Winner of the Seventh Village of Tokakeriby Fanfiction Contest, in which entrants were asked to write a piece on the theme of, 'Lara in Love'.
When it comes to love, Lara's a very black and white kind of girl.
"Hey, Lara. Opinions on beans on toast?"
And as quickly as she entered the room, she's gone again, just passing through on some small domestic Thursday-evening mission with a small box in her hand.
See what I mean, though? Short, simple, to the point, the girl knows what she likes. But everybody else...past the easy stuff like beans on toast and corgis, the stuff that you can learn by watching her reaction to repeated exposure to them, we really don't have a clue. Her opinions are pretty unpredictable. She's a nightmare to buy gifts for.
But I ponder the issue anyway. Because I'm a loser and I like her and she doesn't like me. Not in that way. Not anymore. Those few months were the best of my life and indisputable proof that no-one can ever guess who or what she might take a shine to. Now it's just manifest in mutual teasing and an indulgence of my quirks. I digress.
Point is, her current opinion appears to be that Steven Miller is the best thing since sliced bread.
Look. There she is, that's where she was off to. Changing a light bulb above the desk in the library. She's up on the very top of that step ladder without a wobble or a worry, the very picture of a modern Millie, screwing in the new bulb without having bothered to turn off the light at the switch first. So of course as the fitting makes enough contact and the light suddenly glares again, she's blinking and turning away quickly, temporarily blinded. And the light's glinting off the ring on her finger.
A ring! Since when did Miss Practical over there wear jewellery?
Don't worry, it's not an engagement ring, it's just a promise ring. A 'we're dating and I've got loads of money because I'm a banker so I'm going to buy you stuff to make you like me more' ring, I think. The man doesn't have a clue.
"You'll electrocute yourself one day."
"As long as you're inflicting your awful music on me all day every day, I live in hope."
She squeezes past me in the doorway with the folded stepladder and gives me a wink and a grin. Oh, for times lost.
And so I press the button.
But this isn't going to make any sense to you if I don't rewind things a bit, so let's go back six weeks.
It was about one in the morning and I was in my lab working on SIMON, listening to some of that aforementioned awful music. Lara strolled in, dumped her clutch bag down on top of some particularly delicate components with that careless manner of hers, sat down, propped her high-heeled feet up on my other desk chair, and leant on my desk with her head in one hand. She sighed in a self satisfied manner.
"How are you, Bryce?" She smiled at me.
"All right." I carried on working. "How was it?"
"It was good, thank you."
"That's not what you usually say about charity dinners you feel obliged to go to."
"Well this one was different." She gazed off into space dreamily. "Fun."
I stopped what I was doing, taken aback, and stared at her for a moment. Then I said, "Plenty of free booze then?"
Lara smirked. "I'm not drunk."
"Oh no. 'Course not."
She didn't say anything out loud but I could see some sort of retort running through her mind. Then she leant forwards, rubbed my shoulder, said, 'Good night, Bryce," and kissed my cheek before getting up and walking off.
I stopped her in the doorway. "'ere!" She looked at me. "Did you meet someone?"
She just smiled at me and left, and I just gawked.
She had met someone. Someone called Steven Miller.
She had a date with him the following Tuesday night.
"What do you think this is all about?" I asked Hillary.
He barely even looked up from the book he was reading. 'Crime and Punishment'. Pretentious git.
"I'll pretend I don't know what you're talking about and ask you to enlighten me."
"Steven Killer, of course." I dropped down into the sofa next to him and sat with a petulant look on my face.
"Miller," Hillary corrected me with a tone of distaste for my intentional mistake. "And don't flop, you'll damage the furniture."
"Well there's something going on, isn't there?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Lara's not going to date a banker, is she? She goes out with...with adventurers and mercenaries and blokes with muscles who sail single handedly 'round the Arctic. She's having him on."
"Who's having who on?"
I jumped, finding Lara in the doorway, ready for her date. I was screwed. Unless she genuinely hadn't heard the preceding conversation. Unless I could come up with a plausible answer.
"Marla Heanor in Pavings of Gold."
Hillary's smooth lie came at the perfect moment to cover my hesitation. The brilliant bastard.
"Oh," Lara sniffed. "Soap operas. You've not started watching that as well have you, Bryce?" She came fully into the room and sat down, all snug fitting jeans and sexy top and tousled ponytail.
"What else am I going to do now you've got a boyfriend?" I said, laughing to cover the twisting in my stomach.
Lara's reaction made it clear that she thought the answer was obvious. "Find a girlfriend."
Hillary deigned to put his book down again. "Lara," he scolded. "Don't inflict him on people."
"Screw you, Butler," I retorted immediately without even looking at him.
Lara smiled at our patter.
"But seriously, Bryce. You are a wonderful man."
I sat back heavily and folded my arms, trying not to pout. "Yeah, whatever."
I still haven't worked out whether it was perfect timing or not, but regardless, the doorbell rang. Lara leapt up.
"It's Steven!" she announced, and ran out to answer the door. Hillary didn't even flinch. For all his affected formality, he sure finds it easy to suppress the urge to do his duty sometimes.
I got up slowly, plodding to the doorway. Steven was inside already, waiting politely and with a whitened smile as Lara extricated her coat from the over-full coat pegs.
"Oh, Bryce," she said, simultaneously trying to put on her boots with just her feet, "this is Steven. Steven, this is Bryce, my friend and technician."
Hillary, hearing that Steven had been invited in and introductions were underway, appeared behind me.
"Hello, Bryce," Steven greeted, nodding at me from across the hall. Over my shoulder he directed, "And you are...?"
"Lady Croft's butler," Hillary answered, with an official air, pushing past me and extending his hand. "My name is Hillary."
"Hillary," Steven repeated, meeting him for the handshake. He seemed well mannered and confident. I supposed that at least he could match Lara in that respect.
"Well, Lara and I have decided to see a film and then go for some dinner," he said to me and Hillary, ignoring the fact that I hadn't spoken a word to him. Lara, coat and boots donned, moved to his side, and they smiled at us as if they were posing.
"See you later, boys," Lara said, and led Steven out.
With the door closed behind them and just the two of us left in the large house, Hillary turned to me. "He seems nice. Good suit, straight tie, a plan for the evening. I like that."
I didn't say anything, just leant against the door frame with my arms folded, staring at him, daring him to carry on.
Hillary pursed his lips. "Are you all right?" he asked me.
I still didn't say anything, just walked off to my lab.
As time went on, I really did become convinced that Lara was up to something. She saw him quite regularly, each time accompanied by wide smiles and her hanging off his arm like she was incapable of standing by herself. They quickly progressed to Lara staying overnight with him, he bought her that ring, and yet she never shared any more details than those Hillary could pry out of her. It was strange enough that she was being so honeymoonish about the whole thing, but it was more strange that if she was going to behave like that, she wasn't going to talk about it.
Hillary said she was sparing my feelings.
It all came to a head one morning five weeks after the charity dinner when the two of us were having breakfast together in the kitchen, Hillary having eaten already and gone off to start his chores. The smell of coffee was heavy in the air, breathable wake up drug that I was inhaling deeply in an effort to wake myself up after staying up too late on YouTube again, and I wasn't thinking about much else other than my gloriously greasy breakfast. I suddenly became aware, though, of Lara staring at me from across the table as she picked little chunks off her toast.
"Are you all right with Steven, Bryce?"
I stopped mid-chew and looked up from under uncombed hair. I was sure Steven never walked around with uncombed hair. "What?"
"Are you all right with Steven?"
I was frozen for a minute as a wave of protests crashed through my mind, but then I sat back, finished my mouthful and said, "'Course."
"Lara, if you're happy, I'm happy. Really. Ultimately, that's what important to me."
Her worried expression didn't go away at first, but once she'd scrutinised my words and tone and decided I was telling the truth – and I was, although I felt that it didn't mean that I had to enjoy being happy for her - she broke into a smile and dropped her gaze to her plate. Then she got up, came around behind me, put her arms around my shoulders, laid her head against mine and said, "Thank you. That means a lot."
We stayed like that for a minute, me rather shocked by the contact, and then she left.
I mopped up the bacon grease with the last of my fried bread and went straight to my lab.
If she was as into that guy as she was pretending, I thought, she shouldn't have been behaving like that towards me. Concerned for me as a friend, sure, but not like that.
It took me the whole day to tunnel my way into Steven's security systems, and by the time I managed it, Lara had long ago headed over there.
I was looking for something. Something that would tell me what Lara was up to.
I started going through the feeds from every security camera in his huge house - black and white, but far from grainy, images. Silent rooms filled with expensive luxury and timeless art, a maid cleaning, a chef laying on dinner, a security guard walking a long hallway...Lara perched on the end of a couch.
I lingered on the picture, watching her behaviour. She didn't seem to be doing anything. And that was with a very ancient-looking artefact in a glass case off to her right that she wasn't even looking at.
Was that what she was after? I zoomed in on it and looked for identifying marks I could google. It was a metal vase, probably gold, bulbous at the bottom and very thin-necked at the top, covered in scratches that were probably part of the original manufacture method. It looked cold and it looked expensive, even without the thick panes around it and the digital combination lock that I recognised as being part of a particularly sturdy security measure.
I took a screenshot for research and then zoomed back out again. Before I knew it, the frame had encompassed Lara locked in an embrace with a now-present Steven, and I gasped as if I'd been burnt, hitting the key to move me to another feed.
I sat upset for a moment before realising what I was looking at. The security guard was tampering with Lara's coat where it hung on a stand with movements that I easily recognised. The bastard was planting a bug on her!
I'd got it all wrong. Lara was entirely innocent. She wasn't after anything. Steven, on the other hand...
Suddenly feeling vulnerable, I navigated through the menus to the manor's own security systems, a rising bile in my throat. They'd had five weeks and they were obviously interested in what Lara was getting up to away from Miller. I was good, but plenty of other people were just as good, and there was no guarantee that they hadn't been pulling on us what I'd just pulled on them. Sure, the system was meant to set off an alarm if it detected tampering, but that could be bypassed if you were careful enough.
Nothing showed up in the diagnostics. I sighed in relief and relaxed a little, although I knew that that didn't necessarily mean that they hadn't done anything. It just meant that they'd been extra cautious if they had.
I dragged my hands down over my face, tired. Then I slapped the intercom button.
"Hillary," I said sharply. "I think you need to come to the lab."
"Preposterous," Hillary sniffed when he'd seen the clip of the guard.
"Preposterous? Who the hell says that?" I hit back. "What do you think he's doing? Picking off lint?"
Hillary shook his head and opened his mouth a couple of times, trying to come up with an excuse for what we'd seen, and I just lounged back in my chair and waited for him to say the inevitable.
"We need to be very careful."
"She's being listened to, Hillary," I shouted before he'd even finished his sentence properly. "Possibly watched, maybe followed, they could have broken into our camera feeds..."
"Lara would know if she was being followed," Hillary interrupted, dismissing me. "The rest is just conjecture."
Hillary pinned me with a jab of his finger. "You listen to me, Bryce. Lara's happy with Steven and I don't need to tell you how rare that is for her. All we have is one security guard apparently tagging her coat. We don't know if he's acting on Steven's orders, and we don't know if they've planned, attempted or managed anything else. If you tell her about this before we know fully what's taking place, you risk ruining her relationship for nothing and I will not let you do that."
He calmed himself and then said, "And might I also add that you risk ruining your friendship with her."
He was right, of course. On all counts. I wanted Steven gone but I didn't want Lara getting unnecessarily hurt. We had to play things properly.
We waited until Lara came home late that night. I greeted her with a bowl of cereal and the best smile I could muster, which was still only barely there. She smiled back, taking it as evidence that I was starting to accept things. Hillary quietly went to the coat rack and inspected her collar.
"Did you have a nice evening, Bryce?" Lara asked me, settling into an armchair and bringing her feet up onto the seat with her.
I shrugged, sitting on the sofa and turning on the TV. "Worked on some stuff."
I diverted my attention from channel four's latest bizarre late night offering for a moment to flick my gaze towards her. She was munching the cereal and looking at me expectantly.
"Upgraded the firmware on the ear pieces."
"Oh. Are they better now?"
"Should have a clearer signal."
There was silence for a minute, except for the TV and Lara's snacking. Then she pushed the conversation on further.
"Steven and I watched The Grudge. The original."
"I remember you introducing me to that."
I made a noise of acknowledgement.
"He likes foreign films too."
"What, French arthouse?" I scoffed.
"Bryce," she scolded me. "Why should you be the only one to like certain things? He's not showing off, he genuinely likes foreign cinema, and I would have thought you'd appreciate him having something in common with you."
"Whatever," I threw back, articulate as always.
I switched off the TV, tossed the remote control down onto the cushions, and swept out of the room, leaving Lara tutting.
When I got to the lab, I found Hillary had left a small circular bug on my desk.
I'd been right, then. Well, I knew that.
I was no angel, usually with Lara's permission and expense account, and I had the right equipment to jack the bug into my computer. I connected it up and analysed the hardware. There'd been no sign of any listening posts being set up within a feasible radius of the house so the only way they could have been sending the bug's signal back to them was through our wi-fi. I could isolate the signal by tracing it back from the bug – the hardware gave me the frequencies - and from there, track down any other intrusions they may have been making.
It wasn't difficult to do, and I soon found what they'd previously been hiding from me.
Every camera in the place was feeding live pictures back to Steven Miller, just as I suspected.
Hillary swept in with a small silver tray in his hands and set it down next to me.
"Your tea, Sir," he announced properly.
"It's all right, Hillary, they can't hear us, just see us. I've destroyed the bug."
Hillary bent his head a little, conscious of giving too much away with just his body language.
"So they are spying."
"Yes, they are."
"We still don't have proof that Steven's ordered it. It could just be a staff who cares about him, just like we care for Lara."
"Even so, don't you think it's time to tell her?"
I spread my hands. "She can talk to him about it. If he's guilty she'll dump him, if he's not, he can call his people off."
"No." Hillary shook his head vehemently. "We have to be sure. Not giving her the full answer leaves room for distrust."
"No kidding! She's being spied on!"
Hillary fixed me with a look. "Wait," he instructed. Then he picked the tray – and the tea- back up and left with it.
I didn't want to wait, but I did all the same. Hillary was invariably better in those sorts of situations than I was, and the rational side of me knew to follow his advice.
I sat on the stairs and listened to Lara's music through her closed bedroom door as she got ready to go out for another night with Steven, and questioned her when she came out.
"I bet a guy like that's always getting cornered by gold diggers."
Lara paused for a moment as she considered my words, showing no surprise at finding me sitting there, and then closed her door behind her and started down the steps past me, moving easily in stilettos even though she'd never worn them that often. I didn't like that she was wearing them for him. She was far too confident to change herself like that.
She answered me after a few seconds. "I imagine so."
"Probably been burnt a few times."
She stopped, but didn't turn around. "I can trust him. And you can trust me to be right about that. Please don't interfere, Bryce."
I took a deep breath and buried my face in my knees, and stayed like that until she'd gone and Hillary had quietly placed a beer at my side.
And so that brings us back to the present and the ear splitting two-tone wail of the manor's security system signalling a breach.
Lara jumps, eyes darting all over the place before she quickly places the sound and swings around to face me, only to find me leaning calmly against the wall.
"Bryce! What's going on?"
"Security breach," I shrug, raising my voice to be heard.
"Well then find out what it is! What are you standing there for?"
I don't move, so she gives a wordless cry of anger and storms off to investigate for herself. I follow, shouting to her.
"It's the cameras, Lara. Steven's hijacking them."
She freezes. And then, very slowly, her face raging, she turns around. "And why, Bryce," she manages deceptively calmly, "are the alarms only just going off now?"
"He was suppressing them. I've stopped him."
"To...present to me sudden proof?"
"I'm sorry, Lara, I-" I begin, spreading my arms, shaking my head, genuinely sorry, but she cuts me off.
"You idiot! You bloody idiot, Bryce! If you've ruined this for me I'll..." Her threat goes unspoken except by the ire in her gaze, and she marches away.
"Lara!" I call after her, jogging a few steps. "Really I didn't know what else - " Once again my sentence goes unfinished, but this time it's because I've stopped myself. It's useless to try and explain myself whilst she's like this, and besides, she's grabbing her coat and heading out of the door.
Hillary runs in, apparently having been acting like a headless chicken since the alarms started. "Bryce! The alarms!" He sees Lara slam the door behind her and looks to me with horror on his face. "Oh, you didn't."
"What else was I-?"
"Turn them off!" he commands. "Turn them off and hope and pray that she forgives you."
"She has to know!" I cry, but Hillary is already gone.
The manor is quiet for a couple of hours, Hillary off doing whatever he does all day, me skulking around my lab guiltily. And then all hell breaks loose.
The alarms trip again and the several monitors set up around me display several different angles of a blue van crashing through the front gates that have been unlocked with the force of a small explosive. Six men jump out, all black combat gear and weapons that must be illegal in this country, and charge up to the front doors.
I snatch up the handgun that Lara has me keep taped to the underside of the desk in case of emergencies – the wonderful, sensible, woman – and slide out of my seat, making a dash for the end of the corridor just off the main hall. I get there just as the front doors give way under the intruders' assault and I spy Hillary hiding similarly at the end of the corridor opposite, bullet proof vest and shotgun retrieved and ready. The team barge inside, fanning out, covering the area with their weapons.
It's Steven. He follows the team in, furious, glaring around the empty hall. "Hillary! Bryce! Where's my vase?"
"Bugger," I mutter to myself. "I was right in the first place, she's nicked the bloody thing." I grip the handle of the gun tighter and swallow, nervous, as I flatten myself against the wall out of sight.
When he receives no answer, one of the men steps forwards without waiting for an order and sprays bullets at hip level right across the hall from left to right, sending Steven jumping back with surprise before quickly recovering and gravely, silently, endorsing the action with a tilt of his chin. Hillary ducks down and covers his head at the assault but I can see the offended shock on his face at the destruction of the property. Incensed, he waits until the fire has stopped and then shouts, "I'm coming out! Don't shoot."
He edges hesitantly out into the open.
"Where is she, Hillary?" Steven snaps.
Hillary swallows. "You apparently seem to think -"
"That she stole my Inca vase. Because we caught her doing it on camera. Because she put one of my guards in hospital."
"Ah." Hillary stands corrected.
"If she's not back here already then I'm sure she will be soon, so we'll just wait for her here, shall we?"
I shout out from my hiding place. "Do you think she's just going to hand it over, Steven? Be realistic."
Steven cocks his head, pinpointing my rough whereabouts, and a gun from one of the hired goons points in my general direction. "You think I'm being unreasonable, Bryce? She pretended to go out with me so she could scope out my security and steal from me."
"You weren't expecting anything else, were you?" I ask. "I mean, you have had us under surveillance for a while."
"That was a precaution," Steven defends. "And one she was canny enough to predict, obviously. Clearly, she's been acting this whole time."
"You're angry. I get that."
"Of course I'm angry!" Steven's ire is suddenly renewed, probably by a stabbing pain in his heart, if my empathy is anywhere near the mark.
"Angry is not the time to be in charge of lethal weapons," Hillary interjects, and Steven explodes. He grabs Hillary by the collar and yanks him in close.
"Where is she?!"
"Here," comes a hard, dangerously calm voice. Only one person around here ever sounds like that. The gunmen and Steven spin 'round and I risk exposure to edge further out and bring the door into my sight.
Lara is standing there, vase held irreverently under her arm, weight set belligerently to one foot, all positive demeanour towards Steven washed away. "I don't appreciate men breaking into my house, damaging my property and threatening my friends. Get out."
She appears to be unarmed but the gunsights on her don't even appear to be on her list of priorities. Wonderful, crazy woman.
"Give me my vase," Steven whispers furiously.
"What, this old thing?" She smirks at her own joke and then starts strutting towards Steven and his men.
Steven doesn't look happy. "Everything was a lie."
"Well, at least I just went ahead and took it myself instead of leaving it to a divorce lawyer." Ooh. Heartless. "I really don't like being spied on, Steven."
"This was revenge?" He seems willing to accept that, possibly would find it easier.
Lara reaches him and stands close, face in his, their eyes locked intensely. She pauses a moment and then says honestly, "No."
She lifts her arm and begins to reach into her coat.
With a short order, the mercenary leader has his team focus and cock their weapons. Lara freezes, otherwise unaffected. Then she starts moving again. There's another shout and half of the weapons are suddenly turned on Hillary.
"You will halt your movements," the leader warns. Lara does as she's told, eyes still on Steven's.
My palms are sweating against the grip of my gun, my throat dry, and I shift against the wall. In doing so, I make noise in the otherwise silent hall, and the nearest thug looks my way, almost as if I'd been forgotten. He strides forwards, me unable to do anything, and I'm dragged, squirming, out into the open and shoved next to Hillary. We're both held in target.
Lara's gaze slides over towards us.
"I'm unarmed," she says, and silently asks for the permission to go on and retrieve whatever she was going for.
Steven nods, not taking his eyes off her.
She pulls out the ring he gave her, which I hadn't noticed was missing. Steven's hand comes out to receive it, and she drops it into his palm.
"You don't want to keep that too?" he asks bitterly.
"Too new for me," Lara says.
She looks back over to us again. "Let my friends go."
"Vase first," the team leader demands.
There's another pause.
They've got guns on us, they've got guns on Lara, and there's no-one to rescue us. They've got us, simple as that.
Lara reaches the same conclusion, of course, but she doesn't show it and still makes no move to return the contentious object.
I'm grabbed, pulled against a mercenary, gun barrel pressed into my skull. I gasp, of both fear and discomfort and try unsuccessfully to shrink away from the pressure on my temple. Lara flinches. Just a touch.
"Vase, Lara," Steven commands.
She looks at me, and Hillary, and then back to Steven, and sags. Then, she tosses the vase.
Steven catches it, momentarily terrified that it's going to fall until he's got his arms wrapped safely around its cold beaten metal surface. He looks at it for a short second, visibly relieved. Then he gives Lara a hard look and marches away.
His security retreats with him.
She doesn't ask if we're ok, or come running. She just toes the ground and puffs out her cheeks, and looks up at us from under her lashes.
"You ok?" she says then.
Neither of us answer at first, just catching our breath and half laughing through it. Hillary nods. "Yes," he smiles, doing his best to compose himself and return to his usual formal demeanour.
She looks to me and I agree, nodding too. "Fine. You?"
Lara smiles. "Fine."
"Sorry you didn't get your vase."
"Oh," she replies nonchantly, shrugging. "The moment I walked in with it I could tell it wouldn't go with the décor."
She's lying. Obviously.
I give her a small smile.
"Sorry for..." she offers.
Unable to finish, she turns and wanders off to the front door, ostensibly to inspect the damage.
When it comes to love, Lara's a very black and white kind of girl.
She loves Hillary and, in her own way, she loves me.