Marguerite winced. The last sip of coffee tasted awful. She tossed the remains of the offending liquid from the balcony and turned to the kitchen area to rinse the mug.
"Just leave it," Veronica offered. "I'll wash it. No need for you to waste time with it. After all, you have a big journey ahead of you."
Veronica's voice trembled ever so slightly. She tried hard to hide how affected she was. The imminent departure of her friends was expected, but that didn't take away any of the pain.
"All right," Marguerite replied, "after all I never liked domestic chores, did I?"
The women smiled at each other, but somehow neither one could think of anything else to say. The awkward silence was interrupted by the rattling of the elevator.
"And we're ready to go," Challenger proudly announced as he stepped off the elevator. Behind him Roxton and Malone followed, exchanging an amused glance.
"George was nice enough to give us a detailed explanation of the modifications he made to the translocator. A VERY detailed explanation," Roxton explained with a wink. "That's why were so late."
"But now we're ready to go. And thanks to the improvements I made to the translocator, we will be home in no time. All set to leave?"
Marguerite nodded. "Our packs are ready."
Another moment of silence. Although long anticipated, the return home was a bittersweet occasion. The Treehouse family would be torn apart, and no one knew whether they'd ever see each other again.
Roxton cleared his throat and turned to Malone. "All right then, come here, Neddy-boy." The two men hugged and then shook hands.
"Take good care of the Plateau and of each other," Roxton added and went on to embrace Veronica.
"I will miss you," Marguerite said and hugged Malone tightly.
"I'll miss you, too, Marguerite. Who will taste my latest coffee roasts now?"
"Well, it won't be me," Veronica chimed in and joined them. "I'll stick to Zanga Darjeeling."
Her attempt at a light-hearted tone didn't succeed. Tears welled up in her eyes when she turned to Marguerite to say good-bye.
Even Challenger felt the moisture in his eyes when he embraced the two young people who had become like children to him.
"Who knows," the scientist finally said, "maybe we'll succeed in mounting a quick return expedition. Anything's possible "
"Of course anything's possible, George," Marguerite said, quickly wiping her eyes. "Maybe your damned contraption won't work and we'll be back for dinner in a few hours."
They laughed, partly because it helped to alleviate the mood and partly because Marguerite's comment was based on years of experience with their resident scientist's experiments.
"Well, it's time," Roxton said reluctantly. The three explorers took their packs and turned to the elevator.
After a few more good-byes the elevator rattled down. A last wave up to the balcony where Veronica and Ned stood to see their friends walk away into a new adventure.
When they arrived at the turn of the jungle path that would finally put the Treehouse out of view, Marguerite turned around one last time.
"They'll do fine," Roxton said behind her.
"I guess," she replied, sounding unconvinced. "Do you think we're doing the right thing, leaving now?"
Roxton nodded. "It's time for us to leave. And whatever happens in the future, no one can take away our four years on the Plateau. It was meant to be."
Marguerite smiled. "Meant to be? My, Lord Roxton, you sound just like a certain gypsy we encountered a few years ago."
"Are you coming?" Challenger bellowed, already a good pace ahead.
"Let's go," Marguerite said. "Never let a genius wait."
Dedicated to Ryalin