Sometimes it's just like that - Lara

Note: This is a chapter from my M-rated story Easier to Run, but it also functions as a standalone account of how Lara and Sam met at college.

Things were finally coming together.

Now that she was fully registered, the phone calls from Mr Dorchester seemed to be decreasing in frequency and exasperated intensity. There really wasn't a point anymore. Roth certainly didn't disagree with her intentions – in fact, she was sure he'd signalled approval when he gave her one of his single armed hugs in response to the news. The family solicitor, though, had fought her every step of the way.

"This is all completely unnecessary, Lara. You can practically walk into your father's alma mater, or your mother's for that matter. You've been accepted at both, and they are far more prestigious than that college in London you've selected for some inexplicable reason." She heard papers rustling on the other side of the line. "As for this obstinate refusal of yours to accept the funds for your education, it's highly misguided. It's not the inheritance you insist on locking away so tightly. This money has been earmarked for your university studies since before you were born. If your parents were here today, it's exactly what they would be using, so there is no reason to constantly reject..."

Lara found it difficult to get a word in once the lawyer started. She'd eventually settled on the strategy of letting him talk himself out, and then, once the "conversation" was over, silently doing what she originally intended anyway.

It had been a good day. She'd even landed a part-time job, despite resistance from Mr Ansell, the proprietor at The Nine Bells. She could tell he had no problems with her single page resume when he scanned it in front of her. It was padded with hands-on jobs she'd taken during school holidays, as well as Summers with Roth. However, the more times the barman's eyes darted over her, the more a scowl set in.

Eventually he grumbled, "You're too soft, girl. Worse than that, you're posh."

Lara was taken aback at that comment. She'd never been on the receiving end of it before, and wasn't sure how to respond. It turned out she didn't have to, because Ansell offered his explanation immediately.

"Posh. I can hear it in your voice. You reek of a public school upbringing – I bet you even play polo. And some of my regulars, they won't like that. They'll eat you alive."

She wasn't sure where the retort came from, but Lara felt herself prickle. She straightened completely. "No, they won't. I can look after myself. And I need this job, Mr Ansell."

His response was silence, and they stood for a moment simply sussing each other out; on one side a grizzled, two-stone overweight pub owner, and on the other little more than a fresh-faced schoolgirl barely used to liberation from blazers and knee-high socks.

Still, the young woman didn't let her gaze waver, and Ansell finally muttered, "Let me see your hands."

She presented her palms to him. They were rough and calloused – climber's hands. Their battered state seemed to placate him. "Hmmph." He added gruffly, "You're on trial for a week, Croft." He nodded his head, "Come back tomorrow night for training, starting 5pm sharp."

His voice and demeanour hadn't softened at all, but Lara found herself gushing with gratitude nonetheless.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr Ansell, sir."

"I'll be watching you closely, Croft. So don't bugger up or you're out."

"I won't disappoint you, Mr Ansell."

She was beaming as she entered the residence. Students, most of them First Years like her, were still moving in before the start of the new uni year. It was all noise and general chaos, but Lara was in good spirits. She already had her celebratory evening mapped out. Tea, biscuits and a head start on her Archaeology 110 textbook. She'd just resisted the urge to check out a fat tome on the Champa Kingdom from the library. God, what a delicious selection of books – it was one of the reasons she had selected the college. She couldn't wait to get stuck in.

She strolled down the corridor to her dorm room, balancing her paper cup of tea on the set works in her arms. She had already kind of succumbed to temptation, and flipped over the top book so she could read the lengthy blurb on its back cover.

It was probably why she didn't see the obstacle before her shin connected with it mid stride. Her momentum was enough to topple her. And with her hands full there was nothing to stop her fall.

"Shit!"

She crashed down on her front. Squashing the full cup of tea between her chest and textbook.

For a heartbeat she just lay there, sprawled in the hallway. Then she realised the racket had stopped. Everyone on the floor was staring at her. Some were even trotting forward to help her.

The first person at Lara's side was a Japanese girl. Except it turned out she was actually American when she opened her mouth. Not that Lara absorbed a single word her Good Samaritan said.

Dazed, the Englishwoman looked back at what had tripped her. A box of camera equipment. The American followed Lara's gaze and immediately winced. She kept apologising and was already trying to tug her companion upright.

Lara resisted the urge to yank her elbow away as she got to her feet. She wasn't hurt. Well, not physically. She was a bit winded but fortunately her tea had just been warm; not hot. So while her shirt was sopping, she wasn't scalded. Her cheeks, however, felt like she had just opened an oven door in her face. And her heart wouldn't stop hammering.

She found herself muttering robotically, "I'm fine, really, it's alright, I'm fine." Over and over she repeated it as she pawed at her top.

She turned to retrieve her books and discovered that the American girl already had them in her hands. She was using her sleeve to mop up the spilled tea. When she paused to study the one mottled, blistered cover, Lara seized the opportunity to snatch the reading materials back from her.

"Thank you," the English girl said all too brusquely, before she darted towards her room – head down to avoid the eyes still on her.

Lara, could you have made a bigger fool of yourself?


The following afternoon, she was reading on her bed in a bid to distract herself from the prospect of her first night at the Nine Bells. It wasn't really working. The confidence she expressed the previous day felt just like that – bluster with no basis. It was like a just-formed layer of ice over a Winter lake. As soon as her abilities were tested, the illusion of solidity would crack and she'd plunge down into the breath-stealing water while everyone watched.

She was rereading the same sentence for the fifth time when there was a knock on the door. Lara thought about ignoring it for a moment, but then decided she actually craved an interruption to haul her out of her head.

Standing on the threshold was the pretty Japanese-American girl from the day before. She clutched a cheesy souvenir Union Jack mug with a Terry's Chocolate Orange wedged inside. Immediately, she thrust the mug out at the bemused English student, and started rambling.

"Here, this is just a little something to apologise for yesterday. I felt really bad…"

Lara tentatively accepted the offering. "Thank you. It's lovely, but, uh, it's quite unnecessary."

"No, it is." The girl scowled at herself. "I wasn't thinking. I'm a complete ditz sometimes. I shouldn't have left my equipment out in the hallway like that."

Oh, well that explained the gift and apology.

The girl was still talking. "You looked really upset. And you could have been badly hurt. It was all my fault…"

The girl looked really upset herself.

Lara studied the mug. It was a nice gesture. And, come to think about it, the first time anyone had ever done something like that for her.

That made summoning a smile easier. She murmured, "It's very sweet of you."

That seemed to snap the girl out of her self-loathing. "It's Samantha by the way. Well, Sam."

"Lara."

"I'm four rooms that way." Sam nodded in the direction of the stairwell. Then she chuckled, "Although I think you already know that."

Lara returned her companion's grin. It was all she could think to do. She was terrible at sustaining small talk. She could feel skittishness settling into her bones as the silence between the two young women lengthened.

Her eyes dipped to the apology gift, and a brainwave struck. She plucked out the chocolate ball. "Would you like a slice?"

The American girl looked confused. "A slice?"

"I'll show you."

Lara led the way back into her dorm room, with Sam following close behind.

The English girl didn't even know her companion but she suspected Sam was insatiably curious; that an invitation into someone's personal space would translate for her into "Please feel free you stick your nose into everything."

So Lara wasn't surprised when she turned around and found Sam already assessing the contents of her desk, and the pin board above it.

She held up Lara's copy of Hiragana and Katakana for Beginners. "I thought you were an archaeology major?"

"I am. That's more of a personal project. I want to specialise in Asian archaeology and I think it'll be useful."

"You're learning Japanese… for fun? Jesus, I am never introducing you to my father. He'll disown me on the spot and adopt you instead."

That made Lara laugh. She tugged off the blue sticker that kept the chocolate's wrapping in shape, and began peeling back the orange covering. She showed Sam the sweet nestled inside. Still smiling, she explained, "This is the best part," and tapped the confectionary on her bed frame. Instantly, the ball cracked into a dozen individual segments.

Lara offered the chocolate to Sam, and then popped a piece in her own mouth.

When the archaeology student looked up again, she found that Sam had moved on to examine the poster on the pin board – a dramatic silhouetted shot of a woman climbing the Dolomites at dawn.

Sam sighed, "I really need a GoPro if I'm ever going to do anything like that."

"You climb?"

It was am undeniably rude reaction but she couldn't supress the surprise in her voice. At first glance Sam was the dainty Asian girl stereotype; small and slender with not a pound of muscle on her.

Lara's companion seemed unfazed by the shock that greeted her admission. "Yeah. Not very well though. Nothing even close to this." She continued to stare at the image. Suddenly she spun around, "That's not you, is it?"

"In the photo?" Lara chuckled. "No. But my, uh, uncle, he's promised to take me after graduation."

Sam's eyes lit up. "Hey, the uni has a really awesome bouldering wall. You keen to try it out sometime?"

"Yeah. I – I'd like that."

Delicious warmth spread through Lara's chest and out to her limbs. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been invited to share in any experience. She'd spent so many of her school days as an amiable but shy outsider that she had grown accustomed to being alone. Sam's inclusion was a wonderful feeling.

"Awesome," Sam grinned. "Well, I better go. I'll see you around, Lara. And I'm sorry again."

Still dazed by the girl's self-assurance – as if she'd been physically punched by it – Lara simply raised a hand as Sam vanished around the corner.


It was over a fortnight before Lara and Sam spoke properly again. They'd greet each other in the hallway and on campus, but between two part-time jobs and her full-time studies, Lara's life had shrunk down to books, beer serving and her pillow during a few snatched hours of sleep. There was no time for socialising.

Sam, meanwhile, was always part of a crowd whenever Lara saw her. That made approaching the American girl challenging. Sam would always try and wave Lara over, but a heartbeat after she entertained the prospect of joining them, the English girl pictured herself standing silent and stiff off to one side, forcing a smile while Sam and her friends interacted effortlessly.

It became easy for Lara to accept the notion that Sam was just one of those people whose charisma and fun-loving spirit meant she was never alone. Others were automatically drawn to her. Lara was just one of many. At the same time, her popularity meant that Sam's promises and invites were largely worthless. She was too busy mingling. So Lara wasn't expecting to hit the climbing wall with her res-mate any time soon. It was just one of those things. Life continued.


Life continued until the evening Lara entered the deserted communal kitchen and found Sam in tears. The American girl was sitting on the counter in front of the microwave, cradling her mobile phone.

Lara approached slowly but it was enough for Sam to snap her head up at the interruption. She immediately began sniffing back her tears, and faked a smile

"Are you alright?" It was a stupid question. Of course she wasn't, but Lara was awful at this sort of thing. "Is there someone I can call?"

"No."

But she had so many mates?

Sam leapt up. "I'm sorry. I'm being stupid."

She tried to slide past Lara but the English girl stopped her by placing a hand on her shoulder. "Can – Can I help, Sam?"

"Not really." She rolled her still-wet eyes. "I just feel like I'm making a horrible mistake."

That sounded serious, and Lara must have looked seriously concerned because Sam immediately clarified, "Well, more correctly I'm being made to feel like I'm making a horrible mistake."

That was more understandable for Lara. She smiled wryly, "I know that feeling. Would you like to talk about it?"

Sam shrugged. Then her eyes settled on the instant noodle cup in Lara's hand. "God, we've got like four more years of eating this shit. Come on, sweetie, I'm taking you out for dinner."

She seized Lara's hand, and started dragging the English girl towards the door.

Way to avoid the issue.

"Sam!"

An excuse was already forming on Lara's lips, when an internal voice berated her. Lara, this isn't school any more. You aren't forced to spend time with anyone. If you don't make the effort you won't make any friends.


So less than thirty minutes and four briskly strode blocks later she found herself sitting opposite Sam in a hokey little Indian restaurant. The place clearly had a following among the pence-counting academic community. The two girls were surrounded by students and lecturers in the sit-down section of the eatery. Meanwhile, the takeaways counter was even busier. The phone rang non-stop, and people were milling around, waiting for their orders to be presented in plastic shopping bags.

With a different garish colour on every wall, metallic-accented paintings of Hindi gods and a tiny TV mounted in the corner that was showing Subcontinent cricket, the family-run restaurant was about as unpretentious as you could get.

Lara immediately liked it.

She was also surprised to discover how much she liked red wine. She didn't drink much normally, but while they waited for their curries, Sam kept topping up her glass from a giant carafe placed on the table. As a result, the English girl was beginning to feel decidedly unlike herself. Relaxed. Witty. Smooth. She let a silly smile seize her lips; the alternative was her starting to giggle.

Not that she thought her companion would mind. Sam seemed a lot looser herself, but she was still avoiding the issue of what had upset her back at the residence. Lara would have pushed the topic, except she realised that Sam was scrutinising her; head cocked to one side, and chin resting on her knuckles.

Her stare was so disconcertingly intense that Lara dropped her gaze to her napkin-draped lap.

Sam frowned, again more at herself than her companion. "Sorry, I'm just trying to get my head around you."

"Really?" Lara looked up. "How so?" To give herself something to do, she tore a piece off the naan bread that had already arrived.

Sam leaned in, conspiratorially. "I mean you're this complete nerd, right, but then you look like a freakin' supermodel. I've see guys literally drool when you walk past, and yet you're just so adorably unaware or awkward. What's up with that?"

It felt truly bizarre, like they were gossiping about another person. Lara had never been forced to examine herself like that. She blushed, "I don't know how to respond to that."

"Tell me what you do for fun?"

Lara made the mistake of going with the obvious, honest answer. "I read mostly."

"Seriously?"

"Uh…" She ransacked her mind for something more exciting to appease Miss Life and Soul of the Party. "I really like to travel. Climbing. Archery sometimes. Running. I honestly don't have much time –"

Two male students entered the restaurant.

Sam flashed them a smile, which was instantly returned. God, she was good at this.

The segue in conversation was obvious.

Sam leered across the table at Lara, "No boyfriend tied up in your wardrobe?"

"No."

That was another thing she hated being grilled about – she'd kissed a boy or two in her teens as a result of socials and forced interactions with her school's brother establishment. But dating had never been a priority for her. Or shagging. She assumed that her hormones had yet to kick in, or they were faulty, or she was an asexual.

She was embarrassed about it. So much so that she could no longer meet Sam's loaded gaze. She let her eyes settle on the front door instead, at the exact moment it opened and a stunning Indian girl entered.

Sam shifted in her seat to track Lara's line of sight.

That did it. The American girl wiggled her eyebrows. "What about a girlfriend then?"

Red cheeked, Lara gaped at her.

Fortunately the inquisition was momentarily halted by the arrival of their curries. Lara had chosen the butter chicken. Sam went with something impossible to pronounce. When the English girl asked what it was, her companion shrugged, "Psshhh, I have no idea. Sounded exotic and exciting though."

Halfway through their meal, Sam paused to refill the wine glasses. She used the opportunity to restart the conversation.

"I'm curious..."

No shit.

"…If you're such a brain, Lara, why aren't you at Oxford or Cambridge or something? Why here?"

Lara swallowed, and dabbed her mouth before answering. "I didn't want to be accused of trading on my family name. My father was prominent in his field. I don't think the shadow of his reputation will fall on me here. Or, I hope it won't."

Sam frowned. "Was? Did he die?"

Dead always sounded less blockbuster-dramatic than disappeared. The last thing Lara wanted was for Sam to think she was any more of an oddity, and probe deeper. So she sighed, "Yes, when I was eleven. In a plane crash; both he and my mother."

"God, when I was eleven I used to wish my parents would vanish."

The memories struck her like a boxing combo. One: Her arms wrapped tight around her mother's waist, her face pressed into the reassuring scent and warmth of Amelia Croft. Two: The first time she returned to Croft Manor after her parents' disappearance, and how the overwhelming desolation drove her, panicked and desperate, to her mother's walk-in closet. Hours later, Winston found her there, asleep in a nest of clothing she'd tugged off shelves and hangers. Even unconscious she wouldn't release her mother's soft fleecy nightgown. Of Amelia's entire wardrobe, it smelled like her most of all.

So Lara couldn't stop herself. Her mouth dropped open. "That's horrible."

"Yeah, well I'm not a particularly nice person, so." Sam's eyes dropped to her plate.

The relaxed intimacy between the girls had disappeared. Somehow they had detoured into Emo-ville.

Eventually Lara murmured, "Are your parents the reason you were crying earlier."

"In part, yeah."

Sam's head dipped, before popping up barely five seconds later. The slumped shoulders had been replaced with straight tempered steel. She was scowling. "Do I look like an accountant to you, Lara? Or a lawyer? I mean, sure I'd be a fabulous lawyer, but seriously?! My parents are pissed that's not what I've signed up for. My academic advisor won't even back me up."

"What are you studying?"

"Filmmaking. I really want to make documentaries."

"I think you'd be great at that."

Sam brushed off the compliment with a sigh. "You don't even know me, Lara."

"No, not yet. But I can see how perceptive you are, the way you get people to open up and tell their stories so effortlessly." Her cheeks coloured at that admission, so she quickly added another truth. "And I can see how passionate you are about it; the way your eyes light up and you get so animated as soon as you start talking about it."

For a second she thought Sam was going to leap across the table and hug her, her smile was so buoyant. "That's the first nice thing anyone has said to me about it."

Time to invert the spotlight before her smouldering cheeks burst into flame. Lara took a sip of wine to douse her bashfulness. Or maybe hurdle it.

"What are you doing over here, Sam?"

"My parents didn't want me getting tangled up in…" She shifted to a heavy Japanese accent, "American college debauchery." Then she added with a grin, "So they sent me to the UK of all places. Ha! Not their smartest decision."

"Your parents are Japanese?"

"My dad is. My mom's Portuguese."

"That's unusual."

Sam's smile dimmed. "No, that's a business arrangement." She tucked back into her bright red curry.

"Oh."

Lara wondered how much she had come to romanticise her own parents' relationship in their absence. But despite all the stories of divorce, dour-faced unhappiness and, sometimes, flat out cruelty she'd heard from the girls at her school, she still could only ever picture her parents as adoring of one other as they were of her.

Amelia Croft standing with her arm draped over her husband's shoulder as he sat prodding maps and book passages at his desk.

That time they fox-trotted around a camp fire in Mongolia, while Lara lay half-watching-half-dozing in her sleeping bag.

Looking back on those moments, the young Englishwoman couldn't imagine ever having something like that. She was completely disconnected from that sort of thing. She didn't really have anyone – even Roth was tighter with Reyes than her.

So the question slipped out without her even realising it.

"Why this tonight, Sam? Why me?"

The American girl in cheerful socialite mode was irresistible. When she expressed her secret vulnerable side though – when she was unguarded and completely emotionally honest – Lara felt a stronger pull to her. An affinity. For a second they didn't seem so different.

Sam murmured, "Moving here has been hard. I don't have many friends. I guess you don't either?"

"No."

"Looking at you, that blows my mind."

Lara flushed. Smiling shyly, she looked away. "Sam, stop saying that. I'm nothing special."

The American student waved her hand dismissively. "Whatever. There's something about you. I want to solve the mystery of Miss Lara…" She let the statement dangle incomplete.

Lara helped her out. "…Croft."

"Good. That'll make online stalking you easier."

Lara's face fell.

"I'm only kidding, sweetie. Well, a little bit. Are you finished?" The way she jumped topics, it was disorientating sometimes.

Lara looked down at her plate. Yeah, she had eaten enough. She nodded.

Sam beamed in return, "Great."

She signalled for the bill, which the English girl noted was paid for with a platinum card.

It wasn't until she stood to leave that Lara realised how drunk she was. She felt completely disconnected from her body. She wanted to wave her hands in front of her face, but that would be a giveaway as to how uncharacteristically smashed she was.

Standing outside on the pavement though, she let a stupid grin spread over her face. Everything, inexplicably, just seemed so damn funny – from the realisation that she had put her jacket on inside out, to the bouncy strut of the Yorkshire Terrier being walked across the street.

Sam was watching Lara, looking so much more collected than the archaeology student. She seized her companion's hand. "Come on. We're gonna have some fun; unleash that closeted party girl I know is dying for a night on London Town."


Lara woke facedown on her bed the next day. She was lying on top of the covers, still wearing her jacket (right way on, at least), but stripped down to just panties and socks below the waist. Her jeans and sneakers were piled in the middle of the floor like some Twenty First Century cairn.

Her phone lay next to her hand on the mattress. Just lifting her head to locate it triggered a deep, resonant throbbing in her skull.

The pain was forgotten though as soon as her eyes focused on the screen. First there was the time – already 11:43. Lara had missed two lectures. Then there were the seven friend requests, as well as text messages from numbers she didn't know.

Hey, Lara, great meeting you last night. Want to grab a coffee sometime?

Lt me knw whn ur up 4 da peircing.

UR rite FIT, luv! :)

What had happened last night?

Her body immediately burped tequila in response.

The second clue took the form of her brand new phone background.

Galvanised by the image, she set to work as if she already were a qualified archaeologist –pawing, blowing and brushing away dirt. More precisely, but just as gingerly, she opened her Photos folder.

Aghast, hand over her mouth, she swiped through the dozen pics.

Christ, she didn't remember any of this.

Notable images included her dancing on a nightclub's speaker with Sam; the two of them surrounded by what looked like half a very drunk rugby team; and a photo of her giving the thumbs up while Sam snogged some guy behind her.

Then there was the new phone wallpaper: a selfie of Lara and Sam, both horribly wasted. The American girl was at least pouting in the direction of the camera. Lara's face was pressed into the crook of her companion's neck. Her eyes were closed but she sported a big grin.

Very much like her grin at that exact moment.