Summary: Malone finally finds his way back to the tree house years later. Mostly N/V, with M/R on the side.
A/N: We're assuming that everything went well with Veronica using the Trion to save the Plateau and everyone in it. This story takes place two and a half years after HotS.
Roxton paced back and forth behind Challenger with his gun in the crook of his elbow. "I still don't feel like it was a good idea to split up. We're days from the tree house, and if something happens…"
"Roxton, don't worry. Veronica survived here on her own; I think she can go a day without us. Besides, we're meeting here tomorrow afternoon and heading back. You know Veronica, she'll probably be early and already have all of the supplies on the list."
Challenger went back to his collecting after his effort to settle the hunters mind, but John wasn't dissuaded easily. He still looked off to the east where the young blonde had ventured off with two empty packs and a list of ingredients for their medicine cabinet. Roxton knew that it made sense to split up. Marguerite was busy mending their clothes back at the tree house, Finn agreeing to watch over Challenger's running experiments, so neither was able to join them for the excursion. It still didn't mean he was comfortable with the idea.
"It's just fine with me. A day off from traipsing in the jungle is always a good day," Marguerite commented as they packed their things, looking at her with wry grins as she sat with her feet propped up on the table and a pile of sewing on the chair next to her.
John sighed as he kept his eyes open for danger, knowing that once George Challenger was busy doing something scientific, he was less than observant of the world around him.
'Be safe, Veronica.'
Stuffing yet another plant into her bag and lifting the pencil from behind her ear, she made proper adjustments to the list before moving on. The jungle around her was relatively quiet, and she paused to take in her surroundings. Nothing was in her line of sight or setting off her sensitive ears so she took a sip of water from the canteen before heading off toward a known yarrow patch.
'This is nice, being away from it all. If only Marguerite was here, she's been so closed off lately. I know the anniversary of their trip to the Plateau is coming up, maybe that's why she's so down.'
She paused in her thinking to pull a small yellow leafed plant from the ground, licking her finger and turning the first page back in search of the plants name on the list. She'd almost scoffed when Challenger had handed her a nearly three page list of medicinal plants, plants he needed for experiments, and what he affectionately called 'test-plants'.
"Challenger, you can't possibly think that I can do all of this in one afternoon."
"Veronica, you know this region better than any of us. How much time will it require? I'd like to get back to Marguerite as soon as we can."
"At least a day. Why don't we meet here tomorrow afternoon, I should have everything by then?"
Veronica laughed quietly as she remembered the upset look on Roxton's face at the thought of separating for more than a few hours.
'The older brother I never had,' she thought with a grin, her hand reaching up and touching the Trion that hung around her neck. Thinking of her newfound family always brought her mind back to her parents. It had been almost three years since she learned of their fate, and she longed to share it with the one person who was always on her side in the battle of knowing what had happened to them.
Malone had been gone a long time and every member of the little tree house family, but none more than Veronica, felt his absence. She had admitted to Marguerite one night that the thing she regretted the most wasn't saying that they should just be friends, but that she hadn't been here to say goodbye to him.
"None of us got to say goodbye." Her companion's reply was simple but true, though it did little to make the blonde feel better.
Spotting the yarrow, she knelt down and began working on the patch of stubborn little plants. Stopping when she heard a branch snap in front of her, she cursed silently for being preoccupied in her mind and not focusing on the area around her. She had little time to berate herself as a sharp, stinging pain reverberated at the back of her skull, forcing her to swim into the darkness as rough hands grabbed and hoisted her up.
Chanting filtered in through the edges of her consciousness. Though it felt as if she'd had too much Zanga Berry Wine, Veronica forced her eyes to focus as much as they could on her surroundings. Her hair hung in front of her eyes, and she found that her hands were tied behind her back as she tried to reach up and move it behind her ears. The dull throb of what she assumed was a concussion slowed her mind, though she began piecing together what had happened.
Clearly the men that had attacked her didn't want their prisoner getting away, and as she sat up she realized another tether secured her ankles. Veronica studied the walls around her carefully, the cold stone comprising her makeshift prison.
'Must be in a cave. It can't be headhunters, they would've had me over a raging fire by now,' she fought down the sudden wave of nausea as she decided she needed to figure out how to get away rather than the details of her captors. 'Okay…you've gotten out of this before. Just…rotate the shoulders up and get your hands in front of you.' Forcing herself to begin thinking as rationally as she could, she knew her first option of escape would be to get her hands and feet free.
'Hopefully this time you won't dislocate your shoulder.' Muffling a laugh she sat herself up straight and began lifting her arms up behind her, getting them nearly above her head when a pop made her grimace, pain shooting through her right arm. Finishing as quickly as she could, she tried not to make too much noise. Her eyes darted to the bright entrance of the cave, the sunlight almost blinding as her head throbbed in time with her shoulder.
She peeked down at her lap, seeing that it was a vine that held her hands and feet together, not too terribly hard to bite through. Bringing her arms up to her head was another story. A shot of pain held her back for a moment, her shoulder now out of socket and refusing to bend properly until it was set back into place, though she would need a second person for that job. Pulling up with her left arm, keeping the right as limp as she could, she managed to get a piece of the vine between her teeth. Beginning to gnaw, she could feel the binding begin to loosen around her wrists.
'Finally!' She thought with a small smile, the vines dropped to her lap. Panting and bringing her hand up to her throbbing shoulder, she could feel the ball joint of her arm resting at an awkward angle to her shoulder. 'So it didn't quite work so well, but I'm almost free. Small steps.'
She heard two voices from the entrance, figuring that the tribe had left behind a scant few to guard their catch while the others prepared for something back at the campsite.
'One can only hope. It'll definitely make my escape a lot easier if there's just a couple out there.' Using her good arm, she twisted and pulled at the restraints around her feet, finally feeling them loosen. Giving a good pull with her legs in opposite directions, she felt the vine snap.
She was free.
Two figures moved through the brush, a bow in each of their hands and a quiver full of carved arrows on their backs attached to a long, metal tipped spear. The young man wore deerskin pants and boots made of sturdy leather hide, his bare chest gleaming bronze in the sunlight. A woman beside him talked quietly, though animated, as the young man's eyes darted back and forth, concentrating on his companion and the world around him.
Battle cries rose from the east, both blonde heads turning and seeing small shadowed figures wind through the trees. Their own bows were flinging arrows at a fleeing person.
"No doubt the Bedowi again, chasing after some helpless native." The young woman spoke with disdain, pulling an arrow and notching it as the man jumped down the small ledge and made his way quietly toward the action.
His leather boots were almost silent through the brush, and he crouched to keep himself hidden from the assailants. His eyes tried to discern the figure they were chasing, but the only thing they caught was a flash of blonde hair. 'Definitely not Bedowi,' he concluded before notching an arrow and catching one of the warriors in the back of his neck. Moving on, stopping only to pull his used arrow free, he re-notched it, aiming for a Bedowi bowman.
He was slightly late, his own bloody arrow reaching its target after the native managed to discharge his own weapon. He heard a feminine grunt, cursing as he wrapped the bow around his shoulder, pulling out the spear. Jogging through the dense forest, he managed to kill three of the tribesman as an arrow whizzed past his ear landing with a thud in a tree to his right.
Tossing an upset glance to the young woman standing atop the rise, she merely smiled in response before pointing to the clearing ahead of him. Deeming that he was safe to move without a weapon, he secured the spear to his back before pushing several bushes from his view to see the blonde haired woman lying on a pile of foliage.
Images flashed across his mind as he stopped short, staring at the wounded woman. Flowing golden hair and an animal skin top and a short skirt adorned her slim figure.
"What are you doing? She needs help!" Out of breath, the younger woman had caught up with her companion, seeing him standing a bit like a fish out of water at the entrance of the clearing.
Slipping past the man with her eyes full of concern for the injured native, but still worried about the aghast look on her cohorts features, she reached the girl and began assessing her injuries.
'It can't be, please don't let it be her,' the blonde, blue-eyed man thought as he stepped forward, seeing the ugly arrow protruding from the back of the right shoulder, he gasped as his partner rolled her gently to her side.
"Phoebe, keep her still. This is going to hurt like hell," Malone grunted as they reset Veronica's shoulder, her face contorting into a grimace though her eyes stayed closed.
"She'll be okay, a bit dehydrated, probably sore, all in all she's lucky. I'll go grab some more yarrow to ward off infection and hopefully she won't even have a scar."
"Why isn't she waking up?"
Voices swirled around the jungle girl as she tuned in and out of various conversations. She was dimly aware that there were two people around her, though she wasn't quite sure of where she was. Try as she might, she was unable to open her heavy eyelids. A soft groan made it from her lips as she heard someone or something shuffle closer to where she was lying.
The voice was so familiar.
"Veronica? Wake up, come on."
Again, it goaded. 'I just want to sleep…let me sleep.'
"I'm not gonna let you sleep the rest of the day away, so come on. Open those blue eyes."
She let out another groan, finally allowing in what she figured would be bright light from the sun, but found it to be pleasantly dim wherever they were. Willing them to open a bit more, she became more conscious of the pain that she was swirling in.
"Hurts," she croaked, attempting to reach her throbbing shoulder when a gentle yet strong hand stopped her.
"You probably shouldn't prod around at it, it was out of socket for a while. It could take a week or so to get back to normal. Do you know where you are or what you were doing here?"
Familiarity swarmed her, though she couldn't put her finger on the place where she'd last heard this young man's voice. "I…was searching for herbs when…they attacked me."
"Who was with you? Roxton? Challenger?"
'Whoa, wait a second. How does…it…it can't be,'
Forcing her eyes to open enough to get a glimpse, albeit a fuzzy one, of the man kneeling beside her, her mouth went agape as she attempted to blink away the concussion.
He nodded with a smile as the young woman walked into the cave with two small animals in her hand. "Good, she's up. We should get some fluids into her and see if she'll eat something. I'm gonna grab the containers and head down to the stream for fresh water, we should check that wound."
"Ned? It…I can't believe it's you." Her mind was still hazy, though the surprise of the man before was shaking it away.
He heard the relief in her voice, reaching a callused hand out to cup her cheek gently. "I've missed you so much, Veronica; all of you, you have no idea. Of course, I didn't actually think I'd end up saving you from a local tribe of vicious natives."
She laughed and then groaned at the pain that shot through her chest and into her upper back. He sympathized for her with a mumbled apology for making her laugh.
"Here, why don't you sit up a bit and we'll see how you're starting to feel. You've been asleep for nearly five hours, so I want to make sure you're okay to move around."
As he helped Veronica sit, she had a moment to study him for the first time in almost three years, happy to see him even if it was through cloudy eyes. His body was definitely more chiseled than she remembered, and long gone were his button up shirts and cloth trousers with suspenders. He now wore nothing over his chest, and his tan showed that this wasn't just a one time thing. His pants were almost the same material as her outfit, and his boots matched her own to the tee if hers were gray rather than their brown color.
His chin had a slight fuzz to it, as did his upper lip, and she found herself unable to look away from his bright blue eyes.
"I thought I'd never see you again," she spoke aloud, wishing she hadn't. Blushing and dropping her eyes to her lap she felt him move behind her and begin to unwrap material that twisted around her torso over her hide top.
"Well, I've definitely learned some things while I've been away."
"Were you ever going to come back?"
Finishing his unwrapping he paused, grimacing at the wound and losing his focus on the conversation. "This is looking swollen, Veronica, it'll need some yarrow but you might still get a bit of an infection."
"Ned; were you going to come back?" Craning her head, sore muscles protesting, he shushed her while grabbing one of the leaves and tossing it into a small wooden bowl with a few drops of water, beginning to crush it with his free hand. His other arm held her weakened body upright, the young woman feeling exhausted just from sitting up for five minutes.
"Of course I was going to come back…I just wasn't sure when that would be. I'd never leave you behind, Veronica, you know that. I made the decision long ago to stay here if you recall."
She blushed and looked away which made Malone chuckle. "A few things have changed since I left. I've learned along the way that you should just say what you mean to say – so I'm a bit more…bohemian as Marguerite would put it."
He spread some of the juice mixture from the leaf onto her wound with a gentle finger, her sudden intake of breath and arch of her spine making him mutter an apology, his arm wrapping around her midsection for better support. Veronica's hand joined his over her stomach, fingers curling and gripping as she tried to grit out the pain.
Once he was finished he let her relax a bit, telling by the waning death grip she had on his hand. "If you can, I'd recommend lying on your side. It'll take the pressure off of the wound and your shoulder."
Agreeing with a stiff nod she let him tilt her to her side and found that he was right, it was much more comfortable. "You're not going to wrap it?"
"Not yet, we'll let it breathe for a bit."
Veronica watched him through hazy, heavy eyes, seeing his sure movements, knowledge clearly gained on his journey showing as he added ingredients for what she assumed was a healing poultice for the wound that currently throbbed against the cool air of the cave.
"You're different," she commented, tilting to the side and propping her head up with her free hand as much as she could.
"In a good way?" he asked, stopping his stirring momentarily to fix her with a slightly unsure gaze, their stare broken by his companion as she entered the cave.
"How are you doing?"
"Phoebe?" Veronica instantly recognized the young woman they'd met in the Amazon village.
The blonde woman smiled, crouching down beside Malone. "Glad to see that you remembered. I met up with Ned on his journey, and since I was seeking something different than the Amazon way of life after my sister died, I decided to follow him. Well…follow until he caught on and just invited me to join him."
For a brief moment, green hot jealousy shot through Veronica's clouded brain and settled into her heart. "So…you haven't been alone all these years?"
"Well, not completely alone. Phoebe's become my little sister, and it's actually been nice having another pair of eyes." Ned smiled gently down at her, maneuvering his way to her back and applying the green goop onto her shoulder.
"Challenger and Roxton will no doubt try to find me when I don't show up tomorrow afternoon," Veronica commented as she watched Phoebe move over to the fire and begin gutting and stripping the small creatures caught for dinner, dimly feeling Ned's hands as they worked the soothing poultice in and around her wound.
"Well, that'll lead them to the Bedowi's hiding spot, where their scouts will be swarming." Phoebe looked up as the two talked, and she knew as she watched Malone interact with the other Plateau native what she should do.
Standing and wiping her hands on a cloth, she lifted up her bow and spear, securing them to her back with a pack and something of a leather harness. "Why don't I follow your trail back to your friends and bring them here? That way you'll be safe here with Ned and I'll get your companions back here without running into the Bedowi?"
Peering past Malone's disapproving gaze she saw the hint of something else, though it was elusive. "Don't worry, brother, I'll be careful." With that she was gone, Veronica locking eyes with him as he moved back before her, crossing his legs and letting the fire warm his body as the cave cooled in the approach of evening.
"I can't believe that you're sitting here in front of me, Malone. It's been years…why haven't you at least kept in contact?"
A small bubble of guilt built up in his chest as he lowered his head to stare at the furs he'd laid out for the three of them to sleep on. "It's complicated."
"I'm not going anywhere, Malone, I think you at least owe me an explanation."
The frown marred his now usually relaxed features as he whipped his angry blue eyes up to hers. "What do you mean I owe you an explanation? Why? Because we're 'friends' as you so bluntly put it before careening off in that balloon?"
For once in many a long time, the jungle blonde was speechless.
"Veronica, why after three long years of us going hot then cold did you think you could just drop that into my lap and expect me to be okay with it?"
Interrupting with a hand he continued. "I left because I needed to become something more than what I was. You survived on the Plateau for eleven years before we showed up and here I was unable to even take care of myself for a single afternoon."
"I've never asked you to try and be something you weren't, Malone."
"No, but still I just…felt inadequate. If I was going to stay here and call this place my home, I needed to be able to live here by myself if I found myself alone. So I left."
The silence was eerie, the two pairs of eyes avoiding each other as Malone focused on a rock across the way and Veronica the crackling fire.
"I'm sorry." Spoken simultaneously the thick air immediately dissipating as they shared a laugh, Veronica wincing as she waited for the pain to pass.
"You can't imagine the regret I've been living with since I said those words, Ned. I had…days to think about everything as I floated off in the balloon and another few weeks before I managed to make my way back to the Treehouse. I…I couldn't wait to go inside and tell you that I was stupid and…wrong and that I was sorry."
Malone smiled and pushed out his legs, leaning on his side and propping himself up with his elbow as he reclined a few feet away from her. "I apologize for not giving you the opportunity."
This time the silence was comforting as they soaked in the warmth from the fire.