Chapter 19: The Real Mystery Begins

Willow brought her knees up, chin resting atop them as she crossed her ankles. She looked at the other girl expectantly, sitting awkwardly on one of the stools around the kitchen island.

"Wh…that's great, Wills!" Buffy was ecstatic. "Scored a date and everything! Thatta girl!" The Slayer was genuinely happy for her best friend. These past few weeks, there'd been a shortage of best friend time, and now here they were, talking about relationships and stuff. A whole step up from demon-y stuff.

Willow uncrossed her legs. "Thanks," she blushed. "I…I really like Tara, y'know?"

"Oh, I can tell," the Slayer teased, snatching a freshly toasted blueberry bagel off the couner. "What with all the longing glances, shy touches, and smoochies, right?"

Willow's eyes widened. "You know about the smoochies?"

Buffy nearly dropped her bagel. "There were actually smoochies?"

"Well, ah.."

Buffy squealed. "Oh my gosh! I'm like the worst best friend ever for just finding out!" The Slayer bounced on the balls of her feet, and for the now, shed the mantle of a killer. All teenaged girl, she bit her lower lip to contain the oncoming shriek.

Willow blushed in delight, both at recalling the memories and having someone to speak about it with. "We've kissed like, 9 times now!" She lowered her voice conspiringly, "and 4 of those times were with tongue!"

This resulted in another squeal from the Slayer, this time muffled by the bagel in her mouth. The squealing brought a rather irate Dawn into the kitchen. She scowled. "Buffy, didja eat the last blueberry bagel?"

The Slayer presented her sister with the two inch piece left. "There...is a remnant."

The preteen let out a disgruntled gurgle and proceeded to dig around in the fridge, greatly resembling her sister as she did so. "Oft!" She pulled her head out of the fridge, cold pizza between her teeth. "Gdiles saif 'at oo 'uys needta schee him."

Willow tilted her head, perplexed. Luckily, Buffy spoke fluent muffle-speak. "She says Giles needs to see us. What for?"

Dawn shrugged. Willow sighed, and straightened her legs. "Whatever it is, I hope it isn't too oogie."

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"I had to ask, didn't I?" Willow tried to keep her composure, even as the sound of Xander vomiting in the bushes hit her ears.

Despite looking slightly green at the gills, the blonde Slayer grinned at her friend. "You know better than to challenge whatever powers may be. 'I hope it isn't too oogie'? Really Wills? That's almost as bad as 'What could go wrong?'"

Giles sniffed, handkerchief pressed to his mouth and nose. "Yes, well, now that the two of you have filled your daily quota for witty banter, can we get on with it, girls?"

Willow looked around. "Shouldn't we wait for-"

CRASH! "Oh holy hell what is that smell? That is rank!"

"Nevermind."

Faith came stomping through the brush, and Buffy knew she was having fun because Faith could be panther silent when she wanted to be. Tara followed suit, careful to avoid tripping on anything. Art, as usual, romped after the two.

Willow smiled shyly. "Hi."

Blue eyes twinkled under dark blonde bangs. "Hey." She made to move towards the redhead, but stopped with a grimace. "Artie, go stand by Xander."

The protest was immediate "Wh-But I wanna see!" She craned her neck and going up on tip-toes to try and see over Tara and Faith's shoulders.

Tara was having none of it. A stern, "Art." And the girl turned around with a grumble, moving to stand by Xander. The girls turned attentions to the body.

Or what was left of it.

Centered in a large circle, the elements and the sweltering California heat had reduced what was once a human being to the mess that lay before their eyes. The long, brown hair and the remains of breasts were all that signified that this was once a young woman.

Distended by bacteria, the remains had burst, and quite recently if the stench was any indication. Tara felt the bile rise in her throat, but fought it down.

"The body appears to have been here for quite a bit," Giles noted.

"Oh, you think?" Xander asked sarcastically.
The older man ignored him, as he continued his observations. "It appears to be some sort of sacrificial ritual. Human sacrifice, obviously. Now," he gestured to Buffy and Faith, and then faltered a moment. "Tara, do you suppose Aardwulf would like a look?"

Multiple eyes widened at the name, and Faith tried not to snort. "No, Giles, I'd rather not have her see this," Tara said smoothly, circling the edge of the seal. Off to the side, Art grumbled in protest, having turned herself around and glaring at a nearby tree. In, what Buffy noted, was a perfect horse stance.

Giles looked pointedly at the younger Watcher, concern etching his features. Still, Aardwulf was not his Slayer, and how Tara trained her was her business. "Buffy, Faith, what do you notice about this?"

The blonde Slayer peered thoughtfully, and then sucked in air with a hiss. She regretted it almost immediately because of the sticky stench. She pointed to the cords tying the hands in place, almost gone unnoticed due to discoloration and having sunk into the flesh as they had. "Poor girl…not a willing participant."

Faith nodded. "I doubt anyone'd be," she pointed. "Check it out." She pointed to various points from where she stood. "They bled her out slow. Lookit where she's cut."

"Glad to see you paying attention in anatomy class," Willow said, trying to alleviate the mood. Tara smiled at her.

Score.

"Tara, Willow," the two witches turned to Giles. "I don't suppose you two could lend a hand, I need to see the circle."

Willow turned green again. "Ughhh…"

Tara laughed. "It's okay, it's just levitation."

"But! But I can barely float a pencil!"

Those beautiful blue eyes seemed to smile as Tara reached out her hand. "Trust me?"

'..with your heart? With your happiness?'

Willow's hand grasped her's. "I trust you."

'With everything…

The air swirled around them, leaves kicked up by the small burst of power, and the others stepped back. Willow felt their energy connect, and only the presence of the others and the dead body in front of them helped her fight down the wave of arousal that hit her.

The combination of primal earth-magic and Tara-ness seemed to produce those results often. Oh, she hoped her palms weren't getting sweaty!

Still, their time in the park had given Willow a crash course insight in Tara-magic and how she went about it, and with their combined power the body lifted easily.

"Very good, girls," Giles ho-hummed, already sketching out the circle on an Espresso Pump napkin. "Hold it for a bit more, will you?" Willow tilted her head and grinned at Tara, proud of their accomplishment.

Sadly, anything that can go wrong, will.

Something yellow, white, and gray that may have been a breast slid off the rest of the remains, and hit the ground with a sickening SPLAT!

Artie's head whipped around at the sound. "Cool!"

Tara, ever the sheltering mother hen, immediately scolded her. "Aardwulf Frost, cover your eyes now!"

This momentary lapse in concentration caused the floating body to waver, completely under Willow's control. It swung towards the other teens milling around near the circle. Buffy and Faith recoiled, but Xander let out a muffled shriek. The chain of chaos continued, and in her surprise, Willow let the body drop.

And in an illustration of finality, corpse juice splattered on the leg of Giles' pants.

Somewhere, a crow cawed, as if laughing at them.

"At…at least you got your doodle?" Tara said helpfully.

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Artie sat in class, nibbling on her pencil erasure. After the eventful morning they had, Tara had marched her and Faith home, telling them that 'Everyone needs a shower. Now!' Nevermind that Art herself hadn't even been within touching range of the body, mere proximity had put her in Tara's Never Be Clean Again category.

The result was wet hair, and Dawn badgering her for what had happened, and why was she late to school.

The light flickered on and off, and their teacher stepped out, no doubt to ask about it. Honestly, it had been going on for weeks.

"So, are you gonna tell me or what?" Dawn asked, the moment Ms. Poppendorfer left the room.

She ignored the younger Summers. "You ever notice Ms. Poppendorfer looks a lot like Faith?"

Dawn shoved her. "C'mon! You can tell me!"

"Tell you what?" The two girls looked up to see Janice peering at them curiously. Artie sneered.

"You wouldn't understand."

Janice wasn't dissuaded. "Does it have to do with scary stuff?" She looked at Dawn. "The scary stuff your sister deals with?"

Art's mouth opened and closed, flabbergasted. She turned to glare at Dawn, who shrugged sheepishly. "Oops?"

"Are you guys talking about the scary stuff again?" It was Ravi, a lanky boy in their class. 'Again?' the Slayer mouthed at Dawn. "Hey, Barry! They're talking about scary stuff!" A redhead boy rushed over eagerly, and Artie was very close to screaming, 'What the hell, Dawn?' but their teacher came back.

Ms. Poppendorfer continued class, despite the sporadic flickering of lights, and when the bell rung for a quick break, the five kids stayed grouped together. In that short time, Artie learned that Janice and Dawn were 'frenemies', Ravi had a crush on Dawn, and that Barry's older brother had been the wayward victim of a possession that the Scoobies helped stop a month before.

"These guys aren't all that bad," she muttered to Dawn.

Dawn pursed her lips like Buffy. "I wouldn't say no to you doing backflips and showing up Miss Wannabe Cheerleader there, though."

Artie's chuckle stopped almost as soon as it started. Was that-? No. Nu-uh. It was…it was probably ripping metal.

Yeah.

Her Slayer hearing absolutely did not just pick up the sound of muffled shrieks, right below them.

But, if it had…

"What is up with these lights?" Janice whined.

Well, wouldn't that just show Tara, wouldn't it?

"Spooky things," she answered, rakish grin clashing with her girlish features. "Wanna solve a mystery?"