Return to Hellebore Chapter Ten


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: R
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2003 Chris Cook.

"It's where all this began," Willow said, her voice quiet and emotionless. Once she had calmed herself, with Tara's soothing help, Willow had had one of the guards fetch the master-at-arms. She had quickly explained how he should have the ritual sand and rune-stones disposed of, and advised that, with the Baron's approval, the books she had separated from the library should be sealed and locked in a safe place, and on no account read, until the Vizjerei could send a mission to investigate the betrayal of their comrade. She had maintained her calm well, but Tara could sense the tension in her, and when Willow held out her hand she gladly took it, and kept hold of it all the way back to the Amazon quarters. They had acknowledged the greetings of the various merchants who had already begun dinner, and Tara had collected enough food for both of them while Willow sought the solitude of Tara's bedroom. Now they sat on the bed, side-by side, Willow toying with her food and staring blankly at the opposite wall, Tara patiently waiting as she gathered her nerves.

"The Order has... had an arrangement with a hospice in Entsteig," Willow continued, "a big place thirty miles outside Gotunberg-Sallna. The Chancellor of the cities had it built after the Reckoning, to deal with all the refugees from Khanduras, a-and he brought alchemists and physicians and healers from everywhere he could. They said it was the biggest centre of healing in all the Western Kingdoms. Fire sorcery is part healing, you know, replenishing the body's energy... we all learn a little of it, to keep from exhausting ourselves when we cast magic, but some fire sorceresses have the talent to use it to heal physical injuries. The Chancellor agreed to have the Zann Esu keep a presence in the hospice, to learn and teach healing, and also just to have some sorceresses around. Over the years the hospice's library grew until it was enormous - all the visiting doctors and healers would bring their own books, and they'd have scribes make new copies for the hospice... most of them were at least partly magical, and mages, even ones who didn't practice healing magic, would visit to study the books there. That's why they sent me and the others, five of us, even though Saria was the only one who used fire.

"It happened one night after five months studying there, with visiting mages and the sorceress elders who were assigned to the hospice permanently. Ember and the elders had gone to the cities for a council with the Chancellor, and most of the student physicians were at a conference... it was pretty empty. I always used to stay up late in the library, reading all sorts of things. During the day we were supervised, but at night I could read whatever I wanted, almost. I was always sleeping in because of it, I'd get back to our quarters at midnight and lie awake thinking about what I'd been reading... This night, we'd been talking amongst ourselves, the other girls and I, and then they'd gone to sleep. I couldn't get to sleep, so I went down to the library alone to read for a while.

"I got there and the door was locked - I didn't know why, unless the caretakers had closed it up, with so many of the students away for the night, but they usually left it open. I knocked, and looked for a caretaker, but I couldn't find anyone, so I waited for a little while, then I got up to leave. I was just walking out into the cloister, and... everything turned red for a second, like coals at the bottom of a fire, and then I blacked out..."

Willow came slowly and painfully back to awareness, conscious first of something sharp digging into her leg, then the cold of night air on her back. She opened her eyes and winced as for a second the dim light of torches and stars pierced her eyes like the sun. She felt a throbbing pain in her forehead, and when she touched the pain her skin felt sticky, and her fingers came back with blood on them. She struggled up to a sitting position, rubbing the painful bruise where her leg had come to rest on top of a jagged stone, and dabbed at the cut on her head, relieved to find that it was small, and had already stopped bleeding. Only then, dazed as she was, did she take stock of her surroundings.

The cloister had been shattered as if by an earthquake. Many of the stone arches had collapsed, fracturing the flagstones beneath them with huge chunks of masonry. The walls beyond were cracked, the stained-glass windows in them broken into tiny shards that littered the ground beneath their empty frames. Where Willow last remembered being, just beneath the northern archway, a heap of stone had fallen, and either she had run without remembering it, or some force had thrown her clear of it. She stared past it, seeing the huge wooden doors of the library hanging off their hinges. By the light of the few torches still burning in their brackets, and a few others that had fallen to the ground and not yet extinguished themselves, she could see just a little of the library itself, enough to see that the orderly rows of books had been tossed about by the same force that had shattered the cloister.

Leaning on a wall for support, glancing nervously around herself at the fractured stones and cracked roof beams, Willow made her way around the edge of the cloister to the library doorway. She slipped between the damaged doors, and stood dumbly in the doorway, gazing at the devastation that had been wrought inside. The entire roof of the library, with all its massive, immovable beams, had been torn away to reveal the stars - not collapsed, she realised, but flung outwards, for the debris scattered across the floor was only from the shelves and their contents. She took a few shaky steps forward, to where the glass dome had used to be, but there was no trace of it. She stared at the jagged tops of the walls, vaguely noticing the broken ends of wooden beams, twisted and torn upwards - it was as if a massive explosion had erupted from within the library itself, but she couldn't understand how a force great enough to blow away the entire roof could leave even a shred of paper within intact, let alone the scattered remains of a thousand books that covered the ground.

Willow somehow felt the sound before she heard it: a strange, purring growl from the darkened remains of the library's east wing, which had been the largest of the three. Images of wild animals flashed through her mind as she slowly turned, trembling and fighting the urge to run and hide. Her jaw dropped as the unlit torches, hanging from their brackets or cast to the floor, burst into life, flames leaping up from the blackened wood, starting on either side of her and continuing, two by two, down the length of the wing. When enough torches had sprung to life, when the creature there was finally revealed, Willow screamed, and her legs collapsed from underneath her. She wanted to flee, to close her eyes, to do anything, but her body wouldn't answer.

It was huge, fifteen feet tall, roughly female in form. Its skin was deathly pale and porcelain-smooth, decorated with runes cut into its flesh, the blood within glowing red and seeping out of the wounds as it moved. It had hooves instead of feet, but no hair around them like a horse or a goat, simply skin that bulged out around its ankles and split to reveal the masses of bone, each hoof covered in dozens of tiny metal spikes, driven into the bone. Its legs were slender, almost too thin to bear its body, yet it seemed to have all the strength it needed as it drew itself up to its full height. As Willow's eyes travelled up its body she saw bronze rings driven through the flesh of its thighs, each one adorned with a glistening wet tag - human tongues, she realised, feeling her stomach lurch. Then her eyes moved again, and saw that the pale, rotting thing covering its crotch was the skin of a human face, eyes and mouth stitched shut, supported by the remaining strands of its scalp, which were stretched over metal hooks protruding from the creature's prominent hips.

Willow felt the bile rise in her throat, but she fought against it, terrified of what she saw, yet even more afraid to look away, even for an instant. The torches around it burned brighter, lighting its torso so she could see, at the centre of its impossibly thin stomach, a glistening wet horn protruding from its navel. Two more, thin and vicious, jutted out from bloody wounds in the centre of each of its heavy breasts, which were decorated with rings bearing chains and scraps of flesh. An open wound ran from its cleavage, up the length of its neck, splitting the lower of its lips. From the bridge of its nose ran a series of horns, growing in length and width as they reached up its forehead and over its scalp. Its hair was jet black, long enough to reach its waist, but it floated as if the creature was underwater, streaming behind it when it moved. Then Willow saw its eyes, and forgot everything else - they were blood-red, as if the sockets were filled with the fumes of hell's fires, and tiny tendrils of crimson vapour crept from them, teasing around its brows - pierced with metal nails and rings - before dissipating in the night air. The eyes carried such malice, such hatred for purity and innocence, that Willow thought she had stared into hell itself.

It held Willow's gaze for a long time - how long, she didn't even know, just that every passing second felt like her soul was being damned a thousand times - then it raised a hand and pointed a long, thin finger at her. It was only then, when its hand rose between Willow's gaze and its eyes, that the spell was broken. Willow noticed a limp shape clutched in its other claw - the body of a robed man, too torn and bloodied to be identified further. Her eyes kept sliding back to the talon it pointed at her, as she waited for the thing to make its move.

"You," it said, in a soft, breathy voice, "come here..."

All Willow could do was shake her head. No force in the world could have made her move an inch towards the terrible sight in front of her. The monster reared back, dropping its hand, then in a flash of movement dashed the corpse in its other hand against the wall, smashing its head to a pulp against the stone. It leaned forward and let out a bellow of rage, its split lower lip parting, either side of its jaw stretching out so that its maw gaped open wide enough to swallow a man whole. Willow had a glimpse of rows of serrated teeth, then the mouth snapped shut, with a ragged spurt of blood from the wound down its neck as it closed. It lifted a leg and slammed down its hoof, cracking the stone beneath it. With the sound of a thunderstorm it crashed towards Willow.

Willow's primal survival instinct overruled the terror gripping her mind, and she leapt to her feet, the shimmering mist of a chill armour forming around her even as the creature reached out a wickedly-clawed hand to grasp her. It bellowed in rage as its fingers came into contact with the tightly-controlled mist, drawing back its hand. It spread its arms wide, and the thin horns protruding from its breasts and stomach stirred, then leapt out at Willow, supported by thin, bloody steel chains that whipped out of the creature's body. The horns each split into three parts, like tiny claws, then they slammed themselves against Willow's armour, sending her flying backwards. The spell absorbed most of the shock of her landing, but the effort shattered its energies, and Willow staggered to her feet, defenceless, as the monster bore down on her, its clawed chains writhing in the air in front of it, reaching out towards her.

"Come now, little one," it sighed, "not hurt... help, yes, much power, much pleasure... play with flesh, yes?"

From some inner place of calm, Willow drew the conclusion that she had a single chance to save herself: one casting, which would either drive the creature away from her, or else fail and leave her to its mercy. She couldn't cast another armour, not so quickly, and in any case it wouldn't last longer than the first. She could create shards of ice, to try to wound it, but she doubted whether she could hurt it enough to keep it away from her. Once it reached her, and hurt her badly, she wouldn't be able to concentrate properly, and it could do as it pleased.

Desperation drove away the warnings that had been drummed into Willow by her Zann Esu tutors. She raised her hand, as if to ward off the creature's blows, and spoke words she had never used before, but had studied their pronunciation until she knew them by heart. She felt something inside her tug at her body, almost dragging her a step forward, but the monster was drawing up in shock, its burning eyes darting around in confusion. Willow steeled herself and continued the incantation, feeling the power flow out of her, forcing herself to stare at the hellish thing's eyes as she spoke the ancient rite of banishment.

The creature's chains retracted back into its body, leaving trails of blood beneath the bone claws in its flesh, which flexed like the beaks of hungry birds. It raised its arms, pushing on either side of itself as if encased in an invisible prison, one that was slowly shrinking around it. For a moment, a brief, triumphant moment, Willow saw something like fear in its inhuman eyes. But then it met her stare, and she recoiled as she felt something flow back along the bridge of power between them.

The monster's power was like an oil slick, viscous and slimy, crawling across her skin and making her feel like she would never be clean again. She staggered back from the shock of it, then redoubled her efforts, forcing her own energy back towards its target. Pitting her will against the monster's unfathomable mind, she hammered against its power, strengthening the bonds holding it, marshalling all her strength for one last strike against the unearthly energy keeping its body intact on the mortal plane. The creature actually fell back a step, then roared again through its gaping jaws. Willow could feel its power near her, just barely held at bay by the spell she was weaving around it, could feel the lances of energy it tried to send through the conduit between them, which if they landed would wrack her body with pain, collapsing the spell in a second. She gritted her teeth, ignoring the sweat trickling into her eyes, and fought for her life.

"I-I was losing," Willow admitted. "I put everything I had into banishing it, but it wasn't enough. It kept pushing back, a-and I could feel the walls around it weakening, and the power from it getting closer to me. It was getting stronger, it was... like it was feeding off the energy, because I wasn't strong enough to shut it out."

Tara silently reached out and took Willow's hand, holding it gently and stroking the back of her hand with her thumb. Willow took a deep breath, which shuddered in her throat, and blinked away the tears that had started to form in her eyes.

"I was sure I was going to die," she went on. "A-and I wasn't frightened, I was ashamed... I hadn't kept my magic pure, the way the Zann Esu taught me. I'd tried to be a hero, and because of that it was going to take all my power... if I'd just stuck to my elementals, it could only have killed me, it wouldn't have been able to reach inside me. B-but now it could, a-and it was my fault... I was afraid for all the people it would hurt, because of the power I gave it.

"Then something hit it, and I got tossed away. I hit my head, and everything was spinning for a moment, and it hurt like hell. The pain snapped me back to thinking, and I looked up and saw the thing being bombarded by ice bolts, fireballs, lightning, the whole works. While I'd been unconscious in the cloister, everyone in the hospice who hadn't been killed by collapsing ceilings and walls had got out, and gone into the city to get help. Ember knew I was still alive, she could sense it, a-and she sensed the creature as well. She and the other elders had to blast their way through the ruins to get to the library, and they got there just in time to save me. I think... another second, and the thing would've had me.

"I just scrambled further away from it, and watched it try to fight back. It really didn't have a chance... Ember and the others were so powerful, a-and it had only just been summoned, and it hadn't quite broken the banishment I put around it before they started hitting it. The flagstones at its feet were actually melting from the heat of the fire Ember was pouring into it, and the air around it was almost crystallising from Cyan and Prospera freezing it. A-and Symphony, she had chains made of lightning wrapped around it, spinning so fast, and they were tearing it up like barbed wire. It was bleeding so much..."

She glanced at Tara, and her face softened from the stony calm she had taken on.

"It doesn't matter," she said, "trust me, you don't want to know. It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen, that about covers it. A-and then there was this deafening crack, and I felt what was left of the banishment spell lurch... it actually pulled be forward for a second. Then it was gone. Even the blood, it all vanished in an instant. Ember and the others had weakened it so much that the spell finally worked, and... that was it."

"That was the demon Hydris was trying to summon?" Tara asked quietly. Willow nodded.

"I think so... I mean, I'm still not sure exactly what he was doing, summoning or maybe just communicating, it's hard to tell. The rune said 'Khalsu', which is what the old Vizjerei clansmen called it. When the Horadrim wrote the Book of Foes, which we still use, they called it Shadai. It was weak when I saw it... it's such a strong demon, the mage who summoned it had to put all his power into just bringing it here, there must've been almost nothing left to make its body strong. Which is what I almost gave it," she added with a scowl.

"Hey," Tara said gently, "you banished it, in the end."

"No, it- I mean, yes," Willow admitted, "it was the banishing spell, but it didn't matter. A few more seconds of fire and ice and chain lightning and it would've been wrecked, and forced back to hell anyway. All I did was give it a chance at becoming stronger, a-and it was just luck that it didn't get it."

Tara saw Willow's shoulders slump, and couldn't think of anything but finding a way to bring back the sparkle that had been in her eyes earlier in the day. She leant beside her, put both arms around her waist, and rested her head on Willow's shoulder, gently nuzzling the base of her neck.

"You survived," she whispered, "and however it happened, you won. That's all that matters now. You're here." She felt Willow's hair tickling her face, as Willow leant her head on top of Tara's.

"After it happened, when we were going back to the Church, for a while I wished I had stuck to my cold magic, and died." Willow put an arm around Tara, hugging her gently, and with her other hand stroked the arm around her own waist.

"I was so afraid of what I'd almost let happen," she admitted, "but Ember helped me. You know, she said almost exactly what you did? She said all that mattered was that it had turned out okay, and I had survived. She told me to learn from my mistake, not to retreat from it. I had the choice of just staying in the Church, where I'd be safe, a-and there'd always be elders to keep me from making another mistake. Ember convinced me to stand before the Council, to ask for their judgement so I could continue as a sorceress. And they sent me here. I-I'm so glad they did, now. I don't want to be anywhere but here."

Tara hugged Willow tighter and closed her eyes, feeling the woman in her arms relax. She was aware, in a distant sort of way, of the warmth that spread through her at Willow's touch, but she had no desire at the moment but to hold her, comfort her and chase away the fears that ailed her.

"Tomorrow I'll talk to the Baron," Willow said eventually, "tell him what we found in Hydris's rooms."

"Tomorrow," said Tara firmly. Willow tightened her hug for a moment, then reluctantly stood up and straightened her skirt.

"I should... you make me feel so much better, you know?" she asked rhetorically. "You're beautiful..." She trailed off, staring wistfully at Tara for a few seconds before she seemed to snap out of it and become flustered. Tara blushed, and smiled when she noticed Willow doing the same. Willow nervously played with the edge of her skirt.

"Um, it's late, I should go get some sleep..." she said hesitantly. As Tara stood up from the bed, Willow was already reaching for her staff, propped in a corner against Silverstrike.

"Stay?" Tara said, surprising herself. Willow looked back at her with an odd mixture of hope and anxiety. "I-I mean," Tara went on, "if you w-want... y-you don't have to go. I-it's been a tough day, a-and you don't need to be alone... and I'd like it... if y-you stayed... please?"

Willow's eyes glistened with moisture. She sniffed back a sob, then nodded once, quickly, swallowing her tears. Tara went to her and enveloped her in a chaste embrace, the one hand around her body still, the other softly stroking her hair. Willow buried her face in Tara's shoulder, drawing deep, sighing breaths, but she didn't cry. Tara gently led her back to the bed and sat her down without letting go. Willow finally raised her head and looked at Tara.

"I-" she began, then hesitated. But the sweet smile on her lips was all the gratitude Tara needed. She ran her fingers through Willow's hair one last time, then got back up.

"Tara?" Willow asked, looking anxious.

"I'll just take the plates outside," Tara replied, "I'll change in one of the spare rooms... give you some privacy. I-I'll be back in a few minutes. Um, if you want something to sleep in, feel free." She gestured towards the small trunk in the corner she had filled with her spare clothes. Willow nodded, and Tara quickly gathered their plates, balanced them in one hand while she found a slip and robe, then cast a reassuring smile back at Willow as she opened the door a fraction and went out.

Willow took a deep breath, then stood up and looked in the trunk for something suitable. She was amazed at how Tara made her feel safe, and warm, and content - as if something inside her wouldn't let her be at peace, unless Tara was there. She hadn't meant to go on about the demon at such length or in such detail, and she hoped Tara would be able to put the grisly spectacle of it out of her mind, but... once she had started talking, the whole story just seemed to flow out of her. She had never spoken about it very much, to anyone - Ember had been there, seen what she had seen, and had needed to ask only a few questions to fill in the details she didn't know of that night's events. Willow hadn't wanted to talk about it then, and Ember had respected that. The Council had been informed of what happened by the various elders, Ember included. Willow remembered the hollow feeling she had experienced when she had to sit down with one of the Council's scribes, to make sure the official account of the incident included all the details she could remember. She had had to mention one or two things, but other than that she had remained silent, as the scribe read from his scroll, in an efficient, emotionless tone, the account of the event that had scarred Willow's mind. Particularly in the first weeks, but even now, she had nightmares about the library, and the demon's burning, hating eyes. She had never talked to anyone about it. Until now. It felt good.

She turned over the edges of a couple of folded bundles, looking for nightwear. A thin cotton slip seemed appropriate, but then the corner of something dark and smooth caught her eye. She uncovered the garment and held it up, letting out a slow breath as she did. It was a silk robe, a lustrous black, and so smooth it was a pleasure to hold. As Willow held it up, she saw that it was cut almost high enough to be considered a shirt - she held it against herself, and it was short of the middle of her thighs. She wondered what in the world an Amazon warrior was doing with something like this - 'Well, wearing it, probably,' she thought back at herself. She looked in the mirror and pictured Tara wearing the short robe, with the thin sash looped around her waist, and the neckline invitingly open. 'Okay, calm down,' she told herself, 'she asked you to stay because you're upset, not because she wants to play dress-up. Or dress down, even.' Willow couldn't help grinning. She put the robe back in the trunk, and laid the cotton slip out on the bed, ready to wear.

She tore her attention away from the robe and realised Tara would be back any moment. She took off her skirt and folded it neatly with practised ease, then kicked off her boots and undid her belt, checking to make sure all its tiny pouches were securely sealed. Her tunic followed, and the bra underneath it, which she folded and put beneath her skirt, feeling somewhat shy about having items of her underwear lying around Tara's room in plain view. She was just straightening up when she caught sight of herself in the mirror again. 'Oh gods,' she thought suddenly, 'I'm nearly naked! In her room! I'm about to sleep next to her, in the same bed, what do I do? Do I just go to sleep beside her, or can I give her a kiss goodnight- Do I snore? I hope I don't snore, I don't want to wake her- No, wait, we slept next to each other in the caravan, and she didn't wake up. Okay, calm down...' She took a few deep breaths, then noticed her chest moving up and down as she did so, and had another attack of nerves. 'I mean, I know this is really an emotional-support sleeping arrangement, but it's not like we're just friends... gods, she sent me wild all afternoon, and if that guard hadn't interrupted I don't know what would've happened... Hey, stop thinking about that!' she chastised herself, glaring at her reflection. 'I wonder if she'll want to snuggle... do Amazons kiss goodnight? Please let Amazons kiss goodnight...'

Willow jumped as a knock on the door pierced the silence of her runaway thoughts.

"Willow?" came Tara's voice. Willow flung on her nightwear, and had already called out "Come in" to Tara when she realised she had tossed the slip back in the trunk, and wrapped herself in Tara's silk robe. 'Okay, that can't have been purely accidental,' she thought with the part of her brain that wasn't panicking.

Tara was wearing a long crimson robe, buttoned once at the waist, revealing a white top underneath it. Willow thought it was beautifully elegant, the way the folds of the robe swished around her legs as she moved, and she melted at the cute way Tara's toed peeked out from beneath it when she stepped forward. Tara closed the door behind her, then looked at Willow properly for the first time. Despite her anxiety, Willow was pleased by the way Tara's eyes widened, a blush crept over her cheeks, and the hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

"You look beautiful," Tara said softly, with complete sincerity in her voice.

"I just- you know, first thing I grabbed," Willow said quickly, trying not to shiver. Half of her wanted to get under cover of the sheets as quickly as possible, the other half had noticed the way Tara's eyes had quickly run up the length of her body when she first saw Willow, and was in heaven at the thought of Tara seeing her like this. She compromised by sitting down on the edge of the bed, almost missing in her nervousness and ending up perched just barely on the edge of it, with one leg thrust out sideways to keep her balance. She saw Tara's eyes fix on her exposed thigh for a second, and her thoughts grew even more erratic.

"Um, th-there's more blankets," Tara said shyly, motioning towards the wardrobe in the corner, "I th-think it's going to be a cold night... I-I'll get some." She busied herself pulling folded blankets down off the high shelf within the wardrobe, giving Willow a few seconds to get control of herself and slip her legs beneath the sheets. When Tara came back, spreading several blankets out over the bed, Willow was sitting up against the headboard, looking calmer than she felt.

"Tara," she said, getting Tara's attention just as she had finished with the blankets. Tara sat on the edge of the bed next to her, smiling into her eyes. Willow noticed the way her hands fidgeted slightly in her lap, and was profoundly relieved that she wasn't the only one feeling nervous.

"Um, thanks for letting me stay," she said, "I really... I feel safe with you," she blurted out before she had a chance to reconsider. Tara smiled, and looked away for a moment.

"I-I'd do anything for you," she confessed. She looked back at Willow, just quickly at first, her eyes darting away again, then back, and holding her gaze longer. Willow felt a lump in her throat, and couldn't find the words to express what she felt.

"I'm so glad I met you," Willow whispered, wanting to say so much more, but not knowing how. Tara leaned over to her and kissed her, gently and perfectly. Her lips were open just a fraction, just enough to make it more than a simple kiss, but there was no need for any movement, or frenzied passion.

"M-me too," Tara said as she leant back a fraction. Willow felt the words breathed across her lips. Tara got back up and started to put out the candles around the room, while Willow wriggled down lower into the bed. Tara cast her a fond smile just before she blew out the last candle, and then the room was all shades of icy blue, from the moonlight filtering through the clouds outside.

Willow watched as Tara, a half-visible silhouette in the darkness, moved towards the window to close the shutters. She stopped half-way, though, and Willow wondered if it was her imagination, or if a glitter around Tara's eyes was her glancing again at her, and if the slight reflection on her lips was a smile. She took one more step, and Willow's eyes fixed on her as a shaft of moonlight from the window lit her, outlining the gentle folds of her robe. Seemingly oblivious to Willow's stare, Tara unbuttoned the robe and slipped it from her shoulders, letting it fall down her arms, and finally free of her hands so that it crumpled to the floor with a silken sigh. Willow gaped, glad of the shadows to conceal her reaction. The white top Tara was wearing was cut high, allowing Willow an unobstructed view of her waist and stomach, which she thought so smooth as to make the silk robe seem like coarse hessian. A pair of white briefs completed the outfit, and in the pale moonlight the edges of the fabric seemed only to accentuate the curve of her hips and bottom, which Willow, in a moment of unusual lewdness that almost made her giggle at herself, wanted to cup in her hands and squeeze. Tara reached for the levers that would pull the shutters closed, and suddenly Willow's attention wasn't on her rear at all, but the gap between her abdomen and the material of her top, which when she leant forward widened enough that Willow could see the slightest curve of the underside of her breasts, swaying gently as she moved. 'More lewd thoughts,' Willow commented silently to herself.

The shutters closed, and the room was plunged into near-total darkness. Willow was suddenly aware that she was breathing heavily, and willed herself to relax. She heard Tara's feet pad softly across the floor, then heard and felt the blankets pull back as she slipped into her side of the bed. Willow rolled onto her side and wriggled over slightly, until she felt the slight aura of warmth of Tara's body, and could feel by the way the blankets were held up that there was barely inches between them. She jumped slightly when she felt Tara's hand on her shoulder.

"Sorry," Tara whispered.

"No, I'm fine," Willow reassured her, "it's just I couldn't see you."

"Night vision," Tara said, "it takes a lot of training."

"You can see me?" Willow asked. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"None," Tara said promptly.

"How'd you do that?"

"I didn't hear you move your hand," she explained, earning a chuckle. "I can see just a little. Shapes, outlines... Outside it'd be enough to get by on, if the moon was behind clouds."

"Speaking of moonlight," Willow whispered, "just now, you looked so lovely... I'm sorry I can't see in the dark now." She imagined Tara's blush, and heard the hesitancy in her voice that confirmed it when she spoke again. She found it very enticing that Tara could be so shy and so bold at the same time.

"Th-thank you," Tara said. "I-I thought, maybe... i-if you weren't too, you know, upset by telling me what happened... maybe you'd appreciate a little distraction..."

"Oh, I do," Willow said, smiling and wondering if Tara could see it, "I'm... I never told anyone the whole story before. I feel better now. Um, it's not going to give you nightmares, is it?"

"No," Tara promised, "no nightmares."

"Good," Willow said, "because I wouldn't want you having bad dreams because of me." She felt the distance between them close, then Tara's hair was brushing against her face, and her hand was cupping her cheek tenderly.

"I think I'll have good dreams because of you," she purred. "Do you feel better?"

"Absolutely," Willow breathed.

"Turn over," Tara said gently. Willow complied, wondering what she had in mind, then sighed as she felt Tara shift herself closer, the length of her body warm against Willow's back. Tara's arm rested leisurely over her waist, holding her just firmly enough to be comfortable. Tara curled her legs beneath Willow's, and Willow breathed in as she felt every inch of her thighs, and her bottom and half her lower back, suddenly in direct physical contact with the most angelic woman she had ever known. She hadn't realised the robe she was wearing had ridden up as she had wriggled under the blankets, but now she was burningly aware that, from her waist down, she was just as scantily clad as Tara. She hoped Tara was as blissfully content as she was.

Tara stroked her fingers across Willow's stomach briefly, then leant a little closer to kiss the back of her neck.

"Sweet dreams, Willow," she whispered.

"Mmm, you too," was all Willow could manage in reply. She felt the tension of the evening melt away, and let herself get lost in the warmth of Tara's embrace, and the darkness of sleep.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Twelve (Rated NC-17)

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