Lara Croft breathed a deep and intense sigh of relief as she settled herself into the secure confines of her waiting carriage. She relaxed even further as her driver closed the door emphatically and firmly behind her. She pressed her fingers to her temples and massaged them gently. It was a simple act but one she had desperately longed to perform all evening. While she believed herself to possess an ample supply of patience at appropriate times, the one thing she could not suffer indefinitely was a bore...and she had been surrounded by an entire gaggle of them all evening.
While Lara was the first to acknowledge the importance of wealthy patronage in the running of an institution as large and distinguished as the British Museum, she wondered just how necessary they really were. She imagined the reactions of her staff if she announced they were no longer to be paid for their work. Did they really need electricity? And just how many of their acquisitions did they actually have to purchase? Lara smiled wryly at her reflection as the driver spurred the horses to movement and they began to draw away from the large house in which she had just spent a miserable few hours trying to persuade wealthy men that the museum could do great things with their money. Unfortunately for Lara, her staff did need to be paid...and supplied with the latest gadgetry to carry out their work. Lara had to admit to herself that buttering up old fools with honeyed words was just as important as slaying vampires. While she was no longer as adept at the latter as she had once been, she had to congratulate herself on the former. She was also willing to acknowledge that her success had not been the result of the generosity of rich men, but rather the slight glimpse of cleavage her carefully chosen dress offered. Fools...they made it all too easy.
Her smile broadened and her headache began to subside as she allowed her head to nestle back against the padded seat and her thoughts to wander to far more pleasant territory. The mere imagining of her lover's lips caressing her naked body was more than enough to empty her mind of everything that had been wrong with her evening. The rich bores stuffed with too much wine and food, cloying atmosphere, and stilted conversation all faded to be replaced by Faith in all her pouty-lipped glory. Almost girlishly, Lara let an enthusiastic giggle escape her lips as she imagined ways in which she could improve her evening immensely.
Some time later, Lara's driver yawned widely as he drew up to the front entrance of the British Museum. He was already anticipating a cigarette and a nice hot cup of tea. He reined in the spirited beasts in front of him and gradually they slowed to a halt. Before the carriage had even come to a complete stop, he heard the sound of the door being unlatched and swung open. The driver turned in surprise to see the Director alighting from the carriage, almost as swiftly as if she had two perfectly good legs.
"Thanks awfully, Stirling," the Director addressed him as she rummaged in her purse, she withdrew a sovereign and tossed it up in his direction. "Spend it wisely."
Before Stirling could utter more than a few syllables of thanks, she was off up the steps and into the building just as easily as she had exited the carriage. He could only wonder at the nature of the important business that put such urgency in her step. Clearly she had weighty matters on her mind.
Once Lara pushed her way through the still unlocked door into the museum foyer, she immediately sensed something out of the ordinary was afoot. She took a moment to glance at her pocket watch and realised that the doors ought to have been locked fifteen minutes ago. As if this wasn't unusual enough, the foyer was missing its quota of night guards and the front desk was completely unstaffed. Lara had to suppress a snort of disgust at this lax state of affairs in her museum. In fact, it was more than merely lax, it was horrifying enough to nearly send her into a flurry of expletives directed at her staff, her own self for not keeping a firmer grip on affairs and the world in general for conspiring to ruin the remainder of an evening she had planned with such relish.
As she stood fuming in the foyer, she gradually became aware of other sounds beyond that of her own disgusted snorts. She cocked her head slightly to confirm that the disturbance was emanating from the African Hall. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Lara marched as quickly as she could manage...and in hindsight she would feel that she ought not to have rushed so quickly into a scene which could have easily caused her to suffer a heart attack.
She gasped at the sight before her eyes. The glass on almost every single cabinet in the African Hall had been smashed. Shards liberally littered the floor. Priceless artefacts, many she herself had acquired during her past excursions to Africa, were strewn across the marble floor as though they were mere rubbish. As her eyes scanned the Hall, she was hardly surprised to see which two members of her staff were at the centre of this maelstrom.
Willow stood examining an object in her hand, while Faith was standing in front of her with a perplexed expression on her face. There was movement off to the side and Lara saw Alex Harris picking himself out of a display cabinet, worriedly staring at a piece of glass that dangled above his head. He breathed a sigh of relief as he extricated himself before it fell. Willow, Faith and Harris immediately glanced up as soon as they heard footsteps. Their faces wore matching expressions of guilt at the sight of their employer. Lara marched the distance across the floor to stand directly in front of the three of them, oblivious to the pain in her leg caused by her swift moments over the past few minutes.
"What...the...bloody...hell...has...happened...to...my...museum?" Lara had to force each word through gritted teeth to maintain a modicum of control over her turbulent emotions. As she spoke Willow hastily tucked whatever it was she was holding into the pocket of her vest and looked around as though only just realising that almost the entire exhibit had been destroyed. "What the hell have you two done now?"
Willow cast a quick glance across at Faith who was now staring at her boots. It was obvious that the brunette was not about to explain so she swallowed quickly, "I know that our past history would offer some evidence as to us having caused this mess but I assure you we are not...although if I'm being completely honest I must admit we inadvertently caused some of it through our actions...and I suppose we could have made more of an effort to minimise damage..."
Faith interrupted Willow's rambling explanation with a snort, "Bloody hell Will!" She turned to Lara, "There were...things, for lack of a better word...and those things were trying to steal something from the museum, Willow and I stopped them...with force...hence the mess, and they escaped through a...whirly...thing."
Lara threw up her hands in exasperation, "Both of your explanations are as bad as the other!" She looked at Alex for a few moments but didn't even bother to ask the American for a better explanation.
A rather agonised groan drew their attention to the unfortunate night guards before either Willow or Faith could continue their awkward attempts at explaining just what had happened in the African Hall. While three of the guards were still on their feet, two of their companions were lying in crumpled heaps. The groan had come from one with a nasty gash across his upper torso. Had the blade that struck him gone any deeper, he would have died instantly. As it was, blood soaked the front of his uniform and his eyes had the glazed look of someone in great pain.
Without hesitation, Willow scrambled to his side, stripping off her vest and shirt as she moved. She tossed the vest aside and hastily tore her shirt into strips to bind around the wound and staunch the flow of blood. He cried out in pain as she pressed the fabric against his torn flesh.
As Willow continued to tend to the guard while he mercifully slipped into unconsciousness, Faith knelt at the side of the one other body in the room. In this case, the blade had cut deep, almost deep enough to cleave the guard's body in two. She sighed with a slight shudder and tenderly closed his open, sightless eyes.
"I think it's too late for this poor chap," she said, although she an announcement was entirely redundant. She rose to her feet and roughly yanked at a lion skin that had been affixed to one of the displays. It tore easily in her strong grip and she swept it across the guard's body, covering his head and the gruesome wound.
With the assistance of the three men who were still standing, Willow had created a litter for the badly wounded man out of a large, hide-covered shield. The white shirt bound around his torso was already soaked through with blood. Alex had risen and looked eager to help anyway he could.
"My carriage should still be outside," Lara directed them towards the door. "Mr Harris, fetch Stirling back if he has already left for the stables. Quickly now men, he may yet live if a doctor can treat him soon enough."
"Right ma'am," Alex nodded seriously, leading the way out of the Hall.
The others nodded in agreement and quickly but gently carried their colleague out of the Hall. Lara watched them go with an expression of pained resignation. Such deaths were all too common beneath her directorship. It was at times like this, when confronted with loss, that she wished the British Museum was simply a museum. However the thought was fleeting as she reminded herself of the vital work they carried out. If not for the bravery and intelligence of her staff, the powers of the underworld would have free reign over the mortal world. To use and abuse the common people as they saw fit. It would be a dark miserable existence and Lara know that she and her like-minded companions would be in their graves before that came to pass.
"Do we know the purpose of this attack on my museum?" Lara turned her attention away from her thoughts to the two women standing in front of her. A small portion of her regretted her hasty words earlier. It was clearly obvious that she ought to have thanked them for doing their jobs...and more.
Both Faith and Willow appeared decidedly worse for wear. As Faith lowered her obviously aching body with a groan to sit on the back of a stuffed lion, Lara did not even think to berate her for desecrating a museum display. She cast another quick glance around the African Hall and decided that the museum displays could hardly be desecrated further.
"Well, yes and no," Willow replied cryptically, she stooped to retrieve her discarded vest and reached into the pocket. She withdrew the slender, white object with its intricate markings and passed it to Lara. "We know they were after this..."
Lara turned the object over in her hands as though examining it in careful detail, she ran the pads of her fingers over the engraved markings. When she glanced back up to Willow, there was an expectant look on her face.
"...and we haven't the faintest clue what it is," Willow finished.
The expression disappeared quickly from Lara's face to be replaced by one of confusion and concern. She had naturally expected Willow to know immediately what it was...and the fact that she didn't added to her growing sense of foreboding.
Despite having just admitted to something rather out of the ordinary for her, Willow suddenly perked up. Lara and Faith could only follow as she strode purposefully across the hall as though searching for something. She then stopped with an exasperated sigh and turned to address Faith,
"Where was this object?" she demanded. Her tone indicated that she felt she ought to know where exactly it had been on display.
"Huh?" was Faith's eloquent reply, "One of them was holding it obviously!"
Willow grunted, "Before that you moron! Where was it displayed?"
Faith ignored Willow's comment by gritting her teeth as she replied, "Just behind you, the cabinet on the right I think...at least that's where they were standing when I arrived."
The cabinet Faith had pointed out was large and relatively undamaged save for the fact that the foremost pane of glass had been smashed entirely in order to access the object. Shards littered the floor around it and had also fallen inwards atop the remaining objects in the cabinet. Willow frowned as she examined the objects and realised that almost every single other object was unprovenanced. She could say each object was probably African, and that was as specific as she could be. It was a cabinet of curiosities, items that were on display purely as something interesting to look at and wonder about. Despite the fact that a few items had been dislodged from their mounts, Willow quickly spotted the vacant spot she was looking for. Carefully picking her way through the glass, Willow leaned into the cabinet and retrieved both the mount and the tiny plaque that bore only the number '43.' It wasn't much, but it was all she had.
"Will?" Faith prodded impatiently, waiting for the usual enlightened answer from the redhead.
"It must be one of our oldest acquisitions," Lara replied before Willow could say anything, her eyebrows lifted in surprise.
"You can tell that from a number?" Faith was sceptical.
"Forty-three is the accession number of the object," this time Willow spoke up, obviously not wanting to be outdone at her own game. "Whenever a museum acquires an object it is tagged with an accession number. It didn't take long before the British Museum outgrew a simple numbering system and the curators had to add codes...additional letters to label objects, to make them easier to classify. The fact that this object has just a simple number points to the fact that it was probably acquired when the museum was newly formed. The number should also lead us to an entry in a catalogue...and hopefully, it will tell us more."
Immediately following her conclusion, Willow's studious expression faded to be replaced by a mask of concern and she let out a brisk expulsion of breath, a sound of fear. She pressed the tiny plaque into Faith's hand as though it no longer mattered.
"I left Tara in my office...you'll have to excuse me," Willow continued backing up for a few more steps before she turned and began to run out of the hall.
"Rosenberg..." Lara growled, obviously wanting to find the answers as quickly as possible.
"I will start researching at once," Willow called over her shoulder, her concern for Tara obviously outweighing her fear of Lara's wrath. "I need to see if she's okay..." the rest of her sentence was unintelligible as she sprinted out of the African Hall and out of sight.
Faith watched Willow leave before crossing to one of the stone benches placed about the exhibition for visitors to rest. She sank onto it with a grateful sigh as though it were the softest bed. Her eyes were closed before her head touched its surface.
"Does no one else see the urgency in this situation?" Lara lifted her hands in exasperation at the sight of her lover already half asleep in front of her.
Faith mumbled something unintelligible just as Alex made his way back into the Hall. He picked his way through the debris to stand in front of her. He was unfortunate to possess the only pair of willing ears in the room as Lara launched into a tirade about the likelihood of the villains returning, especially when it was obvious they had gauged the nature and capability of their opposition.
Alex listened patiently until she had finished almost five minutes later and replied calmly, "Well now ma'am, if they come back I expect we will deal with them in exactly the same manner...is there anything else I can help with?
Lara was momentarily mortified to realise she was being humoured by none other than Alex Harris, humoured as though she were in her twilight years and surrounded by dozens of cats instead of being the Director of the most powerful museum in the world. She pursed her lips into a thin, shrewd line and then smiled as though she was indeed that crazy woman surrounded by cats.
"Yes, Harris, be a darling little boy and fetch some brooms..." Lara paused; she re-surveyed the disaster in the Hall. Bullet holes from the wild shooting of the night guards pockmarked the walls and cabinetry. Splintered wood and shattered glass littered the floor. The Maasai diorama in the centre of the hall looked more like a pile of rubbish than a scene representing an authentic African scrubland. She turned back to Alex who was standing with an earnest expression on his face, "On second thought, some shovels and wheelbarrows would be more suitable..."
"You're intending that we clean this mess up? We have janitors!" Faith snapped, Lara's announcement having been more than enough to give her a burst of energy.
Lara turned to regard her lover with a slightly disappointed expression, "You helped create it."
Faith spluttered, "There were bloody thieves stealing from the bloody British Museum...what was I supposed to do? Let them break in here and steal whatever the hell they desired?"
Lara crossed the short distance that separated them and cupped Faith's cheek with a gentle hand, running her thumb over a reddening graze that marred the skin of her cheek.
"Oh my darling," her voice was now a mere whisper. She leant down to press her lips to Faith's head, drawing in a deep breath as though confirming she was still sitting in front of her. "Please promise me that next time mystical thugs break into the museum you'll think twice before leaping headfirst into combat...perhaps hide yourself in a closet, somewhere safe?"
Faith rose from her seat and eased her arms about Lara's slender waist, drawing her near as she realised that her lover's sharp tone had originated from her fear...fear for the life of the one she loved. It was a fear that Faith could recognise all too easily, the very same one she felt as she had tried to stop Lara from journeying to Covasna with them all those months ago.
With the un-grazed side of her face, Faith nuzzled Lara's cheek affectionately, "You know full well I can't promise such a thing...the only promise I can make is that I will use everything within my power to keep you...and myself, as safe as possible."
"And if that involves running away on occasion?" Lara suggested, her lips curling into a relieved smile as Faith nibbled at her neck.
"Not a chance in hell," Faith replied gruffly.
Lara drew back, her smile gone and held Faith at arm's length, "Even for me?"
"Especially for you," was Faith's adamant reply. "I would rather die facing my opponent, than be struck in the back running from them."
"You are both exceptionally brave...and foolish," Lara sighed, knowing that this was one argument she was not about to win.
Faith smirked moments before she reclaimed her hold on her lover, pressing their bodies together firmly. Apparently both women had forgotten the young man standing behind them. As they held each other, he leaned casually against a pillar and allowed a satisfied smirk to creep across his face. Alex's private viewing was cut all too short for his liking as a low growl from Lara's throat snapped him out of his wicked thoughts.
"Harris," Lara's voice was low and menacing, the kind of tone one used just moments before erupting into a violent rage. "Are you quite content?"
"Content? Well ma'am I certainly am, I don't mind standing here waiting on the two of you..." Another growl issued from Lara's throat and Alex's eyes suddenly bulged as he realised the error of his ways. "Shovels! Shovels and wheelbarrows! I'll see to that right away!"
Both women listened to the rather rapid sound of Alex Harris's boots on the marble floor as he left them alone. It was another several minutes before they finally disengaged their embrace. Faith deposited a quick but loving kiss on Lara's lips before turning to carry out her wishes and begin the arduous process of cleaning the hall.
Lara watched her work for a moment before turning her back on her with the pretence of removing a loose shard of glass from a case beside her. In actual fact, she did not want Faith to see the hot tears burning her eyes...and especially not the thick, wet tracks they made as they slipped down her cheeks. It was both her gift and her curse to love Faith with every fibre of her being. While being in love was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her, it had also turned her into a teary-eyed, pathetic fool...and that did not impress her one little bit.
"I say!" Faith's call interrupted her. "It's all very well to talk about cleaning up...did you intend to watch while I did all the work?"
Lara kept her back to Faith for a few moments longer as she dashed the tears from her cheeks and wiped her nose. When she turned around Faith was struggling to lift a fallen clay urn that was nearly as tall as she. The tears momentarily forgotten, Lara crossed the floor to help her lover.
"As immensely enjoyable as that would be..." Lara managed a smile as she moved to help, "I would hate for you to strain something."
Faith paused before she resumed lifting, she studied Lara's face, "Your eyes are red..."
"Dust," Lara replied quickly. "It's terribly dusty in here...now hurry up and lift. I've got far better things to do tonight."
As soon as Willow left the Hall, the only two thoughts on her mind were Tara and Tara's safety. While it was highly unlikely that the intruders had ventured out of the Hall given their intent to steal the mysterious object, she could not erase her fears that somehow they had reached her basement office. They were fears that gripped her moment from the moment she left the Hall to the moment she reached the door to her office.
She dashed the door open as quickly as possible but was driven back by a violent eruption that originated from beneath her desk. It was instantly followed by something slamming into the wood of the doorframe by her head.
Willow stumbled backwards until her back hit the wall on the other side of the hallway. She slumped in shock and sat there for a few moments before realising what had happened. Kneeling beneath her desk with an equally shocked expression on her face was Tara, a smoking pistol clutched in her shaking hands.
With an alarming clarity, Willow remembered her very own words, "If anything comes through that door...just point and shoot!"
"I wouldn't normally say this..." Willow began as she used the door frame to pull herself to her feet, "but thank god you are a bloody awful shot."
She glanced at the splintered wood just a foot to the left of where her head had been. It had indeed been an awful shot...and if Willow had not been so relieved to still be in possession of her head, she might have given a thought to teaching Tara how to shoot straight. As it happened, she still had her head and Tara was still clutching the pistol as though the slightest movement would set it off again. Slowly but deliberately, Willow moved towards the terrified girl and gently prised her fingers from their white-knuckled grip around the weapon.
"Oh god, Willow..." Tara finally let out the breath that she had been holding. "I'm terribly sorry...the door opened so quickly and I thought..."
"It's alright," Willow managed a small smile, "You did exactly what I told you to do."
With a slightly trembling hand, Willow set the pistol down atop her desk and helped Tara out from beneath it. Both women stood and immediately embraced, each separately sharing a brief moment of silent thanks for the safety of the other.
It was as she rested her head against Tara's shoulder that Willow was reminded just how utterly spent she was. If the shadow warriors returned, she doubted her ability to lift a sword let alone swing it in combat. She gently disengaged herself from the warmth of Tara's arms and tried to keep the exhaustion from showing on her face. Her job was dangerous, that was something she had long ago accepted...but she did not see how a sane person would allow one such as Tara to be exposed to such danger and violence. If it had been a foe bursting through that door, the blonde would not have stood a chance, even with the pistol in her hand.
Tara was oblivious to the thoughts running through Willow's mind, rather she was simply relieved to find her in one piece. It was then that she glanced down to see Willow was wearing just her pants and a thin woollen undershirt, "Will, where are your clothes?"
It was not long before she noticed the splatters of blood across the garment and her eyes went wide.
"None of it is mine," Willow tried to reassure her before she could open her mouth to protest.
"People were hurt?" Tara asked quietly, concern clearly registering in her voice.
Willow nodded sadly, "One of the museum's guards was killed."
"How terrible," Tara whispered, "...earlier Mr Harris said there were men in the museum...what happened?"
Not only was Willow too exhausted to explain fully, she also didn't want to divulge everything that had happened simply because the figures they had faced were so foreign...and either they themselves or their creator clearly possessed a dangerous magic that she had never before seen. She was worried almost to the point of being scared, and that wasn't something she was about to expose Tara to.
Willow simply nodded, "Thieves, that was all...although even simple thieves can be extremely dangerous...we managed to fight them off."
Tara nodded as though she understood. A part of her however was suspicious. From the manner in which Alex Harris had earlier burst into Willow's office to announce the threat, she had thought them something far more fearsome than simple thieves. However, she didn't want to consider the thought that Willow was lying to her so she did not pry further. She reached up and brushed a few strands of red hair out of Willow's eyes.
"Will, I nearly blew your head off..." Tara found herself unable to let that terrible thought go.
"I wouldn't say nearly, you missed by a mile!" Willow was endeavouring to be flippant but it emerged a little flat, she was tired and she could no longer keep it from showing.
Now Tara could see the sag to Willow's shoulders, the weary circles beneath her eyes, "You need to go home...to rest."
While the thought of collapsing into her bed was a delicious one, Willow shook her head stubbornly, "I am needed here...the thieves were thwarted, but we simply must know what it was they were after in case they return. There is no time to waste."
"I thought you said they were simple thieves?" Tara frowned, she could no longer ignore her suspicions. "Wouldn't they have set out to seize anything of value?"
For a split second, Willow's expression was one of guilt...it disappeared all too quickly to be replaced by one of confidence and reassurance, "Yes, they were...but very determined thieves. We...must ensure our most valuable treasures are secure."
"Is there anything I can to do help?" Tara offered.
Willow shook her head quickly, "No...thank you but that is not necessary. I think you should go home, yes, that is a splendid idea. Gordon Square is safe...near as safe as the museum."
"Are you coming with me?" Tara tried not to let her disappointment show. She knew Willow was hiding something from her. While she had come to the clear realisation that Willow was trying to keep her safe from something unknown, she was still not impressed at the secretive manner in which she was doing it.
"I really must stay and you really must go home...stay right here...right here!" Willow pointed emphatically at the floor to back up her words. "I will fetch Harris and ask him to take you home."
With a last glance over her shoulder, Willow left Tara standing alone in the middle of her office. She made a mental note to beg Harris not to explain to Tara the true nature of their engagement in the African Hall. If anyone was going to expose her lie for what it was, she would do it herself.
Tara stood still until she could no longer hear Willow's footsteps down the hall. When they were gone, she crossed to the chair in the corner and sat heavily, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees and in turn her chin in her hands. Although she felt concern for Willow in the wake of her brief explanation of the conflict, she also felt an emptiness in the pit of her stomach. Willow's lie had been obvious, almost blatant and this saddened her. The closeness they had shared in Willow's office earlier that evening seemed nothing but a distant memory...perhaps she had imagined it altogether. She felt the gulf between them widen anew as she was reminded just how terribly different they were.
She felt as if there was no place for her in Willow's new life...and this terrified her far more than the thought of any so called thieves.