Easier to run
Eight years later.
"How's my favourite goddaughter?"
She caught the little girl barrelling towards her under the armpits, lifted her and spun her full circle.
"Goodness. You've grown so big."
The four year old wrapped her arms around Lara's neck in a hug. The archaeologist squawked a mock-choke, making the child giggle.
Lara was grinning back when she realised a second figure was approaching from across the lawn. That sobered her.
The Englishwoman and the newcomer both regarded each other a little shyly.
They exchanged polite pecks on the cheek.
In Lara's head, that was the point where she would sweep Sam into a long open-mouthed kiss. It didn't matter how much time had passed; how much their relationship had evolved. The fantasies still crept up on her from time to time. And then she would have to force a smile until the leaden sensation of longing released its hold on her.
More effective just then in hauling the Englishwoman out of her fantasy, though, was the sensation of Sam's daughter wriggling in her arms. Lara lowered the little girl to the ground. Immediately, the child latched onto the archaeologist's leg with both hands.
Lara ruffled the girl's dark hair with a grin, and then turned to face her mother.
"It's good to see you, Sam."
"You too. Although I don't think I'm as happy about it as someone else right now." Sam crossed her arms. "Isn't that right, Hannah?"
The girl seized Lara's hand and tugged on it. "Auntie Lara, ponies!"
"That's right, I said there would be ponies the next time you visited. Well come on then."
Not that Lara had to lead the way. The fenced off paddock was visible from the front lawn, and Hannah had already spied the horse tied up there.
Lara was practically being dragged by the child.
Sam kept pace, clearly amused by the situation. She murmured to her best friend, "You know, she idolises you, Lara. She won't take that damn backpack off." The filmmaker pointed at the grubby pink bag swinging from side to side on Hannah's tiny shoulders. "And it's all your fault."
Lara winked, "It could be worse. It could be matching thigh holsters."
Sam chortled. "That's true."
The women had thought Hannah was too focused on her hooved prize to be listening, but the girl glanced over her shoulder midstride. With all seriousness she announced, "Mommy, I want to be an explorer just like Auntie Lara and Dora."
Sam burst out laughing.
Despite her vast library and vaster mental reserve of knowledge, the reference was lost on Lara. Bemused, she asked her companion, "Who's Dora?"
There wasn't time for a response. They had reached the paddock.
Hannah's jaw dropped at the sight of Lara's snooty black thoroughbred. The archaeologist had almost named the animal after her similarly uptight grandmother, but she eventually settled on something more appropriate for her line of work.
She was still smiling over that thought when she realised Hannah was frozen; her excitement trampled by trepidation. The mare was so much bigger than her after all.
Lara decided to soothe the child's nerves with a formal introduction.
She lifted the girl onto the paddock fence, and encouraged her to reach out and stroke the mare's face.
"Hannah, this is Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut, this is Hannah."
It was far too complex a name for a four year old. After rolling the unusual slithering syllables around in her mouth like marbles, Hannah eventually managed to expel, "Hot chicken soup!"
The horse snorted, indignant.
Lara laughed and palmed the animal's muzzle. "Sorry, girl."
Hatshepsut was haughty, but she was a lady down to her bone marrow. Obedient. She would bear the insult with silent disgust, just like she would bear riders she felt were beneath her bloodline. Later, maybe, she'd try to throw Lara while they galloped across the estate grounds. But not now; not while she was on exhibit.
"Would you like to ride her?" The archaeologist whispered against Hannah's ear.
There was an access gate a few feet away but as usual Lara couldn't be arsed with such things. She simply clambered over the fence, and then helped Hannah after her.
Hatshepsut was already saddled and bridled. It was simply a case of plonking Hannah on the animal's back and then joining her.
"Sweetie?" Sam's voice rang out.
Lara turned at the same moment the little girl did.
That left the archaeologist with a wry smile on her face.
Sam was frowning. "Please be careful."
That was perhaps the most amusing change that motherhood had made to Sam. Lara remembered her flatmate living perpetually in the moment; always looking for a good time – to the point of doing some truly reckless things that Lara usually had to rescue her from. Since the birth of her daughter, though, she had become caution personified.
Other things went unchanged, however. The filmmaker already had a camera in her hands, ready to record every moment of this milestone.
"It's alright," Lara called. "She's with me." She added jokingly, "What's the worst that could happen?"
At that, Sam's face fell.
Lara flashed a smile, "Relax, Sam. I promise I'll look after her."
She plucked up a riding helmet hanging from the nearest fence post and plopped it onto Hannah's head. At least she had estimated the size correctly. The girl was growing fast.
While Lara was fastening the helmet under Hannah's chin, the child found her confidence once more. Hands on hips, she mimicked Lara right down to her accent when she yelled, "Yeah, relax, Mommy!"
And that was exactly why she was an appalling role model for children.
Before Hannah's smart mouth could get her into trouble, Lara placed the girl on the saddle and mounted behind her.
They trotted and cantered around the paddock for a bit. Hatshepsut was dressage-trained and with a squeeze of Lara's thighs the thoroughbred was encouraged to show off her fancy footwork.
Hannah was delighted.
Lara was smiling the whole time too. She bent and pressed her lips to the little girl's crown.
Before Hannah was born – before Lara held her for the first time – the archaeologist had thought she would hate the child. Every time she looked at her chubby, contented face, Lara expected to be stabbed through the heart. And the thrust would always be doubled. The first jab would be the obvious jealousy in that Hannah was a living, breathing product of Sam and Steven's love. The second jab would be the reminder that Lara was an awful person to loathe an innocent baby.
But then she had met Hannah and her worries evaporated.
How could she not love her? She was made from Sam. She was beautiful, buoyant and adorably brassy, but with a streak of Steven's introversion that made her far more contemplative, and therefore cautious, than her mother.
Lara had already decided that she was going to name Hannah as her heir one day.
After the ride, they had tea on the lawn. They sat at a table set up under one of the giant oak trees that had stood tall and proud on the estate before even Lara's great-great grandfather was born.
While the former flatmates chatted, Hannah sprawled on a blanket nearby with her upended backpack and its revealed contents: a box of Band-Aids, toys, string, plastic jewellery and an assortment of colouring-in pencils and crayons. Just then the girl was drawing Hatshepsut in the notebook her godmother had given her for Christmas.
Lara kept glancing in Hannah's direction. She had to admit she was utterly flummoxed by children's eating habits. The tea spread included sandwiches, sausage rolls, scones and cupcakes, but all Hannah was interested in was some grated cheese and several slices of cucumber. Nothing else took her fancy. Sam wasn't at all perturbed by it. She simply shrugged and insisted it was her daughter's current phase.
While Lara was pouring another cup of Earl Grey for herself and her companion, she commented, "Thank you for coming by the way."
"Thank you for the invitation. We haven't quite found a routine yet since we've been back in London, and I was going a little stir-crazy in the apartment with Tiny Tot Tomb Raider over there."
That did have a nice ring to it.
Lara replaced the teapot on the tray. "You know you're welcome here, anytime?"
Sam cocked an eyebrow over the lip of her cup. "What? Is eccentric adventurer Lara Croft lonely?"
The archaeologist lowered herself into her seat. "Never. I'm far too busy for that. But this house is huge. There's more than enough space for you. For all three of you if you like. You can have a wing each."
While Lara sipped her tea, Sam piped up. "So, I heard about that business in Egypt. You seem to have yourself a proper rival now, to give you a run for your relics as it were?"
"Carter Bell, yes. He's actually very good – excellent credentials, solid instincts. Of course, I should start to expect up-and-comers. Heirs to the kingdom and all that. I'm not exactly as young as I once was."
"Lara, you're what? Thirty four? You seriously think you're past your prime? Look at you. It's really not fair."
Lara blushed as she leaned back in her chair. She had been coolly accepting appreciative comments for years. When Sam made the remarks, however, it was different. It turned the world-famous Tomb Raider into a self-conscious teenager without fail.
Just then, though, Sam seemed to be curiously coyer of the pair. She brushed her bob behind her ear as she continued, "I have to confess. It's not just Hannah. I'm kind of crushing on you right now. Stunning, elegant and utterly in control. I feel like I'm having tea with a tiger."
"Oh, for heaven's sake." Lara slapped her thigh, incredulous. She was trying to ignore how hot her skin was feeling. "You know I'm still the same socially awkward bookworm you first met?"
Sam didn't stop. "You look amazing."
Given the day's activity, Lara was sitting cross-legged in riding breeches and knee-high boots. She'd put her hair up in a French braid to keep it out the way. She thought it was all rather practical and uninteresting but the look Sam was giving her suggested otherwise.
Lara's heart thudded jarringly.
To dampen down on a sudden ridiculous hope, she fired back a return complement. "As do you."
Sam waved her hand dismissively. "Please. All I am these days is a frazzled working mommy."
"You always take my breath away, Sam."
That brought a flush to the filmmaker's cheeks. "Lara Croft, stop flirting with me."
She'd been one hundred percent sincere but if that was how Sam was reading the exchange, the archaeologist would play along. She flashed some teeth. "You started it. Besides, you know you like it."
"I am a respectable married woman."
Lara gave her own Hatshepsut snort.
Sam tactfully ignored her. She lifted her chin. "…A respectable married woman who is asking her playgirl best friend if there is anyone special in her life…?"
Lara laughed. "It is truly the End Times if Samantha Nishimura is calling herself respectable. That's a load of twaddle. The stories I could tell about your college exploits…"
Sam winked, "Not within earshot of my daughter, please."
Lara grinned, "I'm far less of a playgirl now than you were back then."
Sam lowered her voice. "Bitch, please."
The filmmaker attempted a conversational redirect away from herself. "So, I see you're avoiding the question? Are you seeing anyone?"
Lara rolled her eyes.
The inevitable question. Even wild child Sam, once she had married and spawned, wasn't immune to what Lara had labelled the Conformist Hive Mind. She herself seemed to be resistant to its effects, but she had watched so many others around her uncritically succumb to social expectation as if it was a tapeworm that every year inched further and further into their brain.
The archaeologist raised her cup again to her lips.
"I saw someone just last week, actually."
"Really?" Sam's eyes gleamed at the prospect of gossip.
"A translator. We've worked together a few times, and, well, I was a little out of practice with my tongue. She helped get me up to speed."
"Lara!" The sound that escaped the filmmaker's lips was half gasp, half laugh.
"I didn't take you for a prude, Sam."
"So, is there potential there?"
Lara shrugged, "I like her and we have fun together, but she knows what it is. It's like I've told you, I only play for sport."
It had taken a few years to build up the courage – even longer than it took her to embrace the full scope of the playing field again – but eventually the archaeologist had come out to her best friend about her rather egalitarian attitude to lovers. As well as the pragmatic approach she had adopted to satisfying her needs when they niggled.
It turned out that Sam wasn't at all surprised. She had sighed, "Babe, I always thought you were either asexual or horribly closeted. Now do you want the names of the eligible queer women I know or not?"
The filmmaker sighed as well at Lara's present day admission. She reached for her camera, flipped open the preview window and turned it to face her companion. On the screen, Lara was on horseback with Hannah. They were cantering, and the archaeologist was showing the little girl how to hold the reigns.
"Regardless of what you may think," Sam commented, "it really suits you, you know."
"You with a sprog."
God, another Hive Mind flare-up.
Lara frowned, "I'd be a terrible mother."
"I don't think so."
Lara glanced in the direction of Hatshepsut. "Dark horse, Sam. That's what I am; that's what I'll always be. Motherhood would be an ill fit. I'm much better equipped to be a fun aunt who always spoils her charge. Besides, I already have a family. You and Steven and Hannah."
People she loved deeply and who lived safely across the Pond for half of the year, until work drew them back to the UK. If any enemies were watching Lara's interactions, Sam, Steven and Hannah were situated just far enough on the periphery to be considered inconsequential. Lara had carefully cultivated the illusion that there was nobody she truly cared about. If her foes wanted to hurt her, they had to hurt her. She had set it up so there were no vicarious alternatives – platonic or otherwise.
"Well," Sam coughed. "That family's about to get a little bigger."
That snapped Lara away from her dark thoughts. "What?!"
"I'm pregnant…" The filmmaker looked slightly sad. "It wasn't exactly planned, but oh well."
"Just passed the two month mark."
Keyed by Sam's ambivalent expression, Lara found her voice lilting up. "Congratulations?"
Her companion laughed. "Yeah. It's a good thing. Except for another two to three years of diapers and sleepless nights." She rolled her eyes to the sky, "Steven is ecstatic of course. The whole chest-thumping look how virile I am even when I'm not trying thing."
Lara smiled, "I'm happy for the both of you, Sam."
She genuinely was. The surprise was like razor wire being dragged through her ribs, but the fact she could share such moments with Sam was a gift. If her life was a display case, for five years there had been a gaping, grating hole where her best friend – the love of her life – used to sit.
Then Lara had recovered that lost treasure, and slotted it back into place. Miraculously, it was free of the damage she had done when she tugged it from the case the first time. The priceless artefact was where it was meant to be, and it deserved to be cherished every day even if she forbid herself from caressing it.
After tea they ambled through the gardens, appreciating the roses and hedge sculptures in the afternoon light.
Lara and Sam walked side by side.
Hannah scampered ahead, ever the boisterous puppy until her batteries ran suddenly dead.
Sam called after her daughter, "Sweetheart, don't run off too far, alright?"
Snark glinted beneath the obedience in her voice.
Lara smirked at her former flatmate, "She seems to be becoming quite the handful?"
"You have no idea." Sam scowled, "I think it's karma for the hard time I gave my parents. I bet the next one is going to be even worse."
They laughed together.
The back of Sam's hand brushed against Lara's, and the archaeologist's skin prickled.
She was aware that she lived as Midas now. Fabulously wealthy. Admired. Lusted after. But she could never really touch anyone.
As a result, she was painfully aware from that point of her desire to take Sam's fingers in hers, and continue their stroll physically united.
She tried to distract herself from the longing with other thoughts. Thoughts about how grateful she should be.
Simply to have Sam in her life, for one thing. They had even worked together on a few projects, fulfilling the vows of their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student days.
There were other things to be thankful for too.
At times her life felt like a constant performance. Icy sneers or fiery snarls were expected of her; and they admittedly produced results. But she was no actress, and sustaining such a formidable persona was exhausting.
Here though, as on isolated expeditions, she could cast off the costume.
Intimidating Lara Croft could lounge around in panda slippers and eat Nutella straight out of the bottle for breakfast, and no one was the wiser.
Croft Manor was her haven. And tranquil moments like this elevated it to Nirvana.
Though most days she still doubted that she deserved even the most fleeting moments of contentment.
She was a killer after all. She still was. She had retained a volcanic temper, and she routinely took the lives of the men, beasts and monsters that tried to stop her achieving her objectives. She had also seen the Hell awaiting her. She wasn't sure that she wouldn't end up there again after the next curtain drop, so life's pleasures were to be enjoyed as much as the marvellous truths of this world were to be uncovered.
Sam broke Lara's contemplative silence. "So where to next for the great Tomb Raider?"
"Have you ever heard of Themiscyra?"
"Didn't Jennifer Lawrence star in a movie set there?"
Lara pulled a face.
Sam laughed, "Sorry, I forgot to renew my subscription to Dust and Dirt Monthly. Care to fill me in?"
"It's a long lost island…"
It was Sam's turn to pull a face. "Christ, again? You haven't had enough of those?"
"It's a long lost island of women..."
Sam chuckled, "Oh, I can see why you'd want to go there then."
The cheeky comment needled Lara. "I still bonk guys, you know."
"On occasion. But you love the ladies, Lara Croft; when you're not crawling through the bowels of some long-forgotten temple that is."
"Yes, well, that is my one true love… Ruins rarely disappoint."
"I guess that would be one of the biggest problems for you. Never finding anyone who could keep up with you."
Lara suddenly felt very tired. "There have been a few who could. But it never worked it for one reason or other."
Mostly because my heart wasn't in it. Or their heart was elsewhere.
Sam stopped. She turned to face her companion. "Lara, it's alright to admit you feel lonely, you know? You can tell me if you are."
"I'm not lonely, Sam."
No more than usual. Loneliness had been her most frequent companion since childhood.
"I was sorry to hear about Winston."
It took a moment for Lara to find her emotional equilibrium after that. It had been four months, but her eyes still started to sting whenever she thought of the old man. She tried to rationalise it as she always did; addressing her feet in the process. Her words were stuttered to begin with, before the needle found its groove.
"In a way it was a relief. He was very senile towards the end. He kept insisting I was my mother, and asking where little lady Lara was. But I just didn't have the heart to retire him. I found him face down in the walk-in freezer. He died serving the Crofts; I think he would have wanted to go out like that."
She had cradled his body for half an hour before dialling 999.
"Hillary is more than competent but I miss the doddery old fart. He was family. As much as you are."
"Oh, sweetie." Sam seized her companion in a hug.
Lara squeezed back.
Winston's death hadn't been a surprise, but the intensity of the remorse she felt was. She had vowed to never let the emotion grapple her again, but regret sprang out and smothered her even as she still held him.
For her entire life, Winston had been there; caring for her. After Roth, he was the closest thing she had to a father. And she had mistreated him more often than not. Dismissing him, teasing him, taking full advantage of the master-servant relationship. She recalled times where she dumped duffel bags stuffed with filthy expedition clothes in his arms before she traipsed off to the library. Never once did she tell him what he meant to her. She had taken him for granted in the worst possible way.
The fact she was the only one at his funeral didn't make up for that.
And with Winston gone, Lara had to acknowledge that she'd lost the last link to her parents. The butler had been a living repository of stories about their relationship, and her father's youth – an endless stream of tales about what Richard Croft was like at his daughter's age.
Sam was truly the only person Lara had left – from that time in her life before…
The archaeologist released the hug and just looked at her companion.
Sam's perceptiveness pierced straight through the stare to its source.
The filmmaker said sadly, "You know, I realised the other day it's been thirteen years since Yamatai. Can you believe that?"
Lara remembered a pair of grinning girls, giddy with excitement as the SS Endurance finally passed out of the harbour and into open water.
"So much has changed since then," the Englishwoman murmured.
"I owe you everything, Lara."
The archaeologist winced, "Sam, so much was my fault."
"No." Lara's hand was seized and pressed to Sam's warm belly. The American woman frowned, "No more blame. I thought we were over that? If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have lived to meet Steven. I wouldn't have lived to have my children. None of it would have happened if it wasn't for your sacrifices."
Pay the price…
Sam continued, "And if it wasn't simply for your belief in me, I doubt I would have my career. I would have listened to everyone who said I was kidding myself, and quit then and there. Everything that I am and have now is testament to your goodness, regardless of what you stupidly insist in thinking about yourself."
Lara gazed down at their entwined fingers, with Sam's wedding band on top.
For a moment she let herself imagine that she had put the ring there and that this blissful scene was her everyday – a fantasy a few degrees offset from reality.
Just as lies were more convincing when they branched off from truth, imaginings were more powerful when the possibility had a real world counterpart.
Lara shook her head to clear it of tantalising possibility.
"You may not remember it, Sam, but you saved me too. You gave me a second chance when I thought I would die as I lived. In darkness."
It was a morbid admission but it prompted a soft smile from her companion.
"I don't think I have ever said it before, but I love you, Lara. I don't think you realise how much."
"Oh, I think I do."
The archaeologist leaned in.
And pressed her lips to Sam's forehead.
In a nifty little ballroom twirl, the filmmaker rolled into her friend. The move ended with her slotted under Lara's arm, and her own arms closed around the Englishwoman's waist.
Lara had to chuckle. Motherhood certainly hadn't sapped Sam of her playful spontaneity.
Together, linked, they looked off in the direction of the setting sun as they had done years previously.
Lara felt Sam relax entirely against her. She was practically purring.
Just then, the archaeologist felt exactly the same.
Just a few moments more… Please.
"We always made one helluva team, Croft."
"We still do, Nishimura. And we always will."
Author's note: That's all, folks! The end.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for sticking with this story during the past (gosh!) 18 months. I appreciate it more than I can ever express in words.
There is much mockery and discrediting of fan fiction, but as far as I am concerned, Easier to Run will always count as the first novel that I have ever written. And I am exceptionally proud of it.
I know the story may not have concluded the way many of you wanted, but I will always prioritise endings that are right above endings that are happy. And I stand by my belief that the bittersweet (not gloomy) ending here is right – true to the character and the canon universe, past and present. That ultimately is the most important thing.
For the record it's highly unlikely I will write another Tomb Raider epic. However, you can still expect shorter stories (largely fluffy misadventures set during Sam and Lara's college days) as well as the occasional Tomb Raider crossover when inspiration and free time align. Otherwise I will be moving on to my own original fiction – some of it very much in the Tomb Raider vein. I hope you will join me on that adventure.
Either way, thank you again. Keep on reading and raiding.
I leave you with some music fitting for an Easier to Run soundtrack:
Easier to Run – Linkin Park
Jar of Hearts – Christina Perri
Mercy – Hurts
Dark Horse – Katy Perry
Scars – Miley Cyrus
Love Me Again – John Newman
Seven Devils – Florence + The Machine
Bye Die – Pain
Still Here – Digital Daggers
Titanium – David Guetta (featuring Sia)
Transcendence – Lindsey Stirling
Storms – Fleetwood Mac
Alone – Heart
Stardust – Delain
Runnin – Adam Lambert
Beautiful – Meshell Ndegeocello
Take Me to Church – Hozier
You are the Everything – REM
Stay – Miley Cyrus
Shatter Me – Lindsey Stirling
Warrior – Disturbed
MINE (End This Way) – Five Finger Death Punch
Lovers on the Sun – David Guetta (featuring Sam Martin)
Erase Me – Kid Cudi
Kill and Run – Sia
Just so – Agnes Obel
Speed the Collapse – Metric
Tonight and the Rest of My Life – Nina Gordon
Hurts – Christina Aguilera
Sway – The Kooks
How to Save a Life – The Fray
All You Wanted – Sounds Under Radio
A Song to Come Home to – Jinkx Monsoon
I Adore U – Adore Delano
The Animal – Disturbed
Dangerous – In Hindsight
Just Another Girl – The Killers
Losing Your Memory – Ryan Star