The sun was waning in the sky as both Roxton and Challenger paced in the wooded glen. "Where is she? She knows better than to stay out too late, now we won't make it back to the Treehouse until mid afternoon tomorrow."
Roxton shared some of Challenger's thoughts, though his concern wasn't focused on whether or not they were late getting home. "Challenger, we need to entertain the notion that something went wrong. Perhaps we should follow her trail."
George chuckled as he flopped down on a log and brought his canteen to his lips. "You and Marguerite are all too quick to label someone being late as someone dying in the jungle."
"Come now Challenger, after almost six years here it's becoming a bit of a trend."
The scientist knew that the hunter wasn't going to relent and heaved a sigh before gathering his things and standing tall. "Lead the way my good man."
They walked through the jungle, George getting side tracked by all manner of nocturnal insect and plant life as it flourished around them, Roxton's gaze fixed to any sign of the huntress' steps from earlier that afternoon. As the sun began to set they discovered her discarded satchel filled with all manner of plant material as well as her canteen left open, its contents spilled into the earth.
"Damnit," the hunter cursed as Challenger lifted up the bag and finding the list lying underneath it.
"She'd gotten everything but two items; she must have been on her way back to meet with us. What tribes live in this region?"
"Who knows, George, it could be dozens. Headhunters, cannibals, the list goes on. Come on, their tracks lead this way. We may have the upper hand at night."
Moving off without waiting for the professor to step in line Roxton kept a brisk pace through the foliage. About forty minutes away from Veronica's abandoned belongings they spotted the light of a fire illuminating a rocky outcrop.
"Looks like there's a group of them near those hills there. You wait here and keep your eyes open for any that may be wandering about. I'm going to see if I can spot Veronica."
"Mmmyes," Challenger mumbled, John turning and tugging on his lapel to bring the ginger-haired man's attention forward rather than at a rather large cricket that had jumped on his boot.
"Keep your eyes open, George. For enemies, not insects."
"Yes, yes, I heard you the first time." Readying his shotgun he stood guard, Roxton slipping into the dark and out of sight quickly.
The moon shone overhead, though it was only half full which left more dark spots of the jungle than illuminated ones. The evening air was crisp though neither man seemed to be burdened by it. Fifteen minutes passed and Challenger began to fidget, his desire to obey the hunter's words was in direct conflict with his curiosity to see where said hunter had disappeared to. His musings were answered however when Roxton slipped back into the light before him with no Veronica at his side.
"She's not there. There are about six or seven of them, all armed with bows and spears. They keep sending two at a time off in several different directions, she may have escaped them. If that's the case, who knows where she's gone off to. We should make our way back a bit and camp for the night."
"And here I was planning on a delicious cooked Marguerite meal," groused the scientist as they turned away from the dim firelight.
"And then all of a sudden this panther – I mean…a HUGE panther – a monster panther jumped out of the trees right in front of me and I just froze." Malone's animated voice filled the cave as he talked. He'd moved closer to his companion but had sat up, his arms waving as he tried with exaggerated movements to visually show how big the cat had been.
"What happened?" Veronica's eyes were slowly starting to droop, the throbbing of her shoulder and back had lessened somewhat but she could feel the tell-tale signs of infection as she shivered against the warm blankets from the oncoming fever.
Ned turned his back to her, four long scars going from the back of his neck to his side. "That was when Phoebe showed up. The damn thing jumped on my back as I turned to run and she got it with an arrow after he'd clawed me."
Veronica reached out and ran her fingers over the welt-like ridges, her wide eyes conveying her concern and relief that he hadn't been eaten by a panther on only his first week away from the Treehouse. "God, Ned, it could have killed you."
"But it didn't. There's a lot of things out there that could kill me, Veronica. I try to only focus on the one's that don't get away with it. How's that fever coming?"
She sighed and slipped her arm back underneath the blanket. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice. I'm fine, just a little fever. It's probably from overexertion."
Malone laughed and moved to kneel above her. "Still haven't changed much, have you? Stubborn as a mule. Come on, let me check it again."
Helping her sit was more difficult this time, the blonde letting him hold more of her weight than before. Veronica's skin was warm to the touch and a few drops of sweat were beading at her forehead, yet despite all of this she shivered at the loss of the warm skins from around her sore body.
Malone's hands were gentle as always, one arm wrapped around her stomach as the other removed the bandage from her shoulder. He hissed at the sight of the bright red wound, small streaks of deep blue radiating away from the hole as it leaked both blood and a clear fluid.
"I take it that it doesn't look better?" Her soft and strained voice broke his concentration as he shook his head despite the fact that she couldn't see it.
"I think…I think the arrows were tipped with something. I've never seen a wound get this bad this quick, especially one treated with my poultice. Here," he mumbled, lifting her up a bit and leaning her in a semi-sitting position against the wall behind them, "you sit up for a moment and I'll be right back, I need to grab some more yarrow and maybe a bit of some other leaves that I saw growing not too far away."
"Malone, we both know that if it's poison there isn't a plant around that will help."
Ned crouched in front of her and offered a gentile smile before pressing a kiss to her forehead. "I'll be right back."
She heaved a sigh, the pain shooting up into her neck as she scolded herself mentally for gestures like that with the injury in the place it was. Malone stepped out into the cool air realizing how warm the fire kept the cave. He pushed the thought from his mind as his eyes searched the floor for an assortment of anything he thought he could use to make Veronica more comfortable until the next day. Phoebe would bring Challenger and he'd know exactly what to give her, but until then she was in his hands.
"Damnit, Phoebe always does the healing, not me. I'm always the one getting attacked or tripping over stones." Talking to himself he gathered as much as he could before retreating back to the cave.
Veronica sat much where he'd left her though her eyes were now closed and she had a pained expression etched into her features. "I found some herbs that will help you sleep, that'll be one step in fighting the infection and poison. Once Phoebe gets back with Challenger he'll know exactly what to do."
'I hope,' he thought as he tossed the leaves and a few flowers into a small metal bowl, setting it over the fire after adding some water. "Veronica? Stay awake for a little longer, alright?"
"Okay," she muttered, her eyes opening but remaining half-lidded. Her left hand clutched at her right arm, fingers white with the strain and the pain was evident on her face.
Pouring the hot liquid into a cup he blew on it to cool it off before holding it up to her lips. "Drink up." Once it was gone he tucked her back in, checking and wrapping the wound once more before beginning the long wait.
Steadily the fever got worse, sweat beading consistently on her forehead despite Malone's consistent wiping, and he eventually had to lay behind her with her body flush against his own to keep her shivering at a minimum, as well as intercept her hand as she unconsciously tried to touch and rub at her sore shoulder. He talked to her quietly about many different things; his adventures since he'd been away and even memories of when they were all together in times that were much simpler.
Morning came slowly for Roxton, letting Challenger sleep throughout the night as his thoughts dwelt on their missing companion. At the first hint of light he wanted to shake the man awake and follow after a few sets of tracks he'd barely been able to make out in the moonlight from the night before but he stopped himself until he saw the first rays of the sun peek through the trees.
Rousing the older man he was met with a barrage of curses and annoyed growls as Challenger verbally let the hunter know he wasn't pleased for being allowed to sleep the night through.
"Despite the fact that a full nights rest is wonderful you should have gotten some sleep, Roxton. It's dangerous to be out here if you're overtired."
"I wouldn't have slept anyway. I found some suspicious looking tracks last night we should examine. I'll go check on our friends if you wouldn't mind packing up the camp." Without waiting for a response he picked up his rifle and took off into the jungle.
The camp from the night before was empty, the men clearly giving up their hopeful watch for their prisoner to come back. This sight gave John some hope and for a moment he entertained the thought of backtracking to where Veronica was supposed to meet them the previous afternoon. 'If she is there she's going to be awfully angry,' he thought with a smile-like grimace.
Making his way back to the professor they headed off in the direction of Roxton's newly discovered tracks, finding Veronica's soft-soled boots easily as they lay impressed in the earth in direct contrast to the bare feet of the indigenous. Their moods lifted a bit along with the sun as it now illuminated the area in a harsh early light.
"Look, John," Challenger announced as he pointed to several discarded arrows strewn about the foliage.
Roxton followed Veronica's footprints until they stopped and a silhouette of a body lay in the soft ferns. A few drops of blood captured his attention along with an arrow with a bloody tip. Sticking it into his bag he stood, the snapping of a twig behind them making Challenger jump and Roxton whip his gun up aiming at the heart of a young blonde woman.
"My goodness, you…you are familiar to me," Challenger mumbled as she lifted her hands in defense showing that she held no weapon.
"Ned said you were an excellent tracker so I waited here for you to pick up your friend's trail. I'm Phoebe; we met at the Amazon Village a few years ago. I came to find and take you to Veronica, she was injured and asked me to meet you in her absence."
"Ned as in Ned Malone? You've seen him?" George couldn't hold back his excitement as he fell in step with the girl, John strapping his weapon back around his arm and keeping a watchful eye behind them.
"I've been journeying with him for over a year now, he's become my brother. He's back at the caves with Veronica. When I left to find you two she seemed sore and rather rattled, but infection could have set in so we should hurry."
"Was she attacked by the natives we spotted near the base of the hill?"
Phoebe nodded, "the Bedowi. They aren't cannibals that I know of but usually capture and sell people to slavers for trade of food and other supplies. Ned and I have been tracking a band of them for weeks now trying to find the slavers camp and see if we could free anyone. Lucky for Veronica we spotted her fleeing through the woods."
They walked for about another two hours before the caves became clear, a light smoke coming from the entrance of the first opening. They quickened their step, eager to find Veronica safe and sound after nearly 24 hours of worrying as well as see Malone for the first time in nearly three years.
The young man met them at the entrance, the two explorers sending him a warm smile and each taking a moment to pull him in for a heartfelt hug.
"Good god, Malone, you look like a native." Roxton smacked him on the shoulder seeing the man's eyes clouded with worry.
"Let's catch up later we need to get Veronica help. I have reason to think that the arrow was poisoned. I've been using the yarrow and a poultice mix that's always worked on my own wounds, but so far nothing is working. I'm kind of hoping that you're still as brilliant as you ever were, Challenger."
"Well, things like that don't change over a mere two and a half years, my boy."
They entered the warm cave seeing their companion asleep on several furs. Her ashen face and shivering body made Roxton's stomach drop while the professor welcomed the challenge.
"I gave her some herbal tea to help her sleep around sunrise, though that should wear off pretty soon, it wasn't a very strong dose. I wake her up about every two hours to check and change the bandage, though this morning she pretty much stayed knocked out."
Moments ticked by as Roxton and Phoebe kept their distance from Challenger and the hovering Malone.
"Help me sit her up, I need to see this wound."
Deciding it was best to just pull Veronica into his cross-legged lap, Malone cradled her against his chest as Challenger gently removed the bandage. "Goodness me; this…this is extraordinary."
"Well that can't be good," John groused as he set his things down and moved over to assist if he was needed. Admittedly his curiosity was getting the better of him and though he regretted look at the angry red and blue swelling around the single arrow wound he at least had a better idea of the exclamation of 'extraordinary' from the scientist.
"I've never seen an infection like this, and while I have some ideas this whole confounded situation would be better if I could test the tip of the arrow."
"I could go find one for you if you need," Phoebe offered, though Roxton waved her off.
Reaching into his bag he retrieved the tip of the bloodied arrow he discovered before Phoebe had found them. "I thought you would say something like that so I brought this with us."
"Good man, Roxton." Slipping his reading glasses from the front pocket of his coat he brought the arrowhead to the tip of his nose before muttering to himself. "Well…looks like…hermmmm…ah ha! The tip, look for yourself."
Ned and Roxton shared confused looked, Phoebe herself moving closer to see what the ginger had been talking about.
"It's broken. I'll bet that the tip is still lodged in Veronica's shoulder. That's what making her ill. I don't smell or see any coating on this arrow save for blood, and it may just be dirty. Her body is trying to reject this piece of chiseled stone and it's shutting down in response to being unable to do that very thing."
"We can't very well perform surgery in the middle of a cave, Challenger." Ned growled as he laid the sick woman back onto the furs, mindful of her shoulder.
"I couldn't do it if you asked. Dissection is easy, surgery not so. Marguerite is the most proficient one of us and will be the best to remove the fragment."
The group set out to fashion a make-shift cot, succeeding using the furs and tying them to several large branches. Giving Veronica one last dose of the herbal tea, her glassy eyes opening but not registering anything around her, she dozed off as Malone settled her into the cot on her side, but ended up resting her on her back when it turned out to be too awkward.
Setting out as quickly as possible, which in reality was painstakingly slow, each adjustment to their step or wiggling of the cot causing friction against the wound which elicited a groan or grimace from the sleeping woman.
Five hours later as the sun hung low in the sky the Treehouse peeked up through the jungle before them. Challenger jogged ahead and promised to have everything ready for them when they arrived, Phoebe staying and guarding the carriers.
At the sound of the elevator Marguerite and Finn shared a relieved look. They'd been out all morning and afternoon searching for any nearby sign of the groups return, and while Finn was just happy they were back the heiress wasn't in such a chipper mood.
"Damn it, Challenger, you were supposed to be back hours ago! Did you find some wretched insect or fascinating plant that held everything up?"
Her words were cut short as only one person stepped off of the elevator, sending it back down behind him."
"What happened?" The two women spoke simultaneously catching the scientist off guard.
"Veronica was injured and we need your surgical expertise, my dear. You can be angry with us for being late later."
The three set up shop in the blonde's room, finishing the supply gathering as the elevator rumbled back to life. Meeting them at the top Marguerite gasped as her hand flew over her mouth to see Malone with Veronica against his chest standing in the elevator.
"We'll catch up later, Marguerite, where do you want her?" As much as Ned didn't want to admit that he even missed the dark-haired heiress his concern was focused on the semi conscious young woman shivering in his arms.
"Down in her room."
She pushed down her excitement at the surprise and set her mind to the task at hand. Roxton and Phoebe followed more slowly behind to leave as much room as possible for Marguerite and Challenger to work on Veronica, deciding to stay up in the common room until they were needed.
"Finn, we're going to need that hot water now," the young blond scampered off, the heiress firing orders as Ned placed the jungle native onto the soft bed.
Rotating her onto her side he removed the bandage from her shoulder as Challenger stepped up with a small leather pouch filled with medical instruments. "George, you could have stitched this up," Marguerite groused as she flit her hands back and forth to get Malone out of the way.
"Well it's not that simple…the tip of this arrow has broken off in the wound."
"It'll need to be dug out, I suppose. This is going to be quite painful, especially since there's already an infection in the wound. Can we make her some tea to knock her out?"
"She's already had some; we should be quick before it wears off."
The woman nodded and put on an apron before taking a seat next to the bed. "Ned, you should get on the other side and hold her arms just in case the tea doesn't keep her out."
Malone moved as commanded as Marguerite got to work. Finn arrived with the hot water, soaking a towel in it as ordered. "Holy cow…that thing is epic."
"Epic?" Challenger was always trying to figure out Finn's futuristic slang, his constant questions usually causing the girl to roll her eyes heavenward and walk away.
"Yeah…epic. You know, like the biggest and the baddest?"
"Oh, indeed. So, the Tyrannosaurus is the most epic of dinosaurs thus far on this Plateau?"
Marguerite snapped her fingers to get their attention, Finn ready with a warm wet towel as the heiress made the first attempt to open the wound up for inspection. Veronica's face distorted, but other than that no movement occurred at the intrusion.
"I'll need a spreader, Challenger."
Searching for the tool the scientist paused to watch in fascination as marguerite used the end of a scalpel and a small piece of cloth to prod around the wound, opening it slowly. "Finn, I'll need you to take a cupful of water and pour it over very slowly, alright?"
"'Kay." Running back into the common room she spotted Roxton and Phoebe as they sat at the table in silence.
"Nope, we just started."
John nodded, "let me know if you need anything."
"Will do!" Lifting a cup she was back at the proverbial Florence Nightingale's side once more, doing as instructed.
The fresh water over the wound flushed it out a bit, the poultice Ned had been using washing away bit by bit until it was as clean as it was going to get. Tossing the used piece of cloth onto the nightstand she grabbed a pair of tweezers and a candle. Lighting it she passed the tweezers through the flames several times before dousing them in the clean water to cool.
"I haven't a spreader, Marguerite, we'll need to improvise."
Lifting up two scalpels and passing them through the flame for a moment or two he hefted up the nightstand and moved it aside allowing him room to hold the wound open while Marguerite fished out the broken fragment. Spreading it open the young woman below them jerked away as her hazy eyes flew open.
"Whoa…it's okay, Veronica. Marguerite is working on your shoulder, okay? You need to be very still."
All could see the confusion on her face, as well as the pain, though they couldn't quite tell if she'd understood what Ned had spoken.
"It's okay, Vee, we'll take care of you." Finn pat her leg as she stood at the end of the bed in an attempt to comfort the woman that had become her big sister.
Malone renewed his grip on Veronica's arms, nodding at the two to continue. Opening the wound as far as it would go Marguerite delved in with the tweezers, hoping to feel the scraping of the fragment against the metal pincers. Veronica whimpered and turned to press her face into the downy pillow. Thankfully she at least understood what was happening and attempted to keep her body as still as possible.
"I…I can feel it." Marguerite smiled as the felt the scraping of metal against metal. Gripping it and pulling back the tip of the arrow came out along with a rush of blood onto the waiting towel. "Well, that's a good sign."
Holding it out Challenger accepted the small piece of metal and the bloody tweezers. "What now? Do we sew the wound up?"
"No, we'll give it a few hours and clean it regularly to try and get as much infection out as possible. We don't want to sew in anything we need to flush tomorrow."
Malone thanked the heiress with a smile, pulling back to look down at the patient only to see that she'd fallen into unconsciousness once again.
"Let's let her sleep, clean things up here, and then come back to check on the gauze in a little bit."
"Good job, Marguerite," Challenger smiled, squeezing her shoulders before removing the tools and heading where they assumed was back down to the lab.
"I'm gonna go help Challenger; make sure he puts everything away in the right place." Finn followed behind leaving Malone and the brunette to gently bandage the shoulder.
"You own us an explanation, Ned," she grumbled though she couldn't keep the smile from her face as they wrapped the shoulder and wound before pulling a blanket over their sleeping roommate.
"Yeah, yeah – we'll get to that part," he laughed, pulling her into a hug before they moved back upstairs to give Roxton the update.
Pain flashed through her mind as the sounds of the jungle at night invaded the haze. Feeling as though her skull was stuffed with cotton Veronica opened her eyes slowly, the flickering light of a single burning candle across the room casting shadows from the chair at the foot of the bed and the young man sitting in it.
He smiled and rose, his back popping generously, though he ignored it and sat beside her on the edge of the bed, careful with his movements.
"So I wasn't just hallucinating this whole time," she mumbled past dry lips and tongue, Malone reaching out for a cup and bringing water to her lips. After a few sips she pulled back with a sigh, closing her eyes once more.
"No hallucinations, I'm home."
"Yeah," he promised, weaving his fingers through hers.
"What about Phoebe?"
He smiled softly, "she went back to the Amazon village, but assured me that she'd be back to check up on us both. You've been asleep for three days, Veronica."
"Have you been…been sitting there for three days?"
Attempting to sit up she failed, Ned putting his hand to the center of her chest and pushing her gently back onto the blankets. "Oh no, you've got a lot more healing to do. You just lay there and give orders, I'll get whatever you need."
She chuckled and pointed to the shelf in the nightstand to her left. Moving over and crouching he spotted all of his journals dated from the beginning. "My journals,"
"They're all yours; I was just keeping them safe."
"Thank you very much. I can honestly say that I've missed writing all this time. My only journal I took got eaten along with my pack a few months into my journey."
They shared a comfortable silence, Malone realizing it was because she'd fallen back to sleep. Running his hand over her hair he pressed a kiss to her forehead before gathering up his journals and silently left the room.
"It's good to be home."
A/N: All done! Sorry it was so long, I just didn't really feel like making it into a three-chapter story since it was already supposed to be a one-shot. Let me know what you think!