A Croft Christmas - Lara

"What are you still doing here?" Ansell demanded, though his expression was more exasperated than angry. "It's Christmas fer Godsakes. Go home; enjoy the rest of yer day."


Well, one out of two wasn't bad.

Driving the narrow country roads was slow going, especially since it had been snowing. She probably should have been concentrating more on her immediate task but she was in a contemplative mood. Sam would have said it was her default state.

Still, she wasn't entirely sure that this little excursion was a good idea, particularly when she'd been dangling off the emotionally desolate brink by her fingertips all day. One thing she was certain of though was that it was better than the alternative of sitting alone in the flat. Plus, it was the right thing to do on this of all days.

Even if it didn't stop a muttered "Humbug" part her lips.


She wasn't religious, and she could only recall one memory of seeing the magic in Christmas. Her parents were normally on dig sites over the holidays so a traditional White Christmas was largely foreign to her. But a couple of years, the family did stay home.

She must have been about four or five. She'd been having a marvellous time in the lead-up to the holiday – sneaking still-hot mince pies from the kitchen, helping her mother and the servants decorate the tree, impressing her father with her snow pyramids and sphinx (Abu Simbel was proving more challenging), playing with her dinosaur toys by the fireplace and pelting Winston with snowballs. Which got her scolded, but was worth it.

On Christmas Eve she was bundled up, helped into her wellies and sandwiched between her parents. They walked hand in hand down to the little chapel that bordered the estate and served the local village. There they listened to the Nativity Story, sang Christmas carols and shook hands with the local farmers and their families.

Mostly Lara remembered being open-mouthed captivated by the light from all the candlesticks. There was nothing ornate about the tiny church; the candles rested in simple wrought iron candelabra, but in the soft, golden glow, everything was so beautiful.

After the church service, Thomas the driver was waiting with the car. Lara was tucked into bed with hot chocolate and a bedtime story. Something about a hero using his sword or smarts to defeat a monster no doubt; that was always her favourite subject. She dozed off like that, with her father animatedly telling the tale, and her mother stroking her hair as she listened alongside her little girl.

There wasn't even a need for presents the next day. Not really. It was already the perfect Christmas.


Which made it the complete opposite of Christmas six years later. She had never been more miserable. Roth couldn't come for her, but he didn't want her to sit alone at boarding school for her first holiday without her parents. So he arranged for her to spend it at Croft Manor.

Winston and the rest of the staff had tried to make it special for her, and she'd smiled for them; thanked them for their efforts. But as soon as she was alone, she'd start sobbing, shoulders hunched. It just wasn't the same. It would never be the same again. She felt so lonely without them.

After that first time, if she couldn't join Roth for whatever reason, she asked to stay at school over Christmas – far away from that Goddamn house with its happy memories turned to ice and ash. It was better that way; easier on her heart with its hundreds of hairline fractures.


Almost a decade later, those fractures were still there. Some a bit faded; others ingrained with dirt and dust, but they were still very much present. That's why she tried not to prod at them if she could help it.


Yet here she was. That same little girl now a grown woman. Mere weeks short of twenty.

She stopped her car on the shoulder of the road and stepped out of the vehicle into the crunch of snow.

The chapel looked shut up. Then again, it was almost 5pm on Christmas Day. The celebrations were over for most – the presents long since opened; the heavy, hot meal consumed. The vicar was probably off enjoying a sherry somewhere to celebrate the end of the demanding Advent calendar of events. Or maybe the building had been deserted as the community shrank and abandoned religious tradition. Lara didn't know the real reason; she was another local who had turned her back.

The gate to the churchyard was chained and locked. At only chest height, that wasn't much of an obstacle though. Lara grabbed hold of the iron and vaulted over it, balancing for a split-second on the apex. Just to see if she could.

She landed on the other side in a perfect gymnast's dismount.

She smirked to herself. You've still got it, Croft.

The next bit was nothing to smile about, however.

There was no aimless wandering among graves. The churchyard was small and she knew exactly where to go. She was not here often, but it was still often enough to find, and follow, the route on autopilot.

Her family had never gone the ostentatious mausoleum route, but they certainly occupied the best real estate in the cemetery. Their spot was on level earth off to the east side, free of the tangle of tree roots and grasping shrubs.

Lara stopped before a chunk of polished granite. There she withdrew two flowers from her jacket's inside pocket and unfolded the newspaper shielding them. A pair of roses; one red, one white. The holly and the mistletoe.

She laid the roses against the base of the gravestone and stepped back.

"Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad… I miss you."

Suddenly, in the silence and stillness, she was overcome by a sense of foolishness. She hadn't planned her actions beyond this point. It was Christmas Day and she was standing out in the gloom, bundled up against the cold while talking to a pair of empty coffins.

And yet she couldn't bring herself to turn away from the cold slab of commemoration. She hardly ever came here. In fact she tried her hardest not to think about here at all.

Instead of fleeing, she shifted from foot to foot; trying to envision a normal parent-child interaction when the latter came home for the holidays.

What always happened on the telly?

She went with the first thing that came to mind… and immediately regretted it.

"Uh, what's new with me? Well, I – I met someone."


She could picture an alternate version of the conversation. The three of them inside the manor, sitting before the giant fireplace in the lounge. Lara would be straight-backed in the Edwardian armchair; her parents reclining into each other on the matching sofa in off-white and mahogany.

At their daughter's admission, Richard and Amelia would share a chuffed Well, it's about time smile and pull themselves upright, eager for the big reveal.

"You know my friend, Sam?"

They nodded; their grins broadening and their eyes brightening.

"Well, uh… it's her."

Silence was the most terrifying response of all, so, voice still trembling, Lara added, "I – I'm in love with her."

She could see their smiles fading; their bodies stiffening.

"I'm sorry. I know that's not what you would have wanted for me." She shook her head, "I wish I didn't feel this way either. It just kind of happened."


Her voice started to crack, and tears threatened at the thought of their disappointment. Their expressions would be heartbroken, she knew it. She sniffed hard and wiped the back of her mitten across her nose. She smiled weakly, "Of course none of this really matters. She likes boys."

It took a few deep breaths – some of them shuddering perilously – but Lara was finally able to regain control. Crying on Christmas Day was just not on.

When she could trust her voice again, she added with a shrug, "And she doesn't know. Nobody knows."


In her mind's eye, it didn't end there. She'd only ever known love from her parents. As concerned as she looked, Amelia Croft still stood and went to her daughter. She pulled Lara to her feet, straight into an embrace. As an adult, Lara was substantially taller than her mother. In Amelia's arms, Lara rested her cheek on the older woman's shoulder.

God, how she wished her mother was there just then.


Lara folded her arms over herself. She clenched her eyes shut and murmured, "I hope that wherever you are, you have each other. And that you're happy."

She stood then in silence, holding herself, until the last of the day's light leeched away.

At that point, it made far more sense for her to get back in her car and drive the two miles to the manor house. Except she was craving some kind of physical release for all the emotion built up within her.

So she left her battered Jimny at the churchyard gate, shouldered her backpack and began a swift trudge up to Croft Manor.


At the mansion, she typed in the security access code and slid open one half of the monstrous front door. As expected, inside was cold stone and wood panelled gloom.

Lara headed straight to the cloak room to hang up her jacket.

"Lady Lara?"

She startled at the voice behind her.

She turned to find the same crumpled face she'd known all her life. "Winston, what are you doing here? I thought you'd be at your sister's?"

"She's spending the holidays with my nephew and his family in Australia." The servant added. "If it's a problem, Lady Lara, I can leave."

"No, of course not."

She noticed the poker clutched in his hand – this white haired old man, slightly shaking, in a threadbare cardigan. Yet he was still prepared to confront an intruder for the sake of his long-gone employers.

Winston noted Lara frowning at the metal rod and tucked it behind his back. Immediately he slipped into full-blown butler mode, straight-spined and all. "May I get you a cup of tea, m'lady?"

After her drive and emotional episode outside, exposed to the remorseless Winter air the whole time, there was no better present. She continued unwinding her scarf. "That would be wonderful, Winston. Thank you. I'll be in the lounge."


The lounge, library, kitchen and her bedroom were pretty much the only rooms in the manor left in a condition for instant habitation. Just in case Lara stopped by. Everything else was locked up and/or thoroughly draped by order of the estate manager.

It gave the place the aura of a tomb. Anywhere else that would have been thrilling; here, though, it was oppressive. Even since her parents vanished, whenever she visited she'd felt like she was walking with ghosts. Her, warm and living; everything else cold and dead, but still scrutinising her. Her Croft inheritance.

It made her shiver.

And that she refused to have.

So she was on her hands and knees, half inside the fireplace when she heard the clatter of china behind her.

"Lady Lara. Good heavens! Let me do that."

"There." She watched the kindling catch, and start to tickle her log lay.

No need for Girl Scouts when you earned all your merit badges from the Roth Academy for Young Female Survivalists.

She turned to find the old man scowling at her. She could see the muscles clenching in his jaw and she knew he was just dying to berate her. Except he knew his place and that meant he couldn't unleash the reprimands he wanted without stepping outside the class system he still believed in so fervently.

"Relax, Winston. I like the practice. Surprisingly, I don't get to start fires that often in London. Well, not unless I'm cooking."

Growing up, she had always delighted in horrifying him with her tomboy exploits. Like her mother's mother, he had very rigid definitions of what it was to be a lady.

Lara knew all the rules – she'd had them drummed into her by her grandmother, as well as seven years at a prestigious public school. In fact, she could play the game very well when she had to. She just hated it. The tedious prescription. The hollowness of everything. There was a place for ritual, and she appreciated that, but this was action without solid underlying meaning to bolster it. Too much pressure and the whole façade would crumble into dark emptiness.

Winston watched in horror as she wiped her palms on the front of her teal jumper.

"M'lady, you shouldn't…"

"Winston. My father served with the military. I'm a barmaid. The Crofts are hardly known for their conventionality."

"Hmmph," was the sour-faced response.

"Besides, I'm the last of my line. That is quite liberating in some respects. No one to answer to except for my hypercritical butler." She winked at him.

Stony expressioned, clearly disapproving, Winston presented her tea on a silver tray. Only here was she served with a cup and saucer. Back at the flat her choice of drinking vessels was a mismatched collection of pop culture coffee mugs, from Hello Kitty to House Stark – all courtesy of Sam's online shopping sprees.

Lara sipped on her tea, and sighed as the warmth spread down her gullet. Much better.

Winston was placing a plate of Ginger Nuts on the side table. His back was to her, which made this the perfect opportunity. She was just going to leave it for him, but seeing as he was here…

With her free hand she reached into her backpack.

When the butler turned around, she had the flat rectangular package balanced on her palm.

"Winston, Merry Christmas."

His eyes widened. "Lady Lara?"

She shook the present, encouraging him to take it. He did, hesitantly. "What is this?"

"My laundry." She arched an eyebrow, "What do you think?"

Her snarky nerve failed her though as he started to tear back the paper. "It's not much…"

Winston stopped mid-unwrapping and gaped at his employer. "Good heavens, where did you find this?"

She shrugged dismissively, "Some archives digging and a little bit of favour asking."

"I'd been looking for so – "

"I know. I know what Geoffrey meant to you."

She hated it when her looks helped her accomplish things, but the archivist had jumped at the chance to assist the pretty young brunette with her request. The result was a framed photograph of Winston's older brother and his Royal Tank Regiment unit, taken during the North African campaign.

Geoffrey never came home from the War, and over time Winston's family had lost most photos of their hero son.

"Lady Lara, this is – I can't believe – " The elderly man's hands were shaking as he studied the picture. "Thank you."

When he looked up at her, she could see how shimmery his eyes were. Immediately, he cleared his throat and reasserted his professionalism.

"Will you be staying the night, m'lady?"

She looked in the direction of the window. It was already pitch black outside. Despite her reservations about spending time at the Manor, a nocturnal trek back to London was far less appealing at that moment. "Yes. I think I'll sleep here for a change."

"And dinner? Have you eaten, m'lady?"

"Oh, no. But that's alright." She plunged a hand back into her pack and pulled out a Styrofoam container wrapped in plastic from the Nine Bells. "I have leftovers."

He stared at her like she was dangling a bag of dog shit. "Leftovers? You can't have leftovers for Christmas dinner."

"Why not?"

"Because it's Christmas, and you're the Countess of Abbingdon."

"And countesses don't eat leftovers?"

"They should not."

Lara sighed, exasperated by having to deal with straightjacket tradition at the end of a very long, very draining day. "Well, what do you propose? I can't exactly ring for the cook now can I?"

"I prepared a small meal for myself."

"I'm not going to deprive you of your dinner, Winston."

"It's the least I can do, m'lady."

"Absolutely not." The solution came to her then. "Dinner can be a potluck." She thrust the bag in Winston's direction. "We'll share. You can heat this up and add it to whatever you made."

"Lady Lara, that wouldn't be proper."

"Don't argue with me, Winston."

"But – "

"Winston. You will use the leftovers. And you will eat dinner with me." She sucked in air so she'd have something to help force out her order, despite how absurd she felt saying it. "Your ladyship… commands it. I – "

What did her teachers always used to say in moments like this?

"I won't tolerate insubordination."

Weirdly, a little smile twitched on Winston's lips. She recognised a sparkle of something in his eyes. Pride?

He dipped his head. "As you wish, m'lady."

Immediately she felt awful about bossing him around.

He was already turning to leave and ready the meal.

"Winston?"

He faced her once more, expectant for her next instruction.

"Can we eat downstairs? The dining room is…" Full of ghosts. She didn't say that though. She went with "cold" instead.

"Of course, Lady Lara."


Lara hauled her backpack upstairs to her bedroom. She always had to shake her head at the difference between the palatial space – complete with reading alcove, mammoth adjourning bathroom and full sofa set – and her pokey room at the flat, which just accommodated her IKEA-bought single bed, desk and bookshelf.

The cost of living life your way, on your own terms, Croft.

She was hauling out her toiletries and pyjamas when her hand brushed against something hard at the bottom of her bag.

She drew out the mystery object – a plain shoebox with Archaeologist Survival Kit stencilled in marker along the top. Slapped next to the label was a Post-it. Lara plucked it free of the package.

I have no doubt you'll find this. You can't stay still… even when I'm not around to drag you fun places. Happy Christmas, sweetie!

P.S. Tell Winston I say hi.

Surprised but smiling, Lara lifted the lid on the box.

On top, draped over the other contents was a T-shirt emblazoned with "Archaeologists Dig It!" in the Indiana Jones font. She lifted out the top and fingered through the rest of the loot.

Two boxes of Jaffa Cakes.

A bag of chocolate coins in gold foil.

A strawberry flavoured, extra-ribbed condom that Lara dropped as soon as she realised what it was.

A Red Bull wedged into a Sisters of Artemis travel mug.

A mini bottle of Glenfiddich.

A spiral notebook.

A leather tool roll with brushes, precision pick set and mini trowels.

And, right at the bottom, a framed picture of the friends during their first trip together – toasting the camera with sangria in Spain.

Lara trailed her finger along the image. At that moment her grin was as wide as it had been during that boozy afternoon at the rooftop bar.

Right then, she didn't care about time difference. She grabbed her phone and fired off a message.

I thought we weren't doing gifts?

She'd just about given up on receiving a response when, a minute later, her phone pinged.

Great minds!

I love it, Sam. Tho you can keep the condom.

RU sure? 1 of these days Alex is gonna wear u down.

GOD NO!

Lara Croft and the Legendary Programmer Pity Fuck.

Legendary is the right choice of words.

Hehe, Well see. Anyway, Im knackered. Did I get that right?

Yup.

Going back to sleep. Chat tom, babe. XXXXX.

Bye, Sam.


Lara was still in good spirits as dinner commenced. The archaeology student was even able to smile wryly over the rim of her wine glass at the scene she was a part of.

So this is a Lara Croft Christmas?

Nineteen years old and eating microwaved pub leftovers for Christmas dinner in the servant's quarters with a doddery octogenarian. They were both wearing creased paper crowns that refused to sit straight on their heads, and every Christmas cracker they pulled had been a dud. Evidently the dusty box that Winston found in the pantry was so old that the gunpowder had gone soggy and useless.

Sam would have said the whole thing was tragic, but that was quite fitting actually. Lara Croft's life had been one of tragedy… to date anyway.

Winston raised his goblet in a toast. "To the Crofts, the finest family a man could serve."

Lara responded in turn, "To the finest dinner companions… and loyal friends."

That set Winston off. He was beaming at her. And that kind of adoration always made Lara feel uncomfortable. She just wanted a low-key life of work and study – in a museum somewhere, or out in the field; wherever put her off the grid.

Her ancestry was already a cumbersome, weighted yoke that she'd have to shoulder her entire life despite how often she tried to forget it. Mansions, titles and starry-eyed servants declaring her praises further added to her burden. And royally embarrassed her.

She flushed even as Winston murmured, "If I may be so bold, m'lady?"

"You don't have to ask permission to speak, Winston."

He still looked hesitant to begin though. "It's just that, well, we were worried for a long time. You were always a very… determined child. When you got an idea in your head, you would not be deterred from your goal. Your father was exactly the same. But after his Lord and Ladyship disappeared, you seemed to retreat into yourself. The fire went out of your eyes for years. I'm glad to see it back. All of the old servants would be."

Lara gazed down at her plate as she cut her slice of chicken breast apart. "I don't feel like it's back, Winston."

"I see it. Purpose. A yearning for adventure; the opportunity to make your mark… You're your father to a tee. Just… He could obsess. To the detriment of everyone and everything else."

"Don't worry, Winston. That won't happen to me." She rolled her eyes. "I know enough not to go chasing fairy tales. There is more than enough mystery in the real world to satisfy me, thank you."

Winston was resting his chin on his fist, scrutinising her. Clearly the wine was taking effect. He would never be so upfront normally, even when it involved nostalgic reminisces.

"There is so much of your father in you, but your heart – that's your mother's. You undoubtedly have her looks, but you also have her generosity of spirit. She was a wonderful woman; utterly selfless when it came to those she loved. I see that in you too."

She hadn't realised she was clenching her knife and fork with white knuckles. She consciously loosened her grip.

"Winston, can we please not talk about my parents? Just today."

The old man's eyes widened and the class barrier dropped between employer and employee like a portcullis.

"Oh, of course, Lady Lara. I am so terribly sorry."

Dwelling on Richard and Amelia Croft has soured Lara's mood and silenced the room.

Winston, no doubt alcohol-emboldened, tried valiantly to regenerate the conversation.

"You have grown into a lovely young woman, if you don't mind me saying, m'lady?"

Lara mumbled, "I don't mind."

"Is there someone special…?"

The archaeology student groaned, "Oh God, can we go back to discussing my parents? You won't eat dinner with me on the basis of propriety but you probe me about my love life?"

Her companion began to stammer out an apology. But she interrupted him, relenting. "It's complicated, Winston."

"Complicated?" Of course Facebook catchphrases would be lost on him.

"Perhaps unrequited is the better word."

"Lady Lara, please forgive me but if a young gentleman, or a young lady for that matter…"

Her knife clattered on the china.

Winston tactfully ignored her. "If they cannot recognise your value, and their supreme good fortune at winning your affections, then they are not good enough for you. Not even close."

Lara scrutinised the elderly butler. Just when did he become so perceptive? Then again, a lifetime of obedience and silent observation probably did it.

"Your feelings will change, Lady Lara. I guarantee it. Who you are now is not who you'll be in ten years' time. Your father was thirty when he met your mother. You have all the time in the world to find your heart."


After dinner Winston refused to let her help clean up and she was shooed out of the room like a naughty young lady who didn't know her place – just like the little girl she'd once been.

She found herself back in the lounge before the fire, gazing at the portrait of her parents suspended above the mantelpiece.

She sipped on her wine – Winston had made a wonderful selection – and scowled at the painting. Whoever decided to hang the image here, where it was impossible for her to ignore them looking down on her, was a sick bastard.

Lara sank onto the couch.

It had been a day of emotional yo-yoing. Her happiness seemed to surge and retreat like a tide. She hated not having control over her mood.

It probably didn't help that she'd had too much to drink. It made her mournful again; saw her rushing straight back into those frigid tidal waters.

She curled on her side and stared at the flames in the hearth. Stared past them.


That first Christmas back at the manor, alone.

After dinner, while the servants were busy, she crept into the library. It was dark but she couldn't risk being caught if she reached for a light switch. Instead she operated by the moonlight tumbling into the room in patches through the windows with their curtains still drawn back.

In addition to being unlit, the library was without heating. She could see her breath. But even if her Christmas jumper and slacks didn't provide enough protection against the icy fingers grasping at her from the stone walls and floor, she wasn't going to be deterred.

She approached her father's desk. There, sitting slap-bang in the middle of the old leather desk pad was Richard Croft's journal. It was one of the possessions they'd returned from his campsite after they gave up on the search.

Lara took the battered book in her arms, cradling it like a puppy, and curled up on the divan. It didn't matter how cold it was. She still managed to fall asleep like that, clutching the journal to her chest.

Dad.

After that her memories became choppy, like a poorly organised, poorly labelled photo album.

A figure in silhouette, standing over her.

Being carried in a man's arms.

Pressing her face into black fabric.

And, finally, being tucked into bed.


Her eyelids were heavy. Dream, reminisce and reality were starting to swim together, as indistinguishable as oil in night time waters. As her eyes closed, the last thing she saw was Winston, white-haired, standing shadowed between her and the fire.

"Winston," she slurred. "Merry Christmas."

The last thing she remembered was his murmur as he gently drew a blanket over her. "Merry Christmas, Lady Lara."


Note from the author:

A huge thank you to everyone for reading this and my other fics - and particularly to everyone who has taken the time to comment and message. If I don't get another update done before the end of 2014, happy holidays to you and your loved ones. I hope you get to spend the season with Sam-one special at your side to enrich the experience;)