Lara jolted upright.
She fixated on the bare patch of mattress next to her. Perfect, like it had never been slept on at all.
What the Hell?
She felt the cry building in her chest, but she just managed to swallow it back down. To call out her flatmate's name in a panic would be far too embarrassing; pitiful even, if…
She ran her palm over the smooth sheet.
It happened, didn't it?
She realised she was sitting there naked.
She never slept nude. Ever. Even before Yamatai, the sensation made her feel too subconsciously vulnerable to truly relax. And if she couldn't relax, her rest was superficial and unsatisfying.
She spotted her shirt flung across the room, and her pyjama bottoms scrunched up at the foot of the bed.
That portion of the puzzle solved, she flopped backwards, and rubbed her hands over her face. The discarded clothing was proof. Or, it was if she shot down the alternatives that kept popping up like arcade game gophers.
She could have fought free of her sleepwear in the middle of a terror. That could have happened.
Just as the events of last night could have happened.
She played her fingertips over her bottom lip, the exact same way Sam's tongue had traced the pillow of flesh.
Could have traced, she corrected herself. It wasn't certain any more.
She couldn't believe Sam would just get up and go post-shag, though. Even less credible was the American girl making her side of the bed. Sure, Sam sneaked out on guys she hooked up with, but she wouldn't treat her best friend in the same dismissive manner.
Lara refused to believe that.
So her always-theorising, always-problem-solving mind skipped to the next probability. Things had been so different since Yamatai. She had been different. Maybe at the age of 21, her inflamed brain had burrowed down into itself, and emerged with her first ever wet dream.
The dream had taken a highly inappropriate form, but it was still a respite from the nightmares.
Tentatively, she reached down between her legs.
She winced. Even if last night was a dream, her physical response had been genuine.
Touching herself reminded her how good it had felt.
Already her life felt like she was permanently wading thigh deep through the water-logged wreckage of the Endurance. Dropping another spiked complication among the flotsam, now she had to contend with the possibility that she was a lesbian.
Brilliant timing, Lara. Superb!
She toyed with the prospect of lying in bed all day – it was already well past 10 – and continually slapping herself over what she'd done, or imagined doing. However, the longer she lay there trying to recall exact details from the previous night, the more it felt disconcertingly like she was grabbing at shadows darting around deep in a muddy pool.
Eventually, physically itching with a need for answers, she gathered her clothes and her courage, and left her cave.
Real or not real? Real or not real?
She was mentally flipping a coin as she advanced down the passage to the living area. Along the way she couldn't help but notice the many framed photos of herself and Sam grinning out from the walls – and the past.
So many adventures together. Just as many misadventures.
The friends were different in multiple ways – Lara studious and shy, Sam highly sensorial and social – yet that seemed to work to their advantage. They balanced each other out.
For Lara, that took the form of having her eyes opened to personal pleasures in the present. Because, sometimes, and she admitted it, she wandered so deep into her head that she forgot to actually live. She was insufferably earnest about everything, and so socially stiff she practically left rust marks where she stood at a party. Sam shook her loose – the Tin Woodsman being helped by Dorothy with her oil can.
Together the two young women didn't stop and sniff the roses. Together, hand in hand, they dove into the bushes – normally so drunk they didn't even feel the thorns.
Lara remembered a moment during their Kilimanjaro trip. Of course Sam had instantly befriended the blonde, bronzed German boys sharing their camp site. After a hard day's hike – even for her – Lara just wanted to stretch out in the tent and write in her journal. Instead, she found herself sitting fireside with a cup of Konyagi and Coke, smiling politely while Sam flirted shamelessly.
Lara was reluctant to be social, but she owed her best friend. She'd pushed Sam hard that day, to the point that even the filmmaker's enthusiasm for capturing everything on camera faded, and she grew uncharacteristically silent and contemplative. It was only once they arrived at the campsite, and the American girl spotted the Germans that she perked up. "Oh my God, Lara," she'd whispered. "Cute guys. And one for each of us."
So it was only fair to let Sam enjoy frolicking in her element for a bit.
Even if that meant the gregarious girl took control of the spotlight, and could point it at her flatmate whenever she felt like it.
Like just then.
Sam and the Germans were clustered on the other side of the fire, and there was something ominous about the way the trio grinned at Lara over their drinks.
The archaeology student could just hear her friend explaining. "That, gentlemen, if you would believe it, is a British girl gone wild. Disappointing, right? Nothing like in the news."
Flame-cheeked, Lara frowned, "I can hear you."
The American girl stuck out her tongue. She was well on her way to tipsy. "Oh just shut up and get drunk like the rest of us."
Lara had a spikey retort ready for Sam when the taller of the Germans deposited himself next to the young brunette. He murmured, "I'm not disappointed" before extending his hand. "Ulrich. And you're Lara?"
"Yes." She found her palm in his, quite by accident. Ulrich had a broad, stubble framed smile, and broader shoulders. That combination always distracted her.
She was still trying to piece together a sentence, feeling horridly awkward, when Sam yelled out, "Don't mind her, Ulrich. She's English. Ministry of Silly Walks, Do you have a flag? and all that. They're just weird – sticks up their arses all the time. We may have lost the War but we win at knowing how to have a good time."
Lara glared at her, "Sam, that's really insensitive."
"Psssshhhh," her companion waved her hand dismissively, before stumbling over, grabbing Lara's wrist and pulling her upright. "Come and join the Axis of Fun."
Lara's attempt at resistance was half-hearted. She could feel the booze starting to have an effect; her inhibitions falling away. She turned, to find Ulrich right behind her.
That night honestly wasn't what she expected at all. Well, for the most part. At some point, Sam still disappeared with the other guy, Michael. But Lara managed to remain balanced on the perfect point of tipsiness. She felt relaxed, cheerful, but still in control of herself and her situation.
She stayed up until dawn with Ulrich, with whom she found she had a surprising amount in common. He was a complete gentleman who kept, embarrassingly, commenting on her beauty. They talked – he was a Civil Engineer with an interest in the historical evolution of water delivery and drainage systems – and then they snogged a bit. Fingers interlaced, they capped their evening by watching the primordial African sunrise together.
She wasn't used to holiday flings. Normally when she travelled she was at Roth's side, and his combination of scowl and shoulder holsters was most effective at scaring off would-be suitors. With Ulrich though, it had been nice. They were still friends on Facebook, actually.
And she wouldn't have had that experience if it wasn't for Sam.
It was about more than expanding world views and being helped out of comfort zones, though. All the teasing and exasperated sighs aside, the two girls were always there for one another – bolstering the other when they were crumpling under the combined weight of their ambitions and brutal reality. At their core, they actually were the same; with the same insecurities, dreams and secret sense of separateness from everyone else. Deep down, they were bonded by the fact neither really had a home or family, and they'd found a substitute in each other.
Back to the coin metaphor. They were opposite sides of the same token; stamped differently, but made from identical metal.
There was nobody Lara enjoyed experiencing the world with more. There was nobody she was closer to in life.
Was she really going to compromise that?
Or was it already too late?
She didn't have a chance to agonise further.
Sam was sitting at the kitchen table.
The first thing that sprang to the front of Lara's mind was the coarse expression, don't shit where you eat.
Well, it was too late for that.
The second thing to strike her was her best friend's appearance.
Sam was dressed.
She wasn't brooding or evidently emotionally torn up in any way, like she had been the prior evening.
She was sitting upright, sipping coffee and skimming through film industry news on her iPad. She looked up then, gave her roommate a cheerful, utterly platonic smile, and dropped her gaze to the screen before her.
"Morning, sleepyhead. I just boiled the kettle if you want some tea."
Lara forced a croaked, "Hey."
Sam continued to look down. "I'm going to run some errands. You want anything from Sainsbury's? I saw your Jaffa stash is running low."
Lara just gaped at her.
Sam continued to prattle on. "Sweetie, you alright? It's not like you to lie in."
Lara felt the icy skitter of anxiety along her arms and the back of her neck. The ground tilted to forty five degrees under her feet, causing her to snatch at the doorframe for balance. She clasped her face in her free hand, and tried to focus on her steady breathing instead of her frenetic pulse. That, and the sudden compulsion to vomit.
When she opened her eyes again, Sam was looking at her. She frowned, "Earth to Lara Croft… Are you okay, babe? You look – "
"Sam, did we – ?" Lara blurted, before she had a chance to think the question through. Halfway through, though, she froze.
How did you word something like that?
She couldn't see herself shrugging casually, "Hey, did we shag like wild animals last night? I'm not sure." Just dropping a statement like that in conversation – as if it was the most normal thing in the world, to sleep with your best friend. And proceed to forget all about it.
The longer her flatmate looked at her, bright eyed and quizzical, the more nervous Lara felt. She started stammering. Eventually she squeaked out, "Did – Did we pay last month's gas bill?"
"Uh, yeah." Sam cocked her head, "Lara, seriously, are you sick? The doctor said to watch for anything odd after the island. You were exposed to a lot of weird shit."
"No." The archaeologist summoned a weak smile. "I'm alright. Just a panic attack over something stupid."
She didn't wait for a response. She dashed to the kitchen sink and proceeded to down two glasses of water.
Then she filled her palms with the liquid and splashed her face. She was suddenly terrified that something had snapped within her, and she was actually going mad.
Sex-themed psychosis. For extra lols.
She turned to find her roommate right behind her.
Lara muttered, "I said I'm fine, Sa– "
The filmmaker's mouth was on hers; her fingers clasping her cheeks.
The murky waters Lara had been sifting through ran clear.
The kiss didn't last long though.
Sam broke from it first. She let her hands drop to Lara's shoulders. She smiled softly, "God, you Brits and keeping quiet because you don't want to make a fuss."
"It really happened?" Lara felt like she was expelling a breath she'd been holding since waking. It was a huge relief… and at the same time, not.
The archaeologist was expecting chuckles and light-hearted dismissiveness from Sam. That wasn't the American girl's response however. Her smile faded into blankness, and she busied herself readjusting the fold of Lara's robe, left over right.
Lara filled the silence. "We shouldn't have done that, Sam. It was a mistake."
Honesty was never something she had battled with. "You are the most important person in my life."
"And you're mine."
"So we can't jeopardise that with… whatever that was last night."
Still avoiding her companion's gaze, Sam repeated in a whisper, "Whatever that was last night…"
"I was hoping that you'd have an answer... What it was? What it means for us?"
"I don't know. I don't think it has to mean anything in the grand scheme of things."
"How can it not?"
Lara could feel herself growing exasperated over Sam's apparent disinterest. The American girl had vastly more sexual experience but Lara couldn't believe their night together belonged in the same category as all those casual flings. "Friends don't just shag, Sam. It's not normal, no matter how close we are."
"Maybe. But I think we both needed it."
"So you're saying it was a once-off thing? An anomaly? We just forget it ever happened and carry on with our lives?"
"Isn't that what we're trying to do with Yamatai?"
That bolt hit Lara's heart square on.
She stiffened as Sam took a step backwards. The American girl finally raised her eyes again. "But I'm not saying any of that, Lara." She grimaced, "You're the only person I feel safe with. My shrink would hate me saying that, but it's true."
The archaeologist was struggling to follow the logic trail. She leaned back against the sink. "So what do you want from me?"
"To just be there for me, like you were last night. And I'll be there for you."
So Lara was little more than one of Sam's hook-ups. The only difference was that post-Yamatai, the English girl was the only body her friend could tolerate in her bed. An acceptable way to fill the void.
It didn't matter that Lara was confused about her feelings. The realisation of how Sam saw her still stung, and her response reflected that venom. "I believe that's called 'friends with benefits'. Or, simply, a 'pity fuck.'"
Sam shook her head. "I see it as a coping strategy."
Lara scowled. She almost spat the word back. Coping.
Sam was too good a reader of people not to notice her roommate's shift in mood. She reached out and rested her hand on one of Lara's clenched fists in a conciliatory gesture. "Last night felt good, right? And afterwards you slept through with no more nightmares?"
That part was true.
Lara nodded, sullen.
"I've been thinking a lot this morning about why that was."
"And what was your conclusion?"
"You mean apart from me being a spectacular lay?"
Sam flashed a cheeky grin, prompting a groan from Lara – and for a moment it all felt like older, simpler times. She wanted to cling to the sensation; she just couldn't.
"Sam, be serious. Please."
"I know, I know." The American's smile flatlined. "The way it happened was a complete mess, but at the same time it was a safe way to vent all our frustrations. Our fear. Our anger. In a way that wasn't self-harming. And with the one person who won't judge. Who knows what really happened. Who understands…" Her confidence seemed to wilt, and she concluded with a shrug. "At least that's how it felt to me."
Lara contemplated Sam's statement, and in turn the possibility of a further unwanted effect from the island. Like stress triggering cancer in healthy cells, Yamatai had forced a mutation of the girls' friendship. Was the next step in its evolution really to become sexual punching bags for one another every Witching Hour?
Sam attempted to blast through her companion's doubts with a smile. "Babe, I know it's weird, and wrong, but it works. Well, it did once and I expect it'll do so again."
"How will this not complicate us at best; destroy us at worst?"
"Because there'll be strict rules."
Rules were not Sam's strong point. Increasingly, the Englishwoman was finding they weren't hers either. She was about to grumble as much when the filmmaker pressed her palm against Lara's chest bone.
"This will help. Both of us. I truly believe it, Lara."
Sam's expression was all pale, pinched earnestness as she said it, and the archaeologist was reminded of her friend's quivering desperation the night before.
"Lara, please, you have to help me… Help me, Lara. Help me forget."
Sam had turned to a scarred, scared, Yamatai survivor. Whether foolish or not, she'd put her trust in a fellow veteran who carried the horrors of that island within her like shrapnel.
You made a promise, Lara.
It was irrelevant how much she physically wanted it.
Sam's needs were her priority.
So she clasped the American girl's fingers in her own. "Tell me how this works exactly."