My sincerest thanks to everyone for reading my little story. I worked hard on it and I hope you like it. Thanks especially to Rebecca for all of her support and encouragement.
With a whoop of joy, the children scattered from the classroom and out into the afternoon sun. Margaret smiled as she watched them go, a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. She sat down behind her desk, suddenly feeling very tired. Which was to be expected, really, she thought, one hand going to the small bandage at her neck. She'd lost a lot of blood in the desert, after all, and hadn't fully regained consciousness until they were back on the riverboat and she was under a doctor's care. Ardeth had gone; Rick told her that he'd seen them safely to the boat, and had left to rejoin his people, bringing the Key and the Book of Amun-Ra with him. The doctor had told her it would be some time before her strength fully returned.
Everything had returned to normal. Rick had finished up the business he'd dropped to take her to Hamunaptra, and was leaving in the morning. She went back to teaching school and giving tours of the museum, just as she had before. She spent her evenings in her small room at the mission, reading or knitting. Her dreams were neither exciting nor frightening. Yes, everything had returned to normal.
Except for Margaret. She had changed. She was restless; she was depressed. How could she be content with schoolrooms, books, and knitting needles when she had slept in the desert by a campfire and helped save the world? How could she continue to live her life alone when she'd tasted what it was to have family? How could she live and die a spinster when she'd been rescued from a nightmare by a Medjai warrior, in whose eyes she had found the strength to defeat the evil that had threatened them all?
She shook her head, impatient with herself. These kinds of thoughts did her no good. There was no point in wishing for things that she could not have. She straightened the papers on her desk and rose to her feet.
The door to the schoolroom opened, startling her. She looked up to see Rick standing there, looking a little uncomfortable, holding a large envelope. She smiled and beckoned him inside. He looked around nervously as he entered.
"Boy, this is someplace I thought I'd never see again," he said with mock trepidation. "Not voluntarily, anyway."
Margaret chuckled. "It's not so bad. I rather like it." She cast a glance around the room where she had spent the last twenty-two years of her life, in one capacity or another. "At least I used to," she sighed quietly. Why did everything look so different now that she was back? She turned her attention back to Rick. "So are you ready to go home? For real this time?"
He nodded. "Pretty much. I have one more little detail to take care of. Kind of a last minute thing, it ended up taking longer than I thought."
"Really?" Margaret's brow furrowed. "Was there a problem with some of the artifacts? I could have helped you, you know." He hadn't said anything until now about this. In fact, now that she thought about it, he hadn't said much of anything to her these past few days.
"Actually, that's why I'm here." He looked a little more nervous, and started to fidget with the envelope in his hands. "I need to talk to you about something."
"All right." Margaret sat back down. A small feeling of dread formed in her stomach; his face was very serious. What was the problem?
Rick grabbed one of the student's chairs, turned it around, and sat down, his large frame making the chair look even smaller than it was. "Do you remember what I said before, about how I'd bring you over for a visit sometime, after I got back home?" Margaret nodded. "Well, there's been a change in plans."
"Yeah. I'm not going to do that."
"Oh." Margaret's voice was small as she sat back in her chair. She looked down at the desk, the papers in front of her starting to blur with disappointed tears. She should have known. Imhotep had been right after all; Rick had a family of his own. He didn't need her.
But Rick was still talking. She swallowed her desolation and forced herself to listen. "Yeah, see, when we got back, there was this telegram from Evelyn. The whole thing was pretty much her idea, really, and it took me a few days to get the paperwork together--"
"Rick?" Margaret interrupted. He looked at her. "What are you talking about? What paperwork?"
He snorted. "I knew I'd explain this all wrong." He dropped the envelope in front of her. "This is for you. You're coming back to London with me. Tomorrow."
She looked blankly at the envelope, then at Rick. "I am?"
He nodded. "If you want to."
She touched the envelope, hesitantly, but didn't open it. Her brow furrowed. "I can't." She looked up at Rick. "I can't just leave like this. Who will teach here?"
Rick waved his hand around, in a gesture meant to encompass the entire building. "It's a mission. They have nuns here. They got along without you before, they will again."
She shook her head, trying to get her mind around what was happening. "But… I don't have a passport or anything. I can't get one by tomorrow."
"What do you think I've been doing the past few days? Here--" He walked over to her side of the desk and opened the envelope for her, spilling the contents across the desk. There were papers, tickets, and a passport inside. He picked up the passport and handed it to her. "It's not really legal till you sign it, but I was able to do all the rest; the forms and stuff. Sister Mary Grace gave me the picture. First nice thing she ever did for me."
It was her picture in the passport. And her name. The tickets were all to foreign cities that connected together, with London as the final destination. She looked up at him with astonished eyes. "You did all this for me?"
Rick squatted down so they were eye to eye. He took her hand. "Meg," he said, suddenly very serious. "I know we're not really related. We don't have the same name or anything like that. But we're family. We knew it when we were kids, and I knew it when I first saw you again. But I never realized what that meant till we were at Hamunaptra and you… you almost…" He reached one hand up and lightly touched the bandage. He shook his head. "I know it's all really sudden, and if you need time to think about it that's okay. But I wanted to show you how serious I am about this. You're my family; you belong with us."
Margaret pressed the passport to her heart. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, and wasn't sure which emotion would win. She settled for grinning foolishly while tears trickled down her cheeks. This was all too good to be true; things like this didn't happen to her. Her mind raced, searching for the dark cloud in this silver lining. "But what will I do in London?" she asked.
Rick shrugged, waving off the question as insignificant. "Whatever you want. They have kids in England, you know, you can teach there. You speak so many languages, I'm sure Evelyn could get you a job at the museum. Or you could hang around the house all day and do nothing, like my brother-in-law. That doesn't matter. All that matters is that you're coming." He pressed her hand, waiting for her answer. "Are you?"
She nodded, swiping at the tears on her cheeks. She wanted to thank him, but she knew that there was no way she could put her joy into words. She suddenly turned to the desk and began to rummage through the drawers.
"What are you looking for?"
"My pen," she replied. Finding it, she turned to him with a smile, holding up the passport. "I want everything to be in order when I use this tomorrow, don't I?"
It really didn't take Margaret long to pack. She didn't have very many clothes, and Rick had told her that she'd end up with a whole new wardrobe in London, anyway. He'd also told her not to worry about books; they were already well stocked in that department, it seemed. And she'd lived so frugally at the mission that she didn't really have much else. All of her worldly possessions were with her in two carpetbags as she stood in the twilight outside of the hotel. She was spending her last night in Cairo in her own room at the hotel, as they were catching an early boat in the morning.
She had stopped, across the street from the hotel, to look up at the third floor one more time. The balcony was empty; the room was currently vacant. She thought about all of those evenings spent watching the sunset. All the stories.
"Oh, Grandfather," she sighed. He would have loved this story: the story of the puzzle box, and the adventure it had sparked. An adventure that ended in a trip to London, a new family, and a new life. She smiled as she imagined telling him the story, and envisioned his delighted reaction.
There was a movement beside her in the shadows to her right, but she didn't turn her head. She wasn't startled when a man, dressed all in black, moved to stand beside her and also look up at the balcony.
"You said once that you owed me an apology," Ardeth Bay said. He shook his head. "None was necessary." He was quiet for a moment but Margaret didn't speak, sensing he had not finished.
"You were right to suspect me," he continued. "I was at the hotel that night to search for the Key. I believed that you had it, or the old man. I wished to search for it without your knowledge." He paused again. "The tea that he drank that night was drugged. I can only guess that it, combined with the dose he had already taken, was too much for him and killed him." Margaret still said nothing, but a quick intake of breath and a single tear on her cheek betrayed her thoughts.
"I had no intention that he should die. I sent for his doctor the moment I realized," Ardeth finished. "But I killed him all the same."
Margaret said nothing for a moment, her eyes still trained on the third floor balcony. Then she shook her head. "No," she said. "It was an accident. Neither of us killed him, and yet we both did." A second tear joined the first, and she smiled softly. "It was a good death, really. He watched the sunset, and then he fell asleep. We should all wish for so peaceful an end," she said, her hand going to her throat.
He turned to her then. Brushing the hair away from her shoulder, he looked at the small bandage on the side of her throat, a few inches under her right ear. He raised his hand to touch the bandage, his fingers briefly covering her own. This time, she didn't shy away from him. In fact, she suddenly felt a little flushed, and she had some trouble catching her breath. His fingers traced the gauze on her neck, barely touching her skin, seriously interfering with her breathing now. "Does it pain you still?"
She turned to him, seeing the regret in his eyes. "No. The wound was not too serious. The doctor says I will probably have a scar, but there was no permanent damage."
"A scar." His eyes hardened in self-recrimination. His hand was still on her neck, his thumb stroking the bandage as if he would erase the wound he had given her. The back of her neck felt warm where he touched her, and she wanted to lean into him. Instead, she covered his hand with hers in a gesture of comfort.
"It doesn't matter. I think I might like it; it'll make me look more dangerous. I might get an eyepatch next. Possibly a parrot." His hand curled around hers in gratitude. He didn't smile, but the hardness left his eyes. That was good enough.
"You are leaving Cairo," he said, gesturing down to her bags. "Joining the O'Connells in London?"
"I am," she said with a pleased smile. "I am going home with Rick." Home. She was still getting used to that word. She liked it.
"Perhaps you will listen to some advice?" She nodded. "When you are in London, do not let O'Connell talk you into taking the bus." Now Ardeth did smile, and Margaret smiled along with him without really knowing why. But his smile was so infectious, so inviting, that she couldn't help herself.
Now he was holding something in his hand, an object that he put into hers. She looked down at it, then looked back up at Ardeth.
"Why are you giving me this?" she asked. All this time he had been looking for the Key, and now he was giving it back to her? That made no sense.
He folded her fingers around the small box, just as he had done that night in front of the campfire. "I told you in the desert that I know of no one who will keep it safer," he said, his eyes smiling at last. "It is still true. You successfully kept it hidden from the leader of the Medjai, even when he traveled at your side."
She raised her eyebrow at him. "Only because you never looked in my knitting bag."
He surprised them both by laughing out loud. "Then put it there again," he replied. "And continue to keep it safe." She nodded.
He took her hand again and bowed over it, much as he had when they had first met. Only this time, he brushed the back of her hand with his lips, and Margaret felt a small shock of heat travel up her arm. He looked once more into her eyes. "I wish you a safe journey. You are a remarkable woman, Margaret, and I am honored to have known you."
She stared back, momentarily forgetting the English language. Or any other language. "Thank you," she finally said. Not knowing what else to say, she simply said goodbye, taking up her bags and walking away from him and into the hotel.
Ardeth watched her until she was safely inside the hotel lobby. He pulled from his belt a grayish-purple silk scarf. It looked a little worse for wear: a little tattered, stained with travel dust and a few drops of blood. A few blondish-brown hairs still clung to it. He looked at it for a few moments, running the silk through his fingers. He had had every intention of returning the scarf to its owner, and yet, he had not done so. If someone had stopped him and asked him why, he was not sure that he could have produced an answer. He just knew that he had no desire to let it go.
He replaced the scarf carefully in his belt and walked away into the night.