"Drink with me, bitch!"
From downward-facing dog, Lara straightened. So did her smile. "What are you talking about?"
"Tonight. Let's go out."
The Englishwoman's stony face cracked and collapsed into a frown. "Sam, I –"
Sam bounded forward and seized her friend by the biceps. This was the best idea she'd had and she was damn well going to make it work.
"Let's go out. This is your last chance for a meaningless shag before everyone knows your face."
Quickly Sam shifted gear. "Sweetie, your television interview airs tomorrow night. After that you won't be able to go out with me for girls' nights anymore. Guys will be trying to get into your cargo pants left, right and centre."
Lara had cocked her head and was looking at Sam's grip on her arms. Since Yamatai she shrugged away from any physical affection. All she permitted was hand holding. Sam was aware of it and Lara knew that… yet here they stood. The young archaeologist's eyes narrowed as she tried to pierce through Sam's screen of suspicious over-enthusiasm.
Sam intensified her grin. "You remember fun, don't you Lara?"
"I think so. Vaguely. Something to do with holding your hair back while you puke and then trying to carry your whiny arse to bed."
Sam couldn't argue with that. Lara had been her sober – and less than sober –wingman throughout college. When her friend hadn't been there, things had been disastrous more often that not. Sam remembered all the desperate phone calls.
Lara, uh, I can't find my purse…
Lara, I'm stuck in the ladies'; there's this freaky guy outside waiting for me and I don't know what to do…
Lara, hey, I think I've just been mugged…
Lara, ha, this is kind of funny but I don't know where I am….
No matter the time, a bleary-eyed Lara had always come to rescue her. Sam even remembered the night Lara arrived in her old flannel pyjamas, her long hair uncharacteristically down. Sam had flung herself into her friend's arms, yelling "Goose! Goose, I feel the need, the need for speed!" A horrified Lara had tried to gag Sam with her hand while half-dragging her out the pub to a waiting taxi.
All their ridiculous shared misadventures and misbehaviour; Sam jubilant and Lara red-faced but laughing.
Sam slid her hands down to Lara's palms and entwined their fingers. "Please, Lara?" she murmured. "It'll be just like old times. I need – I think we both need it."
Lara replied with a smile. It was a hesitant twitch to her lips, but a smile nonetheless. "Okay."
Sam hugged her. "My hero."
Lara responded with a sceptical chuckle, and hugged her back. Progress.
After dinner, where Sam had to endure the sight of Lara listlessly pushing chicken stir-fry around her plate, the two women retreated to their personal spaces to prepare for the night out.
As usual, Lara was ready first. She wandered into Sam's bedroom, where her friend was scurrying about in nothing but a bath towel, poking at designer wear of varying degrees of skimpiness draped across the exposed mattress. Sam caught sight of Lara in the dressing table mirror.
The Englishwoman wore jeans, her scuffed boots and a short-sleeved olive shirt unbuttoned over a black tank top. Her hair was up in a ponytail, with her bangs falling over her make-up free cheeks as usual. It was a look that Sam had come to dismissively refer to as "Adventure Chic". And tonight she was not going to let Lara get away with it.
"You're not going out like that, Croft."
Lara threw up her arms in frustration. "Like what?"
Sam turned and eyed her up and down. "Like a women's MMA fighter. A butch women'sMMA fighter."
"Butch MMA fighter…" Lara repeated the words slowly, incredulously. But she couldn't hide a smirk.
"A featherweight of course. Point is I can see your cuts and bruises and there's no way we're going to pick up cute guys with you looking like that."
Lara sighed, "Sam, this is the only thing that's comfortable. It's not exactly easy for me to get dolled up at the moment."
"Oh." Sam had completely forgotten about that. The amount of pain Lara was in. It was easy for it to slip her mind when her friend was always so restless. And it was something she didn't like thinking about as much as Lara didn't want to discuss it. Time to deflect the subject.
"Right, I guess it's up to me then..."
Lara's eyes widened as Sam approached her. There were those finely tuned survival instincts. She sensed what was coming.
Sam seized Lara's shirt by the collar and tugged it back off her friend's shoulders.
"Sam, wait, that hurts. Fuck!"
"Really, Croft? You work out like a maniac but when I want you to come out suddenly it hurts. I'm calling Bullshit."
Lara snorted her disagreement but otherwise remained silent.
With a prod to Lara's back, Sam directed her friend across the room. The Englishwoman allowed herself to be deposited on the edge of the bed. Sam was pleased to note an amused sparkle in Lara's eyes as she looked up at her.
The archeologist's gaze dropped from Sam's face to the cleavage peeking from the top of her towel. She arched an eyebrow, "Are you going to have your way with me, Miss Nishimura?"
Two could play that game.
"Yes…" Sam bent over suggestively, giving Lara more of a view. "In a manner of speaking."
There were few people who could out-bluff and out-flirt Sam. Lara especially. She didn't have the nerve for it. Her built-in British reserve was set to activate automatically in sexually charged situations. Even now her cheeks were flushing as she tried to latch her eyes onto anything but her friend's chest.
Sam's hand settled on the fabric she was groping for on the carpet. She arched upright, throwing a shirt in Lara's face.
"Put that on."
The pseudo-tension shattered, Lara actually managed a laugh. Sam grinned back. Playful, snarky Lara Croft was always more fun than her withdrawn, post-Yamatai twin.
Given her friend's struggle with dressing at the moment, Sam knew she wouldn't be able to completely overhaul Lara's appearance. She'd have to settle for a few choice upgrades. The shirt was a good start. Black sheen, fitted; actually quite sexy with the strappy top underneath.
It was a huge advantage that Sam and Lara were basically the same size. The American girl was just slightly taller and thinner, lacking Lara's lean outdoorsy muscle.
Not that wardrobe swapping happened often though. In Sam's mind, it was a good thing Lara was so effortlessly gorgeous because she had next to no dress sense. Practical over pretty; that was Lara's style mantra – which meant Sam would only ever venture into her bestie's drawers if they were going camping or attending a muddy music festival. Or, in absolute emergencies, when Sam had managed to wear her cupboard bare without doing a single load of washing. Lara used to lord it over her when that happened, before helping her trek an Everest of dirty clothing to the corner laundromat.
Sam accessorised Lara's jeans with a chunky belt, and helped her shrug into a tan leather jacket to cover the blemishes still speckling her arms. Then she moved onto her friend's make-up.
Sam suspected that deep down Lara actually enjoyed this kind of pampering, despite the distrust in her eyes as Sam drew near with a mascara wand. Not that she needed anything more, but still. Little Miss Five Minute Skincare had obviously missed out on a lot of the girlie stuff that had saturated Sam's existence since birth.
It made sense though. Before all her years in boarding school, before her parents vanished, Lara had been too busy trailing after Lord and Lady Croft – and Roth of course – in the dirt and dust. And judging by the hideous inherited cardigan Lara liked to wear at home, her mother hadn't been much of a fashion mentor either.
Once Sam had achieved the smoky eye effect she wanted, she applied some gloss to Lara's lips. The Englishwoman had the most amazing full mouth. Pity it was drooped in a sullen pout at that moment.
Sam stepped back to admire her handwork.
Lara muttered, "Are we done?"
"Yup. Much better. Even I would totally do you now."
"If I got desperate enough."
Of course, Lara had to wait another full hour before Sam was ready to leave. The brunette lay stretched out on Sam's bed skimming Native American Legends on her friend's iPad. And less than subtly consulting her watch. Just like old times.
Eventually the taxi dropped them off outside a bar several blocks from the Nishimuras' apartment. It was a trendy but unpretentious venue, serving cocktails and craft beers to the under-35 crowd. The idea was that Sam could get the Cosmopolitan she'd been craving, Lara could find an import ale from home, and both young women would leave with an ego-boosting, bed-warming distraction for the evening.
That was the plan at least, although the reality was already veering off course.
Sam opened the door. She didn't need to turn to know that Lara had immediately stiffened behind her. After the quiet of the apartment, the bar was a slap to the senses. Voices straining over the music from a small corner dance floor. Dozens of faceless bodies lumbering around the dark space. The general chill, and tang on the tongue, of the too-cold air-conditioning.
Even Sam, who at least was in therapy, found in overwhelming. To Lara, who had stubbornly refused all counselling and wouldn't even talk about what she went through alone on the island, it must have been an urban Hell – another Yamatai seething with dangers that could spring from anywhere.
If it was just Sam and Lara, like back at the apartment, they would have been fine. But this was an intrusion of the world, in the worst, most uncontrollable way. It set Lara on wide-eyed edge. The lioness forced bare-toothed back into a corner.
"Oh, Lara," Sam whispered, "This was a bad idea."
"No. I – " The anxiety on the Englishwoman's face was obvious, but she strained a smile. "I have to be able to handle this, Sam."
"Are you sure?"
"I have to."
Great, a fun evening together turned into a coping exercise. Sam should have expected it, just as she should have expected Lara's response. It was all part of her stubborn self-reliant streak, which had only become more prominent over the past two months. Lara insisted there was nothing wrong that she couldn't shoulder through on her own.
Seizing Lara's hand before she pulled that away too, Sam led her friend across the bar. She felt awful though, like a parent leaving a terrified toddler at daycare for the first time. She needed to blunt Lara's apprehension with some booze as quickly as possible.
Naturally, it was 22 year old Sam and not 21 year old Lara who was carded – the silly girl next to the self-assured woman. Eventually though they had their tray of eight caramel vodka shots and two Cosmos, and claimed a newly vacated table against the wall.
The graduates' attempts at small talk were stilted. Between deep coping breaths, Lara gave Sam nothing but monosyllabic responses to her banter and their evening quickly devolved into drinks-inhaling and people-watching. Despite a craving for the physical release it promised, there was no way Sam was going to lure Lara into the writhing mass of limbs that was the dance floor. But the American couldn't leave her traumatised friend sitting alone either.
After being ignored by a waitress for the third time, Lara got to her feet and elbowed her way to the bar. She was tired of the super-sweet, practically neon cocktails that Sam kept ordering, and craved something a bit heartier.
While she was gone, Sam rested her chin on her interlaced fingers, and watched the movement on the dance floor wistfully.
Sam spun around and found herself facing a woman's bare midriff, the navel pierced, and accented all-round by delicate braided tribal tattoos.
She looked up at a striking blonde, in her early thirties, maybe. The woman smiled coyly, "Sorry, I just had to ask before I made a fool of myself. Are you two a couple?" She nodded in Lara's direction. Of course she wouldn't be asking if Sam was available.
"What? No!" Sam barked. The laugh came out more harshly than she meant, but then she blamed the shooters.
The woman was devouring Lara as the archaeologist leaned on the bar; effortlessly sexy as usual with an inch of toned stomach exposed.
"No, we're not a couple," Sam found herself repeating as the blonde purred her appreciation. "But Lara…" Sam couldn't resist. Hell, her friend completely looked the part. "…Lara's a total stud."
"Really?" The blonde's gaze shot to Sam's face and then back to her object of attraction.
"Lara?" The woman teased the name with her tongue. "God, she's hot. Do you think I have a chance?"
Sam shrugged and sipped her drink to stifle a giggle. To be honest, she didn't actually know. She had only ever seen Lara with guys – a grand total of three – and even then Sam suspected her friend hooked up with them chiefly to stop Sam ragging her about being a raging asexual, or mother-superior-in-training.
The reality was that Lara was left tongue-tied by male and female nudity alike. Four years of knowing her and Lara still averted her eyes whenever Sam strolled topless through the lounge. She was hopelessly shy when it came to all matters sex-related. There was even that one choice incident during their first year at university together.
Lara was taking a Classical Civilisation course and was at her desk, hunched over a book on Ancient Minoan art. With her back to the door, it was easy for Sam to ninja inside. She strained over Lara's shoulder, catching sight of the image her friend was examining – a bronze female figurine holding writhing snakes; her exposed breasts ballooning over the top of an underbust corset.
Sam took great delight in announcing as loudly as possible, "Wanking to topless statues again, Lara Croft? I'm sure we can find you better lesbian porn than that."
Lara spun around in her chair. She was so mortified that she couldn't even squeeze out a denial.
She turned bright pink… and then completely pale as her openly gay neighbour peered around the door. Callie cocked her head and grinned, "Hey, Lara, if you ever need a hand, you let me know."
Callie's girlfriend appeared in the doorway to smirk as well. "Me too, Lara."
Lara hadn't spoken to Sam for two days after that, until the American girl left a big box of jaffa cakes on her desk as an apology.
Eventually it became a running joke between the friends, at their student residence, and later when they shared a flat. Every time Lara shut herself in her room, Sam would yell "Stop touching yourself in there, Lara," or "Quit wanking, Lara Croft, I'm coming in."
Of course, Sam had no idea what Lara got up to during uni holidays, when she and Sam parted ways and the young archaeologist shouldered her duffel bag, grabbed her maroon passport and joined Roth's crew on his grimy expeditions.
Sam had always imagined Lara spent all her spare time lying on her bed, reading and listening to music, just like at college. But perhaps she did satisfy her secret urges when she was anonymous half a world away. There really was no way to find out. Lara was incredibly private. There were many things she didn't even tell Sam, probably because of the latter's tendency to bring them up in group situations when smashed.
One of the few romantic revelations that Sam had been able to whine out of Lara was an admission that she found Alex cute… until he opened his mouth. Then he ranted non-stop about conspiracy theories and unsolved mysteries – Lara's deal breaker in the aftermath of her parents' disappearance. "Mystical mumbo jumbo," the archaeology student grumbled at the time, rolling her eyes as she sat opposite Sam on the couch, fingering her mug of tea.
Lara was returning to their table, navigating across the room with a Cosmo clutched in one hand and two beer bottles and glass wedged between her fingers on the other. Clearly those skills honed at the Nine Bells hadn't yet blunted and rusted.
The blonde intercepted Lara three feet away from the table. It was just close enough that Sam could hear their exchange.
The blonde breathed, "Lara?"
"May I help you?" There were those impeccable public school manners despite the Englishwoman's obvious bewilderment.
"I love your accent."
"Thank you. Uh, do I know you?"
"Not yet. Let's change that."
The blonde slipped a business card into Lara's right front pocket, forcing it deep into the tight space with her index and middle fingers.
Jesus. Talk about forward.
By the look on Lara's face, Sam could assume her friend was thinking the same thing.
"Call me," the blonde smiled before gliding off.
Shaking her head, Lara slipped back into her seat opposite Sam. "What was that about?" she muttered as she decanted her beer.
Something must have given Sam away. Her uncharacteristic silence perhaps. Or a curl to her lip that she couldn't suppress before Lara looked up.
"Sam! What did you do?!"
"I'm sorry, sweetie. It was just too funny."
"What did - ?"
"I, hah, may have said that you liked girls."
Sam unleashed her most loveable grin but it still felt too weak an attempt at placating her friend. Lara's face had completely hardened. Evidently so had her heart. "Sam, Jesus Christ!" she hissed, unblinking.
An apology was right on the American girl's lips but she swallowed it back. It felt safer not to say anything more, even as the colour flared on Lara's cheeks.
Almost immediately though Lara's scowl softened into a bashful smile. And Sam sat facing her old roommate again.
"You are such a cow sometimes… but very well played," Lara chuckled, and held up her glass. "Cheers."
Stunned, Sam raised and chinked her drink. "Moo."
Unfortunately, the composure that had snared the blonde's attention was a magnet for other eyes in the bar as well. Two guys had followed Lara back from the bar, like hyenas loping after a lioness with a kill draped from her jaws.
"Hi, ladies," they introduced themselves, smiling down at the two women.
"Hey," Sam grinned back. The evening's entertainment had arrived, and in a perfect two-for-one value pack.
"We were wondering if we could join you?"
Sam ignored Lara's hard stare. "Sure."
They were cute guys; a bit too cocky but amusing enough. They kept Sam tittering even as they plied her and Lara with more drinks. Long-haired Lukas was a final year law student, and member of his college running team. Stubbled Ryan was a junior account executive at an advertising agency.
It felt good to flirt again. So normal. A night out on the town. No shipwrecks. No fire-wielding cultists. No undead sun queens. No Lara being pounded into bloody submission because of her stupid, over-trusting best friend.
With the arrival of the boys, Lara had retreated into herself. She was too polite to ever express her disinterest explicitly, but she was a master at turning up the social awkwardness; stripping out all niceities. It was exactly what she'd done to Dan Perkins after she sobered up and found that he was still interested. Embarrassed by what had happened, Lara built her walls of social reserve even higher and avoided him until he lost interest in the unsurmountable climb.
Despite her victorious reserve, Lara had genuinely liked Dan, Sam knew. That wasn't true for Lukas or Ryan. Lara had gone silent. That indicated that she was angry; very angry. Holding in her fury. Sam was used to seeing Lara exasperated. Normally at something Sam had done, but this was different – part of her Yamatai metamorphosis. These days almost anything could set her seething. Then her reaction was to withdraw. Initially Sam had suspected it was a defence mechanism; over time she had come to suspect it was more of an attempt by Lara to shield the world from her temper.
"So, what are your plans for later?" Lukas asked.
Sam crossed her arms and leaned forward. She whispered conspiratorially, "Oh, my evening is wide open."
Lukas grinned, "I could really do with some sushi."
Sam opened her mouth in mock embarrassment, and then chuckled.
Ryan glanced in Lara's direction. "Oh, I'm in the mood for fish and chips, guvnor."
Lara gave him a look that suggested she'd rather force him face first into a deep fryer.
"You want to get out of here?"
Sam swung her face from Lukas to Lara. "What do you say, sweetie?"
"I'd rather not, Sam," she frowned. "I'm quite tired."
Lukas dropped his arm heavily onto Sam's shoulder. "Aw, come on, Lara, sweetie. Pleeeeease?"
"No, not tonight. Thank you." Lara turned from Lukas to her old roommate. "Sam if you want to… carry on, go dancing, whatever, I'll just get a taxi."
God, the offer was tempting. But the less time she left Lara alone right now the better.
The American girl exaggerated a sad face. "Sorry, boys. Looks like I'm being cockblocked."
Lara rolled her eyes.
"Ladies, really? The evening's just getting started."
This could go on forever – the begging alternated with Lara's attempts at politely, and poorly, extricating herself.
Sam shrugged free of Lukas's arm. She shot upright, and immediately felt the effect of the evening's drinks surging into her limbs and skull.
"Well, guys," she grinned, dizzy, "It's been fun."
"What? Hey?" Lukas staggered upright. Sam didn't know how many beers he'd had before attaching himself to them remora-style, but between the four of them they'd managed to accumulate a pretty impressive expanse of drinking debris.
"Come on baby," Lukas slurred. "Don't go."
His palm came down on the table top, blocking her exit.
Sam sensed Lara tense to her left. She had to defuse this situation quickly…
Squeezing out a laugh, the American girl closed her hand over Lukas's and lifted it to her lips. His eyes glazed over as Sam sucked on the tip of his index finger. But as her hips slid past his, his other fist clamped around her bicep. "Stay."
"Don't touch her!"
Lara was on her feet. She seized an empty beer bottle by the neck and brought it down on the table's edge. Shards sprayed. In a heartbeat she had the jagged tip an inch from Lukas's throat.
He lunged backwards, releasing his grip on Sam.
"Lara! No!" Sam grabbed at her best friend's elbow, clamping both hands around the joint and jerking down. Lara's arm folded and the bottle flew free.
Without the weapon, Lara's rage was instantly smothered. Wild fear flared instead. Sam could see it in her eyes as she scanned the club. Everyone had frozen. Staring. The unpredictable, the uncontrollable; that was Lara, not her surroundings, not anyone else. And the young Englishwoman knew it. She was taking deep, shuddering breaths. Her gaze met Sam's and it was pure undiluted shame.
Lara didn't move like a normal person. Muscle and coordination worked in warrior's union. A pair of bouncers from the entrance were pushing aside bar patrons to reach her. Instead of fleeing, she ran straight at them. She dropped into a crouch as one bouncer grasped at her, dipping under his arm, and then spun out of reach from the second. She was breath-taking to watch, as if performing a dance or kata.
For a moment Lara vanished in the crowd; then Sam caught sight of her profile and ponytail as she darted out the front door.
By the time Sam had elbowed her way outside, Lara was gone. Naturally. She was a born athlete.
Sam pulled her phone out of her clutch purse. She knew Lara had her Galaxy on her. Sam had forced it into her friend's jacket pocket before they left the apartment. Of course it just rang and rang. That was typical Lara, both before and after Yamatai. Enjoying being off the grid. Undisturbed.
The call went to voice mail.
"Lara, answer your phone, Goddammit!"
Realising she was yelling, Sam swallowed and started again at a lower octave. "Call me when you get this, okay, sweetie? Please? I just need to know you're alright."
Completely and disappointingly sober, hands in her pockets, Sam walked the distance back to the apartment. She peered inside every diner and bar she passed. Squinted down every alley and intersecting street. All in the hope that she'd spot Lara. Nothing.
As expected, Sam arrived back at an empty apartment. No Lara. No messages on her phone.
Sam curled up on the couch. She felt numb, but that was preferable to tears. Everything had just gone so horribly, horribly wrong. She pressed a cushion over her face and exhaled into it.
Sam could sleep anywhere. It was one of her special skills. Lara, with a puncture clean through her side, could fight off dozens of men and monsters, not to mention carry her college buddy down a mountain. Sam, well, she could nap in any place, anytime. Hell, she'd even managed to fall asleep on Yamatai, lying on the hard ground with that creep Whitman watching her… waiting for Lara to head back into the hills and deprive Sam of her living, breathing, best friend talisman.
The front door slammed and Sam jolted upright. Lara stood in the entrance hall. Or was trying to anyway. She dropped her keys, then stooped to retrieve them. She teetered for a moment, her arm outstretched, before toppling over. She landed on her hands and knees. Laughing at herself.
Lara was drunk. Very, very drunk. Sam didn't think she'd ever seen her friend so intoxicated. Then again, Sam had never been the sober voice of reason before. In the past she would have been stumbling right at Lara's side, her arm around her friend's waist as she giggled against the Englishwoman's neck and jawline.
Upright again, Lara danced her fingers in front of her face, producing a snicker. She finally spotted Sam. She clumped heavily down the passage, her feet striking the floor in a clumsy rhythm of ball, heel, ball, heel. With a grin, Lara dropped onto the couch next to Sam.
The archaeologist was a mess. She was bleary-eyed, her cheeks flushed. She stank of booze. Below the knee her jeans and boots were mottled with dirt and splashes of God knows what. A dark stain spread down over her left hip where she had clearly ripped her stitches open again. She'd tried to wad the wound with napkins, but it hadn't stopped the haemorrhaging. Lara's left hand was bloody too but Sam couldn't tell if it was from clutching her side, or the result of the bottle shattering back at the bar. Or perhaps even something else.
"Where have you been?" Sam gasped. "What have you done?"
In her right fist, Lara clutched a brown paper bag. She pulled a bottle of Scotch Whisky from it, unscrewed the cap and swallowed a mouthful. She ran her thumb over the bottle's embossed label. Glenfiddich. She smiled softy at it, ignoring Sam completely.
"When I was 15, Roth arrived one Friday at boarding school to take me hiking in Snowdonia for the weekend. All I wanted to do was stay in bed reading. It was wet and cold, and my nose ran constantly. Everything hurt. I was so bloody miserable. After we made camp for the night he took this out his bag. He said to me – " She switched to a spot-on imitation of Roth's guttural accent, "Lara, girl, this here will put hair on your chest."
"I hope not."
Lara looked down at her cleavage, cross-eyed. "So far so good."
Sam didn't know what to say as her friend took another slug of whisky and stared off into space. Her mouth was trembling ever so slightly. Sam could see the tears teetering on her lower eyelids.
"Lara, hey?" Sam reached out tentatively.
Lara recoiled, but the action had succeeded in slapping her out of her melancholy.
"Tell me something, Sam," she smirked, swinging her face back to her friend. "Do you think I'm a nicer person when I'm drunk?"
Lara turned sideways in her seat. With her elbow propped on the headrest she leaned in to touch her forehead to her friend's. Her bangs tickled Sam's cheek.
The archaeologist dismissed her. Her index finger had found Sam's collar bone and was slowly tracing it back and forth. "Maybe I should stay like this, Sam?" she breathed. "Is drunk Lara more fun? Do you prefer her?"
It would have been so easy for the American girl to tilt her head and press her mouth to Lara's perfect, parted lips. The way Lara was looking at her; the way her touch was tailored to trigger one single unthinking response. This wasn't the faux flirting of their college days. Sam was open with her sexuality; Lara was almost as much of an anthropologist as an archaeologist, quietly observing and absorbing information about human social behaviour. Enough years of living and travelling together meant Lara knew Sam's erotic weaknesses as intimately as Sam knew them herself. And right now she was exploiting them.
Sam couldn't even claim that she was surprised by the voice in her head. Just go with it, it insisted. It would feel so good. Put aside all the worries and lose yourself in her. Know that she's entirely yours, even if just for one night...
If that was all that was in Lara's eyes, Sam would have responded. But Lara's gaze was glazed with alcohol, and even under its murky surface coating Sam could recognise despair mingling with the desire.
In the end, the answer was easy.
"No, I don't prefer her."
The archaeologist's inviting pout clenched into a scowl. She withdrew her caress from Sam and straightened in her seat. "Well, you're no fun."
Looking ahead, she raised the bottle and gulped another mouthful. Her chest and throat were quivering as she strained against another avalanche of anguish.
Sam knelt in front of her best friend. She seized Lara's face in her hands so she couldn't avoid her stare. "Sweetie, you need help."
"No." Lara swatted Sam's arms away. She lumbered to her feet. She began pacing back and forth, rambling to herself as much as to her companion. "Stay away, Sam. If you help me, you get hurt. Worse. Grimm, Alex… Roth." Her voice cracked over the last name. "Reyes was right. Everyone caught with me… has a very low survival rate."
Sam remained on her knees, looking up. "Lara, sweetie, you saved me. Twice! It's my turn to be there for you."
"You don't understand. I have to go."
"What? What are you talking about?"
Lara stumbled over to the full-length window. She glared at the city. "This world," she prodded the glass. "It's not real… The artifice, the gluttony, the inconsequentiality. We don't need any of this meaningless shit. There aren't any answers here. This is all a distraction, a diversion from the truth."
It all sounded so ridiculous; Lara in wide-eyed… what? The very conspiracy theory mode she used to sneer at? Sam wanted to loudly bark her incredulity but the way her friend stood – shoulders hunched, fingers cupping her downcast face – the wrong response would be equivalent to body charging her through the window.
"Lara, it's my world," she whispered, pushing herself upright.
The archaeologist looked back. "I – I know. That's part of the problem..."
Before Sam could respond, Lara was in front of her again. The Englishwoman threw her arms around her friend. It was a clumsy, hard embrace, so tight that Sam was sure it was as painful to give as it was to receive.
A drunken, tearful flurry of words against Sam's shoulder. "I just – I can't. I tried so hard, Sam. I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry… It's all my fault."
Sam's instinct was to berate her, but she clamped her lips over the "Stop it, Lara!"
Instead, uncharacteristically in silence, she just let her best friend sob and shudder.
Eventually Lara stilled in her arms.
A softer, calmer voice started, "Sam? I nee –"
Lara's muscles tensed.
She shoved herself away from Sam and sprinted down the passageway, knocking into the entrance hall table as she veered away from the living area.
Sam followed at a slower pace.
She found Lara on her knees in the guest bathroom, clinging to the toilet bowl as her body purged itself. The sight of Lara hunched like that brought back horrible memories of their first night on the rescue ship. Everything the young woman had been holding at bay for Sam and the others finally sucked her under. Dragged her all the way down and drowned her in suffocating darkness. At that moment, looking desperately upwards, the English Rose had finally been crushed.
It started while they were cleaning and doctoring themselves. The ship's captain had given them access to the on-board medikit, a washroom and change of crewmen's clothing. The latter was more for Lara's benefit than anyone else. While the Englishwoman was in the shower, Sam binned her shredded, bloody, foul-smelling pants and tops.
Sam was still in the washroom, examining her arms to make sure that the last of Matthias's wretched white markings had been scrubbed off her skin. She was standing there when a dazed Lara stepped out of the shower.
Lara had insisted she could wash herself on her own, but the shock seemed to be finally setting in after the numbness. With the defensive layer of grime and gore removed, she suddenly looked soft, pink and alien, like a scorpion that had just shed its exoskeleton. It was strange how quickly, over simply a couple of days, "armoured" had become Lara's default state. She glared at her trembling hands as she tried to dry herself; the way they betrayed her vulnerability.
"Lara? Are you alright?"
The archaeologist clenched her fists guiltily. She grimaced, "I'm fine."
Frowning, Sam helped her friend clean her cuts and scratches. Some were easy to treat. Others… Sam was horrified by the wound on Lara's left side, just above her hip bone. No matter how much she dabbed it – as much as Lara could bear, anyway – it was impossible to remove all the dirt and slimy discharge. It was just an inflamed, raw and blistered mess where Lara had attempted to cauterise the puncture herself.
Eventually they lathered on the antiseptic ointment and applied a wound dressing, hoping that would be enough.
Lara, Sam and Reyes were assigned a tiny four-sleeper cabin for the duration of their trip back to civilisation. After dinner, where Lara sat as silent and withdrawn as she had on deck, they settled in for the night. Reyes claimed a top bunk, leaving the girls the lower level. Sam wanted – no, needed – to be able to reach out and touch Lara.
Sleep didn't come immediately. Sam lay on her side, her head resting on her forearm, simply watching her best friend on the opposite bed. Even now the bookworm didn't stop. Lara was scowling at her father's notebook as she paged through it for the thirtieth time.
Without a word Sam held out her arm. The motion caught Lara's eye. She turned her head, reached out to squeeze Sam's hand in her own and gave a soft, sad smile.
The next thing Sam remembered was the sight of Lara's empty bunk. The sheets and blankets were an entwined mess, bunched to one side with half the mattress exposed.
Sam slipped out the cabin into the corridor. They were below deck with no portholes but given the absence of crew, and complete silence apart from the thrum of the engines, Sam guessed it was the middle of the night.
She padded down the passage, pausing when she spotted light coming from the communal head. Sam was at least a dozen feet away but with the door ajar she could see inside. Lara was braced over the sink, pawing running water at her face. She was breathing heavily; Sam could see that by the noticeable expansion and contraction of her ribcage.
The Englishwoman turned off the tap and took a step backwards. Her legs folded. There was a muffled thunk as she disappeared from view.
Sam darted forward.
She found Lara sprawled on the floor, partially in a puddle of vomit. She'd clearly been sick a handful of times. And she'd missed the toilet at least once. At that moment though, she was whimpering; trying to muster enough strength in her arms to push herself upright.
Lara had gone to bed in men's boxers and an oversize white T-shirt. The fabric of the latter was stained on the left side where her wound had already oozed through all the dressings.
Sam propped her friend up against the wall. Lara looked terrible under the harshness of the fluorescent light – the olive tint of her skin faded to bread-dough white. Her eyes were bloodshot, the vessels ruptured by her violent vomiting.
Her skin was sticky and hot. Too hot.
"Lara, Jesus, you're burning up."
Her saviour looked straight through her. "Sam. I promised. I have to – She needs me."
Sam was horrified. After everything she had endured for her companions, after everything she had willed herself through, it was Lara's body that had finally overwhelmed her.
"Sweetie, I'm here. It's me. Sam." She pressed her palm against Lara's clammy cheek. At the touch recognition sparked in Lara's eyes. She smiled at Sam. Then her pupils rolled back, her head lolled, and she went limp in her friend's arms.
Oh God, no.
"Lara! Stay with me, Lara! Please!" she yelled, and then tried to shake sense back into her friend. Eventually the Englishwoman moaned something incoherent, and her fingers flared over Sam's forearm. Her eyes remained closed but she was back in her body at least.
"Help! Someone, help!"
They came running at that; Jonah, Reyes and two crewmen.
After that, Sam had spent two days at Lara's bedside, trying to keep fluids in her rescuer as the latter retched, shivered and burned. At one point Lara had even had a seizure, arching back on the mattress, her hands clawed. Even worse though was the crying. Lara sobbed and sobbed, a mess of mucus, shudders and incomprehensible cries until her body was completely out of tears.
Once they reached Osaka, there was a flurry of red tape and paperwork before paramedics were allowed onboard. Within minutes of being examined, Lara was on a drip, under an oxygen mask and loaded onto a stretcher. Sam had never been more relieved – that morning as they entered port, no matter how much she shook, yelled and pleaded, she hadn't even been able to rouse her friend.
Sam was a sympathy vomiter, but she swallowed her squeamishness and knelt down next to Lara.
"So, a Pom who can't outdrink a Yank…? You should be ashamed, Lara Croft."
The Englishwoman groaned, and puked again.
"Oh sweetie." Sam winced. Ever so gently she brushed strands of hair away from her friend's face to tuck behind her ear.
Suddenly Lara was standing. Sam was knocked onto her buttocks at the speed of the motion. She stared up at her unsteady companion, who returned her gaze, groggy and pale.
"Lara, you need help. I'm here for you."
"No," she scowled. "Only I can do this."
"You don't have to get through all this alone, sweetie. I keep telling you." Sam got to her feet. She reached for Lara's arm. "I know you think that's not true. I know you've lost everyone you've ever loved but that doesn't mean – "
That was the wrong thing to say.
Lara jerked her elbow away from Sam.
"Lara, I'm trying! Please!"
"I don't need your help."
The way her best friend was looking at her – with a glare of scalding incredulity – tipped Sam into her own pool of fury and frustration. She guzzled down mouthfuls of the bitter-tasting stuff. Then immediately spewed it back out.
"Jesus, Lara, you weren't the only one on that island you know? We all went through Hell. You need to stop pushing everyone away, cutting yourself off. You can talk to me. Stop acting like you're – "
Another poor choice of words.
"Acting?" Lara flinched at the words. She backed out of the bathroom, shaking her head. "Acting?" She repeated. "You really have no clue do you, Miss Skinny Jeans?"
Sam gaped, "That's not fair, Lara!"
"Fair?" Lara laughed bitterly. "What do you know about fair? You have everything. EVERYTHING. Money. Parents who actually gives a shit about you despite all your pathetic attempts at rebellion. Me. And what have you done to deserve any of it?"
"I – "
"I bet you haven't ever even thought about it? You're just so bloody self-absorbed." She took a breath and continued with a smirk, "God, I wish I could be as shallow and petty and spoiled as you are. So blissfully ignorant about everything and everyone."
Sam could feel the tears now. They burned in her eyes like acid, running down her throat and nasal passages. They seared and blistered as they accelerated to her heart.
Sam kept seeing the Lara of her college years standing before her in the passageway. Lara pre-Yamatai. That gentle, quiet, tender-hearted girl who had never said a hurtful thing in her life. All those times – whether it was from exam stress, a bad breakup or self-worth-crushing parental encounter – that Lara had been there for Sam, sitting on the foot of her bed. A mug of hot cocoa. A debauched evening out. Simply a hug and shy smile. She didn't necessarily find comforting words easy but the archaeologist's actions always showed how much she cared.
At that very moment though they were standing in the entrance hall, and Lara was sneering at Sam with a bad American accent. "Oh sweetie, I must look soooo terrible."
Her words were consciously cruel, a barbed blade designed to do as much damage going in as coming out. Just like a climbing pick.
"I hate you," Sam hissed; a reflex reaction to her friend's metamorphosis.
Lara twirled her hand in the air and bowed with a flourish. "Another calm, understated response from Samantha Nishimura."
Sam pressed her palms to her temples. "Stop it, Lara! This isn't you."
That produced a self-satisfied grin.
"Good. I want you to say it, Sam."
"That you wish I'd died on that island."
"No, Lara, I wish I'd died on Yamatai so I didn't have to see you like this. So that I didn't make you into this."
Lara cackled. "It's not always about you, Sam. Amazingly."
"And it's not just about you, Lara Croft," Sam shot back. "All of us suffered there."
"Horse shit. You have no idea what I went through. Alone. All that time. For you. For all of you."
"I would if you'd fucking talk about it."
"I don't want to! Stop telling me what to do."
Sam half expected Lara to ball her fists and stamp her feet. Her pout was ridiculous. The American laughed, "Stop being so childish!"
Lara's eyes narrowed. "What did you say?"
"You heard me."
"Repeat it again. To my face." Lara rounded on Sam.
"You, Lara Croft, are being fucking childish!"
"YOU are telling ME that?! Christ, you are so superficial. If it's not about clothes or cock –"
Sam slapped her.
Sam had a complicated relationship with her mother and father. She'd dated and been harassed by a lot of dicks. But she had never ever hit anyone before.
There was a moment where the two friends both stood frozen. Sam's gaze travelled between her stinging palm and Lara, whose face had been turned away by the force of the blow.
"Lara, oh my God! Sweetie, I'm so sorry."
Sam reached for her friend. But it wasn't Lara who turned back. It was Mathias.