A caged lioness. That's what Lara reminded Sam of now. Every time she looked at her best friend, the American thought of the big cat she'd seen in a German zoo during her globe-trotting childhood. It wouldn't lie still. It was pure feral energy, striding back and forth in its enclosure, muscles rippling beneath its pelt. Lara was the same. Lithe grace and power in human form, always moving, always intensely focused on some task or thing. Almost permanently scowling.
Sam had always wondered which of her parents Lara inherited her effortless physicality from. Four years of knowing Lara, and Sam still wasn't sure. There were no photos for her to consult. The young archaeologist hardly spoke about her vanished mother and father. She avoided talking about them; evidently running from their memory like she ran from what had happened on Yamatai.
In the one and a half months since the shipwreck – well, at least since she was released from hospital – Lara had been seized by a frantic, feverish vigour. They had travelled from Osaka to the UK, where Lara had spent a single day at her family's estate, ransacking her father's study. From there they headed to New York. This put Lara closer to her next intended stop – Roanoke Island.
Although the city was a good base for Lara to work from while she planned her next expedition, there was a second, more distasteful reason for the archaeologist to be there: an exclusive television interview.
After dodging the press for as long as possible, Lara had finally bowed to Sam's insistence that she sit down on camera for the highest bidder. Swallowing her frustration, Lara had admitted to seeing Sam's reason: she could use the money, and her discussion of what happened on the island would hopefully quell the paparazzi frenzy. But the Englishwoman wasn't happy about it. Just as she wasn't happy to be in New York.
That she was struggling with surges of Post Traumatic Stress, Sam could see clearly. The City That Never Sleeps put Lara on edge. The noise. The traffic. The crowds. But the apartment they were staying in – owned by Sam's media conglomerate father – was largely soundproof and high enough in the block to distance them from the worst of the chaos.
It was a safe haven that Lara struggled to leave. Often Sam would find her standing stiff before the floor-to-ceiling windows of the living room. Rarely blinking, she would just stare at the urban landscape. She was a cornered predator, radiating animosity towards an unfamiliar environment where it was difficult to identify and track every threat.
When Lara wasn't brooding over maps and her father's journals, she was running down in the park, or ripping open her stitches at kickboxing and jiu-jitsu classes – against doctor's orders of course. She hardly ate. She often didn't sleep. A week ago Sam had stirred in the middle of the night to find a silhouette leaning against the doorway to her room.
"Lara? Is that you?" she croaked at the darkness.
Eventually the figure stepped back into the passageway. But at least it spoke. With the smooth, soothing accent she knew so well. "Go back to sleep, Sam."
The next morning Sam was half-sure she had imagined the whole thing. That was until a few nights later when she rolled over and found Lara lying on the floor next to her bed. The young Englishwoman was curled up in foetal position, eyes closed and breathing heavily. Sam watched her friend for a while, desperate to reach out and touch her, but also terrified Lara would lash out in one of her newly acquired nightmare rages. Torn between her options, Sam had eventually dozed off again. And when she woke hours later, Lara was gone. It really was like living with an injured lioness. Or, more accurately, a monstrous, highly unpredictable house cat.
Still, Sam silently excused Lara's skittish behaviour. She didn't want to leave her friend's side for one moment. If she did, well, Lara would wander off and never return. "I'm not going home." Those words had terrified Sam – and that was something she knew she'd have to tackle with her therapist. Along, of course, with the persistent flashes of a decaying Japanese queen who glared eyelessly.
Sam kept thinking that if Lara hadn't finally succumbed to her wounds that first evening on the rescue ship, her words would have come true: Sam would've been on the first plane back to the States with a jubilant Reyes. Lara, meanwhile, would have stayed behind and backpacked off alone to God knows where, looking for the "answers" she'd become obsessed with.
Now Sam was terrified she was suffocating Lara. She didn't want to let go but she could sense how painfully tight her grip must feel. Leaving crescent nail marks on her friend's flesh. Lara hadn't asked Sam to accompany her; the American girl had just inserted herself into every plan Lara made. Often that meant slapping down Lara's mutterings that Sam didn't have to be there, and she certainly didn't need to be funding their movements. Fortunately Lara was always muted by the argument that she had saved Sam's life and there was nothing the Nishimuras could do to ever fully repay her for that.
Still, Sam wasn't sure how her continued presence sat with her stone-faced friend. On the one hand Lara seemed to enjoy having someone around to help pull her out of her head. On the other hand, more and more these days she seemed to prefer being on her own. She'd become emotionally distant. It started on the rescue ship. While Sam and Jonah and Reyes had jubilantly discussed everything from their families to favourite foods back home, Lara sat alone off to the side, watching the horizon and frowning at her notebook.
There were flashes of the old Lara – her shyness when Sam helped her dress for example – but she'd become a lot more temperamental. She kept her feelings bottled up. She'd even snapped at Sam. Followed immediately by a flame-cheeked apology, but still… The change was worrying.
Every time Sam looked at Lara, she was stung as to how much Yamatai had transformed her. Mentally and physically. Lara had always been pretty but now she was striking. Her freshly acquired scratches and scars gave her beauty an edge that hadn't been there before. No longer the soft-faced English Rose; if anything the thorns now defined her more than the petals. She'd become an apex predator – stunning but deadly. The way she stood, the way she moved; she radiated a kind of powerful self-reliance and confidence that was magnetic.
Even now Sam stood frozen in the entrance to the living room, watching Lara arched in the middle of a sun salutation. Barefoot, dressed simply in sweatpants and a white V-neck T-shirt, she was breathtaking. Breathtaking and badass.
Sam was relieved to discover that it wasn't just her who noticed. Other people reacted differently around Lara too. Which, naturally, Lara loathed.
It didn't help that in the aftermath of their island "adventure," Lara had come under the media spotlight. Although his star had faded, people still wanted to hear all about the death of celebrity adventurer James Whitman. That it was a gorgeous 21 year old brunette who staggered away from the bloody ordeal, and was credited with making the archaeological find of the century, made the story even tastier. Lara had clung so desperately to her privacy since the incident that it had been easy for the gossip machine to run her over and churn the truth into any shape they wanted.
Lara had learned to ignore the lies. She could soldier on silently. But it didn't mean the comments didn't hurt. Sam could see that no matter how hardened she had become, Lara was still vulnerable to new wounds; sometimes inflicting them on herself. For one thing, she spent far too much time reading what was being said about her online.
Chasing fairy tales just like her parents. A pretty little fool destroying her reputation right from the outset…
Richard Croft threw it all away and now his daughter is heading the same direction. Mark my words, she'll reveal herself to be a talentless attention whore, coasting on her looks – flipping her ponytail and getting her tits out more often than not...
Yeah, I'd raid her tomb any day!
Over a year before Yamatai, while they were backpacking through Eastern Europe, Lara had confessed her concerns to Sam about being compared to her parents. She rarely spoke about Richard and Amelia Croft but that evening – no, early morning – back at the hostel she was bleary-eyed and vodka-nostalgia. Even then Lara had accepted the inevitability of the comparisons… but it was never supposed to happen so soon. Right at the start of her career.
And right when she was already struggling to readjust her world view.
All those years Lara had spent embarrassed by her parents; resentful of their disappearance while off chasing myths and legends. Now it turned out they were right. She knew that now. Sam too. I guess that's what getting up close and personal with an undead sorcerer queen will do to you.
All along there had been truth there in the stories, and Sam could see that Lara was angry at herself; ashamed of her disbelief. Lara was suddenly defensive of her parents' memory but still wary of appearing in public as a laughing stock, discrediting herself professionally with rants about spirits and monsters.
This internal struggle set Lara scowling more often than not. And sadly, Sam's efforts at lightening the mood weren't nearly as effective as they'd once been.
A voice called her back to the present.
"This is a pleasant surprise, Sam."
Lara had turned her head and was looking up at her from downward-facing dog.
"You not filming me for a change."
Sam shrugged in return, happy to play along with Lara's playful mood – all too rare these days.
"I thought I'd give you a break today."
"It's appreciated." Lara smiled gently.
Her disposition was in stark contrast to that weeks previously when Sam had convinced her to do the interview. Lara was lying in her hospital bed in Osaka. Health had finally trickled back into her limbs and she was alert, fever-free and anxious to be unhooked from her drip and various monitors. When Sam slipped into the private room she found Lara sitting upright with several Japanese and English language newspapers splayed out across the bed. All were open on stories about her and Yamatai.
Lara was looking out the window when Sam entered. Without turning, she held up her arm to shield herself from her friend's video camera.
"You better get used to having these in your face, sweetie."
Lara stared directly in the lens then, clearly exasperated. She didn't have to say anything.
"Lara, you're a 100% real Indiana Jones. You're going to make archaeology sexy. Dusty old books and hiking boots will be the height of fashion. You watch. Kim Kardashian will be seen out and about in cargo pants tomorrow."
Lara muttered under her breath, "I don't want any of that."
Sam had advanced into the room while filming. She was close enough to the bed now that she could reach into the shot and brush one of Lara's bangs away from her face.
"Well, that's your angle whether you like it or not, sweetie. You really thought you'd have a nice quiet life in academics looking the way you do?"
Lara pulled a face.
"Sorry, but you're taking archaeology mainstream, Lara Croft. And I'm going to be around to document it."
There it was; a serious sense of humour failure. Lara scowled at her.
Sam tried to redirect the discussion. She lowered her camera and closed her free hand over Lara's clenched fist on the bedspread. "Seriously, I still think you should agree to an interview, sweetie. If you're not going to access your inheritance you need funding somehow. Especially if won't accept rich benefactors like that Natla woman who keeps calling."
Lara dropped her gaze to her lap. Her temper had waned, but in many ways its replacement, the obvious muted melancholy, was worse. She and Sam had had this argument twice already and it normally ended when Lara shifted into this shielded mode.
Sam whispered, "How else are you going to get funding for your next expedition? Kickstarter? Pledge $20 and get a plastic replica of your necklace."
The muscles in Lara's hand twitched.
Sam continued, "Pledge $10 000 and receive a date with Thee Lara Croft."
A monotone "Alright."
"Alright, fine? You're right. I'll do it." It was a sulky admission but Sam would take anything at that point.
"Thank God. Finally!"
The corner of Lara's lip curled. Her eyes returned to Sam's. "You should know by now you can talk me into anything, Nishimura."
"Likewise, Croft. Sam you have to come with us on the search for the lost island of Yamatai. It's going to be an amazing adventure."
Sam realised immediately that her banter had bounded over the line. Lara's soft smile faltered and sank. Yamatai was nothing to joke about. Lara was pummelled by the responsibility she felt for everything that had happened since Roth insisted on following her course into the Dragon's Triangle. Grimm. Roth. Alex. The rest of the crew. Even Whitman. Instantly Lara's shoulders hunched, and Sam detected a tremor beneath her fingers. Lara was struggling to keep her head above the emotional deluge. And for the first time it struck the American girl that the accomplice of her wild child college days was gone forever.
They were in their second year of university, living in a third floor flat that was just a five-minute walk to campus. Sam had shocked her parents by sticking through her freshman year; proving that for the first time in her life she was actually committed to something academically. Her parents had bought the cosy two-bedroom apartment for her as a reward.
Naturally, Lara was her roommate; an arrangement that Sam's parents were delighted about. They loved Lara – polite, self-disciplined, of the landed British gentry. They were exceptionally happy that such a straight-laced, responsible young woman was keeping an eye on their daughter. Being a good influence… or so they thought.
Sam's biggest priority, meanwhile, was taking some of the financial strain off Lara, who for some bull-headed reason refused to accept her substantial inheritance. Instead, she supplemented her small academic bursary with work as a tutor, a barmaid and a research assistant. All too often in First Year, Sam had found Lara in her dorm room, out cold on a nest of books and notes. She had been too exhausted to party, and Sam couldn't have that.
Still, after a particularly frantic term, even Lara was keen to let her hair down. She had happily agreed to go out with Sam in celebration of the impending Easter long weekend. Uncharacteristically, she hadn't complained once when Sam lined up a "snowboard" for them to share – a row of shooters sampling every alcohol they had in the flat.
Having downed five shots each, nicely buzzed, they staggered out into the street.
After gorging on shawarmas, they ended up at one of the pubs popular with the student crowd. Sam was busy playing the Exotic Asian American card, trying to explain the game of beer pong while she flung darts with three guys from the varsity swimming team. At some point in the evening she realised Lara was no longer standing at her elbow.
Sam scanned the pub. Eventually she spotted Lara through the crowd, leaning on the bar counter, talking to Dan Perkins.
Dan was in Sam's filmmaking class. He was working towards a career in wildlife documentary-making, and most weekends trekked off into the middle of nowhere with the campus hiking club. He was tall and rangy, and Sam had wanted to jump his bones for a while. However he had eyes only for Lara, and Sam was forced to admit that Miss Mountaineer made a much better match for him. Lara of course had kept her skittish distance for months, recognising Dan's interest but not wanting to lead him on. Tonight though, her guard was down. And she seemed to be very, very receptive to his attentions. She was nodding and laughing at everything he said, while, in typical endearing Lara-fashion, struggling to meet his gaze.
Five minutes later, when Sam looked back, Lara and Dan were making out against the wall. When she looked a third time, Lara was really into Dan, riding his thigh as she slid her hands up the back of his shirt. After that, they had vanished. Sam felt a prickle of worry for her friend, but then she thought about Roth and all the SAS training he'd given his ward, and she felt considerably better. Sam was sure Lara could look after herself. Even if she was completely smashed.
Sam chuckled to herself. It probably shouldn't have surprised her to see her best friend like that. Lara's energy seemed endless at times. It made sense that when she had appetites they were voracious. And just as she applied her signature focus to every interest or activity she tackled, she would satisfy her sexual desires with the same all-consuming intensity. Sam could imagine she would be incredible in bed. Long lean limbs, insane stamina, hardening from soft to steel as she took charge.
Rather amused that she was contemplating her best friend's sexual prowess, Sam slid into the lap of one of the swimmers, and immediately began complimenting him on his strong shoulders...
The next morning, Sam was lying on the couch watching Fashion TV when the familiar jangle of keys outside told her Lara was back. Her friend slipped into the apartment, closing the door silently like she usually did on a Sunday morning when she didn't want to disturb a partied-out, still sleeping Sam, but was ready to start her usual routine – an hour-long jog, followed by a visit to the corner shop for some muffins and the weekend paper.
After locking the door, Lara turned. She startled at the unusual sight of Sam wide awake and leering at her at the ungodly hour of…. 8:30am. The two women looked at each other, sharing pretty much the exact same thought. Busted, Lara Croft! You're not getting away so easily. I've waited a long time to tease you about this.
Lara leaned back against the door with a resigned sigh. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. That was her surrender.
Sam cleared her throat and smirked, "Why, Miss Croft, I don't think I've ever seen you like this before?"
"Like what?" Lara responded with a coy smile.
"Sam, Jesus!" Lara's cheeks instantly coloured. A second later though, the self-satisfied grin was back.
"Oh, don't be so shocked, sweetie. Even if your shirt wasn't on backwards and you didn't have A-grade sex hair, there's the two hickeys on your neck."
"What? Shit!" Lara dashed to the bathroom. Sam knew she'd be fingering the bruises while she examined herself in the mirror. There it was again. "Shit!"
She returned from the bathroom, rubbing her throat. "I'm working tonight." Still frowning, she plonked herself down on the seat next to Sam. Her friend moved aside her legs to make more space.
Sam could understand Lara's irritation with herself. It was an unusually warm April. Scarves and high collars were out. There was nothing she could do to inconspicuously cover the marks. Although it wouldn't be malice-driven, Lara would be ragged mercilessly by the regulars at the Nine Bells. It had taken her a long time to earn respect from the pub locals, who had initially dismissed her as just another pretty, ponytailed barmaid who looked good in a tank top. Their opinion had changed however when the same unassuming barmaid defused three football-related fights in quick succession. Thanks to Roth's teachings of course.
"Well, sweetie," Sam slapped her palm down on Lara's knee, "At least the tips tonight should be good."
That finally made her friend smile again.
Sam cocked her head, "Soooo, what was it like?"
"What do you think?"
Realisation hit the history nerd. Lara's eyes widened as her mouth formed a perfect circle. "Oh." Her cheeks flushed.
"Come on Lara, I always tell you."
"Yes, and I never asked for that, thank you. You really think I need to catch Tom Hewitt's eye in class and know he has a birthmark shaped like a star on his left testicle?"
"Shut up, bitch, you know love it. Your life would be so boring without me."
When Lara remained tight-lipped, the American girl triggered her signature pout-and-whine combo. "Pleeaaasssseeee?"
As usual it took less than ten seconds for the corner of Lara's mouth to twitch into the special soft smile she reserved only for Sam.
"Come on, sweetie, tell me."
Lara dropped her gaze.
"It was nice." She chuckled as she looked down at the calloused fingers and palms she was always so self-conscious about. "Really, really nice."
She swung her face back to Sam, flashing a big dumb grin.
"Post-coital suits you, Lara."
"I do feel good. It's been a very long time." She stretched out her legs and tousled her hair.
"God, you make it sound like you're thirty."
Lara batted Sam with a cushion. Then she leapt to her feet. "I need a hair of the dog. What can I get you?"
"Lara, it's what? Nine in the morning?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I just… Just let me enjoy this for a little longer, okay?"
"Lara Croft, have I finally brought you over to the dark side? And all it took was a couple of Jager Bombs and some consequence-free fucking."
"Ah, you like it, sweetie. Deep down you're a bad girl. It's a good thing you spend so much time in the library hunched over dusty old books and maps. Otherwise you would've had your wicked way with every man on campus by now."
Lara arched an eyebrow. "Just the men?"
Sam had burst out laughing at that. Sexually charged playfulness was so uncharacteristic of her bookish friend. "Oooh, Lara, you are a bad girl! You've been holding out on me for way too long."
Lara let her bottom lip slip into a seductive pout. She managed to sustain it for all of three seconds before she started giggling herself.
Sam watched her stumble into the kitchenette – Lara, practically glowing, partially hung-over, 100% goofy as she pottered around behind the counter. She was humming as she decided which alcohol would work best in her tea. She popped a jaffa cake between her teeth. With it jutting out from between her lips, she looked up and moaned suggestively, making Sam laugh again. Her hazel eyes met Sam's and they were so happy.
This carefree girl was gone forever, Sam was certain now. She'd fallen on Yamatai. Terrified and alone, she'd been beaten, cut, pierced and crushed. She'd died a hundred deaths, shattered into a thousand pieces that now had to be plucked one at a time from Lara's scarred flesh like shrapnel if that sweet girl was ever to be reassembled.
That was all Sam wanted – her old friend back. And she was damn well going to try put Lara together again, even if her own hands were sliced up by shards in the process.