Return to The Artifact Chapter Ten

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.
Special Note: I had this chapter finished and ready to go, when suddenly I realised that I had to make some minor corrections to it. In the end those minor corrections turned into four and half pages (Yikes) and I wanted to send a special thanks to TKOLove for putting up with my last minute crazy ideas and betaing this over night.

They slept soundly all night.

In the morning the redhead was the first to wake up. She felt a warm body tightly wrapped around her own, and it brought a smile to her face even before she opened her eyes.

Willow was lying on her side, hugging Tara close to her heart. The blonde's face was buried in the redhead's neck, their breasts were pressing against each other, and their feet were entwined. The redhead had her arms around the blonde's neck and Tara was embracing Willow's waist.

Willow was feeling rested and refreshed like she'd never felt before meeting Tara. She'd never been a morning person; in the past whenever she had to get up early she'd been cranky and upset for the rest of the day. But she now realized that she wouldn't mind waking every day at dawn if it meant being greeted by the sight and the feel of Tara cradled in her arms.

Her happy smile suddenly turned into a frown as a sad thought entered her mind.

Oh boy... How am I going to be able to sleep after we get out of here and go our separated ways? Now that I know how good it feels to fall asleep in her arms, how will I manage to rest in my cold bed all by myself? I'm a mortal who dared to dream about a Goddess. I was allowed into the heaven of her arms, and now I'll be punished for letting myself believe and fall in love. And my penalty will be to forever dream of what I can never again have... to be haunted by glimpses of silky blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes.

Willow pulled Tara to her heart desperately and buried her head in silky blonde tresses. She inhaled deeply, trying to take in all that was Tara. The blonde smelled like a warm spring breeze.

Good grief! What am I doing? Harassing the poor girl in her sleep? What on Earth is wrong with me? Next thing I know I'll be stalking her just in the hope that the wind brings her scent to me, Willow chastised herself.

In the meantime, the sudden movement had awoken Tara. But she wasn't complaining; the first things she felt were two strong arms hugging her close to a warm body. She felt that this was right...this was her place to be. Next to Willow she felt whole and complete.

If this is what I can expect to feel every time I wake up, then I think in the future I'll make a point of waking up several times... maybe in the middle of the night. Tara smiled without making the slightest movement, not even bothering to open her eyes.

But then, just as Willow had, Tara felt a sense of dread when she thought about this being just temporary and how she'd soon have to go back to her lonely life.

I don't think I'll ever be able to sleep soundly again without feeling your warm body next to mine, Willow. But I'll have to be strong and let you go. Your safety and happiness mean more to me than my own, anyway.

Tara opened her eyes and pulled her head up from its resting place. What greeted her was a sight that never failed to take her breath away. Her eyes met Willow's amazing emerald orbs, and her breath caught in her throat as she gazed into them.

Her lips started to tingle, urging her to lean closer and claim Willow's mouth in a scorching kiss... a kiss that would convey all the passion and love burning bright and strong inside the blonde. The desire she'd pushed down over and over again was now demanding to be giving free reign.

The blonde felt overwhelmed by blazing need. She wanted to devour the redhead whole, to savor her to the last bite, to drink her to the last drop.

Her brain was trying hard to control her body. It was a tough battle, but in the end - as always before - her conscience emerged victorious over her desires and the blonde looked away.

It's getting harder and harder to resist her pull. One more second and I'd have kissed her. And it wasn't going to be a kiss that could have been dismissed as friendly... it was going to be a desperate... hungry... thirsty... kiss. One more second and I would have driven away the person that means more to me than anyone else in the world. Oh Goddess, how am I going to manage to keep my hands and my tongue to myself until this ends?

As Tara looked away, Willow was left gazing into blonde hair, and her lips were left burning and wanting. She ran her tongue over the aching flesh of her own lips, in an attempt to soothe the overwhelming need to feel Tara's lips pressed against hers.

For a second I thought she was going to kiss me, but of course not... I was just seeing what I wanted to see... or maybe I saw my eyes reflected in those clear blue mirrors. Good thing she looked away, because I'm sure I wouldn't have. And well, I'm also sure that if we'd kept our eyes locked on each other, I wouldn't have been able to resist the allure of those full... luscious... lips. And it wasn't going to be a soft caress, either. The way heat is coursing through my body, I was going to ravage her mouth with my lips and tongue... and that would be bad, because... Hello!... Tara doesn't want me that way! Oh Goddess, how am I going to keep myself sane until we get out of here?

They both looked at the river absently, lost in their thoughts for a little while, trying to calm down their heated desires. It was Willow who broke the silence.


"Yeah?" Tara said, turning her head to look at the redhead.

Willow was struck speechless for a second, as she was once again staring deep into sapphire.

Oh God. She's gorgeous. I could swear she gets more beautiful by the second. Or then again, maybe the repeated increases of temperature caused by intense arousal fried my brain, and I just keep forgetting how stunning she really is. Talking about temperature rising... here we go again. Yeah, I think my brain's fried! What am I doing still gazing at her eyes? Oh... god... she has the most amazing blue eyes. There's no ocean, no sky, no gem this blue. Good grief! Focus, Woman!

Willow shook her head and tried to focus on speaking. When she spoke, her voice was somewhat high-pitched, but otherwise normal.

"Last night we didn't talk about what happened to you during your search. And we also didn't discuss what we found or well... didn't find." There was a small pause before the redhead continued in a small voice.

"How did you get hurt?"

Willow wouldn't meet Tara's eyes, afraid of once again floating adrift in a haze of love and lust. She didn't know how many of those fogs she could navigate before letting herself be lost and giving into her desires. With her head down, she didn't notice

Tara's slight flinch at being posed the question.

The blonde knew this was coming, and she was both surprised and thankful that Willow hadn't asked her earlier about what happened. Although she'd gone through lots of life or death situations before, this one had been the most desperate. She wasn't happy about having to remember exactly how close she'd been to not making it, but she knew she couldn't hide anything from Willow.

So Tara braced herself and told the redhead what happened.

She recounted the trance episode lightheartedly. She didn't want to tell the redhead just how lost she'd truly been and that only through a vision of Willow had she regained her focus. She managed to make that incident sound unimportant and harmless.

She was planning to censor the rest of her mask-hunting experiences in much the same way, but when she got to the part about crashing through the hole, her voice suddenly cracked. Her memory was instantly saturated with images from the moments when she was sure she was about to die.

"Suddenly I fel-felt myself fal-fall... falling." Tara cursed her stutter.

That was smooth. So how exactly am I going to convince her that it wasn't a big deal if I start stuttering like an idiot?

The blonde had stopped talking for a moment - trying to focus on making her voice hold - when she felt two strong but tender arms enveloping her and pulling her tightly towards a slender and warm body.

Willow hadn't been able to stop herself from hugging the blonde close to her heart. She'd been listening carefully, and Tara's description of the 'hypnotic incident' had chilled her to the bone. Still, she'd managed to keep herself calm, noting that Tara hadn't been seriously hurt during her time spent wandering around rather carelessly in the woods.

But now... this was a whole different story. Willow could tell, by the nervous stutter and the way the blonde's body went stiff, that whatever happened during and after the fall had injured and frightened Tara badly. And the redhead couldn't just sit idly by while the woman who held her heart was hurting so deeply... just inches away.

Tara was completely caught by surprise by the redhead's sudden movement, but she quickly recovered from the shock. She pressed back against Willow and rested her head contently just above the redhead's heart.

It warmed her soul to once again be lying in the redhead's arms.

The blonde resumed her tale, this time without a hint of stutter. She felt as if nothing negative could touch her as long as the redhead was holding her.

She told Willow all about how she managed to hang on to a small rock. How she had to let go of that stone and drop to the next one and so on, just to get to the bottom of the hole. Then she explained about the jump she had to make over the deadly spikes, and that she'd maneuvered to reach the security of the small cavern just as her arms were about to give out. She then told of finding the rabbit mask and the small tunnel to the surface, ending with the recollection of her difficult ascension to the top.

Willow hugged Tara close as the blonde finished her narrative. Knowing she'd been so close to losing her one true love sent shivers through her spine.

Breathe, Willow. She's fine... she's safe here with you. Just remember to keep breathing.

For a long moment they remained still, basking in their proximity and in the heat they could feel radiating from each other. Drawing strength from one another.

Tara cracked the silence this time.

"So... what about you, Willow? How was your mask-hunting?"

The redhead responded without letting the blonde go.

I never want to let go! I don't care if I die from lack of water or food. I'm not letting go! Oh Yeah, Rosenberg. That's such a good plan. Willow sighed before answering Tara.

"Well, it was uneventful, really. I just had a little rendezvous with a psycho-yellowish-red-streaked flower that wanted to eat me. It was truly nothing," the redhead said nonchalantly. She figured Tara had enough of her own troubles and didn't need to worry about the redhead's as well.

But when she saw Tara's head shoot up from its resting place and a pair of horrified blue eyes began searching frantically along Willow's face and body, looking for wounds or marks of some kind, she knew she'd used the wrong tactics to prevent the blonde from worrying. She started to backpedal... fast.

"Did I say 'eat me'? Well, I'm not really sure about that. I mean, it was only trying to lure me near it... maybe it was nothing... just... you know... your average friendly-type of little flower... they... uh... can't stand people being away from their sides. Spoiled brats... that's what they are!"

A tiny part of Willow's brain knew she wasn't making any sense at all, but the majority of it didn't care. All she wanted was to wipe the worried look from her angel's eyes. She was rewarded when she saw Tara first light up with a smile and then start to giggle softly.

Oh God, I love this woman, the blonde thought, as she turned to lean back into Willow's embrace.

"So besides meeting this 'friendly flower' of yours, what else happened to you?"

"Umm... let me see. I found the fish mask at the bottom of the river... and then I searched the woods for the remainder of the time. I also found the location of another mask, but the whole setting seemed kind of tricky so I wanted to go back there with you before trying to retrieve it. And that was it. After that I came running to the door to meet you."

The redhead blushed when the implication of what she'd just said reached her brain.

Why did I tell her that I came back running? Eager much? Oh man... now she's going to think I'm a dork.

Tara missed the redhead's flustered state; she was still looking down the river with her head buried in the crook of Willow's shoulder.

"So, we now have three masks and know the location of a fourth one. That means we're one mask short and we've searched the whole area," the blonde said seriously. Willow thought for a minute before speaking.

"Well, I think we should try to get the fourth mask and then we could worry about the location of the other one. Don't worry, I'm sure that we'll work something out 'cause... hey... we're the best in the world," the redhead said cheerfully.

She, too, was worried about how they would find the last mask, but they were together, and she had faith in them as a team.

Tara smiled as she listened to Willow.

As long as I'm with you, I could go search for an ice cube in Hell. Not only that... I'm certain that together we'd find it. You make me believe, Willow.

"I think you're right. Well, we should probably eat something and then go search for that other mask you mentioned," Tara said.

"I suppose that by 'something' you mean those stupid protein balls. Oh man, I miss eating toast or pancakes... and drinking real milk... Mmmm. Not that powdered junk... yuck. You know, I brought some of that stuff with me once, and let me just tell you... well, it's not a nice story..."

One thing the redhead said caught Tara's attention, and she blurted out what she'd been thinking before she could help herself - cutting the redhead off mid-babble.

"Pancakes are my specialty. When we get out of here I'd love for you to come to my house for breakfast sometime."

Oh God, Oh God! I just invited Willow for breakfast! What was I thinking? Asking somebody over for breakfast is not normal... Lunch, dinner, that's ok, but breakfast? What will she think? She'll be freaked and I'll never... Tara's thoughts were interrupted by Willow's enthusiastic answer.

"Pancakes? Count me in. I so love pancakes."

Maybe I could sleep over at your house. We could ravage each other all night long... until we can't move. I'm sure the 'morning-after' pancakes would be the best-tasting ones I've ever had. Oh, get a grip. The girl's offering you pancakes for breakfast, not an X-rated after-dinner dessert.

Tara's smile could outshine the sun.

<9>Yay! She said yes to having breakfast with me. Now I wonder what she'd say about a romantic dinner by candlelight, a slow dance, and a hot, wet, sweaty meeting with me on the couch afterwards... mmmh. There I go again. There's just no stopping me, is there? Let's face it, that'll never happen, so why am I teasing myself endlessly with these thoughts?

"Ok, so it's settled." Tara's throat had ached to let the words 'It's a date' go through, but as always, she'd managed to control herself at the last second.

"It is," the redhead said with a smile. She had also felt the words 'It's a date' tease her lips, but just as with Tara, the fear of rejection had retained the words within.

"So, now that my mouth is watering because of those pancakes we were talking about, I think it's time for us to eat our lovely protein balls. Heck... I'm sure that today it'll be even less satisfying than usual, " Willow added in a voice displaying faux annoyance, before pouting.

The blonde just smiled. Her fellow raider looked almost too cute for words while pouting.

"You go ahead and start to eat. I'm going to wash my hair and I'll be back in a couple of minutes, ok?"

Willow only nodded. She turned her back to the river and started to eat her proteins as calmly as possible. She had to take her mind off Tara and focus on the task that lay ahead.

Just as the blonde had promised, she was back in a couple of minutes. Her usually light blonde hair was now darkened by the water and made her sparkling sapphire eyes stand out even more. As Willow looked at her the redhead had to swallow hard.

She is so beautiful. Willow turned her eyes away from the blonde because she was sure she had love and adoration pouring from them. So she just kept eating her proteins, silently looking at the ground.

Tara ate her own protein ball quietly, and only when she was finished did she speak.

"Ok, I think it's time we go."

The redhead nodded and got up as well. "I left a spool of cotton thread on the middle of a path near the river. If we follow the thread, we should go straight to the place where I saw the other mask."

"Lead the way." Tara bowed jokingly.

They both slid their game faces into place and tensed their muscles. They were ready for action. It didn't take them long to get to the place where Willow had left the reel. The redhead picked up the thread carefully and followed it with Tara right behind her. After a little while they reached the open space in the middle of the trees that Willow immediately recognized.

"This is it," the redhead said unnecessarily. It was meant more to break the silence than to be a useful piece of information. Tara simply nodded her head, signaling that she'd heard the redhead. She'd already spotted the mask on the middle of the platform and caught sight of the large rift around it that protected the golden object.

Just as Willow had done the first time she'd arrived at this place, the blonde walked carefully all around the huge and apparently bottomless hole. She stopped for a couple of seconds near the small pillar and stared at the inscriptions before resuming her journey around the rift. When she was satisfied with her search, she returned to the redhead's side.

"It's impossible to make the jump from here to the platform, so I guess the answer lies in that small pillar with all the inscriptions," the blonde said quietly.

"Yeah, I thought so, too. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come back here with you instead of trying to get the mask myself. It's obvious the reason why there's a depression in the form of a hand on top of the pillar is for one of us to put her hand in it. But I had no idea what it would do...the pillar has hieroglyphs inscribed all over it and it probably explains what we have to do... but as I've said before, I can't read hieroglyphs so I could have gotten stuck, or killed... or... oh I know! Maybe I'd have accidentally started the temple's self-destruction sequence! Ok, maybe that's a little far-fetched and too science-fictiony, but... well... what I mean is that something bad could have happened to me... and then I'd have never made it back to you."

The redhead blushed when she heard herself confess that her main concern - and the only thing that had prevented her from trying to put her hand in the pillar - was the fear of missing their reunion.

Oh Gosh... Could I be more of an idiot? Why do I babble on and on? And even worse... why do I, in the middle of that babble fest, always end up blurting out exactly what I should keep buried deep inside? Willow sighed.

Tara fought the grin she felt forming on her lips as she heard the redhead babble.

Oh my God. She is just so cute... and... and she was afraid that she would miss our rendezvous.

Tara felt her heart begin to hammer in her chest and she chastised herself heavily. It was becoming more and more frequent for her to lose herself in Willow-filled daydreams. Soon she wouldn't be able to control herself and would make a move on the redhead... and that was something she couldn't afford to do.

Don't read too much into this. She was just being rational. We have to stick together to beat this thing and get out of here alive. That's the only reason she was so concerned about missing our meeting. It's not like she loves me or anything like that... as if that were even possible! Get real, Tara! Stop fantasizing about a happy ending that's never going to happen... And stop looking and sounding like the love-struck fool you are! You have no right to burden her with your unrequited love.

Tara sighed heavily. She'd made a decision; from now on she would be nothing but professional with the redhead.

Then she took a moment to steel herself before speaking in a serious and professional voice.

"Well, I think it's best for me to get to work and start translating, so we can move on."

Willow noticed the metallic tone of the blonde's voice... and it chilled her.

Nice. Way to go, Rosenberg! See where putting your foot in your mouth'll lead you? Now she thinks I'm a lunatic and she's shutting me out! Oh Goddess... please let me hear her sweet, melodic voice at least one more time. Oh get a grip on yourself! What is happening to me? I am a cold, tough and respected tomb raider. My name is whispered reverently and respectfully by anyone who's ever met me, and adventurers tremble with the idea of facing me. I've lived on my own forever, and now I'm acting like a puppy that was left outside in the rain, just because Tara's warm voice no longer surrounds me! I have to put on my game face now, I have to focus... even if my heart is bleeding and my body is torn with yearning for her. She made it clear with her tone of voice that she wants this to be strictly business.

When the redhead spoke, her voice was cold and her eyes sharp as razorblades. She could feel her body and heart melting at the mere sight of the blonde and it made her sick to her stomach to maintain her harsh fašade. But she did it, because she thought it was what the blonde wanted. And she would always respect Tara's wishes, even when it broke her heart and tore apart her body and soul.

"Ok then. I'll watch your back."

The blonde had already turned her back on the redhead and started walking towards the pillar when she heard Willow's small statement. She shivered when she heard the uncharacteristic, right-to-the-point kind of sentence and the hard tone of voice that the redhead used. She felt herself growing cold all of the sudden, but she pushed the pain she was feeling to the back of her mind and tried to focus on the task at hand.

She heard my professional-like voice and slid her own armor in place. Now I'll never hear Willow's sweet voice again... Oh god... calm down... this was for the best. This will protect her. I just wish it wouldn't hurt so much.

She quickly reached the column and sat next to it, rapidly immersing herself in translating the markings in front of her.

Willow simply stood in place, silently. First she tried to completely empty her brain of all thoughts, but it was too noisy up there for her to be able to shut everything out. So she decided to focus on anything other than the amazing, kind, and gorgeous blonde that was sitting just a few steps away from her.

She'd been staring blankly at the mask on the platform and wondering how it was that all those trees could survive inside a room in an underground temple for what seemed like forever...when she heard Tara calling her.



"I've finished the translation. You were right; it's a set of instructions for reaching the mask."

"So, how do we do it?" Willow said calmly.

I miss Willow's enthusiasm. And yes... I miss her babble.

"Well, one of us has to put her hand on top of the column. When she does so, a path to reach the mask will appear. The thing is, she has to keep her hand in place all the time, otherwise the path disappears from sight."

"So, the one of us who goes to the other side will be on her own," Willow stated.

The blonde only nodded.

"I'll do it," the redhead said flatly.

Tara opened her mouth to protest, but Willow cut her off before a single sound could leave her lips.

"You were injured yesterday and you're still hurt. You might not be physically fit to stand up to this. I'm our best chance," the redhead declared, detachment pouring out of her voice.

Tara felt her heart breaking into a thousand pieces.

So this is the Willow that everyone talks about. The Willow I'd never seen... the one with an iron grip on her emotions and a clear and cold mind when it comes to overcoming any challenge. But I know that the real Willow is the other one. The one I have seen... the one I've held close to my heart... the warm, sweet, compassionate woman with kind, sparkling, emerald eyes. But that one is not mine to keep.

Her soul was rebelling against the distance that was suddenly between them. It felt wrong to hear the sharp sound of Willow's voice when she knew that the redhead could be as soft as a breeze and as tender as the morning sun. But Tara answered her in the same business-like tone the redhead had used.

"I think you're right." The blonde managed to make her voice hold even as she could feel her insides cringing with the idea of seeing Willow risk her life. The redhead was indeed their best chance, so there was nothing that Tara could do to stop her.

I wonder if Willow felt anything like this when I had to climb those columns with the chainsaws working under me...

"So let's do it."

Neither of them spoke another word as Tara went to the column and placed her hand on top of it. Just as the blonde's hand connected with the pillar, suspended columns started to appear. The new pillars made a path that stretched from where both women were standing to the mask. There were open spaces between the columns but Willow would have no problem jumping across them.

The redhead carefully placed her feet on the first column, ready to jump back at the first sign of danger. When she let her full weight be supported by the pillar, she tensed waiting for some kind of trap, but nothing happened. So Willow stood on the first pillar without having any kind of trouble.

Tara, seeing that Willow was all right, released a breath she didn't even know she was holding.

Maybe there are no traps linked to this mask. Maybe the only conditions that exist here are the necessity to read the hieroglyphs and keeping my hand here.

In the meantime, the redhead had proceeded to the next column, and when nothing happened again her confidence grew, and she started to move faster. She quickly reached the platform and the mask. Willow saw that the mask lay in the middle of overgrown grass. It was the snake mask. The redhead looked all around her for a moment trying to determine if there would be any danger in picking up the mask. When she saw none, she decided to go for it.

"I'm going to pick up the mask," she shouted to the blonde.

"Be careful," Tara whispered softly.

As the redhead lifted the mask from its resting place, she felt a sharp stinging sensation in her hand. She nearly dropped the mask back to the grass, but instead, brought her hand up to see what had happened and found a thorn buried deep inside her skin. She tore the small spike from her flesh and stared silently at it for a few seconds, before dropping it as her vision became blurry and the room began to spin and twist.

"Tara!" she shouted urgently.

The blonde saw that something happened but she didn't fully understand what.

"Willow! What happened?" the blonde shouted back. Fear and concern echoed in her voice, and her earlier resolve to be impassable was completely forgotten in the face of Willow's pain.

"I think I'm kinda poisoned. I lifted the mask and felt this awful stinging in my hand, and... and then there was a stupid thorn in my palm. Oh man... I'm having trouble seeing straight and I'm sort of losing my balance... Oh yeah, I'm giving high marks to the 'me being poisoned' theory."

In her urge to go to the redhead, Tara lifted her hand and the path to the platform instantaneously disappeared.

Oh c'mon, Tara. This isn't the time to panic. Keep your hand on the goddamn column. The blonde's body was burning. Her love was in danger and there wasn't a thing she could do to help, other than talk to her.

She looks like she's in shock. I have to guide her... I have to be her strength... Oh goddess... think, Tara, think!

The blonde's face lit up suddenly, and her soft voice, full of confidence, broke the silence. The redhead - who'd been staring blankly at her hand - looked up.

"Willow! I don't think it's a deadly poison. You had no way to avoid it, so this must be just another part of the challenge. The platform you're standing on isn't large enough to hold you if you faint. So you need to come back here, Willow. Just come back to me and everything will be all right."

The redhead's brain was becoming fuzzier by the second, but the blonde's voice broke through the haze of winding forms, colors and sounds. She didn't even care if she was about to fall down that hole, but she would do anything to please Tara. The blonde wanted Willow to go to her, so that was what the redhead would do.

"Ok, I'm going." The redhead made a move to the first column. When Willow almost missed it Tara screamed in horror. "NO!"

When Willow heard the blonde's scream, she lifted her head and sent a reassuring smile in Tara's general direction before shouting, "I'm ok! It's all fine. Finey McFine... that's me!"

She looked down again and tried to focus on the winding pillars.

As Willow resumed her journey back to safety, Tara couldn't breathe and her heart nearly stopped beating. She concentrated on sending all of her strength to a certain slender redhead... who at that moment was tumbling and tripping as if horribly drunk.

Every time Willow moved she made a leap of faith, since what lined her vision had become more and more difficult to read.

"Man... stupid winding columns... stop moving! Next time I think I'll go flying... I'll go with that floating penguin... and then I don't have to worry about pillars dancing. There's no music anyway! What are you stupid floating things dancing for? Can't you have your party some other time? Hey... maybe you could invite those gigantic rolling stones... Oooh! Then you'll have music... 'cause... you know... Rolling Stones... but I don't know if columns and spheres go together... anyway, stop moving! I'm trying to walk here. Jeez."

The redhead never stopped mumbling all through her journey. Tara would have smiled - it was comforting to hear Willow babble again - but the incoherency of the redhead's speech showed her just how deeply Willow was intoxicated.

Willow almost lost her balance two times, and again Tara could feel her heart nearly stop when she thought her love was going to fall. She could feel it resume its beating motions when the redhead managed to hold herself. Now she was only a column away from safety, but Tara knew that Willow could faint at any second; all the blood had drained from her face and her green eyes were glazing over.

She had to do something, so she tried to talk to the redhead.

"Willow! C'mon, you can do it. Take that step to the last column and then I can go and get you. But you'll have to take that last step on your own."

"Don't wanna! I don't see any column." The redhead's voice was almost childlike. Tara felt like her world was about to shatter.

So that's why she stopped there!? She can't see the pillar... Oh goddess... What can I do?! What can I do?! Help me!

"Willow, the pillar is one big step toward two o'clock. Trust me." She saw the redhead's forehead frown but then Willow made up her mind and took that last step. She reached the last column, but then lost her balance and started to fall.

Tara moved at the speed of light and she caught the redhead just in time. They both fell backwards to safety; Tara landed on her back with the redhead on top of her. She didn't even feel the pain from the fall... the only thought on her mind was that Willow made it back to her.

For a moment neither of them moved. The blonde hugged the redhead fiercely, while tears ran down her face.

I almost lost her! She's safe now... she's safe!

"You're safe now. You can let go and sleep now, Willow. I've got you and I'm not going to let you go. I'm sure that when you wake up you'll be as good as new," the blonde said tenderly, while she moved her hand to lightly caress the redhead's hair.

The way the poison worked so fast, it'll probably leave your system soon. At least I hope so. You have to be all right when you wake up, Willow. I won't survive seeing you die in my arms.

"I love your voice. It's so smooth and warm. I don't like it when you hide your voice behind that other harsh, cold voice. I like this one much better," the redhead said, in a sleepy and satisfied manner.

And then Willow moved, and as if to give emphasis to what she'd just said, she buried her head between Tara's breasts. She settled in that spot, sighed contentedly, and was fast asleep within seconds.

Tara looked down to the sleeping woman and she felt her heart swell with love.

I love you so much, Willow. I could never refuse you anything. I was just reminded about how thin this line is that we walk between life and death. One step in the wrong direction and it's over. If friendship is all I can have with you, and if these are the only moments we'll have together, then I'd better make damned sure that I fully enjoy it all.

"I won't hide from you again. So you sleep tight, my angel, and I'll be here when you wake up. I'll always be here."

Tara leaned her head down and pressed her lips reverently and softly against red hair.

It was a promise.

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Twelve

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