Make your mark - Lara

Note: As cool as Shadow the Tomb Raider looks, for many it leaves a bitter aftertaste whenever thoughts of Lara Croft's sidelined best friend, Sam Nishimura, come up. While the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise could have been an AAA representational pioneer, its bosses ran in the opposite direction. Using the Last of Us 2 trailer as a basis, here's an original short centred on what could have been.

It was done.

Graduation.

Everything from this point out was real. No more talk. No more preparing from within the thick walls of academia, cloistered against the world's barbed severity.

She should have felt excited about the liberation. She's been locked up at school for over a decade, snuffling and dancing about for marks like a circus dog to please her teachers and professors. That was all done now.

She'd been working towards this moment for so long, and now that it was here she was terrified.

The feeling had started after her final exam. Back then she'd been able to dismiss it as the same aimless sensation she experienced at the end of every school year – gazing out over the vastness of possibility and not knowing in which of the hundred directions to step.

She had a plan of course – a metaphorical compass to guide her. Sam was supportive. More importantly, Roth was completely behind her scheme, and was busy gathering his resources for the expedition.

As the days passed, though, the peculiar anxiety had continued to coil tighter and tighter within her. She couldn't explain it, but she felt like something big was coming. Life-altering.

And not in a good way.

More like a tsunami.

When that coil eventually sprang free, some mechanism would trigger and that would be it. She'd be sucked into the machine, a slave to its forces forever – dragged over sandpapered belts and pummelled by jagged gears.

Realising her hands were shaking, she clamped them around her glass on the bar counter.

She didn't speak the words but they were there, shrouded in the breath that shuddered up out of her chest and lips.

I'm scared.

She jolted as an arm landed heavily across her shoulders.

"Why so seriousss?" Sam slurred.

Freshly back from the dance floor, breathless still, the Asian-American girl was clearly far gone. Her crooked grin gave her away. The instant she scanned her friend's expression, though, she sobered.

"Lara, what is it?"

"It's real." As she expected, it was a struggle to detangle the words; force them out in a coherent form.

"What's real?"

"Everything."

"What? I don– "

"From this point onwards. Everything counts. We're not messing around anymore."

Sam rolled her eyes. "Can we save the quarter-life crisis for tomorrow, please?"

"But – ?"

"Graduation party, hullo?" Sam flung her arm out. "Look around you."

Lara scanned the hall. Hundreds of cheery, brand-spanking-new UCL graduates mingled, danced, drank. Some still wore their caps from the ceremony earlier that day.

The Englishwoman turned back to her companion. "What – what if I can't do this?"

"You're overthinking things. You're better when you just react, go with your gut."

"That's no way to live a life."

Sam downed the last of the vodka tonic clutched in her hand. She flashed Lara a fresh smile. "Worked so far for me."

Lara didn't have a response for that. She'd insulted her best friend. There was nothing she wasn't cocking up at the moment. She started to stumble out an apology when Sam waved her hand again.

"One night, Lara. Please."

Her actions and gaze were unfocussed but there was a familiar crispness to her tone that neutered any defiance. For someone who had a complicated relationship with formal education, Sam's own teacher voice was on point.

Lara sighed and returned to frowning into the depths of her glass.

If she thought that was the end of it, she was wrong. Sam lingered at her side. Lara could feel those disconcertingly perceptive eyes scanning her over and over.

Fingers closed around her forearm. "Come, let's dance."

The English girl winced. "You know I'm terrible."

"Appalling. But tonight's a special occasion. Now drink up." Sam nudged Lara's half pint towards its owner. "Put those British binge-drinking genes to good use."

Beer obediently downed, Lara was hauled onto the dance floor.

Sam manoeuvred them between bodies, ferreting out a gap large enough for the pair. It didn't take nearly long enough before Lara found herself facing Sam in a two-foot-by-two-foot square. Hand released, she stood limp and gormless.

Sam, meanwhile, was already caught up in the music. Eyes closed, she snapped her head from side to side, matching the shift in weight of her legs.

Lara just wanted to seep into the shadows.

She was straining to think of a way to extricate herself when the DJ began easing in a new track over the current beat.

The Night We Met by Lord Huron.

Relieved at the universe's pardon, Lara started to back away. But Sam, once again with eyes open, seized her.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Uh, it's a slow song."

Sam flung her arms around her friend's neck. "Better?"

"You're incorrigible."

"Incorrigible? Words like that mean you're not nearly drunk enough."

"Give it a few minutes."

Despite her work through college as a barmaid, Lara Croft was secretly a lightweight. She just hid it well. And with the beer following three of Sam's compulsory shooters into a mostly empty stomach, she was starting to feel floaty. Physically detached from everything.

Well, almost everything. There was the warmth of Sam's front pressed flush against hers; the slick, barely-there stickiness of her best friend's forearms against the sides of her neck. Bare skin stroked against bare skin as Sam began to sway.

Lara mimicked the action. Badly. Her side-steps were heavy and a millisecond mistimed with the music. She looked up from her misbehaving feet to find Sam grinning at her.

"Three years and still as awkward as ever," the American girl chuckled.

"I told you."

"Good thing I don't care."

Sam's arms slipped from Lara's shoulders, intercepted her companion's wrists and guided them to her own waist. Lara was surprised at just how perfectly her cupped palms fit Sam's curves.

As the filmmaker returned her limbs to her friend's shoulders, Lara could smell the vodka on her. More obvious in that instant, though, and the archaeology graduate had never really noticed it before, was how they were almost the exact same height. In heels, Sam had maybe half an inch on her.

Lara wasn't the only one scrutinising. Sam's head was tilted to one side. Eyes narrowed, but unfocussed, she continued to study Lara's face.

"You shouldn't worry," she eventually said. "Whatever happens, babe, we'll make it work. You're not alone. I've got your back, I told you."

"I know. I – I'm grateful, Sam. I don't know what I'd do without you."

Sam's smile dulled. "You don't need me, Lara Croft. Not really."

"Of course I do. Before you, I never really had anyone. I never had a proper friend."

"Sshhhh."

Sam folded her arms, pulling Lara deeper into the embrace. In that position, there was no more conversation. The English girl couldn't see her companion's expression anymore. There was just the heat radiated by Sam's body; the sensation of Sam's cheek pressed against her own.

Clinging to each other, silent, they shuffled in a slow circle to the music.

"See," Sam cooed. "You've loosened up. When you just stop thinking and trust your instincts, you nail it."

"You're probably right," Lara murmured back into her companion's ear.

As she spoke, she looked up over Sam's shoulder. Her pupils snagged on a gaze that immediately flitted away. Sensing the same scrutiny to her right, Lara glanced in that direction. She recognised a guy from one of Sam's classes. His eyes met hers for half a second before dropping to his feet. There were others too. Watching. She could feel it even if she couldn't catch all of them.

The tension must have reflected in muscles. Sam stirred against her. "What is it?"

"People are staring."

"Well, that's what happens when you're with the hottest girl in the room."

Lara's unease instantly vented. "Of course."

She continued chortling even as Sam pushed herself back to arm's distance.

"That's more like it. That lovely smile," the American girl said. "I feel like I haven't seen it in weeks."

The way her facial muscles were trembling, it felt that way for Lara too.

The young women beamed at each other.

"You know," Sam added, "Maybe they're staring because they're jealous of you."

Lara nodded, "Because I'm out here with you." She laughed again. "I get it."

"No. Because you're you."

"What?"

Sam was still smiling, but a tautness had bled into her expression. It flashed in her tone as well. "Do you have any idea how special you are, Lara?"

What was this ridiculousness, now?

"Sam… I'm just a girl. Nothing special."

"I see it. Behind the shyness. Behind those soft eyes. There's something there."

Lara snorted, incredulous. "You are so smashed."

Sam ignored the jibe. "Oh, Lara," she exhaled. "You have no idea how intimidating you are."

The American girl reached up and began brushing back her companion's fringe. "There's no other way to describe it. You – You're terrifying."

Of the two of them, Lara had always believed herself to be more of the maudlin drunk. She was about to say so, when Sam leaned in.

And kissed her.

More startling for the fledgling archaeologist was how quickly she kissed Sam back.

She could have blamed the alcohol in her system. She could argue it was pure physical response to bodily contact she was starved of. Those were both reassuring insistences. But they were also excuses – cushy self-deceptions to screen a realisation that had stunned her as effectively as a loaded backhand.

Lara wanted this.

Saturated in feeling. Trembling. Clumsy.

Their teeth even knocked as lips parted, and tongues came into play.

If people weren't staring before, they would be now.

This wasn't like kissing guys at all. Why did everything feel so irresistibly soft?

Sam broke from the kiss first.

She wouldn't meet Lara's eyes. Instead, gaze lowered and one hand resting on her companion's chest, she whispered, "I told you. Terrifying." Her voice quivered.

Then she took a deep breath and looked Lara straight in the face.

Sam's expression immediately brightened, like the dawn sun surging up out of the horizon.

"I'm going to get us another drink," she announced cheerfully, as if nothing had happened.

Chest heaving, cheeks burning, Lara watched Sam stumble off.

If I didn't have enough on my mind before…

Forget blood, bone and flesh. All Lara consisted of in that instant was a viscous mess of thoughts and feelings.

Yet, that didn't seem such a bad thing. She was a child who had dipped her hands in honey and was lapping the sweetness off her fingers. Unquestionably giddy, smiling again.

And she was vaguely aware that the music had changed. Another Lord Huron, more up-tempo.

Ends of the Earth.