Disclaimers: Sadly, I own no one Lost World. However, Christmas is coming…
Author's Notes: This story is for CAP. Thank you so much for betaing this story. Thanks also for the factual information and very inspiring jpegs you gave me! Thanks also to my other beta, Kate, who was with me every step of the way on this. Without their invaluable help, this story never would have been finished (and of course, if it sucks, then that's totally my fault J )
"We should definitely check the cave out," Ned Malone insisted eagerly. "Who knows what we might find in there?"
"I agree," Arthur Summerlee spoke up. "We've come this far, we may as well explore it while we're here."
"Well I think we should get back to the treehouse," Marguerite Krux countered. "Who knows how big that thing is inside? If we take the time to explore this cave, we may not make it back to the treehouse before dark, and the others are expecting us back late this afternoon."
"Why Marguerite, you almost sound as if you miss the treehouse. Or perhaps someone in the treehouse," Ned teased, his eyes twinkling mischievously.
Marguerite narrowed her eyes at the allusion to a certain rugged hunter. "Hardly," she said. "If you boys are so hell bent on going in there, then let's just get this over with." She pulled her torch from her pack, lit it, and cautiously entered the cave. Exchanging a knowing look, the two men lit their torches as well and followed the dark haired woman.
The three explorers made their way into the cave, holding their torches in front of them as they searched for any possible items of interest. They'd only been searching a few moments when a low rumbling sound caught Marguerite's attention. "Do you hear that?" she asked the two men, stopping dead in her tracks.
Behind her the two men stopped as well and listened. "I don't hear anything, Marguerite," Ned said after a moment. "What did it sound like?"
"It was a rumbling sound," Marguerite said. "It sounded almost like-"
"Shifting rocks," Summerlee finished, as the rumbling was heard again.
Marguerite paled. "Like a cave in!" she said in alarm as the intensity of the rumbling picked up. "Let's get out of here!"
Her companions needed no further urging and began to make their way to the mouth of the cave. Summerlee had almost reached the cave entrance with Ned close behind him when they heard Marguerite swear loudly. They turned and saw the heiress sprawled on the ground. "Go," Ned told Summerlee as rocks began falling around them. "I'll help Marguerite."
Summerlee nodded and exited the cave as Ned headed back into the cave for his fallen companion. "I caught my foot on a stupid rock," she grumbled as Ned helped her to her feet. "I think I twisted my ankle."
"Here, lean on me," he told her. "We've got to get out of here before the entrance is blocked."
They made their way to the mouth of the cave as quickly as they could, but the shifting earth and falling rocks made their progress difficult. A particularly strong tremor shook the ground and Marguerite and Ned were thrown to the floor as Marguerite saw large rocks falling to block the entrance. Then there was a sharp pain in her head and darkness overtook her.
Summerlee stared in horror at the rocks that now completely blocked the entrance to the cave. He made his way to the pile of rocks, searching for signs of life. "Marguerite? Malone?" he called. "Marguerite? Malone? Can you hear me? Please answer me!" He strained his ears for the slightest sound, but there was no reply from within the cave.
Summerlee reached for a rock on the pile and tugged at it with all of his might. The rock shifted slightly, but stubbornly refused any more movement. He struggled with the rock for a few moments before acknowledging to himself that his efforts were futile. Quickly, he came to a decision. Much as he hated to do it, he would have to leave his companions in the cave and return to the treehouse to get the others. He knew it would require all of their efforts to clear the entrance to the cave and get their friends out.
"If you can hear me, I'm going to get help," he called. "I'll be back soon. Just hang on!" He shouldered his pack and started his journey back to the treehouse as swiftly as he could.
"Something wrong, Veronica?" John Roxton asked the blonde woman who stood at the railing of the treehouse balcony.
"I hope not," she replied, turning to face him. "I was looking to see if I could see Ned, Marguerite, and Summerlee yet. They're late."
"They're not really late yet, are they?" Roxton asked. "I mean, didn't they just say they'd be back by late afternoon? Summerlee may have found a new species of plant or Marguerite may have bullied them into stopping to take a rest on their way back," he said with a fond smile as he thought about the dark haired heiress.
"I know, you're right, I'm being ridiculous," Veronica said with a sigh. "I just can't seem to shake this feeling that something's not right."
"Any particular reason?" Roxton asked, his hunter's instincts taking over, his tone suddenly serious.
Veronica shook her head. "No. I guess I'm just reminded sometimes of how dangerous the plateau can be. I know what it's like to see someone walk off into that jungle and not come back," she added quietly.
Roxton smiled sympathetically, knowing she was taking about her parents who had disappeared when she was only a little girl. He opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say anything, the two heard a loud crash come from the lower level of the treehouse. "What was that?" Roxton asked.
"It sounded like it came from Challenger's lab," Veronica responded, as the two hurried over to the steps that led down to the lab. "Challenger, are you all right?" Veronica called.
Professor George Challenger poked his head around the staircase and looked up at his companions, his face was covered with soot. "What happened?" Roxton asked.
"A little too much sulfur added to the mix," he told them, wiping his face with his handkerchief. "I'm perfectly all right."
"Do you need any help?" Veronica asked, trying to keep herself from laughing at the comic sight.
"No, no, I just need to work on these calculations some more." Challenger's head disappeared from view and the two could hear him muttering something about correct measurements and foreign materials.
Roxton shrugged. "Guess he doesn't need our help." He returned to the kitchen where he had spread out several guns on the kitchen table for cleaning. With an amused smile in Challenger's direction, Veronica, too, returned to the kitchen and began to water some of the plants in the room.
A few moments later the two explorers heard the familiar sound of the elevator rising. "Looks like they've returned at last," Roxton said to Veronica. She smiled in response and turned to the elevator, waiting for her friends to enter the treehouse.
However, when the elevator reached the main floor, its only occupant was a very disheveled, out of breath Summerlee. "Summerlee, are you all right?" Veronica asked. "Where are Ned and Marguerite?"
"Cave in," Summerlee panted as he dropped his pack and collapsed in a chair at the table. "Marguerite, Ned, trapped. Couldn't hear them. Couldn't remove the rocks."
Veronica handed him a glass of water and then ran to the stairs to Challenger's lab once more. "Challenger!" she called. "You'd better get up here now. It's important!"
"What happened?" Roxton asked the older man, worry clearly showing on his face. "Are they all right?"
Summerlee shook his head as he tried to get his breathing under control. "I don't know," he said, still wheezing slightly.
Challenger entered the kitchen and came over to join the other three at the table. "Arthur, what's happened?" he asked. "You're all out of breath."
"I came back as fast as I could," Summerlee replied.
"Look, just tell us what happened to Marguerite and Malone," Roxton said impatiently.
"We found a cave," Summerlee said. "Malone and I thought it would be best to explore it while we were there. Marguerite wasn't very happy with the idea, but she led the way in. We hadn't gotten very far into the cave when we heard rumbling. We realized it was a cave in and started to leave the cave. However, Marguerite fell and Malone told me to go ahead, that he'd help her. But then the rocks began to fall faster and the entrance was blocked completely by fallen rocks. I called out to them, but got no response. I tried to move some of the rocks, but they were far too heavy for me. I knew I'd have to come back here to get help to move those rocks and get them out."
He looked shamefaced at his inability to move the rocks, and Veronica reached over and patted his hand comfortingly. "Don't worry, we'll get them out," she said, trying to hide the worry she felt over her friends' predicament.
"We'd better get moving," Roxton said tersely as he stood up and began to gather his weapons together.
"I agree," Challenger said. "It will be dark soon, but we'll just have to camp out there. We must hurry, though. We don't know what condition they're in or how much oxygen they may have in that cave." The four explorers exchanged a fearful look at this thought and then silently headed off in separate directions to pack what they would need for their trek.
"Marguerite? Marguerite, can you hear me?"
Marguerite groaned and opened her eyes slowly, focusing on Ned's face before her. "What happened?" she asked him, putting a hand up to her aching head.
"Do you remember going into the cave?" Ned asked her, as he helped her to sit up.
Marguerite nodded and then winced as the movement caused her head to throb. "Yes," she said, leaning her back against the cave wall.
"Well, there was a cave in," Ned explained. "Summerlee got out, but you fell and I went back to help you."
Marguerite put her hand up. "Please don't even say it," she said.
"It looks like we're stuck in here," he finished.
"Oh, that's what I was afraid you were going to say," Marguerite muttered. "Are you sure?"
Ned nodded. "I guess we were both knocked out in the cave in, but I woke up a little while ago and explored the cave while you were still out. The front is completely sealed by the fallen rocks. It would take more than our combined strength to move them, especially in your condition," he added gesturing to her forehead. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wet it with the water in his canteen. "Looks like you got hit by something," he told her, gently wiping away the dried blood on her forehead.
Marguerite flinched slightly at the pressure on her wound, but didn't complain. "Thank you," she said quietly when Ned had finished.
He smiled in reply. "How's your ankle?" he asked her.
She stretched her legs out in front of her and began to rotate her ankles. A sharp pain in her right ankle made her stop short as she bit back a gasp of pain. "It hurts," she admitted. "I remember catching it on a rock and falling on my face when we were trying to get out of here." She grimaced at the memory. "So now what do we do?"
Ned shrugged. "Sit and wait for the others to come get us?" he suggested.
His tone was calm, but even in the dim light of the torch he carried Marguerite could see the worry in his blue eyes. "Ned, what aren't you telling me?" she asked.
"Nothing, Marguerite," he said, avoiding her gaze. "I told you everything I know."
"Ned, don't try to lie to me," she advised him. "You can't. Now what aren't you saying? Is this cave some T-Rex nest or something?"
Ned shook his head. "When I was exploring the cave, I went back to see how far back it goes and to see if there was a way out back there. There wasn't, obviously, but I did find out how big this cave is."
"And just how big is it?" Marguerite asked, wishing he would get to the point already.
"Not very," Ned replied. "It doesn't go much past that bend right over there," he said, gesturing with his torch. "The fact that it's so small worries me, because we could run out of oxygen in here."
"Oh, not again," Marguerite groaned.
"Well it's not definite that we will," Ned said optimistically. "I mean, the others will probably be here well before then and they'll be able to get us out. It should be easier for them to move the rocks from the other side, anyway."
"Of course, that depends on how long we've been here in the first place," Marguerite said. "We don't know how long we were knocked out. And we don't even know if Summerlee made it out all right," she added quietly. "He could have been hit by falling rocks, too. Or he may not be able to make it back through the jungle to the treehouse unharmed."
"Marguerite, we just have to think positively," Ned said. "I'm sure Summerlee's all right. He's probably made it back to the treehouse already and help is on the way."
The expression on Marguerite's face told Ned she wasn't buying it. "You think positively," she told him. "I'll think realistically."
Ned didn't respond, and instead leaned back against the wall next to Marguerite. He stared silently into the flame of the torch he held before him for a few moments before he spoke again. "Do you want to keep the torch lit or put it out?" he asked.
Marguerite laughed mirthlessly. "So we can either die quickly while being able to see our surroundings, or draw out the inevitable in the dark. It's like what they used to do to Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome," she mused.
"I think I read something about that at one time," Ned said thoughtfully. "Wasn't it what they did when they thought a Vestal Virgin had broken her vow of chastity?"
Marguerite nodded. "And then she was buried alive in a coffin with a candle and could either blow it out for a few extra minutes of air, or die with a lit candle." She snorted to herself at the thought that she would share the same fate.
"Well, we haven't been buried alive, Marguerite," Ned said. "The others will come and they'll get us out of here." Marguerite said nothing, too afraid of disappointment to share in Ned's optimism. "So we should probably blow it out just in case," Ned continued. "The more time we can give them to get us out of here, the better."
Marguerite sighed. "All right, then, I guess we should put it out. Maybe if I can't see my swollen ankle or this bloody handkerchief, I'll forget how much my head and my ankle hurt," she murmured to herself as Ned extinguished the torch.
"Are you in a lot of pain?" Ned asked in concern. "Maybe I should re-light the torch and we could try to do something more for your injuries."
"No, the torch is out, we should just leave it out. It would be too much trouble to re-light it now in the dark anyway, and if we lit it again I might not let you put it out a second time."
Ned smiled. "All right. Well, is there anything I can do? Maybe take your mind off of it somehow?"
Marguerite thought silently for a few moments. "Talk to me," she said finally.
"Talk to you?" Ned questioned.
"Yes, talk, give me something to focus on," Marguerite said.
"Um, okay," Ned said. "Anything in particular you want me to talk about, or should I just ramble on about different things?"
"No rambling, please," Marguerite said. "My head hurts enough as it is," she added, and Ned could hear the smile in her voice. "Why don't you talk about yourself?" she suggested. "Your life before you came to the plateau. For all the time we've all been stuck here together, we really don't know much about anyone's life before the expedition. Tell me about what you did then. Tell me about your family."
"All right," Ned said dubiously. "I don't know if you'll find it all that interesting, but if you think it'll help, I'll do it. My family lives in a small town in upstate New York, about 45 minutes away from New York City. My parents were determined my sisters and I would be well educated. My older sister, Christine, and I both went to college, and my younger sister, Amy, is in her second year right now. My parents always stressed the importance of education and we were all taught to read and write at an early age – before we even started school."
"Well, I think I can see where your journalistic career got its start," Marguerite commented.
"I knew I wanted to write by the time I was eight years old," Ned responded. "My parents were always very supportive of all of us. Christine wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to write, and Amy changed her mind daily about what she wanted to do. Now she says she wants to write for a newspaper like I do," he said fondly. "But even when she wanted to be a jockey or an artist or a dancer, my parents were always one hundred percent behind us, urging us to achieve our dreams and goals."
"That must have been nice," Marguerite said softly, her tone wistful.
"Your parents weren't supportive?" Ned guessed.
Marguerite shrugged even though she knew Ned couldn't see her. "Who knows what they were," she said with a bitter laugh. "I certainly never knew them. As soon as they could, they dumped me off into the convent. I spent my formative years between the convent and boarding schools."
"I'm sorry," Ned said quietly, surprised by what Marguerite had just told him.
"I don't want your pity," she said icily. "I've never asked anyone to feel sorry for me."
"I don't feel sorry for you, Marguerite," Ned replied calmly. "But I'm sorry that it doesn't sound like you had the happiest of childhoods. Every child should have a loving, supportive home to grow up in. It's not fair that you didn't. But I definitely don't pity you, because I know you don't need pity. I've seen you face down apemen, cannibals, and T-Rexes. You're a strong, intelligent woman, regardless of what kind of a childhood you had."
Marguerite was quiet a moment, thinking about what Ned had said to her. "Thank you," she whispered.
"You're welcome," Ned responded. They were both silent a few moments before Ned spoke again. "So, do you want me to keep talking about my family and life before the plateau?" There was no answer. "Marguerite? Marguerite?" Only silence greeted him. Ned reached over and shook Marguerite's shoulder. "Marguerite? Please answer me."
"What? What? I'm here, why are you shaking me?" she asked, pulling out of his grip.
"You weren't answering me," Ned explained. "I thought you were unconscious or something."
"I think I was," Marguerite admitted. "I certainly don't remember you calling me."
"Well just concentrate on staying awake," Ned advised her. "Between the oxygen depletion and your head injury, it's very important that you try to remain conscious."
"All right, all right," Marguerite agreed irritably, wishing the throbbing in her head and ankle would stop. "Why don't you tell me more about what you did before you came to the plateau. Tell me about when you first got started working for the newspaper and what you did during the war. And tell me about Gladys," she added with a smirk that Ned could hear in her voice.
"All right, but I'm gonna keep asking you questions so I know you're still with me," Ned told her. "I got my first newspaper job while I was still in college," he began.
Veronica sat down on the log next to Roxton as he stared unseeingly into the campfire before him. "Couldn't sleep?" he asked without looking at her.
She shook her head. "I'm too worried," she admitted. "I really hate that we have to stop at all, but it's too dangerous to travel at night. Especially in a part of the plateau we're not very familiar with." She looked over at Roxton's calm countenance in the firelight. "Aren't you worried?" she questioned.
Roxton smiled slightly. "Of course I am," he said, still not meeting her gaze. "Just as you are, I'm worried that Marguerite might kill Malone before we get to them for asking too many questions or writing everything down in his journal."
"Uh-huh," Veronica said, not believing him for a second. "We'll get to them in time, Roxton," she assured him.
"But what if we don't?" he questioned, finally turning to face her, the agony he was feeling over the situation clear in his eyes. "What if we're too late? What if it's too late already?"
"You can't think like that," Veronica said firmly, slightly unnerved by the uncharacteristic despair she saw on the hunter's face.
"But what if we are?" he persisted. "What if we've already lost them and don't ever get a chance to tell them how much we care, how much they mean to us?"
"She knows, Roxton," Veronica said, laying a gentle hand on his arm. "No matter what she may say or do to pretend otherwise, Marguerite knows you love her. And I think you know deep down that she feels the same way about you."
Roxton smiled gratefully at her. "And Ned?" he questioned softly. "Does he know how you feel?"
Veronica looked troubled. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "I mean, I never actually came right out and told him. I just, I don't know. I pray I get a chance to tell him."
"You will," Roxton told her. "We both will."
It was Veronica's turn to smile in appreciation. The two sat silently, staring at the campfire before them for a little while before Veronica broke the silence. "How come you never told her?" she asked quietly, her gaze still focused on the fire.
Roxton shrugged, also keeping his eyes on the campfire. "It never seemed like the right time, I guess," he said. "No, that's not true. I always wanted to tell her, there were times I had to hold myself back from blurting it out or going after her and telling her just how I felt. But I knew she'd only push me away and build her defenses up so high she wouldn't even allow us to be friends anymore. I was so afraid to risk losing anything, that I risked nothing and now I may have lost it all."
Veronica grimaced as the full weight of his words hit her. They'd both been so foolish, thinking there would always be another chance in this dangerous world where each day was a gift. "Why haven't you told Ned?" he asked.
"I was afraid," she admitted. "Even after that time you told me to talk to him about how I felt, I chickened out when I had the chance to tell him. And then everything went wrong when Kaya showed up in the treehouse."
"You know that that wasn't really him, don't you?" Roxton asked. "You know he never would have done that on his own. He cares for you far too much."
"I know that he wasn't himself, that he was possessed by that being because she wanted a child, but that doesn't make it a whole lot easier for me to accept. I cared so much about him, and it felt like that didn't matter to him at all."
"But you still care for him, don't you?" Roxton gently prodded.
Veronica nodded. "After everything we've been through, I care about him more than ever. That's why I refuse to believe that we've lost him and Marguerite. I've lost too much to this plateau, I refuse to lose part of my family all over again," she said determinedly. "We will find them in time."
The two settled back on the log, keeping watch over the camp together, each lost deep in their own thoughts as they waited impatiently for the first sign of daylight so that they could continue their search for their friends.
"Marguerite? Marguerite?" Ned called. "Don't go to sleep on me again," he muttered, reaching over to shake her shoulder again. "Marguerite!"
"I'm here, I'm here," she mumbled, impatiently pushing Ned's hand off of her shoulder.
"You were out again," he informed her.
Marguerite sighed. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just getting harder to stay awake."
Ned was taken aback by the uncharacteristic apology and weary tone in the heiress's voice. "Hey, it's okay," he said. "What I was talking about wasn't all that interesting anyway," he teased, trying to make light of the situation.
"Oh, I don't know," Marguerite said. "Weren't you telling me about Gladys?"
"I think we were past that by now," Ned said.
"All right, then maybe we can talk about Veronica," Marguerite said. "And why the two of you haven't done anything about your feelings for each other yet."
"On second thought, maybe we should talk about Gladys," Ned said. "And Veronica and me? What about you and Roxton?"
"Oh, no," Marguerite said. "You don't get to change the subject that easily. Besides, I'm the one who's injured here, I'm in no condition to do more than listen."
"Right," Ned said sarcastically. He sighed heavily. "I know I'm going to regret this, but all right," he said grudgingly. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Well for starters, have you told her how you feel about her?" Marguerite asked.
"Not in so many words," Ned responded carefully.
"Well, I think it's obvious from the way you two act around each other anyway," Marguerite said. "But why haven't you told her?" she asked, her tone gentler than Ned was used to hearing it.
"I don't know," Ned said. "I'm not really sure how to do it. I don't exactly have a lot of experience with women," he admitted, grateful that the darkness of the cave hid the blush he knew was spreading across his cheeks. "And Veronica's different from any woman I've ever known. I'm never sure of the right thing to say to her. Me, the man who's spent most of his life focusing on finding all of the right words for a story, and I can't find the words to tell a woman how much I care for her." He laughed scornfully at himself. "Really says a lot about my skill as a writer, huh?"
"It's never easy to say something like that," Marguerite assured him quietly.
Ned nodded his acknowledgement, forgetting for a moment that Marguerite couldn't see him. "I know I strained things between us a lot with Kaya," he continued. "I know I hurt her a lot with what I did. And I've tried to talk to her about it, but it's so difficult. I wasn't myself, I was possessed by the same thing that had taken over Kaya's body. I know that's no excuse, but I never would have done it otherwise. I would never intentionally do something to hurt Veronica!"
Marguerite patted his shoulder gently. "I'm sure she knows that, Ned," she replied. "But that doesn't always make it easier to understand or accept. The mind can know one thing, but sometimes it's really hard to make the heart understand the same thing."
"I know," Ned sighed. "I just wish I could explain it to her and make her understand. I want her to know how much I care and that I'd never hurt her, but I can never seem to find the right words."
"It's hard," Marguerite agreed. "Probably the most difficult thing anyone can ever do is admit their feelings for someone. Believe me, I know."
"Is that why you haven't told Roxton how you feel about him?" Ned questioned.
"Ever the perceptive journalist, hmm?" Marguerite said, too tired to even bother trying to deny that she had feelings for the handsome hunter. She let out a deep breath. "That's part of it, but it's a lot more complicated than just that," she finally said.
"Well how come?" Ned asked. "When you care about someone, that should be all that matters, right?"
Marguerite laughed humorlessly. "After what I've seen, that view's just a little too naïve for me," she told him. "Life is never that simple."
"Well now I think you're just being too pessimistic," Ned responded. "As I see it, life is as complicated as you make it." Marguerite snorted in disbelief. "Marguerite, not everyone is like the people you've met in your past," Ned continued gently. "Not everyone will betray you.
"Is there any detail you miss?" Marguerite asked. Her tone was light, but Ned heard her sniffle as though holding back tears.
"Marguerite, you can tell Roxton the truth, you know," he told her. "You can tell him how you feel."
"How can I do that?" Marguerite exploded. "After everything I've done in my past, how can I honestly expect someone to love me? How can I let anyone know how much I care for them and then expect them to stick around? My own parents couldn't get rid of me fast enough when I was just a baby! Why, Ned? Was there something wrong with me? Was I just not what they wanted? Your parents are supposed to love you unconditionally, but mine gave me up without a second thought. If they can do that, then anyone can!"
Ned felt like he'd been punched in the stomach at Marguerite's revelation. This was why she pushed others away and tried to act like a heartless ice queen so often. She was so afraid that the moment she let anyone in, they would turn and walk away from her in a heartbeat. He sat there, stunned, for a few seconds as he heard Marguerite trying to stifle her tears next to him. Then he scooted over until he was sitting right next to her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. She tried to push him away at first, but he didn't let go, and after a moment she let herself sag against his chest as she tried to stop her tears.
After a minute or two, Marguerite got herself together and pulled away from Ned. "I'm sorry," she began. "I just, well, thank you."
"Marguerite, not everyone is going to do that to you," Ned said quietly. "You know none of us ever would. We all care about you, and we'd never abandon you. We're a family, Marguerite. All of us. Even though I don't understand you half the time, I feel like you're practically another big sister for me."
Marguerite smiled. "And you're the sometimes pesky but caring younger brother," she said. "And Summerlee's like the doting grandfather, Challenger's the preoccupied uncle."
"And what about Roxton?" Ned asked gently. "He cares about you a lot, Marguerite. And you know he would never do anything to hurt you. He would never betray you or abandon you."
"I really want to believe you, Ned," Marguerite said in a small voice.
"Then, do, Marguerite," Ned said. "It's true. You just have to let yourself believe it."
Marguerite was quiet a few moments before she spoke again. "You know, normally I'd never tell you any of this," she said. "Or I'd threaten your life or deface your journals again," she continued with a small laugh. "But since we're not going to get out of here alive, I guess I don't even have to warn you to take this conversation to the grave with you."
"And once again your optimism comes shining through," Ned said dryly. Marguerite laughed in spite of herself, and Ned found himself grinning as well. "Well, since you feel that way, why don't you tell me about your past now?" Ned questioned
"Don't push your luck," she warned him.
Several hours later, Marguerite and Ned sat silently in the cave while Ned tried to think of something more to talk about to keep their minds off of their situation. "Ned?" Marguerite broke the silence, her breathing labored.
"I'm still here," he responded, his own breathing shallow in the thinning air of the cave.
"I'm sorry… you won't get to… tell Veronica how you feel. I know… it's my fault because… you had to come back and help me, and I'm… sorry I got you into this mess."
Ned shook his head. "It's not your fault, Marguerite," he assured her. "You fell, it could happen… to anyone. Besides," he added. "I couldn't just leave my big sister behind."
"Well, I'm… very glad that you couldn't," she responded.
They lapsed into silence once more for a few moments before Marguerite spoke again. "Oh, where are they?" she asked. "This… is all your fault," she told Ned. "You even got me… to start thinking… the others would… get us out of here."
"They'll be here, Marguerite," Ned said, trying to keep his voice even. "Just hang on."
"I don't know… how much longer I can," she admitted with a yawn. "It's hard… to breathe. And I'm so tired."
"I know, Marguerite, but please… stay with me," Ned said. There was no reply. "Marguerite? Marguerite?" There was no response from the heiress and Ned sat silently for a few moments, trying to figure out what he should do next. Suddenly, he felt Marguerite gently touch his hand.
"Thank you, Ned," she whispered.
"For what, Marguerite?"
"For not leaving me behind. For being my friend," she said, her voice so quiet Ned had to strain to hear her. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it with some of her usual spirit. Ned smiled and was about to respond when he felt Marguerite's hand slip from his grasp and fall to the cave floor.
"Marguerite?" Ned moved closer to her side and fumbled around a moment until his hands found her neck. He breathed a momentary sigh of relief when he felt her pulse beneath his fingers. However, he knew they were still in a great deal of danger. Marguerite's pulse was weak and shallow, and Ned knew he himself was quickly approaching the brink of unconsciousness as well. He sent up a silent prayer to whoever might be listening that their companions would get there soon.
Ned wasn't sure how much time passed as he sat there silently. In his condition, it could have been hours or only a few moments. He felt himself slipping into oblivion, when he thought he heard a sound at the edge of his consciousness. He forced himself to stay awake and to focus on the sound he had heard. After a moment, he heard it again, clearer this time. "Ned! Marguerite! Can you hear us?" he heard Veronica's voice calling.
"Here, we're in here." Ned tried to yell back to them, but his voice came out in a whisper. "Here," he called hoarsely.
"They're not answering," he heard Veronica say.
"Well, we'll just have to go to them, then," Ned heard Roxton reply tightly.
There was a rumbling sound from the entrance to the cave and Ned could hear his friends yelling to each other over the sound of the rocks. "Roxton, if we move these over here, we should be able to make a space big enough to crawl through," Challenger said.
"All right, count of three," Roxton said. He counted off and Ned felt like sobbing in relief when a thin shaft of sunlight entered the cave.
"Ned? Marguerite?" he heard Veronica call again.
Ned fumbled around on the ground next to him until his hand closed over something. His canteen. He picked it up and, summoning the last vestiges of his strength, hurled the canteen towards the entrance as hard as he could.
"Did you hear that?" he heard Veronica ask. "Ned? Marguerite?" she peered into the cave through the small opening they had made in the fallen rocks.
"Here. Here," Ned gasped, waving his arms in the air.
"I see them!" Veronica exclaimed excitedly. "Hurry, we need to move this rock so we can get in there."
Grunting with effort, Veronica, Roxton, and Challenger pulled away several more rocks until they had formed an opening large enough for them to fit through. Roxton and Veronica entered the cave first, Summerlee and Challenger trailing behind them with torches. They hurried to their friends' sides and Roxton and Veronica dropped to their knees next to them.
"Ned! Oh God, are you all right?" Veronica asked.
Ned nodded weakly. "I'll… be fine," he wheezed. "Just need to get out of here."
Veronica stood and gently helped Ned to his feet. "Let's get you out," she said, guiding him towards the exit.
"Wait," he said, stopping Veronica in her tracks. "Marguerite."
Roxton was on his knees next to the heiress, trying to get a response from her. "Marguerite? Marguerite, can you hear me? Please, answer me," he said desperately.
"She passed out… a little while ago," Ned told him. "She was… hit in the head in the cave in. And she… hurt her ankle."
"Let's get her outside," Summerlee suggested gently to Roxton. Roxton needed no further urging and easily scooped Marguerite into his arms, following Veronica and Malone out of the cave.
Veronica led Ned over to a log several yards away from the cave entrance and helped him to sit down on the log with her. Summerlee followed closely behind them and quickly checked Ned over. "Lean forward," he advised the younger man. "Put your head on your knees and take deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. In through your nose, out through your mouth," he coached. "That's it."
Veronica sat next to Ned, one arm supporting him while she gently stroked his back with her other hand. She looked up at Summerlee, worry showing clearly in her eyes. "He should be fine," Summerlee assured her. "Just make sure he keeps taking deep breaths like that until he gets his breathing back to normal. I'll be right back." He stood up and walked over to where Roxton had laid Marguerite out on a blanket on the ground.
"Challenger, she's barely breathing," Roxton said. "Do something!"
Summerlee put a hand on the agitated hunter's shoulder as he looked over at Challenger, who was finishing up his quick examination of the heiress. "Her breathing is very shallow and her pulse is weak," he said grimly to the two men.
"What can we do?" Roxton questioned, distraught.
"She was trapped somewhere with a very limited supply of oxygen. It may be Hypoxia," Summerlee mused aloud.
"What is that?" Roxton asked.
"I believe it's when the body can't get enough oxygen to the tissues," Challenger replied. "It's still a very new concept in the medical world, and one I'm not sure I agree with. It could be a lot of other things."
"Well, like what?" Roxton asked.
"Well, she could be unconscious because of the injury to her head," Challenger said. "Or there could have been some kind of toxin in the air in the cave. She may have been bitten by an insect or something in the cave."
"I don't know, George," Summerlee said, shaking his head. "I think it's because their oxygen supply was so limited. Look at Malone, he's still trying to catch his breath."
"Arthur, it could be any number of things," Challenger argued back. "I think we should concentrate on this blow to her head. She may wake up on her own."
"And what if she doesn't?" Roxton demanded. "Sitting here and arguing about it is not helping Marguerite. We need to do something, and we need to do it now!"
The two older men stopped arguing, properly chastened by Roxton's words. "The first thing we need to do is make sure her airway is clear and that oxygen is able to freely travel in and out of it," Summerlee said.
Challenger nodded his agreement. "We may have to assist her in the respiratory function for a bit," he added.
Challenger checked Marguerite's nose and throat to make sure that her air passages were clear. He assured the other two men that there was no blockage in her airway. "All right, now we need to help her along a little," Summerlee said. "I'll do chest compressions, George you monitor her pulse as best you can. John, I need you to breathe for her, all right?" Roxton nodded and the men began to work on Marguerite.
"Come on, Marguerite," Roxton muttered. "Come on, breathe," he said, leaning forward to breathe air into her lungs. "Come on, please. Don't do this to me," he begged quietly. "Open your eyes, yell at me, anything. Just please come back to me. I need you," he whispered.
He breathed air into her mouth again, then sat back while Summerlee pressed down on Marguerite's chest. Suddenly, her body jerked violently on the ground before them. The three men looked at each other in alarm. "Good Lord," Challenger muttered to himself.
Roxton looked over at him fearfully, disturbed by the worry he heard in the older man's voice. "What's happening to her?" he whispered.
"I don't know," Summerlee admitted. "Good Heavens, I was certain we were doing the right thing." Marguerite's body convulsed again and then she began coughing.
Roxton moved forward, helping Marguerite to sit up against his body. "Marguerite? Marguerite, can you hear me?" he asked anxiously.
Marguerite's eyes fluttered open and she looked around dazedly. "What-? John, what are you doing here?" she asked, seeing his worried face before her. "You didn't die, too, did you?"
Roxton shook his head. "You're not dead," he assured her, a smile beginning to spread across his face. Then, as if to convince himself, he repeated softly, "You're not dead," before he wrapped his arms around her, holding her like he'd never let her go.
Marguerite instinctively wrapped her arms around Roxton's neck, her expression completely bewildered. "How? I don't understand?" she began.
Roxton pulled back but still held her in his arms as Ned and Veronica approached them. "Welcome back," Ned said with a smile. "Looks like my stories were too boring to hold your interest for long."
Marguerite smiled back at the reporter. "Thank you," she said. She looked around at her companions. "All of you."
Hours later the group set up camp on their way back to the treehouse. Ned and Marguerite were still feeling a bit drained from their time in the cave, and even with the help of Roxton and a crutch Challenger had fashioned from a branch, Marguerite's injured ankle made travel slow going.
"So, how are you feeling?" Ned asked Marguerite, sitting down next to her in front of the campfire. Challenger and Summerlee were arguing about the causes and effects of Hypoxia, Veronica was searching for a certain plant that she knew would help bring down the swelling in Marguerite's ankle, and Roxton had finally been convinced to leave Marguerite's side for five minutes while he refilled the canteens.
Marguerite shrugged. "My ankle hurts, my head hurts, and Roxton won't let me out of his sight."
"So in other words, you're loving it," Ned teased her.
Marguerite gave him a Look. "I guess I'm feeling pretty lucky to be alive," she admitted. "Ned, thank you for everything you did and said in that cave."
"I meant everything I said, Marguerite," Ned said earnestly.
Marguerite smiled. "So did I," she told him. Then her eyes narrowed. "Especially about putting this stuff in your journals."
Ned held up his hands in self-defense. "I understand these were extenuating circumstances," he said. "I promise only the barest of details will make my journals. I'll even let you have editing privileges. Just this once," he added, seeing the look in her eyes.
"Marguerite, I found the plant I was looking for," Veronica announced as she re-entered the campsite.
"Wasn't there something you needed to do?" Marguerite asked, nudging Ned's shoulder.
Ned blushed. "I, ah-"
"Ned, I think we learned today that you don't always get a second chance," Marguerite reminded him.
"You're right," Ned said as Veronica approached them.
"About what?" Veronica asked as she wrapped the plant leaves around Marguerite's ankle.
"Oh, just something we were talking about in the cave," Marguerite said airily. "I'm sure Ned would love your opinion on it, though."
Veronica gave them a strange look as Ned rose to his feet. "Actually, I would," he said, offering Veronica his hand.
"Why don't you two go take a walk and you can tell her all about it," Marguerite suggested, smiling innocently at the couple.
Veronica took Ned's hand and rose to stand next to him. "Will you be all right?" she asked.
Marguerite waved her hand. "Don't worry about me. Challenger and Summerlee are right over there," she said, gesturing to the two men who were clearly off in their own world with their argument.
"Uh-huh," Veronica said.
"And I'm sure Roxton will be right back," Marguerite continued.
"All right, we'll be back soon," Veronica promised.
"Take your time," Marguerite said.
The couple said goodbye and walked off together, hand in hand. "Now, where are they heading off to?" Marguerite heard Roxton say from behind her.
Marguerite smiled at him as he sat down next to her. "Don't worry about them," she said. "They've got a lot to talk about."
Roxton stared after them thoughtfully for a moment before he turned to Marguerite. "How do you feel? Are you in any pain?"
Marguerite had to smile at the blatant concern she heard in Roxton's voice. Maybe Ned's theory on Roxton's feelings for her hadn't been so outlandish after all. "I'll be fine," she told him. "You know me, I always bounce back," she finished as she turned to look at him.
"Yes, you do do that," Roxton murmured, meeting her gaze head on.
Marguerite felt her breath catch at the intensity of the emotions she saw in Roxton's eyes. "John," she began breathlessly.
Roxton put a hand up. "Just once, I need you to listen to me before you say anything," he teased. "And please don't say anything until I'm done, or I may not be able to finish." Marguerite nodded silently, still captivated by the emotions in John's eyes that mirrored her own.
Roxton took a deep breath and caught both of Marguerite's hands in his own. "I know you may not want to hear this," he warned her, "but I feel I have to say it. The past 24 hours made me realize that in this place, we don't always get a second chance when we put something off." Marguerite smiled slightly as she heard Roxton echo her words to Ned.
"Marguerite, during all of this, I realized that I could lose you forever. Admitting that to myself was the scariest thing I've ever faced on this plateau. I couldn't imagine my life without you in it; I still can't. And I don't want to. I want you in my life, by my side, everyday. And more than that, I need you. I know you feel there are too many demons in your past for there to ever be anything more than friendship between us, but I don't agree with that. Whatever's happened in your past is your past. I will stand by you and help you face it, but there's nothing you can do now to change it. All you can do is try to make peace with it and move on. And I'd like to be there for you when you do," he finished quietly.
There were tears in Marguerite's eyes when Roxton finished speaking, and she quickly blinked them back. "John," she began shakily. She stopped and took a deep breath to compose herself and then began again. "John, I want to believe you, but it's so difficult for me. After everything that's happened in my past, everything I've done…" She trailed off.
"Marguerite, I don't care about any of that," Roxton said earnestly, looking into her eyes. "All that matters to me is you. I don't care what you've done in your past. I know the person you are now, and that's all that matters. I'll never hurt you, I'll never leave you. Just say the word, and I'll be at your side forever. Or for as long as you can stand me anyway," he added, his eyes twinkling.
Marguerite laughed. "Or maybe for as long as you can tolerate me," she countered.
"I think I can hold my own," he murmured, leaning closer to her.
"I think you can at that," she replied before leaning forward to meet his lips with her own in a passionate kiss. "John, I want to believe you, and I do," she told him, touching his face softly as they broke their embrace. "And I want you at my side always. I want this more than anything I've ever wanted in my life. It's just going to take me a little while. I hope you can handle that."
"They say good things come to those who wait," Roxton said with a smile. "And I believe you are definitely worth waiting for."