Return to Hellebore Chapter Sixty-Four


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: NC-17
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 2004 Chris Cook.

Tara watched, unable to suppress a faint smile, as Willow ran the last few steps and hugged the older woman. Ember was instantly embracing her in return, rubbing her back, her other hand stroking Willow's hair, calming her tenderly, just as a mother would.

"I'll leave you girls to it," Lindia said from beside Tara, glancing over her shoulder at Ember and Willow as she walked back towards her horse. "Sitting around discussing... not really my area of expertise."

"Thank you for finding us," Tara said quietly, offering a hand. Lindia raised an eyebrow, then shook her hand warmly.

"It's what I do," she said off-hand. "I suppose a kiss is out of the question?"

"It is," Tara said firmly.

"Just kidding," the noblewoman winked, "you two take care of each other." With a flourish she turned and strode away, beckoning an officer to talk to as she went.

'Willow was right,' she mused, glancing at the retreating figure before turning back to the scene in front of her, 'I do need to get myself some pants like that.' Shaking her head in amusement, she watched as Willow disentangled herself from Ember's arms, looking slightly embarrassed as the other trainee sorceresses greeted her, then she turned back to Tara.

"Tara, this is- well, you know who, I just said- this is Ember," she said, grinning happily. "Ember, this is Tara, my partner."

"An honour," Ember said, surprising Tara who had been about to say the same.

"F-for me also," she replied, holding out a hand.

"Co'te," Ember said quietly as she took Tara's hand. Tara tried not to be surprised as she returned the ritual greeting between warriors, reminding herself of all that Willow had told her of her mentor's immense wealth of experience and knowledge - and, she recalled a moment later, that according to her journal she had travelled with an Amazon warrior for a time, no doubt learning all she could about the culture in the process.

Ember ushered her and Willow into the tent, waving a hand to the other sorceresses, who nodded and remained outside. Inside the long tent was divided into several areas by long drapes hung from the rails supporting the roof - Ember led the way into one of these, a small enclosure with a pair of wooden benches with cushions, and a low table with a jug of water, and drew the drapes shut in their wake.

"Now I can see by that insatiably curious gleam," she began, forestalling the question on Willow's lips, "Lady Lindia didn't explain very much?"

"She said you arrived three days ago," Willow replied, "she said she'd leave the rest of the explanations to others - to you, I guess. She was acting kind of... dramatic... scared the heck out of us sneaking through the runic boundary I set up, is there something else going on?"

"That sounds like her," Ember nodded, "a fine woman and adventurer, and the one thing career adventurers always have is...?"

"A sense of theatre," Willow finished, as if remembering something she had once heard. She sat opposite Ember, on the other bench, with Tara at her side.

"Myself excepted, of course," Ember said, in a tone of voice that suggested she was quite happily making fun of herself. Tara found herself at ease in the older sorceress's presence - she was much as Willow's descriptions had led her to imagine. There was authority and dignity to her, but also a sense of fun that kept her from seeming austere or unapproachable. Tara hazarded a guess that her humour concealed a formidable woman, not only because she couldn't imagine Willow respecting anyone so much who wasn't.

"Well, first things first," she went on, pouring a glass of water each for Willow and Tara, then one for herself, "it was the report you wrote from the castle at Kingsport, about what happened with the mage there. That arrived at about the same time as we got word from the Vizjerei that there had been an incident in Kingsport, involving Shadai and one of our sorceresses. Of course they had no idea that you had been involved in her rising in Entsteig, but I didn't like the connection. There's a saying - from Entsteig, in fact - 'once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.'"

"What was the third time?" Tara asked.

"Well, admittedly, at that point there wasn't a third time," Ember shrugged, "but I've learned not to give demons the benefit of the doubt. I made arrangements to suspend my teaching duties and come here, to make sure everything was alright. If it was just a coincidence, well," she waved a hand airily, a gesture that Tara recognised from Willow, and realised she must have inherited from her mentor, "no harm done, the Order can do without me for a couple of months. I had a nasty suspicion something more was going on, though... and I see I was right. I'd say I wish I'd got here sooner, but seeing as you're here and unhurt, and looking not unduly distressed, I'd say things turned out well enough."

"I suppose so," Willow agreed. "But the trainees...?"

"I can't imagine why," Ember said with a wry grin, "but the Council has gotten the idea from somewhere that wherever trouble strikes, I tend to gravitate towards it. When I told them I wanted to follow up on Hydris's attempted summoning, and see if there was more to it, they decided there probably was more to it, and formed a delegation. They're in Duncraig now - when we arrived and compared notes with Ocean, the apprentice at the Palace, we realised the situation was more dangerous than I'd feared. A few hours later the Duke's mage showed up, after riding non-stop for almost a whole day and night with his bodyguard, insisting that he'd felt signs of a 'great threat'. Between us we convinced the Duke to call the army to alert, and we amassed this little scouting party as quickly as we could. And... here we are."

She set her glass aside and leant forward, fixing Willow with her full attention.

"That's my side of the story," she went on, "now, if you're comfortable... what the hell happened?"

And Willow talked, telling her mentor everything that had happened from the moment she had set foot on Kingsport docks over a month ago, to the moment she had been awoken by Lindia's approach just a few hours before. She omitted nothing - after a glance at Tara, to which Tara gave her a reassuring smile and a little nod, she told Ember about their relationship, not in any intimate detail but enough, in a discreet fashion, that the progress of their friendship and then love was woven into the story, along with Willow's studies, their travels, the dangers, the friends they had met and made, even such incidental details as their dance in Kingsport castle, and the trip to the opera in Duncraig.

Ember interrupted Willow only three times, through the several hours it took for her to recount the entire tale. The first time was after just a couple of minutes, when Willow was deep in discussing the books she had acquired from the mages she had visited in Kingsport on the first day - admitting she had missed Willow's exhaustive accounts of everything she did, Ember had halted the story just long enough to have a hearty breakfast brought in from the camp's kitchen tent. The second was several hours later, this time for lunch. Each time, once the food had been delivered and Willow had resumed the telling of their story, Tara was intrigued to watch Ember add a few spices to the dishes, and found them much more appetising than the usual camp fare as a result. She wondered privately if the older sorceress has imparted some of that skill on Willow as well, of if their shared culinary talent was coincidence.

The other time Ember spoke was a couple of hours into the afternoon, as Willow was describing their encounter with the wraith in the lower levels of the Hellebore catacombs. Ember leaned forward, momentarily ceasing writing the notes she had been making as Willow talked, and seemed to be hanging on every word as she described its attack on Tara, and her subsequent banishing of the unearthly creature.

"What?" she asked with a confused grin.

"You destroyed it in one blow?" Ember asked. "No magic at all?"

"Yes... that's the idea with wraiths, you taught me that." Willow glanced at Tara, shrugging vaguely.

"It's just that old wraiths are rare," Ember said, leaning back, "difficult to find, not that many people actually try, there's very little known about them, except that they're supposedly exceptionally difficult to destroy." She paused, then glanced at Tara. "Of course, it was threatening you at the time," she noted.

"I'd fallen," Tara nodded, "it was almost on top of me."

"Giving you a very strong incentive to banish it," Ember nodded, turning her attention back to Willow, "interesting... there might be something to the psychic theory behind them, you think?"

"That it's the psychic impulse that damages them, not the physical blow," Willow mused, "having seen one, that's my guess. Of course, it was only one 'test' - I'd recommend further research, only no thanks." Ember gave a little snort of laughter, and gestured for Willow to continue.

When Willow got to the moment where Shadai had made herself known, and revealed quietly that the demon had been within her all along, Ember's eyes widened, but she remained silent. Willow reached for Tara's hand and held it as she recounted the events on the top of the tower, tense at first, but relaxing as Tara gently stroked her thumb back and forth across the back of her hand. The older sorceress looked at Tara, studying her intently, as Willow had described the combined spell they had managed to defeat Shadai. Something in her gaze was different to any expression she had shown so far, and in fact different to how Tara had imagined her, from Willow's description of the woman who had 'seen everything and been everywhere'. She wondered if Willow had actually surprised Ember.

"Well," Ember said at last, when Willow had finished, "that's... quite a tale. Quite a tale... it bring some puzzling details into sharp focus. Hydris, for one - the Vizjerei were adamant that he didn't have the power to do what he was accused of having done. There's been talk among the clan, so I've heard, of ruling that the Baron's investigation was over-zealous - they'd do nothing to harm him," she added quickly, as both Willow and Tara looked suddenly anxious, "after all, the fact that he was involved in demonology is undisputed. Your gathering of evidence," she looked to Willow specifically, "was above reproach."

"Thank you," she ducked her head slightly.

"Nothing to do with me," Ember replied with a smile, "you had the academic skills of a sorceress long before we met... At any rate, the Vizjerei debate much and move slowly as a rule, and their delegation won't have reached Kingsport yet. In light of what you've told me, the Council will I'm sure send a representative to wait for them there, to enlighten them."

"What was he trying to do?" Tara asked as Ember paused. "Hydris, I mean. If it wasn't a summoning...?"

"It was a summoning of a kind," Ember explained, "the ritual preparations you examined, and Willow documented most thoroughly, prove as much. But there were variations in the spell, which only an experienced eye would see... believe me, I've seen more than my share of summoning circles in my time." She chuckled mirthlessly to herself, then fixed Willow with a kind look.

"You were in control," she said, "to Shadai, that was a huge problem. Though she was within you, she was unable to command you - it's a fact," she said, glancing at Tara as if to include her in the discussion, "that demonic possession, immediate control, requires the consent of the host. Not necessarily on a conscious level, but on some level, whether it be subconscious, as a result of duplicity, even accidental. You would never give her that, not even accidentally - not after what happened in Entsteig." Willow nodded fervently, suppressing a shiver.

"So she was safe, but trapped," Ember leant back, "concealed from all manner of magic, which would detect only your soul, not the demon lurking in its shadow. Until she had Hellebore to protect her, she was safe only so long as she remained hidden. But a helpless passenger. She had to use what influence she could exert on... susceptible minds, demons and their followers, to try to steer you in the direction she wanted you to go. No easy task, and demons hate relying on humans. Well, you saw what happened the first time you went to the monastery - her servant took his own life, and you left the catacombs behind you, despite that being the very place she wanted you to be. She probably foresaw, or feared, something of the kind, and hoped to subdue your mind - a variant on a summoning, to summon her partly into your soul. Difficult... impossible had she not been within you to begin with. But under the circumstances... well, it's all guesswork, no-one but the damned know that kind of magic well enough to be sure. But I think that's what was being attempted. If the mage at the monastery had lived, perhaps he'd have tried the same ritual."

"I was lucky," Willow said bleakly, "if he hadn't been discovered by accident before he got me-"

"You were both lucky, many times," Ember interrupted, "but fortune exists, good and bad. During this whole, difficult time, you two have done everything in your power to find and seize good fortune, and make it your own. Sometimes," her eyes grew distant, "sometimes we survive by the merest of margins..." She shrugged and offered Willow a gentle smile. "But try not to dwell on it. What would your Athulua's consort say?" she asked Tara.

"She... oh," her eyes lit up in realisation, "'Be grateful of our fortunes, and fear not that which has not come to pass.' When Athulua rescued Kethryes from her old lord's army," she explained to Willow, "afterwards she was upset about whether she could have been too late, and lost her. That was what she said to her, to console her."

"I..." she said, unable to keep a smile from her lips, "...I'll try." Tara nodded, and squeezed her hand comfortingly.

"Me too," she murmured.

"Um, about the book," Willow said, to cover the blush creeping up her cheeks, as she turned back to Ember. Tara reached behind their bench to where their bags were lying on the ground, and retrieved the ancient volume for Willow. She took it and laid it almost reverentially on the table, between herself and Ember.

"Yes," the older sorceress whispered, betraying a little awe, "Moac's journal... how much have you read?"

"I, uh, just glanced at it," Willow admitted, "I haven't really read any." Ember's eyebrow quirked up.

"You've had this a whole night, and you haven't read it?" She grinned impishly. "Are you sure you're feeling alright?" Tara couldn't suppress a chuckle, and Willow shot her a frown, belied by her smile.

"I had more important things on my mind," she explained. Ember looked at her warmly, for a moment exactly like a proud parent would, then leaned forward and ran her fingers over the book's dark red leather cover.

"There's a space saved for this in the vaults," she said quietly, "among all the very, very powerful texts... even though no-one really believed it existed."

"It belongs there," Willow said firmly, "it'll be safe there." Ember looked up at her, once more warm with admiration.

"It can travel with the delegation from the Council," she said, picking up the book, "there's no safer way to get it to Kurast... and you should give it to them." She handed the volume back to a surprised Willow.

"Me?" she squeaked. "Why? I mean, you're my sponsor... a-and you can protect it better until then-"

"We'll be travelling together," Ember said, "the Dauntless will have unloaded her complement of men by now, so she'll be setting sail for the city tonight, while the Valiant stays here. You can both stay in the cabin they gave me, you could use the rest I imagine - I'll be up most of the night anyway briefing the Duke's field advisors. The ship's rigged for cavalry transport, so you won't have to leave your horse... how did you get her onto a horse that big?" she asked Tara with a wry smile.

"It took some doing," Tara said, receiving a playful elbow in her side in reply.

"We can go on board now, if you'd like," Ember went on, "there's no reason not to, and trust me, the food in the officer's mess is better than what they'll serve the troops out here. You'll have time to get cleaned up before dinner. Fiara?" she called, summoning one of the younger sorceresses.

"Ma'am?" she asked.

"See Willow and Lady Tara onto the next launch for the Dauntless - we'll all be going aboard, I'll brief you and Lusilla there. You'll both be scouting the ruins tomorrow, but you'll be able to get some rest tonight. The danger we were concerned with has been dealt with. I'll be returning to Duncraig tonight, I'll be back in a couple of days."

"Yes ma'am," Fiara said, ducking her head, then leaving with a curious glance at Willow and Tara. Ember stood, and Willow stood with her as if out of habit - Tara got a glimpse of the bond between them, the time they had spent together as teacher and pupil.

"Ember?" Willow asked as Tara stood at her side, "is... it is over, isn't it?" Ember looked at her levelly, then smiled kindly.

"It's over," she said.

"Shadai's gone?" Tara asked quietly. "For good?"

"As gone as a demon can be," Ember said, "banished back to hell."

"She couldn't... have escaped again? Like before," Willow asked, choosing her words with care. Ember regarded her sadly, then opened her arms, and Willow stepped forward into her embrace.

"I'm so sorry," the older sorceress whispered, just loud enough for Tara to hear. "If we'd known, been able to tell somehow... if we could have spared you all this..." She sighed deeply, then stood back a pace from Willow.

"I fully believe," she said firmly, "that Shadai, even if she had tried, would have been unable to return to you. Before, in Entsteig, we had no idea, the notion that she'd do something so dangerous, that the banishing spell gave her a means to hide within you..." She shook her head sadly, then met Willow's gaze again. "Now we know. More importantly, you know. This time there was no spell for her to take advantage of... and this time you know what she did to you. A demon, no matter how powerful, can never possess those who don't allow them to do so."

"She never did," Tara said firmly. Ember looked at her, surprised at the certainty in her voice, perhaps surprised too at being challenged, then nodded.

"She didn't know," she replied, turning back to Willow, "and that was our fault, not hers. But if you had ever become aware of the demon's presence," she added in a level voice, "I am absolutely sure she would have been forced from you. No matter how powerful the demon, within yourself you are more powerful." Willow nodded, then reached for Tara's hand and held it gently, reassuringly.

"A mage powerful enough and twisted enough to succeed in summoning a demon of her power comes around once in a lifetime," Ember went on, "if that, and most never get the chance anyway. I honestly believe she'll never trouble you again. That's the best I can offer."

"It's enough," Willow said, swallowing to steady her voice. She faced Tara and regarded her with warm eyes.

"It's over," Tara murmured, reaching forward to embrace her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ember turn away, giving them a little privacy at least, but then she had eyes only for Willow, who smiled back at her as her arms circled her waist.

"It's over," she echoed in a whisper, before her lips sought out Tara's for a quick, gentle kiss. They lingered for a moment, then reluctantly separated. Willow led the way out of the enclosure within the tent, but Ember reached out and touched Tara's shoulder as she passed, halting her. She looked like she was about to speak, then paused, as if gathering her thoughts.

"I-I'm sorry if I was rude," Tara began, "I know you'd never have let this happen, if you could have prevented-"

"No," Ember interrupted, "no, it's not that... objectively, perhaps, there was nothing that could have been done, but if you blame me, I find can only agree with you."

"I don't," Tara said quietly. "But for Willow..."

"I understand," Ember nodded, "likewise, I'd do anything for her... though," she looked at Tara with a curious smile, "I think only you could have saved her."

"She saved me just as much," Tara admitted, ducking to hide her blush.

"I always knew she'd accomplish something truly remarkable. I thank you for what you've done, Tara. And for what you'll keep doing as long as you and she live."

"I just want to make her happy," Tara murmured.

"I know," Ember said, taking her gently by the elbow and leading her out to where Willow and the other sorceresses were waiting, "that's worth my thanks any day."

Ember's cabin on the Dauntless was not particularly spacious, but the quality of the furnishings made up for it. All the furniture was fixed to the deck - a small writing desk, a closet large enough for just a handful of garments, a deep trunk in the corner, and the bunk set into the wall, just the size of a single bed. Someone anticipating their arrival had lit the two oil lamps, one on either side of the cabin, which was on the port side and getting none of the westering sun's light through its small glass-paned porthole. The ensign who had carried their packs from the launch deposited them neatly by the trunk, saluted, and left, closing the door softly behind him.

"You mind sleeping in close quarters tonight?" Willow smiled wearily as she sat on the protruding edge of the bunk.

"With you, I was happy on the ground," Tara said, sitting next to her and putting an arm around her waist, "this is luxury. Tired?"

"Physically, not really," Willow shrugged, "mentally... ready to drop like a stone."

"Me too," Tara sighed. "We'll feel better after dinner."

"Do you think Anji's okay?"

"She looked fine," Tara assured her - they had left Anji on the shore, waiting for a cavalry barge to take her over to the ship, where the last horses were just being unloaded from the stable deck via a large ramp. "She's probably been on a boat before... I guess all the army's horses would at least be taken on board a transport now and then, to get them used to it in case they needed to be moved by boat. We can go down and check on her once she's on board, if you like?"

"Okay-" Willow's breath caught just after she agreed. "Wait... the rest of the horses have been offloaded, right?"

"I think so," Tara said, with a grin.

"Okay," Willow sighed with relief, "I mean, I'm getting better with horses... well, with Anji. A whole stable full of chargers, though... and they probably get excited when they're being shipped..."

"If there's any other horses down there," Tara promised in a whisper, "I'll make sure they're all very nice to you." Willow laughed, then turned to face Tara, resting a hand casually on her thigh.

"I'm being silly, aren't I?" she asked.

"Yes," Tara agreed, returning her gaze with complete adoration.

"I love you."

"I know sweetie. I love you too." They remained still in content silence for a while, Willow resting her head on Tara's shoulder, Tara in turn lightly resting her cheek against Willow's crown, pressing a soft kiss into her slightly tangled hair now and then.

"Hey," Willow murmured eventually, giving Tara's thigh a squeeze, "what do you say we get cleaned up, then go down to the stable deck before dinner?"

"Sounds good," Tara smiled. She got to her feet and held Willow's hands, pretending to pull her upright as she got up, feigning exhaustion. "Do you think they've got a bathtub we can haul in here?"

"Why," Willow grinned slyly, "are you hoping to get me all wet and play with me?"

"I might be," Tara allowed with a wink, "do you think you might like to get wet and be played with?"

"If you're lucky," Willow said breezily.

"I feel lucky," Tara replied, stepping lithely behind Willow and leaning down to nip at her ear, while her hands roamed over her bare stomach.

"Mmm," Willow purred, "you'll be feeling a lot more... come on, I'm suddenly in a hurry."

The officers' latrine on board proved to be a stylishly-appointed bathroom, complete with a bath, but both women decided they'd rather enjoy the privacy of their cabin. Ember was climbing the ladder from another shore launch just in time to see Willow and Tara hauling an iron bathtub, spare from the enlisted men's facilities, across the deck towards the short flight of stairs leading to the cabin deck.

"Oh," Willow paused, smiling sheepishly, "um, do you need your cabin? We could... um..."

"I'll just be a moment," the sorceress said, "I just need to grab a couple of books I left in the desk and I'll be out of your way for the night. Not wasting any time, I see," she added in an undertone which made Willow blush quite adorably, or so it seemed to Tara who watched her with concealed amusement.

"Well," Willow said, not meeting her mentor's eye, "we have been out of civilisation for a few days..." Ember stepped ahead of them and pushed open the cabin door.

"Ah, civilisation," she smiled to herself, "regular meals, soft beds and hot baths." She stood aside as Willow and Tara rolled the tub through the doorway and manoeuvred it so that it would fit in the cabin's limited floor space. "You'll get the first two from the boat, but if you want a hand with the other...?"

"If it's no trouble?" Willow asked in reply, as Tara looked from one to the other of them, trying to work out exactly what they were discussing. Ember shook her head and shrugged, and Willow knelt by the tub, holding her hands out, palm down. Tara watched, smiling at herself being proud of Willow, as water coalesced out of the air and filled the tub.

"Keeping an eye on the book?" Ember asked, as Willow stood up and she knelt down in her place. Willow patted the satchel slung over her shoulder, which hadn't left her since they had boarded the Dauntless.

"Good girl," Ember said absently. She frowned in thought for a moment, then touched a fingertips to the water. Tara thought she saw the merest hint of something spread from the sorceresses fingers, like a wave of sunlight, then she withdrew her hand and stood up, leaving the water steaming nicely.

"Thanks," Willow smiled, turning to Tara and waggling her eyebrows cutely.

"Anytime," Ember said offhandedly, fishing a couple of slim books out of the desk drawers and retreating to the doorway. "Don't do anything I wouldn't," she grinned in parting, closing the door behind her.

"Don't mind her," Willow shrugged, sauntering over to Tara and stroking her cheek as she blushed slightly, "I think she's been waiting years to tease me."

"Uh-huh," Tara said, her bashful smile turning sultry under Willow's caress, "well, there is one thing you can do that she wouldn't."

"Yeah? What's that?"


Tara sat on the bed and watched Willow conscientiously store away all their belongings in the cabin's trunk. Or rather, she simply watched Willow - the trim expanse of her abdomen, the twist of her waist as she reached behind herself for her pack, left lying on the deck, her arms, moving surely and efficiently as she stowed the pack along with their other gear, the curve of her buttocks as she crouched down, securing the trunk's latch, and her skirt drew tight around her hips, the lean curves of her legs as she stood back up, stretching up on her toes for a moment...

'Look at you, you're practically salivating,' she thought to herself. She and Willow had teased and pampered one another as they bathed earlier, taking their time in bestowing lingering caresses over every available inch of skin. And as a result, the water had cooled by the time they had progressed as far as teasing foreplay could take them. Tara had had just enough possession of her thoughts to realise that the water was getting cold, along with the air as the afternoon waned into evening outside, and had calmed herself before she and Willow had gone so far that any effort to back off would have been truly futile. Willow had briefly pondered whether she could get Ember to give the bath another burst of heat, but in light of her and Tara's condition, naked, wet and thoroughly aroused, decided she's never live down the teasing.

Visiting Anji on the stable deck, where she seemed quite content despite the boat's gentle rocking, had taken their minds off their mutual pressing need for a short while, but dinner had been a kind of torture. Fortunately few people had been dining with them in the officer's mess - a pair of ensigns at the other end of the table, and a lieutenant about to begin the night shift having breakfast, the others being occupied with the same briefing that Ember was attending. Having no need of their boots on the boat's smooth decks neither Willow nor Tara had worn them, and most of the meal was spent trying to appear casual while beneath the table their feet were stroking each other's calves and shins. The contact helped ease some of the need, just enough to get through dinner - though at times, Tara seriously wondered whether she'd be able to get through her meal without leaping over the table and devouring Willow instead.

Willow was far from immune herself - on their way back to their cabin Tara had nudged against her in a tight stairway, and in the space of a heartbeat found herself up against the wall with Willow pressed against her, kissing hungrily. It had taken a deep, shuddering breath for Willow to rein herself in and keep herself in check thereafter, and they had both hurried back to privacy.

Now, watching Willow disrobe, Tara was able to keep her hands to herself purely because she knew she wouldn't have to wait much longer. That, and the way Willow turned this way and that as she undressed, exposing one slender curve at a time. By the time she was naked save for her underwear there wasn't a single part of her Tara wasn't fantasising about, and to judge by the glitter in her eyes as she turned off one of the cabin's oil lamps and sauntered over to the bunk, she knew it.

"What's this for?" Tara asked lightly, hooking a finger in the waistband as Willow sat next to her, and tugging the thin material a little way down her hips.

"I thought you'd like to do the honours," Willow smiled, reaching for the buckles on Tara's leathers. Tara leaned back as Willow loosened her armour, then lifted her arms to let her lift the leather off her torso. The moment it had fallen to the deck Willow was kissing her, starting voraciously with her lips before moving down to her neck and collarbone, licking an sucking the tender skin there.

"Oh gods," she gasped between kisses, "what on earth... gave me the idea... I could resist you... even for a couple... of hours...?"

"Mmm, oh baby," Tara shuddered as she felt Willow's lips close around her nipple, "oh... oooh, goddess..." Willow sucked at her, her tongue dancing around the hard nub of flesh in her mouth, while one hand cupped her other breast, squeezing the soft mound. Her free hand went to the waist of Tara's skirt, deftly undoing it, then sliding beneath her bottom to urge her to lift up, so she could slide the skirt away.

"That's so... so... ah... oh goddess," Tara moaned as Willow switched breasts, her fingers keeping the glistening nipple thus revealed fully stimulated.

"You were saying something?" she said in a sexy murmur, leaving her hands to attend to Tara's bosom for a moment as she moved upwards, brushing her lips on Tara's as she spoke. Tara shook her head, then lifted her hands to hold Willow firmly as she kissed her, her fingers running through her freshly-washed scarlet hair as her tongue delved deep into her mouth. Longer and longer she held the kiss, leaving no depth of Willow's unexplored - first she felt Willow shuddering against her, then her hands moved to her back, holding helplessly, and finally her legs gave out and she let herself fall against Tara, moaning unashamedly into her mouth.

"Good kiss?" Tara purred when she finally released Willow's lips. Willow let out a sob of pleasure and opened her eyes, taking a moment before she could properly focus on the woman smiling at her.

"Take me," she whimpered. Tara's smile widened, and she sat up, lifting Willow with her as she moved.

"You're still a little overdressed," she murmured in Willow's ear, stroking the smoothness of Willow's underwear. When her fingertips brushed against her mound, clad only in thin fabric, Willow's legs again failed her, and she clung to Tara and moaned, her hips trembling.

"Oh goddess," she breathed, with a delirious smile, "I can't even stand when you touch me." With some effort she managed to get a hand to the brass rail set above the bunk's recess in the wall, and held herself up as she stood. Tara ran her hands up and down Willow's sides as she reached her other arm up, doubling her grip, then, finding herself at just the right height, began tasting her breasts with long, deliberately slow licks.

"Uh," Willow gave voice to a high-pitched whimper. Tara looked up at her face, set in an expression of desperate pleasure, and felt that sight alone stir her to the depths of her soul.

"Hold on," she whispered, her lips brushing Willow's cleavage, "I'm going to take you for a ride."

"Take me," Willow whispered again, so softly she barely spoke at all. Tara's lips curled into a sexy smirk as she lithely uncoiled from the bunk, sliding her hands around Willow's waist as she moved behind her, pressing her forward.

"Like this?" she purred, sucking delicately on Willow's neck, her hands beginning to wander over her body. Willow nodded mutely, her mouth hanging open, eyes tightly closed.

"Like this?" Tara went on, bringing her hands up beneath Willow's breasts, lifting them then letting them slip into her grip, feeling her nipples straining against her palms. She moved her kisses down to Willow's shoulder, and began rhythmically squeezing and stroking the soft mounds in her hands in time with the caresses of her lips against her skin.

"Uh... yeah..." Willow moaned, unconsciously grinding her hips against Tara's pelvis. She let her head fall back just as Tara lifted hers, and their lips met in a devastating kiss. Their bodies moved as one, curving and stretching against each other, fitting together perfectly. Tara's hands moved down, one wrapping tightly, possessively, around Willow's waist, the other stroking her hip, slowly edging around towards the junction of her thighs. First one then the other of Willow's hands left the rail she had been holding, instead reaching back, stroking Tara's sides firmly, moving down to her waist, down to her buttocks where Tara's leather underwear covered almost nothing, cupping them, pulling Tara against herself.

"Goddess," she gasped, her word muffled against Tara's lips, "so very sexy..." With a parting kiss Tara quickly ducked around Willow, reversing their positions so that she was now pressed against Willow's front. Reaching back to hold Willow to her she crouched slowly then straightened, luxuriating in the feel of Willow's smooth skin against her naked rear.

"You like that, huh?" she murmured, her voice starting to become ragged as Willow wasted no time in taking advantage of her new position. One hand alternated between Tara's breasts, back and forth, holding, squeezing, tantalising and deftly stroking her nipples to hard peaks. The other cupped her mound, pressing against the leather that was all the clothing that the two of them had left between them. Tara gave a loud, primal moan as Willow's touch soared through her.

"Now who's being taken on a ride?" Willow purred, licking Tara's neck, up to her ear. Her fingers moved lower, between Tara's thighs, feeling the warmth beneath the leather covering her.

"Goddess," she whispered, breathing hard against the glistening marks her kisses had left on Tara's skin, "you're so wet... it's just flowing out of you, isn't it? Too much for this little scrap to contain," she tugged gently at the underwear, "you're coating your thighs, soaking your leather, you're so hot... just waiting for me, aren't you?"

"Y-yes," Tara gasped, "for you..." She almost stumbled, overcome by her need, as Willow covered her entire mound with her hand and pressed inwards, grinding her aching clit against the leather between them.

"You know what," Willow continued, "now you feel a bit unsteady, don't you? Can't have you falling over, my vixen angel, maybe you should hold onto something, hmm? Ah, not yet," she added quickly, as Tara's hands began to rise, "you never finished undressing, you naughty beauty... first things first."

Craning her neck to fix Willow with a sultry smile, Tara arched her back just a little, separating herself a fraction from Willow's body as her thumbs hooked into the waist of her underwear. Slowly, staring at Willow all the while, she bent at the waist, her hips pressing backwards against Willow as she pulled the offending undergarment down her legs. Releasing Tara from her hold, Willow gently stroked her back as she leant down, and then straightened.

"You know how beautiful you are?" she whispered as Tara stood back up. Tara tilted her head back, all the invitation Willow needed to capture her lips and taste her again. The kiss was short and intense - Tara pulled back, closed her hands around the brass railing above her, and planted her feet wide apart on the deck.

"I know one thing," she growled, "I'm yours. Prove it baby... right now."

The raw desire carried in her words jolted Willow to action the moment they were past her lips. Claiming her mouth in another searing kiss, Willow held her with one arm, wrapped tightly about her waist, while her other hand went down, where Tara desperately needed her. Feeling the blistering heat, the copious wetness, she wasted no time, stroking two fingertips down through Tara's folds to her entrance and then rising up within her. She swallowed the passionate moan that welled up from Tara's throat and thrust again, and again, exulting in the wave of ecstatic motion that shuddered through the body in her arms each time.

Tara writhed in her grip, her hips circling, rising and falling, giving herself to Willow with utter abandon. Each time Willow's fingers withdrew she would bend her knees, her body pursuing the intruding digits as far as she could, unwilling to bear their retreat. Each time she thrust, touching a spectacle of passion within Tara's core, she would lift herself up on her toes, arching her back - she moved in time with Willow, her whole body echoing the motion of her hand between her legs, moving with rather than against it, so that as Willow made love to her, it seemed to both of them that her entire being was reaping the joy of her deepest touch.

Throughout their lips remained locked, each stealing breath here and there, but never leaving the kiss that completed the cycle within their two bodies - their lips seemed joined, allowed love and passion to flow between them just as below, with every thrust, there seemed less and less distinction between giving and receiving pleasure, between making love and being made love to, between Willow's fingers plunging deep and Tara's channel welcoming her with flood tides of arousal.

Tara's climax burst upon her like the rising sun shining on the ocean - for a split second she could feel the single gathering of intense, pure love within her, then every part of her was lighting up, reflecting the brilliance of what Willow had given her. She shuddered uncontrollably in Willow's arms, moving faster and faster until finally she could only thrust herself down, one last time, burying Willow within her as her juices flowed, her body shivered at the waves of heat crashing within her. Behind her clenched eyelids she was staring into a private realm only she and Willow could enter, where the ground beneath their feet, the sun in the sky, the air they breathed was fashioned from each other's love.

Secure in Willow's grip, her arms supporting her weight, Tara let her head fall forwards as Willow released her lips at last. She felt too close to Willow to describe - she felt Willow's heartbeat in every part of herself, touching off aftershocks of bliss. She gave a soft, sated moan as she felt Willow's lips touch her ear, her tongue flicking out to taste her skin.

"You are a goddess," Willow whispered, "and I love you, my goddess... there is nothing in this world that can make me feel better than I do right now."

With a shuddering breath Tara regained her balance and turned around, gasping as she felt the fingers withdraw from her, sighing as she caught Willow in a warm embrace.

"You wanna bet?" she breathed, just as Willow had begun to relax into her arms. Willow straightened, then gave a delighted squeal as Tara quickly reached behind her shoulders and knees and picked her up.

"Ooh!" she giggled, "I'm getting taken on that ride after all, huh?"

"You most certainly are," Tara said, turning and laying Willow down on the bunk, "I never forget a promise I make to the woman I love with all my heart." She climbed into the bunk, straddling Willow and staring down at her.

"I'd say get ready," she grinned, "but, love, it won't make any difference at all."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Sixty-Six

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