disclaimer in part 1

and you
did you suffer much
did you close your eyes
just to see the night
rush on by

gathered all around you
hope that we don't
let you down again
i said i'm so glad to be here
does it mean a thing
if only i could breathe
what you breathe
if only i could see what you see

-- Moist

Three Doors
by: Rebecca Carefoot

Part Four

Buffy's heart thudded against her ribs, and her breath came in harsh gasps. Her muscles burned with every stride. She could see nothing through the tears that streamed unheeded down her cheeks. The darkness was all encompassing, the ground in the tunnel uneven. She was blind and deaf to all but the thundering roar of her blood pounding in her ears and the voice inside her head pushing her onward with the urgency of panic; she could not stop running.

The first rush of speed had come simply from the fear of pursuit. She could hear his footsteps behind her, could almost smell the scent of him. She wanted only to put distance between them, to run until she forgot why she fled, until she forgot his face and the feel of his hands on her body. She wanted to forget the way her body responded to his touch, the feel of his lips crushed against hers. She ran as if increasing the physical distance between them would mean an escape from the spiral of fear and self-hatred. As if running would somehow free her, and she would wake up in Angel's bed, and she would cry her fear into his chest, and they would laugh once the tears had dried. Most of all she ran to forget the look in his eyes as he waited patiently under her grasp for her fist to fall. She ran to forget that her body and heart had betrayed her, that she was once again too weak to overcome her doubt and confusion and do her duty.

The rational part of her recognized that he was not behind her, but she continued to run. Perhaps because the pain that began to burn in her chest as her heart labored to keep up with her pace distracted her from the pain that pierced her more deeply than any other wound. She could feel the rent in her soul that she had spent so long repairing, that she had left Sunnydale to heal, torn open again. She felt it like the slashing of claws, like the tip of a knife, like the heat of a fire. She felt it like the death of a lover at her own hand.

So she ran until her legs trembled with the effort, unaware or uncaring of the danger she faced running blind in a tunnel that could dead-end at any moment or twist unexpectedly. She simply lifted her limbs, moving through the motions, allowing her body to feel this pain because it was so much less hurt than she knew followed behind her, just waiting for her to stop, just waiting to catch up and devour her whole.

Her toe caught on the edge of a rock that broke the surface of the tunnel floor, and she stumbled, falling to the earth, holding out her hands too late to catch her fall. The air was expelled from her lungs, and she lay on the ground, her mouth open as she tried to suck in another breath. Her eyes stared sightless into the dark, and she pulled herself to her feet, not even waiting to catch her breath as another surge of panic hit her. When her limbs swung into motion this time, she ran not for herself but for her friends. Every moment wasted was a greater chance that when she emerged above ground she would find he had already beaten her, that all was lost and she was too late.

She ran with her hands outstretched now, all too aware that a sudden turn in the tunnel's path could leave her unconscious if she hit the wall at a dead run. She couldn't afford that kind of mistake. Too much depended on her. She thought of Willow and Xander and Giles, unaware of what had happened, defenseless. She thought of what it must have been like for Jenny Calendar, the terror that must have overwhelmed her in those final seconds. She could almost hear the way it must have sounded when her neck was broken, the unforgiving crack of bone. A sob burst from Buffy's mouth and her chest heaved. She could see them, any one of them, in his grasp, the knowledge of their own death in their eyes, the knowledge that once again she had let them all down. Once again she was too weak to do her job, to kill him when she had the chance. It was her fault. Their deaths would be on her head.

She ran until she lost all track of time. Her sense of reality warped and twisted under the pressure of the emotions that crashed through her. She thought she had been running for days, that she ran in place, that she was trapped in one small space to run until her heart gave out and she collapsed. She wondered how much longer it would be before hunger or the trembling in her exhausted limbs became too much. She began to think she would never see the sun again.

And when she had almost begun to give up hope, to stop caring whether she died so long as she did it soon, she began to make out the sides of the tunnel. The light brightened as she continued to run, never glowing yellow, but illuminating just enough for her to run without fear of dashing her brains out against a rock. She pumped her legs faster, forcing her reluctant body to respond and in a few seconds she found herself running on a carpet of fallen leaves instead of rock, surrounded by trees and stars that peeked through the branches above her head.

She did not know exactly where she was, and she hesitated a brief moment to take in her surroundings. She looked up at the sky until she found the moon, feeling her exhausted muscles stiffening at even a brief moment of stasis. She chose her direction, heading east, pushing her body to the height of its ability. She would be fine tomorrow, but she couldn't be sure the others would if she hesitated even one second.

Her mind tumbled, fragments of ideas whirring against her skull, as her feet pounded the earth in a steady rhythm. Where to go? What to do? Who to tell? She flinched, her jaw clenching at the thought of telling them. She had been too worried to think about anything but their safety. Now she contemplated the awkwardness of explaining what had happened. Tell Giles that Angelus was back, his torturer, the murderer of his lover? Tell Xander he had been right after all? Tell Willow the sacrifices she had made to attempt the spell were useless? Tell them all that after grudgingly letting Angel back into their lives, into their family, those wounds they had let heal were to be rubbed with salt and lemon juice once more? How could she do it?

She slipped on a patch of damp leaves and fell to one knee. She rose slowly, and walked a few feet, knowing her body needed rest. But each step she took fell faster than the one before, and soon she was running again. She could vaguely hear the hum of civilization, a random car that roared by, the buzz of electricity as it crackled in streetlights and porch lights. And then she passed through a row of trees and found her feet hitting the black tar of a road. She glanced around her, realizing she was only a few blocks from Giles' building. Her legs moved faster and she sprinted the rest of the way, her feet slapping against the pavement, breaking the silence of the night that would so soon become day.

"Too late." The phrase knocked against her skull, taunting her. Her heart beat the rhythm. "Too late." Oh God. She clenched her fists. She reached the sign post at the end of Giles' block, each step closer to his apartment convincing her more firmly that she had failed. She was too late. They were dead, all of them. It was her fault. Her fault. She swallowed a scream of frustration and panic, gritting her teeth.

Then she was inside the apartment complex. She was at Giles' door. She banged on it with her fist, using enough force to rattle the door in its frame. She banged again, and again, not caring if she woke the neighbors, not caring about anything but the unshakable idea that Angelus was in there killing Giles this very minute, and she was outside doing nothing about it. She pulled back and placed her foot, preparing to kick the door in.

It swung open, and her dizzy gaze took in the figure of Giles in his bathrobe, his eyes tired and bleary behind his glasses, his hair rumpled, his breath smelling of countless cups of coffee.

"Buffy," Giles said, the tension in his shoulders easing. "Thank God." Buffy began to cry, relief ripping through her so strong it hurt, tightening her chest and throat so she could not speak. Her legs gave out, and she sank boneless to the floor, aching everywhere. Her overworked muscles refused to move again. Her chest heaved as she gasped great gulps of air, trying to catch her breath.

"Good Lord," Giles murmured, sinking to his knees. He slipped one arm under Buffy's knees and the other behind her back. He lifted her, holding her firm against his chest and she clung weakly to his bathrobe, her eyes leaking tears, her chest still hitching violently with each breath.

"Can you speak?" he asked softly, his worry changing swiftly from the rapid, frantic fear for her safety that had kept him awake all night to a gentler concern. He placed her on his couch, and she tried to slow her labored breathing, to calm herself enough to allow the words to escape.

"Get the others here," she gasped.

"Why? What's happened?" Giles asked, curiosity joining the worry that shaped his features. Buffy gulped another breath, opening and closing her mouth without the power to answer. His lips pursed as he noticed that her hands shook, and she was covered in dirt. Specks of dried blood flaked below her lower lip like rust. He pulled a blanket from the recliner next to the couch and draped it over her, then hurried to the phone.

"Tell them..." she gasped. Giles paused, leaning toward her to catch the words as she spat them in between gasps. "Angelus. Back. Hurry. Get. Faith to. Bring them. Safer..." Giles' eyes widened, then narrowed, and his finger hovered uncertainly over the phone as thoughts and angry concerns filled his mind. But he did not betray his emotions, or question Buffy's broken statement. He nodded once and turned back to the phone, his fingers dialing the numbers he knew so well.

Buffy shivered under the blanket although her body was hot, too hot. Sweat streamed from every pore, and every muscle seemed to burn through her clothes, but inside she was cold. She pulled the blanket tighter, and continued trying to control her breathing. Gradually it slowed, and though her body was gripped with pain, some of her panic had faded.

Giles returned from the kitchen, and knelt beside the couch. He touched the back of his hand to Buffy's forehead and flashed a worried frown.

"You're burning up."

"It's just from the run."

"But you have the chills. It could be a fever, Buffy." Buffy shivered again. How was she supposed to explain that it wasn't a virus gripping her innards with cold? It was his touch. His fingers gripping her arms, his lips, his body. He had put the ice inside her. Buffy gingerly sat up, pulling away from Giles' hand.

"It's not that."

"What's happened, Buffy? You've been gone for almost two days with no word. I was -- we were worried about you." Buffy smiled slightly despite herself, feeling her affection for her Watcher chip at the other emotions which paralyzed her. She knew how desperately he must want to shout his questions about Angelus, or shake her until the answers fell fast from her lips, but he wouldn't push her.

"The others are on their way?"

"Yes. They'll be here in minutes."

"Angelus is back," Buffy whispered, her voice breaking. Giles looked down at his clenched hands, staring at his white knuckles. He said nothing. "Giles."

He looked up, as if hearing her for the first time, and his eyes met hers. He saw the horror and the doubt in her gaze, the desperate need for reassurance. And he opened his mouth to give it, but when he tried to speak he found he had no voice. He tried again.

"Please, Buffy. You must tell me about the last two days." Buffy blinked away the tears that welled in her eyes, more tears, what good were they? She pulled the blanket tighter.

"Angel and I were captured by some demons. We woke up in cages, in some caves, and we couldn't get out. They came and separated us." She swallowed hard, unable to meet Giles' eyes. Her gaze drifting away from reality and into the past as she forced herself to remember. "I got taken to this really big demon. A rock knocked me out. The demons made me chose one of three identical doors. Angel was behind one. Monsters behind the others. I thought I picked right. But it was Angelus. We fought." She stopped overcome with disgust at herself, and spat the rest. "I ran." Her face crumpled and she held her breath, fighting the raggedness that crept back into her breathing. Giles heard the change in her voice, saw the pain she fought to deny. "Oh my God, Giles. I don't know what to do. I don't know..." Giles impulsively wrapped his arms around her, and she hugged him hard in return, clinging to him. She pulled back, looking at his face.

"You must hate me. I failed you." Again, her mind added. Again and again.

"Buffy, I could never hate you," he looked as though he would say more, but his mouth twisted instead, and his eyes closed briefly as if against a burst of sudden pain. Buffy looked at him doubtfully, knowing that all of the loss and horror of the year before must be crashing against him, wondering whether he blamed her, hated her. She tried not to cry.

"I should have killed him. Damn it! I should have when I had the chance. This is all my fault. This is my fault." She burst into tears, harsh sobs that rocked her body with their force. Her lips twisted into a grimace, and she gulped on each burst of sound she uttered.

Giles sat back on his heels, his face carefully blank. Nausea twisted in his stomach, and he felt as if a hand squeezed his heart in an unforgiving grasp. He wanted to speak, but it was hard enough to breathe. He closed his eyes, and behind his eyelids he found Angelus' smirk, he felt again the searing pain of Angelus' touch on his body, he saw Jenny's eyes staring into his own from a bed of rose petals, her neck tilted at an impossible angle. He opened his eyes and found he had been holding his breath. His eyes rested on the Slayer, on the pain that incapacitated her, and he knew there was no time for fear. Perhaps tonight he would dream of things past, but right now, he would push it all aside.

He held out a hand to Buffy, and she gripped it tight in her own.

"I'm sorry, Giles," she whispered, her eyes watery, her face twisted and red.

"This is not your fault," Giles said, inserting as much confidence into his voice as he could. "This is some demon's game, and you can't blame yourself for that. We'll just have to figure out more about this demon. And you can take care of it once you kill Angelus." He spoke quickly, his tone clipped and businesslike. This was just another night, just another monster to deal with, same as always. Buffy smiled faintly.

"Right." She wiped at her cheeks, taking a deep shaky breath. "First we need to figure out how it happened?"

"You don't think it's the same way as last time?" Buffy snorted and raised her eyebrow in response.

"I seriously doubt the demons somehow forced him to...you know...with them."

"Well, it had to have been a moment of true happiness, didn't it?"

"I don't know. I don't see how he could have experienced that." Her brow furrowed. "It wasn't a happy situation."

"I'll look into it. There may be a way to strip the soul forcibly, and..." A knock interrupted Giles' train of thought, and he turned to look at the door. Buffy met his eyes, and hastily wiped again at the tracks of her tears, taking another shuddery breath. She nodded at him, and he moved cautiously to answer the knock.

"Who is it?"

"It's us, Giles," Xander's voice answered. Giles opened the door a crack, then wider when he saw Willow, Faith and Xander on the doorstep. They had obviously run; their faces red, sweat dripping from their temples. He nodded to each of them and stepped away from the door. Willow offered a tiny smile as she slipped inside, but Xander's jaw was set, his mouth in a hard line. Faith swaggered in after them, her hands tucked in her back pockets.

"Did you have any problems getting here?" Giles asked as the others gathered next to the couch. Buffy sat up, tucking herself into a corner of the sofa, the blanket tight around her body. Willow sat next to her, extending her hand, palm up, and Buffy grasped it eagerly. She answered Willow's hesitant smile with an unexpected hiccup, the remnant of her tears, then turned up the corners of her lips briefly. She nodded to Faith, then looked back down at the hand she had joined with Willow's when Xander steadfastly refused to meet her gaze.

"No action," Faith said with a disappointed shrug. "It looks like the sun'll be up in about half an hour so I'd say we're good for another twelve, maybe thirteen hours."

"You said something about Angelus?" Xander's voice was cold and hard. Buffy winced, then forced herself to speak, forced her voice to steady itself.

"He's back."

"How? You had sex with him?" Xander asked, his voice growing even colder, each word dropping against Buffy's ears like stinging hail. Her eyes narrowed.

"Of course not. How can you even ask me that?"

"It's a legitimate question, B," Faith interjected. "Last time he lost it when you guys did the nasty, right? So, don't get all offended innocence here."

"I don't expect any of you to understand," Buffy snapped. "But I would never put you guys in danger like that. Knowing the consequences. You think I *like* not being able to sleep with my boyfriend?"

"No, we don't. That's kind of our point," Faith said with a shrug. "Self-control can only take you so far, B. Sometimes even you must be dying for a little....ugh!" She thrust her hips forward and smothered a grin.

"That's quite enough," Giles said, raising his hand in a calming gesture. "There is no point in attacking one another. We have a dangerous enemy, perhaps more than one, to face, and the situation will not be improved by jumping to conclusions and accusations." Xander lowered his eyes, and stood silent.

"What did happen, Buffy?" Willow asked softly.

"I don't know exactly. We were captured by demons, and I had to choose a door. They told me Angel was behind one. But Angelus was behind the one I chose," Buffy said. She spoke quickly, spitting out the words before they had a chance to hurt her. Angel was gone. She had to simply face that fact. She lifted her chin and glared, forcing Xander to meet her gaze.

"How could they just turn Angel into Angelus? That doesn't make sense," Xander said skeptically.

"I know it doesn't. Don't you think I know that?" Buffy asked, her face reddening. His jaw twitched as he took in her bloodshot eyes and her ragged appearance. She was clearly on the edge, still shaky, still in pain. He clenched his fist, fighting against the sympathy that threatened to overwhelm him. He had warned them about something like this, and he couldn't afford to just let it go. This time, it had to end.

"Perhaps if you describe the demon you told me of in more details I could alleviate some of the confusion," Giles said.

"Right," Buffy agreed. "Well, it was huge for one thing. Maybe ten feet tall, with horns even taller. Really hairy. And its voice... I didn't actually hear it with my ears. It was in my head telling me things while I was unconscious, and I remembered them. Its voice was really loud, but beautiful too. Overpowering."

"Are you sure you didn't just imagine the voice while you were out cold?" Faith asked with a smirk.

"It wasn't like that. I can't describe it."

"That's all well and good, and I hate to say I told you so, but we have an evil vamp on the loose with the hobby of killing your friends," Xander interrupted. "Again. What are you going to do about that?"

"I'm going to take care of it," Buffy said softly

"Like you did last time?" Xander asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Shut up, Xander," Willow ordered.

"I'm just trying to make sure it doesn't happen again."

"It won't," Buffy said firmly.

"Agreed," Faith said. She cracked the knuckles in her right hand, and smiled slowly. "I'm actually looking forward to getting a crack at him. Seeing as how I missed out on the fun last time." Willow shook her head, her lips tightening with anger. She squeezed Buffy's hand in her own.

"What about the curse? I can do it again." Xander opened his mouth to answer, but Buffy beat him to it as a decision that had been forming slowly snapped into focus.

"No." Willow looked at her best friend, a little hurt by the rejection. "Nothing to do with you, Will. I'm really grateful for the offer, but it's too late for that."

"Buffy's right," Giles agreed. "When we thought we understood the trigger, there was reason to hope the change would not happen again. But now..."

"It's too dangerous," Buffy finished. "We can't risk him coming back again after this." Her lower lip twisted briefly, but she kept the tears from falling. "Besides, maybe Angel's happier wherever he is. And it's not like any of you are going to miss him." She smiled bitterly at the floor. Giles and Willow glanced at each other, hurt tightening their features. Xander squeezed the bridge of his nose with his fingers, but none of them denied it. Buffy drew in a breath through her nose and expelled it in a forcible sigh, but did not apologize. Then she continued in her professional tone of voice. "The most important thing right now is to make sure we revoke the invitations right away instead of waiting like last time."

"And make sure Cordy and Oz know about this," Xander added.

"What about Wesley?" Willow asked. They all hesitated, not wanting to deal with the new Watcher's attempts to control their actions.

"It would be almost impossible to keep it from him," Giles said resignedly.

"And there's some chance he could help," Willow added with reluctance. "With the research or something."

"I guess we have to tell him," Buffy decided.

"I can do the revoking spell," Willow offered.

"And I'll start researching this demon. The voice sounds familiar; there are only a few breeds that communicate without speech," Giles said, his mind already cataloguing the books which might hold promising information.

"I'll make the calls to the others," Xander said.

"B and I'll talk strategy. We've got a vamp to dust," Faith concluded.

"Great," Buffy said. "That's everything I guess." They all stayed where they were a moment longer, the unsaid words lying heavy between them. But none of them felt ready to say the things they all knew were there. Apologies, accusations, anger, guilt and pain filled the room around them. But those emotions would have to wait until it was over, until the pain had faded enough to be spoken. Xander's hand jerked, as if he would extend it, but he turned away instead and walked to the phone. His movement spurred the others. Giles touched Buffy on the shoulder as he crossed to the stairs. Willow gave her friend a quick hug, pulling away when she felt Buffy shudder against her. It was too soon for comfort. Kindness and sympathy would only bring the pain into stark relief. Buffy smiled at her friend, brushing a strand of red hair out of the witch's eye, thanking her silently. Then Willow went to the bookcase to find the spellbook she needed. Faith plopped into her place on the couch, and Buffy braced herself. It was beginning, and this time she would end it before anyone got hurt. She rolled her head from side to side, cracking her neck.

"So," Faith said, "what's it like?"

"What're you talking about?" Buffy asked.

"I mean, your lover's dead, but you kind of have to kill him again." She pulled a piece of gum from her pocket. "That's gotta suck."

"Yeah well, I've been through it before." Buffy snatched the gum from Faith's hand, and popped in into her own mouth. "Don't think I can't handle it, because I can."

"I'm not trying to say that," Faith answered. "But if you have any problems, this time I'll be there to finish the job. Like insurance."

"Don't get cocky," Buffy said. "You don't know him. He could rip you to shreds."

"So what's his weakness?" Faith asked, pulling out another piece of gum. "He got any?"

"Me," Buffy answered; the smile that tugged at her mouth was cruel, almost a snarl, and Faith laughed.

"Oh yeah, B. We're gonna have fun with this one." Buffy's smile faded, but she forced it back in place. She thought of the people she had to protect, and of the damage he had done last time. She thought of his smirk, and she thought of his arrogance. She let herself be warmed by her hatred of him. Her eyes grew hard, the tears long dried, and she faked a punch at Faith's arm.

"More fun than a barrel of monkeys," she said grimly. She wasn't going to think about Angel's smile, or his gentle touches, or his arms around her, or falling asleep next to him, or... No, she wasn't going to remember any of that. Not until it was over. She'd kill the enemy, just like she always did. This was no different. Maybe afterwards, it would be. Maybe then she'd remember. But she'd already wasted enough time and tears and chances. It would not happen again.

* * * * * *

At some point the tunnels had turned into the sewers and eventually Angel had found a ladder leading out. He had been forced to stop a few times, sit against the wall of the tunnel and catch his breath, or wait for the weakness that clutched at his limbs to pass. Then he'd continue, his hands outstretched, his steps slow and careful. Now, he was in familiar territory. He pulled himself up the last rung of the ladder with shaky arms and pushed against the manhole cover. It didn't budge. His jaw clenched in frustration, and he fought the urge to simply give up now. He heaved against it, exerting all the strength he had left, and the metal disk lifted with a stubborn scraping sound. He pushed again and jerked back instinctively as a shaft of the pale, early morning sunlight entered the sewer. The sudden movement almost made him lose his grip on the ladder, and he cursed his stupidity, regaining his hold and moving out through the manhole into the street.

He lay for a moment on the asphalt, which was already beginning to warm in the early morning light, and looked up into the brightening sky. He smiled up into the light blue above him, and a delighted laugh burst from his throat as he took in the streaks of pink and yellow that still highlighted the horizon. Part of him still quavered in fear, expecting at any moment to feel himself burn as the rays of sunlight hit him, but the larger part of him basked in the warmth of the sun on his face.

The quiet roar of a car interrupted the moment, and he rose to his feet as quickly as he could, staggering to the sidewalk. There, his knees buckled, and he sat down heavily on the grass of someone's lawn.

He looked around him, exhaustion claiming him, his limbs heavy and aching. His head dropped and hung between his bent legs and a wave of dizziness swept him. He looked up again, the sunlight dazzling his eyes this time, painfully brilliant. He squinted, blocking some of the light out and tried to read the street sign above him. Where was he? He turned to check the number on the house behind him, and felt one of the cuts on his back reopen. Wincing, he pulled himself to his feet and began to walk with shambling steps toward Giles' apartment. Only two blocks away. He shaded his eyes with his hand, and it helped a little with the glare, but it was still difficult for him to see. Each step was a struggle, but somehow his muscles kept working, though he kept expecting them to simply stop.

It seemed impossible that the building was so close, for he felt he had been walking forever. Like a dying man in the desert with water only a few feet away, the last remaining distance seemed interminable. The glare of the sun made his head pound, everything around him was too bright, too jarring. His muscles betrayed him, reluctant to perform any task he asked of them. Pain ripped him apart, every nerve ending seemed awake and abused. There was nowhere he didn't hurt.

He came within sight of Giles' house, and his slow pace quickened. He was almost there. Almost home. He stumbled across the lawn, breaking into an almost run, and his body rebelled. He doubled over, retching into the lawn, the bright blades of grass rubbing against his face and nose. He vomited into the earth, the acid burning his throat and mouth, the smell so strong his eyes filled with tears and his nose stung, the effort of his clenching muscles leaving him even more drained. He pulled himself closer to the apartment on his hands and knees, still gagging though there was nothing in his stomach.

Crawling, he reached the door and tapped weakly on it. There was no answer, and he knocked again, his fist thumping against the barrier. He tried to call for help, but it came out a croak. He thought he heard movement behind the door, but he couldn't be sure if it was real or imagined. He wondered if he would die on the doorstep, so close to being safe. Then the door creaked open a bit, and Buffy's beautiful bright blue-green eye peeked through the crack. He felt himself smile despite the pain, but the eye disappeared and the door slammed shut, and he felt consciousness slip away.