Author's Note: I know that it has been a long, long time since I picked up this story. Every review that I have received in the last three years has been a pleasure to read and a painful reminder of how frustrating I find it when I run across a good but abandoned story. I lost my muse but never my devotion to this story – Lara and Alex are like long lost & neglected friends. There are too many wonderful reviewers to name you all, that have shared their encouragement over the last few years, but I want you to know I have treasured every one. I hope that a fair share of you will find your way back so that I can reward your patience with the end of this story someday soon. Only a handful of chapters left to go. Special thanks to LiRA and her cookies served so imaginatively served & Hieko for her detailed review - to any who have doubted that your efforts to review stories are truly appreciated. Reviews do have power to wake up a balky muse. Thanks to all of you who have kept checking on this story for the last 5 years – Oh boy, do I feel guilty now!

Disclaimers: See Chapter 1.

Chapter 17: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

It truly is remarkable how the most momentous times in one's life can most often be tracked by the second and minute rather than by the hour. Having experienced this phenomenon many times before, Lara was not surprised that it was only just past 2 am in the morning. It had taken longer to hike up to the hidden back entrance to the tomb than it had to acquire the second amulet. Lara tapped the pocket that concealed the small, jeweled serpent. It would stay safely in her care, insuring that Alex would stick to their deal.

They were making better time on the hike back to the cottage. Alex seemed content to hang back and follow down the narrow path. Hillary and Bryce should be almost finished with the arrangements needed for a fast exit. Lara had purposely stayed back from the major work involved in opening the tomb. Since it was mostly heavy, manual labor, no one seemed to expect her involvement at this point and her absence in the morning would not be noted. When the morning's work resumed, the small village would be almost empty with the exception of a few villagers who seemed to have found that discretion is a survival skill.

To her surprise, the normally loquacious American was keeping silent for once. Occasionally, she would steal a glance back at Alex. He never missed a chance, and would normally make eye contact with a sweet slow smile and sometimes a gentle tip of the head. Unreasonably, she was annoyed at getting caught stealing peeks at West, but for some reason each time good sense could not seem to prevent her from doing it again.

Was it her imagination, or was West's grin getting broader with each stolen glance? Damned, arrogant American. He probably thought saving her life was some free ticket out of the doghouse. Well, maybe it earned him a few points.

As they approached the edge of the village, Lara turned toward Alex.

"Well, we finally have what we've been looking for. Now it's time for us to head out. We should think about leaving as soon as we get back to the village. With any luck, Sosa and his goons will start out to work on opening the tomb entrance and not notice our departure for hours. Once they've seen what we've done inside the tomb, none of us will be safe. Especially you, Alex." Lara smiled. "You've really done nothing to ingratiate yourself with Sosa and his goons."

Alex started to nod agreement, then realized that he needed to contact his friends.

"I have to stop in the village for a bit before we…"

Lara fastened the unfortunate American with a gimlet stare. Right hand on her hip, she arched one delicate eyebrow in disbelief.

"I know, but I can't leave without warning my friends that they might need to make themselves scarce. It won't take me but a few minutes."

Alex was not ready for what happened next. Lara rounded like a lightning strike. "That's all well and good Mr. West, but understand this, we are leaving with or without you and your jaguar amulet for Bolivia. Go say goodbye to your little friend West, but you better make it quick." Her tone was clipped and cold.

They were coming up on the village. The unpaved streets and huts were only illuminated by the dim light of the moon. Alex was suffering from mental whiplash again – and he was getting damned tired of it. Could this possibly be the same girl who had been sneaking glances back at him during their moonlit walk?

"Look, Lara, it's not what you…"

"Think? You must mistake me for someone who cares. Save your explanation for someone that does." The cold sarcasm was punctuated with a spin of her heels as she quickly moved off in the direction of their hut.

Fear of disturbing the quiet prevented Alex from yelling an appropriate comeback. And frankly he was tired of having to explain himself. He was no angel and he had made plenty of mistakes in his time. But couldn't Lara see he had changed? Because he wasn't looking out for #1 anymore, he had to do his duty to warn Benito and Carmella for fear that Sosa's anger would backlash onto his friends in his absence.

Alex made his way to Benito's hut and was pleased to see that Carmella and Elena had already moved there under his protection. He quickly explained what had transpired and directed them to head for Bolivia. No matter how mad Lara was at him, he knew that she would not refuse offering his friends safe transport. There was no question that Sosa would be fast on their heels.

Alex took his leave and headed back to his own hut. He was pleased to see a soft light still shining from out of the windows. Lara had not made good on her threat. She was waiting for him. Even sore and exhausted, he could not help quickening his step in anticipation. If Lara had waited for him, maybe there was still hope. Smiling, he could not help announcing his arrival, "Honey, I'm home!"

Eye's adjusting to the dark, Alex made out the blanket wall Hillary had strung for Lara's privacy lifting, only to reveal Julius Sosa.

Without a moment's hesitation, the adventurer reached for his sidearm only to find two of Sosa's goons materialize from behind him where they were hiding on either side of the door. They grabbed at his arms causing the blonde's shot to go wide. At his full strength, Alex would have given them a better fight. As it was, the man holding his gun arm slammed Alex's still sensitive wrist into the wall. Alex's roar of pain and frustration as the gun dropped from nerveless fingers was cut off as Sosa drove his fist into the captured man's midsection, effectively driving the breath out of him.

"Gag him," barked Sosa, "I don't want any of his villager friend's coming to his rescue before West tells us where he put the amulet." With his arms tied behind his back and a knotted rag gagging him, Alex suddenly stopped his struggles and glared defiantly at Sosa.

"Yes, West. Lara slipped away with her friends before I realized what you two had been up to." Sosa's eyes glinted with anger & malice. "It looks to me like she decided to revert your ownership back to me. What an unexpected pleasure. Let's go gentlemen." Sosa's smile gleamed with cruelty as he watch his lieutenants drag their struggling prisoner out of the thatched hut. "I think we will celebrate with a tour of one of the more interesting archaeological finds in this area."

"Let's take the valiant Mr. West to the pit. I really need to find out the whereabouts of my property and the view will do wonders toward loosening his tongue."