Ta Da! I return! For a long time I wanted to write another story but I couldn't think of anything. Then, a small personal screw up and some dark mornings in solitude waiting for the bus and hey presto, inspiration. I'm at my most creative when I'm living in metaphorical darkness, so it's a good job my life is usually a disaster.
Thankyou THANKYOU to everyone who reviewed the final chapters of my last piece, No Man's Land, and especially to those who reviewed right the way through the story. I really appreciate it and I'm so glad that you all enjoyed the last chapter so much. I knew that little twist would have you all going:-)
You don't need to have read my Home trilogy to understand this fic, though little references like the Takeshi's Castle scene will make more sense if you have. Teef, that bit's for you! Just know that Kurtis and Lara hit a bad patch but sorted things out, Kurtis went off to sort out some personal issues, Bryce currently hates Kurtis, and Kurtis had a hard time with the Lux Veritatis and his father.
This story was originally meant to premiere on Feb 14th for Lara's birthday, but it got delayed. I've rambled enough, on with the show!
The Dark Bank Of The River
To Kieron - Contentment is the enemy of invention
Kurtis Trent leant on the hotel balcony railing and stared out across the town. He took a drag of his cigarette, breathing in deeply, and then exhaled. The smoke mingled with the early morning fog, already shrouding the skyline into ghosts of silhouettes.
He thought for a moment, contemplating all that he had been through, all that had happened, finalising his thoughts that had been running all night.
"They say still waters run deep," he concluded to no one but himself. "I guess they're right."
Then he dropped his cigarette on the floor, stamped it out under his boot, and went inside to pick up his bags.Three weeks earlier
It was a cellar or basement of some kind, with grimy flagstones covered in decaying scraps of paper and clumps of dirt, and walls of brick marked with water stains and cobwebs. It was cold, quiet, the temperature and the silence crystal in their clarity, the only pure things about the place.
She stood there before him, impassive to his suffering. "Who are you?"
"What do you mean?" he begged, pleading with his eyes and imploring with his hands. "What do you want from me?" He was dirty, unkempt, cut, bruised and desperate for respite.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I don't know what you mean!" he cried, but she did not react to his distress, only regarding him patiently, and in desperation he broke down into tears, his body sagging where he knelt on the floor. "Please!" he sobbed, looking up and reaching out to her, "Lara, please…", but she was gone and Kurtis was alone once more.
"Please," he sobbed to the darkness, falling forwards and dropping his head to the dirt caked floor as his hands clawed at the unforgiving stone, "please…"
Gasping, Lara Croft sat bolt upright in bed, finding herself sweating and panting from the nightmare. She stared around her into the darkness and then looked to her clock, the luminescent display marking 6am of a cold winter morning. Letting out a deep breath, she flopped back onto her pillow and wiped the sweat from her forehead. What a horrible dream. How could she have just stood there and coldly ignored him when he'd obviously needed comfort so badly? Was it she that had done that to him? She shivered and shook her head harshly, trying to force the images from her mind. It was just a dream…she'd never do anything like that to anyone. It was just a dream. Sighing sharply once again, she turned over onto her side and buried her head into the pillow, calming herself after the nightmare as she waited for the unwelcome inevitable.
Soon enough, the inevitable came, and Lara refused to react. Her bedroom door clicked open, creaked noisily as it was swung wide, and then fast footsteps clattered noisily over the wooden floor towards her. She was forced to open her eyes when a heavy weight landed squarely on top of her, forcing out all breath, and causing her to bend slightly at the waist, letting out a startled 'oof'.
"Bryce!" she complained, glaring up at him as he grinned down from where he lay above her, bouncing slightly as the mattress sought equilibrium. Her arms darted out to shove him off her, and he laughed as he was pushed to the side, rolling off her and finishing on his side with his head propped in his hand and his gaze delightedly fixed on her unimpressed scowl. "What are you doing up, anyway?" she moaned, "You're never up before 11."
He prodded her as if to emphasise his point. "Couldn't sleep in on my favourite ex-girlfriend's birthday, could I?"
"Bryce, I'm probably your only ex girlfriend."
"Only one worth mentioning," he replied smoothly. "Happy Birthday!" he cried enthusiastically, giving her a hearty hug through the bedclothes. She responded by pushing him off again and burying her head under the pillow, groaning.
"Ahh, is my girl having age issues?"
A hand shot out from where it was clutching the pillow tightly over Lara's head and punched his arm.
"Good morning, Lady Croft!" Hillary enthused as he swept in carrying a tray of exotic breakfast. "Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday dear Lara, Happy Birthday to you!"
"She's upset," Bryce supplied as Hillary set the tray down but Lara stayed firmly hidden.
"Another year?" Hillary asked.
"That would be the reason," Bryce answered. "Well," he said, turning over to engulf Lara in another hug, "we'll leave you to come to terms with your impending middle age. Happy Birthday." He slapped a thin ring binder down on the bedside table, landed a quick kiss on Lara's shoulder, the only easily accessible anatomy at the time, and rolled off the bed.
"Happy Birthday, Lara," Hillary added, and then politely left the room, closing the door behind him.
A drawn out sigh escaped from underneath the pillow, a combination of an unwanted birthday, a rude awakening, and the after effects of the nightmare that still nagged at the edge of her mind. Throwing the pillow aside, she sat up, drawing her legs to her chest protectively and leaning her elbows on her knees as she dragged her hands over her face. It had shaken her, that was for sure – there was nothing like a bad dream to set you on edge. Well, she just hoped that, wherever he was, Kurtis was doing alright.
Kurtis' strangled cry was barely audible above the rain of bullets slamming into the wall behind him as he only just managed to dive for cover behind a large stack of wooden crates.
Crouching, he dropped the empty clip from his pistol, threw it out of the way, and slammed a new one into the chamber. He bobbed up to take aim over the crates between two higher stacks, but hadn't even taken off a single shot before the one directly to the right of his head exploded into splinters with a crash.
"Fuck!" he screamed, throwing himself back down to the ground.
His glance darted left and right, and, noticing that the stack behind him wasn't flush against the wall and provided some cover, he took a breath and then, bent over against the onslaught against him, sprinted behind them, throwing himself into a corner.
"Dammit!" he muttered. Sliding down so that he was almost flat on the floor, he fumbled around in his pocket until he got hold of his cell phone, fished it out, and began to tap out a text message.
Taking pot shots between words, he divided his attention between the phone and the fight, coolly ducking even further when one bullet whistled dangerously close past his ear and not even pausing in his frantic keying in.
Hitting send, the phone beeped to confirm that the message was on its way, and Kurtis shoved it back into his pocket, took two more shots, and then turned and ran for a new position.
Lara's mobile phone beeped, and, surprised, she raised her head from where it had been buried in her lap. She never got text messages. Well, only from Bryce and Hillary anyway, and they were downstairs.
Curious, she threw back the covers and padded across the room to her dresser, where the phone lay.
'One Message Received', it said, so she hit the button to read it, and narrowed her eyes in bemusement at the bizarre contents before laughing out loud.
'Sorry I haven't called, but I'm crouched behind packing crates getting shot at, so I'm a little busy. Have a great birthday, I'll speak to you later if I make it out alive.'
She didn't even need to check the envelope to see who that was from. Giggling to herself, she dropped the phone back to its original resting place and went to the breakfast tray for some toast. If nothing else, Kurtis' predicament had at least served to alleviate her birthday blues somewhat. He was out there, he was ok – well, as ok as anyone in their profession could be, anyway – and he had remembered her birthday. Munching a mouthful of breakfast, she sat down on the edge of the bed to open her cards from Hillary and Bryce, smiling at their messages promising her birthday gifts downstairs, and then grabbed the ring binder that Bryce had dropped off.
A post it note pasted onto the cover cheered her up even more as she read Bryce's scribble: 'Best get the adventuring in before you're too old – not much time left now!'. The message was explained when she opened up the folder to find a collation of internet articles, book photocopies, and, covering it all, a scientific paper - research for a new adventure.A smile appeared on Lara's lips as she scanned the contents and accompanying papers – she'd been starting to get restless these last few weeks.
"Any last requests before the beginning of the end?" the man asked, circling Kurtis where he hung by his wrists, dangling from the hook of a cargo crane in the corner of the warehouse.
"Er…a final phone call? It's my friend's birthday and I'd really like to say hi, wish her a good day, and ask her to come rescue me."
"No," was the firm yet slightly amused answer.
"In that case, how about a cigarette?"
"For your own good, no again. Those things'll kill you, y'know."
"I'm sorry," said Kurtis sarcastically, "I was under the impression that the point of a last request was to grant the prisoner their last request. Besides, you're gonna kill me anyway, what harm can a cigarette do!"
"We're not going to kill you just yet," the man clarified, and then came to stand in front of Kurtis, smiling amiably. He was tall, late twenties, with shoulder length blonde hair and blue jeans teamed with a brown leather bomber jacket. "No, we have plans for you first. Big plans. Really great plans."
"Great plans that result in my death? Yeah, sounds fantastic."
The man smiled, apparently rather impressed by Kurtis' ability to remain casual under pressure. "Mr Trent," he pointed with both index fingers towards his trussed prisoner, "you are destined to play a part in an event of historical proportions." He began walking backwards towards the entrance as the rest of his gang stayed circled around their prisoner. "I will see you at our base of operations. When you're conscious again." He laughed and then turned, striding back outside into the winter Chicago night illuminated by the warehouse yard floodlights.
Another man stepped forward, large and muscled, and definitely lacking in his leader's sense of humour. His hand curled into a fist, and Kurtis scrunched his eyes shut and turned his face away in preparation as the fist was raised – and then there was a split second of blinding pain before everything went black.
The television was on in the main lounge as Lara came downstairs, up out of bed and unsure how to spend her day. Trailing her fingers along the wood panelled wall as she read from the folder balanced in her other hand, she smiled contentedly to herself. Her birthday cards were tucked into the pages of the file, and she stopped to display them on the hallway sideboard.
The sounds of Takeshi's Castle floated out into the hallway from the lounge, and, following the sound towards civilisation, she made for the living room. She was vaguely aware of Bryce and Hillary watching the game show as she entered, still engrossed in the papers Bryce had given her.
"I can't believe it!" came the Scouse accent of Craig Charles from the television, "We have a winner!" Cheers arose from the sofa and, mildly surprised that someone had managed to win for once, she glanced over to the TV screen as it came within view, and then stopped dead and did a double take, folder forgotten, at what she thought she had seen, but the credits had already begun to roll. Eyes narrowed, she fixed a gaze upon her butler, but he and Bryce were only staring innocently at the television. No, surely not… Lara shook her head at the silly idea and began reading again, blindly lowering herself into a chair.
"Well, that was a quick mid life crisis," Bryce said by way of greeting.
"This…is…phenomenal," Lara stammered, indicating the folder.
"I know," Bryce replied smugly. "But not quite as good as your birthday present. Come on," and with that he snatched the folder from her hands, handed it to Hillary, and pulled her out of the chair, running off with Lara in tow.
She was led to the control room of the training arena and shoved into a desk chair. Bryce stepped back and then looked to Hillary, prompting him to give Lara her gift.
Hillary smiled and then presented her with a small box. Opening it, she came face to face with the most elaborate, gadget ridden piece of equipment masquerading as a wristwatch that she had ever seen.
"It's the same model used by the United States Air Force," Hillary explained as she examined it curiously, "it has Global Positioning, four different time zones, thermometer, barometer, tidal calendar, compass…it'll probably even make you coffee if you ask it."
Lara smiled widely, trying the watch for size. "Thankyou," she beamed, "should come in very handy."
"The presents are from both of us," Bryce interrupted impatiently. "I helped Hillary choose the watch and Hillary helped me to build this." He scampered over to the corner of the room and Lara noticed for the first time a large object draped in a dust-sheet. Bryce grabbed one corner and stood proudly before announcing with pomp and circumstance, "Lady Lara Croft, I present to you, in celebration of your illustrious birthday, The Shoot Out 2000!" He whipped the sheet off, revealing a shining curiosity of steel framework, about ten feet cubed with a small floor panel in the centre and what Lara recognised as light sensors fixed on at regular intervals all over the inside.
"The Shoot Out 2000?" she repeated curiously, walking over to get a better look.
"Well, the name could probably do with a bit of work."
The distant sound of the doorbell chose that moment to announce the arrival of the postman, and so Hillary gestured for Bryce to give her a demonstration whilst he went to collect the mail.
"It's a combat training simulator," Bryce explained, and he handed Lara a plastic laser gun and a wristband with a small sensor on it, the gun adorned with a large purple birthday gift bow. "It's like virtual reality but more advanced. You put the wristband on so the computer can aim at you, step inside, power the thing up, and then shoot or fist fight to your heart's content."
Slightly bemused by the contraption, Lara put on the wristband and then stepped onto the floor panel, looking around her at the machinery. "It uses cameras to fix your position and translate it into information that it can react to when you're fighting, a bit like those Eye Toys, and acts as an advanced Quasar when you're shooting," Bryce continued.
"Good luck," he said then and, without warning, started up the simulation. A holographic thug appeared before Lara and, before she could react to the unexpected realism, it aimed and fired. A sharp but harmless electric shock ran up Lara's arm from the wristband and she jumped.
"Ow!" she squeaked.
"Try not to let them shoot you first," Bryce offered.
Giving him a 'You could have told me that earlier' glare, Lara readied herself for the next attack and, when it came, took out the sniper with graceful ease.
"Ah, I can see that Level 1's too easy for you," Bryce said gleefully, and then suddenly Lara was surrounded by four enemies at once.
When Hillary returned a minute later with the mail, he found Bryce bent over a chair, laughing too hard to stand up straight, and Lara sprawled on the floor of her new toy clutching her wrist in gales of laughter.
"That hurts!" she managed to complain half-heartedly.
"Well, look at it this way," Bryce replied in between bouts of suffocating mirth, "it'll teach you not to get shot!"
A polite cough interrupted them and they managed to compose themselves enough to address the butler.
"Your birthday post, Madam," he said formally, bowing deeply as he held out a handful of brightly coloured envelopes, some marked with airmail stickers, and a padded envelope.
"Ooh," Lara said, taking the delivery and sitting down to open them. Cards from her friends and contacts throughout the globe, some containing small, sentimental gifts such as local souvenirs, and the padded envelope addressed in the unmistakable, illegible scrawl of one Kurtis Trent. She saved it until last, and the smile steadily growing throughout the other well wishes grew even larger as she tore the parcel open to find a simple golden necklace with an Eye Of Horus pendant, the box marked only with a slip of paper baring the simple, unsigned message of, 'To keep you safe."
She held it up, watching it catch the morning light as it spun gently.
"Nice," Bryce said coldly. Lara ignored him. Now that she and Kurtis were friends again, Bryce was forced to keep his hatred hidden, but he did so only lightly and his attitude grated on her.
"Maybe the Lady would like to enjoy some coffee whilst she plans her next adventure?" Hillary said, neatly diffusing the situation before it began as he held out the research folder to Lara. She smiled her thanks, wrapping the necklace around her hand and gathering up her cards as she took the folder and followed Hillary towards the kitchen. Bryce, scowling, stayed behind.
"So how is Mr Trent these days?" Hillary asked conversationally on their way.
"I hadn't heard from him in months, but he sent me a text message this morning saying 'Happy Birthday' and that he was getting shot at."
"So he's alright then?" Hillary asked, smirking.
"Oh, I'm sure he's fine."
Kurtis groaned as he came to. "Morning, guys."
The 'guys' did not answer. There were two of them, standing stoically before him with their hands clasped in front, looking like your average everyday clichéd mobsters. At least, that was Kurtis' impression, but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Instead he blinked to clear his blurry vision and, satisfied that he didn't have a concussion, took stock of his surroundings. He was in a storage room of some sort, sat on a chair with his ankles tied together and his hands tied behind the back-rest. A small window high and to his right let the orange glow of a streetlight in, but the room was primarily illuminated by a single naked bulb hanging from the centre of the ceiling above his head. There were crates and boxes along the walls, a few shelves and the smell of alcohol. Searching for more clues as to where he was, he squinted to make out the lettering on the boxes in the dim light, and found them to be mostly full of the stock of a bar or restaurant – alcohol, glasses, napkins, snack foods. So, he was in some sort of establishment that was apparently still in business. Well, that could prove to be helpful, at least.
"Hey, guys," he said, turning back to his minders. "Can I get a cigarette?" One of the men sneered at him, but neither answered. Kurtis sighed.
A few moments later the door opened and the humorous one from the warehouse swept in.
"Ah, Mr Trent," he said enthusiastically, "you're back with us! Marvellous. Well, no time like the present – what can you tell me about the Ritual of Anubis?"