Return to The Artifact Chapter Two

The Artifact

Author: sabina
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and its characters are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. The Tomb Raider videogame is the property of Eidos Interactive and Core Design. This fic is not meant to infringe any copyrights.

Her hand is so elegant and strong, but gentle. I could hold her hand forever. Actually, I think I could hold all of her until the end of time. Whoa! What am I saying, here? Ok, ok, let's try to be rational. I'm obviously attracted to her. Just that vulnerable look that she has in her green eyes right now makes me want to dive into her arms and never come back up. I have to stop this, now. If I'm going to be this distracted, I'll probably get killed about five minutes into this quest.

Tara was getting confused. So Willow was gorgeous. Ok. But Tara had seen and talked to many good looking girls before and none had ever had this effect on her.

She was feeling oddly protective of the redhead, and that just wouldn't do. They were going to be competing against each other and Willow was maybe the best in the world. Tara couldn't afford to have a soft spot for her.

Willow was equally confused. Tara's hand in her own felt so right, like pieces of a puzzle that finally slid into place. She was feeling warm and comfortable, and that was a new feeling to her. Willow sensed that she could trust Tara with her very life. Uh? Excuse me? Hello, you're going up against each other. She's not your friend, and you sure can't trust her. How many times have other tomb raiders tried to kill you, especially when you were both chasing the same thing? Countless times. Why would she be any different? And with that last thought, Willow slid her armor into place and let go of the blonde's hand.

Tara sensed the difference even before Willow dropped her hand. The redhead's face had hardened, the line of her jaw tight and tense, and her eyes that before were bright and confident, turned into a shade of green like the sea on stormy days... cold and distant. When Willow spoke next, her voice had metallic intonations that chilled Tara.

"Well, now that we're introduced, I think I'll be going. I have an artifact to find." And without saying anymore, Willow moved to the next room.

If I ever find out who hurt you so badly I'll kill them! vowed the blonde. Why am I assuming someone hurt her? She's just being professional, detached, like I should be! Emotions don't have a place in this game! Tara tried to convince herself. Putting on her own resolve face, she followed the redhead into the other room.

This one was different from the antechamber. For starters, it was circular and had three doors. Its walls were covered everywhere with pictures of nature; trees, rivers, bushes and grass, and people enjoying themselves at picnics and playing games. It was beautiful, but Tara didn't have much time to appreciate it, as Willow had already opened and quickly moved through one of the room's three doors.

Willow knew she wasn't being rational. Her mind was screaming for her to stop running and start paying closer attention to where she was going - reminding her that moving carelessly inside a crypt was suicide - but she just couldn't stop. She needed to get away from that blonde angel, who, with just one look and just one touch was making her heart begin to believe and trust again. Trusting other people had never worked out well for Willow, and this surely was not the right time to start again. So Willow ran to the handle that would open the next door and pushed it forcefully, but nothing happened. She pushed again with the same result.

Now this is weird. It should have opened. What am I doing wrong?

Tara was outside the door, simply looking at Willow. This new area was a long hallway, just wide enough for one person to pass at a time. At the end there was a door, with a lever next to it. It was that lever that Willow was pushing and pulling frantically, her brow furrowing further each time nothing happened. Then she stopped and just stared at the lever as if she were willing it to work.

A smile made its way to Tara's mouth before she could suppress it. The redhead was just too cute for words.

There's no way I can take the same path as she and stay focused on my goal. So I'll just back away from here and I'll choose another door. Well, ok, maybe I'll watch her for just another minute. After letting a sigh slip from her lips and stealing one last look at Willow, Tara walked away.

She stood in the first room, taking her time to choose a door. I wonder if the car, the trip to Bahamas, and the computer electronics package are behind door number one, two, or three? I know behind which door is one very hot redhead... Oh goddess... I think I'll go with the less complicated door number three.

With her decision made, Tara pulled the switch and stood back in a defensive position. After a long moment without anything happening, she relaxed again, and pulled the switch a second time. Again she tensed, ready for whatever happened when the door opened. And once more, there was no movement.

Ok, so this is weird. I wonder if only one path can be open at a time. But if that's the case, why wouldn't Willow's door open? I guess I'll have to follow the one way that's already open and see what happens.

Tara walked inside the opened corridor, and after only a few steps she heard the door behind her close soundly. This startled Willow, who only then realized she was in the same room with the very person from whom she wanted to run. On instinct more than anything else, Willow pulled the lever once again. And this time it worked. They both heard a strange noise... like thunder approaching, getting louder and louder. Suddenly, a large stone ball crashed from the ceiling and rolled rapidly towards them both. Tara was nearest to it, so she only had time to jump awkwardly over the ball and land on her back with a thud. Willow on the other hand, had a couple of extra seconds to prepare herself. She made a perfect jump, drew her guns in mid-air, and landed on her feet facing the hole that had replaced the door. She waited a couple of minutes, surveying the scene without losing her focus.

When she was sure they weren't going to be attacked from the new opening, Willow put her guns back in the holsters and turned to the place where Tara was trying to get up.

"Tara, are you ok?" she asked worriedly, while approaching the fallen blonde.

"Do you handle all situations like this?" she said trying to ease the mood. Oh man, I am a dork. That was a really bad joke; heck it wasn't even a real joke.

But Willow laughed. It was probably just the aftermath of the adrenaline rush, but she'd been so afraid that Tara had been injured, that now she needed to relieve the tension.

"You're right, I have to stop being so "lever" headed." Now they were both laughing out loud. Willow dropped to the floor next to Tara, unable to stand while the fit of giggles shook her body.

After several moments, they managed to calm down and Willow asked again, "How are you, are you hurt? I'm really sorry about the whole lever handle thing. It hadn't worked before, and I had no reason to think it would work now... but I wasn't exactly thinking when I pushed it, and then that huge ball fell from the ceiling, and everything happened so fast... and all I could see was that you were on the floor, and I couldn't really think about anything else, I was worried..." she interrupted herself and blushed slightly when she realized she had said too much.

Wow. The only thing she could think about was me on the floor... she was worried. I only met this girl an hour ago, and already it warms my soul that she cares. I have to watch after my heart. I'm the "one night things with no strings attached" kind of girl. I can't afford to be conquered by this green-eyed champion.

"I... I'm ok, I think. My back hurts and it's probably going to be a little sore later, but that's all."

Willow was engrossed in deep thought, and when she finally spoke again, the first thing she said took the other girl completely by surprise.

"May I call you Tara? It kind of slipped out of my mouth before I had time to think about it. And well, to tell you the truth, I really don't have any social skills... so I was wondering if it was rude of me to call you by your first name."

"Of course you can call me Tara, as long as I can call you Willow. After all, it's much easier to scream those names out... uhm... I mean in case another rolling stone comes crashing down on us. Much faster than Miss Rosenberg and Miss Maclay. It can save our lives." She said seriously. Oh good grief, Tara! she chastised herself.

Willow laughed lightly. It made all of Tara's aches from the fall worthwhile.

"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about another thing. Did you notice that the door to that first room only closed after you were inside this one? And also, that stupid handle only worked after the door closed. Did you try any switches out there?"

The blonde already thought about this, so she could see why Willow was asking. "Yes, I did. I tried the switch on another one of the doors outside, but it didn't work. I pushed it several times, until I gave up and came here."

"Hmm..." Willow considered all the information for a moment and then said, "You know, I think we are stuck together. That door wouldn't close until you came in, and this door wouldn't open until the other one was closed. If all the chambers are like this one, we'll have to move together." Willow didn't know what to think about that. On one hand, she already felt more at ease with Tara than she'd ever felt with anyone. On the other hand, to like someone - to trust and to depend on them - would mean opening herself up to heartbreak all over again.

Tara had already reached the same conclusion, and felt almost dizzy with the prospect of spending all that time with the redhead. Tara Maclay, meet the challenge of your life: to spend days fighting alongside the most amazing woman you've ever met... and not fall in love with her. Wait a second... fall in love? Where did that come from?

"Yeah. I think you're right." Silence fell over them as both women let the information sink in.

"So if your back's ok, maybe we should get moving. I think the book mentioned something about 'correct timing.' And well, if we were to get it wrong, it would be better for us to be early than to be late."

"Yeah. I'm ok. Let's get going, then."

Willow extended her hand to help Tara get up, and was once more rewarded by a tingling sensation throughout her body. This woman truly is special.

They looked deep into each other's eyes and smiled.

As they passed over the hole left by the stone ball, they came upon the strangest room. It was massive in its length, maybe about fifty meters, and there were two solid platforms - one near the entry, and one on the end of the room. Situated between them were panels of suspended wood that looked as if they might fall if someone so much as sneezed.

To their left was a closed door with no handle in sight.

"Ok, so we'll probably find the way to open the door somewhere on the other side. And only the gods know what's below these wooden things," Willow complained. This is weird. If I were alone I wouldn't be complaining. It's Tara! I feel like I don't have to be strong all the time. Like I can lose it once in a while and trust her to be there to put me back together. How's that possible? It's like I've known her forever.

Tara was looking around the room for clues, but she found none. "I guess you must be right. We'll have to take our chances on the floating boards."

"Ok then, let's go." Willow stepped carefully in the first panel, ready to jump at any sight of danger. When nothing happened, she progressed to the next one.

Tara followed her and moved to the first board. However, as soon as the blonde was completely on the plank, it collapsed and fell, despite it having held up for Willow. Tara had just enough time to do a back flip and return to the safety of the stone floor.

"Well, that could have been worse," Tara remarked dryly, as she looked to the floor beneath the missing board. The floor was covered with deadly spikes.

Willow also jumped back to the relative safety of the room's entry. "That was weird. It held itself up while I was there. I suppose it could have been built to collapse at the second touch."

"Or maybe it was our weight difference. I'm heavier than you."

"I don't think it was that... there's not that much of a difference," Willow smiled and continued, "but you can easily find out. This thing looks like a chessboard, squares next to squares. Well, except that it isn't eight by eight, but more like six by forty, and I guess that's not really the important point here. So anyway, as I was saying before I got distracted by chessboards, you can try another panel to see if it falls, and even if it does, we'll still have lots of ways to get to the other side."

Willowbabble is adorable. "Yeah, I think that's a good idea"

"Maybe I could be holding your hand, so if the board gives way, I can hold you up and away from the spikes." Willow's tone dropped a little at the end. And why would she trust me?

"I'd like that. I don't necessarily want to have a close encounter with those pointy pricklies." Tara smiled, a little overwhelmed with the prospect of holding Willow's hand.

She trusts me to hold her hand... to keep her safe. Go me! Now the real problem's going to be staying focused on keeping her safe, rather than on the fact that we're going to be holding hands. Ok, so maybe she'd be safer by herself. The redhead was about to give voice to her thoughts about Tara's safety, when the blonde interrupted her.

"I trust you." Three little words that melted Willow's heart.

"Then let's do it." Willow extended her hand and Tara took it without a second thought. The tingly feeling was present as before, but they both accepted it as part of whatever was happening between them. And by now neither one of them could deny that something was happening. Even though they'd met just a short while ago, it was like their souls recognized each other. They were drawn to each other like the tide to the moon, and were equally as helpless to fight it.

Tara stepped carefully onto one of the panels next to the stone platform, and waited for it to break, but it didn't. So they just stayed like that, holding each other's hand, lost deep inside each other's, eyes until Willow realized it was best for them to keep moving. They had to seize the day; keep working toward the goal. The temple had some little holes in the ceiling through which daylight could enter. They didn't understand how that was possible, as the temple had been built inside the mountain...but whatever the reason, they had natural light and were thankful for it. It gave them a plan; it would be better for them to move in the day and stop to rest at night.

"Tara..." She was about to say exactly that, when her stomach decided to complain loudly about the lack of food. She blushed. "Uhm... sorry."

"That's ok. You're hungry and there's nothing wrong with that. We need to figure out our next move, so what do you say we do some figuring while we eat?" I have to marvel at how swift it was for me to begin thinking "us", our move, our adventure. A lifetime of habits as a tomb raider working alone, erased from my memory in one morning spent with this redhead. The force sure is strong inside you Willow Rosenberg.

Willow smiled and nodded, and they sat in the corner away from the door, half facing each other. They both took from their backpacks a ball of protein and vitamins.

"You know...," started Willow while chewing her protein ball, "...what bothers me most when I'm searching for relics?" Tara shook her head, and the redhead continued. "It's having to eat these ash-tasting protein balls! It's when I'm eating these things that I miss my kitchen and all the yummy stuff I can make... and eat. I love to cook! And heck, I'd love it a whole lot more if I could be doing it now instead of eating this thing!" Willow's nose was wrinkled in disgust and she was nearly pouting. Tara thought it was adorable and couldn't suppress a giggle. Will I discover anything about her that I won't think is adorable? I'm starting to seriously doubt it.

"What?" the redhead asked.

"It's just that you look all cute with your nose wrinkled. You look like a five-year-old who wants to sneak cookies before dinner but just discovered that the cookie jar is missing." Tara laughed as an image of a five-year-old Willow popped into her mind.

"You're laughing at me?" the redhead asked playfully. "Be careful, because I have ways to make you regret that."

"I would challenge you to show me, but unfortunately we need to figure out how to open this door." Tara sounded disappointed for having to change the mood into a more serious one, but it was necessary.

"You're right of course. I was thinking that maybe one of us could go to the other side and see if there was anything akin to a lever that would open that door."

"That sounds like a plan, but maybe we could both try. On different paths, obviously," Tara added.

"We can try. Ok, I think I'm done with this stupid protein ball. If you're finished too, we can take a shot at it now."

"Yeah, I'm done."

They picked up their backpacks and tied them again safely around their respective shoulders. Each went to one board. Tara was the first one to step on, and it held, but when Willow stepped onto the one nearest her, it broke and she had to do a back flip to avoid the awaiting spikes.

"Tara, it's no use. It'll only hold one of us at a time. Since you're the one already on the path you go ahead. I'll wait here. Be careful."

"Ok then. I'll be back," she said, and she winked at Willow, before turning around and resuming her walk toward the other side.

It was a trip without incidents. The other platform looked just like the one from which they started, except that on its surface sat an iron structure the same height as Tara's waist. On that formation rested a large bowl that held some sort of liquid. No levers in sight.

"Tara, do you see anything that looks like a handle?"

"No, the only thing here is this copper bowl. I'm looking everywhere, and there's just nothing more," the blonde woman said sadly.

"Maybe you have to torch it," Willow suggested.

"Let me just look around a little more to make sure that we don't have any more options." Tara searched everywhere but in truth there wasn't much to look at, only the basin. So she decided to try Willow's suggestion.

"Willow, I'm going to try to light it." Tara pulled a box of matches from her pack, ignited one, and dropped it in the bowl. But as it touched the liquid, it extinguished itself.

"What happened?" asked the redhead.

"It didn't work. I'm going to try another one." She repeated the process with the same result. "It's official; this thing won't burn."

"Is there any way to move it? The bowl, I mean."

Tara tried to move it to no avail. The iron supporter was stuck deep in the floor, and the basin was well-secured in the supporter. There was no way she was going to be able to move any of those things.

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Four

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