By Asynca, who has started a Kickstarter to fund an original piece of fiction. Message her or check her dA profile out for details!
Thanks to C-Kunks.
The wind was up when we turned into our property in Surrey. All the trees were completely bare of leaves and swayed wildly over the driveway as we drove along it. It wasn't snowing yet, but the night had a bite to it and the clouds above us were deep and full. There was palpable tension in the air; any moment now, the sky would open up and blanket the countryside with fresh snow.
After having spent a month in stifling Australia, I felt the cold more than I usually would have. I wrapped my scarf even more tightly around my neck as I looked out the window.
"God, I know," Sam said, trying to turn the heater in her car up and then discovering it was on the hottest, strongest setting. "It's like not even the super, ridiculously overpriced heater in a BM is a match for this winter. I don't know how we're going to go if we get snowed in."
I smiled wryly at her. I wasn't very concerned. "I think being snowed in our own house, even if it's in ruins, will be the least of what we've survived."
She laughed once. "Don't we always say it'll be something that this that ends up killing us, though?" she said as we rounded the thicket blocking our house from the road. "Defeat evil demi-God: check. Survive being exsanguinated: check. Survive being enslaved, possessed, cloned and arrested: check, check and check. Return from vacation in Australia to die in own boring country--shit!" Her tone changed.
As she was talking, our headlights touched the building and I could see huge blue tarpaulins stretched over one whole side of the house, from roof to floor. There was police tape everywhere and in the frozen mud on the approach there were just so many boot prints. One side of the house looked like it might be salvageable; scaffolding had been put over it, I suppose to make it safer for forensics to enter and take whatever they needed. Just before the tarpaulins, though, I could see part of the roof had fallen away and what was left was blackened. All in all, I wouldn't have said it was actually in ruins, but it was ruined.
It was just such an awful shame.
Sam stopped the car and we just stared at it in the headlights for a minute or two.
I looked across at her. Her eyes weren't sweeping across the building like mine had been; she was just staring at it. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "You should have seen your face when I first showed it to you, you lit up," she said quietly, and then shook her head. "Just... fuck Amanda. Fuck her. I don't buy that 'I had to' bullshit. No one has to firebomb someone else's house. Especially not after they put so much work into it..."
I put a hand on her knee. "I wish you'd just told me everything."
She sighed. "We'd been together like two months. It would have been weird."
"We've been inseparable for years."
She smiled at that. "I know…" she said. "And it's not like I didn't take more than fifteen hours of footage of every tiny detail and we can't recreate it all." I raised my eyebrows at her, and she looked defensive. "Hey, I'd spent ages trying to get it exactly right!" Her smiled faded as she remembered something. "At least that footage is safe, though. Not like the stuff I lost of the ship when your Doppelganger shot my camera."
I made a face. "Would it have been that interesting, anyway? A ship with some armed men in suits and me yelling at you while the video constantly cut in and out?"
She shrugged. "I probably could have cut something out of it, especially with all those clones and your Doppelganger," she decided, sighing. "But I guess you're right. You kind of had to be there and be part of the action for it to be interesting. Besides, you were totally out of it. I went over some of the footage in the hotel room in Cairns, you looked terrible. All washed out and pale. And you kept yelling at me."
"Thanks," I said dryly, and then looked back at the house. I was keen to find out if there was anything left of my collection of historic texts. "Come on, let's go inside see what the damage is," I said as I climbed out of the car and Sam, predictably, went straight for her camera.
She was still moving quite slowly and carefully as she stood up and closed the car door. Even though she kept telling me she was fine, I kept worrying that she was going to rip the wound right open again whenever she so much as sneezed. Every time she reached for her stomach my heart sped, and I worried so much that one night I woke up and there was a shadow in the fabric on her nightgown. Even though I knew it wasn't blood, everything just came rushing back. I'd had to go sit in the en suite to the hospital room with the light completely on.
Sam seemed okay, really. She couldn't remember much of it at all, and that was the greatest blessing she could have received. For me, however, the whole chain of events was preserved in crystal clear, full HD as if it had been recorded on that camera of hers. Her expression when I'd shot her, the complete peace and acceptance as she'd been dying, the waves of the ocean thick with the shapes of the spirits crashing and washing over the deck, my fingers around Bree's slender throat as Min writhed on the bedroom floor of that empty house, the flood of emotion I'd felt as that RFDS plane had landed on the highway... I couldn't forget any of it. I shouldn't forget.
"Like, I know the masonry looks pretty cool, but it's probably not that cool," Sam said softly, gingerly putting a hand on my shoulder. I'd been somewhere else and when she touched me, I panicked even though she had gloves on and even thought the spirits had been gone for weeks. The red LED on the camera was flashing.
I groaned at it. "Now there's some compelling telly," I said darkly to the lens. "You can film ten minutes of me staring at a stone wall."
"It's all in the soundtrack," she said. "You can stare at the stones and I'll play…" She tapped her chin in thought. "Well, I could play a really strong, inspiring piece of music like you're preparing for all the revenge you're going to get. Or, I could play something tragic like the Lacrimosa and you're mourning the house."
"You can play either of those when you film my reaction to what happened to my poor books," I told her, pushing the tarp aside and stepping through the doorway into the house. I turned on the flashlight app on my phone.
The ground floor had always been stone, but now it was stone coated with a thick layer of ash and spent coals. Stepping onto it was like walking into a moonscape. The kitchen and all the fixtures were completely gone, now just chunks of cold charcoal and swept into the corner of the downstairs room. An assortment of glass and crockery was peppered in amongst them. When I looked up I could see through the collapsed ceiling into the second and third bedroom and, beyond them, at the steep tarp covering the roof. If there had been furniture in those rooms above the front door, it was only ash now. I supposed I was lucky it was all cheap rubbish, anyway.
As I approached the other side of the living room, I passed scaffolding and a couple of charred pieces of furniture including my horribly ugly couch which had been begging to finally be allowed to rest in peace for years. It looked like it was going to have its wish granted at last. On the far wall there were still a couple of paintings – stained with soot but definitely intact – and our beanbag also seemed to be in one piece.
I kicked it with my foot to see if it would just fall apart.
"I told you it was fire retardant," Sam said, sounding smug as she filmed it. "And you said I shouldn't have spent five hundred on a beanbag."
"Great," I said, rolling my eyes at her camera as I made a beeline to the stairs to investigate the state of my books. "Now whenever you buy something expensive all I'm going to hear about is this beanbag."
I'd put the boxes with my big old books in the tiny room under the stairs, and the stairs were inset stone. Despite, that, though, the door to them was wooden and it had fallen off its hinges. I slowly angled my phone towards the boxes, terrified of what I was going to find.
As the light fell on them I had to double-take. They looked... fine? Frightened I was just getting my hopes up for nothing, I rushed up to them to get a closer look, brushing a thin layer of ash from on top. I coughed as it plumed in the air. The boxes were stained and some of the packing tape had bubbled and curled from the heat. But they were made out of cardboard, and if they were safe, my books were safe inside.
They were literally the only thing I couldn't readily replace, and they were all fine. Roth's atlas, my father's journal, all my rare Japanese texts – all somehow preserved. I almost couldn't believe it, not after everything else that had gone wrong. And to think I'd just put them under the stairs in case it rained and the roof leaked…
"Maybe I should give you some time alone with your books," Sam said, chuckling to herself. "It looks like you're having a moment."
"I am," I said, gently touching the box in front of me.
Sam came up behind me and put one arm around my waist and her chin on my shoulder. I leaned my head against hers.
It was an odd moment, though; I'd spent so long worrying about losing them and trying to protect them from various elements. I even used to close the blinds at home so their bindings didn't fade. I'd worried and worried about them ever since we'd got the news about the house and been petrified I'd come back to the house and they would all be ash coating the floor, too.
The thing was, now that I was standing right here looking at them, I felt nothing. They were just boxes of old books, and my life would be no different if they had burnt. Dad would always still have been my dad. Roth would still have always been there for me after Dad had disappeared. Losing the books didn't magically make Roth and Dad vanish as if they'd never been important to me, and it wouldn't have changed my future. I understood what Min meant when she said she suddenly realised things she thought were important actually weren't. The books weren't what mattered to me. Not anymore.
"I'm happy for you," Sam said as I stared at the boxes, no trace of humour in her voice. "Seriously, I know how much they mean to you. I'm glad they're okay."
I turned my head toward Sam, and pressed my lips against her forehead. I knew what did matter to me now. "I'm glad you're okay."
I heard her draw a breath and I could feel her smile against my cheek, thrilled. Even now, it gave me butterflies. God, I loved her. I loved her, and I'd brought her back home as a living, breathing person. Someone who could joke and be silly with me, someone who could hug me and comfort me, someone who could gush for hours about reality shows I didn't care at all about. Not as a canister of cold ashes to bury under our fallen dream house.
I turned towards her, pushing the camera gently away and wrapping my arms around her. I kissed her, properly. Nearly losing her had made it all feel so different; every kiss felt special, something to be treasured. I loved the way her lips felt on mine – even if she was wearing far too much lip gloss – and how she moved against me and the little noises she made. It all felt new again.
There were tears in my lashes. I was just so lucky to still have her.
I didn't notice how heavily I'd been leaning on one of the boxes until it slid off another and fell down behind the stack of them. Startled, we looked at it. Sam actually looked a little worried, like I might be upset about it falling.
That was really the last thing I cared about while I had my arms around her. "They'll be okay."
"Who are you and what have you done with Lara?" she joked, wiping her mouth because I'd pushed her lip gloss all over her chin.
"Really, though. They're just books," I said, but despite saying that I did lean down and strain to pick up the box and carefully re-stack it.
She snorted, not buying my new apathy. "Sweetie, please. If for some reason you had to choose between me and the books I know I'd be on the next plane." She kissed me lightly and then stood back. I guessed our moment was over. "Here's hoping my tech stuff fared as well."
As it turned out, it hadn't. It had been upstairs and probably hadn't burnt in the initial fire, but when the ceiling had collapsed it had fallen into the laundry and spilt everywhere. Some of it had even melted on the hot stone floor.
"It looks like an abstract sculpture," Sam observed, panning over the technicolour devastation. "We'll call it 'Camera Girl's Worst Nightmare'." I watched her carefully to try and tell if she was actually upset. She wasn't. "Oh, well," she said. "It was about time to replace half of it, anyway."
She gave the camera to me and I held it toward her while she picked through some of it. "I think this used to be an HDMI cable," she said, holding up a rock-solid grey blob that looked like a coiled snake. It was plugged in to something red, but whatever it was was so misshapen it was impossible to discern what it used to be. Even though all of these things belonged to Sam, she had no idea, either. "It's just such a mystery I kind of want to keep it," she said, standing up and looking down at it in her hands. "We can put it on the mantle over the fire and visitors can try and guess what it was before Amanda redecorated."
While we were walking out of the laundry, Sam trod on something and then as soon as she spotted what it was, bent and excitedly retrieved it. "Yes!" she said with a fist pump. "Look!"
She held it at me, expecting me to be excited by it. I might have been if I'd had any idea what it was.
At my blank stare, she laughed. "It's a mini projector!" she told me, brushing the ash off it and taking her iPhone out of her pocket to connect them. "You stick it on your iPhone and you can watch movies and TV and stuff." She switched it on and a light shone on the far wall. "Yes, it still works!"
I nodded slowly. "Hooray, we're saved?"
Sam ignored my mild sarcasm. "Okay, I have a crazy idea," she said, smiling broadly at me. "You want to camp here tonight? Like, I brought a whole stack of bedding and stuff, and the other side of the living room is probably safe…"
"Sam, it's freezing," I said. "And you've only just recovered from a life-threatening injury, you want to add hypothermia to that?"
She scoffed. "You should see the duvet I bought," she said. "It's really thick and really nice."
"And about to be covered in soot," I said as she dragged me, laughing, back out to the living room. She took us over to the beanbag.
"We can sleep in it," she said, picking it up and trying to shake the ash off it. "Like we did the night before we left for Australia. And I'll rig up a sheet over this wall and we can project video onto it. It'll be fun!"
There was no talking Sam out of it, and the only way I could stop her from doing all the bending and stretching she wasn't supposed to be doing was to do it all for her. In the end, we set up the beanbag and the duvet opposite the far wall and hung a sheet over it. I watched Sam fuss over the settings on the projector with a big smile on my face. It was all just so ridiculous; I loved it.
"Tada!" she said when she was able to get it to focus. I clapped appropriately. "Now, please tell me you've got some videos on your cell because I haven't, and the data reception out here is probably too crap to download anything from my Cloud before next Christmas."
"I might," I said, trying to remember what I'd put on there. We settled down in the beanbag, wrapping ourselves in the duvet. "God, I can't believe we're doing this. Our house is half burnt down and it's the middle of winter."
"And you can believe all the other things we've done?" Sam asked, cuddling up against me and looking over my shoulder as I tabbed through my phone.
I pretended to hide it from her. "Hey, I might have private photos on here!"
She laughed. "Oh, please. If you had 'private photos' they'd be from me, anyway."
While I was tabbing through my media, I scrolled past an image titled "Remember I said big screen ". I lifted my finger and stared at my phone for a moment, trying to figure out where I would have—Oh, that's right, Min. That must have been what she'd called the email attachment of her painting. I grinned.
"What's that?" Sam asked. "Why aren't you selecting it?"
"It's from Min," I said. The look she gave me… I remembered the conversation we'd been having a moment ago. "Oh, no, no, no!" I said hurriedly. "It's nothing like that. It's just that painting she said she was going to do. She asked me not to look at it unless it was on a really big screen."
Sam still looked a little suspicious. "Is it any good?"
I shook my head. "When would I have had a big screen?"
Sam rolled her eyes at me. "Of course you wouldn't even peek," she said, and then reached around me and selected it, moving my hand up so the projector pointed towards the sheet. "This qualifies as a big enough screen, right? A whole wall?"
It must have been a huge file, because it took ages to load. When it did, I understood why she had said it needed to be a big screen. It filled up the whole sheet. Even though it was projected onto fabric, I could see every inch of contained as much detail as a photograph, all in tiny strokes like an oil-painting.
It was a deep cavern and there was a person standing in the centre of it with a burning torch. The figure was small compared to the enormous cave, but in the detail I could recognise it as me from behind, wearing my cargos and a black t-shirt. She'd even put my fringe behind my ears the way I always tucked it. I was gazing upwards at the vast ceiling of the cave, bathed in an orange glow and standing as if I was gaping in awe.
The glow was coming from the roof of the cavern where whole constellations of spirits were spread across the rock; it took up half the picture in a vast network of colour and design. I recognised some of the shapes from when they were on my body, but Min had been careful to make small alterations to them so they weren't replicas of the real creatures. The surface of the rock around me danced with shadows and light, and it faded to black by the bottom of the canvas.
The whole scene was just so epic. It was like the set of some big budget Hollywood adventure movie with top-notch special effects.
"Wow…" Sam said beside me, and then held her hand out. "Can I…" I gave my phone to her and she zoomed in on a few areas; you could see every stroke. "Just, wow," she said eventually. "Can you imagine trying to build that set? That's huge. I think two or three million, at least. And that's without the CGI."
"I suppose that's why she wants to be a game concept artist," I pointed out.
"I hope your computer has a good graphics card, then," Sam said, giving my phone back to me. "Because that is a big environment, like a whole level, and it's just in one area."
It had been a big network of caverns, I remembered that from running around in it. The firsthand experience was amazing, it was a pity we couldn't actually show people like we had in Tomb Raider. It would be such a compelling story. Not just the caves, but the ship, Frost International Headquarters in Sydney… all of the places we'd been. I wondered which parts people would be interested in. What would the plot be? Another corporate CEO bites the dust?
Something Sam had said earlier came back to me. 'You kind of had to be there and be part of the action for it to be interesting,' she'd said. Looking at the vast painting of a video game level in front of me, I wondered if they could be.
Maybe Sam didn't have the footage of everything that happened anymore. Maybe she didn't need to have it. Maybe writing papers and making videos wasn't the only way to engage and educate an audience, as Professor Chamberlain so eloquently put it.
"Sam," I said, the idea only just solidifying in my head. "Did you find out if your family owns any game-related companies?"
She shook her head. "We don't. I emailed Dad and he said no, but he wanted to know why."
I thought about all the money Natla had paid me. I could never spend it all on myself, not in a lifetime. "I wonder how difficult it is to start one," I said. "And make a video game."
Sam looked from me to the painting. "You want to turn all of this stuff into a video game?"
I winced. "Well, not all of it," I said. "But don't you think it's a great way to get people into the story? To actually be part of it, like you said before?"
She thought about it. "I don't know much about games," she said. "I mean, these days they're full of videos and stuff, but a lot of that's done by motion capture…"
I was already getting excited. "Think about it, Sam," I said, "You couldn't film any of the spirits, but you wouldn't need to if it was all animated. We could show the whole thing, all of the important parts, without you needing to do clever things with the camera."
"Hey, I like my 'clever things'," she told me, but she was smiling. "Honestly, I really don't know much about games, but you're totally adorable when you're excited."
I pushed her. Gently, though, I didn't want to tear those stitches. "I'm serious."
She laughed once. "I know you are," she said as she thought about the idea herself. "Some of the footage I still have we could cut as part of the advertising campaign leading up to release, like, 'come be part of this adventure that actually happened'. People wouldn't have to watch you, they could be you. All your fans will wet themselves. Bree will wet herself."
I relaxed back in the beanbag, grinning up at the smoke-stained ceiling above us. I couldn't get the smile off my face: it was a great idea. And on top of being a great idea, Min could do all the concepts for it. Genuine, honest work she wouldn't refuse. It was something I could give her without it feeling like charity. I had to text her. Now.
I held my phone up. "Hey," I typed, "hypothetically, when do you finish art school and when would you be able to start work?"
Sam had her head on my shoulder. "Would you put the studio in Australia?" she asked me. I hadn't got that far yet, so I just shrugged.
My phone buzzed and I swiped it immediately. "Middle of this year," Min had replied. "Guess you saw my painting :) Like it?"
Sam snorted. "You should tell her that you're practically pregnant by it."
I didn't. "It's brilliant. So you could start work in July?"
"Why, you got a lead for me? If you just want a commission I'm always open. And because you're so cute I'll do it for free ;)"
Sam made a noise went to snatch the phone from me. I held it just out of her reach. "We might be in the video game business after all…" I typed, ignoring Min's winky face. "Or we soon will be."
There was a pause before the next message arrived. "Show me where to sign."
I put the phone down and beamed at Sam, who was still giving me a look as she said sternly, "That settles it: the studio's going in Australia, and you're staying here in England. And by the way, you're my cute."
"Completely," I said, and then let her kiss me again to prove it. She didn't stop at kissing, either. It wasn't long before she was straddling me, sitting heavily across my hips with one of her hands inside my jumper. It felt good and it was so comforting just to be able to touch her and feel her, but she shouldn't be doing anything like this. Not for at least three weeks. "Sam, you're not supposed to—"
She pressed her index finger on my lips. "I'm not supposed to," she said with a cheeky grin, and then very deliberately undid my belt. That got me going. I flopped my head over the back of the beanbag as she unzipped my cargos and slid her hand down between my skin and my knickers. Her fingers were warm and I was very obviously completely ready for them.
"Oh, yeah," she murmured my ear. She relaxed against my side to kiss my neck as her hand set to work.
Sam, I thought as I lay there, smiling and excited about our future. Sam. I still had her. She was here with me, and that was her hand. I turned my head towards her so I could kiss her and her tongue slipped against mine briefly. I stopped mid-breath. It almost wasn't enough for me to be breathing like this: I wanted her to be breathing like I was while my hand was squished inside those horribly tight jeans of hers. I wanted those hips to be bucking into me, her face scrunched as I brought her to where I wanted to take her. I wanted to be doing all of it together with her, in unison, each of us lost in each other and lost in the feeling of it.
And soon I would be able to do it any time we wanted, because Sam was alive and she was here with me.
That was what I imagined as Sam finished me off and I pressed myself completely against her, indulging in lazy, open-mouth kisses.
When I lay back again and Sam had done up my trousers, she settled down against me and sighed.
"Are you okay?" I murmured. I didn't want to open my eyes. Actually I probably could have gone straight to sleep at that point.
"No," she said, and that made me open them, alarmed. "I'm so wet and there's nothing I can do about it."
I laughed with relief. "I thought you were going to say you were bleeding again,"
"This pain is way worse," she joked. "Trust me."
I kissed her. "I want to help," I said. "But I have a feeling if we keep talking about it and I keep kissing you, I'm only going to make it worse."
"Sweet torture," she said, and then tried to keep kissing me as I pulled away.
I bumped noses with her affectionately, instead. I'd been sweating a little while we were going at it, and now that we were relaxed I was a little bit cold. "I think I'll start a fire. What do you think?"
She raised her eyebrows. "I think you're three and a half weeks too late to roast marshmallows on this place."
I sat up and twisted to face the fireplace. It was made of bricks, surely it was fine? I looked over my shoulder at the debris swept into the corner of the kitchen. Some of that would probably burn, and the wood was, for the most part, untreated. Sam saw where I was looking. I winced at her. "It's only going to get taken to the tip anyway, isn't it?"
She laughed at me. "I can't take you anywhere," she said as I got up and went to lift some of the wood out of the piles of rubbish.
I laid it all out ready to be lit, but had a thought before I did. I should probably check to make sure the chimney was clear so I didn't suffocate us. "Hand me your phone?" I asked Sam, who obediently put it in my hand. "I'll just check it's not damaged."
I turned the light on and shone it up the chimney.
As I did it, Sam's breath caught in her throat. I didn't think anything of it – perhaps the angle my body was bent in to look up there was making things worse for her – until I saw something glint off a tiny alcove in the side of the chimney. It looked like a little box.
I looked across at Sam. She had a strange, unreadable expression on her face in the light of the projector. When we locked eyes, though, she couldn't smother a smile. Was that… anticipation?
"Do you know about that?" I asked her, expecting I already knew the answer.
"Maybe," she said cryptically.
I narrowed my eyes at her, and then stood up inside the cramped flue. To reach the alcove, I actually had a climb a little up the inside of it and by the time my fingers closed over the box, I'm pretty sure most of me was black with soot.
I dropped down into the fireplace, ruining my little nest of kindling, and bent double to step out of it. I walked over to the light of the little projector, looking curiously at the little object in my hands. It was porcelain and the enamel on it was very reminiscent of designs used in the Kutani Kilns in nineteenth century Japan. Semi-valuable Japanese artefacts didn't just turn up randomly in Southern England, that much I was certain of.
I raised an eyebrow at her. She was smiling ear-to-ear, all wrapped up in the duvet. It was a very sweet image. "You hid a Kutani Dish in the fireplace?" I asked her. "Why?"
Her eyes twinkled. "The original plan was to leave you a series of clues over months or years until you eventually found it," she explained. "I spent ages trying to figure out exactly how I was going to do it. Pity I had to go and blow the surprise while I was bleeding out."
I watched her for a moment, and then shook my head. "Sam, you never told me what the surprise was. Just that you had one."
Her lips parted a little. I could practically see her heart lift in her chest. She was breathless, suddenly. "Open it, then."
I looked from her to the box, and then lifted the delicate lid. It was too dark for me to see what was in it straight away, and as I held it toward the projector, the first thing I saw was the deep orange-gold sheen that I recognised from Amanda's pen and the Midas statue in St Francis' Folly. Then, I saw what it was in the shape of.
"It's the gold I saved from Greece, I had it reshaped. You weren't supposed to find them for years," Sam said. "I know we're really young and we've been together like four months. They don't have to mean anything…"
I could hardly hear her; I was still just gaping at them.
All I could think of was how pale and cold she'd been when she'd told me that she had a surprise for me; the surrender in her while she'd talked about our future despite knowing that she was dying. Our Christmases. Our adventures. Our family. She'd planned it all.
God, and I'd nearly lost her. Again and again, I'd nearly lost her. Every time I realised that I might, my world closed in on itself and I couldn't imagine what I'd do without her, or even who I'd be without her. She was already my family, and I didn't want any sort of future without her. In almost every meaningful way, I was already hers.
In all except one.
My voice shook as I spoke. "Sam, what if I want them to mean something?"
Immediately, her eyes swam. As she watched me, her jaw was so tight with emotion and she could hardly speak. "Okay," was all she could manage. "Okay."
I didn't end up lighting the fire; I didn't need to. The house could probably have collapsed around us at a moment's notice and it was snowing so heavily outside, but we didn't care. We didn't care about anything else. We just lay wrapped in each other's arms, rings on each other's fingers, laughing and crying until we finally fell asleep.
In every way, I was hers.