PART NINE: Equilibrium
"Uh…guys…. timeout! Angelus and Buffy are having the ultimate smack down, while we stand here arguing like school children," Lorne informed the group, as he watched Buffy and Angelus battling inside the hotel lobby.
Wesley shot up from his kneeling position beside Cordelia, having been trying to fix her restraint after Connor's attempt to remove them.
"She'll need our help. Where's Willow and Giles?" Wesley asked.
"We're here, barely standing, but we're here," Willow said, approaching them from behind with Giles in tow. Giles held his hand to the side of his bruised head, trying to ignore the throbbing pain that emanated from it.
"What happened?" Fred asked, urgently, as she caught sight of the marks around Willow's neck.
"Angelus. We tried to stop him going after Buffy," Willow revealed.
"She can handle him," Connor said through gritted teeth, as he clutched at his wounded leg.
"Yes, she could if you hadn't injured her by acting so impetuously," Giles said, glaring at Connor. Without warning, he lunged forward and grabbed Connor by the neck, violently jerking him closer, "Young man, you are foolish. We are trying to avert an apocalypse here. There is no room for individual whims or selfish passions. Heroes don't exhibit that sort of behaviour. Buffy understands that and realizes that killing the Beast Master is our only option. Heed this; I have no reservations about ridding us of anyone who compromises our chance of defeating this great evil."
"You're all too late," the Beast Master spoke.
And, before anyone had the chance to react, the Beast Master broke her restraints, stood, and raised her hands, emanating an invisible force that formed a barrier between she and the group.
"Points for trying though," she said with an evil grin, as she turned on her heel and sauntered back towards the hotel lobby.
"Willow, break this down!" Gunn yelled.
"Trying," Willow, replied, as she began to utter words in Latin.
"Buffy!" Giles whispered in fear, at what lay before his already-weakened Slayer.
Angelus crashed into the reception desk and landed hard on his side. He growled at Buffy as she approached him.
"Not feeling your bad-ass self?" she asked as she watched Angelus struggle to his feet.
She shot out her foot to ensure he stayed down. He saw it coming and grabbed it throwing her backwards. Buffy used the momentum to flip herself backwards and she landed flawlessly back on her feet.
"You can't win this," she told him.
"A little cocky are we, Buff?" Angelus responded as he attempted a roundhouse kick at her. Buffy sidestepped it and smirked at his continuing failure to assault her.
She launched an onslaught of well-executed kicks at Angelus. Each one made contact. Each one drove him back further. Within moments, he was on his knees. But, Buffy knew better than to relent when it came to Angelus. It was what he expected of her, and, thus, it was exactly what she didn't do. She continued to attack, violently bloodying him despite his attempt to block her hits. She was too fast, too strong now. It had been five years since they had last battled one another, and the opponent he faced now was far more experienced, had far more power than the woman he had fought to his death back in Sunnydale those few years ago.
As Angelus reeled on the ground, Buffy moved in, and grabbed hold of him, "Sorry, Angelus, I don't have any more time for this."
She threw him with all her Slayer strength into the weapons cabinet, causing the doors to break, and the glass to shatter with ear-splitting force. He lay there, unmoving. He was down for the count.
Just as she was about to turn around and make her way back to the courtyard someone blindsided her, holding her steady for a mere fraction of a second, before plunging a knife into her gut.
She gulped and slumped to her knees.
Her attacker stood in front of her, glaring down at her with aversion, "I told you, you would not stop this. Pity, that you came so close," the Beast Master/Cordelia spoke.
Buffy cringed, holding the offending weapon in place to prevent it from slicing further into her skin. The pain was excruciating. She fought the urge to collapse.
The Hotel Courtyard
Willow remained at work, concentrating her power against the barrier that confined them in the courtyard. Within a few moments her eyes glazed over and her pupils dilated. Her eyes morphed into utter blackness.
Giles looked on warily, praying that she could control the magicks she was channelling.
"It's working," Wesley realized.
Gunn readied his weapon, preparing to charge into the hotel the instant that the barrier was broken.
"Uh, guys, we're out of time," Lorne said, as he moved his gaze towards the scene inside the hotel lobby.
The group followed Lorne's line of sight and were shocked to see Buffy on her knees, clutching her gut, with the Beast Master standing victoriously over her.
"Willow?" Giles cried, anxiously.
Willow didn't respond. She remained in deep concentration. She screamed some choice Latin phrases as her head flew back and a blinding flash of light shot through the barrier. She'd succeeded. The barrier was down.
Inside the Hotel
The Beast Master walked towards Buffy and retrieved the sword that lay beside her. She picked it up and held it at her side. She grabbed Buffy by her hair, forcing her to look at her.
"I wonder if this time you'll stay dead, Slayer. Well, third time lucky, right?"
Buffy knew she had an instant to react before the sword made contact with her neck. She glanced around her. There were no nearby weapons. Then, realization dawned on her and she looked down at the knife that protruded from her stomach.
"Buffy!" Giles shouted as the group entered the hotel lobby.
Buffy was in such great pain and a state of shock that she barely heard the group enter the lobby. The situation at hand was all she could focus on; all she needed to focus on.
As soon as she saw the Beast Master drop her shoulder, indicating that she was about to strike, Buffy yanked the knife out of her stomach and, without missing a beat, plunged it forward, deep into the Beast Master's heart. She twisted the blade and forced it deeper before violently yanking it back out. She couldn't take the chance that the Beast Master would recover from it. And so, she did not.
The Beast Master fell hard on the ground beside Buffy. It was over. The Beast master was dead. Cordelia was dead.
Buffy heard the gang approach, the commotion surrounding her, the tears of devastation at Cordelia's demise, the intensity of emotions filling the room. Her vision started to blur and no matter how frequently she blinked she could not clear it. She was aware that she was losing consciousness. She glanced over at Angelus. He was still unconscious as Gunn and Fred reached him. She looked down at her wound. She knew it was severe, even for a Slayer. She saw Wesley and Giles kneeling down beside her. And, that was when she passed out.
Angelus had been defeated. The apocalypse had been averted. Her job was done. The mission was all that mattered. Now she could rest.
Next Day – Angel's Bedroom
"Buffy?" Giles voice called quietly, as she slowly awoke in Angel's bed.
"How are you feeling?" Wesley's voice added.
Buffy glanced around the room, to see the entire group, aside from Connor and Angel, standing about her bedside, with looks of great concern masking their faces. She tried to sit up, but she was still very sore.
"Uh…. I'm okay. A little achy, but good."
"It's over. No more pending apocalypse for L.A.," Willow informed her.
Buffy responded with a smile, but lacked the energy or strength to offer anything more at that point. Giles saw the pain that she tried to conceal from the group, "Let's leave Buffy to get some rest," he urged them.
"Thank the Gods for that super healing power of a Slayer, eh?" Lorne said.
"Quite so," Wesley agreed, glancing at Buffy with great gratitude.
As the group headed towards the door it opened, and there stood Angel.
"Angel?" Buffy asked hesitant to believe that is was Angel who stood at the door and not Angelus.
"Bruised and battered, but with soul…again," Angel confirmed.
Giles nodded at Buffy in reassurance.
"Mind if I…." Angel began, addressing the group.
"Of course," Wesley said, ushering everyone out of the room.
Angel closed the door and approached Buffy. He sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand in his.
"Welcome back," Buffy told him.
"Thanks. Listen Buffy, I think we need to talk about-" Angel began.
"Don't Angel. We're fine."
"It's just, what happened between us…. well, Angelus and you….was, uh…"
"Gross and disturbing?" Buffy finished.
"Pretty much, but there's just something I need to know."
"And, that is?" Buffy pressed.
"It was all just part of your plan? Nothing more?"
"Let's just say, I wasn't manipulated into anything."
"What does that mean?"
"I think it's best if we just leave it at that."
Angel paused, trying to determine if they should just let it go. After a few moments of consideration he deemed that their relationship was far too complicated as it was. It was best left alone.
"Angel, as weird as I found the situation between you and Cordelia I know how much you cared for her. I'm sorry that it came to this. There was no other choice."
"I know. Another friend down who I couldn't save," Angel said, turning away sadly.
"It is our price, Angel," Buffy told him, "It's the road heroes walk. We gain allies, we lose friends, but in the end, we are always at a distance. It's the only way it can be."
"Life of an immortal slayer and a two-hundred and fifty year old vampire with a soul?" Angel replied, cracking a gentle smile.
"Something like that," Buffy agreed, smiling back.
Angel leaned into Buffy and kissed her softly. She responded instantly, and kissed him back until they both broke away slowly, a few minutes later.
As Angel got up to leave, so Buffy could get some rest, he turned back to her, "Thanks for not killing me."
"Fortunately, you being unconscious was enough."
"Lucky," Angel said.
"It was, because, Angel, I didn't hold back and I will never. No matter what was between us, I will always be there to stop you when you cross that line," Buffy admitted, sombrely.
And, with that, he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. He had a lot of damage control to do downstairs. His people needed him.