disclaimer in part 1

It's not a habit, it's cool, I feel alive
If you don't have it you're on the other side
I'm not an addict (maybe that's a lie)

Free me, leave me
Watch me as I'm going down
Free me, see me
Look at me, I'm falling and I'm falling.

Not an Addict
-K's Choice

Three Doors
by Rebecca Carefoot

Part Five

Buffy stood with her left hand frozen around the doorknob and her right pressed flat against one of the designs that marked the wooden surface of the door. Her eyes were wide, her irises rimmed with white; her breath came too fast. Dimly she heard the others speak behind her, asking her what had happened, who it was. The voices ran together, indistinguishable through the roaring silence that blanketed her, separating her from the texture of the world. Then she heard her own voice.

"Give me a stake."

Her voice rode over the others, silencing them. She felt questions rise in their throats, held back only by her commanding tone. She heard movement behind her as someone advanced. Someone else lifted the cover of the weapons chest and sifted through its contents. Buffy raised her hand as the stake flew past her head and caught the weapon in a clenched fist without turning around. She couldn't afford to turn around, to allow herself to be distracted. She had to concentrate on the door, and on what was beyond it.

She stared at the grain of the light brown wood in front of her; she did not blink. She pictured what she had seen just a moment before. She had only seen it for a second, or half a second, but the image was branded into her mind's eye. She studied the memory, wondering if she had imagined it, if her grip on reality was slipping. It was him, if anything was out there at all, if it wasn't a dream, it was him. She had known before she even saw his face. She closed her eyes for just a moment, the better to see the image locked inside her head. He was hurt. She opened her eyes.

Somehow in the time it had taken her to run here, he had been hurt. She had not been the one to do it. The realization that she was offended by that shocked through the narrow focus she had forced herself into. She had a right to him, a right to be the one who hurt him or killed him, a right she did not like some nameless other being usurping. She acknowledged its foolishness but was unable to deny the feeling. She dismissed it and jerked open the door again, the stake raised. If he was hurt it would simply be easier. She felt a body next to hers and recognized it as Faith. She did not bother to look, concentrating her gaze on the door as it swung open, watching the spot on the doormat where she knew his body had lain.

And still lay.

Her muscles tensed and relaxed all at once; she felt the relief of knowing she was not hallucinating and the terrible anticipation of what would come next, terrible because she both dreaded and desired it. She knelt and reached over his head to drive the stake unwavering toward the target offered by a patch of sunlight that rested over his heart.

She stopped the motion with the swiftness of Slayer reflexes; the stake touched the shirt that lay on the chest inside which hid his heart. She frowned. Sunlight. She looked over into the courtyard in front of her, up into the nearly cloudless sky, as if she would trace the path of the rays that angled under the overhang to prove they came from the sun. She felt rather than heard Faith move in on his side for the kill.

The decision was made before her awareness caught up with her, before she realized she had made one at all. She simply moved. Her hands made contact with Faith's arms, blocking the attack the girl began, knocking her stake away. She heard the anger in Faith's voice, then heard the others move through the doorway and into the fray, but was too distracted to care. Something wasn't right, something didn't fit. She placed her hand over the patch of sunlight, feeling the warmth from above...and from below.

His skin was hot, feverish, nothing like the dry chill she expected. She pressed her hand harder against his chest and felt movement under her fingertips. Not the movement of consciousness, but the vibration of his chest from the thud of a heartbeat. She gasped in slow motion, drawing in a long breath, and began to lean over him, to place her ear to his chest. Someone grabbed her from behind and tried to pull her away. She struggled against the pull, fighting to maintain contact just a few seconds more, to feel it again.

"Buffy, get back." The world that had seemed so far away and hazy a moment before snapped back into close focus. She recognized the voice as Xander's. The hands that pulled her then were Giles'. Willow hesitated in the doorway. Faith had retrieved her stake, and advanced on the unconscious body.

"No." Her voice was softer than she expected. She pulled one arm free of Giles' confining grasp. "Listen." Her voice was louder now, but Faith continued to advance. "STOP!" It was a raw scream, made painful by the desperation that tightened her throat. Giles' grip loosened for a moment, and she tore her other arm free. Faith paused, her foot planted on the man's abdomen, her body crouched and her hand raised to strike. She looked up at Buffy, her eyes glittering.

"I will kill you," Buffy promised, her voice roughened by the scream.

"I'd like to see you try," Faith said, unmoving. "Just because you can't kill him, don't give you the right to threaten me."

"Let her do your job if you can't," Xander agreed.

"Listen to me. I'm not some incompetent nutcase," Buffy said, turning to bat at the hand Giles extended to grasp her arm. "I'm the Slayer."

"Then act like it," Xander said, motioning at the body beneath Faith's foot.

"Or let a real Slayer do the job," Faith added.

"There's a difference between Slayer and murderer," Buffy said, anger heating her words. "It you were a real Slayer you would be able to focus on more than the kill."

"And if you weren't so high and mighty you'd remember that slay means kill. That's what we do, B."

"Get the hell off him."

"No," Faith spat. The two Slayers locked gazes, testing each other, their bodies clenched tight with tension.

"Then explain to me why there's sunlight hitting him and he has a heartbeat, or I will take you the hell off him."

"What do you mean?" Giles asked, moving to lean over the body. Faith looked briefly down at the prone figure beneath her, then returned her gaze to Buffy, her eyes narrowing. Willow knelt and placed two fingers against the pulse point on his neck.

"The sun in coming in from there," Buffy said, pointing. "And I heard his heartbeat. Something weird is going on."

Willow looked up, her eyes wide. "It's true, his heart is beating."

"I know that," Buffy said, frustrated. "If any of you trusted me at all..."

"It doesn't matter if he's in a human body or a vampire one," Xander interrupted, with a scowl. "Angelus is still a killer, and it's your job to kill him."

"That doesn't make any sense," Willow interjected. "Giles, he couldn't be Angelus if he's human. How could the demon be in a human body without making it a vampire?"

"How could he have lost his soul without having a moment of true happiness?" Giles countered. "None of this makes any sense. His humanity proves nothing."

"But..." Buffy began.

"But we cannot kill him until he's regained consciousness and we have a chance to question him about how this has happened," Giles finished. He looked at Faith and she eased her foot off Angel's chest, then stood up. Her gaze clashed with Buffy's, and she looked away.

"No hard feelings, B, but I still say we should just kill him while we have the chance. Once he's awake all bets are off."

"Look at him," Buffy said. "He's not exactly in shape for Olympic level fighting. He's bleeding and unconscious, when he wakes up he's going to be too worried about how crappy he feels to do any damage. If he's even still evil."

"Are you certain he was not human when you fought him?" Giles asked.

"Yes. Well, no," Buffy amended. "I didn't take time out to listen to his heartbeat if that's what you mean. But I don't see how a human could have stood a chance against me in a fair fight, and he stood."

"A little bit heavy on the Slayer cockiness?" Xander asked with raised eyebrow.

"You wanna try me?" Buffy returned, with a tight smile. Xander shook his head.

"Point taken," he said. "We still can't be too sure."

"We'll carry him up to my bed and immobilize him," Giles commanded. "It's impossible to determine anything while he's unconscious."

"I'll do the immobilizing," Faith offered. "Tying men to the bedposts is my specialty." Willow rolled her eyes, and Faith curled her lip at the redhead. Buffy stepped between them.

"Help me carry him up," she said. She slid her arms underneath his, inhaling the scent of him beneath the dirt and blood as her nose was buried in his hair. She pulled his torso up and locked her hands over his chest, hesitating as the familiarity of his body under her hands struck her like a crashing wave. She clenched her teeth and tightened her grip. Faith grabbed his legs; Willow held the door open as they lugged the body through. They carried him up the stairs, hoisting him a few steps at a time. Buffy noticed Faith's grip was none too gentle, and she wondered why she should care. Xander was right; Angelus was a killer no matter what shape he was in. But... She couldn't stop the thought from coming. What if it wasn't Angelus? If somehow whatever had taken his soul had continued to change him. He was human.

She shivered. The idea of Angel being human was something she'd barely dared hope, something relegated to her wildest of dreams. And now that it was actually true, it tasted sour. She had gained what she wanted, but not for the man she loved. Fate had once again twisted her dreams until they were unrecognizable, giving what she desired for Angel to the thing that had killed him instead. Her lip curled as the two Slayers pulled his leaden body up the last step and moved toward Giles' bed.

Giles entered the room carrying a pair of manacles. His footsteps faltered. The monster lay helpless in the bed where he had once placed Jenny Calendar's body, only the rose petals were missing. Giles allowed the briefest flicker of pain to cross his face as the irony struck him. Then he handed one pair of irons to Faith and used the other to lock their prisoner's right hand to the bedpost. Faith did the same on the other side, and they both moved back to survey their handiwork. Faith smiled, baring teeth.

"Looks good on him." Buffy studied the figure on the bed, her head tilted. She willed him to wake up, to settle once and for all who or what he was. She had found the strength to live with killing Angelus, but she could not bear this uncertainty. She needed to know that she could hate him; she needed to separate him from the man she loved. This human who lay before her with his arms forced above his head, his face slack, blood still seeping sluggishly from a few of his wounds, this human was vulnerable. This man was warm. She could not bear the hope that sprung up with every labored breath he drew. She hated herself for hoping, and cursed herself for a fool, but she could not keep the anger she needed blazing. Her body strained to clean and comfort him, to heal him, to brush the limp, filthy strands of hair from his eyes, to lie next to him on the bed, mingling her warmth with his, listening to his heartbeat until he woke.

She turned away, and left the room, hurrying down the stairs on stiff legs. Giles followed her down, and put his hand on her shoulder when he caught up with her in the living room. Xander and Willow came out of the kitchen and waited while Buffy turned to face her Watcher.

"Buffy?" His voice was tentative, the question implied rather than spoken.

"I'm fine," she said absently.

"I believe Faith can handle the situation," Giles said. "You don't have to be here." There it was. The confirmation. They didn't trust her, didn't believe she could do the job. And she wasn't sure they were wrong.

"You think I should have killed him out there?" It wasn't truly a question, but she phrased it as such. Giles' jaw clenched but he shook his head, and she looked to Willow who reassured her with the shake of her head. She turned her gaze to Xander. He shrugged, and she knew if the decision was his this would have ended last year. And she would have lost the time she'd shared with Angel after he'd come back. Was the time worth what was happening now? She bit her lip.

"I just want to know what's going on," she said finally. "Last time the man I killed was not Angelus; I just want to make sure this time before it happens again. If it's possible that Angel is human..." she trailed off, her hands clenching. She shouldn't dare to hope, to speak it, or even think it; her hopes were always crushed.

"And if it's not him?" Xander challenged. "Can you kill him?"

"I'm not supposed to kill humans," Buffy said. "But I will if I have to."

"He's not doing this to himself," Willow pointed out. "And as a human he's not as big a threat, so shouldn't we be focusing more on who did this and what they're going to do next?"

"How can you be sure he didn't figure out a way to do it himself?" Xander persisted.

"Yeah right, Xand. Like he's going to give up all his vampire strengths and beat himself up."

"Well so far it's doing a good job of tricking you!"

"You don't know that."

"Children," Giles chided. "It seems obvious that the demon you encountered in the caves is the key. Somehow it is manipulating all of us." The Watcher returned to the book he had been reading before the knock on the door. "I'll continue to research, and perhaps whoever is upstairs will offer some sort of help when he awakens."

"How are we supposed to tell whether he's evil or not anyway?" Xander asked. "All he has to do is lie and pretend."

"I think I can tell the difference," Buffy said, wondering if she spoke the truth. She hadn't been able to tell the first time she'd seen him, when he'd cut her with the harsh words she'd believed were her lover's, when he'd tarnished the night they'd spent together. She winced at the memory, then shook her head slightly. She knew him better now.

"Great," Xander said, unconvinced. "Your judgment is always so clear when it comes to Angel."

"Oh, like yours is so great," Willow snapped. She challenged Xander with a look, then went to join Giles at the pile of books on the coffee table. Buffy and Xander locked eyes for a long moment, then he turned away with a disgusted sigh. She glanced at the others, then at the stairs. Her first instinct was that Angel needed some medical help. She gritted her teeth. He could easily be her greatest enemy, and she shouldn't care whether he was hurt or not. But what if... She stopped herself, and faced the others, this was getting her nowhere. She moved to pick up one of the books, but stopped as Faith's voice interrupted the silence.

"He's waking up."

* * * * * *

Angelus knelt before the fireplace in the mansion on Crawford Street. By the time he had emerged from the tunnel into the outskirts of the forest, he had been able to taste the dawn on his tongue. The mansion offered the closest shelter, though he knew it would be the first place Buffy would look for him. The place stank of her, of memories, of his soul. But it would offer safety from the sun. And he would leave it soon enough, find a new place to stay, a place less loathsome. He would begin to make his presence known in Sunnydale once more. The other vampires would need to be reminded who their master was. He smiled.

This was his favorite part, gathering the minions, forcing other vampires to obey him. He loved to dominate them, to hurt them, to kill some, to prove to both them and himself that he was more skilled, more vicious, more evil than they. Once he had them, the charm would fade. It always did. Their stupidity would begin to wear on him; maintaining command was not as much fun as gaining it.

He stabbed at the still flaming embers of the fire with a poker, the orange tongues licking at the length of metal. He knew she would come, but he did not prepare. He did not move or worry. He only stared at the fire as it ate at her clothes, the change of clothes she had left after getting soaked once during a routine patrol. The fire crackled and spat as it consumed the cloth that had once covered her body, as it burnt away the scent of her. Angelus watched the material turn to ash and bared his teeth; he imagined her face in the flames, her body consumed, her bones turning to dust. He stirred the fire again, otherwise completely still.

She would find him if he stayed; a part of him wanted to be found.