SPOILERS: Everything up to the end of season 3 is fair game. Some in particular for Consequences.
RATING: R. Violence and sexual content.
SUMMARY: Buffy is forced to make an impossible choice when she and Angel are captured by a demon. Set basically outside the timeline, but definitely after Consequences and before Enemies.
CONTENT: Angst, B/A romance
DISCLAIMER: Lyrics by VAST. Buffy and her world owned by Joss Whedon, the WB and Fox.
THANKS: My lovely beta-readers. Tink and Samantha, you are the greatest.

They whisper words into my ears
One speaks of truth and
one speaks of my fears
My disabilities don't get in my way
I look to the future and live day to day

Three doors to go through
I only want the one that leads to you
They say there's three doors to go through
I only what the one that leads to you
because only one leads to you
and who's to blame?

This your only chance at immortality
I'll give you strength
but I cannot give you the keys.

Three Doors

Three Doors

by: Rebecca Carefoot

Buffy's eyes fluttered open, and she blinked against the glare of the torches set in the stone walls around her. She shifted and gasped in surprise when pain lanced through her side. Her grogginess cleared by the rush of pain, she tilted her head and looked up. Iron bars crossed over her head. They were high enough above her to allow her to sit, but not stand. She gathered her strength and propped herself up against the side of the cage, her sore back protesting the cold imprint of the hard strips of metal. She rested a moment and lightly touched her side with her fingertips. She hissed at the gentle probing and decided she had broken at least one rib. How she had broken it was a harder question to answer.

She faced the bars of the cage and pulled on them. They seemed too solid to break. Her gaze drifted to the floor and caught on another cage no more than two feet from her own. She pressed her face against the bars of her prison and peered at the large figure sprawled inside.

Angel. Her head drooped as she remembered everything, patrolling, the ambush, being overwhelmed by demons who simply outnumbered them, seeing Angel fall under their hairy bodies, being pulled down herself, and then the blackness.

She grabbed the bars again and pulled as hard as she could. With gritted teeth, she admitted to herself that it was hopeless.

"Angel," she said, keeping her voice low for fear of bringing a guard into the cave. "Angel, wake up," she hissed again. She strained her hand through the bars of her cage. They were spaced so narrowly that she could barely get her arm between them, but she was able to force the limb through up to the elbow. Her finger tips strained, her skin tight with the desperation of reaching. She was a few inches short of the other cage's bars. His foot and the hem of his coat were pressed up against the bars, if she could just reach. She stretched again, jamming the joint of her elbow into the unforgiving metal. Her fingers again rigid and pointing, as if she could force them to grow until they touched him. The cage was too far, she realized with a swallowed sob of discouragement and pain. She withdrew her arm, now shaky from exertion. She slammed the open heel of her hand against the bars with all her strength, starting fearfully at the metallic thump it created.

She relaxed when the sound brought no one into the room. Had she felt the bars shudder? The cage move? Or had she imagined it? She looked at the cage again. It was the same on all four sides, the same network of metal bars. The top looked just the same as the bottom did, and the bottom was not bolted to the floor. She grabbed the bars again and rocked backwards as hard as she could on her heels. The cage tipped a little. She rocked forward, and it slammed back down. Had it moved forward at all? She repeated the rocking movement, and the cage was suddenly lopsided with one side, the side near Angel's head, clearly closer to his cage than the other. She forced her arm through the metal slats again, her fingers trembling with the need to make contact. Her fingernails scraped dully against the roughness of the outside of one of the bars. She strained harder, and they scraped against the inside of the bar. They scrabbled against the bar for purchase, catching and pulling weakly without the leverage to move the other cage closer. Her shoulder ached with the strain, but her fingers reached desperately until they touched something other than iron.

Her fingernails scratched at Angel's coat. She whimpered in frustration and pressed her forehead against the bars. She managed to squeeze a fold of the heavy fabric between her index and middle fingers. It shifted slightly under her weak pull, not nearly enough for Angel to feel it.

But his eyes opened.

"Angel," she said, relief coloring her voice and allowing her to withdraw her exhausted arm.

"Buffy," he said softly, his eyes studying the bars that surrounded him. "Where are we?"

"I don't know." He turned his gaze from the bars to her face as she spoke. With a soft groan he pulled himself upright and rested his forehead against the bars. "Are you okay?" she asked.

"Nothing a little time won't cure. You?"

"I think a broken rib, other than that nothing serious." They fell silent. He nodded and pulled at the bars in front of him, finding them as immovable as she had. He swept the room with grave eyes, and as he expected, found nothing to help them escape.

She watched him silently, her blue eyes flashing green while she waited for him to finish. He met her gaze when he had. He pushed his hand through the bars, unable to force much of his arm through the small space. His palm was open, reaching. She put her own arm out towards him, able to reach his hand without having to strain. His fingers wrapped around hers, the rough texture of his larger hand a comforting pressure around her own.

Her eyes seemed locked on his; memorizing the way the torch light broke and was reflected in tiny pieces in them. She thought she should say something, but couldn't figure out how or what. Somehow he seemed to understand anyway. She smiled a small, sad smile. And he returned it.

Though he had tested the strength of the bars, his heart rebelled against accepting the knowledge of their strength. His soul rebelled against seeing that smile of resignation on her face. His throat tightened with anger, and he slammed his free hand against the metal that imprisoned him.

He withdrew his hand from hers with a growl, his true face revealed as his hands grabbed the bars in front of him. He snarled, running his tongue over his fangs as he jerked and pulled at the bars desperately. Like a wild animal, losing all reason in the attempt to escape captivity, he bashed the bars with his hands and feet, thrashing. Buffy rattled the bars of her own cage, throwing herself against them, her own lips pulled away from her teeth in an unconscious mirroring of Angel's expression. The bars stood immobile against the double assault, although the cages did slide a few inches closer together.

His rage fading with the realization that all his strength was useless to break their bonds, Angel's frantic movements slowed. Buffy kicked against her cage again, then stopped, her chest heaving with frustration and exertion. Angel slammed his shoulder against the bars, then stilled, his head bowed. When he raised it, his human face had slipped back into place.

He offered an apology for his failure when he finally looked up and met Buffy's eyes. He knew she would understand it, that she would understand all of what he felt. But he needed to tell her; he needed her to hear the words if it was to be the last time. He offered her his hand again, and she took it immediately, threading her fingers through his.

"I love you," he whispered finally. "Whatever happens next," his voice broke and he swallowed, "nothing can change that."

"I love you," she answered, her throat tightening, making it hard for her to speak. She blinked dry eyes and felt them fill with tears. "Forever." He tightened his grip on her hand, and she squeezed desperately in return trying to show him with the touch of their hands what she would have in a kiss or a hug. She tried to memorize the feel of her hand in his, the curve of his jaw, the slope of his nose.

"There's not enough time," he said softly. His eyes filled with her as he swept them over every curve of her body, every feature of her face, every strand of her hair.

"Do you think it'll hurt?" she asked in a small voice, admitting fear. His eyes filled with regret and anger, guilt at his failure to protect her. He pushed his free hand through the bars as if he could touch her cheek, trace the path of her tears and wipe them away. But she was too far away. All he had was her hand.

"I wish I could just hold you once more," he said. She scraped her fingernails lightly against the back of his hand.

"Or kiss me goodbye," she agreed, trying a smile.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered. She shook her head, no. Her eyes were bright, but she smiled again.

"Nothing to be sorry for."

He pulled her hand as close to his cage as he could, stopping when he saw her elbow pressed immobile against the iron. Then he hunched his back, pushing his face against the bars. Understanding, Buffy strained toward him, reaching as hard as she could, gaining the small amount of distance needed for her fingertips to scrape past the bars. His lips brushed against her fingers once, twice, and then she was forced to draw back by the pain throbbing through her exhausted arm. Neither of them were willing to relinquish the small bit of contact left to them, so their hands remained firmly joined.

They simply looked at each other, having passed beyond the need for words.

The sound of feet pounding down the hallway interrupted the silence. As they drew nearer, the sound of the feet grew louder; the pattern they pounded out joined with demon voices raised in growls and shrieks to became a steadily more chaotic wall of noise. Buffy met Angel's gaze and tilted her head. If they were taken from their cages they might have a slim chance, but even then it sounded like there were hundreds of demons advancing on the cave. Angel's grip on her hand tightened to the point of pain, but Buffy did not feel it. She only squeezed back with the same intensity.

Angel mouthed the words, "No matter what happens," as the demons began to pour into the cave. They were all short, Buffy guessed no more than four feet. Their bodies were covered in thick dark hair, and short horns protruded from their heads. One or two or five of them would stand no chance against her. But there were so many of them. The stream of them simply did not end; they filled the cave as completely as they could, surrounding the cages, pressing against them. Buffy only glanced at them long enough to see just how many there were, then her eyes returned to Angel. Their hands remained firmly joined.

Buffy's cage swayed, lifted off the ground by a swarm of the demons. She watched as Angel's tilted crazily while being hoisted up. Their hands were pulled by the motion, but they held on and kept a firm grip on each other.

The demons parted down the center, flowing towards opposite ends of the cave like the Red Sea, each half carrying a cage in their direction. As the cages drew apart, Buffy and Angel's arms stretched out, no longer slack, instead straining desperately to maintain the contact of their hands against the restraint of the bars and the momentum of the demons carrying them. For a moment, the momentum stopped. For a few seconds, the strength of vampire and slayer joined together equaled the strength of a horde of demons. Angel and Buffy's hands, palm to palm, fingers entwined, grasped painfully tight, remained joined. In that moment, holding back the tide of demons, it was as if they could not be sundered, as if they had become one being, their hands grown together, their souls and bodies joined and invincible. That moment, those seconds, stretched as if they would last forever, as if the two of them would find immortality in the passage of a second.

And then the moment was over; the demons swarmed on. Hundreds overcoming two as they inevitably had to. Buffy's gaze remained joined with Angel's even as her palm was pulled away from his. Their fingers slowly lost their purchase, and she felt them slipping apart. Like flesh tearing, the skin of their fingers scraped one against the other, agonizingly slow, not slow enough. The texture of his skin, the way it traced against hers, the way it touched her, it was suddenly everything. The demon's jabbering and squealing and growling, deafening before, was muted. She was deaf. She was blind to everything but his eyes. And her entire world was the feel of his fingers rubbing against hers, losing their grasp, slipping away. Losing him. All she could feel was herself being lost as she lost him. She wanted to scream, but she was mute. She screamed with her eyes and knew he would hear her.

And then all she had of him were the tips of his fingers. She felt the hardness of his fingernails, and the bare remnants of touch as her fingers felt the end of his and were drawn inexorably onward.

And then all she had of him was his eyes that told her again and again that he loved her.

And then her cage was carried away from him down a tunnel, and she lost even that small part of him. She was left with only the memory of his hand in hers, like the ghost of his touch.

She hunched dully in her prison, barely noticing when she was placed in front of a giant throne carved out of solid granite. But even Angel was temporarily driven from her mind when she saw the demon sitting in the throne. It was at least ten feet tall. Maybe more. It was hard to tell when the horns were so big they scraped the top of the cave. Small pieces of rock drifted to the ground like gritty rain when the demon moved its head. Buffy watched, disconnected and abstract, as a stalactite loosed by the movement fell, crashing against the top of her cage. Her vision faded as a large piece of rock slammed into her skull. She watched through a grey fog as her cage's bars shattered the larger formation and sent pieces of it flying out into the sea of demons surrounding her. She spared a thought for Angel, hoping he would be enveloped in the same merciful darkness. And then there was nothing.

* * * * * *

Buffy lay in the center of a small, circular stone room, the walls rough hewn, sparkling with viens of pyrite in the light given off by the torches high above her head. She stood up slowly, pressing her hands tightly against her aching head. Able to stand, and able to see, she considered herself lucky. The rest of the situation was less lucky. She was surrounded by three identical doors. They were all arched, wooden. They each had an equally rusted handle.

She looked closer. They were the same, exactly the same, the patterns in the wood, the speckles of rust on the hinges. No deviation to give her a hint of what lay behind them. She might as well have been asked to choose a random section of the wall.

She turned slowly, studying the walls of the room, or cave as it were. The top curved high above her, but offered no exit. The torches might have been used to set a fire, but there was no way to reach them. And even if she could grab one out of its metal casing and use it to burn the wooden doors, she'd die in the flames. There was no way out of the cave besides the doors. She didn't even know how she had gotten in, which of the doors they had brought her through; she had been unconscious at the time.

In fact she had been unconscious since the rock incident, yet she could clearly remember the demon speaking to her. She could almost hear the voice now, clear and high and beautiful; but so loud it hurt, ringing in her head, shaking her brain and body with its force. And what it had said...

Of course it was possible there was some other way in. But that didn't much matter if there was only one way out. One way out. That was a lie. There were three doors, and two ways out. One was walking out with Angel, the other was being carried out dead. And which way she would leave was up to her.

She punched uselessly at a door with the heel of her hand, accomplishing nothing but a severe jar that shook her arm bone deep all the way to the shoulder.

Behind one of those doors was Angel. The demon in charge had promised her he was unharmed, and would remain that way if she picked the right door.

Behind the other two were monsters. She hadn't been told what kind, only that they were the stuff of her worst nightmares. And considering the size of the room and her concussion plus broken rib, she wasn't betting on herself in a fight with whatever came out of the door. Even if she had been able to beat whatever was going to come after her, picking the wrong door meant instant death for Angel.

If she caused his death she didn't even know if she would want to fight.

She paced the length of the room, running her fingers over the roughness of the rock, the splintery hardness of the doors, as if there was a clue in the texture. As if she could feel his presence through the door, like some kind of tangible bond between them. Or maybe she was just stalling. Maybe if she waited long enough someone would come to save her, or Angel would escape, or part of the cave would crumble inward and let her out. Maybe. Maybe nothing. There was no way out in not choosing. Long before she would die of starvation, a team of demons would kill her, and Angel. That was another of the parts in the perfect trap the demon master had laid before her.

So she had to choose. But how could she when it put Angel's life in the hands of fate? When it forced her to trust to luck, pure chance. Fate hadn't been especially kind to either of them. She had no reason to believe this would be any different.

She stopped in front of a door and pressed her ear against the wood, wondering if Angel was doing the same thing on the other side. She strained all her senses, struggling to hear, to feel something, anything that would give her a hint as to whether Angel was behind that door.

"Angel!" she screamed at the top of her lungs, pounding her hand against the door again. She waited, silent and straining, for any suggestion of response. Nothing.

She moved to the next door and pressed her ear against it. Pounded on it. Screamed his name.

She moved on to the third door. Again, she called him. Her scream echoed into unbroken silence. And then the faintest hiss of a whisper.

"Buffy." She jerked back from the door as if burned, then pressed her ear against it and screamed.

"Angel, are you there?"

"Buffy." It was so soft she could barely hear it, so soft she wondered if she had imagined it. But she knew she hadn't. Trembling with excitement, she reached a hand toward the rusty handle.

"Buffy." She hesitated, stopped, pulled her hand back. Where had the whisper come from? It sounded as if... She moved cautiously to the next door, putting her ear against it.

"Buffy," the barest whisper caressed her ear. She whirled, her eyes scraping the walls, the ceiling, the doors, the floor.

"Buffy." Faster and faster the whispers fell over her, blending and overlapping until she thought she would scream. They invaded her head, swept around her, encircled her. And she could not tell if any of them were Angel. And she could not tell where any of them came from.

Slowly she backed away from the door and returned to the center of the room, she turned, her eyes sweeping the room. She closed them and turned again and again. When she opened them she had lost all sense of which door was the first or the third, which she had faced when she first stood, which she had knocked on first, which she had heard the first whisper from. They were all the same, as though there was only one door, multiplied somehow in her subconscious by three. She blinked, her throat clenching claustrophobically. The room was so small. And there was no way out.

She closed her eyes again, and turned until she was almost dizzy enough to fall. Then she turned back the other way until she lost her balance and slipped to one knee. She opened her eyes, the world swaying. One of the doors was directly in front of her. She pulled herself upright and took the few careful steps needed to reach the handle. She ran her hand over the rusty metal, her eyes fixed on the rough brown slats of wood. She hesitated, pulling her hand back, then strengthened her resolve and clutched the handle more tightly. She said a quiet prayer to any god willing to listen, and turned the handle. It creaked and strained reluctantly, hardened by who knew how many years of rust.

With an audible crack, it shifted into place and the door sprung open. Buffy pulled it, her eyes wide. Every muscle tightened with the tension of anticipation, every part of her screaming that she had made the wrong choice and damned them both. Everything in her whimpered that she had made a mistake. And then the door was open, and he stood in a small shadowy tunnel. Angel, his tall figure hunched slightly in the too small space.

She sobbed, tears filling her eyes as her muscles went limp in relief. She threw herself into his arms, her tears staining his shirt. He stroked her hair, his comforting arm encircling her waist possessively. She muttered unintelligibly into his chest of her fear and the guilt at the thought that she would cause his death.

He chuckled, a deep, rich laugh that rubbed over her like silk. She stiffened.

And then he spoke.

"Hello, lover."

She blinked, even that small movement taking strength she didn't know she had. She took one slow breath, and lifted her eyes to meet his. She had chosen the wrong door after all.