The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXXIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Oz and Graham are off to see if Maggie has anything to do with Buffy and Spike’s sudden interference, Havi has left the Well to tell the others Buffy and Spike are OK, and Robin has arrived at the Well to retrieve the Slayer artifacts, only to encounter Willow…

*************

Chapter 56: Thy Scythe and Thee

The taser was Maggie’s idea. “Standard operating procedure,” she’d said. What he’d wanted to snap back wasn’t nearly as polite, so Robin had held his tongue, pretty sure that it was just a symptom of his growing tiredness. Now, though, encountering Willow when he hadn’t been expecting anyone, he was willing to concede that maybe it had been a good decision. He liked Willow, but how could he possibly explain his presence in such an unlikely environment? It was obvious they were looking for the artifacts as well, though why two of them had been unconscious upon his arrival, Robin had no idea.

He stared at Buffy and Spike for what felt like an eternity. She didn’t look hurt, and if he didn’t know better, he would’ve just assumed she was asleep. That was impossible, though. Even being a Slayer, there was no way she could’ve found a way into the cavern in her condition; at the very least, she would’ve required assistance.

His gaze settled on the vampire, his sneer coming of its own volition. Spike had probably been that aid. He probably had some ulterior motive to get the girls down here, couching it in faux concern. But as quickly as the accusation came, Robin dismissed it. He’d seen firsthand how upset Spike had been when Buffy was in the hospital; if nothing else, the vampire had genuine feelings for the girl and the child she carried. As vicious as he could be with the general populace, Spike would never let harm purposefully fall on Buffy or the baby.

There was something else at work here, something Robin didn’t understand. He began to regret tasering Willow so quickly. If he hadn’t jumped to the conclusion that she would interfere with his operation, he might have been able to get some answers out of her. Now he would have to find the answers for himself.

Perhaps there was some sort of protection set up with the artifacts that had been triggered by Buffy and Spike, he mused. Robin glanced around, and then frowned. The only problem with that theory was that the supposed artifacts were nowhere to be seen. Maggie’s assurance that he would find them in these caverns seemed increasingly erroneous, and he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Maggie wasn’t as informed about this as she could be. She hadn’t told him about the presence of others, and as far as he could tell, there was no place for the artifacts to be hidden. The walls were smooth, almost like glass. The only possibility was the well in the middle of the room.

Though he cast a cursory glance into the water, Robin’s attention quickly shifted back to Buffy. Her breathing was slow and even, a healthy flush in her cheeks, and when he went to check her pulse, it seemed just as normal. She had to be asleep.

“Buffy,” he said softly, shaking her gently. When she didn’t respond, he shook her a little more forcefully. “Buffy,” he said louder, but the only reaction he got was a faint echo of his voice bouncing off the cavern walls.

A quick scan of her body revealed a lack of obvious injury, as did a superficial exam of her scalp. No head wounds, no blood loss. Her condition made no sense.

The only thing he was sure of was that this couldn’t be good for the baby.

Straightening, he stepped briskly back to the cavern’s entrance, retracing his steps to the opening through which he’d come. The soldiers that had accompanied him waited on its other side, and he crouched down to bark out orders to them.

“Somebody widen this hole,” he said. “And then get Dr. Walsh on the phone. Tell her to have a medical crew ready for us.”

The baby-faced private frowned, looking Robin over. “Are you hurt?”

“It’s not me. There’s a pregnant woman in here, and she’s unconscious.”

“But what about---?”

“Just do it!”

He glared at the soldiers as they scrambled to do what he said, then dropped his backpack in order to hurry back to the cavern. Maggie would have to wait on her artifacts. The Slayer came first.

The Slayer always came first.

*************

They saw the black truck pull away from Lowell House as they were slipping around the building.

“Damn it,” Graham muttered. His drawn gaze followed the vehicle as it sped down the road, then disappeared around the corner.

“Something tells me they’re not on their way to a hoedown,” Oz said. He shifted the gym bag on his shoulder, falling into step again behind Graham as they resumed walking. “Which is a shame since I actually have a hoe in the back of the van.”

“They didn’t go through the tunnels. That means Walsh’s orders were urgent and topside.”

“You think it’s about Willow and Buffy?”

“Only one way to find out.”

Neither said another word until they reached the van, and it wasn’t until Oz was sliding behind the steering wheel before Graham addressed him again.

“Go to the public library.”

Though he pulled away in the necessary direction, Oz cast a frown at his partner. “Library’s closed this early.”

“It won’t be for us.”

The streets of Sunnydale were mostly deserted in the wee hours of the morning, and Oz made it to the other side of town in record time. When he attempted to pull up in front, however, Graham shook his head.

“Go to the service lot in the back,” he instructed. “Park as close to the building as you can get. It’ll be better if we’re not seen going in.”

He didn’t understand it but did as he was told. In the lot he’d never realized was there was a beat-up Festiva with blacked-out windows and a faded “Jesus rocks!” bumper sticker on its rear. He thought he heard Graham make a pleased noise in the back of his throat, but the soldier was out of the van too quickly for Oz to be sure.

Jogging to catch up, Oz saw him slip a passkey into one of the library’s back doors, holding it open just enough for both of them to slip in with minimal fuss. “You know,” he said, following Graham into the darkness, “if this is about the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit that I lost in the second grade, I was acquitted on all fees.”

“Not all the Initiative techs are enlisted,” Graham explained, ignoring Oz’s comment. The must of aged paper filled the corridor. Oz found it comforting. “If Walsh recognized someone who could be useful but knew they wouldn’t pass basic, she did a private recruit. This guy is one of them.”

“Like she did with Wood.”

“Exactly. Except for the fact Wood could’ve done basic with his eyes closed.” He stopped at a door that had a sliver of light visible at its bottom edge. “This guy’s one of Walsh’s info gurus, but as far as I know, she only uses him for emergencies. He should be safe.”

“If he’s so good, why doesn’t she use him more often?”

Graham paused. “Walsh likes stable. This guy’s…not.”

They stepped into a room lined with filing cabinets and stacks of boxes. Along a narrow table on the far wall sat a man with his hunched back to the door, his fingers flying over the laptop in front of him, an open book so old that it would’ve had Giles salivating at his side. He was so pale that Oz knew right away he was a vampire.

“You didn’t knock,” the vamp said, without looking back.

Graham folded his arms across his chest, hovering near the exit. “I know.”

Swiveling in his chair, the vampire turned to face them, his wiry black hair looking as if he’d been pulling at it from every direction. “That’s very rude, you know. I don’t go barging into Lowell House without being asked in, now do I? No. Because it’s rude. Learn some manners, Miller.”

“You’re an HST. You’re lucky I don’t stake you just for the principle of it.”

If it was possible, the vampire went even paler. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Information. On one of Walsh’s projects.”

Glints of gold flickered in the demon’s eyes, and a hungry smile began to curve his lips. “Is this about the Slayer artifacts?” he asked. “I saw from the monitors that Walsh sent in another team. Or is it something else?” He rubbed his hands together. Oz thought it almost looked gleeful. “God, I hope it’s something else. Give me something really good to sink my fangs into. I swear, this Hellmouth has more goodies lying around than a morgue after a massacre. I think I’ve even traced the Gem of Amara to be around here someplace---.”

“Wait.” Oz stepped forward. “Go back. What’s this about Slayer artifacts?”

*************

The eerie silence of the house was beginning to grow all too familiar to Giles, and he rubbed at his eyes while he waited for Wesley to pour out the fresh pot of tea. “At the very least,” he said, “we can stop worrying about Buffy and Willow for a few hours. I can’t say I’m pleased with these Guardians’ methods, but considering they’re still helping us, I suppose I can’t very well argue with them.”

“It gives us some time to come up with a few more incantation possibilities for Willow,” Wesley said. “I’ll wager we’ll finally have something that will wake Buffy and Spike by the time Havi is ready to leave again.”

Giles could only nod. Havi’s exhausted arrival had been a necessary reprieve. Xander had been quick to send her to bed, then he and Joyce had gone out for a donut run. Giles would’ve liked some sleep himself, but now was not the time for it. Perhaps once Havi left for the Well again, he thought. He could grab a few hours kip while they waited for word about the others.

The phone rang while the two Watchers were sipping their tea. “Hello?” Giles said, picking it up on the first ring. There would be no dillydallying with communications today. Too much was at stake and too many people were at danger.

“I think we’ve got a bigger problem than we thought,” Oz said without bothering with greetings.

“Then come back to the house so that we can discuss it,” Giles said. “Havi returned and reported that the Guardians are responsible for Buffy and Willow’s disappearance, so since they’re safe at the Well---.”

“Willow might be, but Buffy’s not. That’s part of our problem.”

The sureness of Oz’s tone made Giles stiffen, and he set down his teacup before he spilled any. “How do you know that? Havi said she left them safely there.”

“Graham’s contact turned out to be a vampire Walsh has been mining for information for the past few years. He’s got his fingers in all her pies, including being piped into their network. While we were there, there were reports coming in about a team being dispatched out of town to transport an unconscious pregnant female. As requested by Robin Wood.”

Giles listened in growing horror as Oz relayed how the vampire had helped Walsh locate three Slayer artifacts on the boundaries of Sunnydale. After the deaths of two soldiers attempting to retrieve them, she’d enlisted Wood’s aid, who’d found the unconscious woman just an hour earlier. A team had already taken the woman away.

“It’s got to be Buffy,” Oz finished. “I don’t know exactly where the Well is, but the area Wood was in was close to where we found Willow and Havi the other day.”

“Can you trust this information?” Giles asked. “Why would Dr. Walsh enlist the aid of a vampire?”

“Because he’s harmless. He has one of those behavioral chips Graham told us about. Walsh pays him in pig’s blood in exchange for helping her dig around for these artifacts. Apparently, he’s got quite the knack for it.”

“Well, can he tell us where Buffy is located?”

“No. Graham even beat the guy up to see if he was holding back, but no dice.”

“Get back to the house,” Giles instructed. “We’re going to have to formulate a new plan of attack.”

Wesley was staring at him, waiting to hear the details of the conversation. “That did not sound good,” he said after Giles had hung up the phone.

“It’s not.” He walked over to the sink and rinsed out his cup. There would be no more time for leisure now. “Our priorities just changed. Again.”

*************

He frowned when he saw his apartment building outside the car window. “What’re you doing?” Robin asked the young driver.

“My orders are to take you home, sir.”

“I don’t think so. Take me to where Buffy Summers is.”

“Sir, Dr. Walsh gave me explicit instructions---.”

He stopped speaking with a flinch when Robin growled and reached for his cell phone. It took only a few seconds for Robin to punch in the right number.

“I want to see Buffy,” he said before Maggie could say hello.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” she replied smoothly. “She’s under observation. The doctors are very worried about her. She isn’t allowed any visitors at the moment.”

“Just tell me where she is. By the time I get there, I’m sure---.”

“Robin, I have the best doctors checking Ms. Summers over. What you need to do right now is get some sleep. I regret that you weren’t able to get the artifacts, but once you’ve gotten some rest, you can go back in and finish the job.”

“And risk having the same thing happen to me that happened to Buffy? I don’t think so, Maggie.”

He should’ve known. Maggie spent so much of her time surrounded by secrets and conspiracies that it was inevitable he got included in those she attempted to manipulate. He’d let his respect and affection for her from his college days get the better of him. Even worse, he’d allowed his insecurities about his mother and Spike control him as well. Now, Buffy was suffering for it.

“Get some sleep,” she was saying. “You’re obviously not thinking clearly. When you wake up, call me and we’ll discuss how we’ll proceed.”

She hung up before he could argue. Numb, Robin got out of the car and watched the soldier drive away. He had to fix this. Somehow, he had the sinking feeling that this mess was in large part his fault, and that once Buffy was healthy again, he would be the first person she would want to blame.

If Maggie ever let her out into the real world again. Maggie wanted a Slayer soldier, armed with the artifacts to wreak havoc on the demon world. Now that she had the real thing---not Robin as the poor cousin---there was no telling what she was going to do.

Buffy needed help. Real help. From people who had her best interests at heart.

There was only one thing left he could do.

*************

Maggie watched the Slayer through the glass observation window. “You’re absolutely sure?” she asked the doctor standing at her side.

“There’s no doubt,” came the reply. “We’ve tried everything we can think of. She’s not waking up.”

“And her vitals are all normal?”

“Completely.”

Maggie sighed. “Thank you. You’re dismissed.”

She didn’t break her gaze as the doctor walked away, leaving her to watch the sleeping Slayer in solitude. If there was nothing physically wrong with Buffy Summers, then it had to be mystical in nature. Very likely, it was a result of trying to retrieve the Slayer artifacts herself. Maggie could only wonder how it was Buffy had discovered the truth about the artifacts in the first place.

While she regretted that Robin hadn’t been successful in his endeavor, perhaps it was for the better this way. She had Buffy under her control now, and once the Slayer woke from whatever magical sleep she’d been put into, she would be able to tell Maggie what kind of defense mechanisms the artifacts had in place. There was no reason for Buffy to suffer them twice.

Maggie wasn’t a monster, after all.

*************

As Willow struggled back to consciousness, the fleeting wish that she still had the magic defending her at the slightest provocation was her first cognizant thought. Robin wouldn’t have been able to surprise her, she realized as she blinked past the ache. The magic would’ve leapt out and zapped him right back.

Her heart was stone. It was yet another reason to want the power back.

Pushing herself upright, Willow rubbed at her sore head, feeling the lump on her forehead from where she’d fallen and hit it. To say it hadn’t been the best of days would be an understatement, but what she couldn’t figure out was what Robin was doing at the Well in the first place. How had he known about it? If Giles hadn’t sent him, who had?

She looked around the cavern, half-hoping he wouldn’t be there. She didn’t really like the idea of being tasered again. But it was the sight of the single unconscious body still by the Well that made the panic leap into her throat.

“Buffy!” Willow cried out.

Scrambling, she ran for the corridor that led above ground, calling out the Slayer’s name with every step. Only echoes replied.

Buffy’s absence drove her back to the cavern. “Where is she?” she shouted, stopping at the water’s edge. She splashed at the surface like an impatient child in a bath, splattering it over the stone edge and onto the floor. “I know you’re there! Where’s Buffy? What happened? Come on!”

The water started to gurgle, but it didn’t drive Willow away. “What is wrong?” the voice asked.

“What’s wrong? Are you kidding me? Buffy’s gone! That’s what’s wrong!” She slapped at the water again, though it was more out of frustration than anything else. “What did you do?”

“We did nothing.” It was so calm that Willow wanted to scream. “There was no reason for alarm. The Slayer’s son took her.”

“Are you kidding me? Why would you let him do that?”

“Because…he is a Slayer’s son.” Now it sounded confused. “He made no threatening overtures, Willow. Surely, Buffy will be safe with him.”

“He’s working with the same people who killed me, did you know that?” Her cheeks were flushed, her anger fuelling her to start pacing. “And he hid who he really is from Buffy all semester, so no, I’m thinking Buffy really isn’t all that safe right now.”

“Oh. This is unfortunate to hear.”

The placid tone of the water was almost more infuriating. “You have to fix this,” Willow demanded. “You have to bring her back.”

“Are you certain of the this man’s ill intent?”

Willow came to a dead stop before the Well. “Would I be wigging out like this if I didn’t completely believe that?” she countered. “Now, do it!”

There was no verbal response. The water grew more agitated, the power within the cavern becoming so thick that it made Willow quiver in resonance. She chewed at her lower lip, slim arms wrapped around her upper body while she waited, but after a very long minute, nothing had changed.

“What’s wrong?” Willow asked. “Why aren’t you getting Buffy?”

“We’re trying.” For the first time since she awoke, the Guardians sounded distressed. “We…cannot find her.”

That possibility hadn’t occurred to Willow. The world froze around her. “What...is she dead?” Her eyes flew to Spike. He still looked like he was sleeping. Was he suddenly alone in the park?

“We do not know. We will keep trying.”

“You do that.”

She went back to Spike’s side and knelt on the ground. Settling her hand over his unmoving chest, Willow muttered a variation of the incantation she’d tried earlier. Spike could tell her if Buffy was safe. All she had to do was wake him up.

*************

A good night’s rest had done wonders for her. Esme rose at the crack of dawn feeling more alive than she had since the previous summer, fresh strength coursing through her veins, her body humming with the returned power. She wasn’t foolish enough to think that she was anywhere near her full potential, but there was enough force available to her now to make her tasks here on the Hellmouth infinitely easier.

The first item on her agenda was to get the Slayer.

There were wards up at the Summers’ house, keeping her out upon her first arrival. It made sense. She hadn’t believed that her tinkering with Buffy’s sleep would go unnoticed. Frankly, if Willow and the Watcher hadn’t taken some sort of precaution, Esme would’ve been disappointed.

What did surprise her was that a cursory sweep of the house revealed no trace of the Slayer or Esme’s magical signature.

The others were talking inside, and Esme masked her presence in order to eavesdrop on them without detection. There were voices she didn’t recognize, mostly male, and their constant talking over one another made it difficult to discern what exactly was being said. Soon enough, though, she had the bare bones of the story. It was sufficient for her to know that the Summers’ house was not where she needed to be.

Buffy had been kidnapped from whatever place of safety they’d been keeping her. Apparently, young Robin’s employer, Dr. Walsh, was responsible.

With no more reason to linger, Esme returned to her hotel room. It took little effort to cast the locator spell for Buffy, but the results were vague and confusing. There was no doubt she was still in Sunnydale, but someone had gone to great lengths to hide her presence with some sort of powerful cloaking spell. Nothing Esme tried could break through it.

Dr. Walsh, however, knew where Buffy was. Esme had to get to her before the others did.

*************

The cacophony was beginning to wear thin. Everybody seemed to have an opinion on how to save Buffy, but none of the suggestions gave Giles any hope that they’d actually succeed. Most were suicidal, at best. While he was certain Spike would have no qualms about acting on any of them, Giles wasn’t quite as willing to make such callous sacrifices. He was sure Buffy would agree with him.

“For the last time,” he said, nearly shouting in order to be heard, “we are not simply charging in! We don’t know where she is, we don’t know how she’s being guarded, and we are not prepared to face an army of unknown proportions.”

“It’s not exactly unknown,” Graham interjected.

The glare Giles shot him was withering. “Regardless, we must be sensible about this if we wish any chance of success. The last thing Buffy would wish would be for anybody else to be hurt, simply for her sake.”

“What we need is an inside man,” Oz said, glancing at Graham.

“I guess that would be me then.”

All eyes turned to the doorway where Robin Wood stood, his arms folded across his chest. Nobody had even heard him enter.

*************

The guard snapped to attention when he saw Dr. Walsh approach. His eyes remained forward as she passed and looked through the observation window, a smile brightening her features much more than normal as she gazed at the young woman inside.

“How’s our patient?” she asked

The guard hesitated. “It’s been quiet, ma’am,” he replied.

“I’m going to…review her chart.” She gestured toward the window. “Is there a way to cover this so that I can have some privacy?”

He frowned, but turned and pressed the button to draw the electronic blind. Within seconds, the window was obscured from anyone looking in.

“Excellent,” Dr. Walsh said. She was still smiling as he released the lock on the door for her. “Thank you.”

He remained at his post as the door clicked shut behind him, though it was hard not to try and listen to the soft murmur of her voice within. Was Dr. Walsh really talking to an unconscious patient? Weird. But then again, she wasn’t exactly the queen of normal. He’d seen her do a lot of weird shit since he joined the Initiative.

He snapped to attention again when one of the doctors passed in the hall. The doctor hesitated when he saw the closed window and turned back to address the guard.

“Why is this drawn?” he asked.

“Dr. Walsh’s request. She’s inside with the patient. She requested privacy.”

“Really?” His bespectacled gaze drifted to the door. “I thought she’d gone back to her office to do some paperwork.”

A moment later, the doctor shrugged and continued walking. When the corridor was empty again, the guard released the breath he’d been holding.

Yep. Weird shit.

Maybe it was time to start thinking about a transfer.

 

To be continued in Chapter 57: Some Child of Yours