Cairo carefully shades the lines around the eyes she sees every time she closes her own. She stares at the sketch for several moments before huffing in frustration and tossing the pad aside to curl further into the window seat and stare out over the lawn. She doesn’t look up when she hears the door creak and quiet steps across the wood boards - her mother is the only one in the family who steps so softly. She hears rustling pages and assumes her mother is picking up her sketch pad. She’s proven right when her mother settles next to her with the pad in hand.
“You are dreaming of him again?” Lin asks gently.
“Still,” Cairo corrects as she reaches for the book. “I dream of him still. Decades, Mama, and I see him every time I close my eyes.” She throws it across the room, pages flying loose across the floor. “But never all of him. His eyes. An ear. The tilt of a smirk. A tattoo. The cut of his shoulders against a desert sky.” She remembers she’s speaking to her mother and stops before she goes into the more... explicit visions.
Lin squeezes her hand gently and they sit in comfortable silence until Evelyn comes in in a flurry. She freezes when she spots the pages of Cairo’s sketchbook strewn across the floor. She stoops to pick up one of the pages before turning a puzzled expression on Cairo. “Darling, why are you drawing Ardeth? I didn’t realize you’d met, and I didn’t think we had any pictures of him aroun-”
Cairo leaps from her seat and bounds over to her grandmother, grasping her shoulders. “You know this man?”
Evy’s puzzled expression grows. “Of course, dear. He’s an old friend.”
“Gran!” Cario shakes her shoulders excitedly. “Who is he?”
“His name is Ardeth Bay. Your grandfather and I met him when we first fought Imhotep. He was the chieftain of the Medjai.”
Cairo’s hand drifts to the mark on her arm.
Evy notices. “Yes, those Medjai.”
“Wait, was ?”
Evy shrugs, something like regret crossing her face. “When your grandfather and I realized we had stopped aging… we’ve lost so many people over the years. Ardeth was dear to us… and always so strong. We never spoke of it, but I think neither of us could imagine watching him growing weak with age… we drifted apart and lost contact a decade or so ago.”
Cairo casts a near desperate glance at her mother.
Lin smiles gently. “I will book you on the soonest flight to Cairo.”
“Are you certain you should be going alone?” Evy asks.
“Should be? No, but I am certain I must.”
* * *
The city bustles about her and Cairo lets it all sink into her bones. Since the moment she stepped off the plane, she’s been wondering why she’s never before taken the time to visit her namesake. She pauses and takes a deep breath, then rolls her sleeves to her elbows and tightens her bag against her back and looks for familiar tattoos on the faces swarming the market. Eventually, she runs right into them.
The man steadies her with a hand on her right arm and a solemn nod. “My apologies.”
She’s about to tell him not to worry, but the words die on her tongue. The face is not familiar, but the markings on it are. The man himself is intently studying the mark on her forearm he’s still grasping from catching her.
He looks up and meets her eyes. “I am a stranger traveling from the East, seeking that which is lost.”
Cairo smiles. “I am a stranger from the West, it is I whom you seek.”
“Where did you come by your mark?”
“I was born with it.”
The Medjai freezes. “There are prophecies, of one like you, my lady.”
Cairo smirks. “I could tell you your fate as well, Teren Bahn, but where’s the fun in life if you already know where it’s going?”
“In the journey.”
“You know who I am.”
“I know who you will be one day.”
He studies her intently before bowing his head. “I am at your service.” He hooks the arm he’s still holding through his elbow and begins leading her through the crowd.
“I am Cario O’Connell, and I am at yours.”
He pauses. “O’Connell?”
“Yes. Those O’Connells.” Cairo grins.
“That explains much. What brings you to Egypt now, my lady?” He asks as they near the edge of the market. He gestures to four horses tethered near a water trough, two hooked to a cart laden with goods. “My horses, if you wished to accompany me back to the Medjai.”
“I do.” Cairo confirms even as her grin vanishes and all her anxiety returns. She tosses her bag onto the cart and makes sure her gun is still secure on her thigh before she mounts one of the horses. When she does continue, she forces herself to meet Teren’s eyes and speaks quietly, “I do not know if the one I seek is among you.”
“Who is it you seek?”
“Ardeth Bay.” Cairo is grateful her voice doesn’t shake.
Teren looks at her strangely but shakes his head. “Ardeth is still with us. He has served as our chieftain for many decades. We would answer to no other.”
Cairo smiles brilliantly and her whole body sags in relief. He will an old man, but he is alive, and that is more than she has dared to let herself hope for.
* * *
The Medjai village is as bustling with life as Cairo city was, but it feels far more intimate. Many look at her strangely. All with curiosity, some with suspicion, and most with respect when they notice the mark on her bared arm. Teren points her to a home at the head of the village with a promise to bring her bag later before he wanders off to care for the horses and deliver supplies where they are needed.
She knocks on the heavy wooden door, smoothed by years of exposure the sand and desert winds, and shoves it open when a voice calls for her to do so. The main room is simply furnished. Low, sturdy wooden tables surrounded by comfortable looking cushions hold the prominent places in the room. Sitting at one of them is a man whose face is the completed picture of the puzzle pieces she's dreamt of for years. She can't help but stare.
Dark eyes meet hers steadily as he rises. When he stops in front of her she can't stay the impulse to reach out and touch his face. “Impossible.”
The man in front of her should be near ninety, give or take a few years, and yet he still looks like the thirty-something her grandmother told her about from so long ago.
Ardeth is immediately fascinated by the disturbingly familiar woman in front of him. Her complexion, the slight angle to her eyes and her long, dark braid indicate an Asian heritage, yet he has seen her blue eyes in an American's face and her nose on a British woman - and more complex yet, she bears the mark of a protector on her arm. He would know her immediately, even if he had not dreamt of her for the last two decades.
He can't help but smile at her. “Is it really so hard to believe the impossible with your family history being what it is, Miss O’Connell?”
Cairo finally focuses. “You know me?”
“I've dreamt of you for two decades, my lady. Had I known before this moment to what family you belonged, I would have sought you out years ago.” Ardeth answers in a near reverent tone as he gently takes her hands in his.
“How did you know I was real and just a dream?”
“Faith. How did you know?”
“Do you ever dream of anything else?” She asks instead of answering.
He shakes head. “Only you.”
“I dream of other things too. After so many dreams come to pass, one expects them all to hold some manner of truth.”
“You are a Seer?” Ardeth asks in surprise.
Cairo shrugs. “Just a bit.”
“Such a gift is both a blessing and a curse.”
He brushes her bangs from her eyes. “Would it be too forward of me if I were to kiss you?”
Cairo shakes her head. “I grew up on stories on your heroics and you've been in my head half my life. If even half of what I've Seen of you has or will come to pass… well, honestly you spoilt me for any other man long before this moment, and I think I'll be rather put out if you don't kiss me.”
Ardeth needs no further encouragement to lean in. He releases her hands to settle one of his hands on her waist and cup her cheek with the other. Their lips have barely brushed when his door opens.
Teren stands in his doorway smirking. “Don't need to be finding her lodging with one of the ladies, then?”
Ardeth bites back a curse and glares at the other warrior briefly before turning his attention back to the woman in his arms. “I do have a spare room that is at your disposal should you wish it. I would not, however, wish to besmirch your honor. I will not be offended if you would rather lodge with any of our maidens. I guarantee you everyone in the village will gladly open their home to you.”
She smiles up at him. “You know my family well, Ardeth, do you really think I give a damn what anyone thinks of me?”
“Right. I'll just leave this here, then.” Teren sets her bag down and flees, latching the door behind him.
Ardeth groans and drops his forehead to her shoulder. “Teren is one of our finest warriors. He also gossips like an old midwife. If you were not sincere about not caring, now is the time to flee my home.”
“I'd really rather not.” She turns his face and leans in to kiss him again, deeper than the first.
He rests his brow against hers when their lips separate before letting out a self deprecating chuckle.
She hums curiously.
“Twice,” he explains, “I have taken the liberty of a kiss, and yet I have not asked your name.”
She pulls her face back and beams up at him. “Cairo Ri La O’Connell, at your service.” She offers a hand.
He grasps it warmly. “Ardeth Bay, and it is my most sincere pleasure.”
Cairo’s eyes narrow at him suspiciously. “And speaking of old…”
Adreth gestures for her to sit. He serves her tea as he contemplates his answer. This woman is descended from dear friends, has been in his dreams for twenty years, and bears the mark of his people’s fiercest protectors. He decides to trust her. “Cairo, how old do you think I am?”
Cairo shrugs. “Gran said she thought you were a little over thirty when you helped them rescue my father and defeat Imhotep the second time, so logically you should be around ninety.”
He reaches across the table and takes her cup to set it aside and clasp her hands in his. “Cairo, I told your parents the Medjai have guarded the Creature’s tomb since Seti’s time. That is true, but I did not tell them the full truth. I have guarded the Creature’s tomb since Seti’s time.”
Cairo blinks. “That… that would make you over three thousand years old.”
Ardeth nods. “I sacrificed the relief of death to guard this world from evil. Knowing now I will have only this lifetime with you, if you will have me, is the first time I have ever considered regretting it.”
Cairo’s laugh startles him. She leans forward and kisses him. She’s smiling when she pulls back. “Ardeth, how old do you think I am?”
“You can’t be more than just past twenty.”
“I am forty. I was born in the waters of Shangri-La. I will not age another day in my very long life.”
Within a second of their bedroom door bursting open, Cairo is sitting up with a gun steadily in hand and Ardeth is standing beside the bed with his sword, both heedless of the fact they are utterly naked. The moment Cairo realizes precisely who is gaping at her from the doorway, she drops the gun and dives for a blanket to yank over her chest.
“What the hell?” Rick bellows, head snapping between the two.
Cairo buries her burning cheeks in a pillow. “Someone kill me now.”
Rick waves a finger between them. “Someone has a hell of a lot of explaining to do.”
Cairo drags herself back to a sitting position. Ardeth hasn’t moved.
“He’s not going to shoot you, love.” Cairo quirks an eyebrow at him.
“He just found me in bed with his only granddaughter.” Ardeth retorts.
Cairo giggles. “Fair point.” She faces Rick again. “Pop, if you don’t leave now so we can find clothes, I’m dropping the sheet again.”
Rick bolts like his ass is on fire.
“We’d best hurry.” Cairo grimaces at Ardeth.
He nods, wide-eyed, and finally drops his sword.
They emerge a few minutes later, Ardeth in his customary robes and Cairo in jeans and dark, flowy linen shirt. Her entire family is arranged around one of Ardeth’s tables. Her mother, grandmother, aunt, and uncle are seated, having clearly helped themselves to tea, and her father and grandfather are both standing behind the lot of them, looking as if they would like nothing better than the space to be pacing at that moment.
Bailey lets out a wolf whistle at the sight of Ardeth. “Nice going, kiddo.”
Cairo groans. “You are only two weeks older than me.” But she winks as she tugs Ardeth down on one of the cushions and plants herself in his lap, expression daring her patriarchs to comment.
They do. Simultaneously, crassly, creatively, and unbearably overlapping. Cairo calmly sips the tea her mother passes her as Ardeth tenses underneath her. She leans back against him, trying to reassure him without taking her eyes off her father and grandfather. Ardeth wraps an arm around her waist and relaxes slightly.
“Are you quite through?” Evelyn eventually bursts.
Both men silence.
“Despite the apparent opposition from my husband and son, it is wonderful to see you, Ardeth.” Evy smiles warmly at the chieftain.
“You as well, Evelyn.” Ardeth bows his head.
“Explanations, now!” Rick demands.
Cairo ignores him. “How’d you manage to hold them off for two years?”
Lin smirks. “We have our ways.”
“Fine, don’t tell me.”
“You knew where she was?” Alex gapes.
“Of course!” Evy looks indignant. “Did you really think we would promise you she was safe if we didn’t?”
Alex finally focuses on his daughter and the man she’s sitting on. He groans. “Two years… at least tell me you married the guy!”
“Without my family?” Cairo scoffs. “No way!”
Ardeth smirks. “Now that you have all joined us, though…”