Return to The Artifact Chapter Twenty

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.

As soon as Tara spoke she felt her girlfriend's body stiffen in her arms, and instead of a drowsy response Willow's answer sounded very much awake... and tense.


Uh oh... That's not good. Where did that come from?

Willow saw Tara flinch as the redhead's cold tone of voice hit her like an open-handed slap. She immediately regretted her reaction, though it had been purely instinctive. Her heart screamed in protest of her own rude behavior.

What are you doing, you moron?

"I'm sorry," Willow whispered softly against Tara's shoulder. Her hot breath and moist lips tenderly caressed the blonde through her shirt.

"You have nothing to be sorry about. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. We're all entitled to have se-secrets," Tara whispered, trying to hide her hurt.

Somehow the way Tara stumbled on "secrets" made the word sound ominous and made Willow want to forget her lifelong rule of protecting herself and keeping her distance. She breathed deeply as she prepared to tell Tara what she'd never told anyone else.

"I was fifteen when my parents first took me with them on a dig. I was so far beyond excited. See, my mother and father were fairly well-known, very successful archeologists who -- up until then -- had always gone by themselves. I guess that summer they thought I was finally old enough not to get in the way or mess too much with their plans."

The bitterness in the redhead's voice made Tara's heart ache but she waited quietly for Willow to continue her tale, almost afraid to breathe for fear of breaking the delicate moment.

"You want to know something funny? When they told me we were all going to Egypt, I was so happy to be included that I spent weeks running to the library every free minute I had just so I could learn more about Egypt's ancient history. Well, at least not all was lost. The long hours in the library did come in handy later...but I'm getting ahead of myself and telling this all wrong," Willow said, shaking her head in frustration.

In an effort to softly reassure Willow, Tara gently squeezed her arm as it draped across the blonde's midsection. "Honey, I don't think there are wrong or right ways to tell a story. This is your story and I'm happy to hear it any way you want to tell it."

Willow smiled a tiny smile and dropped a tender kiss on the blonde's shoulder before she resumed talking. "Thank you, baby. So..." she sighed before continuing, "so, my parents tell me they're going to visit a temple that's just been discovered in Egypt and they want me to go with them. Mind you, they weren't actually going to be working, merely vacationing in Egypt. God, I'm still saying this all backwards."

Willow rolled her eyes at her own disorganized thoughts.

"Apparently they'd decided they wanted to see Egypt through the eyes of tourists for once, but since that dig was being initiated by one of their friends who asked them to take a look, they chose to include a short pit stop. They felt it could be a ‘good learning experience' for me to go, too."

As she said "good learning experience," Willow's voice deepened and took on a sarcastic tone that told Tara it had probably been a direct quote from one of her parents. She squeezed the redhead closer, offering silent support and comfort.

Feeling Tara's arms pull her impossibly closer, Willow let some of her tension melt away. She felt relaxed enough to continue.

"Oh well, I probably shouldn't mock the ‘good learning experience' thing. It did turn out to be life-changing. Anyway, as time to leave approached, I made lists of things I'd need, packed my bags - including my favorite backpack - and then repacked my bags, and went over everything three more times in my excitement. Eventually I boarded the plane to Egypt with my parents. We stayed in some hotel the first night and then made the journey to the dig site."

Willow stopped and swallowed, trying to bring some moisture to her mouth. It had become completely dry, as if despite the passage of time her tongue could taste the desert wind that blew gently that day ten years ago.

Damn, this is harder than I thought it would be. C'mon, it's just Tara. Okay, not "just" Tara. She could never be "just" anything. She's everything. Why is it so difficult? It happened more than ten years ago. I'm not even that person anymore. I'm not scared.

Willow shifted in Tara's arms and pushed herself more fully on top of her girlfriend to a position where she could gaze deeply into the blonde's eyes. She felt reassured when all she saw reflected back at her was warmth, love and just a hint of fierce protectiveness. She swallowed hard once again and resumed her story.

"When we reached the site and I saw that tomb for the first time, I was left completely speechless...and well, trust me when I say it wasn't an easy task to keep me quiet in those days." She chuckled, but there was a sadness there not lost on Tara.

"Funny, it wasn't even that much to look at. We could just see the top of the temple and a couple of bare walls framing a gigantic door that peeked from a hole in the sand. Since then I've seen far more impressive tombs, but to my fifteen-year-old eyes it was the most spectacular thing ever. I mean, just to think that people four thousand years ago had lived and worked there, cried and laughed there...and something they'd built was still standing. It had been witness to their lives and dreams; a reminder of a time long forgotten. And I just couldn't wait, you know? To touch its stones that so many hands had touched before me, to search for the long lost warmth, to unveil the secrets imprinted in its walls."

Tara sat in amazement. The woman before her spoke with an eloquence that only experience brings. Yet Tara's fascination lay also in watching as - for just a moment -- Willow let the happy and excited fifteen-year-old she had once been surface. Her green eyes were clearly lost in the vision of an ancient temple, and they sparkled with enthusiasm and anticipation. It was innocent and carefree and a side of Willow that the blonde had rarely seen but instantly fell in love with.

"You know, I think that was when I decided I wanted to be an archeologist, and for once I wasn't searching for my parents' approval or worried about what other people were going to think of me. It was love at first sight between me and that sandy old tomb." Willow took a deep breath. Tara lifted her hand to the redhead's neck, making small soothing circles on the soft skin there, silently encouraging Willow to continue.

Willow smiled a little at the tender caress and then once again spoke.

"My parents' friend met us and after a few minutes of chatting with them he offered to show them the inside of the tomb. I remember clearly that as we walked to the tomb he mentioned it was fortunate that my parents hadn't been late, since he was about to close up for a couple of weeks and all the workers had already left. It's funny, but I can't remember the reason he gave, not that it really matters. Maybe he needed more workers and wanted to recruit them himself. Or who knows? He could have been lacking some authorization paperwork and had to close the site for a while."

Willow stopped and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself and somehow keep her distance from the story she was telling.

Okay, Rosenberg, relax. Stop stalling and just relax. One word at a time. And how about not turning into a complete spazz? The story's pitiful enough without me completely losing it. I'm not that person anymore.

Sensing that Willow needed a moment to compose herself, Tara simply held her and waited silently.

"So, um, anyway, we walked inside the temple and I was in complete awe. I was immediately struck by how much bigger it actually was compared to how it looked from the outside, and it was obvious that much of it hadn't been explored yet. I suppose I should have known better, but I moved away from my parents, eager to see and discover more. ‘Eager Girl,' yep, that was me. So, after what felt like five minutes to me - but had to have been a lot longer -- I heard this screeching noise and a loud bang of stone on stone. It sounded a lot like the door closing, but I stayed calm. No reason to panic, since it wasn't like my parents would just leave me alone locked inside the tomb. I mean, I'm their only child, and I assumed I was important enough for them to remember my existence, remember I was there..."

"They didn't..." Tara whispered, horrified.

It's not possible! How could they leave a fifteen-year-old girl locked inside a tomb? How could they leave Willow there?

She easily read the answer in the redhead's shimmering eyes.

"Oh, honey...I'm so sorry," she said softly as she leaned to her side and tightened her grip on Willow's back. She tried to pull her girlfriend closer only to be met with resistance.

"It's okay. It was a long time ago."

"No! It's definitely not okay," Tara erupted, fiercely hugging Willow. "You were young and alone and it's not okay at all."

It's so not okay.

This time Willow let herself be pulled tight against Tara's body as she soaked up the comfort the blonde offered freely. She buried her face in Tara's neck and slowly and silently began crying. Her hot, anguished tears splashed against Tara's smooth skin while the blonde whispered softly into her ear.

"It's not okay, honey." It was so much less than what she wanted to say to Willow, but somehow in that moment it was enough. It was enough that Tara felt outraged and hurt by the situation, and Willow felt safe enough to just let go, to let her defenses down.

Tara simply held on while Willow broke down. The pent up anger and pain from so long ago bubbled to the surface and made it difficult for Willow to breathe.

A long while later Willow's sobs began to diminish and she heard Tara softly humming a soothing tune in her ear. She took a deep breath, taking in Tara's unique smell and letting it anchor her back into the present. She felt safe.

"How are you feeling?" Tara asked softly when she sensed Willow calming down.

Willow lifted her head from the blonde's shoulder, formed a little smile, and faced her girlfriend.

"Actually, I feel good. I suppose I needed that. It's been so long." Willow dropped her eyes, seemingly engrossed in the material of Tara's shirt. When she spoke again it was with a small voice. "I'm just sorry I broke down on you like that. God, I'm such a mess," she added as she tried to wipe her cheeks clear of moist, dusty trails.

Tara brought her hands up to cup Willow's face and gently lift it so their eyes could meet.

"Now you listen to me. You have nothing to be sorry about. Not long ago you told me you were happy to be here for me. You have to know that I feel exactly the same way about you. I'm glad you trusted me. As for you being a mess, you're the most beautiful woman I've ever tears will ever change that."

As her sentence ended she leaned forward and reverently, slowly, kissed the still fresh streaks on Willow's cheeks, and tasted on her tongue the saltiness that was Willow's hurt.

"Even with a runny nose?" Willow asked lightly, wanting to shake a little tension.

Tara recognized the playful tone in her voice and answered in kind.

", I don't know. A runny nose? That sounds messy."

Willow looked into mischievous blue eyes and saw so much love reflected back that she couldn't help but smile gratefully. After all the emotional discharge, she was enjoying the lighter tone.

"Oh come on! What kind of woman runs away from her girlfriend's poor runny nose?" With mock indignation, Willow slowly moved toward a position of dominance over Tara. "I think that calls for a...tickle fight!" she exclaimed, half a second before pushing herself fully on top of Tara. She straddled the blonde's midsection and put her nimble fingers to work on her girlfriend's unprotected sides.

Caught by surprise, Tara had no time to defend herself. She squirmed and laughed and continued her futile efforts to break free of Willow's skillful hands. The redhead was relentless in her torment.

"Okay, okay! I...give...up! Stop!" Tara cried out between unreserved fits of laughter.

As Tara surrendered, Willow stopped the tickling. Both of them were flushed and panting and suddenly very conscious of their position. Heat began rising up between them as their eyes met and held. The recount of Willow's story had made both women feel raw and unsettled.

"Only if you take back what you said. My nose felt offended," Willow said huskily, her face having lost almost all trace of her recent tears.

"You have a gorgeous nose, runny or otherwise," the blonde responded in a serious tone.

Tara lifted her head up, pulled Willow firmly down on top of her, and kissed the aforementioned nose before kissing the redhead softly and passionately on the lips.

"Mph... baby?" Willow asked when Tara moved from her lips to voyage a little lower.

"Yeah?" Tara was already busy kissing her way up Willow's jaw line, carefully giving little bites and tiny licks between kisses.

"What are you doing?" Willow asked nervously while she unconsciously tipped her neck back to allow for better access.

Tara didn't answer, but instead took advantage of the greater expanse of delectable alabaster skin offered to her. She began kissing and lightly raking her teeth along Willow's pulse point, leaving a faint mark.

"Ahh...mmmmmm...If you don't give that up, I'm really...ohhhhh...really sure that we won't be keeping our resolution to not make love." She swallowed hard, feeling her mouth go dry and her blood heat up in her veins. Making love was sounding like a very good idea at the moment. "God, Tara," Willow whimpered, feeling the blonde move up to suck on her sensitive ear lobe. Tara's hands began to wander across Willow's back, snaking beneath her shirt, exploring the warm skin.

"Mmmmm...hmmm? Why was that again?" Tara was suddenly feeling an overpowering desire to get nearer, to get closer, to get past all defenses and connect with Willow in a way that no one else had before. To love her and comfort her in a way that only she could.

"Wh...what?" Willow was finding it difficult to remember how to breathe, let alone process thoughts. Tara's hands were on her back and the blonde's body lay beneath her, undulating and rubbing against her own; twin fires that made her skin flush and her heart hammer while her nipples hardened and moisture gathered between her legs.

"Why...why shouldn't we mmmmmake love?" Tara asked somewhat unintelligibly, also finding it difficult to concentrate. Her brain felt severely deprived of oxygen as her blood migrated lower in her body and her hands traveled closer to Willow's breasts.

"It about being sore...tomorrow...but sore is good...mmmmore...more than good...great actually...there's all kinds of goodness in -."

Tara chose that exact moment to lift one of her knees and press against Willow's sex while she moved her hands to sneak beneath the redhead's bra and cup her breasts. The silky, firm skin leapt to attention. Her nipples hardened perceptively against the blonde's palms as Tara sighed in contentment.

"Oh Goddess..." Willow needed Tara with a burning intensity. She completely gave in to it, no longer remembering why she'd tried to resist in the first place. She leaned down and the women merged together in an open-mouthed, hungry, passionate kiss. Willow's hands moved to Tara's back as she desperately tried to remove her shirt. All clothing suddenly felt restrictive and uncomfortable. Her whole body began to rock against the blonde, wanting more friction...more pressure...more Tara everywhere.

Tara reluctantly broke the heated kiss and moved her hands and thigh away from Willow's body, ignoring the disgruntled moan her actions elicited. Their eyes locked; green, pleading depths were met with reassuring blue.


"Shhh. Raise your arms, love."

Satisfied that their pause didn't mean they were about to stop, Willow sat up, straddled her girlfriend's lap, and moved her arms as requested. She was rewarded by Tara divesting her of her shirt and bra in one easy movement.

Now topless and feeling vulnerable and exposed -- from having shared her history and from being in a position that left her completely open to Tara -- Willow shyly tugged at her girlfriend's shirt, silently asking to remove it. Tara simply nodded and in another second she was naked from the waist up.

Passion and a love strong enough to last forever burned bright when their eyes met. They simply stopped. Stopped moving, stopped breathing, stopped time itself. They felt a connection that was more than just the coming together of their bodies; it was a merging of their hearts and souls, and in that moment they knew they weren't alone anymore.

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

Tara breathlessly moved her hands to rest on the smooth plane of Willow's belly before sliding them down and leaving the skin alive with goose bumps. She reached the top of Willow's shorts, undid the first button, and pulled the zipper down slowly, never once breaking contact with Willow's eyes -- eyes that seemed to have gone completely black with desire in the dim evening light. Moving her hands to her girlfriend's sides, Tara pushed the shorts down as far as they would go. It wasn't far, since Willow was sitting astride her lap, but it was enough to reveal the peak of Willow's bottom to Tara's inquisitive fingers.

"Mmm, Tara..." Willow moaned and closed her eyes as she felt Tara's hands slip inside her panties and cup her cheeks, taking advantage of the space left by the open shorts. The warmth radiating from Tara's hands as she intimately caressed the sensitive skin made Willow's arousal soar as a flood of wetness coated her sex. Suddenly she needed more. She opened her eyes and leaned forward, resting her hands on the floor at each side of Tara's head. Willow gently lowered herself down, watching as Tara licked her lips, and the moist ruby flesh beckoned her. Suddenly she was covering Tara's mouth with demanding lips and tongue and pushing their erect, aching nipples together, eliciting twin moans that were swallowed by the kiss.

Although expected, the sensation of their responsive nipples touching still managed to send a jolt through Tara's body. Her center clenched wetly inside her and sent juices to melt on her panties as her clit twitched. She tightened the grip of her hands on Willow's cheeks, digging her blunt nails into the firm muscles and making the redhead break their kiss to groan.

"Oh, God..." The slight sting of Tara's nails on her flesh aroused Willow further and made her yearn for more, creating a relentless throb between her legs. Flexing her arms and knees she pushed her pelvis against Tara, making the seams of both of their shorts push against their swollen centers and their nipples rub deliciously together. The sensation elicited moans from both women and served more to tease than to satisfy.

Tara pushed her hands a little further down Willow's shorts and moved toward her center. She dipped her fingers into the redhead's slit, coating them with the abundant moisture found there. The feel of velvety hot skin made her half moan, half breathe her approval.

"Oh God, Willow, you're so wet."

"Tara...I need...more." Eyes tightly closed, Willow panted desperately while frantically moving to get closer to Tara's teasing fingers.

Tara was enjoying the way the strong muscles of the redhead's buttocks and legs rippled beneath her hands, and she loved the way Willow was desperately trying to rub her sex against her, but she also knew she couldn't keep teasing her girlfriend. Truth be told, Tara needed more, too. The sensation of Willow's hot moist skin and the friction caused by her frenzied movements was all becoming too much. Tara's arousal began to soar out of control. In a fluid motion, Tara deftly slid her hands from the tantalizing flesh and rolled Willow over so that she was now on top of her.

Willow's brain was still trying to process their change in positions, and before she could respond Tara divested her of her shorts and panties, leaving her totally naked. When she opened her eyes she saw that the blonde was standing, recklessly pushing her own shorts and underwear off. Seconds later, Tara settled again on top of Willow with her hips nestled in between the redhead's legs.

The meeting of their naked, flushed, sweaty bodies made them moan as they unconsciously began to slide together in a ravenous search for friction. Their eyes closed at the delicious sensation of erect nipples, sensitive skin and wet curls rubbing together.

"Ohhh, you feel so good, baby."


Realizing that it wasn't enough and that they were both about to explode if they didn't come soon, Tara knelt, shaking, between the redhead's spread legs. Willow opened her eyes, fearful of the reason her girlfriend pulled away. Sensing Willow's insecurity, Tara put her hand on her right hip and reassuringly caressed her outer thigh.

"Bend your legs for me, honey," the blonde asked throatily.

It took only a second for Willow to comply with the request. Firstly, she trusted that Tara would never do anything to hurt her. Secondly, she was fairly certain she'd go insane if Tara didn't take her soon.

Wasting no time, Tara moved her right leg over Willow's left, settling it on the redhead's left hip. She then pushed her left thigh against Willow's right, leaving them open to each other.

"Tara, what are you d--? Ohhh, God!"

She never managed to finish her question. Tara had used one hand to open her own outer lips and the other to part the redhead's lips, and eased herself down. Their clits touched and sent a fiery wave of pleasure deep through their bodies, making them gasp.

"Oh, Willow...God..."


Leaning slightly forward and supporting her weight on her arms, Tara began rocking against Willow, carefully trying to keep their erect clits rubbing together.

Willow moved her hands to firmly grasp her girlfriend's hips. She began helplessly gyrating against Tara, pushing and pulling in a wet dance of pleasure. She was unable to resist the lure of Tara's breasts wiggling in front of her. The pink engorged nipples called out to her and she lifted her hands to squeeze the full breasts and rub and pinch the stiff peaks.

The feel of Willow's hands stroking her sensitive nipples sent a jolt of pleasure through Tara. She groaned loudly and her hips missed a beat before regaining their rhythm. More than ever she wanted to come and make Willow come with her.

"Willow." The word a plea, a prayer, and a promise on Tara's lips.

Tara felt the sweat plastering her hair to her forehead and running down between her breasts. Her heart hammered in her chest while she panted helplessly. Each press of their engorged, throbbing nubs together was burning her up with pleasure and threatening to break her concentration.

Every breath came as a moan of pleasure for Willow. She closed her eyes tight and dropped her hands from Tara's breasts to forcefully grab the sheet and sleeping bag beneath her. Her fists closed on the fabric with so much force that her knuckles turned white as she strained to get closer to Tara. She felt like her body could splinter into a million beams of ecstasy.

They quickened their pace as they felt themselves being lifted higher and higher until finally on the brink of an overwhelming climax.

And then they came...together.




Coming down from their powerful orgasms, Tara collapsed - boneless - on top of an equally relaxed Willow. For a long moment they just lay there breathing in time with each other, neither one capable of mustering the strength to move, but not really caring. They were blissfully happy, sated and content.

Tara moved first, realizing she couldn't spend the entire night resting on her girlfriend. She lifted herself up and reached for the blanket, pulling it up to cover them. Then she settled in, nestled against her girlfriend's side with her head on Willow's shoulder and her arm lightly caressing her belly. A deep, satisfied sigh escaped her lips as she took in the sensation of their naked bodies pressed together.

Willow smiled, lifted her hand, and lovingly entwined her fingers with the ones currently stroking her stomach. She turned onto her side to face Tara and for a quiet moment gazed deeply into the beautiful pools of blue in front of her. Even in the semi-darkness of the night, those eyes shined bright with happiness. Willow broke the silence.

"Wow. I Talk about flexible. Um, where did you learn that?"

Tara blushed and dipped her head a little. Then she smiled a half shy, half proud smile.

"I had...lots of time to fantasize...since I met you. I mean, when we weren't being attacked or falling down holes...or s-something."

All right, maybe even when we were being attacked. Bad Tara, bad.

Willow chuckled lightly, for the first time finding it amusing, the way in which things in the temple tended to keep getting in their way.

"Yeah, I know what you mean about being attacked, and uh, I certainly can relate to the fantasizing part."

Oh yeah, can I ever relate to the fantasizing part! Although I'd never fantasized about doing it that way. Note to self: when we get home -- research, research, research!

Willow kissed her girlfriend tenderly. Their lips opened and closed together slowly, unhurriedly, languorously taking in the softness and sweetness offered. After a long moment the redhead pulled away only to move forward to wrap her arms tightly around Tara and to lovingly nuzzle her neck.

Tara sighed happily as their two bodies melded together. She lifted her hand to stroke Willow's back in long even caresses, luxuriating in the feel of the soft, firm skin beneath her fingers. She was so lost in her adoration of Willow that she was startled when the redhead moved away. Willow shifted to gaze into Tara's eyes, and she spoke in a tone so soft that Tara would have missed it had they not been so close.

"You want to know something funny?"

"What?" Tara turned slightly so she could better look into her girlfriend's eyes. Willow's serious tone worried her for a second, but she saw that her beloved green gems were clear and peaceful.

"On the first day I never gave up hope that my parents would come back. I just sat there next to that door for hours, hugging my backpack to my chest."

Willow seemed to be lost for a moment in thoughts of sand and old closed doors, and Tara opened her mouth to tell her that she didn't have to continue with the story if it was too painful to recount. She didn't get a word out before changing her mind, though, and resuming the soft stroking of Willow's back, a silent offer of comfort and love.

I hate seeing her upset, but maybe...maybe she needs to tell me this story. Her story. She does seem less troubled now. Maybe all she needed was to have someone hold her and let her cry...let her allow herself to move on and start to forgive her father, her mother...herself.

Tara's soft touch brought the redhead out of her reverie and she smiled ruefully.


"That's okay," the blonde said softly, never stopping her hands' journey over Willow's skin.

"So I stayed put by the door until it was dark, and by then, well, I was completely terrified. I couldn't see anything but I could hear. Boy, could I hear! And, well, nighttime is a really busy time for all the little animals and bugs. You know, time to move, time to hunt or be hunted. I thought I was about to die some horrible, painful death. Eaten by thousands of bugs, that kind of thing. I just kept thinking that when they finally opened the tomb they'd find me with bugs crawling out of my ears, my mouth, my..."

"Willow!" Tara interrupted. She could hear in Willow's voice lightness and a sort of wicked sense of humor that wasn't there before. She was happy to hear everything the redhead wanted to tell her, but she wasn't crazy about bugs...and the idea of bugs and Willow - or worse yet, bugs in Willow - was making her a little queasy.

The redhead smiled sheepishly.

"Sorry, baby. I know, I know. Babble fest."

"I love your babble, honey," Tara stated. She lifted her head to give her girlfriend a little peck on the lips before settling down again and explaining. "It's just the bugs that I'm not so fond of. I mean, I can tolerate ‘em. God knows every temple is full of them. But I don't like them."

"Yeah...yucky bugs," Willow agreed with a big smile. She felt warmed by Tara's unwavering love. Unable to resist, she leaned down and gently kissed her girlfriend, sliding their lips together tenderly. She lifted her head to continue the story.

"Anyway, thankfully it was summer and the nights weren't that long. By morning I'd decided I just had to get myself out of there. I figured that if my parents hadn't come back by then they might never come back at all. For once I was grateful for my obsessive planning; I'd stashed a couple of bottles of water in my backpack. I hadn't brought any food, but at least I wouldn't die of thirst after a couple of days. I got up and started looking around the temple for ways out. For hours I searched and found nothing; no passageway, no door, nothing. I was defeated, tired, hungry, and dirty. I dropped my backpack on the floor, leaned against the wall in the corner, and just let myself slide down, resigned to having a full-on breakdown. But something really weird happened. My bottom hit a hard bump on the ground up against the wall, and -- excuse the pun -- it really rubbed me the wrong way. For some reason it made me incredibly angry. At my parents, at myself, at the stupid temple, at the freakin' bump. It's like I lost it. I started tearing at the soft sandy floor, determined to dig up whatever rock hurt me so I could throw against the wall. Probably more than once and with great determination."

"And then what happened?" Tara asked. She was completely enthralled by Willow's story, certain that it had a happy ending because she held the proof in her hands that Willow made it out safely. She knew that recounting this story was difficult for Willow, but still struggled to stifle a giggle at the mental image of her girlfriend attempting to beat up a rock.

"That's when I found the statue. Miss Kitty's ears were peeking out from the ground. Turns out, that's what was poking me."

"Miss Kitty?" Tara's eyes twinkled as she posed the question, unable to stop herself.

"Well, yeah. It's...tough to speak to someone who doesn't have a name. Not that I think it's a person or anything. I mean, I know it's a statue of a cat. I don't even know if it's a "she," but it looked feminine."

She's just...adorable. Beyond cute. I'll probably never know how I got this lucky.

Tara ended Willow's nervous babble by otherwise occupying her mouth. She kissed her deeply, and when she released the redhead a few seconds later, Willow was feeling a little lightheaded.

"Mmm...why did --"

"Just because I love you," Tara interrupted, gently.

"I love you too, baby." Willow felt her heart melt as it did every time Tara said she loved her. She shook her head a little trying to focus on her story again.

"So I saw Miss Kitty's head and I tried to pick it up, but it wouldn't bulge. I dug a little more until I could see all of it and that's when I realized it was somehow attached to the wall. Well, I had nothing else better to do, so I pulled at it and it slipped from the wall into my hand. Suddenly the rock that Miss Kitty was attached to moved back and to the side, and a small opening appeared. Well, in the years since then I've certainly seen far weirder things than a secret passage appearing from nothingness, but back then? Gosh, I thought I was going to have a heart attack." Willow chuckled lightly and Tara smiled.

"After about five minutes of gaping at the thing and wondering if it would disappear as quickly as it appeared, I finally decided I should see if I could use it to get out. I had no idea where my parents were or if they were trying to come back for me, but I supposed it was almost night by then, so I decided to wait for morning to do anything else. I knew I'd have to dig a lot more to make the hole large enough for me to fit and I was already so tired. Also, I'd already slept there and figured that if the bugs didn't eat me on the first night, it was probably safe to spend the second one in the same place."

Second night? Just how many days did those idiotic parents leave her trapped? Breathe, Tara. Everything turned out okay. I'll know the rest soon enough.

Not wanting to interrupt Willow's narrative again, Tara kept her thoughts to herself and waited for Willow to resume her story, which she did just a couple of seconds later.

"So, early the next morning I started digging. When the opening was bigger I could see that it really was a tunnel entrance. I dug until it was large enough for me to pass and I picked up Miss Kitty and my little backpack...and off I went. As soon as I crawled inside I knew things weren't going to be as easy as I'd hoped. The tunnel went up, which meant I'd have to climb my way through it, and it was only as wide as the rocks constructing its walls, which meant that it was barely large enough for me to crawl through. To make matters worse, I could see that there were tons of junctions ahead. It was obvious I was facing some kind of maze. But another curious thing happened. Instead of feeling afraid, for the first time in my life I felt strong, and I decided I could face whatever the maze held in store for me. After all, I was Puzzle Girl. Um, and ‘Eager Girl.' I have many names." She gave a playful smile.

God, I love this woman. You are so strong, Willow. How could you have ever doubted it?

While Willow paused to moisten lips that had gone dry from speaking, Tara tightened her hold on the redhead ever so slightly, letting her know that she was still there, still listening, still loving her.

"So I started by trying a tunnel to the left and quickly found that it was a dead end. I came back and made a big "X" on the entry to that tunnel. Then I tried the next one and the next one and the next one and so on until I'd lost count of how many passageways I'd tried. I just about lost hope that I'd ever get out of that damned temple. But as I started to make my way through yet another tunnel, I could hear a roaring noise echoing through the walls. My heart started pounding and I felt an urge to just keep going up, like it was a sixth sense or something. About thirty seconds later a huge stone came rolling toward me - okay, it was way smaller than the one that rolled toward you and me, but from where I was standing back then it sure seemed huge. It came crashing from an opening in the wall next to the place where I'd just been standing, and it rolled down the length of the tunnel. Had I stayed put or gone backwards I'd have been squashed like a bug."

Willow shivered a little from the memory, and Tara pulled her impossibly closer. The blonde was shaken by the idea of the danger Willow faced at such an early age.

"But the bright side was that if there were booby traps it meant I was finally on the right track and there probably was a way out. So I kept going forward. I had to try a few more tunnels and dodge a couple more stone balls, but in the end I managed to reach the exit. Only to find it filled with sand. You know...I was just so tired. I was running out of water, hadn't eaten anything in way too long, my back hurt, and my knees and hands were scraped raw. It was almost nighttime so I just collapsed there, feeling very sorry for myself and angry beyond words at everything and everyone. But when morning came I just began digging and didn't stop. By my calculations, I'd always been moving up, so I should have been close to the surface. It took me a long time since, well, I wasn't exactly in top condition, but I finally reached the surface. After four days."

"You are so strong," Tara whispered softly, reaching up to give Willow a small kiss on her lips. It made Willow blush and her green eyes shine with love.

"I never thought I was before that. I think that was the real reason I became a tomb raider. Out there," she gestured to the world outside, "I was plain Willow. But when I'm on a quest it's like I'm a superhero or something, you know?"

"You could never be "plain" Willow. You're the brightest, strongest, most beautiful person I've ever met...inside and out. And I love you," Tara declared fiercely, her eyes locked with Willow's so that the redhead had no chance to doubt anything she said.

And Willow didn't doubt it. How could she when her soul felt warmed by Tara's love?

"I love you, too." They kissed. Sweetly, tenderly. The love they felt for each other easily flowed in the meeting of their lips. "Thank you," Willow said softly with a smile after they parted.

"You're welcome." Tara flashed her girlfriend a smile before her curiosity got the better of her and she had to ask. "And then what happened?"

Having been lost in that super sexy smile, Willow took a moment to answer.

"Well, then I just looked in every direction, trying to see someone, anyone, to ask for help. I didn't see anyone. I checked for fresh marks in case someone had been to the site. I was afraid my parents had already arrived and gone...but there was nothing. It was getting dark again so I left my backpack in front of the door to the temple just in case my parents came that night. Then I went to sleep in the passageway. I'd been lucky enough to not find any snakes or other dangerous animals in the temple, but I wasn't sure if the same was going to hold true for outside. In the morning I came out again to find my backpack in the same place I'd left it...and to see my parents walking toward me with the guide. And that's the story of my first quest."

Tara could see by the stiff posture Willow's shoulders had adopted and by the stony look in her eyes that it really wasn't the end of the story, but she didn't want to pressure Willow.

I've already pushed enough for today. Besides, I don't think I want to talk about her parents right now. I already want to kill them and I haven't even met them.

"That's quite the story, honey," she said instead, pleased when the term of endearment melted Willow's icy demeanor. The redhead relaxed her body to lie on top of the blonde's, and she nestled her head in the crook of Tara's neck. Willow yawned sleepily, suddenly tired - both from the passionate lovemaking and from the emotional release of telling her tale.

"You'll have to tell me the story of your first quest sometime," she said sleepily.

"I will, sweetie. But not today." She kissed her girlfriend's forehead and then settled down to sleep, cuddling her Willow.

"Not today."

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Twenty-Two

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