Chapter 28: By What Standard?

Cordelia and Buffy walked side by side down the side walk. For the first two blocks they'd remained silent with each collecting their thoughts.

Surprised at Cordelia's lack of chatter, Buffy grew concerned. "I know why I wanted out of there, but why'd you follow? You two not get along in Sunnydale?"

The brunette's inner monologue burst both. "I can't believe she came all the way here. I mean, I probably should. Her and Angel were always buddy buddy, but she could've just called. She should have called."

Buffy's eyes smiled with compassion. "So, I'm not the only one avoiding her past."

"When you made yourself the belle of Hell town, I could deal with that because you saved my life and didn't intentionally mess things up for me."

"You're so sure about that."

Cordelia remained unamused. "Faith killed things alright, but I don't think she ever really saved anybody - oh, I tried giving her a chance. Unlike Xander and Willow, I didn't see the problem. You bailed and we got the replacement."

Buffy blanched, but again, Cordelia remained focused on her rant. "But she didn't care. Over and over, she left us to clean up her mess; you know, she was mean to Giles? And, she slept with Xander! I mean, sure, we were already broken up then, but it's just good people policy not to sleep with friend's exes. Of course, in her mind we probably were never friends. I'm not good enough because I've never killed people."

Buffy's frown deepened with concern. "How long do you think she'll be here?"

"An hour, a month? I don't know. She's not a big planner." Cordelia threw up her hands. "She meant to visit Sunnydale for a weekend and ended up staying two years."

"Well, L.A. doesn't require her services."

"Oh, that's not why she stayed. She was just having too much fun playing with all of us: Giles and Angel and Xander. The girl even tried to seduce Oz. Killing demons is her way of passing the time in between keggers."

Buffy grumbled, "I don't need another teen making trouble."

Hearing her bitterness, Cordelia spoke in a low voice. "Kids still having police troubles?"

"I have charm and reason on my side, but I don't know all the ins and outs of our legal system."

She started scuffing as she walked. "They didn't just lose a lawyer, they lost a father figure. They all feel abandoned, but I can't help because for some of them, I'm the problem. I'm the reason he left."

Cordelia frowned. "What did you tell them happened?"

"I didn't mention firms or magic - just that we realized our lives were going in different directions. He couldn't leave work behind and I refused to force myself into a life which didn't have room for me. In the end, Linds and I decided a clean break was best."

Only Buffy could make their crazy lives sound remotely normal.

"Aren't you worried they'll try and talk to him?"

"They've tried. None of them have gotten through, though." Buffy shrugged. "Whatever messages they left won't reach him. If they've ever seen him on the street, I'm sure the firm has extracted him before they made contact." Cordelia looked at her curiously. Buffy explained, "I read the paperwork; Wolfram and Hart is taking full responsibility for keeping him untainted."

The details of her divorce were a mystery to everyone but Buffy and Wesley. The slayer's penchant for secrecy didn't surprise her, but she didn't think it helped any either.

Honest to a fault, Cordelia asserted, "You need to tell them what happened."

Buffy's posture became defensive. "Information is dangerous. As long as they're ignorant, they're not targets."

"You don't know that. You know nothing about Lindsey's bosses."

"Which is why I'm minimizing my risk. I can live with the kids hating me. But I won't jeopardize them - at least not more than I already have." She hung her head. "The contract was explicit about what consequences could come from me trying to undo what they did. I'm not going to fight a battle I can't win."

"Lindsey would try for you."

The statement sounded so ridiculous, Buffy actually laughed. "You and Angel are so sure about what Lindsey would do - what he'd want me to do. Exactly which one of us was married to him?"

"You honestly think he'd agree with you lying to them?"

"He's a lawyer; he lied for a living. As long as the kids are safe, he doesn't care what rules I break. In a choice between our child's safety and a moral code, we'd both pick our son."

"Enough with the mamma bear syndrome. I get it, you can lift cars to save a toddler."

"Slayer, remember? I could do that before I was pregnant."

"Being a mom doesn't make you right all the time."

"Being Cordelia doesn't make you right either."

She smirked, "Pregnancy makes you say the strangest things."

They both laughed and left thoughts of ex-husbands and law firms alone for awhile.

Buffy reached down to hold her hand. "I'm betting your issues with the other slayer aren't one-sided."

"Oh, I'm sure she hates me too. Our mutual dislike is the one thing we do share."

"Things are going to come out okay. We just have some stuff to work out."

"Some people you mean."

"Them too."

Faith stepped out of Angel's office looking bewildered. She scanned the main room. "She gone already?"

Wesley presumed she meant Buffy though Miss Chase was also absent.

"Working this late was an exceptional circumstance."

He watched her close the office door behind her. Obviously she and Angel had finished for the night. No doubt his boss remained inside with crossed arms fretting over this new complication..

"You try to ship off this slayer too?"

Unaffected, he continued leafing through texts. "She hasn't tried to kill anyone, so no."

"I've saved more than I've killed." Her confusion quickly mustered itself into irritation. "She could have saved hundreds these past years, but instead, she runs off to play house. How can a watcher be okay with that?"

"I'm not her watcher. Since the council terminated my employment, I'm no one's watcher."

"So slayer slacking doesn't bother you."

"Why does it bother you? You wanted to be needed and belong. Well, now you're it: the one girl in all the world. . ."

Her eyes narrowed. "Those protective vibes I'm picking up?"

"Buffy and I are friends, something you and I never were."

"I get it. Girl's gotta be knocked up to catch your eye. I shoulda pegged you for the mamma type. That swollen gut just make you want to -"

He closed his book abruptly to stop her crude tirade. "You asked why I don't reproach her for abandoning post; it is because unlike most people I've met, including you, she actually gives a damn - about her family, friends - about everyone she comes into contact with."

"You're forgetting the part of the story where she left them unprotected on a hellhole."

"I know it must have been hard to read a file with so many big words, but even you're poorly educated mind must have been able to suss out the concurrent apocalypse. Prior to departure, she saved her mother, her friends, you and I and everyone else on this ungrateful planet from being sucked into Acathla's hell dimension. If she wanted to retire to Tahiti afterwards I wouldn't think less of her."

"Saving the world is part of the gig."

"Not yours. How many apocalypses have you averted" He saw her about to answer and waved his hand, "Ah, without anyone else in the room to back you up?"

After a moment of silence, her mouth tightened into a firm line. "I got time."

"Alas, you really don't. In her first three years of slaying, she stopped three apocalypses - that we know of. Even if you eventually prevent more, you will still be the late bloomer."

"But I'm still in the game. We don't all tap out after the first round."

"You haven't even completed a whole two years, yet you claim to have lasted longer. If you had completed high school or even obtained your GED, you might be able to recognize the contradiction or at least be able to count."

"Screw you."

"So refined."

Her brows raised at his lack of sputtering. Wesley Price wasn't the same pansy from Sunnydale. "Good to see you've found your inner ass. It's about time."

Calmly, he reached for another text. "Your behavior disgraced the council as well as your calling. You endangered civilians -not to mention the world and made it so I can no longer serve the organization I pledged my life too. Under such circumstances, I'd say I've been the epitome of hospitable." He looked up casually. "Dictionary is on the shelf should you need it."

Rolling her eyes, she waved and walked. "I'm out of here."

"It's been a pleasure." He returned his eyes to the text and continued the work Buffy and him began.

His boss didn't wait long before coming out of hiding. Although, they often put off conversations, Angel thought it best to have this one out now. They way they didn't start having it during an apocalypse in hearing range of an audience. Besides, they'd put this particular one off for far too long.

So, he stood in the doorway and waited for Wesley to acknowledge him.

When Wes finally spoke, he didn't look at him. "Does she plan on staying here?"

"It's not like she has other friends in town." Warily he started the conversation. "I know things are awkward between you two."

Wesley's frowning eyes met his. "Aren't they for you?"

Steadily, he answered, "Things between Faith and I are fine."

"You baffle me." He pushed the book away and sat back looking incredulous. "I recall you worrying yourself into knots over the actress, but getting involved with another slayer, that doesn't pose a problem. I agree," he murmured sarcastically, "Buffy won't mind a bit."

"Faith and I were never involved."

"Looked like it from my perch. The many late night patrols. . ."

Angel rolled his eyes. "Because I could really help with the midday ones."

"The one-on-one training . . ."

"Which you suggested and started. I guess that means you bedded her too."

"She was chained to your wall for two days!"

He raised a brow. "A night, a day, and part of another night to be exact, and if you hadn't rushed the place, it might have done some good."

Wesley scoffed, "Because everyone knows bondage is an effective therapeutic technique."

Angel spoke low and slow. "I did not take advantage of Buffy's replacement."

Wesley regarded him seriously. "I don't doubt it was consensual."

"Faith was never in a frame of mind to consent." He shook his head. "She's still not. Any line crossing would have been taking advantage. If I wanted solace from despair, it wouldn't have been her."

Wesley heard his conviction as well as what it mixed with . . . "But there was a time that you considered it."

"You look at Faith and see a dangerous woman." Wearily, Angel leaned against the door frame. "I've always seen her as a child, a confused girl who was given more power than she could handle."

"That describes every slayer." He looked at him meaningfully. "They all start out children, but that didn't stop you."

Finally, the conversation they both had tried to avoid . . . the one every watcher would wish to have with him if they knew the facts.

"Buffy was different. She was and always will be the exception."

It was a promise, but more importantly it was the truth. He acknowledged the sordid facts to himself and the story behind them.

He was 243 years old when he courted her; she was seventeen and a slayer. By definition that left her socially isolated and emotionally vulnerable; he knew that from the beginning and still he let their relationship progress . . . because he loved her . . . because she could love him . . . because without knowing its significance, he knew they would be happy together.

Wesley swore, "Still, it should never have happened."

Angel regarded him warily. A relationship between a centuries old vampire and a human minor transgressed every known divine and mortal law. By that standard Wes was right.

"On that you and I agree, and for breaking the natural order, Buffy and I suffered the punishment: we both found ourselves in hell."

Wesley realized how ill-timed this conversation was. Angel had sinned, but since then, he had suffered and repented. Judgment now could do no one good; it only agitated his deepest wounds. "I'm sorry."

"Following a heart that doesn't beat, why did I think it would end differently?"To show he held no ill-will, Angel smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.

As Angel receded into the shadows, he left Wesley with an unpleasant realization. They both considered a union between Angel and Buffy as unholy, but Angel still held it as a poetic vision deep within his soul. He recognized tragedy tainted it, but regret never left a mark. The consequences grieved him but not enough to make him regret their causes.

Angel admitted it should never have happened; still, if he had his way, it would happen again.