Sam pressed her fingers deeper into Lara’s side, even though she was already holding on tight enough to Lara’s back as Lara moved her bike smoothly through the street. It had yet to snow, but the chill of winter was already raging through the streets.
With her cheek against Lara’s back, which shielded her from the freezing wind, Sam felt almost dozy as the houses flew by, shop windows made up oh so Christmas-y. Something tight sat in the middle of her chest, something that had been building up over the years: Through college, through Bulgaria, sleeping pressed close to Lara in their tent, and through Tanzania – everything had felt like a step in a direction, but Sam was not sure which direction that was.
Lara said something, the wind ripping away her words as soon as they left her mouth.
“What?” Sam called out. She lifted herself up a bit, to get closer to Lara’s face. As close as she could, with the helmet.
“Excited?” Lara asked again. “Last day of the campaign?”
Sam tightened her grip around Lara. “Sure,” she answered and did not know what else to say. Climbing the Kilimanjaro? Standing at the top, Lara next to her, that moment had felt like everything. When she had looked at Lara, she thought back then that she had never felt so close to another human being. That she had found someone who understood her. That she had wanted every moment with Lara to be like that.
So they went hiking, walked across the Great Wall, and surfed in the J-Bay, and went skydiving in Livingstone, and they biked through Azerbaijan.
And they partied, and walked through the Meiji Mura with all its amazing buildings until Sam’s feet were killing her.
And yet it was never—
With a small lurch, the bike came to a stop. Automatically, Sam pulled herself off, and let Lara park it in the usual spot in the parking lot. She looked at the building. With the afternoon classes ending, only a few windows were still lit. Sam had never asked how they had gotten the room here; it was not like pen & paper counted as continued education. But none of them had houses or flats big enough to house the group every Friday evening. Reyes maybe, but she had enough to do with her daughter. Sam wondered if anyone was even paying for the room here.
Knowing Whitman, probably no one.
“But you found it interesting, right?” Lara suddenly asked. She had pulled her helmet off as well and her hair looked wild and windswept and made Sam’s breath skip. “After all, it was the first tabletop game for you, first time you created your own character. First time in being part of a web series too.”
Sam wanted to stare at her. She had never asked that as they had climbed the Kilimanjaro, that was for sure. She forced herself to look up at the building again, to where their room was. It was already bright. Jonah was probably already drawing maps and looking up rules. Sam should hurry as well, to get the camera equipment set up. Which was why Lara and herself had been early. And here they were, talking.
Maybe Lara, too, felt like something was different now.
“It was fun,” Sam said, knowing that word did not cover the last months. ‘Fun’ was shopping and dancing and taking cute pictures of animals. She tried again: “It was one of your father’s games, so it was really… an honor to play it. To be the first ones to play ‘Yamatai’.”
Sam remembered these late nights, only the two of them stuck in a tent somewhere in the middle of Bulgaria, whispering childhood stories to each other over the howling wind outside. Of how Lara’s father had introduced her to tabletop gaming. How they had created her first character, how she only now had found the old character pages, buried deep in between the sheets of materials and rule books for ‘Yamatai’.
To play this game with Lara had been…
Sam looked at Lara, whose eyes were dark and intent on Sam’s own face, and before Sam could say something wrong, she stepped towards the building. Lara followed and it was only after they had almost reached the entrance that Sam remembered.
“Hey, Lara,” Sam asked before she could stop herself. “Selfie for the last day?”
When Lara did not protest, Sam stepped next to her. She lifted her arm to drape it over Lara’s shoulders, but before she could, she let herself feel Lara’s closeness, pressed side to side. Sam shivered at the full contact, even with their thick jackets. She did not turn her head to look where Lara’s face was from hers, just a breath away. Instead, she lifted her phone and took the picture.
When Lara stepped away, the cold felt stronger than before.
“I’m posting it, okay?” Sam asked. “Hashtag #yamataicampaign, right?”
Lara shrugged. “I’m not sure if Whitman ever linked any of us on Twitch.tv, never mind YouTube.”
And they were not famous enough for wikipedia. Sam had checked.
“Probably better,” Sam said as she posted the picture. #yamataicampaign, and after a moment she added #thetombraider. When she looked up, Lara was watching her. “My parents thought I was doing cam porn at first,” she explained. “Because of all the equipment Whitman said we needed.”
Lara had already turned around to walk the last steps to the entrance, but Sam knew her well enough to know that she was grinning.
Following Lara into the building felt like walking to an execution and Sam had no idea why.
You wanted something different, you wanted something to change, Sam told herself sternly. You could have said no when Lara asked you to play ‘Yamatai’ with her.
But when had Sam ever said ‘No’ to Lara?
Maybe, Sam thought, a little wild, they could go cave diving next. Sam had read about a few nice spots in Mexico. Lara would like that, surely.
And everything would be normal again.
“Get it together, Sam,” she told herself and followed Lara.
“The wind is howling around you,“ Jonah said and made the sound with his mouth: a howling not like a wolf’s, but soft and cold and deadly. It was warm in the room. With winter setting in the janitors had cranked up the heat for the whole building. And yet, Sam shivered.
“You are in the middle of a sphere of light. Icy winds all around you. Himiko is angry,” Jonah added as if that was not clear. He glanced at Sam, his gaze full of weight and he leaned forward, palms flat on the table. “She is always angry, has been for so many years. She is caught in the dying body, caught in all that pain. Worshiped and yet alone. She is raging against the sacrifice responsible, who betrayed her; raging against Yamatai, raging against you. She wants to hurt whatever comes her way, and now there are only two things that she can get to: The weather, and Sam’s body.”
Sam couldn’t look away from him. Beside her, there was a sound as Reyes put her beer back down. They had pushed the two empty seats from Alex and Whitman back and yet the table was so glaringly empty, the obvious sign that they had started the campaign with more people all those months ago. If Sam looked, she knew she could see Lara from the corner of her eye, at the other side of the table. But she didn’t look.
“Can I scream?” Sam asked.
Maybe she shouldn't have given her character her own name.
“Okay,” Sam drew a shaky breath, “I scream.” In the beginning of the game, she might have done the scream, for the audience and the clicks and the comments, maybe even with a glance at her camera, but now she did not think she had the guts to do it. Now that Whitman had finally fucking quit, there was no one to push for acting it out for Twitch.tv and YouTube and all the people apparently now watching them. This, all of this, felt too real anyway.
“Sam screams,” Jonah says with another nod, “The wind is too loud and your throat is too raw to get a proper scream out of it. This sounds more like a sob, desperate, and almost not like Sam anymore. There is some underlying vibration. It reminds you of overtone singing. Something that also can be found in the wind around you… Maybe it is Himiko, maybe she is already in--”
“I go in. To the sphere,” Lara interrupted, “to rescue Sam.”
Jonah frowned. “You can wait--” he started to say.
“I’ll roll,” Lara said, her voice hard. “I take my guns and I shoot. At Mathias, he’s over here, right? Until he’s dead. What do I need to get done before Himiko comes through?” She had not taken her eyes off Jonah, not even to glance at her character sheet. Not even to check Tomb Raider’s stats. Fuck, Sam thought. This was it.
Jonah glanced at his notes and licked his lips. “You need….” He looked over to Lara’s stat pages, then back down again, traced the line with the information, moved his lips as he silently repeated the stats on his own paper. “You need to roll 20. And if you get less, you will be blasted back instantly, no second chances.”
Lara nodded. Sam stared at her.
“Lara, no!” Sam said. She couldn’t just sit here and listen. This was not some random character, to be chucked after the game. This was The Tomb Raider. Sam knew how much that meant to Lara. “Come on, let Himiko take her. It could be interesting, right? Like a sequel to ‘Yamatai’. Right, Jonah?”
Jonah pulled a face at that. “Sorry, Sam,” he said. “That’s Lara’s decision.”
“I shoot,” Lara said. “At Mathias.”
“Okay, okay,” Jonah said. “Okay, so, Tomb Raider crosses over to the sphere where Himiko is trying to phase into Sam’s body. Tomb Raider’s hurt and tired, her wounded side stinging. But she pushes on. The wind is rushing past her, pushing her back. But she goes on, step by step. Then, there is Mathias.“
Lara rolled the dice.
“You want to come up?” Sam asked as she pulled herself from Lara’s bike. She took off the helmet, cradling it close to her stomach. The street was empty around them, this late at night. They had stayed longer than usual at the building, drinking to the end of their campaign.
For a moment, Sam thought that Lara would leave, but then she shut down the engine and stepped off the bike. “Sure,” she said, as she put it in a parking position.
Sam could feel Lara behind her all the way up to the door of her flat. This wasn’t strange, not even unusual, and yet, Sam couldn’t shake the odd feeling that had grabbed hold of her in the last hours. A feeling of howling, ice-cold winds. Of angry goddess-queens.
Of Jonah’s descriptions, “Tomb Raider cradles Sam close, carrying her almost unconscious body. The sacrificial dress is thin, but they keep each other warm.”
Keep each other warm.
Sam shivered and unlocked the apartment door after the third try, with Lara right behind her. The ceiling light was slow to start; she really had to get that changed. But the desk lamp flickered to life, a soft, orange glow, similar to the lanterns outside. Sam hung her coat up, kicked off her shoes, and heard Lara do the same.
“You want something to drink?” Sam asked. “Beer?”
“I’ll make tea,” Lara said. She walked past Sam, not even that close, and yet Sam could have sworn she felt Lara brush by her. The air moving with her.
Sam dropped onto the sofa, legs over the side, and fished for her phone. In the kitchen, the water began to boil, the slow hiss loud in the otherwise quiet apartment.
Sam checked Facebook first, then Instagram, but it was all the same, a few new pictures, but nothing… Nothing that could explain the way she felt. Like the earth had shifted somehow. Like she had become someone else. Like Lara had become someone else. Sam liked a picture her mom had posted. Alex had DM’ed her on Instagram, but that could wait. Reyes had a new picture of her kitchen, all messy, which had obviously been used for making cookies by her daughter. Cute. Sam liked it as well.
And then she was at the oldest picture from today, since she had last checked. Posted even before Sam’s own picture of Lara and herself. Jonah’s account, with a simple picture black and white of their table, right before the game had started today. Snacks at the side, the camera set-up visible, papers stacked in front of Jonah’s seat, and a map of the sky temple.
The water was boiling now, a blubbering sound. Lara was still in the kitchen. Sam breathed out, breathed in, and let her phone drop against her forehead. “Come on, Samantha,” she murmured against the screen. “Get it together.”
Sam did not know why she looked at their Twitch.tv channel next. Morbid curiosity maybe. She had never looked at their sessions online. That had been Whitman’s thing and who knew where all that YouTube ad money had gone. Probably still into his pockets, knowing him. After he had left, Reyes had taken over editing and posting, which was fine with Sam.
Still, with trembling fingers, Sam searched for the “Yamatai” campaign. The first video popped up, the one from today. Sam read the first comment, still made during the live streaming of the session. And then the next.
“Wow,” Sam said, quietly.
“What is it?” Lara said, right next to the couch.
Sam dropped her phone on her face in surprise, but Lara only smiled at her as she set the tea down. A large mug for Sam, a smaller one for her. The smell of green tea spread through the living room.
“Thanks,” Sam said and began to move her legs to make room for Lara on the sofa, but before she could, Lara dropped down in the tiny space between Sam’s head and the arm-rest. Her hips were right next to Sam’s head and now it would be strange to move, so Sam pushed back a bit, to rest her head against Lara’s thigh.
“The Twitch.tv comments,” she explained, holding her phone up for Lara to see. Now she couldn’t read them anymore, not lying down like this, with her head in Lara’s lap, but she saw Lara scroll, her eyes flickering over the screen as she read them. “About the rescue.”
“’Very white knight-y,’” Lara quoted, “’No kiss? Is TR a lesbian? Is Tomb Raider going to fuck Sam now? When's the next session?’ I would love to see Jonah’s face.”
Sam could see the faint blush on Lara’s cheeks and she had to smile. “Thanks, though,” she said. “For the rescue. I kind of like Sam now, it would have sucked to have to play as Himiko.”
Lara hmm-ed at that. “Of course,” she said. She lowered the phone. “I like Sam too.”
Then Lara leaned down.
Sam breathed in slowly and kissed Lara back.