Return to The Artifact Chapter Six

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.

This new room wasn't like any of the others they'd been in. It was absolutely huge. A river flowed next to the right wall, and on the left there were various trees, bushes, and smaller plants. The entire ground was covered with vegetation. The only wall that could be seen was the one next to the river; all others were either too far to be seen, or hidden by trees and other flora.

The women were momentarily rendered speechless by the beauty of the scenery. Willow finally broke the silence, but did so with such a tender and gentle voice that Tara felt as if she'd been enveloped by warmth.

"Wow. This looks like something a nineteenth century painter would choose for background to paint his or her lover. I can almost see it. A blanket lying next to that oak tree, its red and black squares standing out against the green and blue surrounding it. And on top of that blanket, a sleeping woman. Looking like a forest sprite, mistress of the old trees and bushes; beautiful, innocent, and gracious in her unguarded sleep. There's a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, her soft blonde hair cascading down her shoulders and breasts. She's above all the petty contingencies of life. A being made of light and love."

Willow's mouth had suddenly gone dry. The vision in her head had shifted from a far away view to a close one, and now she could see that the woman sleeping was Tara and that Willow herself was painting the portrait.

She swallowed hard before resuming her description with an even gentler tone than before.

"Her blonde hair falls over her left cheek at a sudden breeze. The wind blowing so softly that its only purpose seems to be to caress the sleeping beauty. Her nose wrinkles a little before she lifts a hand to push back the hair that's tickling it. She sighs contentedly, and suddenly the sun gets brighter, its rays warmer, and all is right in the world because she smiled."

Tara hung on every word the redhead spoke, the soothing tone of Willow's voice inviting her into the very picture the redhead described. Only instead of a blonde resting on the blanket, Tara envisioned a gorgeous, lightly-freckled, red-headed woman.

I see you Willow. It will always be you. On the shore of a river, in the middle of the ocean, on top of a mountain, or simply stuck in traffic on the highway. You're the one... you're the only one I want to see.

The redhead stopped talking because she had serious doubts as to whether her voice was going to hold much longer. The scene in her head was so full of peace and love; she could feel her heart swelling just thinking about it.

Tara. She sighed deeply, and only then did she realize what she'd been saying.

Oh, I can't believe this! Here we are trapped, with no idea whatsoever how we're going to manage to get out of here alive, and I'm indulging the romantic side that I had no idea I even had. And now she probably thinks I'm a lunatic. Oh yeah, really smooth! A blonde woman lying on a blanket! Willow chastised herself. She was just going to apologize to Tara for wasting their time, but then caught sight of the dreamy look on the blonde's face.

Oh man... I wonder who the blonde is that she's imagining on the blanket. Lucky girl. Maybe I could dye my hair blonde. On second thought... yuck. Probably not a good look for me... what with this extra-flamey red and all. I really hate the blonde that's filling Tara's mind right now. Whoever she is, I hope I'm sending her enough bad vibes to at least give her a strong headache... or maybe two.

Willow's jealously was working at full speed.

Then Tara came back to Earth. She gazed over at Willow and saw a look on her face that she'd never seen before. She couldn't say what it was but she could see that the redhead was not pleased.

It was she who started the whole talk about pictures and fair maidens lying under trees. So, ok I probably spaced out a little there. I guess she's probably annoyed.

"I'm sorry I spaced. I think I let myself be fooled by the peaceful scenery, and I was sort of enjoying the view without thinking that we're still locked inside a temple full of traps," the blonde said.

"Don't be sorry. Heck I was the one who started the whole dreamland thing. All this talent for writing children's bedtime stories wasted on a tomb raider," she added, and laughed without conviction. She was still feeling like she'd been punched in her stomach, unable to shake the thought of Tara thinking about some other girl. It weighed heavily on Willow's heart.

"I think you described it beautifully," the blonde said with enthusiasm accompanying her low tone.

Oh geeze! That kind of came out with a little more passion than I'd intended it to.

The blonde's warm voice made Willow smile, and when she looked into two summer blue eyes she completely forgot what it was that had her so upset... and she smiled.

They both felt the temperature starting to rise and the familiar charge between them intensifying.

Tara was the first one to look away. It was becoming more and more difficult to fight the pull she felt towards the slender redhead. The love she felt in her heart grew with every passing minute.

She doesn't love me the same way I love her. I want her to be happy so I'm not going to push. I just have to look away now. I wait another few seconds and all the good intentions in the world couldn't stop me from kissing her.

"Willow, I was thinking. Maybe we could use this river to freshen up. Afterwards, we could indulge in those marvelous protein balls yet again, then start looking for a way out of here."

"Yeah, you're right. We should probably use the river one at a time. That way the other one could keep an eye on the one bathing and on the surroundings."

What? Am I crazy? Why do I say these things as they come to my head? Not a difficult concept; process the thoughts, then let them leave your mouth!! I don't know if can survive seeing Tara bathe! I've made it through run-ins with all kinds of monsters and traps, and now the sight of one naked blonde woman is going to kill me dead on the spot. My heart and body will both explode from longing! Oh God! Willow was finding it difficult to breathe.

The blonde's thoughts were filled with how unsettling she found the one-at-a-time, watching-the-bather idea. Me watching Willow bathe? I can't do that. It's warm blood that runs through my veins, not ice water.

"Uhm... Willow, I think it's better if we have some privacy. We can both take care of ourselves and it'll be less embarrassing this way."

It's not like I wouldn't love to see you naked, because I would. It's just that my body catches fire every time I'm near you - even when you're fully dressed... and I'm afraid I won't be able to hold back... and I'll ravage you if I see you naked, the blonde continued in her head.

"Ok then." The redhead was feeling somehow disappointed.

So, five minutes ago I was chastising myself for the situation I was getting myself in to, and now that Tara resolved it I'm feeling sad? What's my problem? Oh yeah I know...T ara isn't attracted to me, that's what! Maybe she's not even gay and I've read everything wrong.

Willow's day had just gotten a lot darker.

She didn't want Tara to notice her distress, so she answered in her most neutral voice.

"OK, you're probably right. You go first. I'll just go sit over there by that tree with my back turned to you. That way you'll have privacy and I'm close enough to help you if something weird happens."

Her voice had none of its usual warmth, but at least it held. Tara noticed the little difference but she didn't look in the redhead's direction as she answered, for fear of giving away her own true feelings.

"Ok, that's fine. I'll call you when I'm done."

Is she upset because I don't want her near while I wash myself? Was it unfriendly of me to ask her to give me privacy? She was only looking out for my safety, and I have to admit... my guard isn't exactly at its highest when I'm bathing. I probably came across rudely. I'm sorry, Willow, but this is for your own good. You don't want me, and I don't want to push... but I'm not made of stone.

Tara sighed heavily as she went to the river. When she reached the water's edge, she looked everywhere searching for possible threats. When she found none, she undressed quickly and started to bathe.

In the meantime, Willow had been feeling miserable, sitting with her back turned to the blonde. When she heard the sound of splash, she felt the sudden urge to just take a peek at the other woman.

No! Tara wants privacy. I'm not going to look at her while I'm hiding behind a tree like some psycho ogling schoolgirls. I'm strong. I can do it.

Willow crossed her arms forcefully as if she was trying to make a point to herself, but the sounds of a certain blonde's bathing kept coming her way, and she couldn't restrain herself any longer.

On the other hand, I should make sure that there isn't anything menacing approaching her. These crypts are tricky. I'm just going to take a peek to see if everything's ok. She sighed deeply. If I keep trying, maybe I can convince myself. Jeez. I'm a perv.

The redhead got up without making a sound, turned around, and slowly moved her head so that the tree was no longer obstructing her view.

What she saw took her breath away and made her knees feel like marshmallows in Jell-O. She thanked every deity she could remember for the tree that was supporting her. Without it she was sure she'd have collapsed on the floor and passed out. Tara was just coming out of the river when Willow looked. Water was running down her body, flowing from her hair, gathering for a second on her collar bone before cascading down the sides of her breasts, flowing quickly into the patch of blonde curls, and disappearing there for a moment, before falling to the floor in the form of tiny droplets.

Just as quickly as she had looked, Willow turned her head away and resumed her position with her back against the tree. Her breathing was labored and her heart hammered in her chest. It had only been a couple of seconds but it was enough to imprint the sight of Tara bathing deeply into Willow's mind. It was something that the redhead would not forget as long as she lived.

"Beautiful," was the only word that got past the redhead's lips. Her body was reacting heavily to Tara's image, aching to trail the path that the water was taking...with her fingers, her lips, and her tongue. She couldn't think straight, feeling herself getting wet in a way she'd never been before; she was soaking through her panties.

Thank God Tara decided to dismiss my idea of watching each other's back while we bathe. If I had to watch her run the soap all over her body I'd probably faint from lack of blood to my brain. That would probably be a little difficult to explain. Oh, and the river of wetness flowing from my shorts wouldn't make explaining any easier. Why didn't I keep my eyes to myself? I bet Tara would have resisted temptation. She's so strong. And why would someone as beautiful as Tara be interested in me? I'm just some lunatic staring at her from behind a tree while she bathes. She deserves so much better.

Willow sighed sadly. She was so engrossed in her thoughts for such a long while that she didn't hear Tara get dressed and approach her. When the blonde laid a hand on her shoulder to tell her she was done, Willow jumped back and hit her head hard against a low-lying branch... the impact making her fall to the ground.

"Willow!" Tara screamed the redhead's name before composing herself and realizing her companion had gotten back on her feet and wasn't seriously injured.

"Are you ok? I'm really sorry I startled you. I finished my bath, and I just wanted to let you know that you can go freshen up. I'm really sorry," Tara finished in a whisper, dropping her head.

Nice way to seduce a girl. Scare her to death and make her bang her head into a tree. At least this way she's sure to drop to the floor right at your feet. Why can't I do anything right where she's concerned? I could have called out to her, but no! I had to be greedy and jump at the opportunity to walk up and touch her.

Good grief, Rosenberg, don't take your frustrations out on the poor tree. Just because you can't control your mind doesn't mean you have to attack the foliage with your head. Jeez, I'm acting like an idiot! And now Tara's worried. I have to fix this...I certainly don't want her to feel bad when the reason why I was distracted in the first place was because I'd been spying on her. I have to get a grip. I can't afford to be this distracted. It can get both of us killed.

"I'm ok," Willow said, while rubbing the skin that hit the tree. "I'm a hard-headed girl," the redhead jokingly added. She could see that the blonde was feeling bad for startling her, and Willow never wanted Tara to be upset.

Tara lifted her head when she heard Willow's playful tone, and she smiled a bright smile.

Willow was still feeling a little embarrassed for having been caught daydreaming and banging her head on a tree like a half-wit, and also because her reverie had been full of images of Tara's naked body. So she decided to change the subject.

"Well, I think I'll go freshen up, then."

"Ok. I'll be here sitting by your favorite tree. If you need anything, just call out to me."

Does that include needing help washing myself? Hmm... I'm sure Tara would take good care of me. Those strong hands running the soap all over me, and her body pressed close to mine. What a feeling it would be, to abandon myself in her hands, in her arms... Stop it! Oh god, please let the water be freezing cold, please!

"Ok," Willow managed to utter, before she sprinted toward the river and made a perfect dive headfirst... and fully dressed.

Tara was already standing with her back turned, but she could hear the noises the redhead made as she dove.

She jumped to the water fully clothed? I wonder why.

When Willow came back to the surface she was feeling calmer. The low temperature served to cool down both her body and her mind. She let the feeling of water enveloping her relax all the muscles in her body, and she lingered in enjoyment as the soft caress of the river ran slowly all around her.

After a couple of minutes she decided it was best to actually start washing herself, so reluctantly she walked partially out of the river. Not wanting to leave her favorite element so soon, she kept herself in the stream from the knees down.

The redhead quickly divested herself of her clothes. She first applied the shampoo to her head, and she created lather between her palms before rubbing the soapy hands all over her body, all the while making various splashing and rasping noises. She loved the water and was enjoying herself lightheartedly; taking full advantage of the break they'd allowed themselves.

Tara, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly agitated. She could hear everything the redhead did and her overexcited brain provided all the images to go with the sounds. It was maddening.

Oh, I don't think I can stand this. But I can't move away from here, either. It would leave Willow virtually unprotected and she could be attacked. I won't fail her. Hmm, speaking of safety, maybe I could take a peek over there just to see if everything's all right. She suggested exactly that just before this whole bathing thing started, so it's not as if I'd be betraying her trust.

Tara stood carefully so that her movements made no sound, and for a few moments she simply stared at the tree that blocked her view.

I can say whatever I want, but the truth is that I just want to run my eyes over her naked body. To look at her in all her glory... as she will never be mine to look at. Even if I have to pay for my indiscretion when that image burns itself into my brain, forever haunts my nights, and chases my sleep away, I'm willing to pay that price. The blonde sighed heavily. I'm weak. Willow would never do this.

Tara gave in to her desires and leaned slightly to the left, just enough to be able to look at the redhead without anything blocking her view, but in a way that kept her mostly concealed by the tree. Suddenly her mouth went dry and she found the whole breathing activity too hard to master.

Willow was running her soapy hands all over her body, leaving a trail of foam behind them.

Oh My God... I want my hands to be the hands that wash her.

As she saw Willow run her hands over her small but flawlessly shaped breasts, Tara whimpered. She could feel the need to go to Willow, burning bright, strong, and deep within her. Her whole body sensed the pull toward the lithe redhead, seeking the completeness that only Willow could provide.

Oh my... I can't do this. This has disaster written all over it. I'm a couple seconds away from running to her and offering my heart, body, and soul, and begging her to let me make her mine. I'm already hers. God, I have to look away now, before my brain completely shuts down. Or, well, maybe I'll take just another peek.

She looked Willow over from head to toe, taking everything in. Her red hair still covered with foam, her perfect breasts Just the right size to fit in the palm of my hand., her flat and smooth belly. And then she stopped to stare at the wet and soapy copper curls at the apex of Willow's legs.

Oh lordie... ok, that question's answered; Willow Rosenberg is a natural redhead.

Tara looked once more at the smooth curls that were dripping wet and she felt her mouth watering... along with other parts of her body. She quickly turned away, hastily resuming her position with her back turned to the redhead.

That's enough... more than I ever thought I could take. So now back to trying to regain control of my body movements.

The blonde was shaking and feeling weak all over, her mind filled with visions of sudsy Willow. She shook her head and took long, deep breaths. She focused only on the feeling of the air filling her lungs, and imagined all her worries going away with the air that left her on each exhalation, clearing her mind and bringing her back to reality.

Breathe in, breathe out. It was a calming technique with which she was well acquainted. It had proven its value on many occasions, sometimes life or death situations. But now it was barely working.

Oh man. I can't believe this, I'm known for keeping my head cool under the worst of circumstances. I've survived more monster attacks and booby-traps than I can remember, all because I'm always focused. And now I'm so distracted I'm going to get myself killed because of one gorgeous, naked, soapy, luscious, mouth watering, sexy redhead. Oh, god. What was my point? Oh yeah... back to focusing. Breathe in, breathe out.

After a while, although she wasn't totally focused and sometimes images of Willow seeped into her mind, she was feeling calmer and ready to face the redhead without drooling all over her.

In the meantime, Willow had finished her bath, gotten dressed, and now was walking toward the tree where Tara was leaning. The blonde felt a warm presence even before she heard the redhead approaching.

"Willow," she whispered.

"Hey there. I'm done. I hope I didn't take too long," the redhead said while sitting herself down near Tara and plucking a protein ball from her bag.

"Now to my favorite part. Protein balls for lunch. Again!" Willow said sarcastically, punctuating her sentence with a pout.

Tara chuckled softly and thought for the thousandth time the woman was just too cute for words. She followed Willow's lead, picked a protein ball from her bag, started to chew on it.

"You know, Willow, I think the trick to surviving this diet of protein balls is to use our imagination. If we visualize eating something else and concentrate really hard on its flavor, maybe these things won't taste so bad."

The redhead furrowed her brow in mock seriousness.

"Well, I guess we can give it a try. So Tara, since this was your idea, you get to lead us on our voyage through the pleasures of taste."

The blonde smiled and complied with Willow's request. "Ok then. Sit yourself comfortably, relax, close your eyes, and just enjoy the ride."

She did just as she'd been told. When Tara saw Willow settle in against a tree and peacefully close her eyes, the blonde froze for a moment, amazed and touched by the display of faith the redhead had shown.

I don't know what I did to deserve the trust of this flame-haired angel, but I'll make sure she'll never regret it. I swear to you Willow, I'll always be here for you, no matter what.

Tara started speaking in a soft voice that soothed like a warm summer breeze.

"So, we're not eating synthetic proteins and vitamins. We're eating lasagna."

When she heard that first sentence the redhead opened her eyes, smiled, and inquired, "So you like Italian food?"

"Yes, I do. Now stop interrupting and close your eyes. How am I supposed to make you believe you're eating delicious lasagna if you aren't focused?" Tara gave a half-grin.

"Now, that's better," the blonde said when Willow closed her eyes again.

"So we're eating lasagna. I pick up a knife and fork and with one smooth motion, my knife dives into the cheese and cuts through pasta, meat and sauce. I pick it up with my fork and I blow softly on the food to cool it down a little before giving it to you. You can smell it; it's divine... you can feel your mouth watering just from the scent of it. I know you're hungry so I keep blowing on it just for a while longer than is really necessary, teasing you, taking you to the limits, wanting to make the moment you finally taste it that much better. And then suddenly you can't take it anymore. You don't care if you'll get burned, you open your mouth wide, and silently beg me to give you the pasta you're craving."

Oh god. Why does she have to describe it like that? She's being so damn sexy about it. I'm starting to get hot all over and my mouth is watering all right, but I'm pretty damned sure it's not for lasagna. Willow swallowed hard.

Jeez! What am I doing? It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be a joke to help us relax and to help me cool down... not work me up to the edge of my sanity! But all these images of me feeding Willow were running through my head and I couldn't help myself. And then the images started to shift to us feeding each other and now I feel like I'm going to explode. I need to get back to the food subject. She cleared her throat and resumed her narrative.

"You settle your lips around my fork and then I pull it slowly out leaving the lasagna inside your mouth. You start chewing on it unhurriedly, savoring it slowly. The taste of the tomato sauce rolled up with pasta, spices, and meat making you moan in approval. Can you feel it, Willow? The creamy sensation of the cheese and pasta?"

The blonde's voice had dropped and she was almost whispering. Willow decided she had to end this, and end it now. Not only was Tara turning her on yet again with the mental images, but also the blonde's little scenario was making Willow hungry as hell. The protein balls suddenly weren't enough to quench her hunger for real food and all its flavors and textures.

"Actually Tara, I can't really feel the lasagna. All I feel is this tasteless protein ball. I don't think this was one of your brightest ideas. You've succeeded in making me crave a giant portion of lasagna! Shame on you for tormenting me like this," Willow said mockingly waving her finger at Tara.

"Oh well. It was worth a shot. Although I have to agree with you, this made me hungrier than I was before. Maybe if I keep going we'll get so desperate that we'll start hallucinating and then we'll finally have our lasagna," the blonde teased.

"Oh no! Please no! If you keep going I think my mind will break down long before I can start hallucinating!" The redhead dramatically lifted her hands to her head and jokingly fainted before she broke down in a fit of giggles.

The blonde joined her, and for a while all that could be heard was the sound of laugher filling the chamber and cleansing the atmosphere. When they stopped they were feeling happy and ready to begin exploring.

"I think I'm done with lunch," the redhead announced as she put the rest of the protein ball in her bag.

"Yeah, me too. Willow how do you want to do this? Should we go explore this room together or should we split up to search faster and then meet later?" Tara asked, as she picked up her backpack and draped it safely around her shoulders.

"I'd prefer that we stick together. This room seems endless, with lots of hiding places. We have no idea what threats we're going to face. So, yeah, I think it's probably safer for us to be together."

To tell you the truth, I'm terrified to let you out of my sight in here. God knows what's hidden in the shadows and I've just found you. I couldn't bear to lose you, so please don't tell me you want to go off searching alone.

Tara was more than happy to know that the redhead didn't want to separate. She'd only suggested that they go searching alone because she was trying to get back into her usual rational and practical 'tomb raider mode.' And although it would be more dangerous to go searching alone, they'd take half the time to complete the task. But truth be told, she didn't want to be on her own any more than Willow did.

"Ok then. We go together." Tara was rewarded with a smile from the woman at her side.

They started walking in the opposite direction of the door from which they'd entered. The vegetation was thick and luxurious as they kept walking by the side of the river. They were trying to look everywhere at once to avoid any traps, and they'd walked about fifty yards when Tara caught a glimpse of gold in the middle of green.

"Willow, stop! I think I see something in the middle of those bushes."


"Look, right there! Something golden, do you see it?" Tara asked.

"Yeah. It could be important. I'll go fetch it. Watch my back, ok?"

The blonde nodded.

Willow quickly grabbed the item and came back. Nothing happened. Apparently there weren't any traps linked to the object. After a few seconds they both relaxed and took a proper look at the article Willow had retrieved. It was a golden mask of a lion.

"This looks like one of those masks that early actors used to identify their characters. And it's heavy," the redhead amended.

"Hmm... it might help us get out of here. Stick it in your backpack."

When the mask was safely tucked in Willow's backpack they continued their exploration. After another fifty yards, the river turned to the left, and soon after that, another door came into view. When they got closer, they could see that the river continued its flow through an opening at the bottom of the wall. Further inspection told them that they wouldn't be able to use the opening because a set of vertical bars spanned from the solid wall to the bottom of the river, effectively preventing solid forms from passing through.

There was nothing special about the door, but to its left there were five statues of animal heads coming out of the wall. The sculptures were obviously there for a purpose. They both approached to study the wall, and saw that from the left to the right the heads were: a monkey, a fish, a lion, a snake, and a rabbit.

"Willow, can you please check to see if the lion mask fits the sculpture of the lion's head?"

Willow had already been thinking the same thing, so without missing a beat, she nodded and took the lion's mask out of her bag. When she laid the mask over the stone, it fit perfectly.

"I think we've got our answer, Tara. We have to find the other masks and put them on their respective heads. A monkey, a fish, a snake and a rabbit."

"And, theoretically, when we put all the masks in the right places, the door should open. So now all we have to do is find four small masks that are lost somewhere in the middle of a forest. Piece of cake," Tara said smiling. As long as she was with Willow, everything was right in the world.

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Eight

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