up.

Just open your eyes and get it over with.

He pried open an eye and watched in detached amazement as the world righted, blurred, came back into clarity and then blurred some more.

"Geez, I hate this," he mumbled.

He tried again, this time with more success. The world sharpened though Ned just stared at it blankly. He had no idea what he was seeing. The world had almost gone completely dark and red.

The heat made it hard to get a good breath. When he did, it seared his lungs. He looked around him. A dark wall of rock and vines was in front of him and far below was the bubbling molten earth.

Hell, he hadn't even gotten near to the bottom. Struggling to shift his gaze upward he realized he hadn't fallen far at all. It was then he felt the straps on his shoulders shift with his movements, pinching his flesh even more so than it had before.

The camera!

The legs jutting out from the camera's base had been snared on more of the vines creeping along the hot, rocky cliff. Where one patch had nearly killed him, another overgrowth had saved his life.

Not to mention the camera!

God, he loved this camera! He let out a huge howl of joy. He was alive!

A voice called up from further below.

"Malone, is that you?"

"Challenger?" He struggled to see beneath him, surprise and utter joy filling him. They were alive!

Then he strangled back a cry of agony. His shoulder and arm felt like it was falling off. Oh geez, he thought with unadulterated terror, it was broken. Swallowing back another cry, he tried to shift position and ease the stress and pain. One of the camera straps was digging into the damaged shoulder.

"Yes, Ned, we're here. Arthur and I."

"How?" he gasped out. It was a miracle.

"There seems to be an overhang somewhere below you. It stopped our fall. Are you all right?"

"Not exactly. I think I broke something."

"Where are you?" Challenger asked.

"About fifteen feet from the ledge. Where are you?"

"Below you somewhere. Maybe another ten or so feet down."

"Are you okay?" Ned asked.

"Summerlee is still unconscious. And I've banged up my leg rather badly. I'm afraid we're not going to be of much help to you."

"Don't worry, Professor. I'll get us out of here somehow." Ned realized he had to get free first.

It took a full five minutes of sweating, cursing, sobbing and praying to get the dead weight of his arm out of the strap. He was pale and unsteady when it was done. Of course, now he was positioned precariously on the cliff wall, hanging by only one arm with his feet pressed into small clefts in the rock face.

He was going to have to climb up one handed. He let out a maniacal laugh. Oh yeah, right, he told himself. But he really didn't have a choice. It was either that or just remain where he was until someone came looking. From the looks of things it was less than an hour away from evening. Spending a night in a magma pit was not something he relished. It was going to be worse for Summerlee and Challenger too. He had to get help and quickly.

"Come on, Malone," he told himself gamely. "You can do this."

Bracing himself firmly with his feet and finding an obvious handhold before he let go with his one good arm, he quickly reached out to grasp the next and inched himself upward.

Each movement caused absolute agony and by the time he reached halfway he was almost spent. He was trembling so badly he thought he would shake himself loose. He was never going to make it.

Angrily, he shoved those thoughts aside. People were depending on him. All he had to do was get up top, outrun any more of those little cannibal creatures, trudge through a raptor-infested jungle, and find Roxton and Veronica.

Oh yeah, that's all, he moaned to himself.

He was never going to make it.

What kind of a weak-assed explorer are you, he demanded of himself furiously a second later. If it was Veronica or Roxton in this situation, they would have already scampered up out of the pit, fought off a T-rex with a sharp rock, conveniently found a long vine, and hauled everyone up for tea.

God, he hated them.

Right now they were probably sitting home in the treehouse eating supper and listening to Marguerite bellyache.

Upon reconsideration, maybe he did have the better deal.

He laughed, clutching the rock wall and tangled vines in a maniacal vise grip. He fought off the giddiness. His head was spinning. If he wasn't careful he was going to pass out and tumble right past Challenger. Then he'd be in trouble. Challenger would be mad as hell that he had failed him.

There goes Ned, the useless writer, the man who bragged about his ballooning skills and then marooned them all on this godforsaken plateau. Hell, he can't even climb up a damn cliff wall.

Ned desperately hugged the flimsy roots and stones. He had to pull himself together. He had to stay conscious and keep his wits about him. His babbling was a sure sign that he wasn't getting enough oxygen. The heat was sapping every bit of his strength. Fresh air was something like out of a dream. He hung there and just breathed as best he could, steadily in and out, and ignored the pain of his burning lungs.

He heard Challenger's worried voice. "Ned, are you okay?"

It took a moment before Ned could answer him. "Just fine. Just slow going."

"I know you can do it, Ned."

Ned smiled and let out a relieved gasp. "Thank you, Professor," he whispered. "Thank you."

He felt stronger. The added encouragement was what Ned needed. Gritting his teeth and preparing himself for the coming pain, he reached out to a new handhold and continued climbing slowly up.

An hour later, he lay gasping on the edge, sweat pouring down his face, his body saturated with pain. It took a long time before he could even move. He struggled to his knees in the near darkness. Thankfully the moon had risen and he was able to see because of all the reflected light from the waterfall outside the cave.

He called down to his companions. "I've reached the top, Professor! I'm going to go get help. Just hang on!"

A distant voice returned to him. "Good luck, Ned. God be with you."

"He already has," Ned said quietly. Looking down over the edge he could barely see the camera and pack lodged into the vines. It amazed him. It had been a hell of a climb, but he had done it. Somehow he had done it.

Climbing shakily to his feet and holding his left arm firmly to his side, he stumbled out of the cave and walked along the ledge toward home and help.


*****

Marguerite awoke to darkness but she wasn't afraid. She felt the broad chest beneath her cheek rise and fall steadily. Strong, muscular arms encircled her and held her tightly. She lay secure in his warm embrace. Slowly she became aware of other things, like his hot breath on her ear, the soft caress of his thumb along her shoulder, and the gentle cupping of his large hand along the swell of her breast.

She smiled at Roxton's poor attempt to be a complete gentleman. But he was a man after all. If she had truly been the prim heiress they believed she was, indignation demanded she sit up and slap his face. Instead, she just lay there and relished his brazen touch. Even through the chemise, the heat of his hand seared her all the way to her core.

She attempted to keep her breathing slow and steady, a difficult decision to be sure. She did not yet want to give an indication she was awake. A part of her wanted to know what else John Roxton, Lord extraordinaire, had taken liberties of while she slept.

There was a small tremor in her spider web of hair and she sensed his thick fingers trapped within it. They gently stroked her gathered stands as they rippled against her cheek.

His raised left knee supported her lower back as she lay curled against him. She could feel the taunt muscle of his inner thigh as it rested along her right buttock. It was like leaning against hot steel. He radiated an incredible heat. Lying along the length of him, she could tell all too easily that the man was not relaxed. In fact, he was far from it.

She smiled. Well, it certainly was one way to keep himself awake.

Shifting her head slightly, she looked up at him. The rising moon partially hidden by some passing clouds gave his skin a pale pallor. He immediately brought his gaze down to her. They said nothing.

Her one hand was pressed against his chest and she could feel the mad pounding of his heart under it. Her fingers unconsciously began stroking him, as if willing the ferocious beating to calm.

Lifting a hand, he gently nudged a few tendrils from her face and then let a callused thumb slide slowly down the curve of her cheekbone. Its rough passage traced a fiery current that coursed through her entire body. She reflexively drew in a shuddering breath.

He leaned in slowly and brought his lips down on hers, gently in a bare caress. His rough stubble scraped her chin while his tongue tasted her flesh, sweet and salty. Her own lips met his and dragged his lower lip lightly through her teeth.

His wayward hand continued its journey, falling to brush the length of her throat, his fingers tapping like light feathers as they passed her collarbone. His hand dipped lower. A whimper of pleasure escaped Marguerite. Her hands clutched at his shirt, bunching the material between her thin fingers.

His mouth released hers and began to follow the path of his hand.

"Tell me you're going to finish what you start this time," she whispered hoarsely.

There was a rumble in his chest as he laughed ever so quietly. "It's not my fault that we pick the most inopportune moments to get amorous, my dear."

"And do you really think sitting precariously in a tree is the right moment?"

It took him a moment to answer. "No, probably not."

"Still," she said huskily, "beggars can't be choosers." Her hand reached to cup his cheek.

There was a scrabbling of claws and the distinctively high-pitched chirping from below.

Marguerite immediately flinched, clinging tighter to Roxton. He held her for a second to ease her fear and then shifted to look below them. The deep gloom prevented him from seeing exactly what their adversaries were up to, but the subsequent sounds reaching his ears told him that the nasty buggers still hadn't figured out how to get at their prey. It was the sound of their voices and their movements in the tree that had probably agitated the dinosaurs once again and reminded them that this meal was still a possibility.

"Why are they still around?" Marguerite moaned.

"I guess we're not doing a good enough job of dissuading them. All the noise only continues to ring their dinner bell."

"Wonderful," she griped. "Just what we don't want, an audience."

"We just need to keep quiet and still. Eventually something else will distract them."

"Yes, but how much longer?"

"At least till daybreak. I don't think we'd be able to get home without a little light to guide us. The clouds are obscuring the moon too much. Just get some more sleep for now."

"What about you?"

He drew in a long breath. "Trust me. I don't think I can sleep right now." He shifted slightly beneath her and she immediately understood.

"Oh," she said smiling.

He kissed the top of her head. "Rest. With our luck, if we had tried anything, we probably would have fallen out of the damn tree."

She laughed and then settled against him once more. Marguerite doubted she would fall asleep again. Just the thought of those things, circling beneath them like sharks, made her shiver. Besides, her mind was too keyed up with memories of Roxton's touch. Her flesh still burned in those places. She cuddled tighter against him and lay staring into the darkness.

*****

Challenger looked over the edge, gazing down into the swirling steam below. He still couldn't see the lava because of it. It was frustrating since he wanted to know how far they were from the pool of magma.

"An absolute miracle," he mumbled. All three of them had survived. He had thought it was all over, his life, his glory and his legacy. The latter infuriated him the most. To have gone through all this and not ever be remembered was downright criminal. He was determined to leave something behind for the history books. He could imagine himself being discussed in seminars, classrooms and high society. He could die a happy man. Of course, it was his sense of survival that had spared him this time. It was not his time to die yet, not until he had fulfilled his destiny.

He laughed and listened to it bounce around the rocky walls. "You're going to have to try harder than that to kill me," he challenged the plateau. He glanced back at Summerlee's still form but he had not wakened his colleague.

Ned had been gone only a short time and already he was lonely. Challenger sat back, easing his throbbing leg to a more restful position. The pain was becoming insistent so he decided to calculate the time it would take Ned to reach the treehouse and return with help. The lad was injured and that would decrease his proficiency at speed. What would normally be only a couple of hours would extend longer. Then of course, there were the variables: the compys, the raptors. Ned Malone was also not as well versed in survival as say Veronica or Roxton. If it were either of those two who had to make the journey, he would have no doubts as to their success. He felt bad that he didn't have the same faith in Ned, but in all honesty the man wasn't adventurer material. At least not yet. The lad was slowly becoming hardened and wiser, but the jungle didn't afford many mistakes. She was harsh taskmaster. He prayed this wasn't the day to put Ned to the test. They wouldn't be able to survive long in this heat.

He heard a groan behind him. Summerlee was waking up.

"Arthur?" Challenger pulled the elderly man's head and shoulders into his lap. "Arthur, can you hear me?"

Professor Summerlee's eyes were squeezed shut but his hand rose to cradle his head. "Oh, do be quiet, George. My head is pounding."

Challenger laughed. "Of that I have no doubt. You've got quite a lump on your cranium."

"You say that with far too much relish."

"I'm glad you finally decided to wake up. I was tired of hearing myself talk."

"I don't believe that for a moment, George." The white-bearded man cracked open an eye and took in his surroundings in the dim, orange light. "Why aren't we dead?"

Challenger slapped at the stone beneath them. "A ledge, Arthur! We tumbled onto a ledge no more than twenty or so feet from the top!"

Summerlee let out a relieved sigh. "There is a God."

"Either that or destiny has other plans for us." There was a twinkle in Challenger's eye. One that Summerlee had seen all too often.

"Most likely it was sheer luck," Summerlee pointed out in annoyance.

"Nonsense! I believe it is because we have much more to accomplish in our lives. Our future awaits."

"Where is Ned?" Summerlee was suddenly alarmed that one of their party was missing.

"He's off to gather a rescue party. We're not finished yet, old boy."

"Ned alone, through a jungle infested with those vicious little beasts?"

"He'll do fine. I'm sure of it." He didn't wish to get Summerlee's hopes dashed by reiterating his own doubts. He decided to change the subject. "I'm curious as to how you came to the conclusion that compsognathus was dangerous. There's been little proof to support that claim."

Summerlee pushed himself upright with a groan. He straightened his glasses which had fallen askew on his face, even though they were useless in all this steam. "One thing I've learned on this plateau is that most of what we know of dinosaurs is completely wrong. They aren't the dull, dim-witted beasts we've always suspected. In addition, with the valuable extra time spent evolving past their extinct brothers, they have mutated into far more efficient predators than we've ever imagined. It was on that theory that I decided to run for my life."

"In other words, you fled purely on an assumption," criticized Challenger with a taste of consternation.

Summerlee looked smug. "And I was right," he emphasized. "So there!"

"Amazing." Challenger grinned at his old rival. "Is that how you conduct all your research?"

"Only when I'm afraid your grandstanding will yet again get endanger my life."

Challenger snorted. "Grandstanding is an art form. I never do it without careful consideration for all parties involved."

It was Summerlee's turn to snort with incredulity. "I'll believe that when we get us off this blasted plateau and safely back home to civilization."

Challenger pulled out a journal and patted it lovingly. "With the data we were able to collect over the last few weeks, that day might not be far off, Summerlee."

"That's if we get out of our present predicament," the elderly professor pointed out, wiping the sweat from his brow with a damp sleeve.

"Oh we will, Arthur, we will." Challenger rubbed his bristled chin thoughtfully. "I am still trying to figure out why we haven't seen compsognathus on the plateau before. Most curious. Do you suppose it was the drought?"

"Quite possibly. If their feeding habits were disrupted, they would have to travel to find a new source. They could have come from anywhere. Their metabolism seems far more energetic than a majority of the dinosaur species."

"Of course. They might be able to survive at higher elevations. The onset of the drought upset the normal food chain. They had to come down to find food and more water. Hopefully, once the rains return, they'll go back home."

"And if they don't?" asked Summerlee.

"Then life on the plateau just got far more interesting and deadly," Challenger responded soberly.


*****

Veronica paced back and forth in the treehouse upon her return from the Zanga village. It was late and no one else had returned yet either. It did not bode well. Ned and the professors should have been home after supper, but had not. At the time, Veronica had merely attributed that to the professors' unending curiosity. It wouldn't be the first time they had been so distracted. But now they were long overdue. Even Ned knew better than to let them stay out this long past the fall of night.

And then there was Marguerite and Roxton. Where the hell had they disappeared to? She wasn't as worried since Roxton was quite capably of taking care of himself out in the jungle. Hopefully Marguerite was with him; she would never survive out there on her own.

She contemplated the odds of both parties going missing at the same time. They were practically at opposite directions from each other. Either it was just coincidence that both parties had met up with disaster or there was a central cause. But what could it be?
She wracked her brain for a rational explanation. Unfortunately, in the Lost World, rational rarely fit the bill.

Veronica strode back to the railing and gazed out into the darkness, hoping to see torches, movement, anything to indicate her friends' arrival. Her frustration mounted. With the arrival of evening, there was no way to track any of them. Still, she knew where Roxton had been going though she couldn't believe he was still bathing. But then why hadn't he returned?

Letting out a worried sigh, she made a decision. She'd go looking for Roxton. She had the best chance of finding him or at least maybe any tracks left by the pool would give her a clue as to where he had disappeared. She went upstairs to pack supplies and torches. She would also leave a note in case someone came back. She hoped someone would come back. The thought of living alone again in this heavy silence disturbed her suddenly.

*****


Marguerite was running. She could hear the chirping of the piranha-like dinosaurs chasing her. They were so close. Where was Roxton? He had been right behind her when they had crawled down out of the tree.

"Roxton!" she shouted. There was no answer. Only darkness and the hideous sounds of those damn creatures.

She stopped running and turned around. She wasn't leaving Roxton! She ran back and she saw him. He was lying on the ground and those things were all over him. Eating him. Blood saturated their snouts and they swallowed great chunks that they had ripped from him. Roxton's eyes were open and blank, just staring at her, accusing her.

She was going to be sick.

"ROXTON!"

She surged up out of her nightmare and Roxton barely caught her. He scrabbled to keep them in the tree as they both almost slipped off their precarious perch. She flailed wildly at him. Her weakened blows not really hurting but distracting nonetheless. He held her firmly with one arm while the other grasped onto a nearby branch to keep them from falling.

"Marguerite! It's okay. It was just a dream! Wake up!"

Marguerite opened her eyes. It was dark but she could just make out Roxton's face above her. His strong arm encircled her, his sweet voice shouting in her ear. She shifted around to fully face him and clutched at him.

"Oh god," she whispered.

"Shhh, now. It's okay. It was just a dream."

She gulped in some fresh air and just relished the fact that it had just been a dream. He was alive and so was she. After a few moments, she took in their surroundings and gave out a low moan. "We're still in the tree."

"Afraid so," he told her. "The good news, however, is that I think our friends are gone."

That made Marguerite feel better. She raised her head. "Are you sure?"

"Of course."

She cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Absolutely," he assured her. "Positively."

"Now I'm worried."

He patted her back soothingly. "I'll just have a look." He shifted stiffly as he prepared to ease himself out of the tree. He had been locked into one position for so long his limbs felt almost useless. Marguerite grabbed his arm. He regarded her quizzically.

"Don't go down there," she pleaded quietly.

He exhaled slowly. "It will be all right, Marguerite. It's been hours. Dawn isn't very far off. I'm sure they've moved on looking for an easier meal." He extracted himself from her and lowered himself down to the next branch. Every muscle ached and pulled against tender wounds. He hadn't checked his leg but he didn't think it was bleeding any longer. Still, he was exhausted. It had been a very tiresome afternoon for a day that was to have been restful. It was typical of life on the plateau. And then the long night on top of that.

Reaching for the next branch, he paused and then slipped the rifle off his shoulder. He handed it back up to Marguerite. She would have a better angle and a stable shooting platform.

"Just in case."

Fear washed over her face. "John, don't-."

"I'm sure they're gone, Marguerite," he consoled her. "Dinosaurs aren't all that patient. Most likely their empty bellies made them move on long ago. Just take this in case something else is lurking around in their place."

"Like raptors," she offered fearfully. Those beasts were the most cunning and devious of creatures. Far more intelligent than any animal had a right to be.

Roxton nodded. "Keep a sharp eye. If it's clear, I'll come up and get you. We'll be home in time for a nice glass of sherry."

Marguerite didn't like this new scenario one bit. The images of her dream came unbidden again. The rifle shook in her hands. She watched Roxton descend through the branches for a moment longer, then turned her attention to the surrounding area, looking for movement and listening intently for any unnatural sound emanating from the jungle floor.

All seemed normal. The occasional moonlight filtering down illuminated the floor beneath them, aiding Roxton in his descent and allowing Marguerite to keep track of him. But her uneasy feeling wouldn't abate. There was something out there. She could sense it, hiding and waiting.

"John," she whispered fervently.

He stopped. "What?" Had she seen something?

"I don't like this."

He dismissed her edginess. "Just stay there. I'll be back in a moment."

Damn the man! Couldn't he just believe her without having to have actual proof that something was wrong? There was much to be said about women's intuition if the man would just admit it. She cast her gaze around the area again, trying desperately to find the source of her agitation before it found Roxton.

There was a sudden crack and the last branch beneath Roxton and the ground gave way. He tumbled to the ground in an ungraceful heap, the branch landing beside him with a thick cloud of dry dust.

"John!" she shouted. Dear Lord, what was wrong with the man? His luck seemed to have gone from miraculous to atrocious all of a sudden. "John, are you all right?" She made a move to go down, but he waved a wilted hand at her.

"Keep your eyes ... on the jungle," he ordered her through his coughing. He rolled over and climbed stiffly to his feet, groaning through the additional aches that surfaced in him. To his ire, his right leg felt wet again. The fall must have reopened the wound.

With a growl of frustration, he scanned the area. Everything was still quiet despite the ruckus. He took a further step away from the tree and looked around behind it. Nothing moved in the darkness. Limping, he explored a bit further but there was no sign of anything. Letting out a relieved breath, he veered back toward the tree.

"It looks clear," he announced.

Warily, Marguerite flung the rifle over her shoulder and began her descent.

It was then a single piercing chirp shattered the air and the compys erupted from the surrounding foliage.

"Roxton!" she shouted.

The adventurer bolted to the tree, but there was no way to climb back up. The branch that had broken was the one that he needed to get to the higher branches. He wouldn't be able to reach them without it. He spun back around, pulling his knife. He slashed at the swarm.

It barely slowed them down. They piled over him. He could feel their teeth and claws everywhere. He slashed blindly, hoping to take some down, but he knew it was a futile effort. They drove him down to his knees as they thronged over his legs. He could hear Marguerite's hysterical shouts from up above. The close proximity of the dinosaurs didn't provide her a clear shot. She couldn't help him. His last thought was how he didn't want her to see him die like this.


*****


Veronica exited the treehouse elevator, intent on heading for the watering hole when a figure staggered out of the darkness.

"Ned!"

He collapsed at her feet. She barely caught him. Letting out a strangled cry as she grabbed his arm, he pulled away. When his arm moved oddly beneath her hand, she instantly knew something was wrong.

"Broken," he hissed, leaning against her.

She heaved him up on his feet by his other arm. "Come on." She had to practically drag him back up into the treehouse. He could barely stand. Under the torchlight of the upstairs level, she got a good look at him. She let out a shocked gasp. The man was a wreck. Scratches covered him, leaving smears of dried blood. His shoulder was at an awkward angle. White-faced, he cradled it. Regarding her with pain-saturated eyes, he explained, "Summerlee and Challenger... in trouble."

Everything was going steadily from bad to worse, Veronica thought. "Where?"

"Cave...near the waterfall ... south side of the plateau."

Veronica probed his shoulder, trying hard to ignore his moans of agony as she did so. "It's not broken," she remarked in relief. "It's just dislocated."

"Oh good," he groaned without much enthusiasm. "For a minute there, I was worried it was something awful."

"I can put it back into the joint for you. It's going to hurt."

"Like it doesn't already."

"Hold on." All business, she braced him against her and then grabbed his injured arm. With one quick move, she yanked. Ned's scream echoed around the room. But above it, Veronica heard the distinct pop as the shoulder ball slipped back into place.

Immediately Ned was granted relief. The agony subsided in a rush and became merely a dull ache. "Thank you," he exhaled, his forehead resting against her.

"Anytime." Awkwardly, she patted his head, running her fingers over his soft hair. She let out a shaky breath and thanked heaven he was okay. She looked over the remainder of his injuries. The rest of his wounds seemed superficial. "What happened to you, Ned?"

"Compsognathus. Or at least that's what Summerlee called them."

Veronica's expression immediately hardened. "The succors have returned?"

"Succors?"

"Loosely translated, little raptor. The Zanga called them that since they hunted in the same coordinated methods as their brethren. They're extremely dangerous in large numbers."

"I can vouch for that. Summerlee said their scientific name means land piranhas. The damn things trapped us in a cave near the waterfall. There was a pit with an underground lava flow inside. The professors fell in."

The blood drained from Veronica's tanned face. Ned reached out and took her hand. "They landed on an outcrop about twenty-five feet down. They were alive when I left to go get help." He glanced around the empty treehouse. "Where's Roxton and Marguerite? We'll need their help to get them out."

"They're missing too."

"You don't think...?" A cold hand gripped Ned's stomach.

"They must have run into the succors as well. It's the only explanation. This isn't good, Ned."

"Roxton can handle them." He didn't sound all that sure of his own conviction. Veronica's worried face did little to reassure him.

"We have a choice to make," she told him. "Either we can help Summerlee and Challenger or we go find Roxton and Marguerite."

"They both need us," Ned implored. He didn't like the fact that they might have to sacrifice one pair for the other.

Veronica went through their options cold-heartedly. "We know where the professors are and we know they won't last long in that heat. We don't know where Roxton and Marguerite are and it would be hard to track them at night anyway. We don't even know if Marguerite is with Roxton for that matter."

"You're saying leave Roxton and Marguerite to die."

"I'm saying, Ned, that we have a better chance of saving one group than the other. If we go after Roxton and Marguerite and waste valuable time looking for them when they might already be dead, we condemn Summerlee and Challenger."

Ned shook his head, outraged that fate had placed this choice before them. It wasn't fair. His heart told him it was wrong, but logic demanded her due. Veronica was right. With a heavy soul, he nodded.

"May Roxton and Marguerite forgive us."


*****


No matter how many compys Roxton flung off, twice that seemed to take their place. It was a losing battle and he knew it. But he refused to give up. He had gotten his wish. He was going to be the first to die. He had thought earlier it would be better this way, but he was wrong. The fact that Marguerite was a witness to it changed everything.

Marguerite's frantic shouting finally made sense to him.

"The water! Get into the water, John!"

He didn't quite know which direction the pool was anymore but he guessed wildly, still trying to keep the creatures away from his face. He just rolled and prayed it was in the right direction. His world had shrunk to one of pain and panic.

Then to his relief, he slid down the embankment and into the water. The cool liquid fell over him and embraced him as he sank to the bottom. He kept pulling at the compys, yanking them off and pushing them away. He kicked out with his legs to keep his distance from them. He hoped they drowned.

He knew only absolute darkness and agony. The water burned as it entered his lacerations. His lungs were bursting for air, but he couldn't tell which way was up. He stopped fighting as his strength seeped away. He just hurt so damn bad; he wanted it to end.

Then something latched onto his arm. It was painful but he didn't care anymore. Let the damn thing eat him. He hoped it choked on him.

He was pulled abruptly upright above the water and the shock of the cool, night air forced his lungs to draw in a deep, shuttering breath.

"John!" someone shouted.

It was Marguerite. She must have leaped out of the tree to save him. Her wet hair fell around his face, gently caressing it. She cradled his head and shoulders in her arms. He reached out with a heavy arm and simply touched her.

"Thank you," he croaked.

He could hear her sobbing. Lowering his legs, he tried to stand, but she pulled him back gently in the water.

"Don't. Just lay still for a bit. I've got you. In the water, you hardly weigh anything at all. Just rest for a moment."

He didn't want to burden her but he was so bone weary. He couldn't even open his eyes to look at her, and God, he wanted to. Instead he settled for just breathing and letting his muscles relax. Before he drifted off into the darkness, he mumbled one last thing to her.

"We're back ... in the damn water."

Marguerite laughed through her tears. "Don't remind me."

Roxton quieted and lay limp in the water. His chest rose and fell with each breath, indicating he was still alive just no longer conscious. Marguerite tilted her head back and sent a silent thank you upwards. She let her tears fall unabashedly and allowed her terror to gradually wane. Never had she been more frightened than when he fell beneath those miserable things. If he had died, she would have been lost, the last bit of her soul gone forever.

Her fingers found his reassuring pulse at his neck. It was already slow and even. The man had the constitution of a horse. He must have been exhausted; he had been awake the entire night, keeping guard over her. And fight after fight with those damned creatures had finally taken their toll, not to mention all those bizarre accidents. If that blasted tree branch hadn't broken, he might have made it back to safety.

She watched him floating gently in the water. At one time his long hair would have been floating around her hands like gentle fronds. She frowned in annoyance that she had cut his hair. She missed its touch. Now it was so short the water made it stand almost on end.

Her eyes widened. Oh Lord, his hair! What was that old story about Samson and Delilah? The spy had cut off Samson's hair and he had lost his strength! All the accidents suddenly took on a bizarre logic. Shocked, Marguerite almost let Roxton submerge. She shifted her grip on him and brought him back up. The man didn't even flinch.

Good heavens, what have I done?

But then she shook her head. That was ridiculous. The man was just experiencing some bad luck. That was all. It happened to many people. Look at Malone, she told herself. How many times did that man meet disaster? Far too often for his own good, she answered.

Her fingers brushed Roxton's temple. "It really does look good," she assured him. She dismissed her foolish notions. It wasn't her fault that Roxton was naturally clumsy of late. He had just been a little bit preoccupied the last few hours. He had a lot to think about. Yes, she decided. That was it. It didn't have anything to do with some cockamamie legend about a man's hair.

By the moon's position, she determined it must be getting near to dawn already. Someone would soon come looking for them. About damn time too! She couldn't believe that no one had bothered coming to look for them! It had been hours and yet no one cared one whit about their absence. Just wait till she got her hands on whoever was foolish enough to wander down that path!

A cold stab hit her stomach. Whoever came down that trail would be unaware of what was waiting for them. The dinosaurs would attack them as well. She and Roxton had to find a way to warn them. Blast it all! There has to be a way out of this mess! Why wasn't anything easy on this stupid plateau?


*****


The journey through the jungle was long and tedious. Veronica stopped and made them rub some sort of plant oil on them. She explained that it would hide their scent. Ned was almost furious at her when she stopped again at the Zanga village. But thanks to Assai, they quickly had a large contingent of strong warriors. He began to see her logic as he kneaded his aching shoulder.

"We'll need their help to pull up Summerlee and Challenger," Veronica told him.

Assai nodded. "And there is greater safety in numbers against the succors. They will not be as eager to attack something so large. We will appear to be one giant prey rather than just a few small ones wandering about in the jungle."

Together, they moved quickly to the southern waterfall. Within an hour they reached the cave. Once inside, Ned ran quickly to the edge of the pit. "Professors! Can you hear me?"

Challenger's voice boomed back to them. "Malone! You made it!"

Summerlee's softer voice echoed soon after. "Oh thank heavens!"

The Zanga had obviously enacted such a rescue before. In moments they had devised swing chairs out of the rope vines that would enable the two professors to be pulled up to safety.

Veronica and Assai's fiancé, Jarl, volunteered to go down and assist the injured professors. The two of them scampered down the vine-encrusted cliff like monkeys bringing the swing chairs with them as they descended. They both had safety lines on them as well just in case. The rest of the rescue party on the ledge held onto the ropes and anchored them.

Veronica's head popped over the edge of the overhang and took in her beleaguered friends. "I hear someone is in need of rescuing," she quipped.

The professors' relieved faces greeted her.

"Veronica!" shouted Summerlee.

The lithe young woman leaped down onto the ledge as the two men made room for her and Jarl. The harsh heat had taken its toll on the professors. They were drenched in sweat and ruddy faced. Light was just beginning to ease over the distant mountain outside, heralding the rise of dawn still an hour distant.

Veronica offered them both a refreshing drink from her water skin and then prepared them for their trip back up the cliff face. Jarl assisted the injured Challenger while Veronica helped Professor Summerlee into the swing chair.

Patting the older man gently on the shoulder and offering a smile, she tugged on the rope, indicating to those topside they were ready. With a slight jolt, Summerlee began moving upwards. Veronica went with him, guiding his journey around the overhang. Challenger was right behind them with Jarl keeping a close watch over his own charge.

They were almost to the ledge when Veronica saw Challenger's camera wedged into the vines. She scooted sideways and approached it. Knowing how Challenger felt about the device, she decided to rescue it too. Hopefully, it had survived relatively unscathed. However, even if some of the components were damaged, the rest might be salvageable and utilized elsewhere.

She carefully disentangled the camera and slipped her arms through the straps. Then tugging on the rope, the warriors pulled her up. She deposited the camera on the cave floor. Expecting Challenger to thank her profusely, she was therefore taken by surprise when Ned ran up to it and inspected the damage with careful hands. He regarded her with a satisfied grin.

"I love this camera."

She observed him oddly, but didn't ask. Sometimes it was better not to know.

"Well done, Ned and Veronica!" Challenger said, extracting himself from the swing chair. Jarl offered him a shoulder to balance on so as not to put weight on his injured leg. The professor looked around at the large contingent of Zanga warriors. "And to you also, Assai. Please thank your people for us."

The dark haired native woman nodded. "We are glad that you still live. We did not know the succors had returned, otherwise we would have signaled a warning."

"Succors?"

"The compys," Ned explained.

"Ahh, yes," responded Summerlee. "Terrible little fiends. They caught us quite unawares." He was looking through the rest of the crowd that was around them, noting the obvious absence of two people he thought for sure would be here. "I say, where's John and Marguerite?"

There was a silence. He turned round to look at Ned and Veronica, both of whom looked absolutely grim.

Finally, it was Veronica who told them. "They've been missing since yesterday."

"Dear Lord," exclaimed Summerlee. "A band of compsognathus must have attacked them also."

"Most likely," agreed Veronica. "We need to head back to the treehouse and begin searching for them next."

"I'll only slow you down," Challenger lamented. "You go on ahead and we'll catch up."

Assai stepped forward. "It is safer to travel together. My people will carry you, Professor." She turned to Veronica. "Then we will help search for your other companions."

Veronica hugged her long-standing friend. "Thank you, Assai." The relief in Veronica's face echoed the rest of her companions. She just hoped Roxton and Marguerite had been able to hold out and were safe and secure somewhere. Most likely, Roxton had matters well in hand and was merely enduring Marguerite's endless tirade about the horrific inconveniences the plateau offered on a continuous basis.


*****

He didn't know how long he lay like that, but when Roxton finally found the strength to open his eyes, he saw Marguerite's worried face staring down at him. He felt so disconnected floating in the water, safe in her arms. It was a place he was tempted to remain within forever, but he also knew that he couldn't. Not yet anyway.

With a groan he rolled over and got his feet under him. Marguerite tried immediately to stop him, but he held her hands firmly in his.

"I'm alright," he asserted.

"Like hell you are! Have you gotten a good look at yourself?"

He straightened with a slight grunt. "You don't want to be looking into a mirror anytime soon either, your highness."

She immediately paled, her hand lifting to her face. "H-how bad?"

He shook his head with a wry smile. "Nothing but scratches, Marguerite. They'll heal fine."

She sighed, relieved. She stepped up and peered closer at him, plucking at his shirt.

"What are you doing?"

She seemed frustrated. "It's still too blasted dark to see how bad those bites are." Despite the slowly rising sun, it was still dim and gray.

"They'll keep for now. Luckily, the buggers' jaws are weak, sort of similar to a crocodile's. They have to twist their heads and bodies to really do some damage. Besides that, their teeth aren't that long. Sharp though." He gently touched the deep gash on his leg beneath the water. He couldn't tell if it was still bleeding. "We've been damn lucky, Marguerite."

"I told you to stay in the tree," she reminded him.

"Yes, you did. You were right. I should have listened."

Marguerite stood there dumbfounded. "What did you say?"

Roxton just scowled at her. "You heard me."

She smiled wickedly. "Yes, but I like hearing it. Say it again."

"I will not."

"Fine, but it's still a moment I'll cherish forever."

"You're impossible, you know that."

"Makes me all the more interesting," she pointed out.

His voice immediately lowered. "That it does, Marguerite. That it does."

She grinned at him triumphantly, loving that wolfish look in his eyes as he stared at her. It made her blood rush hot through her veins. And right now that was a godsend. She wrapped her arms futilely around herself. "So now what?" She related her fear for anyone coming to rescue them.

"I don't know," he told her honestly. "With any luck the buggers will be more interested in us and ignore anyone coming down the trail."

Incredulity littered her face. The voraciousness of these creatures held no bounds. "Oh please! Why would they be satisfied with stalking two very waterlogged victims when there are more trays being brought to the buffet table?"

Roxton huffed at her lack of faith. "Well then, we're going to have to find a way to keep their attention." He scanned the area around them and tried to come up with a new plan.

Marguerite scrutinized Roxton for a moment. She was about to do one of the hardest things she had ever done. It was taking her some time to work up her courage. But still she wanted him to hear it since they were admitting things. Just in case they didn't get out of this situation.

"Roxton," she began hesitatingly.

"What?" He was busy with searching for a new way out of the watering hole.

"I'm sorry about your hair," she offered quietly.

He looked back at her and grunted. "I sincerely doubt that." He wasn't feeling that gullible this morning.

"No, really, I am."

"If you say so." Then the ramifications of what she said sunk in. "My God, you apologized," he stated flabbergasted.

"Yes, well, don't let it go to your head. This is a one-time admission only. Especially since we're going to die here."

He sighed, shifting his weight off his throbbing leg. "We are not going to die here."

She raised a rueful eyebrow.

"We just need some luck. I'm working on it as we speak."

Her face fell a tad. "I hate to tell you this, but your luck disappeared along with your hair," she voiced in a near whisper.

"Excuse me?"

She quickly explained her Samson and Delilah theory. "It all started after I cut your hair," she declared at the end.

Roxton laughed, a loud, deep laugh that actually scattered the loitering compys for a moment.

"It's not funny," she insisted though a smile was slowly building around her own lips. It did sound like a ridiculous notion now that she said it aloud.

His laughter grew. "Marguerite Krux, you do amuse me!"

Her smile faded. "Amuse you? You could have broken your neck falling out of that tree. And then those horrible, disgusting beasts! May I remind you that you almost died! Possibly because of me!"

He nodded. "Yes, that's been the case on many occasions. You're born to trouble and have dragged me into it all too often."

"That's not what I meant!" She glared with exasperation.

"I know." He sobered. "Trust me, Marguerite. Your little act of revenge yesterday, diabolical as it was, is not the reason for what's happened. That's just the way it is between us. We're a calamity. It's a fact. It's just a shame we're always running from it."

She was silent a moment trying to grasp what it was he was trying to tell her. "What do you mean?"

He suddenly shifted a tad nervously. "I don't know. Forget it."

She pushed the issue. "This afternoon you said I didn't get the point. What point? What is it you think I'm missing about the two of us?"

There was hesitation written all over him, but with a deep breath he barreled through it. "You once said we were a disaster waiting to happen."

"We are. We bicker all the time. I'm manipulative and contrary. You're impossible and stubborn. It gets us in trouble all too often."

"Yes, but you have to admit we have fun doing it."

Her jaw dropped. "You call this fun?" She waved a wild hand about to show off their present situation, just in case he had forgotten. "Are you absolutely mad?"

"Maybe. But then so are you. That's what makes us ... work." He tenderly reached out a hand to cup her cheek. "A lot of it is fun. More than fun. In fact, most times it's very nice indeed, and if disaster befalls us anyway, Marguerite, why shouldn't we take our chances despite it?"

"W-what are you saying?" She already knew the answer and it made her heart pound in her chest with trepidation and yet anticipation also.

His eyes never left her, the glow from the rising sun on the horizon set fire to them. "You know exactly what I'm saying."

She shook her head, trying to discourage him. "We shouldn't-"

"Why?" he snapped abruptly. "Why shouldn't we tempt fate? She's far too fickle, Marguerite. And since when do you care what she holds in store? You live by your own rules. So do I."

She went to move away, obviously uncomfortable. "You've taken one too many hits to the head, Roxton."

He grabbed her and kissed her soundly. She immediately melted into his embrace, her skin aflame with the passion he fired within her. No longer did the cold water sap her strength. She felt none of it, only his strong arms encircling her, his warm lips crushing against hers. Her breath was gone and she cared little if she ever drew another one so long as this moment lasted.

When he finally did draw his lips apart from hers, his arms still holding her, he whispered. "I'm serious, Marguerite."

She didn't pull away, but stared into his solemn face and beseeching eyes. "I know you are," she replied quietly. She kept thinking of how close she'd come to losing him yet again in this hellish place. To admit she loved him now and then watch him die afterwards would tear her to shreds inside. It was a commitment she wasn't sure she was ready for. Not now. Her soul was too fragile. "This isn't the time or place for rash decisions, John."

"Hell, it's the perfect time and place. There might not be another."

"My point exactly. How could we ever believe that we truly meant it? Whatever we say here might not have the same weight if we ever get out of this. But if we do, I shall seriously consider your offer, John Roxton. I promise. Will that satisfy you?"

He stepped back from her reluctantly. "No. But it'll have to do for now." His disappointment was plain. He had bared his heart to her and she was pulling back yet again. The woman was infuriating.

There was a crash of foliage behind Marguerite and she let out a small shout. Roxton hauled her down deeper into the water till only their heads remained above.

"Quiet," he hissed. From the size of the commotion, it could be raptors. They had to make themselves a small a target as possible.

"What is it now?" Marguerite whispered sharply. Her nerves were just about gone. If any more petrifying events happened she swore she was going to go completely gray.

Roxton shushed her, his gaze locked on the jungle growth in front of them. Something was coming their way. What is was and how dangerous it was he had no idea, but better safe than sorry, he thought.

The two apprehensive humans crouched low in the water, waiting for the next peril. The water was cold and Marguerite was shivering against Roxton. He could hear her chattering teeth. A second later they stopped as she clenched her jaw tight together to still it. They waited with their heads just above the water that bobbed around their chins.

The foliage finally parted right in front of them and a large deer stepped forward warily, sniffing the air cautiously. Its eyes were dull but wide, seeing only a few feet in front of its snout. Its coat was dark bay in color and the animal stood at least eight foot at the shoulder.

Roxton had hunted her kind often. The creatures had an incredible sense of smell, however their eyesight, despite their large, round orbs, afforded them little protection. Luckily, they were down wind from her. After a moment, the doe huffed and out of the bushes to her right darted a smaller version of herself. The young fawn ran quickly up to the water and lowered its head to drink. Its coat was chocolate brown with small yellow spots dotting its hindquarters. It looked straight at them without truly seeing. Standing awkwardly to reach the low receding waterline, it still stood at least half the size of its mother.

Roxton couldn't help his grin as he turned to Marguerite.

She stared at him as if he was crazy and then rolled her eyes, unsure as to what he was so happy about regarding the new arrivals. Did he think the stupid things cute? Typical. However, she wasn't so swayed by such warm fuzzy feelings. Unless it offered them a way out of this mess, she just wanted it to go away so she could stand up out of the cold water. She wasn't really up on which beasts were dangerous and which were not, so she wasn't going to move until Roxton did so.

Suddenly the quiet was shattered as the compys attacked. They went straight for the fawn. They leapt upon it before either the mother or infant could move. The mother bellowed at the fawn's scream of fear and pain. The majority of the vicious creatures went after the easy prey but the more brazen, desperate ones fell upon the mother as well.

At the sudden graphic violence being played out in front of her, Marguerite fell back, desperate to get farther away. Roxton let her. He rose also and grabbed her arm, pulling her faster along.

"Now's our chance," he hissed.

The dinosaurs would be totally occupied. If they didn't escape now they might never have another opportunity. Marguerite and Roxton ran as fast as they could through the waist deep water. Roxton glanced back to make sure the compys were still engrossed, while Marguerite concentrated solely on the empty trail ahead that would be their salvation.

Roxton swung his attention back to the forefront, however, when she screamed. His own heart slammed with horror as a T-rex barreled through the jungle straight toward them, its roar shattering the air. Its decaying breath washed over them.

Roxton immediately shoved Marguerite and himself down face forward into the water. A T-rex's eyesight was based on movement. It had a very poor sense of smell. What it couldn't see it couldn't hunt. At least that what Roxton was hoping for now. With any luck, the huge monstrosity would continue to focus on what Roxton assumed was its original prey: the deer.

He prayed he was right. If he wasn't then it would all be over in a few seconds.

Marguerite's vision was narrowing. She hadn't had time to draw a breath before Roxton had shoved her down into the pool. Her terror made things worse. She flailed out for Roxton and felt him beside her. She gripped his shirt for dear life and waited to see if his desperate ploy worked.

The early morning sunlight filtering through the murky water enabled Roxton to see a huge, dark shape enter the pool no more than a foot in front of them. The force of the displaced water shoved them backwards. Roxton held onto Marguerite's arm with a death grip so they would not be separated.

The dark shape lifted in front of his eyes and then a second later a cacophony of sound pounded at their ears beneath the water as another wave from behind shot them forward. The T-rex had stepped over them!

Roxton tried to haul them both to their feet. Marguerite came up sputtering and terrified. The T-rex's tail slid through the water beside Roxton, knocking him a glancing blow on his right hip. He stumbled against Marguerite who miraculously kept them both upright. Together they both dragged the other onward to the opposite embankment by the tree. They scrambled up the slope and only then did Roxton risk a glance back.

The T-rex had slaughtered the mother deer while her fawn had fallen beneath the compys. However, unwilling to share his kill or perhaps annoyed at the commotion beside him, the T-rex swung its massive head and greedily snapped up the fawn and half the compys clinging to it. Enraged, the remaining compys fell upon the T-rex. The huge beast attacked them mercilessly.

Roxton felt Marguerite tug incessantly on his arm. He nodded and they ran for the trail. His sudden stop jerked them both to a halt. When he ran back, much to Marguerite's alarm, she thought he had gone positively mad. But he came back a second later with the rifle that she had dropped by the tree. Offering up a triumphant grin, Roxton grabbed her hand and they ran for home.

Marguerite shook her head with exasperation. A man and his guns.


*****


They trudged on through the jungle. Roxton's eyes scanned the area around them, keeping a sharp eye out for further predators. With the way his luck was going lately, they were bound to run into a raptor next. The gun in his hands wasn't in the best condition but he prayed it would fire when he needed it.

Marguerite ran just slightly ahead of him. Somehow she had more energy left than he did. Either that or the thought that home was just ahead was giving her all the necessary adrenaline required for that last sprint. For him, however, this last mile was excruciating. His limp had become more pronounced. His hip was sending stabbing pains straight down his leg that already throbbed incessantly.

The air had become gradually cooler and it heralded the arrival of the rain. When it finally broke only a half-mile from the treehouse, it came as no surprise to him. Marguerite, however, was less than pleased.

She shouted at the cascading heavens. "Is being dry for even an hour too much to ask?"

"It's a good thing, Marguerite," Roxton called out. "It will hide our trail."

She let out a strangled groan and turned around to make a disgruntled comment. It was then that she discovered just how far back Roxton had strayed. Fighting the fear building in her system, she doubled back and grabbed his arm, flinging it over her shoulder. She had had no time to examine any of his wounds since the last attack and now she realized that he was hurting far more than he was admitting.

"Come on. Not much farther," she coaxed.

"We'll make it, Marguerite. Don't worry."

"Oh yes, famous last words," she chided. "Don't you dare get my hopes up this time unless you have a direct line to God himself. I won't be coddled into a false sense of security again. Thank you very much. I can't stand that. No more believing in you. Not until your hair grows back."

"You're babbling, love."

"I am not!"

"And besides, maybe I like this length. It certainly is cool for the summer."

"Nonsense! You're growing your hair back and that's that. I refuse to be held responsible for your wretched luck."

Roxton laughed, enjoying her concerned tirade. "We'll see. Besides, I think I like you being responsible for me."

"Never again," she shot back. "I can't stand the stress."

The rain continued to come down in buckets. It drenched them completely and made the ground slick and muddy. But thankfully it allowed them to slip unseen through the jungle and hide the scent of blood from any nearby carnivores. They limped up to the treehouse and got into the elevator with loud sighs of relief, collapsing against each other.

They were safe.

When they reached the upstairs, they realized that the treehouse was empty. They lit a few lamps and started a fire in the hearth for warmth.

"Where is everyone?" Marguerite griped, annoyed that everyone was gone.

"Out looking for us maybe." He limped towards a chair and flopped into it, his muscles screaming in relief.

"Well, where are they looking? China? Veronica knew we were going for a swim."

Roxton attempted to rise from his chair. "We should go looking for them. They must have run into trouble too."

"Not a chance, John." She pushed him down with a firm hand. "First we're going to take care of ourselves. We're completely done. We wouldn't last five more minutes out there in our sorry state."

As much as Roxton hated to admit it she was right again. The rain would make it impossible to track anyone now, and neither of them were in any condition for another all out fight with dinosaurs of any size. He would just catch his breath and then he would see what could be done about helping the others. He didn't want to have to wait for the rain to abate before attempting any kind of rescue, though they didn't have much choice right now.

Marguerite threw a blanket at him. "Take off those wet clothes. I'll go do the same. Then we can gauge just how bad off we are." She stomped off to her room.

Smiling wearily, but warming to the idea, Roxton unbuttoned his shirt. She was being damn bossy. He liked it; he was more than willing to let her take charge now that the danger for them had passed. Besides he was too tired to argue with her anyway. Just getting undressed was taking more effort than usual. He stripped off his pants and wasn't surprised to find his thigh still bleeding. It looked raw and ugly. There was a long scrape along his hip where the T-rex had brushed him also. Beneath it, a bruise the size of a ripe melon was forming, but he didn't think anything was broken. He was incredibly lucky to have escaped such an encounter with nothing but a contusion and a scratch.

He pulled the blanket around his waist and positioned his chair closer to the fire, letting the warmth of it seep into his chilled skin. He closed his eyes as he sank back into the chair, keeping his weight primarily on his uninjured hip.

Marguerite entered the main room in her shift and kimono robe. She moved far more gingerly than before also. In her hands, she carried the first aid pack. Following his lead, she pulled a chair closer to the fire and sat facing him. He still hadn't opened his eyes. Was he asleep?

She winced as she noted all the scratches and bite marks on his chest, neck and arms. He looked in as bad as shape as herself. She had taken quick stock of herself in the mirror located in her room. Thankfully, most of the injuries weren't bleeding anymore and only a few appeared to be deep. They both were an absolute wreck. But they had made it through and she had no doubt that they would both survive these battle wounds. She gently shook him and he opened his eyes and blinked at her.

Drawing in a deep breath, Roxton straightened slightly in the chair. Then he stopped and just stared. Marguerite was lovely, breathtaking. Her long dark hair, still wet from the rain, shone in the morning radiance and warm firelight. Even after all they had been through she had the ability to be gorgeous. It was an amazing tribute to her strength and beauty.

His injured hand lay atop the blanket so Marguerite decided to start there. The crude bandage she had fastened in the pool was still damp from the rain. It came off easily. The cut had at least stopped bleeding, and though it was still red and livid, it didn't seem as horrific as it had at first. She picked up the antiseptic and gently swabbed the cut down. Roxton stoically said nothing. He just flexed his fingers, which curled lightly around Marguerite's slim hand.

She tried to ignore how warm it was suddenly getting in the treehouse. She could sense his eyes upon her as she worked. After dotting her forehead with the sleeve of her robe, she picked up the jar that had some of Veronica's green concoction. The near native girl claimed it helped with the healing and kept the wounds clean despite the horrific stench. She spread some over the lacerations and then wrapped a fresh, dry bandage around it. Roxton still made not a sound.

Finally, she met his gaze. The way he stared at her made breathing difficult suddenly. Her voice came out rather strained. "Anywhere else?"

"My leg," he said after a long silence. His voice sounded as rough as hers.

It was then Marguerite noticed that the blanket had a slight wet spot. She gently moved aside the folds to reveal his leg. The fact that he was naked under the blanket was a thought that she tried desperately to push aside. He needs medical care! Concentrate!

Upon exposing the wound she let out a small gasp at its horrid state. There was bruising all around it, probably from when he fell out of the tree. A larger discoloration disappeared further up under the blanket around his waist. No wonder he had been limping so badly.

"Good God, John."

"That T-rex played merry havoc with it." He grabbed her hand, which was reaching for it. "I'll clean and bandage it myself. It will be fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," he insisted in a firm, clipped voice. So long as he stayed off it, the bleeding would subside on its own.

But she didn't let the matter drop. "Here, let me."

"No, I can--" He didn't want her touching him there. He did but he didn't. She was firm though and bullied her way into helping him, much to Roxton's frustration.

"Stop being such a baby," she snapped.

She quickly repeated her ministrations on the injury, smearing it generously with the green goop to promote clotting. He grunted when he had to shift and lift his leg so she could wrap the bandage tightly around it. His breathing deepened roughly, which she just assumed was from the pain.

Roxton's hands gripped the rails of his chair so tightly that he thought the wood would split beneath his fingers. Marguerite's hands touching his naked thigh were about the most torturous thing he had even endured. It wasn't the pain of the injury that plagued him however, it was the reaction of his body to her soft touch. He only thanked heaven that the folds of the blanket hid what was all too painfully obvious.

When she finally tied off the bandage and sat back, he shifted uncomfortably in the chair, rearranging the blanket. To his relief she was still caught up in her maternal ministrations and hopefully hadn't noticed what was truly affecting him.

She pulled out the antiseptic and soaked a cloth. Handing it to Roxton, she saturated another one. She then busied herself with brushing it over her own scratches, giving little curses and gasps as the stinging liquid entered very tender, lacerated skin. Reaching over to resoak her cloth, she looked up to notice that Roxton hadn't even started. He was just watching her silently with dark, hooded eyes.

"What?" she inquired.

He shook his head. His face looked thinner in the growing light. The close-cropped sideburns elongated his bone structure and highlighted his eyes. The new style really was quite fetching on him.

Shaking herself out of her trance, she took the cloth from his hand and gently ran it over the cuts on his muscled chest. He didn't make a sound and continued to stare at her. She swallowed convulsively. She glanced up at him and suddenly she couldn't draw her gaze away.

She felt the cloth taken from her hand. It lifted to softly touch her cheek. There was an instant sting as it brushed against a scrape. Then it quickly eased and just tingled. His fingers traced around it like the barest touch of a soft exhale. He leaned in and lovingly kissed it. Her breath shuttered in her lungs.

They were sitting so close that their knees knocked gently together. He brought the cloth lower and slipped the sleeve of her kimono off and used the cloth to brush a laceration on her shoulder. Again there was the sting and then his soft lips replaced it. He performed the same ministration on her other arm so that she sat before him in nothing but her thin shift, the robe bunching around her hands at her sides.

His fingers brushed against her collarbone and then ever so lightly ran parallel to a scratch along her left breast. His head dipped and his warm lips caressed it. Marguerite's skin erupted in shivers. He lifted his head and leaned in to kiss her on her lips. She eagerly met him.

Suddenly, they were a tangle of limbs, arms crushing against the other, legs shifting to make room for the other, mouths desperately searching in their hunger. They couldn't get close enough. They no longer cared about their injuries only that they could finally hold each other without repercussions. There was no danger here. They were safe.

When the elevator rumbled to life behind them, they both literally jumped. Roxton fell back so fast into his chair, it nearly tipped. He hauled up the blanket that had slipped in their mad scramble while Marguerite tried to yank her robe around her once more. They stared at the other, red-faced and breathless and alarmed.

Then they burst into fits of laughter. They were more terrified of their friends than they had been of the dinosaurs.

That was how Veronica, Challenger, Summerlee and Ned found them. Two very bedraggled people covered in scratches and bandages, laughing hysterically. The four, weary newcomers regarded each other with much confusion. And here they had been so worried for the lost pair.

"Challenger!" Roxton finally managed a ragged shout. "You're back!"

Marguerite folded her arms and appeared annoyed. "Where have you been?"

Veronica stood there stunned. "Where have we been?"

Ned came forward and placed the camera to the side. "We almost fell into a pit of boiling lava. What happened to you?"

Roxton and Marguerite exchanged an amused glance. "Oh, we spent the night in a tree surrounded by mini raptors," he told them.

"And Roxton was stepped on by a T-rex," Marguerite added almost proudly. "Right after we were almost drowned."

Challenger shook his head and limped to the table and seated himself heavily in a chair across from them. "Seems like we've all had a bit of an adventure."

"You okay?" Roxton inquired, appraising the older man.

"Better now that we're all safe and sound." They had stopped at the Zanga village and their healer had taken care of his leg. He regarded Roxton and Marguerite with an upraised eyebrow. "You two look absolutely terrible."

"It's been a long night," Marguerite moaned. "And you don't look so spry yourself." She rose stiffly to her feet.

Veronica, the only one without injuries, came over to her side and slid a hand under the dark haired woman's arm. "Come on. I'll take a look at you. Clean up those cuts." She steered Marguerite toward the bedrooms.

Marguerite cast Roxton a pleading look over her shoulder as she was led away. Roxton leaned back in his chair with a groan, though there was the barest hint of a smile on his lips as he watched the two women depart.

"What about you, John?" Summerlee asked taking Marguerite's empty chair.

"Nothing broken. Just sore as hell."

"Were you really stepped on by a T-rex?"

"Just bumped. But damn if the beast didn't save our lives. Took care of those little dinosaurs right quick." Roxton nodded his head toward Summerlee. "Nice bruise you're sporting there, Professor."

Summerlee rubbed his forehead gingerly. "Yes, I don't bounce quite as well as I used to, I'm afraid."

Ned came to the table with some glasses and a bottle of port. He studied Roxton for a moment. "Um, Roxton, what the hell happened to your hair?"

Roxton smirked ruefully. "Marguerite was nice enough to cut my hair yesterday after I insulted her cooking."

"Cut or shave? Damn, there's not much left."

The steely adventurer once again touched his close-cropped head. "Regardless of her intentions, it is cooler."

Ned snorted as he poured drinks for everyone. "I don't think I'd let that woman near me with a sharpened twig much less a pair of scissors."

Summerlee reached for the jar of green salve. "Why don't you tell us your tale, John, while I get you fixed up. Then we'll tell you of our adventure."

Roxton obliged and soon related both his and Marguerite's long and perilous night, making sure to leave out some of the more interesting, private moments. Summerlee quickly bandaged what remained of his more serious wounds and then left him alone to drink his port. Finally it was the others' turn to tell what happened at the cave. At the conclusion of it, the professors naturally got into a discussion about compsognathus.

"According to Assai, the compys should retreat back to the higher elevations now that the rains came," Challenger said.

"That's a relief," Summerlee replied. "Those creatures would have certainly made things rather difficult for us had they remained."

"Indeed. I'm curious as to why they don't come down more often."

"Perhaps the extreme heat is too much for their high metabolism."

"That must be it," declared Challenger. "Think about it, Arthur. They were reticent to enter the hot cave and they also remained by the pool where they trapped Roxton and Marguerite where it was cooler."

Summerlee rubbed his chin. "They would make a fascinating case study: dinosaurs that don't require the heat of the sun to warm them. In fact, just the opposite. They need to remain cool. They have obviously evolved far differently here on the plateau. Perhaps we should think about an excursion up to the higher elevations upon our return trip. I'm sure Roxton would welcome another expedition. Right, old boy?" He regarded the hunter who had been strangely silent for a while.

A warm smile sparked in the old man's eyes. The burly adventurer was sound asleep in his chair, the blanket pulled tight around him, the glass of port half tilting in his limp hand. Summerlee looked over at Ned and the poor boy was in the same state; his sandy head slumped forward on the table, resting on his one arm while the other was curled protectively in his lap.

Challenger raised an eyebrow. "It seems that youth can't hold up to two old fossils like ourselves."

Summerlee laughed as he gently rescued the glass of port from Roxton's hand. "Apparently so," he agreed. "It's good to know that even if we don't quite bounce the way we used to, George, we can still run circles around these two."

"Yes, but I'm not sure we should be flattered by their show of surrender."

"I suppose the good news of our imminent departure off the plateau in a few weeks will have to wait for later."

"Yes, I don't believe they're quite ready for it tonight."

Summerlee rose. "Well, let's get the young ones off to bed." He grinned at Challenger. "Makes me miss my grandchildren."

Challenger nodded and clasped his old friend on the shoulder. "I'll have you home soon enough, Arthur. The winds are blowing favorably in our direction for a change."

*****

Marguerite sat stiffly on the edge of her bed swathed in bandages and smeared with green slop. She was mortified. "I can't sleep like this!"

Veronica rose from the chair opposite her. "Some of those bites were pretty deep. You don't want an infection, do you?"

"Of course not, but this nightgown is going to be ruined. It's from Harrods!" She kept her arms out to the sides as far as she could so as not to stain it green.

"Small price to pay, I think."

"That's what you think." Grumbling, Marguerite leaned back in the bed. "God, this stuff reeks!"

Veronica sighed. She would never get used to Marguerite's ranting, but she helped the woman under the covers anyway. "I have to go send a signal to Assai and Jarl that we found you. They have search parties out looking for you."

"Really?" It was a relief to Marguerite that perhaps someone would have eventually rescued them.

Veronica turned to leave but Marguerite stopped her with a single statement.

"We almost lost everyone today," she stated quietly.

Veronica regarded the woman in the bed who suddenly seemed far more vulnerable than usual. She wondered what else had happened last night that Marguerite had neglected to leave out. It was a distinct habit of hers that was particularly annoying. However, Veronica merely offered, "But we didn't."

"Aren't you ever afraid that we might?"

"Every day," she confessed softly.

"How do you cope? How do you stop yourself from caring?"

"You can't. Out here you live every day to the fullest. You never worry about tomorrow. Take Assai and Jarl. One day he might not return from a hunting trip, yet Assai can't stop herself from loving him. And I'm sure some day they'll marry."

"Even knowing that he might die at any moment?"

"Because he might die at any moment. The Zanga believe that if you don't find love in the real world, you will wander alone forever in the afterlife, doomed because you were too scared to share your heart."

"That's kind of harsh, isn't it?" Marguerite scowled, not comforted by her words.

"Fear is not a trait the Zanga admire. And that includes affairs of the heart. They love more strongly, more passionately, more honestly, and more completely than anyone I've ever known. Perhaps because they know time is short and the afterlife is long." A poignant look crossed Veronica's face. "The plateau is a harsh place. Nothing should be squandered, least of all love."

Marguerite observed the tall blonde's sudden change of mood. "So why haven't you and Ned...?"

Veronica's gaze centered back on Marguerite and her eyes narrowed. This was not a conversation she had expected to have, especially not with the one woman who treated love like a tool. "Why haven't you and Roxton?" she reciprocated.

Marguerite flinched slightly. "Touché," she responded quietly. She shifted in the bed. "Good night, Veronica. Thank you for helping me." She rolled on her side away from Veronica, indicating the discussion was at an end.

Veronica stood there confused and disconcerted from being put on the spot about her feelings for Ned Malone. What had precipitated such a topic? Yet she felt as if she had stopped something important from being addressed between the two women, but to be honest she wasn't ready to face these facts yet. Because deep in her heart she knew the answer to Marguerite's question and she was ashamed.

It was fear.

*****

Five days passed and no one had left the safety of the treehouse. The rain had lessened finally till it was just sporadic showers. It left the ground saturated but muddy. The air was starting to heat up and the humidity was rising steadily. They expected to hear the all-clear drums from the Zanga village any day now to indicate the compys had retreated. Of course, to those trapped in the small dwelling, it wasn't soon enough. The close quarters were taking their toll.

"Marguerite! This is how the whole thing started last time!" Veronica shouted irately.

"I'm just offering a suggestion."

"This meal was just fine before you came over and interfered."

"Well, I'm sorry. But it was far too bland. It needed something." Marguerite balled her fists on her hips.

"But not cinnamon!"

"Cinnamon is a perfectly fine spice! It's the jewel of the West Indies."

"Not in this case!"

Roxton appeared behind Marguerite and took her arms, gently steering her away from the hearth and the very annoyed cook of the day. "Come with me a moment please, your highness."

"What? Why?" Marguerite demanded.

"I'd like to discuss something with you."

She released a heavy sigh and went with him. The man still limped slightly but with each day it improved. Their various cuts and scrapes had all healed without complications except now they itched something fierce. It was slowly driving Marguerite crazy.

Allowing herself to be steered out onto the balcony, she anticipated a fine lecture from Lord Roxton about not bothering Veronica while she was cooking. The man guarded his meals far too highly in her opinion.

Therefore, when he quickly spun her around and kissed her with the intensity of a sudden high wind, she was taken completely by surprise. However, it didn't stop her arms from unconsciously curling around his brawny shoulders and caressing the hard muscle beneath. His mouth crushed against hers and their hungry tango left her breathless and flushed, her lips swollen and full.

She pulled back after a moment. "Stop that!" she whispered.

His arms insisted she draw closer. "Why?

She resisted, hands planted firmly on his taunt chest. "Someone could see."

"So."

"So?" she demanded incredulously. She looked down to discover her blouse was unbuttoned. How the hell did he manage that? For a man with such huge hands and thick fingers, he was damn sneaky. She clutched the folds of her blouse together.

"Haven't you made up your mind yet about us?"

A sharp, stunned laugh escaped from her.

Roxton frowned. "Why is that so hard a decision?" His finger pulled at the V in her blouse.

"Because it is," she insisted, pulling the material away. "I need more time--."

"Time to what? Procrastinate? Lord knows we've done enough of that!"

"I'm just not sure... It's too complicated."

"Life is complicated! It's only in its impossibility that we find joy, Marguerite. Stop trying to control what can't be controlled. Enjoy the moment."

She trembled under his intensity. She understood all that he was saying and she wanted to believe it was that simple. She cared for him more deeply than anyone she had ever known, but there was a price for such love and she wasn't sure she was willing to pay it yet. The possibility the piper would extract his due weighed too heavily on her.

It was frustrating for them both. She was holding out her heart, but clutching it too, afraid to experience what she wanted to do so desperately all her life. But why did it have to happen here? Why now? They were calling this place a home and it wasn't even close. They were pretending everything was all right and it wasn't. He knew nothing about her. Nothing at all. She had her reasons why this was all wrong between them. Why couldn't he see that?

Roxton stepped back from her, sensing that he was pushing her too hard. His hands dropped to his side, relenting. It was maddening how he couldn't make her see how foolish they were being. But he couldn't force her into this. She had to come willingly. "I don't give up easily, Marguerite. You just let me know what you decide. I'll be waiting." He walked away and left the balcony, a subtle limp in his gait, a slight slump to his shoulders.

It pained Marguerite to see him that way. It was obvious that no matter how many times she rejected him, he held out hope that the next time would be different. She would say the words he longed to hear. They had played out this scene many times on this very balcony. Why should this one end any differently?

Perhaps because she wanted it to. The professors had related to them their new plan to depart the plateau. It was a wild scheme and far too dangerous in her mind, but since when did her opinion turn the tide? Still, Summerlee and Challenger were confident of their data. It meant that maybe there would be a chance to see home, see London.

It sent chills along her spine. She had collected all that she needed to make a difference in her situation there. Maybe there was a chance for her and Roxton. She could pay her debts, close her accounts, and extract herself from all previous business dealings. Once she was back on her own turf she could better control any further mishaps. There would be no more dangers from wild beasts and stupid, marauding natives. There would be only normal people with whom she knew how to deal. People that could be manipulated, bought, and influenced. Out here the natives only responded with clubs or bows or just plain biting. You couldn't always rely on that to diffuse a situation.

She allowed a small smile and a flash of hope. Yes, she would perhaps risk loving Lord John Roxton. Once they were back in London, all would be right. Roxton wouldn't want to remain in London society anyway. They could travel, which was good. Being mobile would keep her anonymity tighter. Eventually she could tell him the truth, but only when the time was right. She paused in her calculations, realizing what she had just said.

Love Lord John Roxton.

Already it filled her with a flush of heady warmth. Then it made her chest tighten and her stomach churn. She couldn't determine which felt worse. One second it made her excited and in the next it filled her with dread. But the former won out. She couldn't deny that he was exciting beyond anything she had ever known. Body and soul came alive whenever he was near and even when he was not. Looking back she realized there was hardly a time when the rugged man didn't occupy her thoughts. That was love, wasn't it?

It must be. She had never known true love, but this overwhelming sensation must be what it would feel like. She had lived alone for so long and depended solely on herself that she was tired of it. It was nice on occasion to rely on someone else. Roxton had always been there, ready and willing to protect her, to keep her on the straight and narrow, and point out when she was wrong. Or at least when he thought she was wrong. She had grown accustomed to his presence and she couldn't comprehend what it would be like without it.

Oh God, if anything ever happened to him...

Her heart plummeted. That was the one thought that hurt her most of all, even beyond the fear of him discovering her past. To lose him completely was terrifying. She would never love anyone as much as she loved him. She knew that. If he was ever taken from her, heart and soul would wither and she would never trust to love again. That she swore.

To her surprise, it was a chance she was willing to take. After this past week's dangers, she felt that they were practically invincible. She buttoned up her blouse once more, smiling as she did so. The thought of those large hands on her made her shiver for a moment with anticipation. She brushed her hands down the length of her skirt and gathered her composure before returning to the rest of the group. Of course, there was no need to tell him of her decision right away. They would be home soon enough and then she would pronounce her feelings. He could wait a few more days. There would be no harm. She waltzed back into the main room.

Roxton was sitting with the professors and Ned, most likely looking over the new plans for their departure. Veronica was strangely absent. She hadn't seemed all that happy that they were leaving her little nest. One would think she'd be ecstatic to have the place to herself again.

Roxton's head lifted and stared at her. She couldn't help it, a grin had centered on her face and it wouldn't leave. She spun quickly away from him, feeling her face heating up. Concentrating on braiding her hair and looking over the tomes sitting on the shelf before her, she pretended to read their spines.

His heavy footfalls came up behind her. "Why so happy?" he asked her, his voice almost melodious, filled with curiosity.

She shrugged. "No reason."

She felt his hands tangle in her hair, pulling the braid apart with gentle persuasion. His warm breath brushed her ears, he was that close behind her.

"You know," he commented, "I never did get a chance to trim your hair."

She stiffened, the smile falling from her face. "Excuse me?"

"You did promise after all."

She turned around and took a step back fearfully. "I did nothing of the sort."

His grin grew rakish. "Oh, I think you did. It's my turn now. Tit for tat and all that."

"You wouldn't dare!"

A very evil gleam came into his eye, one that had never been there before. He almost purred, "Honestly, Marguerite, what do you think?"

Marguerite fled, running for the elevator, nearly knocking over Veronica as she came down the stairs.

Roxton just watched her a moment, not even moving for a few seconds. Only when the elevator started to descend with its panicked passenger did he slowly walk without limping to the cupboard. With great care he retrieved the scissors and slipped them in his back pocket. He took a rifle from the rack and grabbed his hat, taking the time to methodically settle it on his head. By the time he was finished with his preparations, the elevator had returned to the top level.

The rest of the explorers watched the events with silent interest, their faces filled with inquisitive fascination, though very few of them felt sorry for Marguerite. She had brought this on herself.

Roxton stepped on the platform and laid his hand on the release mechanism. The cage bounced slightly as it accepted his weight. The hunter regarded his fellow explorers with a calm expression, as if he had all the time in the world. "If you'll excuse me," he grinned, "I have a wolf in sheep's clothing to shear."

With that, he pulled the lever and slowly disappeared from their view.

"He wouldn't," stated Veronica staring after him in shock.

"Oh yes, he would," countered Ned. He nodded with complete understanding, folding his arms across his chest. "He has his reasons."


The End


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS: We all know Will Snow cut his hair between "Barbarians at the Gate" and "All or Nothing," thereby completely throwing off us viewers as to how he got a trim between falling to his "death" and floating on some flotsam down the river. Never let it be said that The Lost World creators don't try to throw us a curve now and then. I've long wracked my brain for a logical explanation to this inconsistency. My first thought was that Tribune gave him a haircut after rescuing him. But that just sounded way too bizarre for me! G So, I took the liberty of giving a more rational reason for it. Yes, it is out of context for the series, but I happen to like my scenario better than the Tribune one. Not to mention I got a little romantic comedy out of it also. Something I wished to avoid with the former idea!

EXPLANATIONS: The drought and the drooling scene at the beginning were, believe it or not, all written long before either "The Source" or "Under Pressure." After these episodes aired I groaned and debated going back and rewriting these plot points so as not to look like I was copying, but then I decided to let them stand. First of all, it would be too much work to remove the drought thread from this story since it centers on it; and second of all, who is to say there isn't a drought every year in the Lost World. As for the bit of feminine drooling, we all know Marguerite and Veronica enjoy a bit of good scenery now and then, so I say let them enjoy it whenever they can. You go girls!