disclaimer in part 1

Honey, help me out of this mess
I'm a stranger to myself
But don't reach for me, I'm too far away
I don't wanna talk 'cause there's nothing left to say

So my darling, give me your absence tonight
Take all of your sympathy and leave it outside
'Cause there's no kind of loving that can make this alright
I'm trying to find a place I belong

The Child is Gone
- Fiona Applie

Three Doors
by: Rebecca Carefoot

Part Thirteen

Light poured through the window, falling across Buffy's face in brilliant swatches. She stirred in the arm chair she'd curled up in, turning squinty eyes to the sun. She unfolded her legs, rubbing them briskly through the pants she'd exchanged Jenny's skirt for to renew the circulation. The book she'd drifted off reading had left an angry imprint of its hard edges on her arm. She untucked it and rolled her head from side to side, wincing at the sharp cracking of her neck. Exhaustion clung to her, but she kept her eyes open. Her gaze roamed over Xander, who was sprawled on the sofa, his arm flung up over his head, his mouth slack with sleep. She moved her stare to Angel, lying in a nest of cushions on the floor. Giles had offered them the bed before crashing three hours earlier, but they'd declined.

She studied the curl of Angel's long body, the curve of his spine, the way his knees were just slightly bent. Light passed through the blinds and fell on him in wide strips. For a moment she allowed herself to enjoy the play of bright yellow-white against his still preternaturally pale skin. His face was slightly tinged with the red of sunburn, and she wished she'd thought to ask for sunblock for his sensitive skin, or noticed the burn earlier. His hand rested at his side, the fingernails shredded and cracked, rimmed with dried blood. The hand was not curled in on itself in the familiar way she knew by heart, but flung farther out, palm up, reaching. Reaching toward her. She ached with the thought that even in sleep he reached for her.

She yearned too for touch, for closeness, for comfort. And as he jerked in the clutch of whatever he dreamed, she couldn't remember why she'd denied that closeness. For just a moment, with the daylight on them, it would be safe to touch and love him, to pretend she was something other than what she was. She placed the book in her chair and slid to the floor. Silently, she settled down beside him, fitting her body to his. He did not wake, but his arm curled around her waist, comfortable, solid and warm. She basked in the warmth of him and of the sun that touched them both with heat. She closed her eyes, forgetting herself in a moment of peace untainted by fear and blood. She covered his arm with her own, pressing flesh to flesh, and slipped into dreamless sleep.

She woke to pounding at the front door, and looked up cautiously from the cocoon of Angel warmth she was nestled in. Angel nuzzled her throat, still half asleep.

"What is that?" he murmured, not unwrapping his arm from its resting place against her waist. He pressed his spread hand to her stomach, and she closed her eyes because she wanted so much it hurt, wanted things she couldn't even define, wanted him.

Xander half-sat up, rubbing his eyes as the pounding continued, rattling the door in its frame. "Is someone going to get that?"

"Tired," Buffy pouted. She felt slow and lazy, her body steeped in heat. But she recognized that as easy as it would be to never move again, to forget the fights and the duty, that ease was a false promise. Forgetfulness was a habit she couldn't afford, because the people she loved would pay the debt. She began disentangling herself from her bed of cushions and Angel.

"Hello?" Oz's voice drifted through the door. "Giles! Are you there?" As suddenly as if she'd been doused with ice water, sleep dropped away, and shock shivered through Buffy's body. She hurried to the door, opening it just a crack at first, making sure Oz stood alone on the doorstep before she swung it open wide.

"What is it?" she asked. He entered the house, his movements jerky and uncharacteristically agitated.

"Have any of you seen Willow?" he asked. She blinked at him dimly, uncomprehending.

"She went home last night," she said. "She was going to go to school."

"Well, she wasn't at school," he said, his voice rising despite himself. He unclenched his fist and ran it through his hair, visibly making an effot to maintain some form of emotional control. Xander and Angel wandered in from the other room, and Giles stood on the bottom step of the stairs. They crowded closer, surrounding the smaller boy.

"Maybe she decided to sleep in," Buffy said, a sinking, twisting tension growing in her abdomen.

"No," Oz said. "She called me this morning. She was coming to school. And then she wasn't there. I called her parents, and they didn't know anything." He took a deep breath. "This was the only other place I could think of."

"There's a bunch of places she could have gone," Angel said weakly.

"It's daylight," Xander added. Buffy barely heard them. Her attention was on Oz, and she could see in him the same sick, certain knowledge she felt in her gut. Somehow Angelus had gotten to Willow.

"He waited until sunrise," she said vaguely, and the others stopped talking. "He did it so I'd know you weren't safe even during the day." Oz's jaw clenched so tightly, she was afraid his teeth would crack. He turned suddenly, and lashed out, dashing a pile of books from the tabletop to the floor. The all stood silent for a moment in the midst of fluttering papers.

"How much time do you think we have?" Xander said, his voice low, his eyes on Willow's boyfriend as he dispensed with comforting lies.

"Not much," Buffy said. She looked away from Oz and forced herself to speak the harsh words, forced herself to be blunt, honest, cruel. "But I think there is a little. He's probably..." She stopped. "He'll want to play." Oz sank to his knees, lost, and gripped his hair in his hands, his head bowed. His shoulders shook slightly, and tears splashed hot and salty against his knees. Buffy knew this was perhaps the only time she would ever see the quiet guitarist cry. She wanted to comfort him, but she couldn't. There was no comfort in her to give.

Xander knelt beside Oz and put a tentative arm around the smaller boy's shoulders. Oz stiffened, resisting, and Xander began to lift his arm. Then he stopped and lowered the arm more firmly, pulling Oz closer to him. "I love her too," he said, and Oz sagged against him, allowing his pain to mingle with Xander's.

Buffy stared blindly at her friends crouched on the ground, crushed by their fear and sorrow. She screamed silently that she'd been careful, tried so hard to keep them safe, made sure none of them were alone at night. But she hadn't been careful enough. She'd been the one who'd sent Willow home. If she hadn't done that, Willow might have still been at Giles'. Willow might have been curled safe on the couch. Already, one dead, and Willow captured. Faith had been the lucky one.

With a blink, she noticed that Angel's hands were on her, that she could hear his voice, urgent, frightened. He cupped her face in his hands, and tried to meet her vacant, staring eyes. Giles' hand was on her back, begging her with the slight pressure he exerted to recognize them, respond to them. She blinked again, and shook her head free of Angel's grasp.

"I'm fine," she said.

"You seemed catatonic," Angel said.

"I was thinking," she answered. She stretched her lips into a grimace and pretended it was a smile. Angel grabbed her hands, and squeezed them almost hard enough to hurt.

"Buffy, I'm worried about you." She wished he'd squeeze a little harder; maybe the pain would bring some clarity. She looked down at their joined hands, the way one of his fingertips pressed against the flesh beneath her thumb. She imagined identical hands touching Willow, hurting her. These hands are warm, she reminded herself. Those aren't. He crushed her in a tight embrace, and she let him, but her thoughts stayed with Willow. And his arms weren't enough to comfort her.

"How can we figure out where he is?" she asked, and she turned lost eyes from Angel to Giles and back. "What are we going to do?" She begged for an answer. But even as she spoke she was pulling out of Angel's embrace. She watched Xander and Oz rise to shaky feet, and join the other two men in a huddle. She stood slightly apart.

"He could be anywhere," Xander said, then ducked his head and turned away from the others, scuffing the ground with his foot.

"But wherever he is, he's stuck there for the rest of the day," Angel pointed out.

"Is he?" Buffy said. "The daylight didn't stop him from taking Willow." She saw Oz's jaw clench and promised herself she'd make Angelus feel his pain. His pain and hers and Faith's...and Willow's. She hoped it would be enough to kill him.

"He must have had help," Angel said. "He could survive in the sunlight with cover, but barely. He wouldn't have been able to capture Willow if she was in broad daylight."

"Can we track that?" Buffy said, looking to Giles.

"I have a few contacts in the demon world," he said. "I'll try to find out who's been hired lately and for what."

"Great," Buffy said. She felt the fuzziness of her thoughts recede slightly. She took a deep breath and snapped restraints over her emotions, leashing herself as tightly as possible. Having purpose anchored her, giving her a place to direct her thoughts and her hatred.

"And what about the rest of us," Oz said. "We just wait?"

"What else can we do?" Angel said.

"I'll patrol," Buffy said.

"It's the middle of the day," Angel protested.

"Not in the sewers," Buffy said. "Giles, I'll take my beeper, let me know the minute you have anything."

"I'm coming," Oz said.

"Me too," Angel chimed in.

"And me," Xander added, turning back to the others.

"No," Buffy said.

"You can't expect us to just sit here and do nothing," Xander said. She knew what it was to be helpless. To wait. To be unable to act. She hated it more than any other feeling in the world. But she didn't want to add more pain to the debt she owed Angelus.

"I can and do expect you to stay here," she snapped, and told herself it was for their own good. "Haven't you learned anything from this? None of you are safe! Not even in the middle of the street with the sun shining directly on you. How much more dangerous are the sewers?"

"I don't care," Oz said softly.

"I do," Buffy replied, her voice hard edged. "I will not lose anyone else."

"But we can help; it'll take less time to comb the sewers," Xander said. "What if we get to Willow too late. What if all of us working to find her could have prevented it?" Buffy wavered for the briefest of moments, but stood firm.

"No," she said. "It's too dangerous."

"Let us help you," Angel said, hating the pleading in his voice.

"The best way for you to help me is to stay safe," she said. "For my sake if not for your own, don't leave this house. For God's sake. Don't take the risk."

"It's Willow," Xander said, and Oz nodded in taciturn agreement.

"I know," Buffy said. "And I will bring her back to you."

"Don't make promises you can't keep," Oz said.

"I don't," Buffy answered, and she met his eyes with a look so full of hate and violence he almost feared more for her than Willow in that moment. But the moment passed, and the look he gave her in return was hot with anger, hate and pain. And all he said was, "Kill him." She nodded and strode with eager steps to the weapons chest. She stuffed an ax, some stakes, and a short sword into her leather weapons bag. Angel knelt beside her, and reached into the chest. She looked at him, and almost let him grab the crossbow for himself. Almost.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'm coming," he said. She strengthened the shell around her heart, hardening herself with a layer of ice. She pictured ice cubes, cloudy and brittle, and traced the tiny lines in their sides with her mind's eye as she spoke.

"No." The ice crept into her voice. "I said none of you."

"But you said yesterday it was different with me," he said. She refused to meet his eyes, and watched the ice cubes stick together, clicking like magnets as they joined.

"That was yesterday," she said. She stood up with the bag in her hand. He watched her, his eyes dark with helpless misery and self-hatred. "You're better off resting." He watched her retreating back, and when she pulled the door shut behind her, he shared a look with Xander and Oz. He rose to his feet, but Giles' voice interrupted his halfhearted decision to follow Buffy.

"I could use some help with finding out who Angelus hired," Giles said. Oz and Xander stood for a moment, their muscles tight with indecision, knowing whatever they did was probably futile, that none of it would bring Willow back sooner. But knowing didn't make the bubbling panic that swelled their insides subside. The tiring, sweaty, physical task Buffy had taken for herself could drive fear and worry away more easily. But it was no more productive than the list of dead-end calls Giles would give them. Xander shrugged and joined Giles in the kitchen, where the Watcher handed him a page from a brown leather book. Angel rose and joined them as well. Oz stared at the door, wanting to look for a fight, wanting to punch and flail his hate and fear, pound his emotions into something else. Being pounded in return, feeling physical pain. The thought appealed, as if his own pain would lessen Willow's. He turned to the other men, and watched Xander dial a number. He bowed his head, and joined them.


The mayor dashed an intricately carved bone sculpture to the ground, then picked up a ceramic bowl and threw it against the wall. It burst, the bright green and blue shards scattering outward from the point of impact. His teeth were bared, his face blotchy with anger. He shook with the scream he couldn't allow to escape. His secretary sat right outside the wooden door, and minor bureaucratic officials prowled the halls. Some of them knew the truth of who he was, what he was. But very few. And screaming would certainly raise questions about his sanity. Not to mention lowering staff morale.

His hands clenched, and he tightened his jaw, allowing a mental scream to roar through his head. He forcibly opened his fists, and pressed flat palms against his desk. He took a deep, calming breath. Then another, cleansing the mind and spirit. He forced himself to sit, forced his emotions under the control of rational thought.

So Angel had killed his Faith. And Angel was not dead as he was supposed to be, as the Mayor had ordered. Five of his best vampires had never reported back last night, which meant they were dead. Which meant Angel had killed them. He tapped his pencil against the edge of his desk, clicking out an impatient rhythm. Things were falling apart. The Ascension was coming and things could not be allowed to fall apart.

He had no second in command. He needed someone to take care of things for him so he could concentrate on the rituals involved in the Ascension. He needed someone like Angel. He hurled the pencil across the room, and steepled his hands. True, he hated Angel. But if Angel could kill both Faith and a gang of vampires, then he was just the kind of person the Mayor needed. And there was no reason he couldn't kill the vampire after the Ascension. No reason indeed.

Angelus looked up at a knock on the door. "Don't answer it," he snapped, and returned his attention to Willow, who was sagging unconscious against the ropes that held her upright in her chair. He shook his head. He'd gone too fast. She'd fainted much sooner than he'd wanted her too. He looked at the blood on his hand, and absently licked it. He was out of practice.

The knocking continued, and he turned on his heel with a growl, his annoyance sizzling into fury. He marched to the door, stepping over the vampires who lounged on cushions in front of the TV. He viciously kicked one of the vampires near the door, and the young dark haired boy yelped and moved quickly out of his way. When he reached the door, he almost tore it off its hinges with the force of his anger.

"What?" he roared, his vampire face on. He expected the small human male tucked into a dark charcoal suit, briefcase at his side, to turn tail and run. But the man surprised him.

"May I come in?" he said.

"You may not," Angel snapped. "Stop knocking and get the hell off my property."

"Ahhh, this property belongs to a Mr. and Mrs. Danby," the man stated, each word calculated and precise. Angel swung the door shut, but the man stuck his shiny black leather shoe in between the wall and the door. His mouth turned down in a slight wince, but he showed no other sign of having his foot smashed by the door that still vibrated with the force of the attempted closing.

"What_do_you_want?" Angel said, his fangs gritted.

"The mayor wants you to come in for an appointment," the man said pleasantly.

"I don't care," Angel answered.

"I have six and a half minutes left to bring you back with me," the man said.

"Or what?" Angel taunted. "You'll beat me up."

"Obviously not," the man answered. "But the mayor does have a wrecking ball on standby, and this house will be reduced to rubble if we're not back in his office in six minutes and," he checked his watch, "fifteen seconds. Hard to keep the sun out with no walls or roof, isn't it?" Angel hesitated in the doorway, his hand clenched around the doorknob.

"It's daylight," he said, pointing out the obvious. The man stepped away from the door slightly, and Angel saw the car parked next to the porch, its windows tinted black. "Fine," he spat. He spared a look at Willow, regretting that he would miss the moment of her waking.

"No one touches her," he said to the other vampires, his voice dangerously soft. "She's mine, and you don't want to find out the consequences of taking what's mine."

The other vampires barely looked up from the TV, but he knew none of them were crazy enough to risk his anger. They were stupid, but not that stupid.


Buffy slammed the vampire she'd found against the wall again, smiling at the satisfying crack of his skull against the side of the cement sewer tunnel. Dazed and barely resisting, he swayed in and out of consciousness as she sunk first her right fist, then her left, then her right again into the soft flesh of his stomach. She slammed the heel of her hand into his nose. She crushed his knee with her boot. She pounded his body with her fists, faster and faster until her knuckles split and bled, smearing crimson over his clothes and the dark stains of his own oozing, torn flesh.

He sagged, unconscious now, but she caught him by the throat. She propped him against the wall with one hand, and continued to punch him with the other, the wet sounds of her fist sinking into his flesh echoing in the emptiness of the sewer.

Her beeper chirped shrilly. Her fist continued to move against him, her teeth were bared and she wished he'd do more than just squelch and crack and give under her assault. The beeper chirped again, and she dropped the body to the ground. She checked the number, making sure it was Giles, then she pulled out her stake and drove it easily into the vampire's heart. She headed for the nearest ladder to the street, some kind of catharsis found in the violence taking the cutting edge from the still seething fury that filled her.