You Winston, You Lose Some
Scuffling behind her.
Instantly, her skin prickled. That was one thing she wished she could turn off at will – her survival instincts' tendency to outrace rational thought. She was home, safely entrenched in the manor's secret underground research lab, protected by a security access pad and reinforced steel doors. Still, she was on edge. The smallest unfamiliar noise and she turned bristling cat, claws out. Her body was ready to fight, whether she needed to or not.
At least her pistol was in a drawer at the other side of the room. It had been awkward for the both of them last time she drew it on him.
So she pressed her palms flat on the table to prevent any scrambling for a weapon, and used yoga breathing to suffocate her anxiety until it was too weak to have any influence over her limbs.
Her voice came out a lot steadier than it felt in her throat. Steadier, but frayed.
"What, Winston? Is there another invoice for me to sign? I'm busy."
"I am simply making your Ladyship aware that the Manor's plumbing has been completely repaired."
Any other servant would have left it at that, but the old butler cleared his throat and continued. "I know you have developed an attitude to personal cleanliness as laissez-faire as your attitude to bodily sustenance but you no longer have any excuses."
Any opportunity for a gibe.
It had been over a decade, but that disinterested voice still had a knee-jerk effect on her. Within arm's reach was her untouched lunch: a ham and cheese baguette. She snatched at it, tore away a chunk of bread with her teeth and chewed petulantly. "There," she garbled with her mouth full. "Delicious. Life altering."
Once she'd swallowed and rubbed her hand over her lips, she turned around. She languidly folded her arms and leaned back against the examination table.
"You know," Lara Croft sighed, "I hauled you out of retirement to run this place. I can put you right back there."
Winston ignored her. He was too busy shaking his head and muttering into his chest.
"I blame all those years spent with Conrad Roth. That man's influence; he was always so uncouth."
"Tell me how you really feel."
Winston raised his eyes to hers. "You did not have the most conventional upbringing. Quite unbecoming for a young lady actually; so much time spent with soldiers turned treasure hunters."
"And crusty old butlers." She liked the way that comment jolted him. For just a heartbeat that stiff upper lip bowed.
Her follow-up jab was much softer. Reconciliatory even. "Not enough time, Winston. Not nearly enough."
She didn't wait to read his reaction. She flipped herself around and returned to scowling at the table's surface.
She could hear Winston advancing into the space until there were only a few feet between them.
"Are – are things not going well, Mistress Lara?"
"Perhaps some fresh air. A stroll around the grounds. A climb even on that wall you put in."
"Maybe." She groaned. "But I feel like I'm right there. I have all the pieces. I just can't fit them together, make the connection that's staring me in the face. It's taunting me."
Five days and she still was no closer to a solution. It didn't help that she was trying to make sense of her findings remotely. It never compared to being in the field, breathing in the stale, dusty air that made her nostrils itch; running her fingertips over engravings as she translated out loud. Her original notes, some photos, less than an hour of video footage – that was all she had left after her botched Iran expedition. Along with a grazed elbow and eight stitches.
The collapsed temple hadn't been what she expected. Instead of the legendary Cup of Jamshid, she just found more clues to its hiding place. Cryptic riddles in word and art, stringing her along like one of Sam's aloof Tinder dates. The hunt was still on.
"Sod it," she hissed.
Winston coughed politely. "From what I recall, patience was never your strong suit."
"Are you still going to laud that over me? Yes, you consistently beat an eight year old at chess, well done."
Winston parried, "An impatient, hot tempered eight year old. And in some regards you have not changed. Not one jot."
"Would you like a rematch? That can easily be arranged."
"I look forward to it, Mistress Lara."
When Winston spoke again, his words were lilted with hesitancy. "M'lady, there is something else."
Lara turned to face the servant as he stepped forward. He held up a silver tray containing a single cream envelope.
Lara pulled her face at the pretension of the presentation.
She lifted the envelope.
"A formal invitation to the impending royal nuptials, I believe."
Lara dropped the envelope as if it had stung her. It struck the silver with surprising force.
Evidently Winston had been expecting such a response. His frown radiated disapproval. "Your ladyship's father was a Peer." He added, "As are you."
Shaking her head, Lara backed away from the platter the same way she might a big cat. "I'm definitely not that kind of Croft."
"I may assume then that your RSVP is a…?"
"No! God, no."
"As your Ladyship wishes."
Winston gave a stiff bow that didn't extend below his ribs. As he straightened, he caught his mistress's eye. "Although, if I may say so, the occasion would be an excellent opportunity to meet a young Lord."
"A young man fitting of your station."
He was completely serious.
Lara's exasperation vented as a chuckle. "Of course I get what you're driving at. But for God sake, I'm 23."
Her face felt strange. Laughing, smiling – her muscles were out of practice.
Winston didn't say anything. He simply gave her a look. The Look.
It compelled her to argue her case, the same way it had when she was a child caught misbehaving. In adulthood, she managed not to stumble over her excuse at least. "I'm fixing the manor up. What more do you want me to do?
"Fixing it up to be a museum."
Lara blinked. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"When you started this project, I thought perhaps it was an indication of you moving on. That perhaps a Croft would finally let go, and just live. Let themselves be happy."
"You think I've forgotten what my father's obsession did? My entire life has been spent dealing with the fallout."
"And yet you would repeat it?"
That struck a nerve.
"You expected what, exactly?" Lara shot back. "The pitter-patter of little feet in this place? That is never going to happen, Winston." The voice of a sullen little girl echoed when she added, "And I'm not repeating anything."
Winston remained expressionless. "Mmmm, as your Ladyship insists."
With that reply, she expected him to retreat. Yet, he remained rooted.
Riled up, she snapped, "You're hovering, Winston. What else do you want to say?"
"Perhaps your Ladyship would like to engage more with the workmen?"
A fresh wave of annoyance poured over her liked warm, viscous oil. "Now why would I do that?"
"Well, word has reached me of rumours."
"That the first thing the Countess of Abbingdon does on waking every morning is disappear down to the wine cellar for hours on end."
"I can live with them thinking that."
Winston's arched a single eyebrow. "That your Ladyship has accepted her inheritance only to sink into drunkenness? That the last Croft is a mad, perpetually sozzled hermit?"
"That is far from the worst thing that's been said about me."
"But – "
Lara gave a smug grin. "Vanishing into the wine cellar is preferable to the walk-in freezer, don't you think?"
Winston's lips pinched together, colourless. His Adam's apple bounced once above the lip of his collar before he murmured, "I remember that place exceedingly well, thanks to your Ladyship."
"Good. Then we're on the same page."
She returned to her work. Behind her, she could hear Winston pottering about. The clink of metal against ceramic told her he was cleaning up her desk, which she knew was in a awful state. She'd let it get out of control, between her research and the debris left from the many meals, treats and cups of tea the butler had brought her.
The clatter and scrape went on for a while, to the point that irritation began to percolate fresh in Lara's gut. She didn't want to lose her temper twice in quick succession, so she doubled her concentration on the Avestan script before her.
Just when she thought the din was over, Winston piped up. "Mistress Lara, do you know the history of the sandwich?"
"The etymology? Earl of Sandwich. Reportedly wouldn't leave the cards table. Got his servants to place his supper between two slices of bread so he could eat one-handed."
"Very good. So what do you suppose would be the definition of a Croft?"
Lara stiffened, but didn't turn. "I haven't the foggiest. I don't play cards."
"Or chess very well."
Lara gritted her teeth. "Please enlighten me as I'm sure you plan to do."
"Based on the evidence before me, I see a Croft becoming the popular term for a forgotten, half-drunk cup of tea."
"Droll as always, Winston." She didn't need to spin around to know there would be a victor's twinkle in his eye.
"There is one last thing," the old man added.
Finally. Then she could be left in peace.
"With the renovations just about complete, will your Ladyship be taking over your mother's old quarters? As opposed to sleeping on a couch in the study hall like a squatter."
"I – I never thought about that." Honestly, the consideration hadn't even entered her mind. The West Wing had been off limits for almost her entire life. Even with her name on the title deeds in the safe, large parts of the estate still didn't feel like hers. Yet Winston's earlier comment about the Manor as a museum grated her.
He pressed on. "The Master Bedroom would be more fitting for the Countess of Abbingdon as opposed to – "
"Yes. You're right."
Silence behind her. She could picture Winston wide-eyed and gaping over a battle so easily won.
The Croft family servant cleared his throat. "I will commence preparations at once." Another pause. Then, "While I'm at it, may I do up the guest room?"
Lara glanced over her shoulder. "What on earth for?"
"After your Siberian foray, I thought perhaps Mr Maiava would be moving in on a more permanent basis? Taking over cooking duties at the very least, although you hardly touch your food."
"No. Jonah has his own life. He should have his own life."
"Apologies, M'lady. I presumed – "
"Hold on a second." Lara flipped around. She saw it then – Winston's discomfort; the way he was continually shifting his weight as if his shoes pinched.
"Do you think we're involved? Romantically?"
Lara laughed heartily. She let Winston stew in his over-familiar embarrassment for a second before adding, "Jonah is like a brother to me. A big, overprotective brother."
Little Bird and Mister Sauce.
Winston spluttered out his clarification. "It is just – what I mean to say is that the Manor is very large. Extremely large for one young woman living alone. I thought perhaps it might be good for you to have some company. Like Mr Maiava, or your lady friend from university. Miss Nishimura, I believe?"
The mention of that name extinguished Lara's smile as effectively as if a blade had been applied to her throat.
Winston tipped his head in the direction of the desk. "You don't have pictures of your parents here, yet there's one of her."
"I don't want to talk about Sam." Lara's voice had turned hard in defence against the steel's bite. The last thing she wanted was for it to draw blood. Again.
"You had a falling out?"
"Something like that."
"Oh dear. I hope the situation is repairable; that things can be salvaged."
"One day, perhaps. I – I laid some groundwork for that, I hope."
But she'll probably never forgive me.
Lara couldn't enjoy Jaffa Cakes anymore for that specific reason. They tasted like cardboard or ash depending on her level of regret that day.
"You always sounded thick as thieves."
"We were once."
All those wild adventures together. The shared dreams and plans over curry. What it felt like to just rest her head on Sam's shoulder and cling to her after a bad day. A different, ordinary life.
The knife broke skin. Lara shuddered; clenched her eyes shut.
Winston was still nattering on. "If that is the case, then – "
Lara's eyelids shot up. "Just drop it, okay, Winston? I said I don't want to talk about it."
There was aggravation as a result of light-hearted teasing, and there was dark fury born of remorse, and fanned by forced reminders. Winston had served the Crofts long enough to know how easily members of the family switched between the two.
"Of course, M'lady, I apologise."
His expression added a fresh layer of guilt, and Lara winced.
As the old man moved towards the exit with his loaded tray, she blurted, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bite your head off. It's just – " It hurts too much.
Winston blinked at her slowly, like a cat might do.
"Mistress Lara, if I may be so bold as to say there is nothing to be gained from cutting yourself off. This great house has seen its fair share of tragedy."
"I swear it will end with me." Something dark skittered behind her vision. "One way or another."
"That is what I worry about."
Winston looked down at his platter, before slowly raising his eyes to his employer. "When you called, and brought me back, I thought perhaps it was all to be a fresh start. For the house, for the Croft family, but most importantly, for you. I saw it as a sign that you were learning to rely on others again; let them into your life."
Well, that punched her right in the feels.
Lara rubbed her forehead. "I'm trying, Winston. I am. But my work – "
" – is isolating, yes, by its very nature, and for long periods. However, your entire life does not have to be like that. It will not be easy, Mistress Lara, for either you or those that love you. But I guarantee there will be loved ones willing to shoulder that burden, and all the accompanying risks, come what may."
Lara didn't have a response for that. She scowled at her boots while her cynical side sparred with its more hopeful equivalent over the nature of her future.
When the business with Trinity was done, would she actually be able to rest? There was no question that she would always search for answers, but there had to be space in her existence for other things too, surely? A week of snorkelling and beach cocktails in Mexico, perhaps? Dinner here and there with the few friends she had left?
You become who you are through your choices, through the love you give and the promises you keep.
Did she have to wait so long? She was always stiff and sore. And so exhausted, physically and mentally. Her creed of self-reliance was wearing her down. Already she felt little more than skin pulled taut over bone, sinew and will. She was under no delusion that she could last forever like that.
Having had his say, Winston left her to simmer.
As he stood on the lab's threshold, though, he called back into the room. "Oh, with the plumbing functional, I thought it best for the workmen to move on to the basement tunnels, and repair the water damage."
"Good idea," Lara replied absently.
"Would your Ladyship like them to remove all the old debris down there?"
Lara knew exactly what he was referring to. A few months earlier, crouching and wading thigh deep through those ominously decayed spaces, she'd been surprised to find so much still there: the Ancient Egypt-themed decorations, the improvised traps, her mummified teddy. Everything that had been done to make that birthday so special for her.
Everything done then. And still done now.
Her head snapped up. "No, I want them left where they are."
"Because of your father," the old man nodded.
"No, Winston, because of you."
It took a few heartbeats but the words melted through the butler's gravitas. The tiniest smile shone through, like scale spotted just below a pond's surface during the Spring thaw.
But Lara didn't want to her oldest ally to feel embarrassed over his emotional slip – so unbecoming as he would see it.
She forced a smirk. "Also, make sure the chess set is set up for after supper. Tonight I'm kicking your arse."
That did it. With a single sucked-in breath, Winston had recovered his decorum. Chest thrust out, he gave a sharp bow before revolving on his heel. "As your Ladyship commands."