Return to The Artifact Chapter Five

The Artifact

Author: sabina
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and its characters are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. The Tomb Raider videogame is the property of Eidos Interactive and Core Design. This fic is not meant to infringe any copyrights.

"I'm sorry." Willow's head hang low, her hair hiding her eyes.

For a second Tara was confused. I already told her she doesn't need to be sorry, so why is she apologizing again? And why doesn't she meet my eyes? She looks ashamed.

Willow's demeanor puzzled the blonde... but then suddenly it hit her.

Of course! We were talking about why I don't like guns, and Willow travels with an arsenal, so now she's feeling bad about it. Willow, I could never be afraid of you!

"Willow look at me!" The redhead complied, expecting to see disgust in the blonde's eyes.

She's already been hurt so bad, and here I am armed to my teeth. I bet she hates me.

But she only saw warmth and understanding reflected deep in those beautiful blue orbs.

"I don't use guns. That doesn't mean I think that you using them is wrong. You're not a violent person Willow. You're tender and sweet. And for the record, I have no problem with defending myself against undead mummies, maniacal statues, and things like that."

It was as if she read my mind and wanted to put my worries to rest. Man, everybody says I'm as hard to read as a rock, but she can see through me like I'm a squishy jellyfish. How does she do that? Willow smiled.

Tara decided to try to lighten the mood. The atmosphere was charged with emotions and unspoken words. The intensity of the moment she and the redhead had shared was starting to affect her, and she knew she couldn't look much longer into Willow's eyes without closing the distance between them and claiming the woman's captivating mouth in one deep kiss. Tara had already spent far too much time stealing glances at those extraordinary lips, and she needed desperately to keep the conversation moving.

"Guns just aren't my thing, but I do love the adventure of being a tomb raider. So to achieve my goals, I use diversionary tactics. Mostly that involves grabbing the artifacts I need and then running like hell." The blonde was laughing as she said the last part.

Seeing Tara laugh lifted Willow's heart, and she began to chuckle, too. The sound of their giggles chased away the last echoes of tears.

"Well then, I think we should start moving," the blonde said.

"Oh, but first... breakfast."

There was a slight pause before the redhead continued; she altered her tone so as to impersonate a none-too-thrilled waitress. "The breakfast menu today has three dreadful meals for your dining displeasure. You may choose between our Most Hated protein balls, our Tasteless protein balls or our specialty, Ash-Flavored protein balls. I know the decision is a tough one, but what will it be, Miss?"

"Hmmm... let me see. I plan to have Ash-Flavored for lunch, and it would be simply gauche to have that twice in one day... so I believe I'll take the Tasteless protein ball please," Tara said seriously. Only the playful look in her eyes betrayed her amusement.

"Ok, here you are, Miss." Willow picked two globes from her backpack, handed one to Tara, and started to open her own.

They ate in silence, then prepared themselves to continue their quest. They folded the sleeping bags expertly, replaced them in the backpacks, and strapped the bundles securely to their backs. In a flash they were ready to go.

"So Tara, I think it would probably be best if I carry you. You hurt your back yesterday, and it's better not to put any extra weight on it.

Tara opened her mouth to protest, to say that she was heavier than Willow - that the rational choice would be for her to carry the redhead - but Willow cut her off before she could get the words out.

"I'm stronger than I look," Willow interjected. "Don't worry, if any panel for some reason falls, I'll be able to jump and run just fine. Trust me," she said with a smile, before kneeling down so Tara could climb easily onto her back.

Tara melted. Willow, I don't know how this is possible... but I do trust you with all my heart.

"I do, you know."

The redhead's heart was pounding in her ears. Had she heard correctly? "What?"

"Trust you," Tara said in a whisper, as she wrapped herself around the redhead's back. Her arms draped around the redhead's neck, her torso pressed tightly against Willow's back. Willow held Tara's legs at the height of her waist, with her hands resting on the blonde's thighs.

Willow swallowed hard as she stood up again. She could feel every part of Tara's body pressed closely against hers... and it was making her hot as hell.

I seriously doubt that this was one of my best ideas. Just feeling her this close is making me go weak at the knees, which is very bad considering the circumstances. Center yourself, Willow. Think unsexy things. Uhm... FROGS! Yeah, green, hopping, freakish little amphibians. Frogs, frogs, frogs. Yuck. Alrighty, I'm feeling a lot cooler now.

Tara was thanking the gods that she and her companion had agreed to have Willow carry her and not the other way around, since the blonde was rather distracted. She could feel Willow's hair on her face - the silky, blazing-red locks brushing softly against her cheeks. And Tara was acutely aware that the redhead's hands were on her thighs. She couldn't help but notice again what perfect hands Willow had; slender but strong with long, sensuous fingers.

She suddenly had a vision of those hands caressing, kneading, and stroking her. She had to bite her bottom lip to hold back a whimper, and that lead her back to reality. Oh yeah. Such a good thing Willow's the one doing the carrying, because I'm fairly sure I couldn't stand on my own let alone walk with Willow draped across my back.

The redhead stopped just in front of the first panel. "Ready?" she asked the blonde.

"As ready as I'll ever be".

Willow stepped onto the first panel, prepared to jump back if she saw any sign that it wouldn't hold. But as she put their combined weight on the panel, nothing happened.

"Yay. Tara, I think your theory was right. We're going to be able to get out of here," the redhead said happily.

The blonde smiled widely. Willow's enthusiasm was contagious.

They quickly covered the distance between one platform and the other. When Tara was about to get down to the floor, Willow stopped her by holding firmly.

"Going so soon?" she said playfully. Am I flirting with her? Oh god, I really don't want to let her down so soon. She feels so good hugging me. I need to find a reason to make her stay this way for at least a little longer.

Tara's breath caught in her throat as she heard Willow. Is she flirting with me?

She then heard Willow continue, and she let that breath out... in the form of a sad sigh.

"I think it's better if we keep the whole 'two bodies as one' thing all the way until we're back to the other platform. We probably need to be together to light the liquid in the bowl anyway."

I knew she wasn't flirting with me. She was just joking. And it makes sense that we have to be together until that door's finally opened. She's being rational and focused, and I'm all over the place! I have to regain my concentration. I'm not only putting my life at risk, but Willow's too... and that simply can't be.

They approached the bowl.

"So now Tara, it's up to you to light the bowl. My hands are kind of full."

Tara smiled and took a matchbox out of her pack. She struck a single match, held it up, and paused.

"Here goes nothing." At that moment they both realized that if this didn't work, they were fresh out of options and ideas. They held their collective breath as Tara dropped the match.

When the liquid came into contact with the flame, it ignited immediately. Simultaneously they heard a scratching noise, and Willow turned them around just in time to see the door at the other end of the room open.

They flashed smiles at one another... smiles that could outshine the sun. Relief washed away nervousness and worry.

"It's open. Excellent!" Willow exclaimed happily.

"Yeah, it is." Tara answered in the same tone of voice.

"Well, I guess we should get going, then. Tara, as soon as I set foot on safe ground I'm going to put you down. We don't know what's in that other room and we need to be prepared. So be ready to be dropped."

"Ok then." Tara was already dreading the break in their connection.

They made it to the other side without any unpleasant incidents, and just as Willow had warned, she dropped Tara and drew her guns the second they reached the platform. They waited for a moment, and when nothing happened they decided to make their way into the next room.

It was a big space with only two columns in the center... two very impressive columns. Each was about fifteen meters high and had chainsaws jutting out from different heights and angles along its length. They were strategically placed; an open space on one column would be directly across from a chainsaw blade that stuck out of the other. Tara noted that the little holes in these open spaces could be used as a type of foothold. Spanning from the top of one pillar to the other was a big stone with a hole in the middle.

They searched the whole room for some way to open the door, but found nothing. After thoroughly examining the room, they met near the columns, and both women looked up at the large hole in the stone at the same time.

"Why is it always so difficult to open these passages?" Willow grumbled.

"Hmm, well if it was easy, these artifacts would've been found a long time ago and you and I would be out of business," Tara said mockingly.

"I guess you're right. Still, if it's going to be a challenge, at least it could involve water. That's my element! Swimming or diving... it's a piece of cake. But this climbing stuff? It's a whole different story. I can climb, but it just isn't my thing."

"Well, actually, it is my thing." Tara smiled as Willow's eyes widened.

"Really? So do you think you can go up there and come back down without getting cut or falling down? Because I really don't want you to hurt yourself, and your back must still be sore from yesterday. You know, you probably shouldn't do this. No, you really can't do this." The redhead was becoming more agitated as she spoke, and Tara decided to cut her off.

"Willow, breathe! Don't worry; my back isn't that bad and I'm fairly sure I can make it. In fact, I bet my life on it," the blonde said, trying to make Willow smile.

"Tara, that's not funny. You could get killed. At least let me try to damage the chainsaws with my shotgun before you go." Tara nodded.

Willow drew her shotgun from her back and took careful aim before making a perfect shot. The pellets hit the metal and glanced off, traveling to the wall behind them.

The redhead was sure it had been a good shot, but she decided to try again. Another shot, another ricochet.

Willow sighed before saying out loud the words both of them had already understood.

"It's protected by some mystical force. I can't damage it like this. The challenge involves those stupid, sharp things, so that's part of what we have to overcome. We can't cheat."

"Then I think it's time for me to start climbing," the blonde said lightly.

Willow knew there wasn't another choice, so she didn't try to stop the blonde. Instead, she tried her hand at lightening the mood. She was aware that Tara would need complete concentration to pull this off, and the only thing Willow knew she could do to help was try to relax Tara... to try to help her focus more easily.

"Be careful. I kind of need you to finish this, and then I need someone to fight with over the star," the redhead said cheerfully, before she lost herself in her thoughts.

Oh, and I also need you to hold me tight while I go to sleep every night, to wipe my tears when I cry, to laugh with me when I'm happy, and to keep my heart safe and warm. But this probably isn't the best time to say all that. You have to concentrate, and I guess me opening my heart to you would qualify as rather distracting.

Tara was already near the column trying to figure out how to tackle this newest challenge, when the sound of the redhead's voice brought a sad smile to her face.

She likes me, she cares about me, and she needs me to finish this. That's all there is to it. I might die while trying to climb this thing, so if she felt something more she would have said it by now. Tara felt the tears gathering in their eyes. I have to be strong. I truly don't care about what happens to me but I know that if I fail, Willow will never get out of here either... so failure is not an option. The blonde took a deep, calming breath and pushed her pain to the back of her mind.

Willow thought it was strange that Tara hadn't looked back when she spoke, but she quickly dismissed the thought. She was probably just trying to concentrate. Hello... deadly chainsaws all over the place! So now that I don't have to try to cheer her up, I can go back to being nervous as hell.

Tara had already decided how to overcome the saws. She'd climb until the saw was just above her, then jump, turn around in mid-air, and grip the supporting holes on the other column, without falling to the chainsaw below her.

I'm only going to have to do that jump three times before reaching the top. And every time I jump, the worst that can happen is for me to fall down and get sliced and diced by one or two chainsaws, depending on how high I am at the time. Oh yeah, piece of cake.

Willow was getting more anxious by the second. She was just about to cry out to Tara that there had to be another way, when the blonde began climbing.

There was no way she was going to talk now and risk making the blonde lose her concentration, so Willow closed her mouth firmly and sat on the floor.

I think... no, I know... I can't stand up while I watch her endanger her life to get us out of here. My knees are shaking, and I really don't want her to worry about me if she happens to look my way. I have to show that I trust her, and that's a hard message to convey while I'm quivering like Jell-O and looking like I'm about to pass out.

Tara reached the level where she'd have to jump to the other column. She stopped for a moment to gather her concentration.

Willow stopped breathing all together, waiting for the blonde to jump. Her heart, mind, and body too focused on the ascending woman to care about petty things like the importance of oxygen to her own survival.

After a minute Tara made her move. For Willow, everything seemed to be in slow motion after that. She saw Tara's body tense and release with one powerful push. Then gracefully, in a movement that would make a cat jealous, she turned in mid-air and reached the other pillar, grabbing the holes in it and supporting herself safely. She then climbed to the next jumping point.

Willow saw Tara do that same jump-and-turn two more times. It was only when the blonde finally made it safely to the hole in the stone above the pillars that the redhead took in a full breath again. The sudden intake of air was almost painful and left her panting and feeling lightheaded.

She made it. Tara made it. I can breathe again. I feel like it's taken hours for her to reach that hole. Uhhg... now that I think about it, that's probably one of the effects of the lack of oxygen to my brain. Was I thinking that my passing out was going to help? What a dork. But hey, Tara's alive and well, and that's all that matters.

In the meantime, Tara was lying down next to the lever in the stone that she'd just reached. Her heart was racing and her breathing labored.

I will never again complain about climbing without a rope. And the next time someone talks about what a thrill it is, I'll ask them if they've ever jumped between pillars lined with chainsaws awaiting to cut them into tiny bits. Because if they haven't, they don't know jack about adrenaline rushes, Tara mused.

On the floor of the crypt, Willow managed to put a few full breaths of air together, and now that she was once again thinking straight, she was becoming increasingly worried about Tara. Actually, it would be exaggerating to say that Willow was thinking straight, since her concern for Tara didn't exactly allow the redhead the luxury of rational thought.

Why hasn't she said anything since she reached the top stone? What if she cut herself while climbing? I didn't see it, but my vision was kind of blurry anyway. She probably did. That's why she hasn't said a thing. And now she probably is bleeding to death alone! Too weak to even call my name!

Willow entered total panic mode and decided she was going up to Tara, chainsaws be damned.

I can lose an arm or a leg. I don't care... I have two of each! I'm not going to get out of here anyway, and I'm not going to leave this blonde angel to die alone up there. And with that, she approached the first pillar.

Thankfully, that was the moment Tara chose to crawl to the edge of the stone and talk to Willow.

"Willow, I'm going to push the lever now, ok?"

"Tara?!" the redhead shouted. "Tara, you're ok! You're alive and well! I mean, uhm, I assume you're well because you're talking to me now. You are well, right? So why didn't you say that?" Willow continued without pausing for Tara's response. "Jeeze, Tara, I was thinking you were hurt and bleeding and maybe dying... you scared me to death... don't ever do that again! I was just about to start climbing this freakin' thing," Willow declared, pacing around like a mad woman.

The blonde could see that Willow was distressed, and although seeing the redhead's concern warmed her heart and made her hope rise again, she knew she needed to calm Willow down.

"Uhm... Willow?" When the younger woman looked up Tara continued. "I'm really touched that you were going to face the chainsaws from Hell in order to come find me, but... well... uhm... why didn't you just call out to me?" The blonde smiled while delivering that last sentence, and a note of amusement resonated from her throat.

So maybe before I calm her down I can make her squirm just a little. She looks so sweet when she's flustered and embarrassed. I'm so bad.

"Uhm... I... uh..." Willow blushed profusely.

And here I was, thinking the oxygen had successfully reached my brain. Apparently not! If she didn't before, she must think I'm a complete moron now... and an hysterical one to boot.

The redhead sighed and answered truthfully, "It... uh... sort of didn't occur to me to do that."

I was down here drowning in images of you hurt, bleeding, and whispering my name. I couldn't thread two rational thoughts together.

Tara let Willow off the hook and stopped her teasing. For the moment, the smiling blonde wanted time to process Willow's words. She was willing to risk herself with those chainsaws to come see if I was ok. Wow. Maybe - just maybe - I have a small chance with her. Tara's smile turned into a frown. Or then again, maybe not. Our fates are tied together. If I was dying as she thought I was, she'd be doomed anyway, so coming up here wouldn't really be a big deal.

Tara sighed sadly. Every time she thought she could see something more than friendship and compassion in Willow's actions, up would pop another explanation for those actions that was merely rational and professional. And according to my experience, the truth always lies in that second explanation. Face it Tara, you're never going to have the right to call her yours. Never 'My Willow'...

The other woman's voice, now calm, shook her from her reverie. "Hey Tara, are you ok?"

"Yeah," the blonde managed to choke out. She took a minute to compose herself before she spoke again.

"I'm going to push the lever now, ok?"

"I'm ready." Willow tensed and put herself in a defensive position while facing the door.

Tara moved next to the lever, pushed it as far as it would go, then traversed to the edge of the stone. She saw the door opening slowly. The smile that graced her lips never had the chance to travel to her eyes, as she observed a massive wolf running through the door, heading straight toward Willow.

The redhead also saw the wolf immediately. She saw its eyes - crimson with mad rage - focused directly on her.

She drew her guns. In a fraction of a second she processed several thoughts at once.

I don't know why, but I have to guess he's not coming my way in hopes that we'll play "fetch" and get to be lifelong friends. Then again, I could always throw a stick and see if he runs after it with his tail wagging. Get real, Rosenberg. How about I throw the nice wolfie some bullets and hope he catches them with his heart?

She was about to start shooting when another thought crossed her mind.

Tara. Ok, so this isn't a mummy or statue... it's a living creature... but it's coming to get me. To shoot or not to shoot? Oh man! Well, while I decide what to do with wolfie there, I'd better run for my life.

With that, Willow started running around the pillars with the wolf closing in on her. Whenever it came too close, she did a back flip and ran in the other direction. She was effectively keeping it away from her but that was all; she wasn't getting any closer to getting rid of it.

Jeez. And people actually want to fall in love? Look where it's gotten me. Running in circles around a column with a wolf chasing me... one, I might add, that I could have killed in the blink of an eye. Wait... 'fall in love?'

She looked back at the wolf and saw its mouth open, saliva dripping to the floor, its eyes blood-red, its intention to kill her rather evident...and she sighed.

Oh yeah... it's gotta be love.

Standing atop the pillars and viewing the scene, Tara was shocked. Seeing the wolf moving toward Willow made fear grip the blonde's throat with an iron hand. Nothing more than whispers would come out of her mouth. When she first saw Willow draw her guns, Tara felt relieved, but then she was stunned to see the redhead drop her aim and start running instead of shooting and killing the beast.

What happened? Is she out of ammunition? No, that can't be right. She's only used the shotgun since we got here, so there's no way the pistols could be out of ammo. Then what? Oh no... please don't tell me she's doing this because of the talk we had this morning about guns and violence. I was only talking about violence without just cause. I don't think shooting a wolf that's trying to kill you fits in the 'violence-for-no-reason' category, especially when the wolf more than likely isn't even a real animal, just some kind of twisted creation of the crypt's keepers.

Tara cringed when she saw the wolf once again jump to attack Willow, but relaxed when the redhead avoided the attack easily.

I have to tell her to shoot it. New mission, Maclay... make your voice start to work again...

The blonde took a deep breath, tried to settle down, and yelled as loudly as she could. "Willow! Shoot the damned thing!!"

The fleeing girl heard her and did another back flip. This left her facing the back of the wolf instead of running with her back turned to it. She drew her guns quickly, and without losing even a second, she fired both weapons. All bullets were right on target.

In a moment the wolf's body was lying dead on the floor.

Willow dropped her guns in their holsters and then shouted playfully to the blonde.

"Now you tell me to shoot it?! Why did you have to wait until my tenth lap around the room to tell me that? Do ya think I need a little exercise... is that it?"

Even from fifteen meters below the redhead could see that Tara was grinning, and seconds later she heard the blonde start to giggle.

I love to make her laugh. It's a truly amazing sound, Willow thought.

Then she looked at the chainsaws and noticed for the first time that they'd stopped.

They probably stopped at the same time the door opened. I wonder if the reason I failed to notice that detail was because I was too busy running for my life. Hmm... yeah, that must have been it, the redhead mused.



"The chainsaws aren't running anymore. The lever must affect the door and the saws, so you can come down easily. You know... without the cat-like jumps."

And thank the gods for that. If I go without breathing for that long again in the next twenty-four hours, I'll end up killing whatever brain cells I have left. You can call me Willow 'Vegetable' Rosenberg, thank you very much.

Tara's head appeared through the hole in the large stone while she was looking down at the saws.

"That's true. They stopped. And I'm thinking I'll come down now, if you have no objections." Willow only made a "duh" face.

Tara's head disappeared but was quickly replaced by a pair of feet, followed by her whole body. The journey down was an uneventful one. The only critical stage was when the blonde reached the first chainsaw; they were both afraid that as Tara was passing by it, it might start working again.

But nothing happened with that saw or any of the others, and faster than you could say "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Tara was back on the floor, standing in front of Willow.

They looked intently into each other's eyes, each woman wanting to reach out and hold the other, both needing that connection in order to feel real, alive... whole. Each petrified of the other's reaction to actually making such a bold move. For the first time, they could read nothing from each other while gazing into pools of blue or green. Each woman was so afraid to give her feelings away that her eyes were completely emotionless. Years of practiced control won out, surfacing as a shield to keep at bay the fire and passion that threatened to burn out of control, a fire being stoked deep within their bodies and souls.

Why are her eyes so cold? Are my feelings too obvious... and this is her way of telling me she doesn't want me near her? Willow thought.

Willow, why won't you hold me? All I need is a little sign that you won't pull away... and I'll dive into your arms.

After a moment, Willow sighed and broke the silence. Her whole body was aching to be pressed to Tara's, but she wasn't about to take the plunge without the blonde making a move.

"I think we should be going."

"Yeah, I guess we should."

They both turned to face the now open door and walked to the other side. As they entered the new room, the door closed with a loud scrape and clunk.

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Seven

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