Author's Notes: Oh my gosh!! I've finished something!!
"Cor...." a particularly nasty boy breathed. "I think we killed her!"
A child with eyes the color of warm honey backed away nervously. "I hope not, Thomas," she said petulantly. "My mommy will cry, and Daddy will take away my dollies."
Pushing his glasses higher up onto his nose, another young boy spoke out reasonably, "Yeah, well -- at least we HAVE parents. No one's gonna cry over Lydia when we tell the Sisters she's dead. Maybe we should feel bad for her."
He received a punch in the stomach for his efforts, courtesy of Thomas.
"Shut up, you dork! Don't you get it? Lydia's not a regular kid like the rest of us. There's something wrong with her," Thomas confided, his voice too full of authority, like an overripe fruit. The other children, not comprehending the significance of this, leaned in closer to hear the words of their leader. "That's why her parents don't want her. And that's why we killed her just now -- so she can't cast her spell on us too."
"She's a witch?" a girl exclaimed, clutching at the hand of her nearest friend, who spontaneously burst into tears.
"An evil witch," another boy clarified, looking to Thomas for approval. He received a proud nod.
"Is that why her eyes look so weird?" one girl asked through her tears.
"CHILDREN!" Sister Ellen screeched from across the playground. "What ARE you gawking at?! You'll soil your--"
"Just a dead rat," Thomas called back smoothly, his leg shooting out to send a remarkably strong kick -- even for a seven year old -- directly into Lydia's back. She flopped noiselessly with the impact.
"Coo," someone remarked. "Maybe she really IS dead."
"Well, get away from it THIS INSTANT!"
The children scattered, the 'witch' soon forgotten in the face of hopscotch and catch.
None of the nuns noticed the pale child curved into a fetal position on the pebbled ground, her wild and dark curls hiding the bloody bruise on her head. As the sun began its daily descent into oblivion, she finally began to stir.
Tentatively, Lydia reached to feel for the source of the sting. Her matted hair covered the sore spot well. Good. Last time she'd gone to the infirmary after an incident like this, she'd been sent to bed with no lunch or supper for causing a disturbance among the children.
If you didn't antagonize them, Lydia, they wouldn't--
But I didn't--
If you don't stop acting like a savage, I will have you thrown out of this school and into the STREET!
But it's not my--
THEY attacked ME--
The sharp sound of a ruler across an unsuspecting hand. Warm, humiliating tears.
Stop crying, Lydia. The world's a harsh place, especially for a worthless orphan like you. Haven't you realized that yet? Lydia. Grow up.
This time, she remained silent when they asked her why she hadn't shown up for class.
This time, she did not cry.
Marguerite wasn't sure what time it was, as only the men had brought along timepieces, but she guessed it must be around two, two-thirty AM. Everyone else had gone to sleep hours ago.
She wandered the treehouse, touching objects: running a finger over polished edges, pressing her knuckles against rougher ones. She wasn't sure why she did it, why she needed to feel solidity beneath her fingertips. All she knew was that this happened every once in a while, this crazy urge to feel, to reacquaint herself with the world her body lived in. That was the best she could explain it, but still it made no sense in words.
She sighed, her breath rushing out as if yearning to escape the tight space of her lungs. Yes, she understood that feeling, that feeling of being stifled, smothered, trapped.
She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to ward off the chill. Oh, how she hated this sense of melancholy! Her only consolation was that, once it descended, it only lasted a night or two. Silly woman, she chided herself. After all these years, you should've learned to snap out of it in only a few hours at most!
Challenger, Veronica, and Malone hadn't noticed her odd mood at dinner. It had never been her intention to let them read her, so she wasn't particularly bothered by their lack of reaction. But Roxton....
He'd been so busy babbling on to Malone about those damn guns of his that he'd barely spared her a glance! Part of her was relieved -- no need for embarrassing, lengthy explanations now. But that other part of her, that secret part, was stung by his insensitivity. She'd been so sure he'd pick up on her sorrow immediately! So sure, in fact, that while she naturally dreaded having to face his questions, she was almost looking forward to it. Finally, to be able to share her burden with someone else!
"....but the first time I ever experienced the real BEAUTY of the F86 was in Malaysia. It was raining that day, which made it awfully hard to--"
Marguerite had tuned him out then. She couldn't bear it. She just couldn't. Jerkily, she'd reached for the handpainted mug next to her untouched plate, giving her the perfect excuse to cast her eyes downward. Concentrating hard, she'd lost herself in the ornate dips and swirls of a pattern Veronica had once created to pass the time.
Forget about it, Marguerite, she lectured herself, forcing the memory to an abrupt halt. He didn't do it on purpose. And he's just a MAN. Just like any other....
"But....no....." she groaned. Then, growling in frustration at her circular thoughts, Marguerite cried, "Bloody damn!" and ran to her room as quickly and quietly as possible, needing a pillow to muffle the inevitable tears.
Marguerite couldn't get the image of the oblivious Roxton at dinner out of her mind. She pressed her face deep into the pillow, feeling its downy sides rise up to surround her flushed cheeks, but it only worsened the situation. Her mind filled with vivid pictures of the handsome lord suddenly looking over at her and immediately sensing that something was wrong. He rose, took her hand, and led her to the balcony. And the empathy and compassion emanating from him was so strong that she didn't fight him, simply let him take her wherever he chose....
They stood alone in the moonlight. Roxton gently disentangled his fingers from hers. His hands drifted to the crown of her head, and then he brought them gently down, gliding over her slender neck, the curve of her shoulder, her upper arms....then back up again, and she shivered at the sensuous contact. His warm hands came to rest once more on her cheeks, tilting her face towards him. She felt her lips drifting, almost of their own volition, into a small, grateful smile at his light and soothing touch.
"Please, Marguerite," the dream-Roxton whispered. "Tell me what's wrong."
"I...." she started tremulously. And then, "You're not REAL!" and she broke away with a shriek.
After that, her pillow felt only cold. She slithered lower down on the bed and muffled her tears with the hard mattress, wishing she could force Roxton out of her thoughts, and at the same time, wishing she wouldn't need to.
Roxton awoke with a start. Flipping over onto his back with a groan, he tightened his hands into fists, muttered a choice word or two, and willed himself to calm down.
Lord John Roxton was extremely annoyed.
Firstly, he'd been awakened from a most exciting dream centering on the beautiful and enigmatic Marguerite.
Secondly, he'd HAD a dream centering on the beautiful and enigmatic Marguerite!
The rugged hunter had been trying so hard to keep himself in check. He didn't want to push himself at Marguerite before she was ready, for fear his chances with her would be ruined beyond repair. So he'd done his absolute best to think of her as rarely as possible.
He had been quite proud of himself, actually. He hadn't purposely antagonized her just so he could see her beautiful features flush even ONCE the entire day. And at dinner, Roxton had kept himself busy rambling on and on about weaponry and useless adventures to Malone (who gobbled it up like a starving raptor), and he hadn't shot Marguerite even ONE brazen glance!
Yet he still couldn't get her out of his mind, let alone out of his heart. And it wasn't that he wanted to forget her (never!); he just wanted to tone down his urge to touch her....she was obviously very leery about opening herself up to him, and the risk of her thinking he had only one goal in mind was simply too great at the moment.
"Dammit, man! Get a grip!" he muttered. "You'll know when she's ready!"
And then he heard it. In disbelief, he shook his head to clear his obviously sleep-addled brain, then listened again.
The Lord of Avebury, completely unconcerned with appearances at this particular moment, hurriedly pulled on a pair of pants and a shirt, not bothering to button the latter. He glided to Marguerite's doorway in hunter mode, expertly avoiding squeaky floorboards and the like, not wanting to alert her to his presence just yet. Better to assess the situation first.
He knew Marguerite did not cry easily.
Roxton stepped into the shadow between the curtain and the doorjamb. Marguerite was curled in a fetal position on her bed, sobbing so hard that her small body shook. She looked oddly fragile now, in her strappy camisole and thin slip. Marguerite in white lace was usually enough to send him running for the nearest source of cold water, but at the moment she merely looked battered and achingly alone.
He watched her for a few more moments to be absolutely sure that what he was about to do was right, what she'd want - or at least need.
And then he padded across the room, the cold, wooden floor urging him on. When he reached her bed, he gently yet deliberately spooned himself against her. Marguerite didn't tense, as he's expected. Instead, she simply pressed herself against the firm muscles of his chest and continued wailing. Her face was a roadmap of tear-tracks, and it bothered Roxton that he'd slept through so many of them.
He didn't wipe them away though - he knew she wouldn't have wanted him to pretend that they'd never happened. He didn't bother with useless platitudes either; Marguerite hated for her time to be wasted.
Instead, he simply held her tightly against his body as she cried, his hands moving over her skin a reassuring caress, never faltering.
Roxton quickly lost track of time as his world narrowed to include only two things - himself, and Marguerite. He didn't know how many minutes or hours had passed them by as they lay together on the bed: she drowning in a sorrow she wasn't yet ready to share; him drowning in the love he was afraid to profess.
Marguerite turned in his arms then, swallowing wearily at the tears she couldn't control, and Roxton knew she was getting ready to talk.
"Marguerite, what's WRONG?" Roxton asked, a touch of hysteria creeping into his voice. He had never, in the entire time he'd known her, seen her lose it to this extent.
"I....don't....know...." she forced out between sobs. "Nothing's wrong. Everything's wrong."
He raised himself on an elbow and carefully drew her chin up. Marguerite lifted her eyes to him. Her eyelids fluttered, as if she were fighting an internal battle to keep their gazes locked. Her cheeks were dark with shame.
"Is THIS wrong?" Roxton asked softly, clearing referring to the two of them, together, and her using him as a support system. He made sure his tone wasn't accusing, wasn't pleading, was merely....kind. Although inside of course, he was praying for all he was worth to whomever would listen.
"No," Marguerite sniffled, not even taking a moment to think about it, much to the lord's delight. "This is the only thing that's right." She blushed even harder then, as if realizing what she'd implied, what doors she'd just opened. "I mean, I--" she stammered, then gave it up as useless -- he'll know what I'm thinking anyway; he always does, damn him! -- and burst into yet another round of hot, confusing, *wonderful* tears....
Unbidden, memories of her bitter childhood rose up like blackened, churning waves: the taunting children like an iron ring around her small frame as she was shoved to a sprawl on the dirt; icy, stiff adults who kept their distance, who kept their care reserved for those fortunate souls who had parents that could notice, that could present expensive, end-of-the-year gifts with a flourish....
In those days, she'd only retained her sanity by keeping strict control over her mind. Like a strange sort of factory owner, Marguerite had felt it necessary to regulate what she could and could not feel, and she'd ordered her heart to produce bundle after bundle of anger, hate, spite....and that was it.
Marguerite had never consciously asked for courage, but for years she'd apparently had an overabundance of it -- to the point where she took the risky jobs that no other agents had even considered. Well, it had worked out nicely for the British government, but what about her? It seemed as if she'd used the last sputtering drops of her strength up, and now all that was left was a drained shell of the flaming woman she'd once been....
Her last thought was, I've never felt so free.... and then she pressed her face into his neck and cried for all she was worth. It was cleansing this time, for she was no longer ashamed.
Even later, when her tears had finally petered out except for the occasional sniffle, Roxton's hand continued its gentle motion, stroking wide semicircles across her back.
"John," Marguerite said finally, her voice oddly pitched somewhere between a question and a statement.
"I'm here." He kept his voice low to match hers, although there was no sensible reason why. Outside, the sun was reaching out lazily, trying to envelop Marguerite and himself in its rays. He tightened his arms around her slim form in an attempt to ward off the intrusion, and he carefully moderated his voice so that it wouldn't break through this painstakingly constructed cocoon.
He loved her. He loved her so much that he was willing to suffer through every exquisite moment of it, alone, until she was willing to love him back.
"Have you been up this whole time?" he asked softly.
She paused, then finally admitted it with a miserable nod.
Roxton realized with a start that it was about 5 am. Bloody hell! If she's awake like this every night....no wonder she's impossible to wake up in the morning! She's only getting something like a measly hour and a half of sleep!
"Marguerite," he said tenderly, stroking her hair. "Don't worry about tomorrow. I'll make sure you can sleep extra-late."
"Nah," she sniffed. "Don't bother with that. I'm used to it, and honestly....I don't want to, um, alert anyone else to...." Her voice trailed off. Uncomfortable, she fidgeted with the buttons on his open shirt. Roxton leaned down and kissed her, very softly, not demanding anything she couldn't give, not demanding anything at all. He simply touched his lips to hers in a silent I'm here for you.
"I'm okay now," Marguerite said softly, wondrously, into the comfortable silence that ensued.
And it was true. The sense of melancholy was thinning out smokily and drifting away, and Marguerite felt her usual spirit surging back, vivid and bright, sunshine cutting through hazy mist.
"Are you su--" her bedmate began, brow furrowed.
"Roxton," Marguerite said firmly, her voice clear and strong. The color was back in her cheeks; she smiled brightly at him as she shifted them, his body following the movements of hers without question. He lay on his back now, his arms still looped around her, and she gazed down at his face as she stretched languidly on top of him.
"It's me," Marguerite continued, her eyes showing him the truth in this statement. Before, they'd been a dull gray, and this seeming translucence gave the appearance that one could look right into her and see nothing but flat bleakness. What a contrast to the way she was looking at him now, sparkling with the life and grit he remembered! The life and grit he loved.
"Marguerite," Roxton grinned, hugging her. "I'm so glad you're all right."
"I'm fine. You can go back to using your normal voice now," she said briskly, casually neatening his hair with her fingers. "I won't run or anything, and I certainly won't break."
"Okay," Roxton said hoarsely.
"But thank you," Marguerite continued, more sober now. She was settling back into herself, and she was able to let some of the bright cheerfulness in her manner flow back to where it was usually exhibited. Comfortable with who she was now, she showed it to him in the only true way she knew. Her eyes were very green, brilliantly so. "Thank you."
"Always," Roxton replied simply.
Taking a deep, contented breath - it was amazing how quickly her pain had dissolved once he'd wordlessly reassured her that he cared! - Marguerite felt safe enough with him now to broach the subject that had really been knifing at her. "Now would you care to tell me just why you were ignoring me at dinner?"
"Well," Roxton said mischievously, sensing - as he always did - when she felt secure enough with herself and with him to be touched. "I was trying to keep myself from doing this." Roxton rolled them over in one smooth motion and bent to nuzzle at her neck. "And this," he murmured, nibbling at her ear. "And of course....THIS." And he leaned in to kiss her hard, the passion roiling in him. To his delight, she arched her neck up to meet him halfway, practically whimpering in anticipation.
Through the open window, the morning sun continued to rise slowly, quietly: a stark dissimilarity to the heated frenzy of kissing and touching on the small, once-neatly-made bed in the center of the room.
"Marguerite," Roxton rasped suddenly, huskily, raising himself on his elbows to look at her beautiful, flushed face. "I love you."
"Oh, John," Marguerite breathed, her expression decidedly dreamy. Roxton had never seen her look at him that way before; he found it quite endearing. "Oh, John...."
A faint surprise flickered across her face. "You know," she remarked, almost casually. "Until now, I'd never believed someone could say that to me and actually mean it."
He kissed her forehead. "I will always mean it."
"Roxton," she said urgently, sensing that this long, magical moment together was drawing to a close. She could hear Veronica bustling about in the kitchen. This had been the first time she'd ever truly shared herself with him, and she wondered if she'd ever experience a joy quite like that ever again. "I don't want this to end."
"Marguerite, it's n--"
"I'm not going to be able to keep from falling asleep, and I want you to stay with me," she continued hurriedly, watching for his reaction to her attempt to draw out their time together.
"The others will come looking for us," he warned her. "They'll probably--"
"I don't care what they assume," Marguerite informed him. "They already think we've been covert lovers for years. I heard Veronica and Ned talking."
"Well, in that case," Roxton said, winking at her. "Maybe one day we'll prove them right."
"Pig," Marguerite rebuked him cheerfully, yawning.
Roxton waggled his eyebrows at her, then shifted them so they were both sprawled comfortably on the bed. "Think you'll be able to sleep with all this sun in your face?" he asked, concerned.
"Oh Roxton, don't be silly! Use your imagination...." Marguerite pressed her face to the place where his neck curved into shoulder. "See," she said, her voice muffled. "It's perfectly comfortable and dark here."
Roxton smiled into her hair. "Glad to be of service, my dear."
Within minutes, her breathing evened out, and Roxton thought she'd finally drifted off after a long night of sleeplessness. "Good night, darling," he whispered tenderly. His voice cracked. "God, I love you so much."
"Roxton?" she murmured drowsily.
"I love you too."
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