TITLE:  Separation Interval

MAIN CHARACTERS:  Marguerite, Roxton and to a lesser extent Finn

SUMMARY:  Marguerite and Roxton deal with the aftermath of the Ouroboros incident.  Set after the episode "Finn."

DISCLAIMER:  You know the drill.  They're not mine.  They never will be.  Painful moan.

This morning for the first time in weeks Lord John Roxton felt somewhat at peace with the world.  Marguerite had arisen early, and when Roxton and Finn had left, she had already been busy on some project of her own, setting out three water-filled bottles by the wood ash pile.  Apparently she planned to work at ground level this morning.  Of course, there'd been no good-bye kiss, but Marguerite had been awake and active.  It cheered him.

Challenger had been up before everyone else, and when Roxton had been poking the cook fire to life, he'd left on an insect-collecting expedition, saying he needed both nocturnal and diurnal specimens and simply must be out and about for best results.  He'd promised to stay within two miles of the Treehouse.  Roxton had waved a bleary farewell.

Finn, ranging over to Roxton's left, gestured ahead and he nodded an acknowledgement.  As curious as a monkey, Finn constantly bounced away to something new.  No telling what she'd seen this time.

It was the cusp of the morning, just when night ends and day begins.  The whole of nature seemed to know it.  Absolute silence reigned.  No screech of birds, no monkey chatter, no dinosaur roars, no trickle of water, not even the gentlest whisper of wind.  The only sound was the muffled crunch of Roxton's footsteps.  In the lush, vivid jungle the quiet was anomalous and sent an eerie chill racing down his spine.  A sudden, loud crack -- so intense Roxton could feel it in his bones -- reverberated across the Plateau.  He turned, instinctively knowing where the sound had originated.  Terror grabbed his stomach as he muttered, "The Treehouse," and took off in a dead run.

He'd left Marguerite alone.  She was in trouble.

Finn watched Roxton take off and through pouted lips blew a sputtery, exasperated sigh.  The big guy was doing better, but not much.  This morning they had actually hiked almost a quarter mile from the Treehouse.  Yesterday after only a few hundred feet, Roxton had muttered, "I just need to make sure Marguerite has everything she needs," and returned.  At this rate, they'd never get any hunting done.  But Finn trotted after him.  Once Roxton satisfied himself that Marguerite would be okay, they might make some real progress, and Roxton was a dead accurate shot and a pleasure to have on a hunt.

Finn caught him up at the gate.  On its other side Marguerite talked in a low, calm voice.  Both she and the Treehouse seemed fine.  The world hadn't ended, at least not here on the Plateau.  Finn asked the obvious question.  "What's up?"

Marguerite made a face.  "Oh, I just broke a bottle, Finn.  Nothing big."  She held up her hand.  "I was trying a new way to leach lye and splashed a little on my finger.  Had to scramble to get it in clear water right away."

Roxton reached across the gate, trying to grab Marguerite's hand and look at the small burn.  "How bad is it?"

Marguerite snatched her hand out of his reach.  "I'm fine, John.  You and Finn get on with your hunting."  Roxton's face hardened into his "I'm-the-man-and-I'm-going-to-take-care-of-you" stubbornness and he started to say something, probably a direct order to Marguerite to be sick, but she spoke first.  "I tell you I'm fine!  Go on now, you two.  Shoo!  Kill us something nice for dinner."  Marguerite made sweeping motions with all ten fingers.

Obviously reluctant, Roxton turned away.  He looked back over his broad shoulder as Marguerite walked to the tree and his square face fell into that glum look he kept handy for leaving his lady.  He glanced at Finn.  "Are you ready?  We'd better get on with it."

Finn wished she could figure out Roxton and Marguerite.  All this on-again-off-again stuff was enough to drive a person crazy.  "Sure, big guy, lead on."

On the ground, maybe a hundred feet outside the electric parameter fence, two familiar voices murmured, a rumbling baritone and a clipped soprano.  Marguerite stopped writing and whispered, "Has it been that long already?"  Rubbing her nose, she sniffled away the last heartache she would have time for that day and looked down at the prosaically black and white page.  Siggie Freud had once told Marguerite to bleed on paper rather than in her heart.  Perhaps she should be using red ink; it would certainly fit the subject matter.  Marguerite snapped the journal closed, capped her pen, leaned back and sighed.

Under a cotton bandage, her burnt finger ached a little, but nothing like her heart.  She was still trying to write away her pain from yesterday.

Last night Roxton had declined yet another peace offering.  She could understand him politely declining the cakes she'd attempted a few days ago -- they'd been burnt beyond recognition -- and perhaps he'd had privacy issues with the laundry.  Roxton had snatched his smelly socks out of her hands with a curt, "That's not your responsibility."  But the cigars … tobacco was a difficult addiction to throw and Roxton had been deprived for more than two years.  He should have been ecstatic.

Late yesterday morning a small band of Ikinaro traders from the interior plains had stopped briefly at the Treehouse compound.  Besides the usual salt, silks, spices and perfumes, their chief, a slimy fellow with sweeping red mustaches -- undoubtedly one of gypsy Queen Isadore's cousins -- had brought out a luxury that Marguerite hadn't seen in years: cigars.  After a long haggle she'd come away with five of the fat, fragrant rolls.  They'd seemed a bargain until they turned out to be a waste of her trade beads.

Roxton hadn't liked them.

When he and Finn had returned from yesterday's unrewarding prowl of the Plateau, Marguerite had brought Roxton a melon brandy and a cigar and with a towel over her arm had pretended to be a waiter at the Reform Club.  She'd offered to trim and light the cigar for him while he reclined in primordial luxury.  Roxton had picked up the cigars from the abalone shell she'd used as a tray, grinned and said, "Thank you.  How thoughtful."  But he'd put them on a bookshelf and, ignoring her little act, taken his brandy and wandered away to talk to Challenger about some new creature he'd seen.  He hadn't looked at the cigars again.  They still lay over there, perfuming the air with the rich aroma of sweet tobacco.

For weeks Roxton hadn't touched Marguerite in other than the most disinterested way.  Hadn't come to her bed.  Hadn't kissed her.  He still wasn't ready to make peace, and Marguerite was beginning to think she'd lost him, perhaps forever.

Honest, straightforward men like Roxton were like electric lights.  He knew just two ways to be -- on or off, black or white, everything or nothing.  Marguerite had had Roxton's everything and now she had nothing at all.

It made Marguerite's nights very long, and sometimes in the middle of one, when insects buzzed outside her mosquito net and night-running dinosaurs barked in the distance and the sauna-hot air burned in her lungs, she'd swear the Earth had stopped spinning on its axis and that morning would never come.  But it always did, eventually.  More's the pity when it meant seeing Roxton again.

The gate in the electric fence clicked open and shut.  The hum of voices grew louder.  Through the open slats of the balcony flooring, Marguerite saw the two of them below.  Finn asked, "So, when are you going to teach me how to make gunpowder?  That's something we didn't know in New Amazonia."

Roxton's rumble answered, "Now that you'll have to take up with Challenger when he gets back from today's bug-hunting expedition.  He's munitions, I'm just manufacture and maintenance."

Marguerite glanced at the angle of the sunlight blazing through the Treehouse's open balcony.  No, it wasn't that late.  It wasn't even dinnertime yet.  Roxton and Finn must have returned early.  They'd be popping out of elevator in a minute or two.

Snatching her journal from the table, Marguerite scrambled up the ladder she'd left leaning against the bookcase and thrust it in today's hiding place.  Lately she found a new one every day, just to be safe.  It wouldn't do for Roxton to read any of this journal, even by accident.  Behind her the elevator's rainwater-powered counter-weights started sloshing and rattling.  "1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …" Marguerite began the count.  It took the elevator about sixty seconds to travel up to the Treehouse.  About two-thirds of that going down.

The interior of the tree trunk made the voices echo and dropped Finn's soprano down an octave.  "Challenger's gotta be the smartest guy I've ever met."

Roxton supplied Finn his favorite label for their resident genius.  "He's a visionary, maybe even a prophet.  Men like Challenger inspire men like me.  He points my way."

"… 45, 46, 47, 48 …." Marguerite hung the ladder on its storage hooks.  The top of the elevator's cage peeked above the floor.  "… 53, 54, 55…"

At the kitchen board, Marguerite selected a melon from the fruit bowl and began slicing.  "My, you're back early!" she called out as Roxton and Finn's footfalls sounded on the great room floor.

It had been so long.

The night was filled with her moaning and he could feel her everywhere under him, her sweat-slick body sliding against his, her hair whispering on his pillow with every shift, "Shri-ish, shri-ish."  He licked her.  She tasted of musk.  She tasted of Heaven.

Marguerite couldn't be here.  He must be dreaming again.

She stood on the balcony dressed in white silk, in her black hair the night, in her face the moon and stars.  He touched her, his finger traced the map to her heart.  Time stretched.

He slept.  Marguerite hated him; it was over between them.  When he awoke his bed would be empty.

Thick night held only a bed, sheet and pillows, suspended half way between ground and sky.  Dim moonlight shimmered her skin.  Together they breathed and moved.  He had no tomorrow or yesterday.  He remembered nothing.  He wanted nothing, just her.

Some dreams are better than waking.

Marguerite bent over him, her breasts brushing his chest, above her the warm glow of firelight reflected on a cave ceiling.  This was where they had first made love.  Outside the night roared and hard rain fell.  In here, soft hours of discovery, an endless night.

He whispered, "I don't want to ever wake up."

It broke the spell.  His eyes opened up.

Roxton lay sprawled face down on his bed, his head and one arm dangled over its edge, his bedclothes puddled on the floor.  Rolling over, his hand caressed the empty space beside him.  Marguerite wasn't there.  She'd never come to him again.

"Oh bloody hell," Roxton muttered and threw his innocent pillow at the wall.  It smacked two of his rifles and they rattled a little.  He lay back.  It was going to be another long night.  Maybe he should get up and smoke one of Marguerite's cigars.  Roxton turned toward the wall.  A real man resisted petty temptation.  A real man never wanted to howl his pain at the moon.

Snick, snick, snick.  Square hands pulled a brass-bristled brush in and out of the rifle barrel.  On the great room table the rifle's oiled bolt and trigger assembly lay on a remnant of a blue-striped shirt, the walnut stock and its attached magazine off to the side.  The thick, sweet reek of gun oil permeated the air, almost, but not quite, overpowering the tantalizing aroma of Marguerite's five cigars.

Two enormous and iridescent red and blue moths crawled on the tabletop, exhausted and perhaps a little singed from hours of circling the three candles on the table.  Two other moths, one gray and one orange, now flapped in their place, making the flames dance and shift.

Protecting the rifle barrel from his sweat with a soft undershirt worn to spider web flimsiness, the Treehouse's resident armorer, Lord John Roxton, twirled the brush in the last rifle he planned to clean that evening.  In Kenya Mombatu had cleaned Roxton's guns and made a good living from it.  In China it had been Hsung, who'd cried when his lord had sailed away but then had gleefully bought himself a fine farm.  But here, on this South American plateau, in this almost lost world of Challenger's, Maple White's and, God help them, now Shanghai Xan's, there was only the Lord himself to do it.  But gun cleaning was honest work and Roxton loved the simple, repetitive movements.

Now and then, trying not to look in the direction of the cigars, Roxton would glance at the blonde young woman, improbably named Finn, who sat across the table from him balancing on a chair, riding it on two legs like a rearing horse.  Finn wasn't focused on her neat balancing act but the black leather-bound book she held.  Her lips formed words silently, but the slow movements were easy to read.  "But … I … am … pray-ing …"

The lips stopped and Finn's smooth young brow wrinkled.  That meant she'd found another word too long to sound out.  In a few seconds Finn would spell it for Roxton's translation.  She recruited reading assistance from anyone in range, which at the moment was only Roxton.  Everyone else had gone to bed.

An hour ago Roxton had heard Challenger say, "Good night," and had slipped down hoping for a moment alone with Marguerite.  The curtain to her room had been closed.  He'd returned to his gun cleaning.

"Roxton, what is U, N, B, E, L, I, E, V, A, B, L, E?"

He told her.

Yes, Finn was unbelievable all right.  Roxton shook his head as he put down the brass brush, picked up the cotton-tipped rod and started working it in and out of the barrel.  Apparently, one hundred and some odd years from now people would be even more isolated and ignorant than in the early twentieth century.  Finn hadn't been taught to read in the future city of New Amazonia where she'd grown up … would grow up … might grow up.

Blast Challenger's time travel tricks anyway.  It played the devil with one's syntax.

Roxton's hand made another pass at his head to discourage the buzzing black flies.  For the past two weeks, it was a sequence he'd performed endlessly every night:  Work a few minutes on cleaning a rifle or some other small task then flap at the flies and repeat.  Roxton vaguely remembered these flies from the previous year, a seasonal pest that came out when the ground reached a certain temperature.  Fortunately they had a short life cycle and Challenger said they'd disappear in a few days. Already they were dropping like, well, like flies.  But sweat drew them, and on nights like these, a man had plenty of that.

Before Roxton had run out of cigarillos, he'd never had problems with flies.  Tobacco smoke repelled insects.  If he smoked one of Marguerite's cigars, all these blasted bugs would disappear …

Challenger had decided to teach Finn her letters, and she'd been happy to learn.  The former Edinburgh University Professor couldn't resist a willing student, but her constant questions wore on the older man's patience, and at times he assigned extra work just to keep her out of his thinning hair.

Tonight before descending to what he euphemistically called the "laboratory," Challenger had waved at the bookshelves lining the great room's walls and said, "Veronica has hundreds of books.  Big books, little books, even picture books.  Pick one that appeals to you and practice sounding out some words.  You'll enjoy learning about new things.  There's a vast world beyond the Plateau that you've never … Finn?  Finn, whatever are you looking at?"

Her head tipped back so far that the short blonde hair brushed her back, Finn had obviously not been listening, and before answering Challenger, she'd hopped up on a chair, grabbed one of the crossbeams that defined their open attic and pulled herself up.  Arms out, Finn had then walked the peeled log like a gymnast's balance beam.  "Sure thing, Challenger.  Soonest!  Promise."  She'd peered into the shadows above her head.  "Got a snake hunt first!  Just saw a big one.  Roxton, could you toss me up my crossbow?"

Cleaning vermin out of the Treehouse thatch had long been one of Malone's jobs, but he'd been gone for almost three months.  When Veronica had returned a few weeks ago from her balloon odyssey, she'd mentioned taking care of it, but then she'd left again to investigate a clue to her parents' whereabouts.  The exterminating chore had remained undone, and Roxton scolded himself for his neglect.  Simple things like that could kill you.  A nest of vipers falling onto the dinner table would be no joke.

"Snake?" Marguerite had said and put down her unfinished cup of coffee.  "Uh, I think I hear George calling my name."  Taking a pistol off the wall, she'd hurried to catch up with the departing Challenger.  "Professor, wait up!  Can I help you organize your papers or something?"

If it hadn't been the snake, Marguerite would found another excuse to disappear.  Since Shanghai Xan's henchman Callum had vanished with the mystical Ouroboros medallion, Marguerite had assiduously avoided Roxton.  He'd spent most of his evenings with Challenger or more recently Finn.  Even when by mischance they were alone together, Marguerite had ways to avoid him.  She'd turn away when he came close or rip him with one of her snide critiques or, like tonight, just go to her room, to the workshop, to the other side of the Treehouse balcony -- to anywhere that Roxton was not.  It had been like living with a ghost that drifted away whenever one approached.

Roxton swatted the moths away from the candles, pointed the barrel at the flame and peered through, checking for corrosion, pitting and residue.  It looked clean.  The yellow light reflected brightly down the full length.  Just one more step now -- a quick thrust with an oiled cotton patch and a wipe down with the tattered undershirt.

Marguerite was no philanthropist.  That had been obvious from the first, and Roxton had always assumed her motives for her funding Challenger's expedition to be mercenary at best, and likely shading into the venal.  Many times he'd pressed her for the truth, but now that he had it, he'd just as soon give it back.  Mere greed would be a damn sight better than Shanghai Xan.

That had been the one of the worst days of Roxton's life, discovering that Marguerite had lied to him for years.  Well, if not exactly lied, at least neglected large swathes of the truth.  And Marguerite had lied about stealing half the Ouroboros medallion from Xan, looked Roxton straight in the eye and said, "No, I didn't."  It had reminded Roxton how well Marguerite could lie.  It hurt that she'd lied to him.

His mind on Marguerite, Roxton hadn't thought about the cigars for several minutes.  A thread of heady aroma caught his nose.  "Oh, blast," he muttered, and permitted himself a quick, covetous glance in that direction.  Yes, all five still lay there, as deliciously fat and enticing as they'd been yesterday evening.

Finn looked up when Roxton spoke, but seeing nothing of interest, her eyes immediately went back to her book.

Perhaps swearing off tobacco hadn't been such a grand idea.  Smoking hadn't affected Roxton's wind all that much!  But a vow was a vow.  A man lived by them, even if this vow had been made only to Summerlee who wasn't here to task Roxton for weakening.  Not that the old fellow would say anything but, "My boy, are you sure that's for the best?"

Roxton laid down the clean rifle barrel and picked up the stock, magazine and trigger assembly.  Clicking them together, he began inserting screws.  He'd almost finished for the night.

Finn flipped past several pages in her book.  Her forehead glistened with beads of sweat.  A humid breeze provided little relief from the heat.  All four moths were airborne and back at the candles.  It seemed likely at least one would soon be immolated, perhaps all.  The three candles flickered madly from their combined flapping.  Finn reached out and shooed them off then returned to her reading.  Roxton waved his hand through the flies.

Caught in her lies, Marguerite had tried to bluff her way out and when that didn't work she'd threatened Roxton with a knife.  Roxton had abandoned her, told her to look out for herself only to find out later that Marguerite hadn't told him the whole truth -- that she hadn't been after money, but her name, her bloody birth certificate, for God's sake!  She'd given up five years of her life and everything she owned for her name, and in the end, had lost it to stay with him here on the Plateau.

And now Marguerite couldn't bear Roxton's touch.  She shrank away.  She hid from him.  They were strangers.

Because he'd failed her so miserably, Roxton was sure.  Marguerite had begged him to believe in her, but he'd let his hurt get in the way.  What had he said to her on the balcony that night, "Your secrets will be safe with me"?  Was he so sure of that?  Why should Marguerite believe him?  She'd given him a secret and he'd fumbled it badly.

They'd lost so much ground.  Once more Marguerite tucked her secrets away, and even on burning nights like this, the air blew cold between them.

Tonight before dinner he'd asked Marguerite to go hunting, saying, "I thought I'd try some archery, just for variety."

Although Marguerite had turned away, she hadn't refused him so he'd prattled on.  "Sure could use someone to watch my back, Marguerite.  Finn's going off petroleum prospecting with Challenger tomorrow."  She'd remained silent.

Trying to convince Marguerite that he truly wanted her along, Roxton had stepped closer and dropped his voice.  Her proximity had prickled every inch of his skin.  His hands had twitched to touch her.  "Come on, Marguerite."

She'd stepped away.  "I don't think that's a good idea."

The rifles were finished.  Leaning back in his chair, Roxton considered pouring a brandy, but he'd had one every night this week.  Probably not a good idea.  That got to be a habit too easily.  And he'd dream of Marguerite anyway.  He always did.

Finn licked her fingertip and turned a page.

This wild child from the future, this snake-hunter Finn, was the newest element in the Treehouse.  She'd found her snake after just a few minutes, a small anaconda, maybe three to four feet long.  A quick snickety-snick of the crossbow and it had fallen, grazing a wall and knocking a shower of delicate yellow orchids to the floor.  Writhing, it smeared crushed blossoms and blood on the mat while Finn swung down one-handed like a monkey from a tree.

"Got it!" Finn had said, and with a booted foot she'd pushed the snake off the crossbow quarrel and into a dustbin.  "Found a good book up there too!" she'd added, waving her present reading material in the air.  Finn had been reading industriously ever since, although apparently not with a great deal of continuity, her book had first opened to the end, then the beginning, then the middle.  Whatever.  Journals rarely had plot.

Finn had come across another long word.  "What is S, T, R, I, K, I, N, G, L, Y, Roxton?"  Looking up from wiping gun oil off his hands, he told her.  Finn waved her hand.  "Don't go away, got another one!  What is H, A, N, D, S, O, M, E?"

The book Finn had found was small, flat and black -- obviously one of Malone's or Layton's journals.  Malone's, if Roxton had to guess from the non-technical words Finn had asked so far:  "Desirable," "honestly, "putrid," "unbelievable."  But "strikingly handsome"?  Not something Malone would say.  "What in the world are you reading, Finn?  Let me see that."

Snapping the journal shut, Finn tossed it over.  "It's some book about this guy named Jay!  It just goes on and on about him.  I found it on top of that bookcase over there.  I thought maybe it was a treasure map or somethin', but it's just all this boring stuff about the Jay guy.  You know, the worst kind of mush."  Finn tipped her chair back impossibly far -- surely no human being could balance like that -- and stretched luxuriously.  "You keep it.  It's got too many long words for me.  I'm going to bed."  The stair came back down with a smart thwack and Finn stood up.

Afraid to open the book, Roxton held it delicately between his hands, his fingertips barely touching the cover.  He'd glimpsed what Finn apparently had missed in the candlelight -- the name engraved in the book's dark leather: Marguerite.  Finn had been reading one of Marguerite's journals.  Roxton had seen them laying about in her room many times, but he'd always respected her privacy and never touched them.

But Finn had found this one on top of a bookshelf?  What did that mean?  Why had Marguerite hidden it?  Didn't she trust Roxton anymore?

"Where did you find this again?" Roxton asked.  Behind Finn's departing back her hand waved toward the shelves that flanked the stairwell, the same shelves where he'd put Marguerite's five cigars.  Roxton told himself he should return the journal to its hiding place.  He didn't move.

Finn said the journal was about someone named "Jay."  Did she mean "J" as in John?  Or had Marguerite written about one of her secrets?  Did he really want to know?

Slowly and without any command from Roxton's brain, his hands let the book open to a random page.

Flies buzzed, moths flapped and candlelight danced.  The night air seemed too thick to breathe.  Roxton's head bent.  The date at the top of the page was nearly two years ago.

Instead of J, I keep seeing Francois lying there.  Oh God, Francois was so long ago.  I haven't thought of him in years.  He was my protector and when he died in my arms, I thought I'd be dying too.  I was frightened as only a ten-year old can be.

I'm still frightened.  J knows it.  He sees right through me.

It's late at night and I'm sitting by J's bed.  J has always seemed bigger than life but tonight he's only a cage of bones holding up muscle.  He barely breathes.  A knife wound in his belly is draining his life.

His bandages are soaked with blood, and S says he could be bleeding inside from his kidneys or liver.  He could very easily die tonight, and there's nothing I can do except sit here and watch.

And pray.  The good sisters at Saint Brigitte's would never believe it, but I am praying.  Unbelievable.  I haven't in years.

If there's a God and he wants to convince me he's real, he'll let J live.  Are you out there, God?  If you are, I've got a deal for you.  Give J back to me, and you'll get one new sinner in the fold, me.  Take J to Heaven and you'll never see anything but my hind end.

You've got Francois.  Do you need J too?  Not J, please not J.

Here there was a simple ink drawing of rosary beads arranged to frame a single word -- "please".

V has been in and out.  She doesn't know what to feel worse about -- knifing J or her counterfeit father, the bastard who created this misery.  She's brushed the dried mud out of my hair and brought me a basin of water and clean clothes.  I changed in here, in J's room, the first time I've undressed for him.  Too bad he wasn't awake to enjoy it.

I don't know how J became so important to me, but he is.  He can't die.  The world needs his honor and courage.  It has too few men like J and far too many bastards.  And it's not just the world that needs him, I do.  I need J.

Please, God.  If you give him back, I swear I'll take good care of him.

"Oh, Marguerite," Roxton groaned.

Roxton hadn't thought about that in quite a while.  When the world had faded around him, he'd expected to die, but in the morning he'd awakened to find an exhausted, hollow-eyed Marguerite holding his hand.

"You're slacking off, Roxton," Marguerite had told him.  "Sun's been up for hours."

That had been worth a smile and an equally acerbic response.  Roxton had whispered, "You look awful, Marguerite.  Didn't you enjoy watching me sleep?"

For the first time he'd seen a soft look steal over her face.  Her hand had squeezed his.  "Loved every minute of it, Roxton.  Why don't you sleep some more and give me a really big thrill?"

He shouldn't be reading this.  It was dangerous.  Before he'd let her down, Marguerite had cared for him.

Roxton laid the journal on the table and moved restlessly around the great room.  Picking up the half-empty coffee mug Marguerite had abandoned hours ago, as well as some dishes that Challenger left behind and two saucers from the balcony, Roxton took them to the wash pail.  As he scraped and scrubbed, his eyes strayed back to Marguerite's journal.

Honor demanded that Roxton return the journal to Marguerite's chosen hiding place.  Plainly her "J" was none other than John Roxton and even more plainly she wanted privacy.  An honorable man should put it back.  Best get it over with.

Roxton dried his hands, picked up Marguerite's journal and walked to the bookshelf.  If he stretched to the maximum, he could just pop it up there.

Facing into the bookcase, one hand gripping a shelf for balance, Roxton unexpectedly came nose-to-cigar butt.  In the dim candlelight, he could barely see the five firm phallic shapes, but he could smell them and the tantalizing aroma mugged his olfactory nerves and assaulted his taste buds.  His mouth watered and he swayed.  Outside the Treehouse the night wind stilled and the world hung waiting.

Instead of returning the journal, Roxton's hand picked up a cigar, and in a salivating trance, he carried it back to the table.

Roxton's head swung from cigar to journal.  They both muttered false promises of bliss and contentment.  He should ignore them both and get off to bed, but if he did, he'd just dream of Marguerite like he had every night for weeks.

Instead of going to bed, Roxton sat down.  Even an honorable man could resist only so much temptation.  He'd either read the journal or smoke the cigar, one or the other.

He had to decide which sin to commit.  What if he read, say, only the last five pages of Marguerite's journal?  Would that be so bad?  It might help heal their rift … or tell him to give up hope.  Either would be some sort of progress and a hell of lot better than batting around in the dark.

The black flies had all but disappeared.  A few survivors looped drunkenly through the night air.  The gray moth still dared the candles.  Roxton picked up Marguerite's journal and slowly flipped to the end.  This page was dated just last night.  He began to read.

I can't bear this.  Sure, that's what I tell myself every night and somehow I do, but tonight there's no anger left to keep me going, and since J refused my peace offering this evening, no hope.

C snores in his room.  It must be almost midnight.  I can hear J's voice upstairs telling F one of his hunting tales.  The Congo, I think.  Yes, the Congo.  The safari will find the pygmy camp soon and they'll have the grand party when J danced with the pygmies.  He must have looked like a giant waltzing with dolls.  I like that part of the story.  J tells it so well.

I'm looking at myself in the mirror.  My face is changing while I listen to J's voice.  My eyes are getting softer.  My cheeks are flushing.  I'm going to cry again.  Damn.  Excuse me while I get a handkerchief.

Rubbing his own eyes, Roxton whispered, "You're excused.  Hurry back."  If Marguerite had been crying last night, he hadn't seen or heard any evidence.  She hid it well.

So what am I crying about now?  Not that crying is anything new, but J isn't down here tormenting me with that fine body of his and I've heard his stupid Congo story a half dozen times.  Wait, only six?  That few?  Probably more like a dozen.

Sometimes I feel I've known J my whole life, but of course I haven't.  It's been two years, ten months, eight hours, and, uh, wait, I'm getting the clock from the laboratory.  I was wrong; it's been seven hours and fifty-eight minutes, and, oh, what the hell, fifteen seconds, give or take the end of the world, since I met J in C's study in London.

J wasn't what I had expected at all.  I thought I already knew his story, that he'd murdered his brother for the title, so I had him figured for a heartless bastard.  But he surprised me, and not just because he was strikingly handsome.  When I first met him, J didn't say a great deal, but he had this watchful stillness, almost a sullenness.  And every time I turned around, he was there, those green eyes following me, like a husband's eyes follow his wife, possessive and hungry.  He wanted me.  I knew it.

Roxton eyes came away from the page for a moment.  Wanted her?  Since the first moment he'd seen Marguerite, he'd thought of loving her, pleasing her, holding her in his arms.  "Want" was a very tame word for what he felt.  His eyes returned.

"Wonderful," I thought, "another trip up the Amazon with an over-sexed rhino."

That elicited a snort.  Despite the Chinese obsession with their rhinoceros-horn aphrodisiac, Roxton hadn't found anything particularly appealing about rhinoceros sex.  He ought to know.  He'd watched them go at it.

Hmm, I guess I never changed my opinion of J's libido, but I learned to enjoy the rewards.  Then I lost him.  That must be why I'm crying.  This putrid feeling is just more of my loneliness and I'm crying for J.

Now if that isn't silly!  It doesn't really make any sense at all.  J and I certainly weren't meant for each other, or any of that romantic nonsense.  Without X and this Plateau we'd never have met, much less got close.

Well, actually I can imagine meeting him on some dark and stormy night in Avebury, he the distressed lord protecting his manor, me the thief heisting his diamonds.  Wouldn't that be just the thing?  Me shooting J or him shooting me?  In another history, it could have been.  If there ever were opposites, it's J and me.  He's all honor, as fine and true as a Toledo sword.  I'm more of a snake.  And I still have secrets that would scald J's respectable soul.

J's so sure that he's equal to anything, but he's not equal to me.

Hmm, that didn't come out right.  J's more than my equal.  He's so much better than I am that I can't even see the soles of his boots.  What I meant was that J isn't equal to my secrets.  He can't handle them.

"I'd like to try, Marguerite," Roxton whispered.  "Give me another chance."

J can knock heads together without any effort, run unscathed through a hail of bullets or shoot the eye out of a dinosaur a half-mile away, but he can't be still and acknowledge that there are things beyond his control.  My secrets are about what I've done and who I am.  J can't just beat someone to a bloody pulp and solve all my problems -- well, maybe a few of them; but in the end, I am the secret.

He's not ready for that and it's not fair to ask J to understand me when I don't understand myself.

That was the end of yesterday's entry.  Roxton's breathing had become a bit ragged.  He put a finger in the book to mark his place and leaned on the table, his forehead in his hand.  This was even worse than he'd thought.  Marguerite wanted him as much as he wanted her, but she doubted him.  And how could he blame her?  It was beyond hope of repair.  Roxton decided to go ahead and read the last entry and make his misery complete.

Well, I've washed the dishes and finished leaching lye for a new batch of soap.  For the fat, J's promised me either a nice boar or what V calls a "diddly-squat," a rotund little dinosaur that even C can't identify.  I hate rendering fat, but I love being clean and good soap requires good tallow.  Making soap is one of the few chores around here that I do well.  Even V says my soap is better than hers, sweeter smelling, easier on the skin.  And the men prefer it for their shaving.  I definitely have an affinity for soap.

Anyway, I'm done working and I have a little time for some J therapy, so here I am pen in hand.

J's gone out with F.  They're looking for any landmarks she might recognize on the theory that in her day the Plateau had free access to the outer world.  F says when she been off the Plateau a few times, but long ago.  What she actually said was, "Mom and Dad drove and I was carsick most of the time.  I was really, really little and I think that we must have been on our way to the Rio Dizzy-knees World."  Then she'd smiled and shook her head.  "Now that I remember really well!  Pirates on an island!  Fantastical land!"

It's so strange to listen to F talk about her childhood.  Our future is her past.  So very strange.

I'm a bit jealous of F.  Oh, she definitely prefers C to the rest of us, but J's been spending a lot of time with her lately.  It's my fault really.  I'm afraid to be alone with J -- afraid of what might happen.  And I just attract tragedy.  J will hunt by himself for weeks and be just fine.  I go, and instant crisis.  It's a wonder he lets me leave the Treehouse.  I've nearly lost J so many times.

What am I saying?  "I've lost him"?  J isn't mine to lose, not in any sense of the word.  But still it would hurt if he died.  And it could happen so easily here.  Especially since J would throw his life away to protect any one of us.

For me J's gone further than that.  Up on a mountain one very cold morning, he threw away his soul.

"And I'd do it again.  Anytime you need it, Marguerite," Roxton whispered.

It's a big responsibility, having someone stand between you and death.  It's not just my life anymore; it's J's too.  Even now he'd die to save me.  Even now.  And there's so little I can do to protect him, from death or evil or just me.

You know, a few times I've called J an egotistical pig.  But it was mostly because he reminds me of the Baron.  The Baron had his same kind of cock-sure arrogance.  But I have to say it:  J has a lot more justification.  J is truly superior to every man I've ever met.  The Baron just thought he was.

Blast it!  Now I'm back to moaning about J.  Maybe if I wrote down his failings?  Wouldn't that help?  Here, I've got one down already:  he's arrogant.  And, and, I know!  J's got a mean temper, although he rarely loses it, especially with his friends.  How about, "J could really use a valet"?  He probably had one in London and he's not the type to dress up in the bush.  Doesn't have an ounce of vanity about his looks.  Such a beautiful man.  Back to task.  Let's see, J has a regrettable tendency to think he's perfect.  Well, I guess he is perfect.  Perfect for me.

This isn't working.  Why should a perfect man want me, a woman born with blood on her hands?  He shouldn't.  If he tries, I won't let him, and that's my final word on the subject.

And it was also the last word in Marguerite's journal.

Roxton sat quietly for a moment, overwhelmed by his view into Marguerite's vacillating passions.  What had he expected to find anyway?  A note addressed to him, "Dear John, here's the key to my heart"?  Hardly likely.  In some ways Roxton knew less than he did before.  But Marguerite still cared for him, he felt sure of that.  It would be something to build on.

The journal restored to its hiding place, Roxton poured himself a stiff brandy, lit the cigar he'd left on the table and went to sit on the balcony.  He'd lost all resistance to sin.  Nothing lubed the old brain cells like a few fingers of brandy and a good smoke, and he needed to think this out.

Sitting in one of the rattan chairs, facing the night, Roxton drew deeply on his cigar and blew out a fragrant white cloud of smoke that snuck over the balcony railing and into the dimness.  The last of the insects had fled; the candles had almost burned away.  Moonlight glittered on the trees.  The wind whispered secrets.  Roxton sighed.

Marguerite lay stiffly in bed, her joints refusing to unlock and her brain to shut down business for the night.  She watched the gentle gusts of warm air play with the mosquito net tent over her bed.  The netting had once made her claustrophobic, but had grown as familiar as the bed canopy in her favorite suite at the London Ritz.  It felt almost homey.

Marguerite turned on her side, twisting her thin silk gown.  She lifted a hip and straightened it out.  The finger she'd burnt this morning still ached a little, adding to her general misery.

Waiting for Roxton to retire was taking an eternity.  Her room sucked every odor down from the great room above, and for hours Roxton had been smelling up the night with gun oil.  He must have cleaned every rifle in the Treehouse he'd been at it so long!  To leave her journal in the great room had been a foolish move -- she'd certainly never do it again.

An almost invisible insect crawled on the mosquito net then flew away.  Marguerite turned to her other side and looked at the wall.

Roxton had asked her to go hunting tomorrow.  Although she'd refused, he'd undoubtedly ask again in the morning.  He always did.  Some things never changed, and Roxton was one of them.  She needed to build up strength for another, "No," and putting her pain on paper would help.  She needed her journal.

The pungent gun oil odor had been fading for a while.  A new smell teased her nose.  Somehow both familiar and unfamiliar, it suggested men and their vices.  Sweet, winy, it meandered just at the edge of her perception.  What was it?

She pounded her pillow to fluff it up and rolled back the other way again to look out her open window.  Would Roxton be up all night?  It was beginning to look like it.

A thin cloud of smoke had drifted down from the balcony above, insubstantial and meandering in the moonlight, it seemed a lost soul looking for a home.  A puff of air pushed the cloud into her room.  It wandered toward her.  Her head lifted.  Cigar smoke assaulted her nose.  It was cigar smoke that she'd smelled.

Marguerite sat up, threw off her sheet, tossed aside the mosquito netting and hopped to the floor.  Her heart beating fast, Marguerite didn't stop for a wrap.  She ran up the stairs as lightly as she could, given the hour and her loose gown.

John was smoking one of his cigars!  Maybe the world hadn't ended.  Maybe there could be a future after all.

Three candles sputtered fitfully on the great room table and an almost dead moth fluttered upside down next to a half empty brandy bottle.  It had been drained a good two more inches since last night.  John had been hitting the sauce pretty hard this week.  Looked like he'd hit it even harder tonight.

Marguerite stopped her headlong rush and forced herself to calm.  John was here somewhere.  Standing in the middle of the great room floor, she pivoted slowly, looking for him.  It didn't take long.  From behind a woven screen a burly forearm and hand swung down, a smoking cigar held between two thick fingers. The fingers rolled the cylinder, and ash fell into a tin can on the floor.  The arm lifted again and she heard a deep indrawn breath.  A fresh cloud of smoke puffed from the unseen mouth.

Where there's smoke, there's fire.  Tonight there was also John.

Slowly, unsure of her reception, Marguerite moved to where she could see and be seen.

John sat loosely in a chair, legs thrust out in front him.  His eyes were closed, his head tipped back, in his right hand an almost empty brandy goblet, in his left the smoking cigar.  His clothes seemed disarrayed somehow, but he sat mostly in shadow and she couldn't really be sure.

Without looking, John brought the cigar back to his mouth and took another drag.  The glowing ember sharply illuminated his face.  He looked drawn, sad, his forehead folded deeply into uncharacteristic worry lines.  His dark curls were still crushed from spending yet another day under his hat.  The cigar went down again.  Ash fell in the can.

Waiting to be acknowledged, Marguerite watched him drain the brandy goblet in a last gulp.  He didn't look her way.  He hadn't seen her.  The heavy head tipped back with a weary sigh.  The eyes closed again.  Time passed in silence.  Outside on the horizon, just barely visible beyond the tall trees, the moon was going down.

Up came the cigar for another drag.  This time in the brief flare from the tip Marguerite saw clearly that John had un-slung his braces, unbuttoned his shirt and pulled its tails out of his trousers.  His chest shone with beaded perspiration; the shirt was dark with it.  He was a sweaty, uncombed fashion disaster, even by Plateau standards.

Really, John could use a valet.

Marguerite stepped close and trailed her fingers through the dark flattened curls, making them puff up and fall in line.  She could do that for him.  Lazily John's head rolled her way.  His eyes slitted open and he smiled.  "Hey there," he murmured.  "Welcome back."  The hand with the cigar rose and he stroked her leg with the free thumb.  "Have I ever told you how beautiful you are?"

She took a deep breath to still her pounding heart.  It had been a long time since John had touched her that way.  "Yes, often.  Almost every day."  She paused, afraid to say the next words.  "Would you like some company?"

"Sure."  The brandy goblet slipped awkwardly to the floor and he patted his lap.  "Sit here."

She tried to smile for him, but her tight face must have turned it into more of a grimace.  "Best seat in the house."  John's muscular thighs made a comfortable bench and his arms pulled her close until her head lay on the bare chest.  Her hair clung to the sweaty pectorals and spread across his shoulder.  Through his trousers something stirred against her hip.

The cigar had disappeared, probably into the ash can.  Behind Marguerite's back one of John's strong hands held her up while in front of her the other one traced the curve under her breast.  John knew she liked that.  To give him better access, she slid back until her head rested on his shoulder.  She looked up into his face, so close that even without moonlight she could see individual whiskers and the soft lines of his mouth.  He kissed her for a long time, until her heart seemed to stop.  Pulling away, he whispered, "My god, I wish you were really here.  There are so many things I need to say."

John thought he dreamt.

"Shhh, you're asleep.  Don't worry, I'm not real."  Her lips played with his while her hand slowly slipped down his chest, pausing here and there to finger a scar or relish a muscular curve, but eventually reaching his trousers.  She tried to undo the first button one-handed.

His fingers came up to engulf hers.  "No, I can't.  Not without an apology, Marguerite."

Oh, no.  Not that.  She'd hoped they were past it and ready to move on.  "But I'm just a dream, remember?"

John held up the slim hand in his grasp.  He rubbed the bandaged finger.  "Dreams don't have burns."

Damn him.  Damn him to Hell!  Marguerite tried to stand up.  Roxton pulled her back.

"No, listen, my love.  I need to tell you …"

Marguerite tried to twist out of his grasp; the strong hands held her down.  The silk nightgown's straps fell off her shoulders, but mercifully the bodice didn't follow.  "You're hurting me!"

Immediately Roxton's hands fell away.  "I'm sorry."

Marguerite pulled the straps of her gown back up and attempted to stand once again and once again his hands stopped her, but much more gently this time.  "Please, Marguerite, let me finish."  She looked at him.  Only a bare sketch of his face was visible in reflected starlight.  His voice had deepened and it shook.  "Please."

She deigned to sit quietly.  She owed Roxton that much, and he would finish quickly.  How long could it take to say, "Apologize to me for lying and I'll make love to you"?  Five seconds maybe?  Then she could go.

Roxton's hold loosened and his head lolled back.  He looked off to one side, no doubt afraid to meet her eyes.  But Roxton couldn't possibly see her face.  With the moon down and the candles burned out, the night was so dark it seemed liquid, and her hair hung around her face like a veil on one of her Parisian hats.

How quickly they'd gone from lovers back to enemies.  He rubbed his mouth with a knuckle.

"I should have told you this a long time ago, right after Callum disappeared, but when I watched you moping around here, I kept telling myself, 'After what she did, she ought to feel bad.'"  This was cruel of Roxton, but Marguerite made herself stay still.  The square head swung back in her direction.  He continued.  "Eventually I realized how cold I sounded. "  His hand went up to caress her chin.  "I keep asking you to tell me your secrets, but when you have, I've let you down.  I need to tell you, Marguerite, how wrong I was to cut you off like that, to pass judgment like I was God or one of His archangels.  I was terribly, pig-headedly wrong.  And I'm sorry that I wasn't there for you."  He took a deep breath and let it out unevenly.  "Can you … can you find it in your heart to forgive me?"

The moment hung suspended in the darkness.  Marguerite had no words ready for this.

At last John spoke.  "I guess it's still too much to ask, isn't it?  I'll wait for awhile and ask again."  He chuckled, a throaty sad sound.  "You know me.  Never-Say-Die Roxton."

Marguerite finally recovered her voice.  "You don't need to wait.  I'll … I'll forgive you on one condition."

One of John's hands had found its way to her bottom.  He'd been rubbing it gently across the cheeks, seemingly without thought.  The hand stopped moving.  "What's that, darling?"

"That you forgive me too."

John laughed softly in the night.  "I already have.  A long time ago."

Marguerite lay back, resting her head against John's chest.  "Then I have only one question, John."

"Hmmm?"  His arms had wrapped completely around Marguerite, holding her snuggly against his heart.

"My bed or yours?"

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge;
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but have not love, I am nothing.
And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
Love suffereth long, and is kind;
love envieth not;
love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil;
rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth;
beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away;
whether there be tongues, they shall cease;
whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part;
but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.
For now we see in a mirror, darkly;
but then face to face: now I know in part;
but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.
But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.

1st Corinthians 13, New American Standard Bible

Love is the greatest thing on Earth, and it's best when given away.  Please drop me a note and tell me how you like my story.