Return to The Artifact Chapter Seventeen

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.

"Uhm, you know, I think this is my punishment for complaining about the lack of a door and lock in the other room. I just had to go and complain and now look; there's nothing here besides a door and a lock. I wonder... do you think if I asked for a million dollars they'd appear in the next room? It's not like I need the money, but ooh! A coffee machine wouldn't be a bad idea right about now. Or, wait. I know! A stack of pancakes... or maybe lasagna. Hmm, then again, after your description of the way you'd feed lasagna to me, I think any kind of food would be too much of a temptation."

Tara smiled when she heard the redhead's endearing babble. The hardest part of solving a puzzle is always getting started, and she was glad to have Willow by her side, easing her worries, giving her strength, loving her.

The blonde turned around and swiftly pulled the other girl into her arms, cutting her off in mid-babble. Tara stared into surprised green orbs before she leaned in and brought their lips together in a soft kiss. They pulled their mouths away after a few seconds but remained in each other's arms, each enjoying the simple feeling of holding the woman she loved so close.

A still-dazed Willow was the first to speak.

"Not that I'm complaining honey, because I'm so not, but what was that for?"

"Because I love you... and because I thought a good luck kiss was the best way to prepare for the search of a new room."

"Oh, is that right? In that case I think I need another one to hold me over. You know... since there isn't anything obvious to search and we'll probably be stuck looking at bricks for the next few hours," Willow said while pouting. She then leaned in and once again pressed her lips to Tara's.

She ran her tongue over Tara's lips, teasing them open with lazy strokes. Tara was sure this was a bad idea, but she couldn't help but tilt her head to the side and open her mouth wide, accepting Willow's tongue in her warmth, and lifting her own to duel with its mate.

This wasn't a soft, chaste good luck kiss; it was a hungry, thirsty exploration that left them both panting when the need for oxygen made them pull away.

They gazed deeply into each other's eyes and saw - mirrored in dark pools of green and blue - raw, hungry desire burning deep and starting to consume them whole. Feeling that it was her fault they'd become so wrapped in each other that they'd forgotten everything else, Willow willed herself to pull away from their embrace and take a few steps backwards, all the while taking deep breaths to try to steady herself.

She was so distracted that she never saw part of the floor sliding under another section just behind her feet. She'd accidentally triggered a trap by pressing a specific brick, and was headed right for the large, newly opened hole and the water filling it. With her balance completely lost she had no way of holding herself up, and she felt herself helplessly falling. From sheer reflex she drew her guns, and in a fluid motion threw them aside, safely away from the water. Willow had time to cry out a single word before she disappeared under water and the passage over her head closed.


Willow found herself immersed in a passage full of frigid water, an underwater corridor with a severe right turn just a few strokes away. For a second she felt like bouncing up and down with joy, for now they at least had a lead on where the key could be, and she was just about to start swimming to the end of the corridor when she remembered the gravity of her situation.

With the hole through which she'd fallen now closed over her head she had no way of telling Tara of her plans to travel the corridor, nor did she have a chance of returning through that hole. She decided to wait a little longer to see if her girlfriend could open the passage again.

Jeez, it's cold! I'm such an idiot. Why did I have to kiss Tara like that? Why do I keep teasing us to the point that neither of us can think straight? And look at me now. Not only am I separated from my beautiful, sexy girlfriend, but I'm also kind of trapped under water. And let's face it, I might have great lungs but I'm still going to run out of oxygen like everyone else and drown if I don't breathe in the next couple of minutes. At least I was able to throw the guns aside before they got wet, so that just leaves the shotgun to be dried and cleaned after I get out of this mess...after the passage is opened again. Assuming it will open. How did I open the thing in the first place? I didn't do anything...I was just stepping back. It could be triggered by pressure, opening only when somebody steps on the right brick. Yeah, that's got to be it. Maybe I could swim to the end of that tunnel and see what lies after the turn. Okay, so that's probably a pretty bad idea. If Tara opens the passage and doesn't see me there she might let it close again. Or, even worse, she might get down in here with me and then, if I'm right and the passage only stays open as long as someone's applying pressure to it, we'll both be trapped down here. That would definitely be bad. How long has it been since I fell? A minute maybe?

Just as the redhead was starting to wonder how much longer she'd be able to hold her breath, the passage above her head opened and she was able to come to the surface.

Tara was thankful that Willow had the strength to pull away because she wasn't sure she could do it this time. It was becoming more and more difficult to resist the allure of Willow's body regardless of the continued threat of a crazed skeleton attack. Tara was still trying to cool down her over-heated brain and body when she saw Willow begin to fall into a large hole filled with water. It was a hole that - even through her hazy, clouded-with-desire mind - she could swear hadn't been there before.

Then everything seemed to happen in slow motion. She saw Willow draw her guns and throw them aside as she was falling, and she heard the redhead call out her name, the sound hitting her ears as if it were traveling from a long distance.

Then the loud clang of metal hitting the stone floor brought her back to reality, and in a flash the hole was gone and Willow with it. The only evidence of the event was a small puddle of water that had splashed up when Willow's body hit the water.

Tara felt the panic rise in her body as she ran to the place where she'd last seen Willow, and she looked frantically for a way to open the passage. After a few seconds of futile searching she stopped and willed herself to calm down.

Okay, think. Willow's all right; she has lots of experience with diving and swimming and she can hold her breath for a couple of minutes. So just calm down and think. What did she do that opened this passage? She was walking and then bang, she fell. That's all she did, simply walk. That has to be the way to open this hole; I'll have to walk on the right spot... wherever that is. Ooh, water's splashed over there so it has to be just about... here. Hang in there, my love.

As Tara stepped on the trigger the floor once again slid open and exposed the underwater passage. A second later Willow's head appeared.

Fearing the cover would close and strike Willow, Tara didn't move from her place as her girlfriend climbed back up. She waited until Willow was standing in front of her, then flung her arms around her and hugged her fiercely, burying her head in the girl's neck. Drops of water cascaded from Willow's hair and neck, mixing with the warm tears of relief Tara shed.

Willow returned the hug with equal strength and desperation, and for a long moment they just stood there. They let the fear fall away with each drop of water that left Willow's body. They finally pulled away when they felt that comfort was beginning to turn into desire. The women looked at each other for a long moment and only then did Willow notice that their hug had left its mark on Tara's clothes. Thinking only of breaking the silence and easing the tension a bit, she started nervously talking.

"I'm sorry, Tara. I got you wet. Uhm, I mean... with the hugging and the water that's running down my body and soaking my... my clothes. I guess that's obvious right? My jumping into the water fully clothed would tend to have that effect. Soaking my clothes, that is. And then I hugged you and made your clothes get wet too... which was what I was trying to say in the first place. I swear I'm going to stop talking now."

Good grief! "I got you wet?" What was I thinking? I just wanted to say something, anything, to fill the silence. I didn't mean for it to sound so lascivious. Our hug made her wet... made her clothes wet, not her. So, okay I can tell that my panties are soaked with more than just 'watery water.' Just the way her wet shirt is clinging to her breasts now, my god. But I can't start thinking about whether she got wet from the hug too, because if I don't stop teasing us both we'll probably lose our minds soon. So how about we try to keep the Freudian slips in check, please, brain of mine. At least until we're in a skeleton-free zone.

"Uhm, it's n-no problem. I'm just glad you're okay."

You most assuredly did get me wet, but gosh, couldn't you find anything else to talk about? You just had to keep saying 'soaking' and 'wet' as if I wasn't feeling frustrated enough already. I want you so much, Willow. Idiot skeletons.

An uncomfortable silence fell over them as both girls tried to hide their blushing faces and hammering hearts. Willow was the first one to gain control of herself, and she decided it was time to discuss the trap before they lost all self restraint and devoured each other on the spot. Skeletons be damned.



"I was so happy to be back up here with breathable oxygen... and you... that I forgot to tell you something. The hole I fell into isn't just a hole. It's like this long corridor with turns and everything. Well, at least one turn. I didn't really see the rest of it. I guess we should still search this room to see if we find anything else before we try the tunnel, but I think the key is probably hidden somewhere in that corridor... hopefully at the end of it, 'cause that would really make the search easier."

Tara didn't answer immediately. She thought for a while about what Willow had just revealed.

So there's a passage under there, and it's possible that getting the key depends on navigating it; the same underwater passage whose exit only stays open as long as someone's putting her weight on the right brick. Of course that means only one of us can go through the tunnel and search it and face whatever dangers lie ahead... while the other can do nothing but wait. And I bet that since it involves water and swimming Willow will want to be the one to do it, while I'll be sitting on a brick not knowing what's happening to the woman I love. Okay, once again, calm down and think about one thing at a time. First she's right. We should search the room and then... and then we'll see.

Willow saw the concern etched on her girlfriend's face and she knew Tara already understood what it meant if they decided to search the underwater passage - Willow would have to go alone and risk herself. So she prepared herself for Tara's reaction, guessing it would be something along the lines of offering herself up for the job instead of Willow. She was surprised and at the same time relieved with Tara's next words.

"I suppose we should start searching then."

Willow looked deep into the azure orbs that had captured her heart and soul and saw the worry they so clearly expressed. She knew Tara was postponing the inevitable discussion until she was sure the underwater passage was the only way to go.

Sensing Tara's line of thought, Willow was more than happy to follow Tara's lead and face the problems as they presented themselves. So instead of trying to turn the conversation back to the hole trap, she answered Tara.

"I was thinking that maybe, if you were okay with it, you could search alone for a little while. It's just that I need to clean and dry my shotgun, otherwise it'll corrode and rust really fast. And I'll also have to change the shells out because the ones that were in it when I fell in the water are useless now. Fortunately, I always have Haley with me-"

"Uhm, excuse me for interrupting, but... Haley?"

"That's okay. I may have forgotten to mention that Haley's my nickname for my "Parker Hale" cleaning kit. It goes with me on every trip now... ever since that one time I didn't have it and, well, to make a long story short, I fell into a river and spent the next two days constantly on the run... from... from... wolves, lions, snakes... and uhm... frogs."

Since Willow was safe and sound in front of her, Tara knew it wasn't rational, but she couldn't help but worry as she heard her girlfriend list the animals she had to face and flee from when she'd been deprived of her guns. But when she heard Willow mention the last animal, worry turned into puzzlement and she had to ask.


"Uhm, yeah, so maybe a frog wasn't going to kill me... and then again maybe it was. Could have been a poisonous frog. And... and even if it wasn't, it was hopping after me, all green and... yucky... and... and I... I kind of have frog fear." Willow stopped for a second before adding, "You must think I'm nuts."

Willow looked more nervous talking about frogs than she had when she'd mentioned the lions or the wolves, and Tara couldn't help but smile warmly at her girl before reassuring her.

"Actually, I think it's cute. You're cute. And I love you."

Willow smiled as she took a step closer to Tara, embraced her, and leaned in to give her a soft kiss. Their lips opened and closed in time with each other for a long moment.

"I love you too," Willow whispered tenderly against her girlfriend's lips. She then pulled away to resume their earlier conversation, trying hard to distract herself from Tara's ruby lips. It was getting unbelievably hard to pull away.

"So would you mind searching alone for a little while?"

It took a moment for Tara to understand what the other girl was talking about; she was feeling a little lightheaded from their kiss and had forgotten all about the temple, the room, and the search. She could only focus on Willow.

"Uhm, no, of course not. I'll call you if I find anything even remotely interesting."

Willow nodded, and without adding anything else both of them concentrated on their tasks.

Willow retrieved her guns from opposite sides of the room where they'd landed after she threw them. She inspected first one then the other. Happy to see that both of them were undamaged, she put one of them back in its holster and placed the other one over the brick that opened the underwater passage. This way, even if the bricks around the entrance dried off they could still easily locate the entrance to the tunnel.

Only then did she remove her backpack, sit down, and start to pick up the things she'd need to tend to her guns. She placed her gear on the floor.

Tara walked to the door through which they'd entered and started to search the walls from there.

She once again followed the search procedure she'd used countless times before. First she would look intently at part of the wall, trying to see irregularities in the bricks, then she would touch, pull, and push the bricks. If that search revealed nothing interesting, she'd move on to a new part of the wall and start all over again.

Usually Tara was fast and thorough while searching, but this time she just couldn't seem to focus; flashes of red caught her attention from the corner of her eye, distracting her from the task at hand. She was mesmerized by the sure but somehow tender movements of Willow as she cleaned her favorite shotgun piece by piece.

I wonder what it would be like to be that shotgun now. To feel Willow running her hands all over, reaching inside as far as she can go - Oh, for god's sake, stop the lusty thoughts... the woman's cleaning a lethal weapon!

Tara decided it was a good idea to stop looking at Willow before the rational part of her brain lost the battle against her heart and she ended up going to the redhead, pushing her down, and having her way with her. Tara shook her head twice and resumed her search, this time shutting out the alluring visions of the girl in the middle of the room. With some effort, she focused solely on the wall and on her search.

Willow was also having trouble concentrating on her task. She couldn't help but notice the way Tara was stealing glances, and the longing in those gorgeous blue eyes was making her heart race and giving her the urge to forget the gun and go kiss her girl senseless.

She's so beautiful and she looks so sexy running her hands over the wall. Hmm, actually Tara's sexy, end of sentence. It really doesn't matter what she's doing. Oh god, she's looking at me again. Maybe I could just forget about the shotgun. It's not like I've needed it a lot lately... well, except for the whole statue coming to life thing. But it was just that once and we've been in here for days, so it almost doesn't count. And I still have my other guns, so it's not like we'd be unprotected if I left the shotgun here to rust. Uh huh, that's a good idea... just go to Tara and forget everything else. Yeah, I can see this plan working. For a whole five minutes before we lose ourselves in each other and a skeleton pops up to kill us. Come on, focus, Rosenberg.

Willow was still debating in her head whether she should give in to her desires and just go to Tara, when from the corner of her eye she saw her girlfriend shake her head twice, turn her back on her, and focus on searching the wall. Tara's movement was enough to make Willow finally decide that she should also concentrate on finishing her task, but not before she flashed a smile in Tara's direction. She was thankful for Tara's impeccable timing, and wasn't sure if she'd have resisted going to the blonde if they'd kept stealing little glances at one another.

Both girls focused on their tasks for a while until Willow was satisfied that her shotgun was as good as new. She then strategically placed her cleaning kit in her backpack, knowing she'd probably need it again before too long. She picked up her things and safely wrapped her backpack and shotgun around her shoulders. Only then did she look in Tara's direction. Seeing her girlfriend still engrossed in her search, Willow couldn't prevent the smile that reached her lips.

I love 'focused Tara.' She's just too cute for words. And sexy. No way could I forget the 'sexy,' especially when it's me that she's focusing on. Okay, I think it's time to think about something else. Maybe even walk up to her to tell her I'm finished.

Tara felt her girlfriend approach and she turned around before Willow had any chance to speak or announce her presence. As soon as blue met green the girls felt their breath catch in their throats as if it was the first time.

Her eyes are so blue. How is it possible that every time I look into her eyes they seem bluer than I remembered them?

How come she gets more beautiful every time I look at her? Her eyes are the most amazing shade of green, like grass on a sunny spring day.

Willow was the first to realize that they couldn't spend the rest of the day gazing into each other's eyes.

"So, how has your search gone so far? Have you found anything interesting? That was probably a stupid question. I'm sure that if you'd found anything out of the ordinary you'd have told me, right? I'm not saying you had to tell me right away. I mean, you're of course free to tell me anything anytime you feel like it, so if you wanted to wait and tell me later, of course that would be fine, too."

Tara could tell by the nervous babble that Willow was beginning to panic, and even though she loved to listen to Willowbabble, she couldn't just stand there and watch her girlfriend worry over nothing. So she did the only thing she could think of to stop Willow's nervous rant, she leaned forward and captured Willow's mouth in a soft, quick kiss that made Willow instantly forget whatever it was she was about to say next and just focus on the feeling of Tara's lips against her own.

Not wanting the kiss to escalate, Tara pulled away after a moment and answered her girlfriend.

"Willow, of course I would have told you if I'd found anything important in the middle of all those bricks," Tara said gently, looking directly into the green depths in front of her.

Willow blushed and smiled, feeling a little embarrassed by her display of insecurity. She took a moment to calm down and then spoke again, this time without babbling.

"So I take it you didn't find anything interesting. How far along the walls did you get?"

"I searched almost the whole left side of the room. I was just reaching the exit door when you came to me."

Willow seemed to be deep in thought for a couple of seconds before responding.

"You know Tara, I think maybe we should search the floor too. We know there's one entrance to the tunnel where I fell, but maybe there are more passages under there waiting to be discovered."

Tara nodded her agreement before answering verbally.

"I thought about that, too. Do you want to search the floor while I keep searching the walls?"

Willow nodded while she smiled at how in tune they were with each other. Sometimes it was as if Tara could read her mind. For a second she just stood there, lost in Tara's blue eyes, smiling at the woman who held her heart. It finally dawned on her that they had a temple to get out of, so she spoke again.

"Okay, then. I'll go search the floor and you search the walls."

It took a moment for Willow's sentence to register in Tara's brain since she'd been completely lost in her girlfriend's smile and eyes, and their search had been far from her thoughts. When she finally realized she'd completely spaced out, she blushed and responded.

"O-okay. Just please be careful," she said seriously.

"I will." Willow gazed deeply into the blue gems in front of her as she spoke, letting Tara know that she would indeed be careful. Then she leaned forward and kissed Tara chastely on the lips before taking a step back.

"For good luck," Willow explained, even though she knew she didn't have to.

Tara smiled her lopsided smile, and for a second she thought about grabbing Willow by the waist, pulling her body tight against her own, and kissing her deeply...but she quickly and sadly dismissed that idea, knowing how easy it was for them to lose control. Instead, she closed her left hand around Willow's right one and gave it a loving squeeze before turning and walking to the wall to continue her search.

Willow took her cue from her girlfriend, and walked to the place where she would begin her own search, near the left wall of the room.

As Tara fell comfortably into her search routine, Willow developed her own system. It was a very simple and fast one in which she took tiny steps in order to be certain she didn't miss a brick, and paused with each step to ensure that each brick she stepped on supported her entire weight for a couple of seconds. This way if there was another passage hidden in the floor she was bound to find it.

After an hour Tara finished her search of the walls without finding anything hidden in them. The only thing out of the ordinary was an indentation in the wall to the right of the exit door. It looked like it was designed to accommodate a small pyramid, presumably the key to open the door.

Too bad there aren't any spare pyramids lying around here. I didn't find anything, and since Willow's been quiet I can guess she hasn't found anything either. So it must be that the only way to get to the pyramid is through that damned underwater tunnel. Willow... Okay, I can't freak out. I still have to discuss this with her.

Tara turned around so that instead of facing the last part of the wall she probed, she faced the middle of the room, and she immediately saw that Willow was almost finished with her search. She breathed deeply to steel herself for the impending conversation, then rapidly made her way to Willow.

Just as Tara had an hour before, Willow felt her girlfriend approach before she announced herself. The redhead happily lifted her gaze from the ground and let her eyes greet Tara's.

"Hey baby. You've finished with the walls? I guess you didn't find anything, huh? I'm almost done with the floor; just a couple of bricks away from finishing...uh, which you can probably gather from my nearness to the right wall, since I started near the left. And it's about time, too. I'm starting to get sick and tired of looking down at the floor. After a couple of minutes these stupid bricks all look the same. You'd think they'd at least have different colors. Wouldn't that have been cool, different colored bricks? But no, they're all identical. I think that shows a lack of personality and originality," she said with mocking anger before pouting.

Tara couldn't help but laugh and let some of the tension leave her body when she witnessed Willow's outburst and childish pout. Her girlfriend's quirky sense of humor was just one of the things she loved about Willow.

Willow was happy to see Tara relax a little. She knew they were about to have the talk about which one of them should go investigate the underwater tunnel. That was one of the reasons she'd started babbling about the bricks; she'd seen the trepidation in Tara's blue eyes, and had wanted nothing more than to ease some of the worry and tension away. Besides, she just loved to make Tara laugh.

After a moment Tara's chuckles died down and she became serious again as she stared straight into her girlfriend's eyes.

"Willow, we need to talk."

Willow sighed, knowing they couldn't postpone it any longer.

"I know," she answered in the same serious tone Tara had used.

They were silent for a couple of seconds, simply gazing at each other until Tara took a deep breath and got right to the point.

"Willow, I think I should be the one to go through that damned hole in the floor."

"Why?" Willow asked calmly, surprising the other girl.

Tara had been expecting a passionate response from Willow, perhaps nervous babble or ranting, and for that she was prepared. But she was caught off guard having to face a calm and rational Willow, so she decided just to let her heart speak for her.

"Because... because you were stabbed just yesterday... and because I've just found you and I couldn't stand losing you... and because I'd rather put my life in danger than risk yours... and because... you're my everything." Tara stated the last part almost desperately, as a single tear ran down her cheek.

When Willow saw the tear rolling down her girlfriend's face, she just couldn't stand still anymore. She'd willed herself to be quiet and not move during Tara's passionate speech, even as her heart was screaming at her to throw herself to the other girl's arms. But she only showed that restraint because she felt she should listen to what Tara had to say until the end. However, she could no longer stand to see her girlfriend distressed... she had to do something to try to ease her pain, so she took a step forward, snaked both her arms around the other girl's waist, and pulled their bodies together, hugging Tara tight against her heart. A beat later she felt Tara's arms close around her neck, pulling them even tighter together.

A moment later Willow pulled away just enough so that she could look into Tara's eyes. There, in those bottomless pools of blue, she saw the confirmation of everything Tara had just said to her; she saw a love strong enough to last forever.

"Oh, Tara. I love you so much. You're my everything." Willow's response came by way of a voice choked by emotion just before she tightened her hold on Tara's body and mashed their mouths together in a deep, desperate kiss.

They kissed passionately, then pulled away and rested their foreheads together. With their faces so close that they breathed the same air, they took a few moments to calm themselves and reign in their emotions. After a couple of minutes Willow moved her head just enough to focus her eyes while she gazed at Tara. She then spoke calmly.

"Tara, remember when I didn't want you to be the one to climb that pine tree to go get the monkey's mask? Well, you said climbing fell on your side of the designated tasks list and that my role was to complain about the awful protein balls and be the one to face the challenges that involved water. Remember that?" Willow asked softly while tightening her grip on Tara's waist.

Tara could see very well where Willow was going with this conversation, but as she heard her own words from a few days ago being repeated she couldn't do anything other than nod her answer; yes, she remembered.

At the nod, Willow lifted her hands up so that she was cupping Tara's face. She tenderly caressed her cheek with her thumbs while she resumed talking, her voice as soft as her touch.

"Baby, you were right then. We're stronger when we work together, and sometimes that means we have to rely on the other to be strong enough to face whatever dangers she may have to face on her own. So, and at the risk of sounding not-so-original and copying what you once said to me, this challenge belongs in the 'Willow's tasks column,' and I think I'm the one who should do it."

Oh god, she's right. I did say I'd handle the climbing and she'd handle anything that involved water... and she stood back and let me take the risks while she could do nothing more than just watch. And now it's my turn to trust her... to trust her with the most precious thing in the world to me. Her life.

Willow waited in silence while Tara took in everything she said. She could see that Tara was deep in thought and she wished her girlfriend would agree with her and let her go find the key without any further discussion.

A minute passed and Tara made up her mind.

"Willow... just be careful, all right?"

Willow's only response was to once again lean forward and kiss the full lips in front of her. She pulled away after a minute and smiled. She was happy to see that even though the blue eyes in front of her still carried a lot of worry, they were less troubled than before. Curiously, Tara was the first to recover from their emotional break and turn her attention back to the challenge they were about to face.

"It's probably better if you get going. We don't know how long it'll take for you to find the key, and it would be better if you searched for it during the day."

Initially, Willow was a little surprised by what Tara said, but she rapidly caught on to the logic behind the words. Tara was right of course; it would be easier to search for the key during the day, and it was already mid-afternoon.

And of course the sooner I start searching, the sooner I'll find the key and make it back to Tara.

"Right, I should get going. But, uh, maybe before I start swimming like crazy I should see what the lock looks like so I have an idea of what the key looks like. Otherwise I might end up bringing back the wrong key... or I could search until dawn and not find anything... and that would just be bad."

Even though she was worried, Tara still had to smile at her girlfriend's rambling. Unfortunately, the lighthearted feeling was short-lived, as the awareness of what they needed to do came rushing back to her.

Okay Tara, don't panic. It's not as if it's Willow's first time swimming. Just keep breathing. In. Out. Repeat.

"Of c-course," Tara stuttered as she extended her hand to the other girl.

Willow quickly took the offered hand and gave it a loving squeeze. As they walked to the lock, she silently wished there was more she could do to reassure Tara that everything was going to be all right.

Tara felt Willow's hand softly press into her own, and she gave Willow a small smile as she let herself draw strength from their connection.

When they reached the door Tara brought their joined hands to her lips and left a loving kiss on the back of her girlfriend's hand before letting go to allow Willow the opportunity to thoroughly analyze the lock. As soon as their hands were apart they each acutely felt the loss of the touch, and Willow had to physically restrain herself from reaching out to Tara again. She loved the sense of peace and happiness she found in the simple touch of hand on hand.

Focus. You'll have the rest of your life to hold her hand, to touch her skin, to absorb her warmth, to touch her everywhere... Hmm, okay... change of subject please, before I'm completely incapable of going through the tunnel and leaving her here alone, keys, locks and temples be damned. Just focus.

With that thought Willow knelt on the floor in order to be at eye-level with the lock, and dedicated herself to giving it a good once-over. She came to the same conclusion Tara had before; the key she was looking for was shaped as a small four-sided pyramid. Satisfied that she had all the information she could get from investigating the small hole in the wall, Willow slowly stood and looked at Tara.

"Okay, so I'll be looking for a pyramid... in an Egyptian temple. Fitting, isn't it? I'm surprised it took so long for us to reach a room where we had to be looking for a pyramid. Maybe the temple architect thought pyramids were too cliché or..." Willow trailed off sheepishly. She was stalling and she knew it.

Okay, it's time now. No more talk about pyramids, or architects or whatever. The faster I start looking, the faster I'll find the key. Here I go. Okay, maybe just one more minute.

Tara could see that her girlfriend was reluctant to leave, and even though it warmed her heart, she knew they needed to get a move on.

Go on and tell her it's time for her to go. Just open your mouth and say the words, "Willow, it's time for you to go find the key." Damn it, I can't. Not again. It took everything I had to ask her to start searching the first time. I can't do it again, not when I want nothing more than for her to stay here with me.

Willow saw the apprehension in the sapphire eyes in front of her, and it was easy for her to guess the inner struggle taking place in her girlfriend's head. Finally making up her mind, Willow softly spoke.

"Well, now that I know what I'll be looking for, I guess it's time for me to go."

Tara simply nodded, not trusting her voice to work properly. She might have known this moment was going to come but she didn't have to be happy about it.

They wordlessly walked together to the spot where Willow's gun marked the entrance to the underwater tunnel and stopped there, both gazing at the gun and at the apparently ordinary bricks near it. Willow took her backpack from her shoulders and laid it down on the floor. She began searching for something inside of it while Tara watched her with curiosity. After a second Willow managed to find what she was looking for.

"Ah-hah! I knew I had these in here somewhere," Willow said enthusiastically.

"Empty, hermetic plastic sandwich bags?" Tara asked, equal parts surprised and amused at seeing the objects in her girlfriend's hand.

"Well, yes..." Willow blushed a little before simultaneously explaining and demonstrating why she'd picked up the bags.

"You see, I used to take sandwiches with me on all my quests because they taste better than protein balls and aren't too heavy to carry. But they never lasted long before growing fungus or otherwise starting to spoil. So I decided to use these plastic bag thingies to carry my sandwiches, you know, to see if they'd last longer. They did, by the way, but still not nearly long enough. Besides, I'll take protein balls over two-week-old bread any day. Yuck. So one day I found myself in a temple where I had to go through an underwater passage, much like this one except it stayed open... I mean it had no bricks covering its entrance. Anyway, back to the plastic bags. So there I was facing an underwater tunnel and I was thinking about how I'd have to clean and dry my guns - yet again - once I reached the other side, and that I was getting sick and tired of cleaning the damn things, when I decided that a sandwich might improve my mood. And just as I picked one up the idea hit me; the bags were perfect for preventing the guns from getting wet. Since that day I've brought them to every quest... even if I've given up trying to bring sandwiches... or anything slightly resembling real food."

Tara smiled at Willow's attempt to lighten the mood, but it never reached her eyes.

God, I just love the way she babbles, the way she gets so excited that her mouth isn't fast enough to keep up with her brain. What if this is the last time I get to hear her? No! I can't think like that. She'll come back to me. She promised me a date for breakfast. Mmm, pancakes at sunrise...

Willow saw right through Tara's façade and quickly put the plastic bag with her gun inside in the holster, moved forward, snaked both arms around the other girl's waist, and hugged her tightly. Less than a heartbeat later, Tara's arms went around Willow's shoulders and Tara buried her face in her girlfriend's neck.

They embraced silently until Tara pulled away just enough to look into the emerald orbs she'd fallen so deeply in love with. She brought her hands up, cupped her girlfriend's face, and then let herself get lost in a blur of green as she closed the distance between their mouths. Her lips and tongue, demanding and hungry, were met with equal passion by Willow's as their mouths mashed together in a fierce kiss.

They gradually toned down the intensity of the kiss and pulled away after one last tender caress of lips...but only because they knew they needed to get a move on and take advantage of the daylight.

"I guess I should go now," Willow said without conviction.

"Yeah, I guess you should." Tara agreed, but shared Willow's unwillingness to let go.

For a minute they just stood there, looking deeply into each other's eyes, basking in the love they felt between them. They remained unwilling to let go until once again the awareness of what they had to do hit them, and they regretfully dropped their arms and let go of each other.

Okay, this is it. As much as I'd love to, we can't stay here forever. Time to face my fears and smile. She needs all the strength and support she can get and I'll be damned if I'm going to make this harder for her.

With that last thought Tara took a deep breath and willed herself to calm down before walking over to the right brick. There she crossed her feet and carefully sat down, effectively opening the entrance to the tunnel. She spoke in a soft tone.

"I guess it's time for me to plant my bottom on the trigger mechanism while my awesome girlfriend does her thing."

Willow smiled warmly at her, thankful for the lighter tone.

She's so strong. I don't know if I could just sit there and try to crack jokes while she disappeared down a tunnel. Yeah sure, I saw her climb things, dangerous things, but I could look at her and warn her if I saw any danger ahead. And I could join her, even if climbing isn't my specialty. But this is different... and still there she is, trying to lighten the mood and not worry me. Yep, she's officially the strongest and sweetest person I've ever met. And she's mine... How did I ever get this lucky?

Resolving that it was time to get proactive, Willow checked one last time to make sure she had her gun secured inside the plastic bag. When she was satisfied that she wouldn't be left with a wet, malfunctioning weapon when she'd need it the most, she walked to the hole in the floor just in front of Tara and jumped into it feet first, leaving only her head above the water.

"Yep, and I guess it's time for me to stop trying to stare at that cute bottom...and start swimming."

Tara was surprised that Willow jumped into the water without even answering her, but she quickly understood the motivation behind the action. She'd felt the same when she'd moved to sit on the brick to open the portal; doing it swiftly made it less probable that they'd yet again be sidetracked and end up using precious time needed for the search.

So, as her only response, Tara leaned forward - careful not to lift her weight from the brick - and kissed Willow softly but intensely, her lips brushing and caressing as she opened and closed them against Willow's. It took only a beat for her girlfriend to respond and suck Tara's bottom lip into her mouth. She ran her tongue over it, making Tara moan and press more firmly into their kiss.

Willow brought her hands up and tenderly cupped Tara's face, her thumbs leaving wet trails down her girlfriend's cheeks as she gently ended their kiss.

"I love you."

"I love you."

Neither of them knew who'd said it first, nor was it important to them as silent promises were passed between them with that vow of love.

I'll come back to you, my heart...

I'll wait for you, my love. I'm yours... forever.

They shared one last smile before Willow took a deep breath, dove underwater, and quickly disappeared from Tara's sight.

"Take care, honey," Tara whispered. She sighed heavily and shifted her position a bit, trying to get as comfortable as possible.

This is going to be a really long afternoon...

As she once again found herself underwater, Willow was met with the familiar sight of the square stone tunnel. She paused for a moment to carefully look for any hidden traps on the walls, and when she found nothing she began swimming toward the right turn that lay ahead. It took only a couple of well-timed, powerful strokes for Willow to reach the turn and face another straight portion of the tunnel which ended at another bend, this time to the left.

So far no traps, which is always a plus. On the other hand, I'm wondering just how many turns this tunnel has. I guess there's just one way to find out.

As Willow made the right turn she felt a disturbance in the water and looked back in time to see a large wall of stone quickly come from her left side and slam against the wall on her right side, completely blocking the passage through which she had just come.

Oh great. I just had to go and think the 'no traps' thing. Gets me every time. I guess there's no turning back now. The only way to go is forward, and let's hope there won't be any more walls coming out of other walls to hit me, because I'm not sure Tara would appreciate having a paper thin girlfriend. Not much to grope then. Argh, okay brain of mine... gotta try not to think about Tara groping me or me groping Tara... mmmm. Hello! I'm swimming in a tunnel that could be full of deadly traps. I need to concentrate before I get myself killed and never get back to my girlfriend.

With that last thought, Willow once again focused on swimming as fast as she could. She rapidly reached the left turn ahead of her and this time kept her speed up, as she noticed there was light penetrating the water a few meters ahead of her.

There's my light at the end of the tunnel... at least I hope so. I've been down here for over a minute now and it would be nice to have some oxygen, the breathable kind, I mean. I'm sure there's plenty of oxygen here, I just lack the right respiratory system to use it. Now, if I was a fish there'd be no problem, well, other than the possibility of being not-so-smart and having a really bad memory since most fishes do. Thank goodness it's just a few more strokes to the light... I'm obviously in need of air and clarity of thought. Jeez.

When Willow neared the light she saw that it was coming from a hole above her head much like the one she'd used to get into the tunnel in the first place. She swam up to the surface and took a couple of deep breaths while she looked around. As far as she could see from her position, this new room was nothing out of the ordinary; just another square room with bare stone walls.

Great, another ton of bricks for me to analyze. Why do I always end up looking at bricks? I suppose the sooner I get to it the sooner I'll be done.

She sighed, swam to the wall, reached up, and easily pulled herself out of the water and into a kneeling position on the ground. Just as she lifted her head she saw it, a small golden pyramid lying in the middle of the room.

The pyramid! That's it. I can't believe I found it so quickly! Yay, no brick searching for me! Wait, it can't be that easy, can it? Just pick up the key and go? I wonder if something not-so-good will happen if I pick it up. I'll find out eventually, but I should do a quick search of the room first. I don't want to take too long or Tara will begin to worry, and a worried Tara is a big no-no. On the other hand, Tara will worry a lot more if I get myself killed and never come back. Okay, maybe a quick search.

Willow stood up and looked around, now from her better position above the ground. As she'd noted before, there wasn't anything out of the ordinary in the room other than the hole full of water that she entered by...and the pyramid on the floor. She sighed loudly and decided she should begin her search. For the next half hour she stared at and poked every brick on the ground.

Okay, that's it. I've checked all the bricks on the ground and there isn't another tunnel here, at least none that opens by pressing bricks. So, it's 'collect the pyramid and get back to Tara' time.

Just thinking about Tara brought a smile to Willow's lips and eyes for a moment before she tensed again. With her right hand she removed her still plastic-wrapped gun from its holster and carefully walked toward the pyramid. She took a last look around before bending on one knee to pick up the small golden object.

As soon as the pyramid left the ground, a loud noise - the sound of stone hitting stone - rattled through the room. Willow jumped and instinctively pointed her gun at the source of the noise. The hole through which she'd entered the room was now closed off by an apparently solid set of bricks.

I'm really starting to hate these sliding stone wall thingies...

As Willow neared a full-on mental rant about closing passages and traps in general, she saw that a new hole on the ground had opened on the opposite side of the one that had closed. She tucked the pyramid in the pocket of her shorts and made her way to the newly opened hole. Like the two she'd come across so far, this hole was filled with water and was connected to a tunnel. It was also apparently the only way out.

I'm not exactly loving the idea of going through another tunnel, but I guess I have no choice.

Willow checked her gun to see if the seal on the plastic bag had held up, and then felt again for the pyramid in her pocket. With her pocket securely fastened, she then took a couple of deep breaths and dove head first into the water.

As soon as her body touched the water she realized it was freezing cold, so cold in fact that a burning sensation consumed her where it touched her skin. Her first instinct was to bolt from the water, but she heard the familiar sound of stone walls sliding, and she knew without needing to look back that she was once again trapped.

God, this is freezing! Shit... I have to move fast. At this temperature it won't take long for hypothermia to set in and I'll drown down here and never see Tara again. I'll never touch her or kiss her again... or go to sleep in her arms. Tara...

With Tara on her mind Willow began swimming as fast as she could, hoping that the heat from her muscles would be enough to keep her body temperature up until she could get out of the water.

She swam through the tunnel with efficient strokes, but after making a left turn and then a one right, there still was no sign of an end to the passage.

Tara... I have to get back to Tara. Oh god. Okay, I'm not feeling as cold now as I was, which is bad 'cause that means my body is adapting and my temperature is lowering... and I'm losing the feeling in my left foot. Not to mention that my right leg is starting to cramp... and this damned tunnel isn't showing any signs of ending... and... and I'm getting tired... and... focus. Tara's waiting for me.

She repeated her girlfriend's name in her head like a mantra while she swam. A minute later, when her eyes were beginning to drift shut, her muscles were feeling numb, and she thought she couldn't keep going anymore, she suddenly hit her hands on the wall and felt herself being pulled out of the water by a strong pair of arms that she'd always recognize as home.

"Tara..." She managed to whisper as she willed her eyes open to gaze at the blue depths in front of her. She collapsed in her girlfriend's arms.

To Tara time seemed to be passing at a very slow pace while she waited for Willow to return. She knew she couldn't leave the trigger brick but she couldn't stay still either, so she kept moving, shifting her position, crossing her legs, uncrossing her legs, standing up, sitting back down.

The movements became a measure of time. Instead of counting the seconds and minutes that passed since Willow went under water, Tara began counting how many times she'd stood up and sat down or moved around and crossed her legs. It gave her a little comfort and made her feel less helpless. She had no control over time and couldn't will it to move faster or slower, but she could control her own movements. Maybe Willow would come back in ten stand up - sit down cycles, or, if Tara moved slower her girlfriend would return in only five cycles.

Willow, where are you? Did you come up against a bunch of traps? I wonder where that tunnel led you, my love. Are you in an ordinary room with bare walls, or an elaborate one with lots of signs and leads? I hope you're safe wherever you are. I hope you'll come back to me. How much time has passed since you left? Ten minutes? Maybe five? I wonder how long it'll take me to count all the bricks in the wall and if you'll be back here when I'm finished.

Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down...

Are you still far away, honey? Maybe half-way done, or maybe you're only beginning your search? Maybe...maybe you're already coming back to me. I miss your smile... the smile that lights up your whole face and makes your eyes sparkle. I miss your eyes... the greenest eyes I've ever seen. I miss your arms around me... your strong, gentle arms that hold me at night and chase away my bad dreams and fears. I miss your lips... those soft ruby lips. How much time has passed since I last kissed you? Since I last looked at you? Half an hour? More? How much longer until I see you again?

As if on cue, and just as Tara was yet again wondering when she'd see her girlfriend, she noticed a disturbance in the water. It was a small thing really... just a couple of tiny waves, but to someone who'd spent the better part of the last hour gazing at the smooth surface of the water it was impossible to miss. She then saw her girlfriend move through the tunnel and swim toward the wall instead of turning up to the surface.

Willow! Why isn't she coming up? Is she hurt? No... she can't be hurt, she's swimming, right? But then why isn't she coming up? I gotta do something. I think I'd better try to bend down and pull her up without moving from this damned brick.

The bright smile that spread over Tara's face when she saw Willow quickly morphed to a preoccupied frown. She carefully knelt on the brick and leaned forward, making sure that most of her weight was still on the brick. As soon as her hands reached the water she realized what was wrong with Willow and started to panic.

Willow! Oh my god, the water's ice cold. Okay, calm down, she's fine. She has to be. I just have to get her out of there... now!

Tara grabbed Willow by her armpits and quickly - and almost effortlessly - pulled her out of the water and into her arms. For a second all she could feel was the bitter cold, and Tara felt herself sink into an ocean of black despair, wondering if she was too late. But then she felt Willow move in her arms; the tiniest of movements. She saw the green eyes she loved so much open and look at her, and she heard her girlfriend's voice say her name. At that moment her own heart remembered how to beat again.


Never had her name sounded sweeter than it did at that moment, and never had Tara been so glad to hear it. But her joy was short-lived as Willow passed out in her arms.

"Willow!" She half screamed at the feel of Willow's dead weight.

Oh my god. Okay, what should I do? Get her warm. I have to get her out of those wet, freezing clothes. And I have to wake her up and keep her awake. Can't let her pass out. Okay, wake her up...

"Willow! Willow, wake up," Tara said in a loud, trembling voice. She was dangerously close to losing control of her emotions as she energetically shook Willow's body back and forth.

"Hmm? I'll get up in sec... just let me sleep another five minutes, please. It's way too early for school." Willow groggily mumbled her response and tried to sink to the ground, but found she couldn't with Tara holding her so tight. "Please... just another couple of minutes, then I'll get up."

Thank god. But I still have to get her warm.



"Look at me! Please look at me!"

She heard her girlfriend's plea, and with much effort and completely unfocused eyes, Willow lifted up her head and gazed at Tara.

As Tara took her first good look at Willow she almost felt her heart stop. The redhead was drenched. Some of her hair had escaped from the normally tight ponytail she wore and was clinging to her forehead, making the white-as-a-sheet tone of her skin stand out and her dazed green eyes seem huge. She looked to be within seconds of passing out, a fact that spurred Tara into action.

"Willow, I need to warm you up. I'm going to put the blankets on the floor over near the door so we won't be as vulnerable to attacks while you rest and warm up. Can you walk there?"

Willow didn't feel up to taking one step let alone walking the ten meters to the hallway, but it was her girlfriend asking and she'd do anything for Tara.

"Yeah... I can walk."

"Lean on my shoulder and we'll walk together."

For balance, Tara slipped one of her arms away from Willow's body and kept the other securely wrapped around her waist. They slowly began walking. Tara could feel Willow's drenched clothes clinging to the girl's body, stealing away any heat she produced before it reached the surface, and she knew she had to move fast.

The ten meters that separated them from the hallway seemed to stretch into kilometers as they moved slowly, Tara supporting most of the other girl's weight. When they were half way there Willow began shivering, her whole body shaking, her teeth chattering, her skin covered with goosebumps.

"Tara... I'm really cold," she said in a small, unsteady voice, prompting the blonde to stop walking and face her.

Oh god, I think she's even paler than she was a minute ago. We just need to reach the hallway fast. Forget walking.

Tara carefully picked Willow up in her arms and left a soft kiss on her forehead before responding.

"You'll get warm in no time, sweetie."

Willow smiled, wrapped her arms around her girlfriend's neck, and nodded. She felt too sleepy to do anything else as she enjoyed the heat radiating from Tara's skin.

With Tara carrying Willow they reached the hallway in mere seconds.

"Honey, do you think you can stand up on your own for just a minute?" Tara asked the unmoving girl in her arms. As much as she wanted to move fast, Tara had to make sure Willow was awake and conscious.

"Yeah... I guess," Willow answered without conviction. She was enjoying the quiet strength of Tara's arms, and she felt almost too drained to move, but she realized - with the part of her brain that wasn't asleep - they couldn't stay like that forever.

Tara carefully knelt and set her girlfriend down, supporting her as much as she could until Willow was standing up straight on her own. Then the blonde stood up and without a word walked a couple of steps away, took her backpack off her shoulders, opened it, and pulled her sleeping bag out. She unceremoniously dropped the backpack to the floor and then hastily laid the open sleeping bag on the ground.

She turned to face the shivering redhead. Her heart almost broke at the sight of her girlfriend barely able to stand and unable to stop shaking, but she willed herself to be strong.

She's going to be all right. Now's not the time to break down... stick to the plan.

"I need to get you warm, so I'm going to take your wet clothes off, all right?" Tara asked the question more to fill the silence than to get an answer from Willow. Willow had a glazed over look in her eyes and Tara wasn't even sure if she'd heard the question.

Without waiting for Willow's response, Tara hastily divested the girl of her shirt and then of her boots, socks, and shorts, leaving Willow clad only in her bra and panties. She chose to leave Willow's underwear on figuring that it wouldn't get in the way of the heat transfer. Also, she felt uncomfortable with the idea of stripping her girlfriend naked when she wasn't able to give her consent.

She carefully but quickly picked Willow up in her arms, carried her the remaining steps to the sleeping bag, and laid her down. The blonde undressed herself and threw her half-soaked clothes and boots, allowing them to join her girlfriend's on the floor.

Tara knelt down and supported her weight on her hands and knees, leaning forward until she was hovering over Willow. She took a deep breath and gently covered the freezing girl's body with her own. It took a couple of seconds to adjust to the cold, but she soon began energetically rubbing Willow's arms and legs with her own in an effort to regulate Willow's temperature faster.

The redhead was jolted out of her semi-conscious state by the first touch of Tara's bare skin on hers, the heat radiating from Tara's body burning and bringing every cell in Willow's body back to life.


After several minutes of Tara's ministrations, Willow stopped shivering and began to feel the heat coming back to her body in waves originating from the points where her skin came in contact with Tara's. First it was a comforting feeling, like coming in from a storm and standing in front of a fireplace, but it gradually began shifting into something a lot more passionate.

As Tara continued to move, their wet bodies kept sliding against each other and the water that had once been ice cold was now burning between them. Willow felt her nipples harden under the constant friction of her girlfriend's chest, and molten heat and wetness flowed from inside her to join with the water in her soaked panties. From the way Tara's engorged nipples felt against her, Willow could tell she wasn't the only one that had been 'warmed up.'

God... mmm... I should stop this. Yep, I definitely should stop this. So why haven't I moved? I know why... I want her so much. I almost died and I'd never have been able to touch her again. Or feel her against me... or kiss her...

Willow brought her hands up and cupped Tara's face, effectively stopping Tara's movements. She stared into blue eyes before bringing her girlfriend's face down and kissing her passionately, her tongue easily slipping past Tara's lips to stroke Tara's tongue.

A low moan of pleasure escaped the blonde's lips when she felt Willow's tongue enter her mouth, and she closed her lips over the velvety probe and hungrily sucked on it, trying to absorb its concentrated flavor.

I shouldn't be doing this. Skeletons, remember? Dead things that pop out of nowhere? Mmm... Willow. I could have lost her today...

Tara relinquished her hold on Willow's tongue and promptly engaged in a tongue-on-tongue duel, during which she entangled her hands in wet, red tresses, and pulled her girlfriend even closer. In the meantime Willow's hands had let go of Tara's face and were now caressing her back and neck, making the blonde release soft moans into their kiss.

After a while Tara's brain won the battle against her heart, soul, and body. She regretfully pulled away from the kiss and tried to slowly back away from Willow, aware that she was more aroused than she'd ever been in her life. Her control was a caress away from breaking down, but she found herself unable to move as Willow's arms held her tight. She looked deep into the dark emerald orbs in front of her and saw that Willow's eyes had become a forest green burning with love and desire so deep that Tara's heart hammered faster in her chest and her breath quickened. And then she heard Willow speak, her voice low and husky like a hungry kiss thrown at the wind.

"Make love to me?"

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Nineteen

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