Lara looked so hot at the wedding and I forgot how to brain until we were supposed to say our vows. I’m pretty sure I stumbled through them but Lara’s eyes were like this beacon. A lighthouse helping me through the jumble of emotions that was overwhelming me. She was the best thing of the day. But mom and dad being there was a close second because I never in all my life thought I’d see them there. I still don’t know if they approve. I know Lara’s talked to them, but I can’t imagine what she said. They haven’t made up for years of neglect but they’re trying and that’s better than nothing. I’m not sure dad approves. But he was there. He gave me away. Might be the only time he ever did anything right for me.
She’s waiting. I can feel her in the back of my mind. Himiko is patient. She’s already waited a thousand years, she can wait a little longer. I can’t tell Lara. Not now, especially not now. I probably shouldn’t have picked Japan for a honeymoon but it had seemed like a good idea at the time. But right now, I can’t sleep. If I sleep, she’ll try to claw out and take over again. I told Lara I have control over this but now I’m scared. What happens to me if Himiko wins? What happens to Lara?
1 - The Girl Who Asked for a Star
So. I picked Japan, which is an odd choice considering how things were the last time we were here, but it’s kind of a gigantic fuck you to all of that.
Two whole weeks and I reserve the first three days for Tokyo. You’d need three thousand days to really see all of that city, but we’ll have to make do in three. There’s a lot for us to see. Lara drags me around to a half-dozen shrines and museums on the first day alone, and at night we dance and carry on and drink a little too much. We get back to the hotel really late. She even picks me up and carries me in, but we don’t sleep. Oh my god we don’t sleep.
And I’m exhausted and a little bit tipsy but it’s our wedding night. It feels like the first time again. A little clumsy and lots of giggling. Our scars tell the story of how we lost our innocence. Lara more so than me. But for a night we act like we’re still innocent and I even feel it. Young and stupid and in love.
The next two days are pretty much the same only by now the tabloids are on to us and we have to dodge them. The daughter of a Japanese media mogul and the famous (or infamous if you ask certain people) Lara Croft lesbianing it up. On a honeymoon. Oh the humanity! A couple of Japanese talk shows tried to book us but we’re not going to do publicity on our honeymoon. Lara was relieved when I turned them down. I want her to myself and I have every right to it. She says there’s a Damocles sword hanging over our heads but we can’t let that get to us. We earned a respite from the world that lays hidden beneath the cynical lens of modern life. I totally use that line in our vacation footage, too.
Our fourth day we’re up early because we want to sneak out before we’re noticed. It’s easier said than done but this is Lara Croft and she’s kind of like a ninja. She makes me wait upstairs while she carries our luggage down to the car we rented, and then I expect her to carry me down too but she disappoints me. I even pout at her the whole way to the car and she just rolls her eyes at me. As revenge, I stomp as I follow her and by the time we’re there she’s trying not to laugh. She pins me against the car door and I grin into her eyes. “You should have carried me. We would have been a lot quieter.”
“Is that why you were stomping around like Godzilla?” Her hand presses against my cheek and I nuzzle it. It’s times like these when the rest of the world falls away. I like these feelings. They’re not as fleeting as I was always scared they would be. When I’m the center of her world and she looks at me with hungry adoration.
My grin probably turns cheeky. “Yes.” I rest my left hand against her chest. Her jade pendant dangles from a leather thong around her neck and she’s hung her wedding ring there as well. I’m not bothered by it. A ring can get in the way for someone whose career will be spent digging and climbing. The ring and band on my finger glitter and I giggle to myself before she quiets me with her lips.
“Where to next, Sam?”
I have a surprise for our fourth night. We aren’t going to leave Tokyo just yet. Lara of course suspects nothing as I help her navigate through the traffic. The closer we get the more giddy I feel and I have a hard time not bouncing in my seat. Lara eyes me without moving her head from the road and I can picture the gears in her head turning as she tries to figure out what I’m up to. We park and then get out. I grin at her over the roof of the car. “We’ll just need our backpacks and a change of clothing. And the special bag.”
She blushes at the mention of the ‘special’ bag, but grabs it anyway. It isn’t until we’re in the lobby that she realizes what this place is. Lara freezes, looking around, alarm on her face. She grabs my arm and hisses, “Sam! do you know what this place is?!”
I glance at her. She looks like she wants to melt into the floor and fidgets nervously as I unlatch her fingers from my arm. It’s like we just walked into some forbidden vault filled with horrors of the most obscene sort. Which is sorta kinda true. I kiss her fingers. “Of course, sweetie. I booked us a whole night in a love hotel. Now, do you want the Magical Girl room or should we get the Moon Fantasia room?”
And then, just to sweeten the pot, I whisper into her ear, “I brought a school girl costume.”
We wind up with the Magical Girl room. Except for temporarily losing the keys to the handcuffs the night is really amazing. Lara looks relieved when we leave the next morning, though, because she floors it to get away from that hotel. I take her hand in the car and smirk to myself. She probably thinks I’m being smug. She’s right.
It takes forever to get out of the city but I occupy myself with my camera and keep up a running commentary of the the scenery we pass. Lara only gets a vague set of directions. I want her to be surprised when we pull up to the ryokan I’d reserved a room in. It’s supposed to be really beautiful and we’re in cherry blossom season, too. It’s not entirely accidental timing, I had really wanted this time of year just for that and Lara probably guessed the destination. If she did, she never let on. I think it’s romantic and I just hope that my wife feels the same way. Not that I’ll ever get used to saying that or thinking that. I’m not sure I want to. Wife. It feels special. Special and awesome.
She needs to be distracted a lot. Not all the time and not too much, I think. But after we got back from Egypt and had some time to decompress I realized that she was getting sucked into this artifact thing, and I was going to lose her if I didn’t pull her head out of it and force her to look at the rest of the world. She wants to find a way to save me again. Either from Yamatai and Himiko and the power the Queen left inside me or from the artifacts we’ve been hunting. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t need her to save me, I just need her to love me. Love isn’t always enough, it can’t feed you or anything but it can turn a shitty day into something magical.
Lara’s mouth is hanging open as we get out of the car. Seeing the blossoms in pictures is really different than seeing them in person and we’ve never been to Japan during the right season before. They’re all around us, gloriously and unashamedly pink. I find a handful of fallen petals and start placing them into Lara’s hair.
“This is beautiful.” She tucks a petal behind my ear. Our hands find each other and our fingers thread together. It’s a familiar instinctual motion, by now. Thoughts about artifacts fade away, and Himiko is distant and forgotten.
Our room has a view down into a valley. There’s a river or stream that meanders around and I just know we’ll end up hiking along it. I can see the gleam in Lara’s eyes at the idea of discovery. Maybe discovered by other people before but still new to her. I love that about her. As much as she’s about discovering things no one has ever seen before, she still wants to experience things new to her. Regardless of how many people might have gone to see where that stream leads.
We’re going to be here four days before moving further into the country, so I unpack and get everything neat and settled. I’m starving, too, but Lara suddenly drags me out of our room and onto a little trail that leads down into the valley. “Lara! I’m hungry. Can we eat first?”
She hands me an energy bar and I just look at her. “Yeah, like granola is romantic.” She glances back at me and gives me this sheepish look so I forgive her. I won’t let her forget this later, but I forgive her.
It’s mid-afternoon and there’s a light breeze rustling all the blossoms as we walk hand in hand upstream. The stream is bigger than it looks from a distance, about ten feet from one side to the other and a couple of feet deep. Not really a river, but definitely not a brook. There’s a bridge, and we stop on it, leaning on a railing just letting the peace wash over us. I’m a city girl. I’ll always be one, but right now I don’t want to go anywhere. My eyes are closed, and the sound of the water and the breeze in the petals around us is the only thing I can hear.
Lara is next to me. She’s a warm, steady presence. This place is probably fascinating to her. The ryokan is hundreds of years old and the history in this valley probably stretches back farther than that. Yet when I open my eyes, Lara is looking at me. Not the vista, or the sky or the river under our feet. A bolt runs down my spine and my stomach grows warm. “Hi?”
My wife has a smile for a variety of occasions and right now she has the dorky one. It’s a little goofy and innocent and entirely one-hundred percent genuine. It’s her ‘I love you Sam’ smile. I used to wonder what it meant. Now I know, and I love it even more.
“If you’re still hungry we should head back,” Lara says. I nearly miss it because I’m distracted by a wisp of hair that’s fallen across her face.
“I’m thinking I want dessert first.” The thought of us sprawled out in a bed of cherry blossoms bounces around my mind. I want the idea so badly that I tug on her hand. “It would be really romantic.” I kind of try to hint with a nod of my head away from the bridge and towards the trees.
I’m so dumbfounded when she says ‘okay’ that I let her lead me off the bridge. We get cherry blossoms in hard to explain places but it's memorable.
Dinner that night is traditional. I haven’t had a traditional Japanese dinner in about twelve years. My dad was always too busy so it was a rare and usually bittersweet occasion for me. My feelings for him might have softened but it takes an understanding look from Lara before I can relax.
Our host is this elderly woman named Natsumi Kimura. She looks every one of her ninety years. Her face is wrinkled and craggy, topped by a snowcap of pure white hair. It’s unruly, going in every which direction, as though she decided she was too old to care what anyone thought about her hair. She grew up here, and she has a hundred stories about the weird and sometimes wild things she’s seen. Lara is a little enraptured by Ms. Kimura. I’m just happy she doesn’t want to throw us out for being a couple. Maybe it’s the fact that Lara’s Japanese is good enough to spare the poor woman from trying to speak in English.
The most interesting story she tells is a very personal one. There’s a lot of emotion in her face. It’s a happy memory, but I can hear a note of bittersweet behind it.
It happened about seventy-five years ago. She was just a teenager, living here with her sister Nanako and their best friend. The pain in her voice when she says the girl’s name breaks my heart. Setsuko. Lara catches my eye and we share a glance before giving Ms. Kimura our full attention.
The three used to sit on the roof and watch the stars. They were close. As close as Lara and me, and did just about everything together. Ms. Kimura tells us about a time that they tricked the village boys into thinking there was a forest spirit on the loose. The boys came back with a dozen different captured ‘spirits’ but night after night, the spirit struck. The spirit disappeared when the girls got bored with the game.
Our hostess sobers up a little, and rests her palms on the table. Her voice sounds as old as the rest of her, and much more frail than it had just moments ago. It’s probably a little harder for Lara to follow the language. “I was sixteen and promised to a boy. Setsuko crawled into my bed one night. We did this often. We were young and she was like a sister. But her face...oh she looked so anguished. I asked her ‘What is wrong?’ and she asked me ‘What could I do to make you love me the way I love you.’ I was...stunned. I searched her face for the joke or the mockery. We were girls. We were friends. You just didn’t love your friend that way. But her heartbreak was sincere, and I just did not know if I felt the same way.”
The old woman swallows, dabbing at her eyes with a cloth. She’s not the only one. I wipe my own with the back of my hand. Lara is stoic next to me. We both understand that fear of rejection that Setsuko must have felt.
“But I thought…I thought that perhaps she was joking, so I gave her an impossible task. I told her I wanted one of the stars we spent so much time admiring. And part of me wondered if I could love her if she succeeded.”
Lara grips my hand under the table so tightly it hurts, but I don’t say anything about it. Ms. Kiruma continues, after another moment to compose herself. Her voice wavers and if I didn’t want to hear the rest of this so badly I would make her stop. “She looked so determined, my Setsuko. She kissed me. Just the barest of touches, a whispered promise. My first kiss. My sweetest kiss. “ Her voice starts to give, and she makes a little choked sound. I open my mouth to ask if she’s okay but she waves her hand. “I must finish. I must. When I woke, she was gone, and the bed was cold beside me. I could not find her. I searched, and I searched. It had snowed overnight, but I found her footprints and I followed them. I followed them to the stream, and I found her on the bridge.”
Her voice finally breaks, “And she was as pale as the snow she lay in, as the snow she was named for. She was gone and I loved her. She was gone because I had sent her away, because I had been afraid. She was gone, she is gone….because of me.“
I get up and step around the table, wrapping my arms around her shoulders. She feels so light, her bones brittle and fragile like a bird’s, so I’m careful to not squeeze so hard. “No. No. Not because of you. It was a tragedy, but it wasn’t your fault.”
“Yes, or no. It does not matter. What matters is you.” She places a hand on my arm, and her other on Lara’s. “You found each other. It is beautiful. I have been alone my whole life, haunted by something I cannot change. But you have each other, and it warms my heart.”
Her story breaks my own. It’s raw and painful and so full of truth that later that night I cling to Lara, afraid to let go. My face is pillowed against her breast and her fingers trace patterns in my back. I don’t want that to be us. I’m so grateful it’s not. “Promise me you won’t go chasing after stars, Lara.”
A sound comes out of her throat, wordless and rumbly. I lift my head to look at her and her eyes are watery. She shakes her head. “I’m not going to chase false dreams, Sam. I already have my star.” I straddle her and continue this conversation with my lips on hers.
Our kiss heats up quickly from the weight of our emotions. I’m going to claim her, but something rattles and I look around. “Did you hear that?” It rattles again and now we’re both sitting up in bed. The lamp lifts into the air and instead of freaking out the only thing that comes out of my mouth is, “Really? Really?”
The lamp drops back down with a clatter and I look at Lara. She has a curious look in her eyes. I know that look. That’s the look of ‘we’re going to get to the bottom of this.’ That’s the look that spells trouble.
I open my mouth, thinking that I’m going to at least try to protest anything that involves leaving this nice warm bed when the lamp flings through the air and nearly hits Lara in the head. “Okay someone doesn’t like us.”
“I don’t know Sam, in some cultures, lampthrowing is a sign of affection.”
I smack her in the arm and roll out of bed. Lara follows me, and hugs me from behind, kissing my shoulder. The room grows suddenly colder, and there’s a light outside the window. We run to it and peer out. Footprints lead away into the darkness of the valley and I don’t have to look at Lara to know what she’s thinking. We dress quickly and warmly, and with flashlights in hand start walking through the snow following the footprints. I don’t think they’re Ms. Kimura’s. She’s still in her room, I’m pretty sure. Plus I think they’re a little too small, but she’s a frail old lady so maybe her feet are this small. They’re actually not much smaller than mine, though Lara’s footprints are huge in comparison. I giggle.
“What?” She stops and turns to look at me.
“Oh. Oh nothing, I just...your feet are kind of big, sweetie. It’s those boots.”
She sounds a little put out. “I like my boots, Sam. They’re practical. And if I recall, you gave them your stamp of fashion approval.”
That’s true. I’d even picked them out for her. It’s kind of a birthday tradition. They’re rugged fashionable, but also really tough and practical. I might sometimes let myself geek out over having this rugged outdoorsy, tough as nails girlfriend. Person. Wife. And knowing that she’s so sweet and considerate and shy underneath it all just makes me even happier.
Her hand finds mine and we walk along in silence for another ten minutes before the footprints lead us into a cave. It’s warm inside, like there’s a fire lit somewhere, but I can’t see one. Aren’t ghostly places usually cold?
Lara spots a shrine, and we approach it cautiously. It might not be fair to call it a shrine. It’s really just a statue of a woman with a candle lit in front of it. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
My wife lifts a hand to the statue and touches it. “This isn’t that old. Less than a hundred years. The woman it depicts is young too. I think this is Setsuko.”
Then this wasn’t a shrine so much as a memorial. That relaxes me immediately. It also makes me feel pretty sad. “That’s such a sad story. Where do you think she was headed when she died? Did she really think she could get Ms. Kimura a star?”
Frowning, Lara presses her palm against the statue, then takes my hand and press it against the statue, too. The stone is warm, and there’s a buzzing feeling that sets my bones on edge. I feel Himiko stir, just a little, and yank my hand back. “She’s...this is…”
Lara looks into the statue’s face, her tone resigned. “Setsuko is tied to this statue. She’s trapped.”
“Do you think we can free her? Break it open?” I start to look around for something we can use to smash the thing. Lara grabs my hand.
“No, we can’t. We don’t know what will happen to her soul. We could destroy her. Or turn her into one of the shadow puppets.”
That makes me pause. “This thing is too big to move…”
“I don’t think it’s the same as the others. But there’s a way to transfer power from one vessel to another, Sam. So maybe there’s a way to free her.” Lara starts to lead me out of the cave, and I have the distinct impression we’re being watched.
I turn at the entrance of the cave and speak in Japanese, “I don’t know why you tried to get our attention, but we know your story and we’re going to help. We’ll find a way to free you. And you can move on and be there when Natsumi passes on. I promise.”
I’m a Croft now. We keep our promises.