So they had an agreement.
The best way Lara could describe it was needs-based physical release.
The shared bed had been a once-off thing, as it turned out; every night they slept in their separate rooms. However, if either of the girls had a bad dream, they could rush to the other and find solace in their arms.
That point remained unsatisfying for Lara though.
The arrangement ran both ways, yet she never sought out her best friend post-terror. Frankly, the Englishwoman was scared of what that possible action would imply for her. So when she had one of her sanity-testing nightmares, she would struggle on alone, lying sweat-drenched on the mattress.
It was always Sam who came to her.
The American girl would arrive quivering and wet cheeked. Or, rather more disconcertingly, utterly blank faced.
Meanwhile, Lara would never call what the young women did making love. That implied a tenderness never present in their nocturnal trysts.
They were also far too vicious with each other for it to be classified as friends with benefits. Neither of them held anything back. Scratches and bruises accompanied their orgasms. And on the rare occasion Lara's guilt kicked in, and she attempted to be gentler with her physical consolation, Sam would slap her, or call her names, or grab a fistful of her hair right at the scalp.
Any of those reactions would cause the Englishwoman's vision to red out, just as it had on Yamatai, and the next second she would have Sam pinned. And yelping.
Whether from pain or pleasure, or some combination of the two, Lara didn't care.
It was always dark and desperate and angry – fucking away their frustrations and fears.
At least until one night a fortnight later.
Exactly as Lara expected, her best friend couldn't stick to the rules.
The Englishwoman had just pushed Sam to her pinnacle.
In the aftermath, with the American girl still trembling and whimpering beneath her, Lara found herself considering how akin the whole experience was to climbing. The pair of friends had tackled a few rock faces together over the years – basic ones; Sam wasn't nearly as advanced as her flatmate – and the experience normally ended with them short of breath, sweaty and desperate for a slug of water.
The archaeologist flexed her fingers. They were even stiff and aching like she'd spent half a day crimping upwards and wedging chocks.
Lara was still pondering the simile when Sam grabbed her by her left triceps and the back of her neck. At the same time, the filmmaker hooked one leg over her companion's, and arched over her shoulder. An eye blink later, their positions were reversed – Lara was on her back with the American girl propped over her.
Sam promptly kissed away her flatmate's anticipatory grin.
Except it wasn't capped with a nip or any other roughness.
The filmmaker's mouth sandwiched Lara's bottom lip briefly before pecking down the brunette's neck. Tongue skimmed over clavicle before trailing south.
And then further south.
Lara kept expecting the pinch of teeth; the scrape of nails.
It never came.
Instead, in the gloom of her bedroom, she found herself gazing down her exposed body at Sam. With eyes heavy-lidded, and mouth ever so slightly curled, the filmmaker rested her chin on Lara's mons pubis.
"A thank you for my hero," she purred.
Lara was still partly breathless with exertion, but she felt her throat constrict. The tension carried through to her abs, and her companion cooed over their sudden visibility.
The archaeologist was having a hard time swallowing. "Sam…" she forced out, frowning.
There were so many reasons for this not to happen.
One: their coital roughness – Lara really didn't want her most sensitive bits exposed to any snapping or scratching savagery.
Two: the fact that Sam's obvious next move was miles outside the definition of fucking to forget.
It was something far more intimate.
Three: the Englishwoman was actually horrifyingly self-conscious about down there. The thought of her best friend –
The American girl's lips disappeared from view.
A fresh shudder ran through Lara. The sensation. The sight of Sam's head between her legs. It was way too much.
The archaeologist could count the number of lovers she'd had on one hand. As for the ones who had gone down on her, well, that was maybe half the final tally. And though she found the experience pleasant enough in the past, it was never more than that. Pleasant. It wasn't quite enough on its own.
Then again, the guys hadn't ever seemed to know what they were doing; evidently taking as their cue what they'd seen on the Internet – which tended to be too distractingly frenzied or monotonously forceful to truly enjoy.
Sam though, with her tongue and simply one finger, had Lara practically reciting the Rosary.
"Oh, God. Oh, God, oh, God…" The archaeologist's head lolled back.
At some point, realising she was rocking her hips, a fresh surge of shame overtook her.
Cheeks burning, she swiped feebly at her companion. "Sam. No."
The American girl let her head flop to one side. She arched an eyebrow at the same time her Cheshire Cat smile broadened. "No? Is that no, as in stop? Or is it no, as in don't stop?"
Then, without breaking eye contact, she ran her tongue over Lara like she was licking an ice cream.
It was the Englishwoman's turn to whimper.
"Say it, Lara," Sam smirked.
"P – Please – " What had happened to her sodding will power? She grimaced, and then relented. "Don't stop."
Given the noises Lara started making, God alone knew what the neighbours thought was happening on the other side of the wall that night.
Almost immediately afterwards – while the archaeologist was still splayed in Elysium fields – Sam untangled herself from her friend, and swung her legs over the side of the mattress.
Even with blood pumping everywhere but her brain, Lara knew the routine. It had swiftly been established as the norm once they adopted their unconventional PTSD treatment.
Sam would sit there for a moment, stiff and silent, facing away from her companion. Then she'd gather her clothes, dress and leave. She never stayed the night.
What had just happened was so beyond the boundaries they had set, though.
It made sense for Sam to stay.
Lara wanted her to stay.
Except, just like always, the filmmaker pushed herself upright and began retrieving her sleepwear. Suddenly modest, she pulled on vest and shorts with her back to the archaeologist.
Lara caught her flatmate's hand as she passed the bed.
"Sam, wait," the brunette gasped. "What was that?"
The American girl didn't answer. She simply stroked Lara's cheek, her smile tinted by sadness.
Then she was gone.
That should have been enough of a warning for Lara to end it.
But she was addicted to their illicit nocturnal unions – which had morphed after Sam's physically demonstrative thank you.
Some nights they were as rough as they were that first time; and sex was simply a vent to prevent a Vesuvian eruption. On other evenings though, they were tender in their treatment of one another. It was love-making; undeniably about showing the other person that they were still wanted and cherished despite the scarring.
Lara never thought she'd be someone governed by body over brain, but there it was.
Sam would come to her like a succubus, appearing luminous out of the dark.
The archaeologist never fought it. It got to a point where she'd just smile and shimmy out of her pyjamas. Of course, she was aware that it was wrong. It was wrong on multiple levels, but she didn't care.
Or, rather, she tried not to care.
On the nights that Sam didn't appear – and there were increasingly more of them as the filmmaker healed, and the gaps between awful dreams widened – Lara would lie awake, waiting. Actually hoping for her best friend to relapse.
She would fantasise about Sam rushing to her, and nuzzling into her arms with a hiccupped "I need you, Lara."
It was an indisputably selfish want.
So even if the American girl didn't arrive to tearfully claw at her companion, Lara was subjected to a fresh battering. A self-inflicted one.
She found herself trying to drown out an insistent voice that chafed her as if it was cerebral sandpaper. The same questions grated against her, over and over.
How much of her reaction was plain physical addiction – a craving for much needed endorphins – and how much was something else?
Had she let herself fall for her best friend? A best friend who was essentially using her?
It was hard to deflect the swipes that left her raw and angry at herself for ending up in such an emotionally complex, unsatisfying situation.
After all, there was more than enough evidence to support Lara's suspicions about Sam.
Even in the aftermath of their most affectionate sessions, the filmmaker still never spent the night.
And the women had never again spoken about their agreement.
In bright daylight it was easy to forget that it even existed. Sam was her cheerful former self around her best friend. Every "Babe" and "Sweetie" that passed her lips was utterly platonic. The same went for her hugs and caresses.
Meanwhile, worries cycled in Lara's skull like a BBC News ticker.
They needed their nights together. It helped. These phrases had been thrown around, but they felt hollow; seemed to hang unfinished as if they went without full stops. Various important offshoot questions, like just how long they were going to continue, went unanswered.
It was doing her head in.
Finally, on a November morning as miserable as she was, Lara picked up her phone.
With that settled, she pulled on a hoody, layered it with a leather jacket for extra insulation – physically against the cold; psychologically against the London crowds – and headed out.
The door opened and she found herself gazing upwards, like always.
"Little bird." A grin stretched across the Maori man's face. "It's so good to see you."
A heartbeat later, Lara was in his arms.
The archaeologist could instantly feel her muscles relaxing as he squeezed. Jonah gave the best hugs. It was kind of like embracing a mountain face that had been baking in the sun all day, and had the texture of marshmallow.
"It's good to see you too, Jonah," she murmured with her eyes closed.
All too soon the big man released the embrace. He ushered Lara across the threshold instead.
One of the lasting effects of Yamatai was Lara's inability to switch off her wariness. Jonah was the quintessential gentle giant – the big brother the Englishwoman always wanted – but his scale still triggered something within her. Men, especially physically imposing men, put her on edge, and she found herself continually assessing the threat they posed.
She loved Jonah, but as he followed closely behind her into the flat, she still reached the skin-prickling conclusion that resisting him would be like trying to stand firm against an elephant's insistent trunk. She could only go where he wanted her to.
As awful as it made her feel, she found herself scanning her surroundings for anything she could turn into an improvised weapon.
That was when she noticed a rucksack right by the front door.
She turned back to her friend. "You're going somewhere?"
"Yeah, the States. I thought I'd take a bit of a break. You know, head off the grid, find some place in the middle of nowhere under wide open skies and just reassess my place in the universe."
That sounded bloody appealing actually.
As Lara drew back her hood, she nodded towards the bag, "Got room in there for me?"
Jonah laughed, and continued his explanation. "It seemed like a good time to do it now I'm between jobs."
That was her doing too. Jonah had worked with Roth for years as everything from ship's cook to personal bodyguard. Lara's mentor had given the big man stability after a troubled past. Lara, in turn, had blasted that away like she was still wielding a grenade launcher.
"I'm sorry," she muttered.
Jonah frowned, "What are you apologising for?"
"It's my fault you're out of wor – "
"Stop." Jonah silenced her by bringing his palm down on her shoulder. "No more apologies. You saved my life, Lara. I'm here today because of you. The same goes for Reyes and Sam."
The archaeologist could feel a further denial rippling over her tongue.
Jonah, however, refused to let her utter it. "Come on," he smiled. "Let's sit down in the lounge and have some tea. I even baked coconut tarts."
Jonah made sure she had two tartlets down her gullet before he set aside his mug and leaned back in his armchair.
"So, you said you needed to talk."
"I didn't know who else I could turn to. I – "
Lara was slapped by the sudden realisation that the whole situation was akin to a psychologist's session. Jonah was watching her intently from his seat, while she sat hunched on the couch. That sapped all desire to express her worries. Her fingers tensed on the sofa cushions and she started looking for an exit. "I didn't know you were busy. I should let you get back to packing."
Jonah waved his hand dismissively. "What's bothering you?"
"It – It's – " She finally relented with an exhaled breath. No escaping. "It's Sam."
"Is she alright?"
"Yeah, she – she's fine. Good, actually. All things considered, she's actually starting to do well."
"And you're not?"
That was part of it, if she was being honest with herself.
She pulled a wry smile. "Heh. Is it that obvious?"
"You look tired. Tired and way too thin."
Sleep regularly disrupted by mammoth shag sessions will do that.
Lara sighed, "It's not that…"
They could spend all afternoon beating around the bush, when she'd grown used to firing an assault rifle directly into it.
Just do it.
Lara clenched her eyes shut. It was easier to admit to darkness. "Jonah, I – I think I'm in love with her."
She nodded. Then she slowly looked up.
To his credit, Jonah didn't respond with anything more than a mild frown. "Oh, Little Bird…" he murmured. "Just – Just don't do anything rash."
"I slept with her."
Jonah's eyebrows shot up.
Lara grimaced, "Please don't give me that look. I know it was a stupid thing to do. I really don't need to be judged right now."
"I'm not. I'm just imagining Alex's face if he were still alive."
That wrung a chuckle from her. Jonah too.
The cook grinned, "He must be turning in his grave."
If he had a grave.
That realisation wilted her smile.
The explosion on the island and the survivors' rapid escape meant Alex's mother had the empty consolation of putting an empty coffin in the ground. She'd said as much to Lara. The entire Weiss family blamed the archaeologist for what happened.
Jonah hadn't realised how his companion's mood had plummeted. He continued to joke, "I wouldn't be surprised if Alex's ghost started haunting you."
"Christ," she rolled her eyes. "That's the last thing I need."
"But that would be typical Alex."
That stoked a weak smile out of her. "Yeah, it would."
"Lara." Jonah stretched out and pressed his mammoth rugby player's hand over hers. He squeezed her fingers gently. "Yamatai was full of bad energy. Spirits. It woke things in all of us. Bad things, definitely, but I'm beginning to think good things too. Especially in you."
Lara knew more about the bad things.
"You instincts are a strength. You know this," Jonah prompted. "What are they telling you to do?"
Keep making love with her for as long as it lasts; for as long as she'll let me.
Lara ended up muttering, "Something pointless."
"Sam doesn't share your feelings?"
"I don't think so, no."
"You don't think so? Have you asked her?"
Lara glimpsed an alternate universe where the two friends had met as adolescents in boarding school. When their teacher was busy on the blackboard, the English girl would pass a note to Sam under their desks – a scrap of paper with two scrawled check boxes topped by that all-important question, "Do you like me?"
If only it was that simple.
She snorted at the image, and shook her head. Sadly.
Jonah squeezed her hand again. His frown intensified. "Lara, if we took home anything from that island, it's the knowledge that life is short…" He playfully knuckled her cheek then. "Unless you've already unlocked the secret of immortality?"
She smiled back, wanly. "Not yet."
Lara arrived home to an empty flat. Sam was presumably busy with work. Nightmares aside, she'd bounced back much faster than her flatmate – reintegrating with society, and her old life, a lot more successfully than the fledgling archaeologist.
Because since she had returned home, Lara was floundering. No direction. No job. She had some temp work lined up at the British Museum because a technician was accompanying a collection on tour, but it was meaningless. Her savings were dwindling while she sat paralysed, professionally and personally.
Well, at least one of those things she intended on changing that very evening.
She made herself tea and toast, and settled herself at the kitchen table.
It ended up being a long wait.
She passed the time transferring particularly intriguing notes from the tome she'd found on Yamatai to her journal. Then, when her enthusiasm for that task dwindled, round about 11:30pm, she attempted some breathing exercises to flush the anxiety from her system.
It was while she was concentrating on the expansion and contraction of her lungs that she heard the scrape of keys at the front door.
Showtime, Lara Croft.
She pushed herself upright. And froze.
She recognised Sam's voice. The filmmaker's giggles further reassured her flatmate that there was no threat from intruders. Tension coiled in Lara's muscles regardless. Frowning, she crept towards the kitchen entrance. Hidden behind a corner cabinet, she peered into the living area.
Sam was sashaying across the lounge, a six-foot bloke in tow. They both sported devilish grins. Even before the much smaller woman was tugged back into a clinch, it was obvious where things were leading.
While her hook-up groped at her and licked down her throat, Sam allowed her head to loll back. She looked blissfully drunk. The exact same way she did when Lara was over her. Or under her.
Slowly Sam's eyelids lifted.
Even at distance, her gaze latched onto Lara's. For an instant the filmmaker's smile flickered. Then she let her eyes close, and achieved nirvana once more.
Lara didn't have nightmares that evening.
She simply didn't sleep.
The next morning Lara waited until she was certain Sam's shag had departed. Once the tell-tale sounds of a man in the flat faded, the archaeologist slipped out from her room into welcome silence.
She desperately needed a hit of caffeine. Both her brain and body felt wadded in cotton wool, completely disconnected from the other. Her steps were as staggered and haphazard as her thoughts.
She jerked to a stop, though, at the sight of Sam slumped over the kitchen table. The Englishwoman was surprised by that. Traditionally her flatmate spent the morning-after curled up under her duvet, trying to offset a sleep deficit.
The filmmaker lifted her head at Lara's arrival.
The greyish tint to her skin and lips suggested she had a hangover.
"What?" Sam growled.
Lara didn't immediately answer. She strode past her flatmate to the counter, switched on the kettle and retrieved a mug.
While the water boiled, she turned back to her friend.
She tried to keep the bitterness from saturating her voice, but didn't quite succeed.
"Well, I see you're back to normal. How does it feel to return to the game?"
Sam's hand smacked loudly on the table. "I didn't know I had to ask permission for a fuck?"
Her companion's snappishness put Lara on the defensive. "I never say that."
"Pleeeaaase," the American girl sneered. "Be honest for once."
"You could have warned me, Sam."
"You're not my girlfriend, Lara."
That stung. Like a severe and instant allergic reaction, the archaeologist's temper blistered. She lashed out verbally. "Why the Hell are you angry with me?"
"Why are you being so weird about this? I've done it a hundred fucking times."
"A hundred fucking times. Yeah, that sounds about right."
Sam's eyes narrowed. "Low. Blow."
The filmmaker was right. Lara grimaced and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry. That wasn't fair of me."
"No worries." Sam's words dripped sarcasm. "Every girl loves a good slut shaming."
Lara let her arms drop to her side. She inhaled deeply, utilising the previous evening's breathing exercises after all.
The archaeologist was well aware that the sudden lull in conversation was a chance to siphon some anger from the exchange. A part of her was still itching for a fight though. She just didn't want to sound irrational. So she hauled out the argument she'd assembled over the several hours she lay glaring at her bedroom ceiling, and clamping pillows over her ears.
She exhaled, "What if that guy had surprised me last night, Sam; a stranger in our flat? You know I have a hard time with that now."
The filmmaker rolled her eyes. "Well, Christ, Lara, maybe you should see someone about that? I'm trying to get on with my life. Maybe you should too."
The Englishwoman's jaw dropped. "Where has this come from?"
Sam ignored the question. She scowled instead at her clenched fists on the table top. "Get off my case. Last night, I needed it."
Those words weighted Lara's heart like lead chain; and proceeded to sink it to the ocean floor. She could feel the mounting pressure in her chest. Wincing against the pain, she stammered out her response. "Like you needed me, Sam? I – I get it."
"Exactly like that. You knew the deal, Lara. You knew what it was between us."
"I know what we said it was."
Sam shrugged, and sat silent.
Lara just stared at her. The whole situation was peculiar. Even suffering from the most merciless hangover, this wasn't her best friend at all.
"Sam, are you alright?"
The filmmaker looked like she was about to respond. But as her lips parted, she started shaking her head. "Just forget about it."
"No. I – I care about you. If something is wrong, please tell me."
"I'm fine." Sam shunted her chair back and stood. She kept her eyes on the table as she murmured, "And we're done sleeping together. I don't need it anymore."
She started towards the kitchen entrance.
"Hey. We need to talk about this." Lara's arm shot out.
The English girl had been so stunned by the announcement that she didn't even realise she'd grabbed at her companion until Sam jerked away from her.
"Get your hands off me!"
Lara noticed a deep chocolate bruise on her friend's bicep. Her eyes widened. "Did that guy last night do that to you?"
Fuck, was Sam seeking out batterings from strangers now?
"What? No. God."
Lara swallowed. "Did I do that to you?"
They'd last shagged three nights previously, and it had been one of their rougher encounters. Lara wasn't sure about Sam, but in her own case, it could take as much as two days for bruising to appear.
Rage drained from Sam's features, leaving her expression blank. She self-consciously covered the blemish with trembling fingers.
"No. I – I knocked against the wall."
"Let me look at it." Post-Yamatai, Lara certainly had enough experience with injuries. She was reaching for her friend when Sam swatted away her hand.
"No!" The American girl snarled at her companion like a furious territorial cat.
Exasperated – emotionally on edge – Lara exploded, "What the Hell is up with you at the moment? You're running hot and cold with me. Fuck!"
"Just give me space, Lara, alright?"
As if to emphasise her point, Sam hopped back a good four feet. Still clutching her bicep, she added, "You said you want to help me?"
All her damn promises.
"So just butt out. There's some stuff I need to deal with alone. You of all people should understand that."
Lara scowled, "Sam, I…"
"I said leave me alone. Please."
"But – "
She didn't get to finish. Sam spat, "I can look after myself. I don't need you always rushing in to save the day like you're some knight in shining armour…" She added, "…or shredded cargo pants."
It was a battle for the archaeologist to squeeze out a response. Her words sounded robotic. "If that's what you want."
Sam backed towards the entrance. Her final words to her friend were, "I'm not useless, Lara."
Then she fled down the passage.
Lara was left alone in the kitchen. With the kettle long since boiled, the only sound was the Englishwoman's shuddered breathing.
It had happened. Just as she feared. They had ruined everything – everything that they had been, and everything that she had fleetingly, and foolishly, hoped they could be.
It was her turn to smack the table.
Sometime later, when she had managed to wrangle her emotions back into their nice neat British paddock, she dragged herself back to her room.
The route took her past Sam's closed door.
The English girl paused.
She had spent so much time building up to her confession.
So much wasted time.
It was idiotic, but she didn't care.
She pressed her cheek against the painted pine, and ran her fingertips over the smooth surface.
"Sam," she whispered. "I care for you more than anyone else in the world. I'm here for you. Whatever you need from me… or don't. I – I love you…"
Sam sat upright in bed, her back against the headrest and her knees drawn up to her chest. She was perfectly still except for the tears shimmering in her eyes. Occasionally, one escaped. Then it would race down her cheek and make a suicide plunge into the abyss.
The filmmaker made no move to rub at the wetness. She stared across the room at her reflection in the dressing table mirror.
Her daughter continued to fight her – to resist the great honour it was to be chosen.
It grated Her to be defied in such a manner, but She was prepared to endure the offense. It was a cost She would pay. There would be time for punishment later. Right now, She had one objective.
Through Her daughter's eyes, She watched her adversary.
She was too weak to kill the girl, but working with care and cunning – seizing control of Her daughter at key moments; planting irresistible suggestions in Her vessel's mind – She could still hurt the one who had ruined everything.
So many barbarians had arrived on Her island over the centuries. Yet in the end, the savage who had proved to be the greatest threat was just a girl. Small. Utterly unassuming in appearance. Yet, caked in dirt and blood, she brought with her destruction.
She was Death's handmaiden.
Young, beautiful and deadly.
A Priestess of the Moon as Her own chosen bore the title Priestess of the Sun.
Her daughter loved the barbarian girl. Deeply. Yet she kept that aberrant longing as much a secret as her Queen's advance.
It was no matter.
The longer the covert battle between Queen and Priestess waged, the stronger She grew. She fed off the pain of Her daughter, as well as the confused barbarian girl. Every day She was gaining ground, while Her daughter weakened, and retreated into the deepest corners of her mind.
The rising sun conquering night – as it should be.
It was undeniably perilous. Pushed far enough into desperation, Her daughter could behave as that wretched girl Hoshi had centuries previously. Then everything would be undone once more.
Still, She could not resist the taste of irony, silken on Her tongue.
Whatever gouges She was exposed to, She would inflict them tenfold on her foe.
Come what may, She would destroy Lara Croft.
She would shatter and incinerate the girl's heart, just as the girl had done to Her.