This is more a case of the characters being a vehicle for an idea rather than the other way around. This may a seem little out of character and unusual, but my main aim with this was to ask a question, and since TR fanfic is my most-practised outlet and Lara embodies just the sort of backstory I need for this piece, a TR fanfic it became. I don't know if it works, I don't know if it makes sense, but this is the complete story. An odd ending there may be, but there's no continuation to this one. This is set after The Angel of Darkness and is a rework of a dream I had. Obviously my subconscious has been examining my conscience. :-D
Handing over the credit card with a smile that she'd long ago learned to fake, Lara swapped her wallet to her submissive hand and readied the other to tap in her pin number when the till was ready, working constantly to process sales from the throngs of shoppers.
"Lara? Lara!" The voice was uncertain at first, its owner not quite sure that they'd correctly recognised her, but after she turned towards them their words changed from a question to a greeting.
"Lara, it's been so long, how have you been?" It was David, the groom from the stables that she'd attended in her early twenties after first taking up residence in the mansion. They'd been good friends. She'd wanted to be more.
"David," she laughed, quickly tapping in her pin number for the waiting assistant before turning back to him. "I'm very well, thankyou. How are you?"
"Great! I'm…I'm great." He nodded, hands sliding into his pockets.
The shop assistant handed the card back to Lara and held out the bag of shopping, Lara quickly putting her credit card away before accepting her purchases and taking David's elbow lightly to lead him away from the crowded service desk of the expensive clothing shop.
"So, David," she said warmly as they went to stand out of peoples' way in a corner near the door, "are you still working at the stables?"
"No," he said, grinning. "No, I retrained. I'm an insurance underwriter now, earning more, getting dirty less."
They both laughed a little, not uncomfortable but still feeling the distance of the years. She stared at him, not even putting any effort into grinning like the Cheshire Cat. His eyes were still that watery blue, his hair still that dirty blonde, although he'd left behind the fashionable floppy haircut of the 1990s and now had a more adult, city executive style teased with gel.
He was smiling back at her, returning the perusal. Her greater experience and confidence now told her that she'd been right to suspect his feelings towards her all those years ago had been more than just those of a friend blind to physical attraction, and from the look he was giving her, he still saw her that way. She smiled at him once more, conveying her interest.
"My parking ticket's almost run out so I can't stay, but let's meet up for a coffee soon and catch up. I just have to take something to the Returns desk – it's a top I bought last week, but it doesn't really suit me – and then we'll sort something out, exchange numbers whilst you walk me to my car. Why don't you wait for me outside?"
"Ok," David agreed, nodding. "I'll be right out there." He turned to leave, looking back over his shoulder to give another head to toe glance.
Lara gave him one last quick flash of a grin and then hurried to get her refund.
As she walked slowly out of the shop a few minutes later, looking around for David, it became clear that he had gone.
She sagged, despondant. Perhaps he'd decided that a woman older than him by a few years with the lacklustre skin and dead eyes of a depressive with the disposition to match wasn't someone he really wanted to pursue.
Heading back to her car, she glanced in the shop windows at the displays as she passed – and saw him. He was in a shoe shop, examining some trainers. Not stopping to consider why he'd not waited, she rushed forwards to capture him again. Not noticing her, he began to march away across the crowded shop floor and she called his name, hoping to stop him.
He turned and saw her just as she realised that he'd been returning to a woman sat on the stools placed for customers to try on shoes, a blonde woman with bright eyes, a happy smile…and a pram.
It was too late, they were both looking at her, David surprised and the woman confused.
"Lara," David said, disdain underneath false warmth. "Well, I just ran into you in the other shop, I didn't think we'd bump into each other here as well."
"Is this a friend of yours, David?" the woman asked earnestly, as Lara approached from between the shelves.
"Yeah. Yes, Michelle, this is Lara. She used to attend the stables I worked at; I saw her while I was waiting for you to finish changing Katrina. Lara, this is Michelle."
"Your wife," Lara said as she moved closer to talk, smiling brightly at the woman. Leaning over, she looked into the pram. "And your daughter," she finished, beaming at Michelle. "A beautiful baby." Inside she felt cold.
Michelle smiled back, genuinely welcoming and obviously proud of her child. "Thankyou."
"Lara, why don't we swap numbers and then get together sometime to catch up?" He sounded more eager to get rid of her than eager to see her again as he had when he'd been alone. He flashed an uncomfortable smile and his glance quickly darted away to the corner of the room.
Nodding quickly, Lara returned the weak grin and fumbled in her bag clumsily for her notepad. "Of course," she said, "I should really be getting along anyway."
Lara poured the water into the tea cup and then, simply unable to finish making her drink, sat heavily on her chair and buried her face in her hands.
It just wasn't fair.
Everyone was happy except for her. Everyone had got on with their lives except for her. Oh yes, she had money and a mansion and a title, but it all meant nothing when you weren't happy, and it wasn't like life had ever given her anything important, had it?
Nothing apart from a crushing duty to save the world, anyway.
Why couldn't she go back to the way she was before? Why had she let Egypt change her so much?
Why couldn't she cry?
She hated him. And she hated David, too. He had a job and a spouse and a child. They weren't necessarily things that Lara wanted – she was rather certain they'd suffocate her as much as her loneliness was doing at that moment – but what bothered her was that he'd got on and achieved things, things that were supposed to be important, and she'd just stayed still and done the same thing forever and now she was just left behind. Left behind without anyone to stay behind with her. Left behind because she'd done the right thing.
Slamming the palm of her hand into the table's edge, she gave out a strangled scream of rage and despair, the table jolting sharply and the unbrewed tea slopping over the rim of the cup. She sat and stared at the spilt drink for a moment, really not caring about the mess. Then she looked at the cloth by the sink for a while before rising to retrieve it and wipe up the spill.
It had been two days since she'd bumped into David in town. Two days since she'd felt herself wake to the possibility of living again and then having it all crash down around her again, a fresh wound.
She knew it would be better for everyone if she just stayed away. David must have known that too; he hadn't called. Perhaps, though, perhaps she was a little bit of a masochist. Perhaps she thought she deserved to suffer. That was the only reason she could think to explain her behaviour when she found herself picking up the phone.
"Hello, David Tyler's phone."
"Oh." Lara was taken aback for a moment. It was his mobile phone number he'd given her, she didn't expect anyone else to be answering it. "Is that Michelle?"
"It's Lara. We met in town?"
"Oh, hello!" The voice was cheerful, welcoming. She seemed like such a lovely person. "I'm sorry, but David's at work. He's gone and forgotten to take his phone with him today."
"Oh!" Lara softly chided herself, putting a hand to her forehead. "Of course he is. I don't work regular hours, sometimes I forget there's a working week. I'm sorry to bother you."
"Oh, it's ok!" Michelle said, quickly continuing the conversation before Lara could hang up. "He'll be home in a couple of hours. Why don't you come over and wait for him? I'd love to talk to you, I don't really get many chances to meet people now I'm at home looking after the baby."
No excuse to hand, Lara falteringly searched for a way to politely turn down the invitation. "Oh, well, I really do have to – "
"It really won't be long before he's home and it would be lovely to meet some more of his friends. I really only know the people from his office, I haven't met anybody from his university or anything."
She should go. It would be good for her, and Michelle was obviously in need of some female company. It really wouldn't be that bad, and what was she going to do instead?
"Alright," Lara agreed. "Where do you live?"
Forty minutes later Lara was scanning the numbers of the doors as she walked smartly along the corridor of an upper floor in an upmarket town apartment block. Finding the room, she knocked and waited. It was dim in the corridor, with only faint lighting that didn't properly reach into the end corner where Lara was stood.
The door opened and electric light flooded out, illuminating Michelle's bright purple jumper.
"Lara!" the woman greeted. The baby was in her arms, partially over one shoulder, so she didn't offer her hand for fear of losing grip. Instead, she stood back and invited her visitor in with a smile. Smiling back with what Lara suspected was rather less feeling, she stepped inside.
The flat was large and open plan, with hardwood floors, a kitchen stocked with shiny steel saucepans and a smoked glass and chrome dining table dominating a raised area surrounded on three sides by walls lined with built-in shelves. It had obviously been show-home perfect before the arrival of the child, but now toys were scattered in a small area of the lounge space and the kitchen hadn't been cleaned after lunch.
"Please excuse the mess," Michelle said, following Lara into the centre of the room, "but I'm sure you can appreciate that babies and tidy houses don't really go together. Do you have any children?"
Lara looked to her, smiling and shaking her head. "No."
"Well, I've been trying to get this one to sleep for a while now but she's not co-operating so I'll just see how she likes being left to play." The baby was laid down on a padded mat with mirrors and shapes suspended from a bar above it and left to amuse itself. "Can I get you a drink, Lara?"
"Oh that would be lovely, thankyou. Tea, if you have it." She followed Michelle to the kitchenette and leant against the worktop as her host retrieved cups, put water on to boil and quickly washed a few dishes.
"I was a solicitor before I had Katrina. I've given up work for the time being but when she starts school I'm hoping to go back."
"That's a long career break," Lara commented.
"Yes, it is, but I'd prefer to take the time for my daughter than concentrate on a career. I know a lot of women want to do well professionally but to me, my family is more important. In the grand scheme of things, my job isn't my highest priority even if I did love it."
"Has it become a strain, losing the income just when you need it the most?"
"It has, yes, especially with the cost of this place." Michelle poured the freshly boiled water onto the tea bags and sighed. "David's been doing a lot of overtime to make sure we can afford to carry on as we're used to. He comes home late, so tired, and with him gone most evenings I've found myself sleeping – "
'With someone else', Lara finished in her head, shocking herself at her sudden schadenfreude attitude.
" – when Katrina's napping in the afternoon," Michelle finished. "I'm just not tired come night time so David goes to bed alone and by the time I join him he's dead to the world. Still, we make time for each other when we can, we'll be alright."
Smiling at her guest, oblivious to the thoughts in her head, Michelle turned and offered a mug of tea with a friendly smile. "Come on, let's sit down, you can tell me all about yourself."
They chatted for an hour, Lara leaning forwards in the squashy leather armchair and inwardly, begrudgingly, admitting that her hostess was an incredibly lovely woman, so easy to get on with. Their conversation was broken when the front door opened.
"Oh, David!" Michelle stood, turning towards her husband as he returned from work. "You left your mobile and Lara called, so I invited her over. We've just been saying that we should meet up to go shopping one afternoon if my mum will babysit."
"You deserve the break," David agreed, flashing Lara a cold smile before turning back to his wife. "You didn't forget we're going out to dinner tonight, are you?" he asked hurriedly. "That's why I'm home early." He quickly darted forwards and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before rushing away again to remove his coat.
"No, no, I didn't forget. Susan phoned this morning to say that she'd meet us at the restaurant but Robert can't come, he's not well."
"Oh that's a shame," David said absently, busily hanging up his jacket and leafing through his wallet to check he had enough money for the evening. "Did she say what's wrong with him?"
"I'd better be going then," Lara interrupted, smoothing imaginary creases on her jeans. "Obviously you're leaving very soon so I'd best leave you two to get ready."
"Oh why don't you come with us?" Michelle enthused. "You can fill Robert's place and I'm sure you'd get on with Susan – she's someone I used to work with before I gave up my job."
Lara's gaze fell disdainfully on David's back as he rummaged through a pile of ironing for a clean shirt. "No, it's alright, I'm rather busy this evening and I wouldn't want to intrude."
Turning back to Michelle, Lara began to smile, only half affected. "Michelle, it's been lovely to meet you and we really should meet up again for some shopping or a film."
"Yes, yes, of course!" The two women moved to the front door.
"Goodbye then," Lara said, "enjoy your meal."
"Bye, Lara," David threw over his shoulder.
"Goodbye," Michelle returned, taking Lara's hand and giving it a squeeze. "We'll talk again soon."
She sat with the television on late that same evening, staring at the screen without really seeing the picture. It was difficult, she was torn. She wanted to hate Michelle so much, but Michelle didn't deserve it. And David – she wanted to hate him, he deserved to have her hate him for his blatent disregard for his marriage given a fly-by opportunity for a fling, but somehow all she could think of was how they used to flirt.
Her mobile phone beeped to alert her of a new text message. Distracted from her thoughts, she reached out and read it.
Riverbank Hotel, tonight at 2, room 312. David.
Mouth open, Lara stared at the phone.