AN: I won't clog up this author's note with excuses as to why I haven't updated in two years. I just wanted to thank everyone who's kept up with this story and who've waited patiently for me to finally update. Also, a shout out to iNf3ctioNZ, quantumparadigm, and TheRev 28 who have offered nothing but words of encouragement every single time I wanted to resurrect this story.
Ben ran a hand through his hair in agitation, pacing between Walter's bed and Lara's. It had been two days since Kalin and her people had rescued the princess and Walter and neither showed any signs of improvement. Lara let out a low moan, and Ben ran to her side. She was having another nightmare. He grabbed a clean rag, dipping it in a bowl of cold water.
"Shh, it's okay," Ben quietly reassured her. He sat on the edge of the bed, one hand gently running the wet rag along Lara's forehead, the other taking a hold of her hand.
"No!" Lara cried out, her face distorted in pain. Her body jerked up almost as if she was trying to fight whatever she was dreaming of. Her chest heaved as she fought to catch her breath. "The darkness...don't let it..."
"I'm right here, Lara," Ben called out to her, unsure if she could really hear him. "I won't let anything hurt you, I promise."
"I...can't," Lara breathed out. "Make it stop!"
"It's okay," he repeated, hastily flinging the rag aside. He stroked her hair, his fingers brushing back the soft tendrils that framed her face.
"No!" Lara yelled again. The will lines that ran down her arms suddenly began to glow. They brightened as she continued to fight the demon in her nightmare. Her body writhed again, squeezing Ben's hand in a death grip. Her eyes were shut tight, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I can't...fight anymore. I...can't."
"Then I'll fight for you. I'll protect you," Ben leaned down, whispering hoarsely in her ear. "I won't leave you, Lara. I won't let go."
Lara immediately quieted down, unconsciously shifting closer to him. After a while, her breathing resumed a normal, even rate, and Ben finally relaxed. He continued his earlier ministrations, the wet rag lightly blotting Lara's face.
"You must rest," Kalin said as she walked into the room.
"I'm not tired," he replied, not even bothering to look up at her. His thumb tenderly caressed Lara's palm.
"You have been here since we found them." Kalin moved to Walter's bed, checking his vital signs and making sure he was comfortable. "I will look after them while you sleep."
"I said I'm not tired."
"I did not ask if you were. You will be of no use to them if you are suffering from exhaustion. You must sleep. I will wake you if their condition changes."
"I'm not leaving her...them." Ben hastily corrected himself, shaking his head wearily. "I'm not leaving them."
There was a few minutes of silence. Kalin busied herself with looking after Walter, while Ben maintained his watch over Lara. He let go of her hand, carefully placing it at her side then reached up to run his fingers along the side of her face. Lara let out a small sigh, and Ben smiled as he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
"You love her."
Ben looked over at Kalin in surprise. It wasn't a question. It was a statement - and a bloody crazy one at that.
"W-what?!" he asked, forcing out a laugh.
"You cannot lie to me. I see it in your eyes." Kalin walked over to stand on the other side of Lara's bed. The look she was giving him was a little unnerving. She was so calm, yet her eyes seemed to be boring into him.
"That's ridiculous, Kalin. I've only known the princess for a short time - "
"And yet she has already touched your heart."
"She hasn't touched anything...unfortunately," he said with a wag of his eyebrows. She didn't even bat an eye. Yep, Kalin was definitely going to get along with Lara. He looked down at the princess, making sure she was resting comfortably and then threw the rag into the bowl. "Look, Kalin, I can see what you're getting at. The princess is a very beautiful woman, and I'm a devilishly handsome rogue." He threw her a quick wink. "It's only natural for us to be attracted to each other...but love?" He shook his head, letting out a low chuckle.
Kalin didn't even smile. Ben stop laughing, and he fixed her with a slight frown. "You know, even after Lara, you are without a doubt the most serious person I've ever met."
"You are the most idiotic I have come across," Kalin shot back. "I did not think that was even possible, but you have succeeded."
"I tend to exceed women's expectations," Ben replied with a cheeky grin, eliciting nothing but a small sigh from Kalin. "Oh, come on, that's funny!"
Kalin merely narrowed her eyes at him. "You hide behind humor - "
"Ah, so you do think I'm funny..."
" - because you are insecure about what you really feel."
"I-I don't know what you mean." Ben kept his gaze down, making a pretense of removing the bowl from Lara's side and filling it with fresh water.
"You can lie to me, Ben Finn, but you cannot lie to yourself." Kalin took the bowl from him, giving him a pointed look.
Ben rubbed the back of his neck as he took a step back. What Kalin was saying was ridiculous, of course. Sure, he thought Lara was very attractive. And he rather enjoyed spending time with her and getting her riled up. Then there were those moments in Mourningwood and Silverpines where he felt like they had a connection.
But it was all a game, right? A challenge to melt that ice surrounding Lara's heart and then…
Then what? Move on to the next lucky lady in typical Ben Finn fashion? Would he even be able to do that? There was something about the princess that made him think he wouldn't be moving on as easily. If he would be moving at all.
Wait a minute. What was he even thinking? He must really be tired if he was questioning his own feelings. If there was one thing he didn't do, it was fall in love. Nope. Not him.
He shot Kalin a crooked grin, then walked into the next room where his bed roll was already laid out and waiting for him. All he needed was a good night's sleep to clear his head.
"I'm right here."
That voice. It had guided her through her nightmares, assuring her that she was safe. And she had believed it. Ben hadn't failed her yet.
"I'll protect you."
Lara winced. Her body felt unusually stiff.
"I won't let go."
She let out a low groan, her aching muscles burning as they came to life.
Her eyes fluttered open. She blinked a few times, her mind trying to catch her up with the series of events that had occurred in the past few hours. Or was it days? Lara was still confused as to what was real and what wasn't. It was all one big blur in her head.
"Ah, you are awake. Good."
Lara turned to her left. The same woman from the desert - the one who had rescued her - was standing next to Walter. Lara struggled to sit up, but the woman gently pushed her back down. "Who..."
"My name is Kalin, and you are in the city of Aurora," the woman replied.
Lara looked past her at Walter's figure lying just a couple of meters away. "Walter? How is he?"
Kalin placed her hand on Lara's shoulder. "He is fortunate to be alive, but we have seen his condition before. We may be able to help him."
"There was someone else...in the desert," Lara said, suddenly remembering a very familiar face in her rescue party. "Another friend."
Kalin gestured with her head to Lara's right side. Lara followed the other woman's gaze until it rested on a mop of unruly, blonde hair. She was surprised to find her right hand clutched in both of Ben's as he sat there, sleeping by her side. Lara quickly pulled her hand away, jerking Ben from his sleep.
"Ben!" Lara exclaimed. Kalin's hand was pushed aside as Lara finally forced herself to sit up. "I-I thought..."
"Not dead yet, princess," Ben winked at her.
"What happened?" Lara ran her hands through her hair. "How did you - "
"I washed up on the local port," Ben replied, anticipating her question. "Kalin found me and brought me here. I charmed her into getting a search party out for you."
At this last part, Kalin snorted, and Ben just offered a grin. Lara swung her legs over the stone bed and, before anyone could stop her, she walked over to Walter's bed. He looked so weak and pale laying there with a thin blanket pulled up over his chest.
"Whoa, Lara, wait." Ben rushed after her. "You shouldn't be out of bed. You need to rest."
"I'm fine," Lara brushed away his concern, and she was telling the truth, too. Minutes ago, her muscles had been stiff and aching and now all she felt was a renewed sense of energy coursing through her body. "How long were we out?"
"About three days," Ben replied, standing next to her with his arms held out as if fearing she might collapse at any second. "Are you sure you're okay? You were out of it pretty bad."
Lara kept her eyes on Walter. "We...we went through a lot."
"You saw it, then?" Kalin asked quietly.
"Yes," Lara nodded, squeezing Walter's hand before turning to Kalin. "We had to go through an underground cavern to get from the beach to the desert. It caught us there."
Kalin gave her a knowing look. "Then you understand why we cannot help you."
Again, Lara nodded. She understood, but she couldn't afford to lose Aurora's support. They would need to work something out. But that would be a conversation for later. For now, she needed to make sure Walter was going to make it.
"What's going on?" Ben asked. "What happened to you and Walter? What did you see?"
Lara closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She could still feel the fear gripping her heart. It was a nightmare she was never going to get rid of. Then Ben shifted closer to her, and his warmth was comforting, making her feel safe.
"The darkness," she whispered, opening her eyes to find Ben looking at her, blue eyes darkened in concern.
Lara said nothing more, and Ben didn't push, perhaps sensing her fear.
"We call it the Crawler," Kalin offered. "It appeared five years ago bringing darkness and death. We never know when it will come, and we cannot hope to defeat the creature and its spawn without an army, even with someone like you by our side."
"Someone like me?"
"A Hero," Kalin said, her look suggesting that Lara's bloodline was obvious. "You are strong and skilled, yes. But your Hero blood makes you superior in every way - stronger, faster. You can survive most things that others cannot." She paused, then offered Lara a warm smile. "But perhaps we can talk once you have been properly fed and bathed. Even a Hero needs nourishment, no matter how strong they are."
"No." Lara shook her head. "I'm not leaving Walter."
"It's okay, Lara. I'll stay with him," Ben assured her.
"You've done more than enough, Ben," she replied, noting the bags under his eyes. "I can take over from here."
"I must insist, princess," he said, and she resisted the urge to shoot him with a glare at the mention of her title. "Besides, you really do need that bath," he added with a wrinkle of his nose.
"You're not smelling too good yourself, Captain."
"Then maybe we can take that bath together." He winked at her. "You know, as to not waste water."
She rolled her eyes at him, grabbing her jacket on the way out of the room. "I'll be back soon."
"I'll be here," he said with a grin. "And Lara?"
She paused at the doorway, looking back at him with a raised eyebrow. "Yes?"
"It's good to have you back."
She nodded, and for the first time since they first met, she gave him a genuine smile.