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Xander slumped against the cool metal hood of the jeep feeling like he just finished a boot camp run with a sixty-pound pack. The forced trek through the several miles of sweltering jungle taking their toll. The afternoon sun angled through the branches, casting golden spears of light between the trees, but leaving most of the jungle floor in shade. What looked to be the overgrown remnants of an ancient road or pathway cut through the foliage and lead up toward the pass out of the valley.
Lara hadn’t allowed them to stop or even slow down getting to the jeep, and after she had informed him that the things in the buried catacombs came out and hunted at night, he didn’t argue.
An object came sailing at him from the back of the jeep, where Lara had immediately gone, when they arrived. Awkwardly managing to catch it, it sloshed just a little as he got hold. A canteen.
Eagerly he unscrewed the top and, putting it to his mouth, upended it. Water. Cool, clear, beautiful water.
“Not too much at once.” She said sliding into the drivers seat holding a second canteen. “If something else goes wrong we may need to do some more running.”
He watched as she took a swig from her canteen then laid her head back with her eyes closed for a moment. A grin crept onto her face and she suddenly let out a laugh. “I haven’t had that much fun in months.”
Lara’s grin widened after her eyes opened and she saw the look on his face. “You think that’s strange.” It wasn’t really a question.
Xander shrugged, “As I once told a friend of mine: I laugh in the face of danger, then I run and hide until it goes away.”
That earned him a short chuckle, “Very sensible, but not nearly as much fun.” Her face became serious again. “And it makes me wonder how you got here.”
The surreal-ness factor, that he had been suppressing during the hike though the jungle, returned full force and he looked back at Lara Croft across the passenger seat of her jeep. How the hell did he get here, and where was here? He was talking to a fictional character for God’s sake! Granted, it was one of the fictional characters he would like talk to but…
Considering past experience on the Hellmouth several options immediately came to mind: hallucination, spell related or otherwise; transfer to some weird alternate dimension, hopefully without a vamp Willow; or he had just plain gone insane.
Taking a deep breath he said, “I think that may be a very complicated question. I’m just not sure how complicated yet.” Noting the slight frown on her face he asked, “Could we discuss this once we get out of the valley? This place is giving me the jitters. I haven’t heard a single animal the entire hike here.”
She motioned him into the jeep, “That’s because there aren’t any. The creatures eat anything that comes here.”
Her answer to his sideward glance was another smile. The engine growled as she turned it on and shifted into gear. “You might want to buckle up.” The jeep lurched forward and Xander’s reply was cut off by his teeth rattling as one of the tires dropped into, and pulled out of, a hidden hole.
* * *
Lara set the case for the satellite phone down on the table. She glanced around the room gauging spaces. She hadn’t been expecting to have company staying with her when she reserved the room from the hotel owner. No other rooms were available due to the sudden increase in the town’s population for the annual New Year’s festival. She felt a bubble of amusement as she remembered how the proprietor had tried to grossly overcharge her, thinking she was just some sort of tourist. Her fluent, and descriptive, Spanish had quickly disabused him of the notion.
It wasn’t a huge room, about twenty feet by fifteen, containing a bed, a couple chairs, and a small table. A doorway to her right showed a bath, with an old cast iron tub and copper pipes protruding from the walls.
Hearing Xander coming up the stairway she held the door open for him as he carried the sleeping roll and two other packs into room.
“Dé la bienvenida a mi domicilio humilde.” She said.
“Hunh?” He straightened up looking at her.
“Welcome to my humble abode.”
“Oh, right.” He glanced around and shrugged. “It looks a lot better than some of the places in Sunnydale.”
Holding up a finger Lara said, “That conversation, after I get clean. There’s food in the gray bag and you still have your canteen.” She gestured out toward the rest of the town. “Don’t drink the water.”
Shut in the bathroom she stripped off the sweat and dirt grimed clothes, setting her knife and pistols within easy reach of the tub. Glancing in the mirror she winced at a couple of the bruises. The one the temple guardian had given her by throwing her into a wall was going to hurt tomorrow. Maybe she could get in a hot soak in the tub before heading to the airstrip.
A slight thump and the sound of a moving chair brought her thoughts back to her unexpected companion. She had an unpleasant suspicion as to how an American got dropped into one of her expeditions to an ancient temple to dark gods in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. Some of the research done on the golden figurine she had brought back indicated that it had been used in rituals that involved people and things disappearing and appearing. Probably indications of some sort of transportation. And, she thought sighing and staring down at the cut on her finger that had bled on the statue, I think I know what set it off.
When she called Bryce after the shower she was going to have him make Xander a plane reservation to wherever his home was.
Something in all of this didn’t quite match up, but she wasn’t sure what it was yet. The young man had given her some odd looks and his comment about where he had come from being complicated…well something was just off. But even so, there was a sense of good heartedness about him. From the way he had behaved under pressure in the catacombs, he had an uncommon mixture of good sense and bravery. Plus, from certain elements of his behavior, she was beginning to suspect he had something of a white knight complex.
A short shower later she finished ringing the water out of her now unbraided hair. She wrapped the bathroom’s towel around herself and scooped up her weapons in one hand and her clothes in the other. Opening the door and exiting the room, she walked toward the bed, where her bag of extra clothes sat. “The bath is yours,” she said.
The poor man nearly swallowed his tongue when he turned from the table and caught sight of her. As he coughed, she proceeded to calmly open her bag and pull out a set of clean clothes.
Putting the clothes aside on the bed she turned her head to where he still sat, staring at her, and deliberately arched an eyebrow. “You don’t want a shower then?”
Blushing, he pulled his eyes away from her, and jumped to his feet. At the bathroom door he paused, his back to her. “Is that the only towel?”
The thrown towel landed on his shoulder, still a little damp from her use. “Sorry, but we’re going to have to share. I’d lend you some clothes, but I don’t think they would fit.” There was distinct irony in her tone.
From the glimpse of the profile of his face as he stared at the towel on his shoulder his eyes had gone very wide.
“Where are you from Xander?”
“Unh, Sunnydale, California.”
The door closed behind him, and she allowed herself a chuckle; it was so much fun to play with people like that. Not to hurt, just to put them off balance.
Slipping the clothes on she pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail and padded over to the table. The remains of a small meal lay in front of the place Xander had been sitting. In front of where the other chair had been pulled up was a similar meal, waiting. She glanced at the bathroom door and murmured, “Thoughtful.”
Taking a bite of the apple she flipped open the satellite phone’s case, pulled out the earpiece, and punched in the number of Bryce’s workshop in her mansion. It took a moment to connect, and then rang for six times before it picked up.
The voice was almost slurred. She frowned, “Bryce, have you gotten into the wine cellar again?”
“Lara? What…? No. It’s two in the bleeding morning.” His voice was sounding more normal.
“Ahh, oops.” She didn’t need to ask what he was doing in the workshop at this hour. If an idea got into his head you couldn’t pry him away from the project with a winch. “Well. There was a little accident here; my information on the statue was incomplete.”
“Accident?” There was worry in his tone. “Lara, how bad is it? What you call an accident most people describe in biblical terms.”
He could probably hear the wry smile in her tone. “Nothing too bad. I just managed to get an American transported out of a town in California and dropped onto me in the lower catacombs of the temple. Oh, and that temple guardian…it was much bigger than Ranaldis said.”
There was a short pause, then, “Neither turned out to be too much trouble?”
“Not at all, actually he’s rather good looking.”
There was another silence on the line before he said, “I’m going to assume you meant the American chap and not the temple guardian, though I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of difference.”
“Be nice. I’ll get another seat on the flight out of Cuzco, but I need you to book him a flight home from the stopover in New York.”
“Let me bring the web connection up…there. What’s his name?”
There was the sound of typing and of Bryce, muttering to himself. “Where is he going to?”
“I’m not getting anything with that name.” More typing. “Hum.” Another silence, more typing, and then, “Lara.” His voice was almost hesitant. “As far as I can tell. There isn’t a Sunnydale California. It doesn’t exist.”
Her eyes drifted toward the bathroom door, behind which she could hear the shower running. Putting her feet up onto the other chair she slumped in her own. Was he lying to her? She didn’t think so, and if he wasn’t, what was going on here?”
“Bryce, look back into the files I put together on the statue, and contact Ranaldis again. See if you can’t dig up any more on it.”
“Alright Lara. The plane ticket?”
“I’ll deal with it.”
As the line disconnected she could hear him mumbling something about caffeine, but she barely heard him. Her gaze was focused intently on the door, her thoughts on the person behind it. Mysteries had always been near irresistible for her.
“What are you doing here, Xander Harris?