Every night was the same sick game of roulette – the wheel alternating black and red in shades the same colour as charred bone and blood respectively. She never knew what form the nightmares would take; simply that she would have one every time she closed her eyes. And there was nothing she could do to guard against them.
They were always so vivid.
The smoke and sea air stinging her nostrils.
The motion of her limbs slowed as if she was wading chest deep in blood.
The unpredictably shifting weight in her skull – a solid lump of vertigo – as she climbed higher and higher on that bloody radio tower.
Finally, the way her gut was ripped from her as the rusted rung snapped off in her palm, and she plummeted…
She'd inevitably wake, heart racing, and completely disorientated.
It helped to sit on the edge of the bed for a few minutes. Head in her hands, she'd hiss "Shit. Shit, shit, shit…" until her pulse rate returned to normal, and the rivulets of sweat trickling over her flesh had reached their destination.
By then she'd realise she was too uncomfortable to go back to sleep with her shirt glued to her stomach and that frustratingly unreachable spot between her shoulder blades.
So she'd tug the fabric over her head and use it to dab up the worst of the stickiness. Then she'd rummage in her chest of drawers for a fresh top.
Standing there naked from the waist up, she caught sight of her body in the bedroom mirror. The first thing she noticed was how lean and hard she looked. She'd largely lost her appetite since the island, and the softness of a fresh-faced university graduate had melted away. She was muscle, sharp bone and sinew – practically feral. At least the scabs and bruises were all gone. Finally. The scars were still fresh, though. Livid pink. Impossible to ignore.
Her Yamatai souvenirs.
She scowled at that realisation.
As if she needed to carry a reminder around with her every day – one literally branded into her flesh. It wasn't like she could forget.
In the kitchen she made herself a cup of tea, trying to ignore the residual tremor in her hands. While the kettle boiled she took several slugs of tap water in an attempt to cool, calm and rehydrate her. It was all part of her post-nightmare routine these days.
In some ways it helped. In others, it didn't.
Her body recovered pretty quickly from the terrors. Her mind, though, felt like freshly manhandled scar tissue. She wanted to writhe and yell and throw things at the discomfort. But it was 3am, and she wouldn't subject her neighbours to nocturnal tantrums.
Instead, seated at the kitchen table, she brooded.
She stared deep into her mug and for a second the liquid looked exactly like blood.
She grimaced and pushed the drink aside, suddenly nauseous.
She muttered, "You are so broken."
Then she shook her head. Talking to yourself; the first sign of madness.
With nothing to occupy her hands, her fingers crawled across the table instead.
Sam's camera had survived Yamatai somehow. From it they'd been able to salvage footage and several photos. In a masochistic moment since returning, she had the latter printed.
The matte images were spread across the faux-teak surface. She picked up her favourite – a shot of the entire gang on the Endurance deck, just before the storm. All that hope and excitement. So many smiles. Even from Reyes, if you considered her arms-crossed-lip-curled combo a smile.
She, herself, had been a bundle of nerves. It had been her first expedition as a proper, qualified archaeologist. Even with Whitman throwing his credentials and experience around, everything was riding on her research and theories. The discovery of Yamatai was going to be how she made her mark. Then nobody would ever again associate her with her professional joke of a father.
So much for that…
Lara Croft limped home empty handed. No one knew that she had found it; she couldn't tell anyone about a storm-ravaged island populated by mad misogynist cultists, immortal samurai warriors and a soul-swapping sorcerer queen.
So the only thing that could be said about her research and theories was that they resulted in four Endurance crewmates getting off that island.
Because of her.
Roth, Grim, Alex – that misguided, love-struck idiot – they had all died to save her.
And in the end, what had their sacrifice been for? Despite her "I'm not going home" bluster on the rescue ship, here she was. Back to normal – a normal that she felt completely separate from, like she was observing it from behind one-way glass.
She knew what it was. She'd read extensively about it since she'd been back. Survivor's guilt. Post-traumatic stress disorder. The events on Yamatai had shaken her to her very core. Like a violent submarine earthquake, they had unmoored her from the definition of self that had anchored her for decades. In turn she'd been startled by the vastness of her capabilities, which had revealed a future as wide open as the Pacific Ocean. It was a massive opportunity for change. And yet, no sooner was she back surrounded by what she knew – safe in her little harbour – than all drive had drained from her. She sat, instead, propped up in the dry docks. Immobile and useless.
She sipped on her tea. So much for making it count, the way Roth had insisted they would.
She couldn't fit back into society, let alone embark on her grand quest for –
Followed by her name being shrieked.
Instantly she was on her feet. It was amazing how Pavlovian her response to that sound had become, and how quickly.
"Sam!" she yelled back. "Saaaammmm!"
She charged down the passageway to her best friend's room.
Her shoulder collided with the door at the same moment her fist closed around the handle. No extra force was necessary though. The door opened easily enough, despite Sam's tendency in recent weeks to lock it. Evidently tonight wasn't one of those occasions.
The screaming had stopped by the time Lara stepped into the dark room. In its place was sobbing.
Lara swallowed. "Sam?"
The archaeologist advanced towards the lump marring the bed's clean geometric silhouette.
Even standing right next to the mattress it was difficult to make out Sam clearly in the gloom. She was curled in a foetal position though; Lara could see that. And quivering.
The young Englishwoman knelt next to her best friend. She reached out. "Sam, I'm here. It's me."
The Japanese-American girl jerked at the touch. Her hands clawed and she glared at Lara – glared through her – like a furious, freshly disturbed cat.
Oh, she'd been dreaming.
Lara started to apologise as Sam blinked herself free of deep sleep.
The filmmaker's shuddering didn't stop though, and as she surfaced from unconsciousness, it only worsened.
Her expression crumpled. Even with little light to illuminate her features, the escalating panic in her eyes was clear.
"Lara," she hiccupped, "I can't – I can't br – "
"Wha – "
The English girl took Sam's face in her hands. "Look at me."
"La – !"
"Focus on me, Sam."
The roommates locked gazes, and Sam closed her fingers over her companion's.
Lara murmured, "It'll be alright. I'm here, and we'll do this together, alright?"
Still wheezing and wide-eyed, Sam nodded frantically.
"Good. Now copy me."
Lara inhaled slowly, held her breath to the count of four, and exhaled at a leisurely pace.
Sam mirrored her.
Lara didn't explain that the exact same breathing pattern had become part of every day for her. At least twice over a 24-hour period, she scrambled for it like a flare when everything closed in on her.
But she wouldn't admit it to Sam. During times like these, the archaeologist had to be the strong, assured one. So she forced an encouraging smile. "That's my girl." As the words left her lips, she imagined it was Roth growling his approval; not her.
The roommates cycled through the breathing exercise together several times. Eventually Lara felt her companion's grip on her fingers loosen.
"There." Lips twitching with the effort needed to sustain reassurance she didn't feel, the English girl added, "Now let's get you some tea."
In the kitchen, Lara found herself taking a series of guilt-powered gut blows. As she busied herself with the tea and laying out a plate of scavenged biscuits, she kept stealing glances at Sam.
The vibrant, live-in-the-moment girl who had taught Lara there was as much to appreciate in the present as the past, sat listlessly at the table. There were rings under her vacant, rheumy eyes and her lips hung mournful and loose.
She was a mess. And it was entirely her best friend's fault.
You've done this to her, Lara. Don't ever, for one second, think that you saved her. You caused all of this. Her pain; the others' deaths…
The young Englishwoman was so intent on ignoring the serpent's hiss inside her skull that she almost tuned out the real voice of her flatmate.
Sam sighed heavily, "What's wrong with me, Lara? I thought once we were back, once we were far away from that Godawful place, things would be better."
"I wish I had the answer, believe me."
Sam's gaze latched onto her friend's. "You're still having nightmares too?"
No need for bravado now. Lara nodded.
"Shit. I'm sorry, babe."
The English girl shrugged as she placed a mug of tea before her companion. "You pick yourself up and you carry on. What else can you do?"
"No. I don't think I can talk honestly about my feelings if I can't explain what really happened."
Sam pulled a face. "You may have a point there. I can't say I feel like the shrink sessions are working. I mean I'm going and I'm no better than you."
"It takes time, Sam."
The filmmaker snapped back, "How long?"
Her outburst was so sudden; so unexpected that Lara's tongue tangled in her response. She took so long that the flame behind Sam's glare sputtered and died. Mouth twisted in an imminent bawl, the American girl whined, "How long, Lara? Tell me. I just want to feel normal again; not like I constantly have fingers crawling over my skin. And under it."
A horrifying thought knuckled the archaeologist in her kidneys. She swallowed.
They had spent so much time apart on the island, and she had been so completely immersed in her own ordeal that she had never thought – or wanted – to ask.
"Sam, the Solarii, when you were their prisoner, they never…?" She realised her voice was shaking. "Did they?"
"No," the American girl shook her head. She looked even more tired than before. "Not that I was sure about their intentions to begin with, the way most of them were drooling over me. But Mathias wouldn't let anything happen. He didn't want his Chosen One defiled." Then she snorted, "Fortunately Himiko didn't factor my college days into her purity requirements."
Lara couldn't even summon a smile to accompany her friend's hollow laugh.
Sam cocked her head, instantly serious again. "And you, Lara? They didn't?"
The English girl felt phantom bristles and rank breath play over her cheek, and she cringed. "Well, there was one, kind of. Vladimir."
Sam's eyes widened. "Vladimir? The guy who was your first?"
"That's a terrible way of putting it but yeah. Brutal, awful man. He started feeling me up, and I… reacted. I guess having to fend off the occasional drunk pawing at The Nine Bells was good for something."
She didn't add that, with her hands tied behind her back, and the sounds of gunshots and men's dying cries echoing out of the gloom, she had never felt more afraid in her life… That was until mere minutes later when all that fear refocused on herself, and under that spotlight she was forced to consider what she was capable of when pushed.
Sam saw straight through the dismissiveness. She took Lara's hand and squeezed it. "Bastards," the filmmaker muttered.
By the time they finished their tea, Sam had sunk back within herself. When Lara made a move to return to her bedroom, the filmmaker yelped her name.
The American girl's eyes darted between the passageway and her best friend. "I – I can't go back to my room. I don't want to be in there alone."
"Do you want me to stay up with you?" Lara pressed her palm to Sam's shoulder. Instantly, the filmmaker clasped her fingers.
"I can't ask that. You look exhausted."
Lara shrugged. That hated voice in her head was back like tinnitus, droning All her pain is your doing.
But Sam seemed to find a solution on her own. "Can – Can I sleep with you? In your room? I think it'll help if I can just feel another presence there with me, you know?"
What Lara couldn't understand was why Sam, of all carpe diem epicureans, was being so skittish and shy about her request. It wasn't a common occurrence but the friends had shared a bed several times over the years, normally as a result of a botched accommodation booking during their travels. It was nothing to be awkward about.
So Lara found her reassuring smile easily enough. "Of course it's alright. Now come on."