The Lesson

After almost three days of near torrential rain, the sun was finally making its way out from behind the gloomy, gray clouds. Roxton stopped momentarily to admire the glittering effect as the rays shimmered on the wet foliage. Just like diamonds, Roxton thought to himself. He stopped those thoughts quickly, all of a sudden very afraid of where they were taking him; afraid of the near blinding pain that he knew would accompany them. No longer interested in walking, he stopped and sat on a small rock, not caring that the dampness was seeping through his pants. He had desperately needed an escape from the tree house, alone, after so many days surrounded by people. They were hurting too, though differently. They couldn't truly understand the pain and turmoil that invaded his thoughts when awake, and his nightmares while asleep.

"A few myself," he had told Veronica before he left. He saw both pain and understanding in her eyes and promised that he would be careful as he strapped on his guns. He more then anyone understood the risk he was taking being out in the jungle alone. There was safety in numbers, or at least the closest thing to safety one could find in this place. He had long ago designated himself protector of this small group of people- people who had started out as nothing less then strangers had slowly evolved into a family, and a sense of family was something Roxton had not enjoyed for longer then he chose to remember. So many years he had spent putting up walls, distancing himself from everything and everyone save the hunt; the only thing in his dreary life that even remotely made him feel alive. Until he met.her and his entire life was picked up, spun around, and dumped on the ground in a heap.

He absentmindedly flicked off a small bug that had been crawling up his leg. Poor bastard, he thought to himself. I understand the feeling. Life has taken more then its fair share of flicks at me. He understood how time and space could clarify in one perfect instant, sucker punch you, and leave you emotionally and physically reeling. He had felt it the moment he met her so long ago in London, and, he thought to himself as he held his head in his hands and began sobbing, he had felt it as he watched her die in his arms.

2 weeks earlier..

The group had decided to take a rare break from the never-ending responsibilities and chores that were a necessary part of their continued survival. Hunting, cooking, cleaning and the continued search for both better forms of protection and a way back home left them with little time for fun. Oddly enough, it had been Challenger who had suggested the late afternoon picnic. His research had reached a stalling point. He had decided that some distance from his current project would do some good and had suggested a light dinner by the river, much to the surprise of his friends.

"Are you feeling alright Challenger?" Roxton had asked with a grin. "Yes, certainly, Old Man. I just felt that as busy as we've all been of late, a break would do us good".

Twenty minutes later, with blankets and supper in hand, they had set off for the river. The mood was light in anticipation of this little bit of normalcy in a world that offered so little. It hadn't taken Marguerite long to start scanning the river for gleaming stones. The reasons for her near obsessive search for these bits of rock had always intrigued Roxton. As time passed, he was even beginning to suspect he knew the reasons, though he knew that she would never discuss it with him. From the beginning, he had been drawn to her; to her beauty, her intelligence and her strength. Yet, as he had gotten to know her better, slowly chipping through the walls she had carefully built around herself, he had seen a glimpse of something else; a vulnerability hidden deep inside her. She seldom spoke of her childhood, yet the little he did know pointed to a life filled with emptiness, loneliness and insecurity. He was positive that her search for gems was inherently tied to a lifetime search for security and stability. Despite the enigma that you so desperately want us to believe you are, I know you, I understand you, and, most importantly, I love you.

"John, if you don't give that back to me this instant, I will find a way to make you very, very sorry". Roxton gave Marguerite Krux a mischievous glance before neatly sidestepping her lunge. "If her ladyship wants her bauble back, she is going to have to come here and get it". He had pinched a thumbnail-sized sapphire from the pile of stones Marguerite was carefully examining and was now avoiding her half-hearted attempts to retrieve it. Veronica and Challenger were lying on blankets reading while Ned kept watch with one of the rifles at his knee. Every once in a while he would cast an amused glance in the direction of Marguerite and Roxton's antics. As Roxton once again managed to elude her grasp, Marguerite shot an exasperated look at Ned.

"Don't look at me", he said quickly. "I'm busy making sure that we don't become something else's picnic".

"You're just chicken", Marguerite replied. Roxton had stopped to listen to the conversation and Marguerite had taken that moment to grab the sapphire out of his hand. She laughed and returned to the pile of gems on her blanket. Veronica looked up from her book and thought about giving Marguerite grief about the chicken remark, but in the end decided to let Ned fight his own battles. She gave Marguerite a quick smile and returned to her book.

"Why don't you go keep Veronica company", Roxton said walking over to where Ned was sitting. "I'll keep watch for the last little bit". Ned blushed a bit, thanked Roxton and went and joined Veronica on her blanket. At Ned's approach, Veronica set down her book. Before long they were eagerly engaged in some amusing conversation Roxton couldn't hear. Despite Ned's experiences in the war and Veronica's years of near isolation, they were both rather innocent. That innocence gave them a relaxation with one another that Roxton envied. No, there was nothing innocent about him or Marguerite. None-the-less, he could not deny the attraction. It practically sizzled in the air like an electrical charge whenever they were together. He glanced over to where Marguerite was sitting, still engrossed in her jewels, careful not to let her catch him. He loved looking at her. He loved just being with her. He loved the game the two of them played, as intricate as a dance, tantalizing and tormenting one another, careful not to give or say too much. She was good, too good, but he was up to the challenge. Nothing that was easy was worth doing, and Marguerite's love was definitely a reward worth fighting for. One of these days I'm going to shock the hell out of you and tell you exactly how I feel, but not today. We have plenty of time for all that. I'm enjoying the hunt way too much.

Roxton came to attention, the brief daydream gone, hearing a sound from behind him. He spun around, rifle in hand, to find..nothing. He could have sworn he had heard a child's voice, giggling. He heard the sound again, this time to his right, and again saw nothing. "Challenger, Veronica. Did you hear that?" Challenger had set down his book and was staring at Roxton with a quizzical expression. "Hear what?" Roxton was not given the opportunity to answer the question. With almost ghostly suddenness, screaming apemen overran the entire river clearing. He had a split second vision of the others pulling their own weapons before his attention was taken by the two ape men trying to kill him. He whirled around, bashing one of the attackers in the head with the end of the rifle before firing at the other. It went down with one shot. The sound of shots was repeated and he prayed that the others were also finding their marks. He looked across the clearing and saw Veronica being held to the ground by an ape man straddling her. She was desperately trying to get her arm, with the knife she was holding, free from the ape man's grasp. Roxton took aim and fired, knocking the ape man off of her. She was up quickly, threw him a "thank you" glance, and went to go help Malone.

Roxton was searching for Marguerite when he felt the sudden blow to his head. It wasn't enough to knock him out, but did bring him to the ground seeing stars. He was too stunned to notice the ape man coming at him holding a long sharpened stick. For Marguerite, however, things seemed to suddenly run in slow motion. She had shot and killed the two ape men attacking her, but had found herself out of ammunition. "Damn! Why today of all days to not pack extra ammo?" She quickly checked on Veronica, Malone and Challenger, who all appeared to have things under control before her eyes sought the man she loved. He was across the clearing, on the ground, with an apeman coming right at him holding what appeared to be a spear. "No!!!!!" she screamed, running across the clearing towards him. She never once stopped, even for an instant, to consider the decision she was making. It seemed perfectly natural to protect him, even with her own body if necessary. The ape man was bringing the spear down on Roxton's unprotected back the moment Marguerite placed herself between them. The spear was like cold fire as it pierced her. She had never felt so much pain in her life. She heard a shot and a dull thud behind her and immediately knew that one of the others had taken care of her assailant. She looked down for a moment at the man she loved, the man she would willingly lay down her own life for and knew that she had succeeded. He was safe, and that was all that mattered. Her last thought was that he was going to be awfully mad at her before the world turned gray and she slid bonelessly to the ground.

It took several moments more for Roxton to regain his senses. His head hurt like the devil, but at least he was in one piece. He heard a sound, a woman's soft cries from behind him. He turned around to see Veronica, her eyes red with tears, staring at his feet. It was then that he saw her, the image forever burned on his memory. She lay on the ground, her beautiful, black hair fanning out from around her head. She was still, her eyes closed, the blood from her wound soaking through her blouse and skirt.

"Marguerite! No!!! Please, no!! He fell to the ground and gathered her in his arms. She slowly opened her eyes and looked up at him.

"You're okay", she whispered. "It's all right because you're okay."

Roxton placed his hands over her wound, as if he could will it all away. "It'll be okay Marguerite. You're going to be all right once we get you back to the tree house. Stay with me".

"I'm tired.. I love you John. Don't forget that I love you." With that, she closed her beautiful, gray eyes, took one final breath and became limp in his arms.

Roxton looked up at Challenger who was checking her for a pulse. "Please, I beg you, help her. Please help her".

"There's nothing I can do John. She's gone", his voice betraying the emotions that were welling up inside him. Another one gone, he thought to himself. First Summerlee, now Marguerite. All this expedition has brought is death. Ned held Veronica in his arms as she continued to cry quietly. He had only to think of something happening to his beloved Veronica to understand what Roxton was going through. Roxton continued to hold Marguerite in his arms, rocking her gently against him, tears streaming down his face. "Please don't leave me. I love you. I love you." over and over and over again.

The present.

Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw her. It had only been two weeks, but it felt like an eternity in Hell. All he could see was her lifeless body in his arms; his hands covered by her blood. She would come to him in his nightmares, telling him how much she loved him. He would reach for her, desperate to hold her, and she would disappear before his eyes. He would awaken, crying her name, bathed in cold sweat, his heart racing. During the day he would catch himself looking for her, ready to ask her a question or throw her a teasing remark. Half an instant later he would remember that she was gone, and he would relive her death all over again.

He thought of his own father with new understanding in his heart. After his brother William's death, his father had become an old man, almost overnight. Less then three months later, he was dead. Most simply said that the heart attack had killed him, but Roxton knew the truth. So entrenched was he in his own grief, he had simply lost the will to go on. It was a feeling that Roxton was coming to understand all too well. He couldn't eat or sleep. He couldn't find solace with his friends, though they had all tried in their own ways to ease his pain. Every moment was an effort. It practically hurt to breathe. It would be so easy, he thought to himself. I could just let myself fade away. Like father, like son.

"Would you so willingly squander what she paid so dearly for?" came a voice from directly behind where Roxton was sitting. He whirled around, gun in hand, coming face to face with a golden haired girl. Despite the fact that she looked to be about 12 years old, Roxton did not lower his weapon. A charming little fellow named Osric had taught him that horrendous things could be hidden in innocent packages.

"Who are you, and where did you come from?" Roxton spoke slowly and quietly, never taking his eyes off of hers. She had an almost impish grin and bright blue eyes that seemed very old and very wise.

"My name is Irina, and I've been watching you for quite some time, Lord Roxton. You have nothing to fear from me, and you can most certainly put down your weapon."

"How do you know my name?" Roxton asked, suddenly suspicious. Never the less, he placed his gun back in its holster. At this point, even if she is another Osric, I'd be tempted to let her do me in.

"I know much about you and your companions, Lord Roxton. It was the young, light-haired man who helped me regain my immortality by giving me several drops of his blood".

Roxton had a vague memory of Summerlee, Malone and Marguerite telling him about an encounter with an old woman who had claimed to be an exiled fairy queen. They had accidentally photographed the woman while taking pictures of some of the animal life and had immediately noticed the headphones she was wearing around her neck like a necklace. It had been their hope that where there were headphones, there was a working radio, but their efforts had been for naught. Summerlee had been forced to destroy the radio in order to prevent Marguerite from making a suicidal attempt to retrieve it from a hungry T-Rex. In exchange for the location of the radio, the woman had bargained for a few drops of Ned's blood. Supposedly, the blood of a virgin, mixed into a special elixir, would give the old woman back her youth and her place with the faeries.

Yes, Roxton remembered the story and had thought it utter nonsense, the ramblings of a senile old woman, as had the rest of them. Now, he wasn't so sure.

"You only met Summerlee, Malone and Marguerite that day in the woods. How do you know my name?

"Your friends did a very noble thing by helping me that day. They gave me back something I was sure was lost to me forever. I realize that there were underlying motives, but I was grateful none-the-less. I have been intrigued by the lot of you ever since. As a fairy, I have the gift of invisibility. I can watch all of you interact with one another. There are lessons to be learned from observing both your triumphs and, more importantly, your failures. I find you the most intriguing Lord Roxton."

"I'm flattered", Roxton replied.

"Don't be", Irina said harshly. "I find you intriguing because I see you making the same mistakes that I once did. Continue down this path and you will be damned just as I was."

"It's too late. I'm already damned. I thought that it would end with the death of my brother, but I was wrong. She's dead Irina! She's dead because of me, just like William and my father are dead because of me! I am poison to the people I love."

Irina giggled, a stark contrast to Roxton's painful admissions. He closed his mouth, looking at her in stunned silence, amazed that she would so callously dismiss his own pain.

"You are missing the lesson Lord Roxton", she said as she gracefully seated herself on the ground at his feet.

"Then enlighten me Irina. Tell me how none of this is my fault".

"The deaths of your brother, your father and Marguerite are nobody's fault, Lord Roxton. They were merely a set of circumstances that you participated in. You had no control over the ape that killed your brother just as you had no control over the ape men that attacked your camp. You cannot hold yourself responsible for the decisions that others make and what those decisions cost them. Marguerite gave her life to protect yours knowing full well what the cost might be. She made the decision with no regrets."

"Then if their deaths are not my fault, why am I damned?"

"Lord Roxton, I had been queen of the nymphs and faeries. I was beautiful, powerful, immortal, and I knew that it would always be so. I had seen an eternity of sunrises and sunsets without really seeing any of them. I had seen mountains rise up and oceans tear them away with no understanding. I didn't see the magic in a single red rose. Then, one day, I made a dreadful mistake. That mistake cost me everything."

"What happened?"

"I fell in love", Irina replied. "I fell in love with a mortal man, and I let him die without ever telling him the words of my heart. I was foolish. I thought that we would have forever, knowing full well that as a mortal, his days were numbered. Then, one day, he was an old man. Forty years had passed in the blink of an eye, and I had never once told him that I loved him. Then he was gone, and the grief that I carried inside me so consumed me that I was cast out by my brethren."

Roxton felt the tears welling up inside him. Marguerite was dead, and he had never said the words, had never told her the depth of his feelings for her. Maybe it's better to keep people at a distance. Maybe I had it right all along. If you don't let people too close, you can't be hurt when they leave you.

It was almost as if Irina had heard his thoughts because she turned to him with a look of profound sadness in her eyes. "Then you are already damned, Lord Roxton. Don't you see? I am immortal, yet I knew that the man I loved was not. I let that keep me away from him. I put up walls, just as you have put up walls, hoping that if I didn't let him in too close, he could never hurt me. There was always tomorrow. What I didn't realize at the time was that the regret of not letting him in would hurt a thousand times worse. Think Lord Roxton. What is the one thing that plagues your dreams night after night? Is it guilt? Do you feel responsible for her death or is it something else?

It hit Roxton like a thunderclap. "No", he said. "I don't feel responsible for her death. I feel like I left the most important thing in my life unfinished. She gave her life for mine, and I never told her I loved her. I never held her in my arms and uttered the words I knew needed to be said. Now she's gone, and I'll never get the chance."

"Life is precious Lord Roxton", Irina said as she carefully got up and walked around Roxton. You humans are given a finite amount of time in this world. Precious little of it to be wasting it on fear and pride. All humans must die, yet that shouldn't keep you from seeking and giving love, living every moment as if it was your last. Had I been wiser, I would have spent whatever time was possible with the man I loved, rather then shutting myself away and dealing with the regrets later."

Roxton thought about the old saying, "Its better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all". She's right, he thought to himself. I let my fears keep me from opening my heart and sharing my soul. I wasted precious time and now must live with the regrets.

So absorbed was he with these revelations, that he didn't notice that Irina was standing behind him now, sprinkling gold dust over his head. Roxton felt himself get suddenly, inexplicably sleepy.

"I believe that a lesson has been learned", he heard Irina say. Her childlike giggle was the last thing he heard before he lost consciousness.

Roxton came back to consciousness slowly. The first thing he noticed was a dreadful pain in his head. The second thing he noticed was that he appeared to by lying on the ground, though his head was cradled on something soft. He noticed a glow behind his eyelids and wondered if it was the sun shining down on him. The last thing he remembered was talking to Irina and suddenly becoming very tired. I've got to stop trusting little kids, realizing that Irina was probably responsible for his current predicament.

Roxton slowly opened up his eyes. Much to his surprise, he was staring at a campfire. It was nighttime, and he was lying on the ground covered with a blanket with his head resting on someone's lap.

"I think he's coming around", Roxton heard Challenger say.

"Challenger, how the devil did you find me? Did Irina bring you here?"

"Who's Irina?", Roxton heard Veronica ask from across the campfire.

"I think that the blow to his head has scrambled his brains a bit", Challenger said. "Roxton, do you remember what happened? The picnic? The attack by the ape men?"

"How can you ask me that? Of course I remember that blasted picnic. It was the worst day of my life." Roxton was confused and his horrible headache was only making things worse.

"Roxton, that attack happened about two hours ago. You were hit on the head during the fight, and you've been unconscious ever since. We decided to wait here till you woke up, rather then risk getting you back to the tree house in the dark."

Only then did Roxton remember that his head was resting on something soft. Only then did he notice the hand that was absent-mindedly running through his hair, careful not to hit the painful lump on the back. He turned his head slowly and stared into gray eyes he would have sworn he was never going to see again. Two weeks of unbearable grief combined with relief so profound it almost made his heart stop welled up in him all at once as he put his arms around her and sobbed uncontrollably, his head still cradled on her lap. With a confused expression on her face, Marguerite held him to her and let him cry.

Two days later, Marguerite was lounging on the balcony, still thinking about Roxton. He had cried in her arms for at least an hour before they were able to get him up and back to the tree house. He had spent all of yesterday in his room, recovering from the concussion Challenger felt that he had suffered as a result of the blow to his head. He hadn't yet spoken to anyone about his outburst. Challenger, Veronica and Malone had gone hunting, leaving her to tend to Roxton. She had quietly checked in on him earlier and wasn't surprised to find him still sleeping. He had been both emotionally and physically exhausted when they had finally gotten him back to the tree house.

She heard the floor creak behind her and knew that she was no longer alone. Without uttering a word, Roxton pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. She noticed that his eyes still had a bit of a wild, haunted look to them. He didn't say a word. He simply reached over and took her hand in his.

"Are you okay John?"

"I am now", he replied quietly.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"No, not really. I just want to sit here with the woman I love and enjoy this beautiful day".

Marguerite looked up at him in surprise, not quite sure she had heard what she thought she'd heard. The expression on his face told her everything.

"I love you too John", she whispered as she laid her head on his shoulder.

Roxton closed his eyes, feeling the first sense of peace he had felt in years. He smiled when he heard the childlike laughter on the afternoon breeze.