Early excavations

Lara

Paddington Station was emptying out after a rush of arriving trains. In a few minutes there would be another surge of midmorning arrivals, but for now Lara found herself one of only a few inconsequential bodies spotted about the cavernous concourse.

She was torn between migrating off to one side to make herself more inconspicuous, and keeping herself centred in the space so that she would be easy to spot. She settled on the latter, but it meant massive discomfort.

She fidgeted with the strap of her backpack and gazed down at her feet, trying to avoid the possibility of eye contact with anyone, in case that encouraged approach. And, worse, conversation.

She hadn't realised how bad it would be. At boarding school it was pretty easy to forget. But no sooner had she passed through the college's wrought iron gates, than she realised how much she had changed over the past few months. She was forced to acknowledge it.

Men looked at her now. Some were better at hiding their stares than others, but she could feel eyes on her nonetheless, whether she caught sight of their curled, appreciative lips or not.

She hated the attention as much as she hated her blossoming body. Especially the things that had sprouted on her chest. They'd just got so big so damn quickly.

She spotted him then, striding into the terminal. He was in his signature beige cargo pants and canvas jacket. He also wore his usual mild scowl, but it triggered a grin from her nonetheless. Though they spoke often enough on the phone, they hadn't seen each other since the previous Summer. And she'd missed him terribly.

She trotted up while he was busy turning in the space, frowning at no one in particular.

She delivered a tap to his shoulder.

"Hi, Uncle Roth."

The man jolted at her touch. "Lara?"

His double-take came straight out of a cartoon, as did his widening eyes. "Lara?! You – You're…"

His bewildered reaction blasted the smile from her lips.

Please don't look. Please don't look…

He did.

His gaze sank below her chin. Then snapped back to her face. She was certain his expression of shame reflected her own.

"You're a woman!" he blurted.

She cringed, hunching her shoulders.

Roth's shocked tongue continued to stumble over words. "I didn't recognise – I mean – "

All the while, Lara's cheeks flamed hotter and hotter.

Eventually Roth settled on a simple, "Goodness, you're so grown up."

She nodded, suddenly shy around the one man she was adamant wouldn't make her feel self-conscious. She'd thought she would fling herself into an embrace as soon as she saw him. Instead, she was paralysed with embarrassment.

The ex-Royal Marine took pity on her. He placed his hand on her shoulder. "It's good to see you, girl."

"You too, Uncle Roth," she murmured.

He slipped his arm around her. She knew that would be the closest they got to a hug if he was the one initiating physical contact.

Roth smiled at her, "Come on, lass, let's get some lunch."


Roth

He thought it was difficult before – gazing on a child he had failed.

He was wrong.

There was something far more painful.

Now, every time he let himself look at her, he found he was actually facing his lost friends. Dick and Amelia. He didn't think it was possible but somehow she managed to embody both of them at the same time.

Of course, the lion's share of the resemblance went to Amelia. Roth remembered joking with Dick about how that was a good thing given the alternative. It was shortly after Lara's birth, when the squashed, squirming newborn was starting to become a distinct person. Even back then it had been obvious that Lara would be a beauty, mirroring her mother with her high-set, soulful eyes and voluptuous lips.

A good dozen years had passed since then though, and Roth was having difficulty reconciling the fledgling stunner before him with the cute little girl he used to remember tailing after him on dig sites.

She caught him staring at her from across the café table.

"Sorry," he apologised, before settling on truth for the content of his explanation. "I just can't get over how grown-up you look. A right young lady. Not that little girl toddling about in her penguin pyjamas."

She chuckled. "I'm well over fourteen now, Uncle Roth."

"I know."

He'd made sure to call her on her last birthday; pencilled a reminder on his desk calendar and everything. He knew how hard special occasions were for her now. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of that first Christmas without her parents. Winston had told him all about it – how, after much panic among the staff, they found little Lady Lara in the library of Croft Manor. She was purple-lipped and shivering as she slept, curled up on a divan with her father's journal clutched to her chest.

As usual, the thought of that brought a silent curse to his lips.

Damn you, Dick, for leaving her...

And leaving me with the task of watching over this sweet, sad-eyed girl.

Because even when she was smiling, as she was then, there was unmistakable melancholy in Lara's gaze. The challenge was working out how much was grief and how much was just the awkwardness of her age.

Their drinks arrived then. An orange juice for her and an ale for him.

It gave him a chance to direct his thoughts away from his own sadness. As he sipped on his pint, he murmured, "Fourteen years old, 'ey? In that case you can drop the Uncle if you like; call me Conrad instead."

She pulled a face. "That feels weird. Can I just call you Roth?"

"Whatever m'lady desires."

She flinched. "Please. M'lady desires you keep your voice down. It's bad enough everyone knows at school."

He was surprised at her shame. "Lara, you're a Croft. Your family has fought in wars, crushed rebellions, captured notorious highwaymen, sat in the House of Lords, explored the globe; not to mention unearthed ground-breaking archaeological finds. That's something like twelve generations of the most heroic and accomplished lords… and ladies."

"That's great," she scowled, while her fingers reflexively sought out the pendant around her neck.

During such moments, Roth always recognised Dick in the girl.

Lara was quiet and contemplative. That combination stemmed from her dad. The only thing that had ever really animated Dick was his work, or several pints… until he met feisty, fun-loving Amelia at least.

Roth imagined Lara would be much the same. She'd need someone outgoing to drag her from her head and remind her that she had a heart beating in her chest.

Right then, though, the teenager seemed hell-bent on disconnecting herself from the latter. Her brow remained knit as she said, "I don't want to be treated any differently, Roth. Everything I accomplish, I want to do on my own. I want to know that I worked for it; I earned it with my sweat and blood. Not with my bloodline opening doors for me. "

Where had this come from?

"That's admirable, girl. Truly. But you should never be ashamed of where you come from."

"I'm not. It's just – "

This was where Roth failed horribly as a substitute parent. He was sure Lara expected some encouraging words to coax out the rest of her admission. He just had no bloody clue what they would be. So he just sat there, while the silence became a chasm between them.

Eventually Lara was able to bridge it.

She shook her head. "It's just if I can do it on my own, maybe I can leave the memories behind one day."

As she finished, a tremor passed through her shoulders. The last thing Roth wanted was for her to burst into tears in a public place. Then he really wouldn't know what to do.

He had a natural rapport with people, if they didn't grate against the gravel that was an ingrained part of his personality. He was all too aware these days, however, that his was a military-honed relationship style – ill-suited to interacting with a sensitive teenage girl.

Lara softened him though. He felt his battlements start to crack and crumble. It was her damn eyes.

"It's alright for it to hurt, lass," he murmured. "I miss them too."

He reached out and squeezed her hand as she blinked frantically against the fluid building up on her lower eyelids.

When the authorities had officially abandoned the search for Richard and Amelia Croft – Roth refused to, unofficially, until his resources were exhausted, and he was forced to take on more work – the beaten explorer had travelled to Lara's school. Telling her face to face was arguably the hardest thing he'd ever done. The not knowing had eaten away at her, he could see that. The cheerful child who had blossomed with so much love from her parents, had wilted in its absence.

But she had still been so strong, accepting the news that she was an orphan with a nod. She hadn't cried.

So he was a fool if he simply saw Lara as a poor little rich girl.

She was more than that. She always had been.

Believing she was disempowered was a dangerous underestimation that he had to be careful about, particularly for the young Croft's sake. She was at an impressionable age, and the last thing he wanted was for her to start thinking she was weak and inconsequential.

Internalising her inadequacies and all that head-shrinker tripe.

A waitress appeared to place their food orders on the table. Lara seemed to be studying the freckled redhead as she served them. When the young woman was gone, Lara draped a paper serviette over her lap, and tucked in.

It gave Roth a further opportunity to scrutinise his charge.

She'd shot up since he last saw her. He noticed it immediately back at the station, when he put an arm around her. The crown of her head had almost aligned with his shoulder. This when she'd barely come up to his chest the previous year.

As she reached for the tomato sauce, he noted a full two inches of skin showing between her jacket sleeve and wrist.

Lara was going to be taller than her curvaceous mother, he was certain. She would be lean and leggy instead, like prior generations of Crofts, female and male alike.

Roth thought the teenager was too thin though. But then again, that could just be because her puppy fat was freshly burnt off in addition to her stretching out.

Despite all the stories of posh girls' schools and the pressure they put on students, he didn't really believe he had to worry about Lara developing one of those eating disorders. He'd barely touched his Dagwood while she was already almost a quarter of the way through her BLT and side of chips. So her appetite was certainly healthy.

He picked up his sandwich and bit off a mouthful.

Give her a few months, he decided while he chewed. By then her body type would have settled, and he'd know if he needed to take any action.

Already, he realised, there was a lot for him to keep an eye on.

Sitting at a table diagonal to theirs, close to the entrance, were two slick-looking men in their late twenties. They were bankers, brokers, or some other polished shit in a suit that Roth had always loathed. And they were shamelessly ogling Lara.

Roth felt himself bristle. Appetite was replaced with anger.

He wished he was wearing his holsters just then so he could run his palm over them for extra menacing effect. But alas. He was in civvies so as not to scare the soft Southerners. His glare alone would have to serve as discouragement.

It turned out to be quite effective on its own.

By the time a curious Lara followed his scowl, the prats were in conversation like nothing had happened. The schoolgirl shrugged and got back to her food.

Christ, he could do with a fag.

Roth ran a hand over his close-cropped skull. His once dark hair had turned almost entirely steel-grey but he could imagine it'd be white by the time his friends' daughter was fully grown.

He sighed at the enormity of the task facing him.

Then he found himself remembering.


It had been a bitterly cold day in February. Getting to Croft Manor was a challenge. Heavy snowfall had cancelled all the trains, and his geriatric Land Rover was always arthritic and uncooperative in Winter weather. Eventually though, he was shrugging out of his coat in the red wood entrance hall, handing it over to Winston and climbing the grand old staircase to the second floor.

Walking the corridors of Croft Manor always felt strange for Roth. He'd got used to working with rich clients over the years, but being in the monstrous house was an uncomfortable reminder that one of his closest mates – the same mate who reliably covered his flank during a gun battle with grave robbers; and the same mate who once drunkenly snickered through a Bangkok ping pong show – was actually an earl. With a peerage to boot. About as posh as you could get.

The door to Richard and Amelia's quarters was open, so Roth peered inside. The chief bedroom of Croft Manor was bigger than his entire bachelor flat. Hell, it was a good bloody chunk of the Endurance.

The antique four-post bed was set at the far side of the chamber. Presumably Amelia was resting there. Her husband sat in a leather armchair that formed part of the lounge area just inside the entrance. He was murmuring to a blanketed bundle in his arms, but his head popped up at the sight of Roth.

Dick kept his voice a whisper. "Conrad, come and meet her."

A daughter then.

Richard and Amelia had insisted on keeping it a surprise for themselves – one of the ultimate treasures to unearth as they saw it.

Roth approached, and found himself looking down on a bright pink little thing, fast asleep with a scrunched face and full head of hair that was Amelia's raven shade.

The child looked a bit bruised and battered, but that was to be expected after eighteen hours of labour. The tiny creature was a fighter at least; not some soft, useless aristocrat whose effortless birth foretold an even easier life.

Dick was beaming. He looked like he had even been crying for a spell.

"This is my little girl. My Lara."

Lara Croft. It had a good ring to it.

"Lara. Like from Doctor Zhivago?"

Roth wondered about that – naming her after a fierce, principled beauty whose life was tainted in sadness. He wasn't a superstitious man but he did believe names had meaning. That stemmed from a combination of remembered old wives' tales told by his nan, as well as his own lived experiences. He'd seen names tempt fate often enough over the years.

Dick didn't respond to his friend's question. He didn't even look up. The lanky archaeologist only had eyes for his daughter.

"She's so good. Not a peep out of her. Beautiful, of course, but so ridiculously strong. I didn't expect that."

The newborn shifted in her sleep, struggling momentarily against the restrictions of the blanket. In the process, she unleashed a kitten's mewl.

A baby lioness if she was anything like her mother.

Dick pressed his lips to his daughter's forehead, before grinning, "She's going to be a real heartbreaker one day, slaying boys left, right and centre."

"I have little doubt."

Clutching his little girl tighter to his chest, Dick reached for a folder on the side table to his left. He held it out to Roth.

"What's this?" the Yorkshireman asked as he accepted the dossier.

"What I think we'll need for the dig in Pakistan. I want you to read over it and tell me your professional opinion; any further recommendations that spring to mind."

Roth felt his jaw slacken under his skin. He hoped his frozen expression held, and didn't crack to reveal the surprise and disapproval beneath.

From the continual updates he'd received since yesterday, he'd concluded that the birth had been long and difficult. Amelia was exhausted. She should probably have been in hospital. Yet here was Richard Croft already planning his next expedition – no doubt with another as soon as possible departure date.

That was where the two men were substantially different. Why a proper, permanent Croft-Roth partnership was impossible. The prize always came first for Dick, no matter the potential cost. For Roth the priority was his people. There would always be other treasures and paydays. He liked to think he knew when to cut his losses.

It wasn't that Roth didn't believe in taking risks. He just didn't believe in unnecessary ones that could harm those he was responsible for. Once that had been his unit; now that was his crew and paying clients, many of whom needed to be protected against themselves.

Like Richard Croft and his bloody insistence that they follow his instincts over anything else.

Not that Roth commented as such just then.

The former soldier's instincts related to reading people. He recognised there were times when Dick was his friend, and there were times where he was simply his employer. Despite how cheerful the earl was at that moment, showing off his child, Roth sensed it was a case of the latter.

And the captain had done enough business with hobbyist treasure hunters over the years to know that you didn't piss off your clients, especially when they were as rich and powerful – and wilful – as Richard Croft.

So Roth opened the folder and pretended to skim the contents.

He murmured, "What about Lara?"

"She's coming with, of course. Once we organise her passport." Dick cuddled the newborn tighter. "This little lady is going to see the whole world."

Roth chuckled at that. "Grooming her to take over the family business already?"

"She can be whatever she wants to be, but I'll certainly try to win her over to the Archaeology side of things."

"Boys," Amelia called from the other side of the room. White-faced and equally white-lipped, she was trying to push herself upright among the pillows. "If you're finished monopolising her, I need to feed my daughter."

Dick was immediately on his feet. "Darling, you're supposed to be resting."

Finally, he was thinking about his family.

Amelia laughed, "Have you started producing milk, Richard? I'm afraid this aspect of parenthood falls on me if you want your little protégé to grow up nice and strong."

She added with a smirk, "Conrad, I know you've seen them before but this may be a bit awkward..."

As Roth withdrew from the room, he couldn't help but think of that other awkward night in Ethiopia when he witnessed his friend's wife starkers. He'd entered the Crofts' tent to update them on arrangements for the next day. The mood in the camp was festive, given their amazing find that very morning – the tomb of an unknown king of Aksum; undiscovered until then because it broke with expectation and lacked a stele to mark its position under the earth.

Everyone was drunkenly celebrating. Much to his embarrassment, Roth learned that in the case of the Earl and Countess of Abbingdon, those celebrations took the form of… well… further deep excavation. On the expedition meeting table.

In hindsight, that was probably the night Lara was conceived – on a rugged, remote portion of the Ethiopian plateau, surrounded by some of the best-kept secrets of human history. She came into existence among ruins and relics hidden for centuries behind rock and beneath dirt. It couldn't have been more fitting.


That evening had been almost a decade and a half ago.

Dick and Amelia were long gone. They were fading from memory, just as acknowledgement of their accomplishments was slipping into back pages and footnotes.

Their one true, living legacy was their daughter.

You should both be here to see her; to guide her. Not me.

Frequently away on the other side of the planet, usually unreachable by phone, Roth knew he was a poor substitute parent.

Hell, he couldn't even sustain a real relationship. He'd knock boots with Reyes now and then but she evidently had even more of a casual attitude about what they were than he did. And since having Alisha, she rightly had other priorities than a grizzled Pommy treasure hunter with a wonky left ankle.

What kind of role model was he, really?

How did he think he could properly shepherd a young lady to adulthood?

It was about more than simply preparation. There was the issue of protection.

With her full lips and her fuller breasts, Lara already embodied desire. She would be lusted after her entire life, no question about it. And with the permanent grey tint of sorrow to her eyes, men would fall over each other to make her smile.

They would want to do more than that – even before they found out about her title and fortune.

If Roth was a boy her age, he certainly would have pursued her. His brash younger self would have embraced the challenge of coaxing an illicit kiss from a blue-blooded knockout a whole world out of his league.

That triggered a troubling thought.

He blurted, "Do you have a boyfriend?"

Lara almost choked on her orange juice. She blushed violently as she groped for another serviette to dab her mouth. "No."

"Good. Keep it that way for as long as possible." He stole one of her sauce-drenched chips. "Concentrate on your studies."

"I'm not interested in boys, Unc… Roth."

"You will be one day."

She pulled a face.

A further slap of worry.

He leaned across the table and murmured, "Lara, do we need to have The Talk? The birds and the bees?"

The girl stiffened. Then she smiled shyly, "No, it's alright. They made us watch a video at school. And we've been lectured resoundingly about the dangers."

"I like the sound of your school."

Lara chuckled, "The boys at our brother establishment are horrid. I couldn't imagine…" She flushed again then, realising who she was confessing to. Finally she whispered, "…snogging one of them."

That pleased Roth no end to hear. He'd hoped Lara was sensible like her mother, and less of a dreamer like her father had been. From what she'd said, she definitely had her head screwed on right.

Sensible, and smart as a whip. But also shy and soft hearted. Lads could take advantage of that if Roth didn't instil some healthy scepticism in her – teach her not to let her guard down with boys who played on her sympathies. He made a mental note.

Lara was frowning through the table's surface, all of a sudden.

"What is it?" Roth prompted.

"My mum and dad," the girl said, before lifting her gaze to his. "Did they know from when they first met? I never got to ask."

Roth, you fool. You opened this door with all your talk of boyfriends.

At the end of the day, Lara was still a teenage girl – enticed and excited by tales of romance.

The captain wasn't sure how much was suitable to tell her, but he supposed she had already endured enough in her short life to handle the truth neat, without mixing in some syrup to make it more palatable.

"I can't speak for your mum, Lara, but your dad certainly was smitten from the start. He told me all about it afterwards."

Roth added, "You need to understand first that your father was a man – a man who'd served – so he'd sown his fair share of wild oats over the years."

Roth knew all about that.

He continued, "But there was never anyone truly special. Dick had reached a point where he thought there never would be. He'd pretty much given up on the idea of finding someone to share his life long-term. Your granddad was still alive back then and while your father was home between expeditions Richard Sr. insisted Dick attend some sort of upper crust event or party; I can't remember which. Your dad hated it. The people. Being cooped up with them – he was always restless. So he couldn't wait to be out of there; counting the minutes until he could leave without seeming rude.

"Then your mother breezed in. A right breath of fresh air as your dad saw her. Amelia Hargreaves. She wasn't highborn but she came from money so she'd moved effortlessly in those circles her whole life. She knew how to play the game. And that was always something about your mum – she liked to have fun."

He remembered her grin; the naughty delight in her eyes.

"Your mum wasn't afraid to break the rules. To loudly smash them on occasion. But she was very charismatic. She won people over easily so she was easy to forgive.

"Your dad had never met her before because she was quite a bit younger. But they were the perfect match. Well-travelled Amelia, a linguistics expert with five languages under her belt. Very, very bright, much more than your father actually, but the stories always put her in his shadow."

Truthfully, Amelia was where Lara got her brains from.

It wasn't that Dick wasn't smart. It was just at a certain point he'd cast book learning aside and rely on his gut. Amelia had been an amazingly good influence on her headstrong husband, but she'd never been able to completely overrule his blind, frequently reckless, trust in feeling.

If she had, Roth probably wouldn't be sitting with their orphaned daughter just then.

The thought made his chest constrict.

He inhaled deeply to counter it, and returned to his story.

"After staring at her for ages, eventually your dad built up the courage to introduce himself and manoeuvre your mum away from the crowd."

Always so smooth, Dick.

"Your parents got to talking, and the instinct your father had about Amelia on sight proved to be right on the money. They were like-minded people, in terms of their ambitions and attitudes to life. Of course, being your mother she made Dick chase her for a while afterwards – made a sport of it – but, well, you know how it worked out. Love, marriage and a baby carriage."

By the time he finished the tale, Lara was grinning from ear to ear.

Roth cocked his head. "Trading in those dry old history books for bodice rippers?" he teased.

That shook her out of her daze.

"I'm not," she pouted. But her offended frown was quickly replaced by one of the soft smiles that usually curled her lips. "It's just… your stories make them feel like real people again."

The teenager had started unconsciously fingering her jade pendant once more. She addressed the table, "It's been almost three years, and sometimes, well, I forget things. It's hard for me to remember them accurately. Other times, it feels like they're just away on a dig and any minute I'll be called to the school reception where they're waiting for me."

Lara looked up then, straight at her guardian.

"You're the only one who can really tell me about them, Roth. And truthfully. I know you're not hiding anything from me. Thank you."

This. This he could do for her.

"Any time, lass."

He reached across the table, and placed his palm over her still-clenched fist.

"Sir?" Their waitress approached. "Would you or your daughter like anything else?"

The misinterpretation of their relationship startled the both of them. Roth felt Lara jerk.

Though when he glanced in her direction, it apparently hadn't been an unpleasant surprise.

It wasn't for him either, if he was being honest.

He'd be proud to have a daughter like Lara.

He beamed at the girl before muttering to the waitress, "No, I think we're good."


Out on the street, Lara watched disapprovingly as he lit up.

He tried to distract her by regenerating the conversation, and focusing it entirely on her.

"So what are you up to this fine Bank Holiday weekend?"

"Mr Dorchester sent me some money." She thrust her hands into her pockets, sulkily. "But I have to go clothes shopping because I outgrew everything this past term."

Roth almost dropped his cigarette. "Uh, do I need to – ? Do you want me to – ?"

A shopping expedition with a teenage girl was an even more daunting prospect than The Talk.

Lara read his discomfort plainly. "Oh, no. No. I wouldn't do that to you, Roth. I was just going to go on my own. Hopefully if I have enough time afterwards, I can visit a bookstore or get into the British Museum. They've got a special expanded exhibit on bog bodies at the moment, from across Europe. Along with a display on the latest technologies in forensic reconstruction."

The way her face lit up when she talked archaeology – Dick had got his wish of a protégé after all. She'd inherited more than his colouring and lanky build. There was all his passion too.

Roth murmured, "I'm sorry work came up this weekend. During the Summer holidays we'll go climbing though. Carry on with our own Three Peaks Challenge by tackling Ben Nevis next. What do you say?"

She gasped, "Really?"

"Why not? It'll be a good refresher on mountain safety for you."

Lara nodded; then added with a bare-teethed, pleading smile, "And then the rest of Summer on the Endurance?"

"Maybe when I'm leading my own expeditions and I'm not simply a hired hand, lass."

Business hadn't exactly been booming since Dick disappeared, forcing Roth to accept contracts with several very unsavoury clients. There was no way he wanted an enticingly pretty brunette – barely out of childhood – exposed to their grease and slime.

Lara at least accept his reasoning without further probing. "Okay."

Once Roth had finished his smoke, the pair started ambling down the road.

"What else do young ladies do in London these days when they're released from boarding school?" He added with a wink, "Or do I really want to know?"

Lara chuckled, "It's not that exciting really. I have a sleepover tonight with some girls from my year."

"Your friends?"

She shrugged. "I suppose so. They're nice. It's Gwen's family's place. She's in Rifle Club with me."

"Rifle Club?"

He knew about her archery, but he had no idea she had taken up shooting too. He'd left his grubby old comprehensive school in Fifth Form but even then all it had offered boys was football, and fistfights behind the woodwork shed.

"I'm impressed. Have I told you how much I approve of your school's extra-curricular programme?"

She grinned, "I thought you would."

A heartbeat later, her smile faded.

There was a flicker of sadness in her pupils, before the unmistakably sheen of steel shined through. "I just have to be prepared, Roth. If I'm going to do this my way."

Roth's hand settled on the nape of his charge's neck. It was so slender cupped in his palm.

"Lara, I have no doubt that you will accomplish anything you put your mind to. But you never have to do it alone. I'm here for you, girl. Always."

He wasn't expecting it when she suddenly turned into him, and clasped him in a hug – with her arms tight around his middle; her cheek against his chest.

He felt awkward with this kind of physical affection, especially where anyone could see, but the girl clearly needed it. He rested his chin on the top of her head, stroking clean hair that smelled like Aloe, until she finally disengaged.

He kept his mouth shut while she sniffled and rubbed her eyes. She needed non-judgemental silence from him just then too.

"I'm going to take the tube from here," she eventually announced. They were standing across the street from a station entrance.

"Alright."

"Please say hi to Grim for me."

"I will."

The old bastard would spit out his Irn-Bru if he saw you now.

Roth knew it would embarrass the teenager if he said it, though – and end their afternoon on a sour note – so he kept the remark to himself.

Lara was looking up at her guardian again, with all seriousness. "Roth, thank you. For everything."

"It's been good seeing you again, girl."

"You too."

She grabbed her backpack straps in both hands, hefted her luggage higher on her body, and smiled one final time. "Bye."

Roth watched her go.

His heart ached for her, but at the same time, after their lunch together, it felt lighter too.

He didn't have to worry about Lara.

Life hadn't been kind to her so far, but its battering had tempered her; he could see it.

She was turning out fine.

More than fine.

Even if she didn't believe it of herself, she was strong and razor-sharp; focused and self-sufficient.

It had nothing to do with Roth's guidance.

It wasn't because she was a Croft.

It wasn't even because of everything Dick and Amelia had instilled in her, consciously or otherwise.

It was because of who she was. Who she was destined to become.

And Roth was going to be there the entire time. He looked forward to it.