PART 3 - SACRIFICE
Please note that this final chapter pushes into M-rating territory for sexual content. And if you have any comments or questions after reading, please feel free to let me know. Thank you.
At that moment, Sam knew exactly what all those Solari cultists had seen; had felt at the sight of Lara. The weird dichotomy. A soft-faced, slender young woman, or, rather, the skin of a girl, stretched over battered, barbed iron. No mercy there. Just brutal purpose, rigid, waiting to be unleashed like the swing of a battle axe.
"Lara," Sam stumbled over the words, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean – "
A hand around her throat.
Lara's forward surge was as impossible to withstand as a tsunami. Sam was driven backwards across the open space of the entrance hall. She collided with a wall. Lara was against her, teeth bared, eyes unblinking. Feral.
Sam clawed at the fingers digging into her flesh.
"Lara, Jesus, you're hurting me! La – " That was all Sam could squeeze out before Lara wedged her forearm against the American girl's throat, right under her jawline.
"This must be a first for you," Lara snarled. "Not getting your way."
She increased pressure against Sam's trachea.
"You want to know what I really went through? Everything I did to save your pathetic, spoiled arse?"
Sam spluttered, fighting her gag reflex. She grabbed hold of Lara's arm with both hands, tugging down to relieve as much force on her windpipe as possible. At that moment it was the only self-defence tip she could remember.
God, I should have kept going to Judo classes like Dad wanted.
Lara was fumbling at her own thigh – reaching with her free hand for the pistol or pick that wasn't there. The instant her scowl dropped to join the search, Sam cupped the archaeologist's elbow and heaved it across herself, off her neck.
The motion threw Lara off balance. Her shoulder connected with the wall as Sam darted aside. But the American wasn't fast enough. Lara lashed out with her leg. It connected with Sam's shin, doing its job. The documentary-maker stumbled and then sprawled. Falling from standing height, her chest connected hard with the marble flooring, winding her.
Lara was over her in a heartbeat. Grabbing hold of Sam's tricep, she flipped her friend onto her back. Sam looked up, horrified. Lara's fist was drawn back. The same muddle of fury and chilly disdain was still in her glare.
"No, Lara! Pleeease!"
Sam wasn't sure what did it. The terrified plea. The fact that she had started gulping hard on a fresh wave of tears. But Lara stopped. Or, rather, the Lara Sam knew was back behind her eyes. The archaeologist didn't say anything. Sam didn't think she could.
Lara just stood there, trembling. Her hand unclenched and she gawked at her fingers like they were blades peppered with flecks of flesh and blood. Her look of panic must have mirrored Sam's own, tarred with extra layer of dark, sticky shame.
Lara's arms fell to her sides. She let her gaze sink down to meet her best friend's. The Englishwoman's throat was quivering, but she couldn't squeeze out any words. She spun and sprinted for the front door. It slammed behind her.
Rage, run, regret and repeat. That was what Lara's life had become post-Yamatai. And Sam could see that every painful revolution, a little of the old Lara – the bookish girl Sam knew and loved, who would babble about museum exhibits but have to feign enthusiasm when Sam unboxed a pair of Jimmy Choo's – was ground up in the mill.
What was left was a mangled mess of jagged, exposed bones, bloody wounds and perpetual agony. And although her pain couldn't come close to rivalling her best friend's torment, it still hurt Sam to witness, knowing that no matter what she did, she couldn't find Lara's hand to help guide her out of the nightmare.
Still on the floor, Sam drew her knees up to her chest and cried.
Lara didn't come back. Unsurprisingly, she didn't answer her phone. Eventually Sam gave up on leaving messages. She was scared to leave the apartment though in case her former roommate did return.
Instead the documentary-maker sat in the lounge all day, editing footage on her Macbook. Or trying to, anyway. She had hoped the task of categorising all the clips from the previous year's Eastern European adventure would keep her occupied. However, Lara had been her travel buddy on that trip, and she was in half the shots, nose buried in her travel guide or griping at Sam to put her camera down.
So what was supposed to distract Sam from thinking about her friend only made her feel more anxious and upset. This was the old Lara on the screen, the shy, earnest girl who needed Sam's help in unleashing her inner party animal, but was a wonderfully wild partner in crime on those few occasions when she let herself be untethered.
The video clips showed both aspects of Lara's personality. In one scene, Sam had managed to capture the archaeologist in profile, her notebook open in her lap while she gazed out the train window at the lush passing countryside. Beautiful. Contemplative. Way too serious as far as Sam was concerned at the time. If she'd known then what her friend would morph into she would never have complained.
The next clip was of Lara, shot in medium close-up in a bar. She was wasted, slurring an explanation of Roman expansion in the region as she demonstrated settlement patterns with used shot glasses. Only Lara could be educational while smashed. Just as Sam was the only one able to help her cut loose. The Englishwoman ended her lecture by posing, squeezing her cleavage together and gifting a giggling Sam with a very impressive duckface.
I miss you, Lara. Please come back to me.
It didn't help that every time she opened the fridge Sam spotted a bottle of champagne she had bought to celebrate the screening of Lara's TV interview – which would no doubt raise funds for the archaeologist's next expedition. The interview was on that evening, and the initial plan had been to watch it sitting side by side on the couch. Then afterwards they were going to get horribly drunk.
The day of the interview had been especially rough. Not that you would have thought anything was wrong looking at Lara. To a casual observer she appeared serene – perfectly poised in charcoal, fitted trousers, and a crisp white blouse; the top few buttons undone so her jade pendant was visible. Combined with her casually upswept hair, she looked every bit the English lady she was.
Stepping back for a more objective, all-in-one assessment, Sam was proud of her personal styling efforts. She could imagine Lara in a pair of riding boots, galloping across the lawn of her family's estate like a genderbent Austen hero or something. The image was so amusing that every time her mind wandered to it, Sam couldn't stop smiling.
She would have shared the anecdote with Lara but there were no smiles to be unearthed there. The archaeologist was very tense, which made her even more surly and withdrawn than usual. For the fifth time that morning already she was reading over a set of questions and her scripted responses. There would still be some surprises, but in writing up the interview agreement, Sam and her father's lawyers had pushed for Lara to receive most of the questions in advance.
Still, this was the first time Lara would be talking about what happened on Yamatai. Ever. Sam was nervous; she was sure the situation wouldn't be nearly as bad if Lara had spoken to her. Or even a therapist. But of course she had stubbornly refused to do either.
It was nice to feel needed for once, though. Since Yamatai, Sam had been walking a tightrope, wanting to be there for Lara but wary of forcing assistance on her best friend, who was increasingly sensitive about self-sufficiency. With the interview though, Lara was rigid with terror. And the world they were operating in was Sam's domain. With her media conglomerate father and her own choice of profession, the American girl was comfortable in studios and on sets. So it was her opportunity to step up and shield Lara. Reverse the roles.
Sam hadn't been able to suppress her self-satisfied smile when they reached the network's building and Lara actually sought out her hand. Or her body did anyway. Lara was looking up at the skyscraper as they stepped out of the taxi. Still, her forearm wove around the inside of Sam's and her fingers found those of her friend. The girls didn't make eye contact when it happened so the filmmaker was able to let her grin spread guilt-free. Superwoman Lara Croft needing hopeless Sam Nishimura? How could she not feel good about that?
It was the only thing she felt good about all day though. The experience was an ambivalent one for Sam. She was in her element; she wanted to ask questions, get her hands on the cameras, charm her way into the editing suite. But it wasn't fair to abandon Lara, who was out of her depth and flailing.
The greetings alone were anxiety-tinted.
On meeting Lara, the show's producer shook her hand heartily.
"Lady Croft, it's a pleasure to meet you."
"Please don't call me that" was the polite, winced response.
Even worse though was a moment once Lara was seated in front of the camera. Veteran newsman-turned-interviewer Brock Harrison was making small talk with her while set-up continued around them.
Sam was hovering at the director's side, arms crossed, peering at his monitor.
"Daniels, some more light on Miss Croft."
A crew member dragged a unit around and began fiddling with the adjustment knobs.
Distracted by his motion, Lara looked directly into the cluster of lamps. And froze.
Harrison leaned forward. "Miss Croft? Miss Croft, are you alright?"
Sam wasn't sure where Lara's consciousness had retreated. The only relief was that at that moment she was more quivering deer, petrified in the headlights, than snarling, cornered lioness.
The director joined in Harrison's calls. "Miss Croft?"
"Lara?" Sam pleaded. Then more stridently, "Lara, hey?!"
That tugged the archaeologist back. She swung her head from side to side, taking in all the worried faces. Her fingers dug into the armrests.
"I – Please – uh – " She shoved herself upright. "Excuse me for a moment."
Her hands were trembling as she detached her microphone. Dropping it in her seat, she bolted for the exit.
The director threw up his arms. "Oh, for fuck's sake!"
Sam could hear the mutterings begin to swell all around her.
It's up to you, Nishimura.
"Nerves. It's just nerves," she announced to the room. Then to the scowling director, she added, "I'll get her. Just give me five minutes."
The promise was a gamble. Out in the corridor, there was no sign of Lara. She could have already fled the building as far as Sam knew. The Englishwoman was that fast.
Sam chanced the fire escape.
Lara had climbed half a flight up before stopping. She was bent double, her forehead against the railing. Her eyes were clenched shut as she took deep shuddering breaths.
"Sweetie?" Sam started to approach with an embrace.
Lara simply held up a hand. "No, Sam. I can't be touched right now…"
"Lara?" Sam took a step forward.
"Please!" Lara's head shot up. "Please. Just stay back."
Her facial expression was so anguished. She was chest-deep in water, trying to plug the dam with her fingers even as the cracks spread. And what was worst was that it was Sam who had encouraged her to do the interview, when she clearly wasn't ready.
Lara started muttering, "I thought – " She inhaled deeply. "I thought I could… Shit!"
She spun and punched the wall behind her.
A second strike.
And a third.
Sam was concerned her friend was going to fracture her fist. She was even contemplating the physical danger of disobeying Lara, running forward to intercept her arm so she couldn't hurt herself further. But then the archaeologist stopped on her own. She slumped against the wall and let her gaze climb to the ceiling. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the anguish was gone. Instead there stood Lara the cold apex predator. Too calm; capable of deadly response at any provocation. It had become her new defensive mode.
Like this she strode past Sam without acknowledging her, back into the studio and reclaimed her seat.
The interview went well enough from that point, all things considered.
Lara was typically modest about making the most newsworthy, imagination-capturing archaeological find since Tutankhamun's tomb or Machu Picchu. Although the experiences of the island had ground down her enthusiasm for finding it, Lara still spoke eloquently about Yamatai and some of the treasures that had crossed her path. It hadn't taken much convincing on Sam's part to play down the supernatural aspect of events with a shrugged, "I can't explain some of the things that happened on the island."
Although it clearly stung Lara to leave out chunks of the truth, she was still wary of sounding like a lunatic. Particularly when the inevitable comparison came up. It was one of the unscripted questions, and Sam immediately tensed.
Harrison began, "Your parents were controversial figures in the archaeology community..."
"Yes. Yes, they were."
"What do you say about comments that you're a chip off the old block?"
Lara continued to hold her head erect. "It's true I resented my father for years; thought the same of him as everyone else. But now, more than ever, I am proud to be his daughter."
"And what about claims that events on Yamatai will follow you around? Cloud your reputation for years to come?"
There was the spark then of something in Lara's eyes. Steel on flint. Even seasoned pro Harrison stumbled for a second under her gaze. "I intend to prove them wrong."
"There are reports that you killed many of the island's all-male cult." Harrison consulted his notes. "The Solari? That you killed them in self-defence. What do you have to say about that?"
"I'm not allowed to comment. The investigation is ongoing. All I can say is that I'm in frequent contact with the Japanese authorities. And they have my full cooperation. I expect that my testimony, and that of my colleagues, will corroborate what the Solari have to say."
Lara was even a lot more diplomatic about that prick Whitman than Sam would have been. The Englishwoman simply covered his part of the story with a resigned sigh. "Doctor Whitman was one of the last to fall. He tried to negotiate… and failed."
The interview ended with the expected question.
"So what's next for you, Lara Croft?"
"The line between our myths and truth is more fragile than we've been led to believe, Mr Harrison. That intersection is where you will find me, searching for answers."
After the interview, they caught a taxi back to the apartment, Lara scowling and silent the whole way. Sam was scared to say anything. At that moment she didn't think any attempts at levity would be appreciated.
No sooner had the Englishwoman stepped inside than she yanked off her blouse and trousers, stomping to her room. Sam was still in the living room, removing her phone and other gadgetry from her bag, when Lara returned maybe a minute later. She was wearing her running kit – sweat pants and a tank top. Her iPod earbuds were already in place and she strode past Sam and out the front door without a word.
It was raining outside but it was still three hours before a drenched Lara reappeared. In her state it was hard to tell if she'd been crying or not, which Sam guessed was kind of the point. The American girl wanted desperately to comfort her former roommate but she was still wary of forcing any demonstration of concern, verbal or physical, on her. Instead she shadowed Lara into the kitchen.
The archaeologist was still rasping from her run. She poured herself a glass of water, downed it and prepared a second. Her first step away from the sink, she swayed backwards. The glass shattered on the tiles. Lara just managed to catch the edge of the kitchen island, preventing her complete collapse.
She clung to it, staring at the mess on the floor. Tentatively she reached down to begin the process of cleaning up.
Sam slid under the archaeologist's arm as she did so, taking her friend's weight and helping her to stand upright again. Even supported, Lara was wobbly on her heels. She was ashen faced, shivering, utterly depleted.
Just like on the rescue ship, stillness had become her weakness. Whenever she stopped moving, her body betrayed her.
Lara's eyes moved apologetically between Sam's face and the broken glass. She didn't have the energy to say anything.
It devastated the documentary-maker to see Lara like this, but she camouflaged her concern with a gentle smile. "Come on, sweetie, it's okay. Don't worry, I'll take care of that."
She led her friend to the guest bathroom. She sat Lara down on the toilet seat. "You've had a long day. Let's run you a bath and get you into bed, alright?"
A single nod was all the response she got.
While the tub filled, Sam helped Lara out of her clothes. The younger woman had so over-exhausted herself, she couldn't find the strength to either lift her arms or be embarrassed about her nakedness. Her flesh was worryingly hot to the touch.
"Sweetie, is your fever back?"
A whispered, "I – I'm not sure."
Sam helped lower Lara into the bath. She left her best friend alone to wash herself, if she did even that. At that point all Sam wanted was for Lara's body temperature to regulate itself.
Five minutes later, when she returned to the bathroom, she found Lara hadn't moved at all; she just sat there, her knees clutched to her chest.
Sam cupped handfuls of warm water over her friend's back and shoulders. She sponged her down and then helped her out onto the rim of the tub so Sam could dry her and rebandage the wound on her side. The dressing was waterproof but Lara's run had saturated it with sweat and a fresh blotch of blood. Sam had become an expert at doctoring Lara's wounds since the archaeologist's release from hospital. The running joke Sam told herself was that if filmmaking didn't work out for her, she should consider first aid instruction.
Sam helped Lara step into a pair of pyjamas and guided her to the bedroom. The Englishwoman had stopped trembling but she looked haggard and uncharacteristically unfocused. Usually so insistent about being self-reliant, her lack of protest was concerning as Sam sat her up in bed and placed items in both hands.
"I know you said you're not hungry, Lara, but I want you to try this meal replacement shake. And swallow this."
Lara rolled the white tablet around in her palm. "What's this?"
"A sleeping pill."
There was that familiar spark of defiance in Lara's expression and posture. Ever since her discharge she had refused painkillers, beta blockers and anything else she claimed made her slow to react; dulled her senses.
But Sam was also tired, and she wasn't up for that debate again. As her friend's lips parted, Sam muttered, "I'm not arguing with you, Lara. You want to fight with me about it, we can do it tomorrow. But you need rest, sweetie, please… You – You can't keep this up. I can't watch you..." She couldn't say it. Kill yourself.
Lara seemed to get the message anyway.
Eying Sam the whole time, she tossed back the tablet with her drink. Then she let her companion lie her down and pull the covers up to her chest.
Just then, Lara's palm pressed over the back of her former roommate's hand.
Lara raised her friend's fingers to her lips. "Thank you."
She kissed Sam's knuckles.
It was such an uncharacteristically intimate gesture from Lara that the American girl found herself gaping. Which wasn't the best reaction to give her self-conscious best friend. A flush returned some colour to Lara's cheeks. "I – I feel like I haven't said it enough."
"Sweetie, you don't have to. There is nothing I can do to ever repay you. It's alright, I promise." Sam squeezed Lara's hand once more before detaching her grip. "You need anything, you call for me, okay?"
After a day spent at Lara's side, holding her hand, undressing and dressing her, bathing her, feeding her, supporting her figuratively and literally, it felt strange to Sam to be retreating to her room alone. A natural conclusion would have been to climb into bed with Lara; to succumb to unconsciousness holding each other. But if she slipped under the covers, Lara would probably freak, or feel so horribly uncomfortable that she wouldn't sleep at all. So Sam flopped down alone on her big, empty king-size mattress with a sigh.
The next morning Sam woke to find Lara's bed made, her friend out pounding the pavement and park pathways once more.
Through the apartment's floor-to-ceiling windows, the sun rose and sank. Still no Lara. At least twenty four hours had to pass before Sam could file a missing person's report. She wasn't sure how many times she'd have checked her phone for messages by then. A few hundred, perhaps?
Where are you, Lara? Please let me know you're alright.
Distracted and disinterested, Sam microwaved something from the freezer for dinner. She was settled in for the evening when Lara Croft: Tomb Raider started.
Sam couldn't deny that it was a star-making interview. Lara would totally be in demand afterwards. She couldn't have given the show's makers anything more. She even teared up at the mention of Roth's name.
The Englishwoman offered an irresistible combination of little girl lost and sultry, confident badass. She could shift between the two with a tilt of her head. And at only 21, she had a long career ahead of her. Alone, Lara Croft was going to do for archaeology what all those celebrity chefs had done for cuisine. She'd hate it, and rile against the label, but she was going to become an icon. Not that Sam didn't already know it. At times it seemed like 80% of the footage she shot was of her best friend in her most candid moments.
Less than ten minutes after the credits rolled on the interview, there was a knock on the door. Sam opened it to find Lara on the threshold, in the same dishevelled state she'd been the night before. Except clearly sober this time.
The archaeologist immediately lowered her gaze. She wouldn't meet Sam's eyes.
"You have a key, Lara," the American girl said softly.
"I know, but it didn't feel right to just… After what happened... I thought…"
The Englishwoman raised her head. Sam could see from her too-wet, red-ringed eyes and blotched cheeks that she'd been crying.
"Are – Are you alright?" Lara croaked; the straining tendons in her neck in contrast to her muted facial expression. She half-heartedly lifted her hand, gesturing in the direction of Sam's throat.
It did hurt, actually. Like the early stages of a head cold. A permanent low-grade irritation; worse when Sam swallowed. But she couldn't tell Lara that. "Yeah, I'm fine," she muttered, while fingering the most painful spot.
Sam stepped aside then, motioning Lara inside the apartment.
The archaeologist entered sheepishly. "I won't be long. I just came to get my things."
"You're leaving?" Sam's worst fear kneed her in the gut. She was surprised that she didn't bend double at that moment.
Lara looked at her blankly. "I thought that would be for the best."
"Lara, are we even going to talk about what happened?"
"What's to talk about, Sam? What I did… it's unforgiveable."
"Shouldn't I be the judge of that?"
Lara shook her head. Sadly. "I – I didn't want to leave things before…" She stumbled over her words. "I had to apologise. I just – "
She started sobbing. Deep shameful heaves, her chin against her chest; her arms limp at her sides. "I'm so sorry, Sam, I am so sorry, for everything."
"Oh, sweetie." Sam rushed forward, elbowing aside the awkwardness of the situation. She wrapped her friend in a hug.
Lara resisted for a moment, trying to push herself away. But Sam's touch seemed to sap all strength from her struggle. The Englishwoman pressed her face into Sam's shoulder, clenching her friend to her as she shuddered. Locked in the embrace, Sam stroked Lara's hair; the small of her back.
"Hey, it's alright."
The archaeologist's legs buckled. The girls both sank to the floor, Sam controlling their descent as much as she could.
For the second time in 24 hours, they were back on their knees in the entrance hall. Nothing post-Yamatai was normal anymore. Nothing. Sam would have laughed at the ridiculous of the situation if she wasn't cradling her broken best friend.
"What's wrong with me, Sam?" Lara sniffed into the crook of her companion's neck. "I am so messed up. I can't even – " She murmured, "I'm a monster."
Sam kept running her fingers through her friend's hair. "You're not a monster, Lara. You're a hero."
"No, I'm not."
"Really? You study history, Croft. You know there are no real knights in shining armour. Heroes are the people who make the hard choices. They act when no one else will. They keep going. They make the sacrifices. And they live with their actions."
Sam took Lara by her shoulders and sat her upright so that they were looking into each other's eyes.
"You saved me, Lara. You got Reyes back to her daughter. Roth's daughter too, you said. Alisha could have lost both her parents."
Sam wanted to add you of all people know what that loss feels like, but she stopped herself. Instead she murmured, "But because of you, she got her mom back. You did what it took to get us all home."
Lara wiped the back of her hand across her nose. "When did you start talking sense?" A smile cracked through her teary dismay.
"Oh, you know. You hang out with way-too-serious library nerds for long enough and it starts to rub off on you." The American girl rolled her eyes for extra effect. "Being wise is such a buzzkill though."
Lara chuckled. Almost immediately though her face clouded over again. Her gaze slipped from her friend's. "I did things, Sam, on Yamatai. I killed dozens of men. Dozens."
"It was self-defence. Those bastards were trying to murder you."
Lara shook her head. "No, you – you don't understand. I didn't need to kill them. Not all of them." The archaeologist sneaked a glance at Sam's face, clearly expecting terror. When all she found was a worried frown – Sam's default facial expression around Lara these days – she tentatively intercepted the American girl's hands. She squeezed Sam's soft palms between her own rough fingers. It gave her something "safe" to focus on instead of her friend's reaction.
"I started to… enjoy it, Sam. After Roth, I was so angry. There were men I didn't need to kill. But I wanted to. I would sneak up on them, crush their windpipes, drive my climbing axe into the back of their skulls, plunge arrows into their necks with my hands. I wasn't panicking any more. It wasn't survival. There were moments where I stood there completely calm. The metal would pierce their flesh and for a second they would just look at me. The blood would well up in the delicate little indent I'd made. And then it would overflow, streaming down their skin in rivulets. In the end, they were scared of me. They ran, crying out for mercy and I hunted them. I wanted them to hurt. I wanted everyone to hurt like I did. I – I still do."
She looked up at Sam and a fresh tear spilled down onto her cheek. Her jaw quivered. "I can't be around people anymore. I'm completely fucked up."
She'd wanted to be the strong one for once, to be the rock Lara could cling to in the rapids but emotion was swelling in Sam's chest too. She tried to hold it back but as her vision misted over, a torrent poured from her lips, "It's my fault, Lara. I was too trusting. Mathias. Whitman. If I hadn't been so fucking stupid, you wouldn't have had to rescue me. You wouldn't have had to go through all that."
"I led us to the island, Sam. Roth followed my directions. If it wasn't for me we would never have reached Yamatai in the first place. The rest of the crew wouldn't have been executed, those rescue pilots wouldn't have died and I wouldn't have killed all those Solari."
"If I hadn't been so naïve – "
"We were both naïve." Lara's lip twitched, "Foolish girls."
"Maybe the universe should have given us a break then," Sam grumbled.
Lara smiled weakly. She inhaled and closed her eyes, willing some kind of calm. Still gripping her friend's hands, she leaned in and pressed her forehead to Sam's.
Her voice had dropped to almost a whisper. "I'm so scared I'm going to hurt someone. What I almost did last night… I can't lose you, Sam. You're all I have left."
That was the agonising truth. Sam hadn't truly realised how alone Lara was in the world until the hospital in Japan. The sight of the young woman lying unconscious in intensive care, utterly isolated. Nobody coming to sit at her bedside. As much as Sam clashed with her parents, they were always there for her when she needed them. Her father was on his way at that very moment. He was a stoic man, but Sam actually recognised worry tinting his brusque questions over the phone.
"Next of kin?" a nurse asked Sam on arrival at the hospital. The American girl was the only one in a position to fill out paperwork on Lara's behalf.
"Uh – She… Lara doesn't have anyone."
In the past it would have been Roth. But now there was nobody. Lara was 21; of age. She wasn't a minor. She didn't need a guardian.
As a result it took plenty of big-smile pleading on Sam's part, as well as the influence of her media conglomerate father, for the Nishimuras to receive otherwise confidential reports on Lara's condition.
It was touch-and-go for the first three days. Lara was put on a powerful cocktail of antibiotics and antiretrovirals. Her septicaemia was advanced, and her body was fighting a host of secondary infections. Then there were her injuries. Seven fractured ribs. Torn abdominal muscles. A sprained left shoulder and three fingers. Severe bruising. Concussion. At least three deep gashes in addition to the festering side puncture that all required stitches.
And there was Sam with her tender ankle, but otherwise unhurt.
At least the always prepared, pedantic archaeologist was up to date with her vaccinations.
Still, the young woman in the hospital bed wasn't Lara as far as Sam was concerned. With her long hair down, draped over the pillow, she was a different person – a soft-faced girl, bruised and battered, all too vulnerable. A victim.
Although that was only at first glance... Lara was kept heavily sedated and, at least to begin with, buckled into her bed with restraints. For good reason.
Lara had come round while Sam was being checked out in one of the examination rooms. The American girl still wasn't sure where her friend found the strength, but Lara, completely disorientated, had ripped out her IV and slid from her bed. Wearing only her half-falling-off hospital gown, she staggered out into the corridor. Delirious, she dragged her drip stand behind her.
It was the tail end of visiting hours, and the passages were clogged with moving, murmuring bodies. Everyone speaking Japanese. Everyone staring at Westerner Lara, feverish and panicked, dripping blood from her freshly torn flesh.
"Sam!" the Englishwoman yelled. "Sam!"
It was only then, on hearing her name called over and over in Lara's strident voice, that Sam leapt off the examination table. With her consulting doctor, they peered out into the corridor.
Lara was standing maybe forty feet away; struggling breathlessly against alternating waves of fury and fear. She had the drip stand in both fists, pointed at a middle-aged man who was attempting to approach her, mumbling in broken English.
Lara wasn't having any of it.
"Where is she, you bastards?"
As the man got close, he reached out, attempting to soothe her.
"Don't touch me!" Lara swung the stand at him.
Gasping and muttering, the crowd backed away.
At that point, three hospital orderlies appeared. They rounded on Lara, backing her into a corner.
"No!' she snarled. "Get away from me. Stay back! I'm warning you."
She had the stand raised in front of her, wielding it as a weapon. She jabbed it at the men as they drew near. All the while her eyes were darting around, seeking an escape route.
Lara got in a handful of swings, two connecting, before the orderlies managed to tackle her. She went down. Hard. The young Englishwoman collided with a trolley of medical supplies, upending it. Stainless steel clattered. A tide of boxes, tubing, bandages and plastic bags spilled across the floor.
One of the orderlies was on top of Lara in the midst of the debris; another had her right leg hugged to his chest.
Lara was shrieking as she clawed at the too slippery linoleum, unable to pull herself free.
"No! Let me go! I have to – Sam! Please, Sam!"
The archaeologist thrashed and kicked and tried to headbutt. But she was pinned. The first orderly straddled her, his knees on her biceps.
Lara's screams gave way to desperate sobs. "Sam! I have to save Sam! Sam! I promised! Pleeaasssee?"
She was still crying, immobilised, when a doctor slipped a needle into her inner elbow.
Sam arrived at the scene for the tail end of the spectacle. She couldn't get to Lara's side through the crowd of onlookers to reassure her with touch, but she was close enough to be seen and heard.
"Lara, sweetie, I'm here. It's alright. We're safe." She said it softly.
Lara's head shot up at the sound of Sam's voice. She smiled as a wave of relief washed over her. Then the sedative took hold and she went limp.
They kept her medicated after that while her fever raged. It was weird for Sam to see Lara so still, pale and completely unresponsive. Her friend just lay there, her breathing shallow as every so often tears squeezed out from between her eyelids. Sam didn't want to think about the pain she was in. Physically and mentally.
Meanwhile, the media frenzy around Lara and her Yamatai discovery was intensifying. Late one evening Sam entered Lara's room to find a paparazzo bent over her friend's unconscious form.
He had pulled back the sheets to take photos of Lara and her injuries – even going so far as to push aside her gown to expose the worst of the wounds. Her legs were completely bare, the skin of her hip visible, the fabric barely covering her pubic bone.
Sam lost it.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?!"
She was a complete camera geek but at that moment all reverence she had for the technology was forgotten. Sam grabbed the man's Canon by the lens and jerked it down. It clattered on the floor, the macro attachment snapping off.
The man cursed and threatened her as he groped for his equipment. Sam scowled at him, "So sue me!"
She shoved him out of the room, swearing with every jerky strike. It wasn't close to being enough – it felt so inconsequential – but it was the only protection she could offer Lara as her saviour fought for her life. Again.
Once the reporter was gone, Sam returned to Lara's bedside. She straightened the Englishwoman's gown, restoring her modesty. Then she tucked the bedding back around her slender body.
Hugs and hand holding. That had been the extent of the friends' physical affection before Yamatai. Sam had never touched Lara's face before. Well, maybe when she had convinced her roommate to let her apply make-up, but that was different. A very different kind of touch.
Sam rested her palm on Lara's forehead, stroking her thumb back and forth.
"I am so sorry, Lara," the American girl stammered.
She kissed her friend's clammy skin. Wishing her back from near-death. Hoping her own tears would make a difference.
Four days later Sam was sitting at Lara's bedside, half-dozing as she flipped through the latest issue of Cosmo. She kept one hand over Lara's on the bedspread. Still, it wasn't until her friend spoke that Sam realised she was conscious, her eyes just open.
A croaked "Sam?"
"Lara, oh my God!"
The American girl's instinctual response was a hug. She flung aside her magazine, bounced upright and squeezed Lara in her arms. Too enthusiastically as it turned out. The Englishwoman hissed at the embrace.
"Sorry, sorry." Sam lowered her friend back to the mattress. She helped the archaeologist take a sip of water between her cracked lips, still as colourless as the rest of her face.
Lara smiled weakly, "You're really here?"
Sam raised her friend's hand to her lips. "Yeah."
"I thought maybe I was imagining you. My head, it's all – I can't tell things… I'm not sure what's…"
"That's because they have you on some crazy strong sedatives and painkillers."
"So I'm not crazy? It all happened? The shipwreck? Yamatai?" Lara lowered her voice, "The Oni? Himiko?" She gulped, then grimaced, "Roth and the others?"
"Yeah, Lara, everything."
"Oh," She murmured. "I kind of hoped it had all been a horrible nightmare."
At that, alertness drained from her. A cloud passing in front of the sun. Her eyes closed again.
And here they were, two months later. Half a world away and still fighting the battles of Yamatai every single day.
"Sweetie." Sam reached up and brushed the bangs away from her friend's face. "I'm not going anywhere."
She kissed Lara on her forehead.
She touched her lips to the tip of Lara's nose.
And then her mouth.
It was a thoughtless peck but it startled both young women.
Lara drew back sharply. She was staring at Sam. Glaring? Her brow was creased, her lips shaped in the obvious wordless question.
Sam's heart was pounding. She wanted to pull a Lara and run, but the archaeologist still had one of her hands trapped. With escape impossible, Sam tried to make light of what had just happened. She flicked on her highest wattage smile. "I'm sorry, hee, I don't know why I did that. So silly, right?"
Lara's facial expression hadn't changed. At all.
Pushing off her haunches, the Englishwoman shifted her weight forward. Her motion was incredibly slow and deliberate. The lioness back, approaching a skittish, suspicious impala. Sam could see it coming but she couldn't move. Or she didn't want to. She was in Lara's thrall.
The American girl closed her eyes as Lara's lips touched hers. It was a gentle kiss, featherlight like the first; simply longer.
She felt Lara's fingertips play across her cheek, and then withdraw. Along with her mouth.
Sam opened her eyes.
Lara had dropped her gaze again. She was concentrating on running her thumb back and forth over Sam's knuckles. "I, uh," she cleared her throat, "needed to do that. I – I apologise. Since Yamatai…" Her voice trailed off.
"Since Yamatai what?"
"My feelings have become really… complicated. In multiple areas." Lara winced, "Things I never thought about before, or would have never admitted to myself… God, it's embarrassing telling you this."
"You have feelings for me?" Sam exhaled slowly. Her heart was jack-hammering again.
Lara frowned. "I'm not sure." She released her friend's hand.
Sam felt like she had just failed an exam she had actually bothered to study for. She couldn't stop a whispered "Oh."
Lara cocked her head. "You're upset?"
"Well yeah, I've seen you more excited about shards of pottery."
That seemed to amuse the archaeologist. "Sam, you like boys."
"Yeah, I do. A lot. But maybe… what if I'm gay for you, Lara Croft?"
Lara chuckled, "That's ridiculous."
That was a slap to Sam's ego; Lara dismissing her emotions flat out. It sparked a familiar sensation of recklessness muddled with rebellion. Oh, what the hell.
Sam seized her friend's hand and pressed it to her breast. Instantly Lara jerked it away.
"Sam, Jesus! This isn't a game. I'm serious."
"So am I. We've both been through a lot. Maybe we're just finally seeing what's right."
"There's nothing right about this."
"I didn't take you for a homophobe, Lara."
"I'm not. It's just – I don't know what this is." The Englishwoman shook her head. "Feelings, urges that I was able to overrule before... Now they overwhelm me. All the time. Instinct takes over. And then I just react, unthinking."
"Is that such a bad thing?"
"Yes. You've seen what I'm like now. The bar. Here last night." Lara shuddered. "I try so hard to keep myself busy, to burn it out of me, but my control keeps slipping. And then I'm just… pure primal response."
Sam wiggled her eyebrows, "You know how sexy you make that sound in your accent?"
She was hoping that would make Lara smile but her friend seemed to be mired in melancholy again. Down she sank into that dark quicksand, her scowl settling on her hands again to avoid her friend's face.
"I can't lose you, Sam. What I want… I've been fighting it so hard because if I act on it, I could wreck everything. So much has changed and I can't even trust myself anymore." She rolled her still-wet eyes. "God, I'm so pathetic."
"Sweetie, that's the last thing you are. Hey..." Sam cupped Lara's chin. It forced her companion to look at her. "You're the strongest person I've ever known."
Sam hadn't realised she'd been leaning in until her nose bumped against Lara's.
Lara jolted at the intimate contact. She swallowed. "Sam, what are you doing?"
I'm not sure myself.
When she was able to form words though, the American girl was surprised at how in-control she sounded. "I sucked at chemistry. But even I know you can't run an experiment just once and base your findings on that."
"Sam, please." Lara clenched her eyes shut. She grimaced, "I can't – Don't you see how difficult this is for me?"
"I need to try this too, Lara."
This kiss was different. A shared touch of soft flesh. A parting of lips. Breath. The tips of tongues probing. Meeting in the no man's land between mouths, reduced to millimetres. Mutual reciprocation to every tentative exploration.
Sam came up for air first, her final caress running along Lara's top lip. "There," she gasped. And then grinned, "And may I say wow?!"
Lara looked as stunned as Sam felt. Dazed. Parted from Sam, she actually lost her balance and had to brace out her arm, noticeably trembling, to stop herself landing on her side.
"Bloody hell," she muttered.
Sam slid an arm around her friend's back to help her sit back upright.
"Just, uh, give me a moment." Lara still hadn't blinked. She stared blindly into space. Eventually she shook herself out of her stupor, and steadied herself. Her fingers closed over Sam's palm on her ribs. In turn, the American girl pressed her hand over Lara's, sandwiching it with her warm skin.
In that position, with Lara caged inside Sam's arms, the faces of the former roommates were inches apart.
The look in Lara's eyes, her head inclined to one side. She was the lioness again, but for the first time in ages the creature wasn't snarling in her enclosure, savage, furious and straining to be free. There was appetite there, but also a predator's cool, controlled assessment.
A smile tugged the corner of Lara's mouth. "I'm struggling to think clearly right now."
"Me too." Sam had meant it to come out as a laugh, but instead she produced a bashful, highly uncharacteristic murmur.
Sam felt Lara's free palm cup her jaw, tilting her head. She closed her eyes as their lips met again. The archaeologist's knuckles stroked up Sam's cheek, tracing the length of the bone from front to back, before disappearing into her hair.
Lara inhaled deeply through her nose as her mouth began to move more insistently against Sam's.
God, this shouldn't feel so good.
Sam was clasping Lara's face between her hands. She wasn't entirely sure when that happened. She wasn't even sure how long she and Lara stayed like that, lost in the taste and touch of each other.
At some point though, Sam's legs began to cramp. The discomfort became impossible to ignore, intruding and overwhelming the other delicious sensations.
She broke from their clinch. "Shall we take this somewhere more comfortable?"
Lara blinked, her expression glazed with over-indulgence. Her brain evidently was still not using its full processing power. Then the request clicked.
"Hmmm, you're right."
Lara heaved Sam onto her lap and stood in a single fluid motion.
Draped over her friend's arms, Sam grinned, "My hero."
Lara grinned back, "Where to, milady?"
Sam interlaced her fingers behind Lara's neck. She breathed, "My room."
The faux-knight's response was a frown.
"Oh don't look at me like that."
"Sam, I'm –"
"Nervous? Scared?" The American girl planted a tender kiss on Lara's forehead. "It's okay, sweetie. It really is. We don't have to rush things. We don't have to do anything if you don't want to."
That seemed to placate the Englishwoman. One shuddering stride at a time, she carried her friend down the passageway.
From the moment she met her, Sam had always admired Lara. On many occasions she'd actually been envious of her. Her beauty. Her brains. Her humility. Her determination. Her selfless compassion.
For everything that it had cost her, for all the pain it caused, Yamatai had sandblasted these qualities; burnished them. A baptism of blood and grit. There was a terrifying darkness in her transformation but also brilliance. Everything that was good about Lara had been illuminated. Enhanced to the point where even complete strangers noticed it.
Sam had been semi-conscious for the descent on Yamatai. Now she marvelled at Lara's strength – the literal and figurative. She was in awe of her. Sam must have been staring because Lara locked eyes with her and gave a self-conscious, lopsided smile. It shouldn't have but it set Sam's heart fluttering. She chuckled to herself. She was completely crushing on her best friend.
Of course, Lara the awkward British academic would always do something to undercut such an intimate moment. Once past the threshold of Sam's bedroom she placed the American girl back on her feet, muttering, "Christ, how did I carry you like this down a whole mountain?"
That earned her a mock punch to the shoulder. Followed immediately by another deep, exploratory kiss.
Sam's hands found the collar of Lara's jacket. She peeled it back, taking the shirt beneath with it too, so the archaeologist was down to her tank top. With Lara hungrily clutching Sam's face to hers, the American girl had to remove her companion's belt by touch. She tugged it free and then stepped back.
Lara stared, numb-mouthed and slack-limbed, as Sam shimmied out of her own jeans, and pulled her T-shirt over her head. She was wearing a matching bra and panties set, in lilac. She certainly hadn't thought anyone would be seeing them that morning when she dressed but she was glad that she had made the effort.
Lara wouldn't look at her though. The Englishwoman was studying her boots.
"Come on sweetie, it's nothing you haven't seen before. Many, many times. I show more skin in my bikini."
Lara blew out her cheeks. She made eye contact again as she stammered, "I just couldn't ever touch it before."
Lara reached out tentatively.
She ran her fingertips across Sam's shoulder, her collar, down the centre of her chest bone. Sam was so busy concentrating on the digits stroking across her abdomen that she startled when Lara's mouth pressed down on her crook of her neck. The Englishwoman retraced her fingers' path with her lips, ending with a single planted kiss on the swell of Sam's left breast, just above the fabric of her bra.
The moan was too much.
Lara took a step away. The anxiety and shame was back in her pupils. "Sam, I've never…"
Lara raised an eyebrow.
The American girl snorted. And then chuckled, "What the hell? You think I'm that big a skank…?"
Lara opened her mouth and swiftly closed it again.
"God, Lara, sure, I've kissed a girl… and I liked it, ha." Sam closed the gap between them. "Amazingly though I've never slept with another woman before. Despite what you think."
She placed her hands on her friend's waist.
Lara smirked, "I was going to say you were a free-spirit, actually."
"Whatever. It doesn't matter. I'm sure we'll work it out."
Sam reached for Lara's jeans and plucked the top button free.
The archaeologist was frozen, holding her breath. Her arms were raised, bent, evidently ready to shove away from her friend.
Sam couldn't have that. With just enough extra space created, she slid her hands into the back of Lara's pants and clasped her buttocks. The motion forced their fronts together, their hip bones perfectly aligned.
Lara was blushing so furiously, her eyes darting everywhere but Sam's face, that the American girl couldn't stifle a chortle.
Sam sashayed backwards, leading Lara by the pelvis and forcing her friend to mirror her exaggerated motions. Grinning, she said, "You told me before that I can talk you into anything? Does that include my bed?"
Lara smiled in return, "This is strange."
"You flirting with me. I know all your moves, Sam. I've seen you pull them on unsuspecting guys a hundred times."
"Am I really that predictable?"
At that moment her calves struck the foot of the bed and she flopped onto the mattress, taking Lara with her.
Tangled together, Lara on top, the former roommates snickered and skimmed lips.
Lara laughed, "I feel like your dad is going to burst through the door any moment and catch us."
Sam ran her hands up the back of her friend's top. "That would be hilarious. He'd probably accuse me of corrupting you. His darin Lara."
"You have corrupted me."
"And would you have it any other way?"
Their mouths touched again.
With Lara pressed completely against her, Sam got a very clear sense of her friend's physical power. Although the Englishwoman looked slender and soft, she was steel beneath her skin. Sam could feel the muscle bunches of her back; her stomach. Right there, right under the surface. She was ridiculously strong. Bluffed by her girlish looks – like most of the world, Sam included – the Solari had severely underestimated her.
Sam really shouldn't have been surprised though. She remembered an incident in Slovakia where Lara had chased after a bus, shouldering both their backpacks. A hungover Sam, the reason they had missed their ride, staggered behind, whining and whimpering.
"Mmmmm." The American girl broke from the kiss. "Do you have protection?"
Lara's brow furrowed.
"It's a joke, Lara."
Sam realised immediately she shouldn't have said anything. Her comment had jolted their accelerating passion to a stop. Brakes slammed on, Lara had been thrown over the handlebars headfirst.
She poised over her friend on her elbows.
"This – This isn't a pity fuck is it, Sam?"
There was an element of truth to that. Regardless of what else she felt, she owed her best friend everything. And what guy would ever be able to compare after what Lara had done for her? Still, there was no way Sam was going to bring that up for discussion.
"Really, Lara? You think I'd really be doing this out of some warped sense of gratitude? What does this feel like to you?"
Sam seized the archaeologist's hand and glided it down between their bodies. Smoothing it over Sam's flat stomach. Into her panties.
She guided Lara's fingertips to her entrance. Her very wet entrance.
"Oh," Lara exhaled. "Sam, Jesus." Her cheeks flushed.
That got a naughty chuckle out of the American girl. "What? This?" Still holding Lara's hand, she slowly ground her pelvis against it in a circular motion. For extra saucy effect Sam teethed her bottom lip.
Lara's eyes couldn't be any wider. The Englishwoman murmured, "This is so… hot."
"We're hot, babe." Sam leaned in.
Lara's lips grazed hers. "Always so modest, Nishimura."
"Nnnngh, it's the truth, Croft," Sam panted, breaking free of the kiss. "Imagine us doing this at a club. We'd drive the guys wild."
"We'd be arrested."
"It would be so worth it. Just to see their faces."
"I wouldn't be concentrating on their faces."
"You know what? Neither would I."
Right then it didn't matter what had brought them to that moment. Grief. Guilt. Lust. It was entirely about the two best friends and they both needed it; they both needed each other.
The realisation was liberating.
And evidently Lara felt the exact same thing. She was galvanised.
Initially guided by Sam, the archaeologist took the lead, exploring with her hands as her mouth trailed down and up the American girl's throat, along the underside of her jawline, to the spot behind her ear… and then back again.
Like slipping into a hot tub, Sam let her body sink deep into unthinking bliss. Her hips continued to move reflexively against Lara's fingers, wanting as much of her touch as possible.
At some point she realised that Lara had slid a free hand into her own pants. Syncing her personal rhythm with Sam's motion. The sight of that, the realisation that she actually had such a powerful, irresistible effect on her companion, sent Sam to the edge.
"God, Lara, I'm – "
As she came, Lara seized her mouth with hers. Sam cried her climax into her, and Lara claimed it, feeding her own desire with the moans. She began to move more feverishly.
Sam felt limp-limbed in the aftermath of her orgasm but she refused to be left out. She swept Lara onto her back. With the roles reversed, Sam fed her fingers down into the younger woman's jeans. She nudged aside Lara's palm and took over.
Lara tensed at the touch, trembling.
Her eyes were closed, but she reached up and clenched a fist in Sam's hair, drawing the American girl's face down to kiss her fiercely.
At the last moment Lara disengaged her lips. She arched up, clinging to Sam as she reached her peak. She shuddered, silent, her face pressed into Sam's shoulder. Eventually she stilled.
"Lara, did you – ? You haven't… Have you?"
"Yes," she exhaled into Sam's skin before drawing back. Their noses were an inch apart. "Yes, I did. Sorry, I – er – all those years in boarding school, you learn to be quiet." Her lip twitched into a bashful smile.
It made Sam laugh out loud.
Lara murmured, "So, uh, what now?"
Sam flashed a naughty grin. "Round two?"
"Can't we just cuddle for a bit?"
"What? Have I really worn out thee Lara Croft?"
"Don't flatter yourself. I'm knackered. I haven't slept for two days."
The American girl straddled her companion.
"Sam, I'm not a bloody theme park ride."
"You could have fooled me. Surviving back-to-back shipwrecks, sacrifice attempts, helicopter crashes, rapids, mad cultists, sorcerer queens and their immortal soldiers..."
Lara sighed, "There were also wolves."
There was a look in her eyes then that suggested it would be all too easy for her to slip back into glum reminiscing. Sam had to steer her away from that lock before it filled with guilt and misery all over again.
The American girl slid down her companion's body so she was poised over her calves. Then she hooked her fingers over the waistband of Lara's pants and drew the denim over her lean thighs.
"You know, as good as you look in them, I want you out of these jeans."
Elevated on her elbows, Lara watched her. Her expression was stranded halfway between a smirk and a frown.
Just then, Sam encountered a more literal obstacle to the undressing.
"Lara, did you seriously just fuck me with your boots still on?"
"Uh… if we're calling it that?"
"How can you be such a nerd and such a top at the same time?"
Clearly embarrassed, Lara made a move to reach for her feet. Sam blocked her efforts, forcing Lara to recline back on the mattress, so she was stretched out flat.
"Stay there, sweetie."
Sam undid Lara's laces. She slipped off her boots; her socks. Her jeans followed. The documentary-maker massaged her way up Lara's legs, enjoying the way muscles and tendons tensed under her hands before relaxing completely. At the top of Lara's thighs, Sam let her thumbs slide under the elastic sides of her companion's simple black panties. Just for a second. Just to tease her. It worked. Lara shuddered at the unexpected touch, gripping fistfuls of bedding in anticipation.
Then Sam had to spoil it by scraping clumsy fingers against the archaeologist's side as she lifted her shirt.
As an extra apology, Sam pressed her mouth to Lara's toned, now-exposed stomach. "I've always been so envious of this."
"I've always said, get your arse in gym with me and you can –"
Sam sucked on the bottom lip of Lara's navel, then circled it with her tongue before plunging it into the centre."
That shut the archaeologist up. Open mouthed, her head lolled backwards.
"What was that you were saying about knowing all my tricks?"
"Hah," Lara gulped, a glazed grin on her face, "I guess I was wrong."
Sam licked and nipped up Lara's stomach, the crest of her rib cage, the centre of her chest bone. With her index finger, the American girl hooked the fabric of Lara's top and tugged it down an inch, exposing more of the curve of her breast. She kissed that soft, perfect flesh too, sucking ever so gently.
Lara was back to trembling at every touch.
On top of her companion, their bodies perfectly aligned once more, Sam's parted lips met Lara's.
"God, you have the most kissable mouth."
Lara didn't say anything. But Sam could see by her friend's pupils that the ravenous lioness had returned.
Warm, steel-strong arms around her. Smooth legs gliding and weaving. Sam suddenly on her back again.
"Say it again, Lara."
The archaeologist cocked her head.
Sam grinned, "Pure primal response."
A twitch in the corner of her lip, but Lara's eyes remained dark; focused. Leaning over her mate, she purred, "Pure. Primal. Response."
"Mmmm, I felt that in all the right places."
Then Lara's fingers found those places.
And it really was a different experience. Skin so soft, a meeting of chins and cheeks without a trace of grating stubble; curves where there shouldn't have been any; toned flat planes of flesh instead of prodding insistency against Sam's hip. So much more to do and touch to produce a response. And that response moaned in a woman's voice.
Some time later, Sam flopped down alongside Lara.
"Oh my God, why didn't we do this years ago?" The American girl playfully nibbled on her friend's bare shoulder. "Roth was right, Lara. You have amazing instincts!"
The archaeologist was lying on her back, staring at the ceiling. Her chest rose and fell rapidly as she tried to regain her breath.
Uncomfortable with being nude, she was back in her panties and tank top under the covers. Her friend felt no such discomfort.
"You know," Sam ran kisses along Lara's collar bone, "I always wondered what you'd be like in bed."
Her companion responded straight-faced, still looking blindly ahead. "After three years of living in the next room, I must confess I already had a pretty good idea about you."
There was that British wit, so dry it practically crackled.
Pouting, Sam pinched Lara's ear.
That finally earned a grin from the Englishwoman. She turned to face Sam. "Those walls were thin! And don't get me started about that time in Bulgaria."
"What?" The realisation slapped Sam hard, even as Lara continued to smile. "Oh, God…"
They had been sharing a room on the outskirts of Sofia. The hostel was tiny; crammed; the beds maybe two feet apart. That hadn't stopped Sam though. One drunken night she brought a guy back from the nearby club. Uncoordinated, barely able to communicate, they tugged at each other's clothes. When they had yanked enough fabric out the way they landed on Sam's mattress, not once giving a thought to Lara face down on her cot. Sam had thought her travel buddy was passed out after too many vodkas. Clearly she had presumed wrong.
"Why didn't you say anything, Lara?!"
Her companion shrugged, smiling softly.
Sam muttered, "This is weird."
"Oh," Lara frowned. Arms at her sides, she pushed herself into a sitting position.
"No, it's not like that. It's just that you're my best friend. My saviour. And my, what–? Girlfriend? Lover?"
"Does it matter?"
"No, but don't you think it's strange it's all the same person?"
"My mother once told me it was like with Dad. That that's how it was supposed to be."
Enthusiasm bubbled up in Sam's chest. She could feel the effervescence spreading through her whole body. She sprang into a crouch at Lara's side, seizing her friend's triceps. She found herself babbling.
"Then let's do that, Lara. Us. Together on expeditions. You doing all the archaeology stuff; me documenting it with my camera. Crazy adventure after crazy adventure. It's perfect."
Lara stiffened under Sam's palms.
"Look, if you're not comfortable with people knowing, you know, that we're together, that's cool too, Lara. We can keep it private. It doesn't matter as long as I'm with you." She held up a fist, and jabbed it in her companion's direction. "Hoes before bros."
"Sam…" The Englishwoman winced. She sighed deeply and shook her head.
Too much, too soon, Sam. Backpedal.
The American stumbled over an apology. "You're right, Lara. I'm sorry. It was a dumb idea. I'm getting ahead of myself."
"No, Sam, come here." Hands on her friend's waist, Lara drew her into an embrace. "Please."
Lara simply held Sam against her in silence. Eventually she slid down into a lying position, taking her companion with her. Sam pressed herself into the crook of Lara's shoulder, so her arm was draped over her friend's form. It allowed her to trail her index finger over the last scrapes and scratches on Lara's left forearm. There were a few dark pink scars there; physical mementos she would have for the rest of her life. Along with the near-fatal wound above her left hip, a jagged cut just below her right deltoid and a nick at her hairline. All souvenirs from Yamatai.
Sam felt a quiver run through Lara's body. She looked up and there were tears in the Englishwoman's eyes. She was swallowing continually, trying not to let them spill.
"Sweetie, what's wrong? Hey."
"I just – I never thought we'd – " Lara hiccupped. "It's everything I imagined. This. This moment."
Sam wanted desperately to reach for her friend's face but Lara's grip kept them pressed together, immobile.
The American girl felt Lara's lips brush her temple. "I love you, Sam."
"I – I love you too, Lara." The ease with which she said it triggered a fresh set of palpitations in Sam's chest. She tried to divert her thoughts only to watch them scuttle down a suspiciously dark alley. Maybe if she voiced them out loud it would provide some comforting light and noise to scare away the muggers and monsters?
Squeezing Lara tighter, she cleared her throat. "You know, the most frightened I've ever been was on the island, when I was tied up for Mathias's ceremony. Not because I thought I was going to be burned alive. That seemed so surreal; so ridiculous I couldn't take it seriously until the fire was lit, and I actually felt the heat. I was terrified, but when you arrived, it was so much worse."
It really was easier confessing into Lara's chest bone than looking her in the face. "Watching those men… The way they pounded you over and over on the ground; all that blood. I thought I was actually going to see you beaten to death in front of me. I thought I was going to be forced to watch you die. All because of me. It was the worst moment of my life."
"Likewise. The thought of losing you…," Lara murmured. "I tried to be strong for both of us. It wasn't enough."
"Of course it was. We're here now. We made it thanks to you."
"I can't sleep, Sam. When I do, I hear the screams at the monastery in the end… Yours… Or hers… I'm not sure whose." She shuddered. "I feel them in my bones. And they remind me of the agony I put you through."
Sam didn't want to remember either. She didn't have a particularly high pain threshold as it was, but Himiko's ritual had overloaded her senses. Well, from what she could recall of it. She had never thought that the cold could burn like that – a simultaneous scorching of ice and fire. It was worst in her chest but she felt in in her head as well. A whirlpool of weakness and darkness. She was dimly aware of Mathias's jubilant yells and Lara's cries, interspersed with the sound of gunshots and explosions. But mostly there was her – Himiko, eyeless and grinning, drawing ever nearer with her bared yellowed teeth and cracked, peeling face paint.
Her icy, probing touch… and then the next thing Sam remembered was the warmth of Lara's bare skin against hers. The archaeologist's touch was even more soothing than the rays of sunlight she felt then for the first time in days. Lara was filthy, bleeding and exhausted but in her arms, Sam was safe. Courage. Goodness. Tenacity and unstifled, unsuppressed life. That was everything her best friend represented for Sam at that moment.
The American pulled herself upright so she was poised over her companion. She brushed the bangs away from Lara's face and cupped the back of her head so she couldn't look away.
"You know, you're the best thing that ever happened to me, Lara Croft."
She could see a denial already shaping on the Englishwoman's lips. No doubt the usual "But Yamatai…"
Sam stoppered her argument with a deep, breath-stealing kiss.
"Lara, if you hadn't entered my life, I'd probably be maxing out my father's credit cards on Fifth Avenue right now. Leading a soulless, directionless existence, filling it with useless things and useless people. You saved me years before Yamatai."
"When I decided I wanted to get into filmmaking, no one took me seriously. Except you. Everyone thought that it was just my latest phase and I was going to give up as soon as I got bored or it got too tough. But you believed in me. You were the only one who supported me."
There. There she was. The young woman looking up at her with the gentlest eyes, and the softest lips curved in an equally soft smile. That was Sam's Lara. Not the savage survivor she had been forced to become.
"Kiss me again, Croft. Please."
Seizing Sam's face, Lara did.
The action triggered a moan deep in the American girl's throat.
Oh, what the hell…
Sam peeled Lara's panties down her thighs. Lara started to attempt the same, breaking from the kiss with a grin when she remembered Sam wasn't wearing any. Desire tempered with sudden onset exhaustion, their movements were as uncoordinated as if they had been drinking all evening. Sam crashed her mouth back into Lara's, their teeth knocking together. Hands began to clumsily explore.
At some point in the night, Sam woke. Or at least she thought she woke. Her consciousness had been so completely saturated by Lara – her touch, her scent, her taste – that it had seeped through even into her sleep. She knew she had been dreaming about her best friend and saviour, over and over.
Lara standing at a crossroads. Loaded with all her backpacking kit, she was pursing her lips as she tried to decipher a map.
Lara running and jumping and doing forward rolls in a murky, flooded catacomb. A crocodile swaggering after her.
Lara lying Sam's sixteen year old self down on the bed in her poster-splattered bedroom. Giving her companion the naughtiest smile before kissing down her body.
So Sam couldn't be sure if this moment was a dream too.
She was lying on her back, with Lara pressed against her. Post-Yamatai Lara judging by the scars and scrapes on her bare flesh. The archaeologist was facing Sam, lying on her right side with an arm thrown over the American girl's ribs. She looked so peaceful in her sleep. If Sam didn't know how rare an occurrence it was, how desperately Lara needed the rest, she would have teased the Englishwoman awake. Lara's parted lips were just too irresistible.
Still, lone predators could never switch off their survival instincts. Even when asleep. Something must have alerted her that her mate was awake. Maybe some miniscule change in Sam's breathing.
Lara's eyes were half-open. Gaze unfocused, she was silently watching her companion. There was melancholy there. But before Sam could question or kiss away her sorrow, Lara pulled her friend tight against her.
Her voice was coarse with sleep. "I love you, Sam. You know that, right? I really love you."
"Mmmm, I do, sweetie."
The way Lara was nuzzling her neck, it was just so easy to relax in the embrace…
It was daylight when Sam opened her eyes again. The curtains were closed but it was still too bright. She thrust her face back into her pillow and groaned. Tentatively, she slipped the cushioning down past her cheeks, exposing one eye and then the other. Even before she had stopped squinting at her illuminated surroundings, she knew Lara wasn't there. The mattress felt devoid of her presence.
That wasn't a surprise. Unlike Sam, Lara had never been able to lie in. She was probably doing yoga in the lounge, or sitting straight-backed at the desk in her room with a cup of tea, her notebook and a laptop – muttering to herself as she worked.
Sam stretched and grinned. It was probably a good thing for Lara that she wasn't still in bed because her American companion would totally have seduced her again at that moment. And then clung on for the ride. Because that really been the biggest revelation of the previous evening – what the Englishwoman was like in bed. Normally, Lara was incredibly shy about in-your-face sexuality. Sam remembered the time she lured her friend to the edge of a nudist beach just to see the look on her bright red, panicked face. However, behind closed doors, Lara was entirely different. Self-consciousness evaporated and she was fully engaged in the moment. Anything went. Until last night, it was a mode that Sam didn't even know Lara possessed.
The American girl threw back the covers. She drew on a gown, admired her impressive bed-hair for a moment in the mirror and then walked out into the passageway. She could already see herself straddling Lara at her desk, interlacing her fingers behind the brunette's ponytail and ending all attempts at work once she untied her robe.
Except Lara wasn't in her room.
Nothing was. Not her backpack, her clothes or her papers.
Sam felt her heart rate surge. Her calves automatically tensed, her body ready to bolt into the living area. Except she could also see Lara's face; that wry smile she gave whenever Sam overreacted, whether it be a freak out or a geek out.
Oh, sod it, as Lara would say. At that moment the American girl would happily have been pierced by some playful jibes if it meant extinguishing her anxiety. She darted for the lounge.
That room was empty too. As was the kitchen, except for a folded note on the countertop. A solitary tent erected on a plateau. Feeling as icy numb as if she'd been camping all night on a mountain herself, Sam picked up the piece of paper.
Back on the island, Roth spoke to me about sacrifice. That sacrifice is a choice you make while loss is a choice made for you…
There was a lot of loss on Yamatai. There has been a lot of loss in my life. But Roth was right. I knew nothing about sacrifice. Even there on the island, it was easy. Time and again in my mind, the possibility of my own death didn't register as a sacrifice.
But I understand sacrifice now.
Because I've just made the greatest sacrifice of my life…
I can't go home. When I said it on the ship, I meant it. I was born to my life's purpose on Yamatai. I'm not going home because I can't. In accepting my mission to find answers, I forfeited all of that.
I just haven't been strong enough to walk away.
The past few months, since the island, I've been fighting my feelings, for a number of reasons. Leaving this life means walking away from everything I know and hold dear. I was terrified because I have to do it alone. Truly alone.
And that knowledge was made so much worse after I woke up in hospital to find you there. At my bedside. Holding my hand. Waiting for me.
I've been struggling a lot since that moment. I've been snappish towards you. Aloof. Hurtful. But there is a reason for that. You see, in the past few weeks it's not my parents I've been conflicted about – I've accepted my shameful naiveté in that regard, and have a lot of work to do rectifying it. No, I was conflicted about telling you how I feel. I've always loved you Sam. I think for a long time I was too scared to admit that I was IN love with you. Given everything that meant. The complications.
Because you are right. This is still your world. It's not fair to rip you from it, to have you always following behind… or waiting for me here instead of living a full, proper life.
You're magnificent, Sam. Talented (truly, no matter what you think!). Beautiful. Free-spirited. Effortlessly and irresistibly charismatic. So confident in any situation. These qualities are why I admire you – and love you with all my heart.
But a life with me… I almost got you killed once. I almost hurt you severely. And I can't let that happen again. I know I'm going to have to go to dark places and do even darker things. I don't want you blistered by that pitch like I've been. Two nights ago, I think you got a very good sense of how deep that taint has touched and transformed me. You are goodness, vitality and life. That has to be protected at all cost. Knowing that you are safe; that is how I'll be able to do whatever I must.
I am so sorry, Sam. I never planned this. I never wanted it. But Yamatai changed everything. Mathias was right. Survivors do what they have to. As painful and soul-destroying as that may be.
Last night, as much as I craved it, shouldn't have happened. It was cruel and unfair.
It was even crueller to leave you like this. Cowardly, duplicitous and callous, slipping out of your bed like you meant nothing more to me than a one-night stand. That couldn't be further from the truth. But I knew that if we discussed this, my resolve would fade in such close proximity to your brilliance. You would wrap me in your arms and I would never have the strength to leave.
You have my heart, Sam. You will ALWAYS have my heart. But my life belongs to finding the truth.
I hope that in time you can forgive me.
A letter. A fucking letter. Lara had walked out of her life and left her with a letter.
Sam was suffocating. She staggered two steps before dropping to her hands and knees, lightheaded. But as desperately as she wanted it, she couldn't draw in air. Her throat was constricted and utterly consumed as she expelled sob after sob. An endless, involuntary stream that slashed at her windpipe.
Exactly what Lara had promised to protect her from.
This was probably going to be awkward.
So she was in no rush to insert the key into the front door and enter the apartment. It felt more appealing to just remain standing on the threshold, loaded with her camera, tripod and textbooks for the day's lectures.
She and Lara had been roommates for three weeks already, sharing an off-campus flat as they began their second year of studies. Of course, they shared the space with a third flatmate. The big-ass elephant in the room. The realisation that moving in together had probably been a mistake.
Neither of them had said as much. In fact they were probably too scared to admit it out loud. But they were both thinking it, particularly after the events of Saturday morning.
After a night out clubbing, Sam was lying on the couch, eating cereal from the box, when her flatmate shuffled out of her bedroom and into the kitchenette. It was a rare occasion when Lara Croft revealed herself to be a vulnerable human being, and not a serene, too-perfect goddess slumming it with the mortals. Right then was one of those blue moon moments.
Usually so effortlessly gorgeous, Lara looked terrible. She was hunched in her old plaid bathrobe, red nostrilled and clutching a tissue. Sam knew she had worked back-to-back shifts at the Nine Bells the night before, despite "feeling poorly" as she described it.
Sam should have known things would head rapidly south when Lara found the shelf empty of mugs, and was forced to salvage a used cup from a pile in the sink.
Once she'd rinsed it, Lara opened their pantry cupboard and began groping inside. After practically forcing her head in-between the shelves, she called, "Sam, where are the tea bags?"
"Oh, I haven't been to Tesco yet."
Silence. Ominous silence. Sam looked up. Lara was frozen, looking at her.
"What?" the American girl asked, her mouth full of Frosties.
Lara's voice was as empty of expression as her face. "I asked you to do one thing, Sam..."
"Jeez, Lara, relax, it's not the end of the world."
"One. Thing!" The Englishwoman slammed her first down on the counter.
Sam stared at Lara, shocked.
They'd known each other for over a year, yet despite how often Sam's ditziness had provoked an exasperated sigh or eye roll from her best friend, Lara had never raised her voice before. Let alone lost her temper so dramatically.
The Englishwoman stood there, shivering and glowering simultaneously.
Eventually she threw up her hands. "Fuck! Fine!" She yanked off her robe, exposing her favourite oversize sleep shirt and boxers underneath. "I'll go then."
She stomped off into her bedroom.
When Lara emerged dressed, Sam tried to placate her.
"Come on, sweetie, it's really not a big deal."
"It is. To me." Lara's voice cracked over the last syllable and Sam thought she was about to burst into tears.
Never get between the English and their tea.
Lara shrugged on her jacket and glared one last time at Sam before slamming the door behind her.
The archaeology student had calmed down a bit by the time she returned, staggering with the weight of her shopping bags. She was still fuming, though, torn between her initial anger and embarrassment about her overreaction.
Sam was waiting with her biggest olive branch smile. "You didn't have to work a double shift last night, Lara. I've told you."
Two clipped syllables in response.
That was the end of their conversation. After unpacking the groceries, Lara finally made her cup of tea and retreated to her room for the rest of the day.
Sam washed the dishes. She vacuumed the lounge. She folded the laundry. She even heated some soup and served it to Lara in bed. Still, her roommate refused to look up from her book and talk to her.
Eventually, tired of receiving the cold shoulder, the American girl decided to spite Lara. The young woman hated Sam's other crowd of friends. She thought they were a bad influence, spurring each other on to commit various acts of varying degrees of illegality.
She wasn't wrong. Sam always got drunk with them quickly so she could blame her actions on alcohol-saturated morals and a general lack of self-control. Excuses were better than having to continually think about what she was doing.
But this little exploit was all about pissing Lara off.
Or at least earning a disapproving acknowledgement of her presence. That should be easy enough – Sam had years of experience provoking her parents.
Before leaving, she stuck her head around her roommate's door.
"Yeah, I'm going out with Carlos, Em and Lou."
Lara didn't even lift her eyes from the page in front of her. "Have fun."
Three days later, and there was still a frosty over-politeness in their interactions. Maybe they had overestimated their friendship and really were too different to live together?
Sam sighed and unlocked the front door.
Music blaring from the iPod docking station.
Cushions strewn around the lounge.
Three empty beer bottles on the kitchen counter, surrounded by the debris of sandwich making – a deserted block of cheese, a half-sliced tomato, an open bottle of pickles and a loaf of bread left with slices spilling out onto the breadboard. It wasn't uncommon for Lara to geek out over a theory and wander absent-mindedly away from whatever she was doing, but she would never leave such a mess.
Jesus! Had they been broken into?
Sam dropped her books and equipment on the armchair. Her cry came out more strident than she intended. "Lara?!"
Her roommate bounded out of the bedroom. "Sam, hey, you're back!"
Like an excited puppy, Lara bounced up to her roommate, grinning madly the whole time. "I'm so happy you're home."
She flung her arms wide and then snared Sam in a bear hug. Chuckling the whole time, she lifted her American companion and spun a full 360 degrees.
Something was seriously, seriously wrong.
Her feet back on terra firma, Sam gently disengaged herself from the embrace. "Sweetie, are you al…?" A step away triggered a second, impossible to suppress question. "What are you wearing?"
Lara was in ridiculous shorts, skin-tight, cut off barely two inches below her crotch. Sam didn't think her friend possessed anything like that in her cupboard.
The American girl couldn't stop herself staring. God, her friend's legs went on for miles. You didn't normally see them. Lara wasn't self-conscious about her looks so much as she was modest and fearful about attracting attention for the wrong, superficial reasons. She ran in track pants and Sam had yet to coax her into a bikini. Showing off her body was out the question.
Right then, Lara was looking at her, open-mouthed, adoring. "You are so beautiful. You're glowing."
Then Sam spotted it. On the kitchen counter, half obscured by the pickle jar. A mangled piece of tinfoil, its sides torn back like petals to reveal the sweet chocolate nectar at its centre.
Carlos's special brownies. She'd been so out of it after her Saturday night exploits that she'd just shoved the "care package" in the fridge. Her roommate wouldn't have suspected anything.
Lara had tracked Sam's gaze. Her enthusiasm immediately bubbled over again.
"Oh my God, those brownies are soooo good, Sam. They are AMAZING! I think I had an orgasm in my mouth."
Straitlaced Lara Croft actually talking about sex? Oh no.
"Lara, how many of those have you had?"
"One or two… Four." She snorted.
Sam took hold of her friend's triceps.
"Lara, hey, you need to stop, sweetie, okay?"
The Englishwoman ignored her. She seized her friend's hand, "Dance with me, Sam."
"That's my name, don't wear it out."
Lara hauled Sam into the centre of the lounge.
Even with her incredibly physical prowess, the Englishwoman had next to no dance skills. Sober, she was too stiff; drunk, too limp and uncoordinated. High, her every gyration seemed to stem from a different musical genre – hip-hop, punk, adult contemporary.
It was hilarious. But also horrifying. Sam couldn't enjoy the sight of Lara Croft completely cut loose because her friend was oblivious of the unmooring. And Sam was the one who was responsible.
Lara cocked her head. "Why aren't you dancing?"
"How do you feel, sweetie?"
"Really good. I haven't felt this happy in a long time." She threw back her head and laughed, euphoric. "God, and hungry. I'm fucking famished."
Before Sam could respond, Lara had closed the gap between them.
"Come here." Grabbing Sam by the hips, the Englishwoman pulled her companion's back against her front. Pressed together like that, Sam could feel Lara's breasts against her shoulder blades; the delicious rolling way her friend was grinding her pelvis against Sam's. Lara continued to guide the American's response, her fingers hooked over Sam's hip bones. Not that she needed to. Sam was shocked at how instinctually her body responded, matching its motion to Lara's.
"There we go," purred into Sam's ear.
It felt great.
Sam was tempted to reach behind her and cup the back of Lara's skull, drawing her face back within reach. As if sensing her friend's fantasy, Lara's palms began to slide across Sam's body. One climbed up over her stomach; the other slipped south…
Sam jerked away. At a distance of five feet, she turned back to her roommate.
Lara looked startled; confused; and finally ashamed. Her hands were still frozen where they'd been on Sam's body, embracing an invisible partner. She stammered, "I – I'm sorry."
There were a dozen things the American girl could have said, but the most prominent thought was that none of them was right. They'd only make the situation worse; embarrass each other more. This wasn't Lara Croft standing in front of her. She would never act like this normally. She wasn't herself. And that was entirely Sam's fault. She couldn't let Lara shoulder any guilt for her actions.
The filmmaker slowly approached her friend. She initiated a new embrace. "No, I'm sorry."
Placated, Lara rested her cheek against Sam's shoulder. Then she pulled back. Her face was earnest. The effervescence gone. "Please, let's not fight anymore."
"You're gonna hate my guts tomorrow, Lara."
The Englishwoman shook her head. "Never. I love you, Sam." The goofy grin returned. "You know that, right? I really love you."
Light-hearted Lara didn't emerge nearly often enough. Beautiful, exhilarated, she was impossible to resist. Sam returned the bashful smile even as she was pulled into a fresh hug.
"We're going to have so many awesome adventures together, Sam, I know it."
"You know it, Nishimura."