Thanks to Maro.
"We totally should have had a house-cooling for you," Sam said, standing in the middle of my empty flat in her winter coat. "Or whatever you call the opposite of a housewarming." She wandered over to the window, looking out onto the street. It was late November and already flurries of snow were collecting on the glass. In this weather 'house-cooling' seemed appropriate.
"It's weird to think this is the last time I'll see this view. It kind of feels like my old home and I didn't even live here." She took her mobile out and snapped a picture of the street below.
I wasn't sure I completely agreed with her assessment of not living there. Sure, her name had never actually been on the lease, but she'd slept on the other side of my bed so often while we were at uni that it might as well have been. I hadn't minded. It was always nice having her company, even if she did leave her clothes everywhere.
Right now, though, I had the last box in my arms and it was rather heavy. "A bit late to organise anything now," I said, jogging it with a knee. "We have to give the key back this afternoon and we're off tomorrow."
I could see her make a face in the reflection. She turned back to me. "We probably should have waited until after our big vacation to move. Well, whatever," she said, approaching me. "We can just have a huge housewarming when we get back." She held her arms out and received the box from me, groaning dramatically at the weight of it.
"Will you be alright with the stairs?"
She scoffed. "Let's go! I can't wait to see what you think of our new home!"
I hadn't even seen it, actually. I'd been in the midst of spending days and days preparing for some guest lectures at the University of Tokyo while she'd been buried in real estate websites. By the time the lectures were over, Sam was absolutely convinced she'd found us the perfect place and wanted it to be a surprise.
She was so excited about it, how could I say no?
I watched her with some concern as she attempted to navigate the steep stairwell with the box, but I needn't have worried. She was wearing heels that I certainly would have fallen off, but walking as smoothly as if she were wearing runners. At least her ankle was better now, I thought. It seemed she was celebrating not needing to wear the moonboot by cracking out all her most dangerous shoes just as the streets iced over.
When she'd gone I surveyed my flat one last time to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything, poking my head into all the rooms as I switched off the lights.
It was so odd seeing it empty of furniture and my belongings after three years of living here. I had so many memories of this place. If I closed my eyes, I could still picture where everything had been and the way my life was before I'd left for Yamatai.
I heard the sound of Sam's heels walking back up the corridor. She stopped in the doorway, fixing her scarf. "Ready?"
Looking back at my old living room, the only feature was the square of late afternoon sunlight on the carpet.
The end of an era, I thought. "Yeah."
She caught me as I walked past her through the doorway, pulling me against her. The coats she'd bought us were so puffy it felt like there was a pillow between us.
"I used to always imagine doing this," she said, "especially in summer when you answered the door in that thin t-shirt and without a bra on. I could see everything." I cringed as she continued, "These coats don't really provide the same entertainment. I suppose it's all still in there somewhere, though." She ran her gloved hands up the front of my coat as if she could find anything through it. Then, leaning across the space between us, she kissed me.
"Well," My neighbour's voice and the sound of his door opening startled me and I jerked back away from Sam. "On to bigger and better things, eh?" I nearly dropped the keys.
Sam looked completely unruffled about the fact he'd just caught us snogging in the corridor. "You should see the place we're moving to," she told him, and swept her hands out in front of her. It looked quite comical in her quilted coat. "It's really classic."
He was a mid-forties divorcee who'd been living across from me for a year and a half. I know he'd furtively watched Sam a little too closely when she'd been sunbaking on my balcony, but other than that he'd been a lovely neighbour and had always been happy to collect my mail when I'd been away.
Despite being lovely, he did laugh at my discomfort which made me even more uncomfortable. "Don't worry, lass," he said with a wide grin. "Your secret's safe with me. I tell everyone you had that boy around, too. What was his name?"
"Alex," I told him as I pulled the door shut and locked it, "he was just a friend. And it's not a secret— about Sam and I, I mean."
His eyebrows were raised and he and Sam shared a look that I think may have been at my expense. "Right, of course," he said, clearly humouring me, and then held his hand out as I pulled the key from the lock. "Would you like me to return that to the agent for you both? I'm just on my way down to those shops to buy milk."
Sam glanced at me. I tilted my head. "Actually, that would be great," I said, and worked the key he was asking for off my ring and placed it in the palm of one of his gloves.
He cradled it as if it were made of solid gold. "I should keep it and say it belonged to Lara Croft," he said, but I think he was joking. "Maybe I'll sell it on eBay. Did you know they put the rent up on this place and have your name all over the adverts?"
At least, I hoped he was joking because that last part was ridiculous. I didn't even want to play along. "Thanks again," I said and herded Sam down the hallway while she smirked at me.
"I hope your new neighbour has a lot less paparazzi to block the driveway," she called out to him, mostly to tease me. I pretended to smack the back of her head.
He laughed, and turned back to his own door to lock it. "Goodbye, you two."
All of my furniture had been shipped earlier and what was left of my boxes fit into the back of Sam's M-series. While I suspected it may have been physically impossible for a passenger to die in a car that was this expensive, still didn't like the fact it was her car and she was driving.
Sam was oblivious as she buckled herself in. "You're hopeless. I should just take you into the middle of Trafalgar Square and make out with you until you're totally immune to people watching," she said as she nearly backed into the car parked behind us.
While Sam bunny-hopped the car out into traffic, I just stared forward and hoped she wouldn't hit anything. "There's nothing unusual about wanting to keep my private life private," I said, perhaps a little defensively on reflection. "I was the same with boyfriends, it's just that no one really batted an eyelid when I was out with them. I just stand next to you and people already have their mobiles out and pointed at us."
Sam glanced at the rear-view. "Oh, Sweetie, I know. I'm not one of the people you need to convince." She changed lanes without using her blinkers. "Speaking of which…" There was something about her tone.
I groaned and twisted in my seat. Sure enough, there was a car braving the terrible weather to follow us. "Really? This is news?" I looked forward again, leaning back heavily into the heated leather.
Sam used her serious reporter voice. "Tonight on CNN: Lara Croft moves in with the amazingly talented director Samantha Nishimura, the woman widely rumoured to be hitting that. More at seven."
That did actually make me smile. I put my hand on her knee, and she glanced down at it with a cheeky smile on her lips. "A bit higher..."
I took my hand away, rolling my eyes. "Yes, I'm the hopeless one," I said with a grin. "You never stop."
"Well, my reputation is well-earned," she joked, pretending to flip her hair. She sobered up quickly, though, letting a brief silence stretch between us before she spoke again. "I know I keep saying it," she said. "But you'll get used to people knowing who you are. Trust me."
She'd said it to me a hundred times, but it wasn't the people knowing who I was that was the actual problem. It was that when people recognised me they took photos and then uploaded them. Those photos would get blogged and reblogged, and then I'd be standing in a queue at the supermarket and I'd see my face in the corner of a magazine with some crazy hook like, "Fridge Raider? Lara Croft's Shock Confession: 'I can't stop eating!'"
Then there were the paparazzi. I wasn't finding being followed everywhere any less disconcerting than it had been initially. Worse, actually, sometimes when I caught people ducking behind corners or slipping into doorways I expected to hear bullets whisking past my head. I hated it.
I'm sure I didn't look like I believed her.
She saw my expression and shrugged. "Anyway, you'll love this new place. It's a small community so people will get over us really quickly, and," she paused for effect, "you can't see the house from the road."
"Sounds perfect," I said, imagining the luxury of being able to go for a jog without people pointing and whispering about Lara Croft to each other.
Part of me felt rather ungrateful complaining about all the attention, though. I had signed up for this. I supposed I just expected to be like Dr Whitman had been: sort of famous in the right circles but still able to carry on with my life as usual.
The interviews and the official press, I'd come to peace with. I didn't mind any of that anymore, and, anyway, Sam was incredibly protective of me whenever I was in front of a camera. It was all the unofficial stories and everything that came with them that were so unbearable.
I wished I could be more like Sam, I thought, looking across at her as she drove. It was all water off a duck's back to her. The magazines could be printing the most awful lies about her and she'd just laugh and put them back on the stand.
She drove us further out of town than I thought she was going to, well out of London and into the countryside. It was a familiar route for me; my parents' estate had been this way. We took the same turnoff, actually, and for a moment I was terrified we might actually be going to my old house. I wouldn't put it past Sam to conspire with my accountant so we could live in it—he was the only one who knew how to unravel it from all the property trusts. I desperately hoped she hadn't, though, because I couldn't do it. It would be too painful to live in that house when my parents weren't in it anymore. I wanted my memories of it to be ones that were filled with the fun parts of my childhood, not ones of big empty houses and no family left.
I got more and more nervous until finally Sam turned off the route into a hamlet I didn't recognise and I was able to relax. We'd just left it when she turned into a driveway ringed by a thick stone fence.
I looked behind us as we left the road. The car that had been following us wasn't anywhere to be seen; I hoped they'd given up and gone home for dinner.
The long driveway lead downhill through a small woodland. The house itself was buried in amongst the trees and not visible until we were almost on it. It was two or three stories – difficult to tell from the front given that it was built on a hillside – and made of undressed cobblestones with a classic tiled roof. Apart from the windows, it could have been lifted directly out of fifteenth century England. I immediately fell in love with it.
Sam parked beside the front door. "Tada!" she said as we climbed out of her car. "It was the closest thing I could find to living in actual ruins."
I walked along the outside of it through the light snow. The original chimney was still on the side of the house, and that meant an open fireplace in the living room. I think I had mentioned in passing that I'd always loved those to Sam… two years ago, perhaps? I could hardly remember it myself.
Sam was practically bursting as I walked back toward her. "Tell me you love it!" she said, and threw her arms around my neck.
I smiled at her, wrapping mine around her waist. "I'm actually rather disturbed by how well you know me," I said, and then kissed her.
She pulled me against the side of the car. I couldn't enjoy it as much as I should have, though, because of our coats.
Sam's gloved hands had been pulling at the tag of my zipper but not actually succeeding in unfastening it. In the end, she gave up. "I want to show you the house anyway," she said, and slipped out from underneath me, jogging over to the door… in stilettos, in the snow. Her toes must just about have been falling off.
I chuckled and followed her inside. It must have been such an old building—all the rooms were tiny. None of them had been altered, either, except the bathroom which had been divided to add a toilet. The movers had down the best they could with my furniture and put it in all the right rooms. Since it was all either from Ikea or something I'd carried home off the side of the road, it looked awfully out of place between the beautiful stone walls and high ceilings. It was a shame to put such junk in such a beautiful old house.
That moment was probably the first time I'd actually considered going to an antique shop for furniture in my life. Mum would have been proud. They had always been dragging me into those when I was a little girl.
"How much is it a month?" I asked Sam as I walked back into the living room.
Something passed over her face. "Three thousand," she said.
I put my hand on her shoulder and made her look at me. "Sam."
She winced and turned away from me again. "Okay, okay, four. But don't you think it's worth it?"
Four thousand pounds was a lot of money to spend per month on rent. On the other hand, this was a very nice house and it did seem to be as private as Sam had promised. I looked up at the beautiful detailed ceilings.
"Come on…" Sam pleaded. "You got all that money from Natla. Can't we just enjoy it?"
The money she was referring to were the three installments of the contract that were only supposed to be paid to me when I handed over the three Scion fragments to Natla. Technically, that had happened. Natla obviously hadn't been around to instruct the payroll department not to, so they'd transferred whole sum in the contract to me. The day after it had gone through my bank had called me to ask me if there'd been some mistake.
The right thing to do would to be to invest it in assets. But investing it would involve speaking to my accountant and he kept trying to sign over the rest of the trust to me.
I did need some nice furniture. Sam would absolutely love shopping for that with me, too. Furniture was an asset, wasn't it?
"I'm not happy about you not sticking to a thousand," I told her, walking out of the door to go and haul some of my boxes inside. I couldn't stay angry with her, though, because the look on her face was absolutely heart-breaking. I put an arm around her and walked her with me. "But this place is perfect, so I forgive you."
She exhaled. "Oh, my God, I was so excited when I found it. I knew you would love it."
"Who's the agent?"
She looked a little panicked. "Uh, I don't remember."
Trust Sam to be so flippant about four thousand pounds, I thought. I opened the boot above my head and lifted one of boxes at the front out of it. "How are we going to pay if you don't remember who we're renting it from?"
She accepted the box from me went to lug it inside. "They're debiting it from my account. You can just transfer me your half once a month."
I took another out for myself. It was snowing in earnest now and the top of the box was getting dusted with snowflakes as I followed her in. "Okay, that's easy enough. I'll set up a transfer before we leave. What time's the flight again?"
"Ten, from Gatwick."
I put the box inside the doorway and looked out. "I hope the weather's better by then." I ran from the doorway under the door of the boot and took another box. "That's some luck for you. I haven't had a holiday since finals and when I finally get around to booking one, we get heavy snow in the south of England in November."
We finished carrying all the boxes in and locked the car. I didn't realise exactly how much thought Sam had put into choosing this house until she showed me that all the windows were cleverly divided by a combination of timber and iron bars. You couldn't kick through it in a million years. She'd done that on purpose.
"Hopefully that will help you sleep better," she said, put a hand briefly on my arm before she locked the door and went to take off her coat. I had one of those moments where my heart ached with how much I loved her.
I probably should have been either packing for our holiday or unpacking the boxes, but the first thing I wanted to do after I'd taken off my coat was get a fire going in our new fireplace.
Sam watched me as I set up the hearth and lit it. "You're a little too good at that," she told me as the flames spread across the logs. Dragging one of my beanbags into the warmth, she pulled me onto it with her.
"Roth taught me when we were on expeditions together," I said, squishing in next to her. "Yamatai just gave me a lot of opportunity to practice."
"But can you kill demi-gods with it?" Sam asked, putting an arm behind my head. The gentle crackling of the flames was relaxing.
"Killing demi-gods is your specialty, remember?"
She put her lips to my neck and I flopped my chin sideways so she could get a better angle. She was so good at this. I let my eyes fall closed as I enjoyed the warmth of the fire and the feeling of Sam's mouth on my skin.
"Let's call off our holiday and just stay here by ourselves for a month," I suggested when Sam stopped for a moment.
"No way," she said and then kissed my chin. "You're going to love Australia, and since Jonah's in New Zealand visiting his family it's kind of stupid not to take advantage of that." I pressed my mouth against hers and she smiled against my lips. "On second thoughts…"
I could feel her fingers unbuckling my jeans and for just a few moments I relaxed back into the beanbag. That was until her icy cold hand actually touched my bare stomach. I shrieked and pushed it away. "God, Sam!" I said, edging away from her. "Your hands are freezing!"
She tried to prevent me from escaping. "I don't suppose you have anywhere warm I could put them, do you?"
"Oh, my God!" I laughed at her and rolled off the beanbag, edging away.
She just lay in it and laughed. "I'm kind of hungry anyway," she said. "Let's go find some food, then we'd better pack."
I went to get my wallet while Sam hunted around in the debris for the car keys. She'd put them down somewhere earlier and had subsequently lost them. While she was looking for them she'd found her phone, though, because she glaring at it when I joined her in the entryway to put my shoes back on. Her jaw was set at an angle.
"What is it?"
She shook her head tightly and then stuffed her phone in the pocket of her coat. "Mom's just texting me again." Her phone didn't fit, though, because her car keys were in there. She took them out.
"What did she say?"
Sam shook her head again, waving her hand dismissively. "The usual crap. Dad gave her my number, probably to get rid of her."
I winced. I didn't blame her for speaking the way she sometimes did about her parents, but it was still jarring. My mum wouldn't be texting me anytime soon. "Want to get take-away?" I asked her, changing the subject as I knelt to zip up my boots.
She looked grateful. "There's actually a little Thai restaurant in the town near here," she said as she lifted her gloves off the lean-to. "No supermarket, though."
I unbolted the door and let her out of it, slinging my coat on. "I have a feeling we're going to be eating a lot of Thai when we get back." I looked back for a moment at the fire. "You think it's safe to leave it?"
"Yeah, we're totally risking coming back to a warm house," Sam said, taking my hand and pulling me out of the door. "Come on, let's go. All this heavy lifting has made me starving."