He finds her in the gardens, up in the branches of one of the alders, crying.
It took...a while. By now he knows all her usual hiding places, both within the manor and on the grounds, well enough, and this particular tree isn't one of them. But then, the others tend to be places she goes when she wants to read or draw or eat her purloined Jaffa Cakes; Winston takes it as a point of pride that so far in her young life Lara's never needed a place to go when she needs to cry.
He clears his throat from the bottom of the tree, and she looks down from between the buds and bursts into tears all over again. "I...I'm so sorry, I didn't...please don't be mad at me, I didn't mean to...I just..."
Winston looks up at the red-faced little girl clinging to the branch about a meter above his head. It should surprise him, he supposes, that a six-year-old climbed up that far, but young Lara's ability to get anywhere and do anything has long since stopped surprising him...delighting him, certainly, though he'd never admit that either to her or to Lord Croft. What he does is clear his throat, do his best to meet her eyes through the twigs, and say "If I may be so bold, Mistress Lara, I know that when your father is away you miss him terribly. I know that when one is young the things one feels can seem...overpowering, and that it can be difficult to express those feelings." Lara sniffs, and he smiles gently. "I am well aware that you did not lock me in the freezer because you dislike me or wish me any harm."
Lara blinks, wipes the back of her hand across her cheek. "You're not cross with me?"
Winston's smile quirks. "Perhaps a little. To be blunt I am quite a bit more upset about the distress you've caused Mrs. Sheffield and myself by running off as you did. She is quite worried for your safe return, you know." Lara winces, and Winston holds out his arms. "Perhaps we ought to go inform her that you are both found and appropriately sorry for your actions, yes?"
Lara nods. After a moment's hesitation she pushes herself off from the branch and climbs down, as effortlessly as if she were walking across a room. Winston shakes his head fondly as she drops into his arms.
"I'm sorry I locked you in the freezer."
"I know you are, Mistress Lara."
"Is Mrs. Sheffield really cross?"
Winston chuckles softly as he sets her down. "Well, it might be best if we pick her some flowers on the way back to the manor...just in case."
He knocks gently on the door of her bedroom, and is met with silence.
"Mistress Lara? Since we missed you at dinner, I took the liberty of preparing you a tray." It's hardly the first time he's done so, and he doubts it will be the last; his young charge is nothing if not strong-willed, prone almost as much to fits of wild emotion as she is to spontaneous 'expeditions' around the grounds. Sometimes he receives no answer—either because she's engaged in the former or because she's snuck out her window to indulge in the latter—but sometimes if he waits long enough and she's in the right mood he'll hear the click...ah, there it is.
He looks down over the edge of the tray to find a sour, sniffling young lady pouting up at him. He bends down at the waist to offer her the tray, and with it a silent choice of whether to take it and retreat back into her room or invite him in. She steps back and opens the door wider, and he steps inside.
"I understand you've been having trouble with the other girls again," he says matter-of-factly as he sets the tray on the chest of drawers, and she pouts.
"The other girls are stupid. They only want to talk about clothes and television and stupid things like that."
Winston tries to fight a smile. "Mm, and not about ancient Egypt or Greece or..."
"Or even the Aztecs or anything!" Winston chuckles, but his smile fades as Lara climbs up into her unmade bed, arms wrapped around her knees and big brown eyes looking up at him beseechingly. "Winston? You don't think there's...is there something wrong with me?"
"Because you prefer the Aztecs to television?"
"No. Well, not really. It's just...Sadie Mayhew and her friends, they said...they said I was queer because there aren't any boys I think are cute." Winston bites down on his tongue as Lara looks up. "It's not that strange, is it? I just think it's more important to think about my studies and important things like that instead of boys. I don't see the point of boys. Except for you and Dad and Roth and Grim, I mean."
Winston smiles in spite of himself, then takes a deep, careful breath. "My dear little angel, there is nothing at all wrong with keeping your mind on your studies. And...at some point in the future, you might find yourself thinking more about boys. Or...you might not."
Lara shakes her head stubbornly. "I won't. I already know what I'm doing with the future."
"Oh? Do tell."
"Katie Prescott and I already decided. Instead of getting husbands and everything we're going to steal a pirate ship and run off and have adventures, just like Dad and Roth," she says with complete seriousness. Winston manages to swallow an eruption of delighted laughter, but it's a near thing.
"Yes, well, I doubt your father and Mr. Roth would put it quite like that. But I wish you and Ms. Prescott the best of luck."
Lara smiles just a little. "Thank you Winston." Her smile fades. "You're not going to tell Dad that, are you?"
Winston smirks ever so slightly. "Of course not, Mistress Lara."
"Good. I don't think he'd approve of me stealing. Even if it was a pirate ship."
Winston turns back to the door, shaking his head fondly. No, he won't be telling Lord Croft about his daughter's plans to run off with her female friend in order to avoid having a husband. He was telling the truth, of course, that she might one day find herself thinking about boys. But well...he does know her better than anyone, after all, and he can't help but think it rather unlikely.
Winston's fists tighten in impotent rage.
He held her for hours. Arms wrapped tightly around her as she cried and wailed and begged, face buried in his chest, pleading with him to make it not true. For the first time in her life, he found himself utterly unable to give Lara what she so desperately needed, and that more than anything else broke his heart.
Now, a day later, he's feeling that sting again.
"If I might speak candidly, sir—"
"There's nothing to speak about," Atlas De Mornay says brusquely. He's a thin, weasely man with a thin, weasely mustache, and he says everything brusquely: probably because he thinks his time is so valuable. "As executor of the estate, it falls to me to determine not only what is best for the Croft assets, but what is best for Lara. I hardly think that means staying in this decrepit old house, waiting for the ghost of her father to drive her just as mad as he was—"
"How dare you?" Winston snaps. "Lord Croft was..." He grinds his teeth and breathes out. "I have raised that girl from birth. I will not be parted from her in this, the hour of her greatest need. Not on the Queen's command, nor on God's, and certainly not on yours."
De Mornay's eyes go flinty. Well, flintier. "What part you played in raising Lara you played because it was your employment. Said employment is now ended. And if I might speak candidly, sir, any further attempt to make contact with this minor not of your own family, expressly against her legal guardian's wishes, will be treated as I am assured the police treat all such cases."
Winston's face flushes with rage. "You spineless little—"
"You're dismissed, Mr. Smith. Please inform the rest of the staff."
De Mornay looks down at the desk...Lord Croft's desk, the one where less than twenty four hours ago he...and that signals the end. Winston wants so badly to let his shoulders slump, but instead he stands taller and squares them as he exits the study. Four sets of eyes look up as he closes the door behind him, Mrs. Sheffield holding Lara on her lap and the two maids, Sarah and Maria, standing nervously behind her. Instead of meeting their dread-filled gazes he drops to his knee, Lara slipping down out of Mrs. Sheffield's lap and into his arms. He has to take a deep breath before he can begin.
"Your uncle Atlas has decided that you will return to boarding school. During school holidays, you will remain at school or stay with your mother's family. As no one will be occupying the manor...the staff has been dismissed."
Mrs. Sheffield gasps softly. Maria bursts into tears. Lara's eyes are starting to water too. "Wh...what does that mean? When...when are you coming back?"
Winston swallows past the lump in his throat. "Mistress Lara..."
"No! No, you can't leave! You have to stay, you can't just leave me!" He reaches for her, only for her little fists to slam into his chest. "I hate you! You don't even love me, you don't even care, I hate you I hate you!" As the punches and screams collapse into sobs against his shirt, Winston just pulls Lara closer. For the second time in as many days, he holds her until she can't even cry.
"Oi, Winnie. Y' got a visitor!"
Winston looks up from his garden, brushing the dirt from his knees. His tomatoes are actually showing promise for once. He looks over the fence toward his neighbor Valerie, standing with a pretty young woman in a leather jacket and a brown ponytail. He blinks, a bit confused, as she steps over to his fence with a strange smile on her face.
"I'm sorry, young lady, how can I help you?"
Her smile falters. "Oh. I...I'm sorry. I thought you might...remember me."
He narrows his eyes, studies her face. When the realization hits, his eyes shoot back open. "Oh my lord." His hands are shaking, his heart is pounding, because sure enough here she is, more than a decade later and standing right in front of him as if she just came back from a particularly long expedition out into the grounds. "Mistress Lara, I...oh, forgive me! Lady Croft, it—" His voice catches when she practically spills across the fence into his arms, hugging him tightly, far more so than she ever did as a little girl. God, but she's so strong now, and he, well...he's just a weak old man, crying in his garden. When she pulls back, he shakes his head. "What...how..."
She winces. "It's...a long, long story. But what matters is...I have the manor." She smiles. "I got it back, from Uncle Atlas. I got it all back."
Winston beams. "Oh, my dear girl, that's wonderful. I can't tell you how happy I am for you..."
She fidgets nervously. "The thing is...I won't be living there all the time. I'll be...traveling."
"Just like your father," Winston says, and she nods.
"And...since I won't always be there I won't need a full staff, but...I thought that...having someone there...someone who knows the manor, and...I'm sure you're too happy here in your retirement, but..."
As the nervous little girl in front of him looks up hopefully, Winston just laughs. Some things never change. "Lady Croft. Just you try and get rid of me."