"What do you mean you're leaving?"
Buffy stared at Riley with hurt and confusion warring on her face. Why was this happening? What had she done wrong? Why had Riley insisted on the entire team being there for what was essentially the Great Dump? A little privacy was warranted here.
She knew her relationship with Riley hadn't been the best of late and she was partly to blame. Before she had come out as the Slayer, so much of her life had to be hidden from him. It was mostly okay; they made do with the time they had. Then her hand had been forced and she'd had to reveal herself.
Ever since, tension had become a third wheel. She knew Riley no longer trusted her absolutely, which she understood; still, she was bothered that he had kept his own secrets and didn't feel the need to apologize for them. Some crap about national security.
Well, she didn't give a rat's ass about national security. Not when it had made a really scary demon robot which had tried to kill her and her friends.
She also knew Riley resented her power, that he wasn't the stronger of them. She'd had enough of macho posturing in her relationship with Angel; she wasn't going to put up with it now. She hadn't chosen to be the Slayer, the decision had been made for her, as had so many decisions in her life. But she had been chosen and decided a while ago that she was going to be the best Slayer she could be, whether Riley liked it or not.
So much had been swept under the rug and Buffy knew she was as much to blame as him. They had convinced themselves they would deal with it later, but they never had and now later had come calling. Each had thought their love was strong enough to get them through this, but maybe it might not be.
Riley blushed and ducked his head. "There's a lot I haven't told you, Buffy, that I haven't told any of you. I was ... I was scared."
"Why?" asked a curious Xander. He was feeling very anxious over whatever was about to happen. Over the course of the last year, Riley had become his best friend, something he had at first resisted, believing it would be a betrayal of Jesse's memory. As much as he loved Buffy, as loyal as he was to her, Riley held a very special place in his heart.
"It would have been used against me."
Buffy and Willow stared as Giles' brain kicked into high gear.
As usual, the first to put the pieces together was Xander.
"By Maggie," he said darkly.
Riley clenched his teeth, jaws flexing, as he gave a sharp nod.
Buffy glowered. She hated that woman. Even in death, her specter haunted them.
"What did she have on you?" Willow asked softly.
"My brothers and sisters," Riley admitted.
Buffy's eyes widened. "What?" This was certainly news to her.
Riley sighed and took a seat on the sofa. "My real name is Riley Hummel. I took my mother's maiden name when I enlisted. I'm from Ohio, not Iowa." He bit his lip. "Two days ago, my father, stepmother, and stepbrother were killed in a car accident. Drunk driver."
Willow gasped as Buffy suppressed a strangled yelp.
"I'm so sorry," Giles whispered.
"Thanks," Riley said tightly. "My birth mother left when I was five. I don't know why and my father never told me. I never saw her again. Two years later, my father remarried a wonderful woman named Suzanne, whom I consider to be my real mother. A year after that, she gave birth to my brother Kurt and sister Quinn."
"Twins?" Xander asked.
Riley nodded. "They're fifteen. The next year, my parents decided to adopt. They wanted another child but were told that, after the twins, she wouldn't be able to get pregnant. They wanted to give a home to a kid who really needed one. They didn't care if it was a boy or a girl."
He took a deep breath. "They applied with agencies in both China and Korea and were approved by each, so they decided to take a chance. They thought Mike and Tina could be regarded as twins, despite their different nationalities, that they would be as close as Kurt and Quinn. Right after they were approved, Mom found out that, somehow, she was pregnant. By the time we got Mike and Tina, she was almost due with Brittany. She went into labor, but ... "
Xander swallowed heavily, his heart hurting for his friend. He looked quickly at Buffy and Willow, each of whom had tears slipping down their cheeks.
"She didn't make it. Brittany was delivered by C-section." He put his head in his hands. "Dad was so amazing. Six kids and he made it work. He owned a chain of auto shops, but was always there for us. We never wanted for anything, especially love. Even though Mom was gone, even though the triplets never knew her, we made sure they knew she loved them."
"Triplets?" Buffy asked quietly.
"Mike, Tina, and Brittany are only weeks apart." He shook his head. "They decided when they were four that three were better than two. They were always a little jealous of how close Kurt and Quinn are, built-in best friends by birth, so they decided to introduce themselves as the Hummel Triplets."
He burst out laughing. "I think part of them just wanted to see the dim, confused look in people's eyes when they told people they were triplets, especially because they don't look anything alike." He pressed his lips tightly together. "They're really great kids."
"And Maggie threatened them," Buffy said, her words a statement and not a question.
He growled. "She did. She wanted her power over me to be absolute, so I would be loyal only to her."
"What a bitch," Willow hissed.
"So you're going back to Ohio," Xander said sadly.
Riley nodded. "I have to. If I don't step up, the kids will be put into foster care, probably separated from each other." He snorted. "There aren't a lot of foster families in Lima willing to take in one teenager, let alone five, and I'm honestly scared of what Kurt and Quinn would do if they were forcibly separated."
Giles slowly crossed the room and put a strong hand on Riley's shoulder. "Five children is a great deal of responsibility for such a young man to assume. I completely understand and even applaud you for wanting to do this, but what about the practicalities? What about money?"
Riley waved him off. "Money isn't a concern. Mom was the only child of an old French family who had more money than they could ever count. After she died, it all passed to Kurt, including the title, as he's the firstborn and first male heir. He and Quinn are too young to inherit their trusts, so I'll oversee them until they're of age."
Giles nodded. "Well, that's sorted, but still, Riley, this is a huge undertaking for you. I'm concerned. Of course we'll miss you and we understand your decision, but we can't help but worry."
"I can't bring them here, Giles. It's too much. I worry about Dawn every minute she's out of our sight. I'd go crazy with my siblings on the Hellmouth."
Buffy understood. Her fear for her sister was omnipresent.
He sighed. "But I have to get them out of Ohio. It's not safe for them there and they're slowly suffocating."
"Why wouldn't it be safe?" asked a concerned Xander.
"Kurt and Brittany are gay and Tina is bisexual. The comments toward the girls have been ... inappropriate and salacious, but the abuse to which Kurt is subjected is quickly escalating toward physical violence."
"Dear god," Giles muttered, shaking his head.
Willow in particular took this very hard. "You have to get them out of there, Riley."
He nodded. "I know."
Buffy came over and sat down beside him, resting her head upon his shoulder. He immediately wrapped an arm around her. "Where will you go?"
"I was thinking about San Diego. Aside from the earthquakes, California has a lot to offer." He grinned. "Apart from Maggie, I've certainly enjoyed being here."
She gave him a fleeting smile.
"The kids have never been to the beach, never seen the ocean. San Diego is more liberal than a lot of towns and I've found a terrific charter school in which I think the kids would do well. I have a telephone interview scheduled with the Vice Principal in a few weeks. She seems really nice and understanding. The kids are so far ahead in school, I can pull them out now and they won't suffer. They need the time, and I need time with them.
"The new school has a great program in the performance arts. All the kids play instruments and sing, but Kurt is easily the best, and Mike and Brittany are amazing dancers."
"Do you sing?" Buffy asked.
Riley reddened and refused to answer. "Musical education was really important to Mom. Dad was tone deaf, but he could appreciate music and made all of us take lessons to honor her. I'm glad he did."
Buffy knew she couldn't change his mind and really had no interest in doing so. He wasn't leaving because he didn't love her; he was putting his brothers and sisters first, which is exactly what she would do for Dawn. She would miss him horribly, but didn't begrudge his decision. She wasn't that much of a hypocrite.
"What are they like?" she asked quietly.
A huge smile overtook his face as he quickly pulled out his phone and began scrolling through the pictures. Everyone gathered around him.
"This is Quinn. The twins are almost sixteen."
"She's beautiful," said an admiring Buffy.
"She's a cheerleader and kind of the alpha girl of the school. She's extremely smart, slightly manipulative, and can be vicious with her words, but she has a good heart. She loves her family and will fight to the death to protect anything she considers hers. She's been able to keep most of the jocks away from Kurt. They're terrified of her."
Xander's breath hitched. "Cordelia," he whispered.
Willow automatically flinched but Buffy thought the comparison apt.
Riley laughed. "From what you've told me about Cordy, Xan, if anyone is like her, it's Kurt." He flicked his finger, scrolling to the next picture.
"Whoa," Buffy and Willow murmured in appreciation.
Riley looked at the picture fondly. "He's beautiful, isn't he? He hates being called pretty, but he's too, well, pretty to be considered handsome. Kurt is the head cheerleader, a certified mechanic, and is easily the smartest kid I know. He's incredibly devious, but he has a dedication to the truth which can be terrifying in its totality. He says what he thinks, does what he wants, and doesn't care what you think about it or him. It doesn't endear him to many people, but he really couldn't care less."
Xander nodded. "Yep, that's Cordy."
"A male Cordelia," said a thoughtful Willow.
"That's actually kind of awesome," said Buffy, nose scrunched up.
"He's the glue that holds us all together," Riley continued. "He's closest to Quinn, but we're all close to him. Sometimes it's like he's the big brother, not me."
"When's the last time you saw them?" Xander asked.
"Far too long," Riley said gruffly. "I didn't go home too often because I know Maggie was having me watched. I didn't want to draw her attention to them any further than it already was."
"Riley," Xander said lowly, "are you sure your father's accident was an accident?"
Buffy and Willow gasped while Giles gave a short nod, suggesting he had been pondering this as well.
Startled, Riley looked up and stared into Xander's eyes. "Maggie's dead."
"But the Initiative isn't."
Riley scowled. "What's the advantage? They already knew I wasn't going to re-up when the time came."
"Maybe it was a warning to keep your mouth shut and your nose to the ground," suggested a hesitant Xander. "Do we really know who's running the Initiative now? With Maggie and Adam gone, what's the mission? Why remain on the Hellmouth?"
Buffy was going to find their new headquarters and kill all of them slowly.
"No," Riley said, grabbing her hand. "Stay away from them, Buffy. Xan's right. We don't know what they're after anymore, but we do know they're aware of all of you, of what you can do."
Xander gave an owlish blink and turned toward his best friend. "Buff, they might know about Angel and Cordy."
Buffy inhaled a sharp breath. "I'll call."
She looked around. "Where's Anya, anyway? And Tara?"
Xander looked away. "Anya is leaving Sunnydale."
"What?" Riley asked. "Why?"
"It doesn't matter," Xander muttered.
Buffy and Riley exchanged a worried glance, but decided not to press. A glare from Buffy kept Giles and Willow silent.
"We're going with you," Xander announced.
"What?" Buffy asked.
"With Riley. To Ohio. We're going with him." He turned to his friend. "Your father just died. You have five kids to take care of. You need help. The Hellmouth is quiet in the summer. We can spare the time."
"You don't have ... "
"Yes, we do," Buffy interrupted. "I want to meet your family, Riley. I also want to pay my respects to the man who's responsible for one of the best people I've ever known."
Riley flushed, his eyes becoming very bright.
Cordelia stared blankly at the scene before her.
Sure, she had always suspected Angel was just a little bit gay and, hey, Doyle certainly wasn't a surprise, but this was kind of an apocalypse and not the best time for them to be locking lips. If they wanted to be together, she'd happily wave a rainbow flag and be their best hag, but they were on the clock.
A flummoxed Angel stared into Doyle's eyes. "What the hell?"
Doyle winked. "It wasn't good for you?"
"Vision. Let my princess go, Boss."
Angel frowned. "What do you mean? What did you see?"
"Death. Hers. And with her, goes the world. I'm deadly serious about that, by the way. I'm going to die, Angel, and in my stupidity, I was going to kiss her goodbye and declare my undying love. I would've given her my power and she would have died, her mind and soul raped to death by something that's been grooming her for this moment ever since Sunnydale."
Angel was horrified. "I'll protect her."
"You can't. You want her safe? Let her go. I'm begging you, Boss. Do it now before it's too late. Let her live."
Angel looked away. Over the past year, Cordelia, who he had once so easily dismissed as nothing but a vapid bimbo, had become the best friend he'd ever had; the only one he'd ever had. She was so brave; foolish, yes, but courageous. She was intelligent but had common sense, a mixture not often to be found anymore. She was funny; cruel, but hysterically funny. She made sure he never slipped too far into his brooding or maudlin moods.
He needed her. He needed her desperately.
"She will die," Doyle repeated, "and if that happens after I warned you, then it will be your fault. You will have killed her. Can you live with that?"
Angel swallowed heavily.
"Send her home. Send her back to the boy, the one you both love."
Angel took a deep breath and stepped back, eyes wide.
"He'll protect her," Doyle continued. "He'll give her a home." He stepped back and decked his friend, watching the vampire tumble to the ground, rather proud he had accomplished it. "Got to go. Destiny and all. Tell her I loved her, Angel and, just so it's clear, I loved you too."
And then he was gone and Cordelia was screaming and Angel just wanted to die.
Two days later, Riley stood at the airport gate with his friends, saying a goodbye he'd had no idea would hurt this badly. Xander and Buffy were coming with him, but Giles, Willow, and Tara were staying behind to keep an eye on things.
The three had come to the airport to see them off, along with Anya, Joyce, and Dawn.
Joyce was terribly upset that Riley was leaving, that his relationship with Buffy was coming to an end. She had grown very fond of him, had believed he was the normalcy for which Buffy had so longed and craved, but circumstances were driving them apart. She understood, of course, and applauded Riley for his unselfish decision. She knew how hard it was to be a single parent to two children; she couldn't imagine doing it for five. Still, she knew he would do well.
He was a good man, a strong man, and perhaps, with luck, one day he and Buffy might find their way back to each other. She had hugged and kissed him goodbye, demanding he stay in contact and that he was to call her with any questions or concerns. He might be gone from their sight, but not from their hearts.
Most upsetting, however, was Xander. Over the years, he had become the son she'd never had, the one she'd always wanted, and she had the nagging feeling that this would be the last time she'd see him. Somehow she knew he wasn't coming back. She didn't say anything, she knew better than that, knew that Xander himself had yet to make the decision, but she knew it was coming.
Part of her was relieved. The kids were no longer in high school and the stakes were rising. Xander had long ago accepted Buffy's mission as his own and been the first to stand at her side without question. But now it was more dangerous than ever and Xander didn't have Slayer strength or magic to protect him. If he stayed, he would die, and Buffy would go insane.
As much as her daughter needed him to balance and check her, Joyce knew if anything happened to Xander, neither Buffy nor Dawn would survive it. So, as much as it pained her, she was willing to let go of one child to save the others.
She watched as Dawn clung to Riley, saying goodbye to yet another father figure, though as yet unacknowledged, and knew her youngest child's path was going to be almost as difficult as that of her eldest. At least Buffy and Dawn would have each other, if they ever managed to shut up long enough to realize just how alike they were.
A very confused Riley currently had an armful of Anya and was overwhelmed by the strength her slight body possessed. Truthfully he was surprised she had deigned to come along. She was leaving Sunnydale and everything she knew of this mortal life behind. He didn't think she cared enough about him to wait and see him off. Then again, Xander had always insisted they had never really known Anya, just as Buffy and Willow had never known Cordelia.
"Take care of him for me," she whispered into his ear. "He loves you, you know."
Riley blinked. "I love him, too. He's my best friend."
She pulled back and offered a mysterious smile which he couldn't comprehend.
Riley, Buffy, and Xander exchanged hugs with the others as the boarding call was announced. Xander couldn't figure out why Giles was holding on to him so tightly.
"I know I've been remiss in never saying it," Giles whispered into his ear, "but I have always been very, very proud of you, my boy."
Xander pulled back and stared into the older man's eyes. "Giles?"
Giles took Xander's face in his hands. "You are a good man, a strong man, and it has been my great privilege to watch these past years as you've surpassed my every expectation."
Xander wanted to cry. Why was he saying this? Why now?
Giles gave an embarrassed shrug. "I watch. That's what I was trained to do. I never ... I never thought I would have children of my own, Xander, but I have you and Buffy and Willow and Cordelia, and I'm so grateful for all of you. I love you very much."
Xander threw himself at him for another hug and Giles thought the boy's parents were absolutely stupid for never appreciating the gift they had been given.
She cocked her head to the side in disbelief, sure she hadn't just heard his voice. But she had.
They all turned and found a stoic Angel escorting a silent and somber Cordelia toward their retinue. It was obvious something was very wrong.
"Angel?" she asked. "What are you doing here?"
He looked at Cordelia and, in response, so did the others.
"What happened to her?" Xander barked, pulling her into his arms.
"An apocalypse," Angel said, jaw working furiously. "Doyle died."
Buffy reflexively took his hand. "I'm so sorry."
"He had a vision before he went. Something is after Cordelia, something serious, probably to use her against me. Doyle said she would die if she stayed with me."
Buffy could hear the truth behind the words and it terrified her. "What else did he say?"
Angel turned away. "He told me to bring Cordelia home."
"To the boy we both love," Cordelia finished, wrapping her arms around Xander.
A surge of jealousy infused every cell of Riley's body.
Buffy shook her head. "What?"
"It doesn't matter anymore," Xander said slowly, looking to her. "We made our choices years ago."
She stared at him, then at Angel, and then at the two of them. And she knew.
All of the fights. All of the mocking sneers and insults. All of the times Angel suddenly appeared to save Xander. That it was Xander who forced Angel to take him to the Master's lair to save her. That it was Xander who always accompanied her when she had to save Angel.
That horrible day in the mansion when Xander had stood before her and lied to push her to do what they both knew must be done. She had known it was a lie the moment he uttered the words. She was his best friend and he hers. They knew each other in ways no one else did or ever could; not Giles, Willow, or Cordelia.
She hadn't understood the pain in his eyes that day. She had assumed it was for her alone, his pain that she would be forced to put down Angel to save all of them, but now she saw it for what it really was. Their pain at losing the man they loved.
He had put it aside as he always did, as he had so much - Jesse, Cordelia, Faith - to be her first lieutenant, her stalwart soldier.
But he was right. They had all made their choices long ago. She had just never considered until this moment the cost, that they had perhaps made the wrong ones.
She nodded and grasped Willow's hand tightly. Now was not the time for Willow's impetuous mouth to enter the fray.
Angel cleared his throat. "Why are you all here? Did ... did you know we were coming?"
"Riley's father, stepmother, and stepbrother were killed by a drunk driver," Xander said. "He's going home to care for his brothers and sisters. Buffy and I are going with him."
"I'm so sorry," Cordelia murmured to Riley, who nodded his appreciation.
Her sincerity struck the others dumb as her moments of true compassion always had.
"My condolences on your loss," Angel said.
"Thank you," Riley muttered.
Anya hesitantly pushed her way forward and pressed an airline ticket into Cordelia's hand. "I knew Doyle. He called me before ... well, before. You should go with them. You belong with Xander."
Buffy's grip almost drove Willow to her knees, but the witch kept her mouth shut.
Cordelia and Anya stared into each other's eyes for a long moment as they assessed one another. At last they nodded.
Anya turned to Angel. "You're going to need help. Doyle said another was coming, but not yet, so I'm going back to Los Angeles with you. I'm not a Seer, but I'm over a thousand years old and have forgotten more than you'll ever know."
Angel just stared at her.
Cordelia passed her keys to the other woman. "You can have my apartment." She was silent for a long moment. "You'll take care of him for me."
It was a command, not a suggestion.
And Buffy realized in that moment the bond that existed between Angel and Cordelia, how much they loved and cared for one another, that Cordelia was, in essence, Angel's Xander.
Cordelia's breath hitched as she disengaged from Xander's arms and threw herself into Angel's. "I love you. I love you so much and I'm going to miss you every single second of every single day."
Buffy had never before seen Angel cry.
"Call if you need help," she said. "Call me, call Buffy, call Ghostbusters, but call someone. You're not alone, Angel."
"I love you, too," he murmured into her hair. "You and Xander take care of each other."
She smiled. "We've been doing that since we were four, when Xander stole Willow's Barbie so I would have a friend."
Willow gasped softly. Since then? That was why?
Cordelia pressed a soft kiss to his cheek. "This time, tell him goodbye. Tell him how you feel."
Angel pulled away and scowled.
"You owe him that. You owe yourself that much." Cordelia left his arms and shepherded the others several feet away until Xander and Angel were alone, staring at each other.
"Did you ever wonder?" Xander whispered.
"All the time," Angel confessed, stepping forward. "Every second I was with you."
"Do you think anything would have changed?"
"I don't think we'll ever know."
"It doesn't really matter. We both chose her and it was the right decision."
Buffy turned away so they wouldn't see her tears. This was their time.
"I loved you," Xander said. "I really did."
"I know. I loved you, too. It just wasn't in the cards for us."
"Thank you for bringing Cordelia home."
"Her home is wherever you are, Xander. It always has been. I was just ... keeping her safe for you, as you've done for me with Buffy."
Xander nodded and turned to leave, squeaking when Angel yanked his arm and drew him close.
"This time, we do it right."
And then they were kissing and neither wanted ever to let the other go.
Angel felt something pass through him and into Xander. They both felt it, but neither knew what it was.
When it was over, they drew back and looked at each other.
"That was worth waiting for," Xander whispered, looking shyly at the ground.
Angel tilted Xander's chin up with a finger. "If you need me, call me."
Xander's brow furrowed. "Are we going to sing a Diana Ross song?"
Angel frowned. "Who?"
Joyce's wild laughter echoed all around them.
The flight was roughly six hours and Xander was concerned that Cordelia had yet to speak. Silence was not something he had ever before associated with her. When not dominating the conversation, she had a tendency to babble her feelings about any topic to hide her anxiety. She wasn't nearly as prone to babble as him, but she still babbled.
It was funny that he never before thought of them having that in common.
They were more alike than not, but over the years they had become so accustomed to others pointing out their differences, they had tended to focus only on those differences.
But it felt right, her sitting next to him, like he had finally come home. It struck him suddenly just how much he had missed her this past year. He, Willow, and Jesse had all grown up together, but Cordelia had always been right there with them, in their vicinity if not their circle.
He also noticed the ease they now shared, their companionable silence, which was peculiar. They hadn't ended on very good terms and, while they had wished each other well, they hadn't planned on seeing each other again. He wondered what they might have been had Willow not been in the picture, if they would have gotten together sooner. If they'd still be together now.
"How did you know?" he asked quietly. "About me and Angel?"
"I always knew," she said, for once without the know-it-all tone such responses normally engendered. "It was obvious if you knew to look for it."
He chewed on that for a moment. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"
She shrugged a shoulder and looked out the window. "You two chose her over each other. You made that decision before I was in the picture, so why would I pour salt in an old wound? I always wanted you to be happy, Xander, and selfishly, I wanted you for myself."
"I don't regret anything," he rushed to say. "I've never regretted us."
She flashed him a brief smile. "Me neither. When we were good, nothing was better."
He sighed and looked down. "I shouldn't have let her come between us. It was my fault."
"It was mine too. I knew you had feelings for each other, but I ignored them when I should have called you out. I could've fought for you. I should have. I let my pride stand in the way." She angrily shook her head and looked back out the window. "I was stupid."
"I should've controlled myself," he said bitterly.
"It wasn't the kiss, Xander. I could've forgiven that. It's that you lied. You lied about what you felt for her. We've all told lies, but I never thought you would lie to me."
He flushed and looked away. "When have you ever lied?"
"When I told you that we were a mistake, that I never really loved you."
"Why did you say it?" he asked after a long moment, his voice deep and hollow.
"Because I knew it would hurt and I wanted to hurt you. It was the only power I had left."
Silence fell again, both of them lost to their thoughts.
"How do you think Anya will do with Angel?" she asked.
"Well. The others never liked her. She reminded them too much of you. She was too blunt, too tactless. Too honest. She said things we didn't want to hear, but we needed to hear them. I listened and so will Angel. The others didn't, but I learned my lesson. Anya's voice never rang with the authority yours did, so it was easier for them to ignore her and dismiss her as an inferior version of you."
"Did you love her?"
He was silent for a moment. "Not the way she deserved, but, yeah, I loved her."
She nodded. "I'm glad."
"Are you two okay?"
They looked up to see Buffy looking kindly down upon them. She and Riley were seated six rows up from them and hadn't seen each other since the departure.
"Getting there," Cordelia said. "How are you?"
She sighed and leaned against the seat before them, which was vacant. "Sad. I don't know how to help him. I want to be there for him, but it's hard because I know this is the beginning of the end. At least there will be a goodbye this time."
Cordelia sighed. "Angel has never learned to say goodbye."
"I'm so sorry about Doyle," Buffy said. "I only met him once, but I liked him. He seemed nice. Funny."
"He was a good guy," Cordelia acknowledged, "and he went out like the hero he always wanted to be." She stared ahead at nothing. "He never saw himself as the hero he already was." She turned and smirked at Xander. "Seems to be contagious."
"I'm not a hero," Xander said.
"You're my hero."
He turned startled eyes up at Buffy.
She smiled. "You are. You have been from that first day when you asked if you could have me. I should have said yes." She sat on his armrest. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"Because I couldn't admit it to myself. There were a lot of things I could never admit. And it didn't really matter anyway. By the time I met him, he was already yours and that was fine. You were more important."
"I am not more important than you."
"Yes, you are."
She began to shake her head.
"You are," he insisted. "I'm only ever going to be support staff, Buff, and that's okay. It really is. I don't need to be a witch or a Watcher or a werewolf or anything else. I chose you because it was the right decision, and not once in any moment of pain or glory have I regretted that."
He smiled. "You have a great big destiny, Buff, and you need a big, grand love to go with it. You deserve it and you've earned it, but that could never be us. We'd just end up worrying and fussing over each other and it would drive us apart. We're better off as friends."
He smiled and nodded. "Best friends. Always."
She slid down onto his lap, leaning her head into his neck. "And what do you want?"
"Happiness. Kids. A dog."
Her eyes widened. "Wow, kids? Really?"
He laughed. "Yeah. I'd like to be a dad. I think I know what not to do."
A look of confusion crossed her face, which only deepened when she sensed the anger pouring off Cordelia. She was struck with realization and barely suppressed her rage at what she suddenly knew to be true and at herself for what she had either not noticed or ignored. She would talk about it later with him, if he'd allow it. When she returned to Sunnydale, she'd be paying a visit to his parents. They'd be lucky if all she did was talk.
"I should get back to Riley," she said softly, rising to her feet. She turned to Cordelia. "I'm glad you're here. I've missed you."
Cordelia gave her a look that was both appreciative and confused, one that summed up their entire relationship. "Me too."
She just wasn't sure who she had missed more: Xander, Buffy, or herself.
The jetway seemed to lengthen in his eyes, the exit clearly visible but suddenly so very distant. Each step echoed in his head like the beating of his heart and he knew that once he stepped into the airport proper, it would hit him.
His father was dead. He was an orphan. His brothers and sisters would need him.
He was so grateful for Buffy's strong hand in his, for Xander's solid presence at his side, and even for Cordelia. She too was in mourning. Her entire life had changed in an instant. She understood without having to use words and that moved him.
As soon as he crossed the threshold, he saw them. He wondered how they would react. He hadn't told them he was bringing anyone with him.
Kurt was the first to notice him. Kurt was always the first to notice everything. He immediately stood and ushered his siblings to do the same. He quickly adjusted Mike's collar, brushed back Tina's hair, and wiped Brittany's face with a handkerchief. Presentation had always been so important to him.
Riley gave his brother a hard look. Kurt was pale, but otherwise appeared fine. The distance in his eyes was the only clue as to his depth of suffering. He would be the rock, Riley knew. It was Kurt more than him who would see the others through their father's passing. He had always been the strong one, fighting for everyone but himself. He would get them through this, even if the cost was to himself. That was what Riley feared most.
Quinn clung to Kurt's arm, biting her lip nervously. She and Riley had never been particularly close, though they loved each other deeply. He was just enough older that he had always been more a parental figure to her than a brother. She was terrified of him finding out she'd had a baby only months ago and given it up for adoption. She still couldn't believe Daddy had agreed not to tell him.
Mike wondered as to the assortment of people Riley had brought with him, who they were and what they wanted. Kurt had warned them that Riley most likely would want to move them and Mike was already dreading and resenting being separated from his best friend Matt Rutherford.
He knew that, conversely, Tina couldn't get wait to get out. She hated Lima and always had. It was too small, too provincial, and frankly too white. She was tired of never seeing a face that resembled her own. She was tired of explaining that, while she and Mike were adopted, they weren't biological siblings just because they were both Asian.
Mike's experience was not hers. He had never known his family was different until it was pointed out to him by classmates. He had always known he had been adopted, but he loved his family. They were his life. He didn't care that he didn't look like them. He'd never wondered about his birth parents. He had been chosen and loved and that was all that had ever mattered.
He couldn't remember his mother anymore, if he'd ever even had concrete memories of her. He would look at pictures of her holding him and Tina and Brittany and couldn't recall her face or voice, but he was nevertheless always suffused with warmth at the sight of her. She had loved them so much, had wanted them so much, and he could feel that, even now.
He supposed his maternal figure was actually ... Kurt. Kurt had been mothering them for as long as Mike could remember, even though he, Tina, and Brittany were only a year younger. Their dad had always been a huge presence in their lives, but it was Kurt who had done the day-to-day stuff. Quinn had always been there, of course, but it wasn't the same. They loved her; they revered Kurt.
Kurt had made their lunches and done their laundry and read them stories and kissed their skinned knees. Kurt had held them after they had nightmares. He had studied with them and cried with them and fought bullies for them.
And that's why Mike could accept leaving, because this town was bad for Kurt, had been suffocating him for years, and he wanted his brother to be happy. Kurt deserved happiness and it was obvious to everyone he'd never find it in Lima.
Until this moment Brittany had never realized just how much Riley and Kurt looked alike. They had the same flawless complexions, though Kurt's was porcelain and Riley's sun-kissed. They parted their hair on the same side. They had the same eyes.
She burst into tears and ran into Riley's arms, feeling her stomach drop as he swooped her up and swung her around as he had when she was a little girl. She still felt like a little girl most of the time. She was the youngest, the baby, even though Mike and Tina were just weeks older. She was the one they had all doted upon, even Quinn.
She missed her father so much it was like a physical ache, a phantom limb. She'd wake up in the morning and would swear she heard him debating with Fox News. She would swear she'd catch sight of him from the corner of her eye and then went chasing after him until she remembered. She had taken to sleeping in his old shirts, feeling as though the sleeves were his arms around her, the scents of Old Spice and motor oil lulling her to sleep at night.
Riley set her back on the ground and was then swarmed by the others, save Kurt, who stood apart and kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. Riley gleaned that Kurt was now unsure as to his place in the family. For almost ten years, he had been the eldest sibling in the house. The others took their cues from him. Kurt must have been wondering what role he was now supposed to play.
"Hi, Nightingale," he softly said.
He had been calling Kurt that since the boy was barely two. Kurt began singing before speaking and even then his voice had been remarkable. Nightingales had the greatest range of any songbird and were said to be the most creative. In myth, nightingales were harbingers of versatile, complex melodies which were often melancholic, but the birds themselves were considered to be good omens.
The moment his father had placed Kurt in Riley's arms, Riley understood what love was.
And then Kurt was in his arms again and Riley knew it was the first time his brother had cried since their father's death.
"Guys, this is my girlfriend Buffy Summers, our best friend Xander Harris, and his best friend Cordelia Chase," Riley said, making the introductions.
Cordelia smiled at being described as Xander's best friend and Kurt was utterly entranced.
"You're beautiful," he said quietly.
"So are you," she said.
He turned his head, blushing.
"It's nice to meet all of you," Buffy said kindly. "Your brother has told me nothing about you."
All five of his siblings turned and stared at Riley, who flushed.
"Let me guess," Mike said, "it was classified?"
Buffy grinned. "Something like that."
"But you know the big secret, whatever that is," Quinn surmised.
A startled Buffy said nothing and turned wide eyes on Riley. They hadn't talked about what the kids did or didn't know and she didn't want to offer any details which might contradict his past statements. This was his rodeo.
Riley took a deep breath. "Buffy, Xander, and Cordelia are familiar with my assignment. They're actually kind of like my superior officers."
Mike and Tina blinked. Xander and Buffy stared.
"And how are you managing with that?" Quinn asked her brother. "A woman in charge, I mean."
Cordelia nodded her approval. "I like you. You score direct hits."
Riley's flush deepened. "I'm ... evolving."
Kurt rolled his eyes. "Okay, Obama."
Xander and Cordelia burst out laughing.
"Riley's not a misogynist," said a frowning Brittany.
"No, he's not," Buffy agreed. "He just ... wasn't prepared for what the assignment would truly entail and a lot of that was my fault. I had to keep things from him." She shrugged. "Classified."
Cordelia cleared her throat. "It's nice to meet all of you, though I'm very sorry for the circumstances."
"Riley's mentioned Xander and Buffy in his emails," Tina said, "but not you."
"For the past year, I've been stationed in Los Angeles," Cordelia said smoothly.
"What's it like there?" Kurt asked.
"Not nearly as glamorous as it appears. Believe me, you're not missing much."
Brittany cocked her head. "You're all lying, but I guess that's okay. You seem like real friends."
No one knew what to say to that, so they decided it was best to get a move on. It was a two hour trip back to Lima.
There was a small scene at the baggage claim when Kurt eyed their luggage and questioned how they were to fit all of it, and them, in his Navigator.
"We can just rent a car," Riley said, leading them over to the Avis station.
They promptly discovered, however, that none of them were old enough to do so. Riley, at twenty-four, was a year shy of the minimum age. He could serve his country for seven years, but not rent a car with his American Express.
"I'll call Santana," Brittany chirped, whipping out her cell phone. "She has a big truck because she's butch."
Kurt and Quinn snorted.
"Who's Santana?" Buffy asked.
"My girlfriend," Brittany said. "At least this week she is."
Buffy decided it best not to press that point. Luckily Santana was also in Dayton, doing some shopping at some of the better stores unavailable in Lima. She would arrive in under an hour, giving the others enough time to place a very large and costly Starbucks order. Their barista was named Kyle and he flirted relentlessly with Kurt, who was very confused and flustered by the attention. He was utterly mortified when he later noticed a phone number written on his cup.
"He was totally cute and so into you!" Cordelia said.
"He was too old for Kurt," said a gruff Riley.
Quinn rolled her eyes. "Kyle was adorable and sexy. You should call him."
"I'm not going to be picked up in a Starbucks," Kurt declared.
"Good for you," Riley said. "You're better than that."
"Kurt's the only virgin here, isn't he?" Brittany asked.
They stared at her, then at Kurt, and then at the table.
Riley, while thankful Kurt was waiting, was not ready to hear that his siblings - he had changed their diapers - were sexually active. He desperately wanted to demand the names and addresses of any and all partners, whether or not they had been safe, and were their father's guns still loaded. Still, he knew he should say something so he looked at each one of them in turn.
"All of you?"
Quinn and Mike looked like deer caught in headlights. Tina found the ceiling utterly fascinating. Only Brittany had the temerity to meet Riley's eyes, and she wasn't the first to look away. In all honesty, Riley wasn't that surprised. Brittany had been with Santana, off and on, since elementary school. He was actually glad it had been Santana, for at least Riley knew they loved each other. They just couldn't seem to make it last for any considerable length of time.
As for the rest, as far as he knew none of them had significant others.
"If it's any consolation," Xander said, "they've probably done better than we have."
Buffy and Cordelia nodded.
"Really?" asked an interested Quinn.
Buffy and Cordelia were too embarrassed to elaborate, but Xander had no such problem. "Sure. I've had two partners. The first I slept with only once. She was going through a lot of stuff and, when I went to her place to offer my help, she tried to kill me."
Mike laughed. He stopped when Xander didn't.
"Oh, my god," Kurt whispered.
Xander nodded. "I was saved by Buffy's ex, who, coincidentally, I had a thing for."
"Yikes," Tina murmured. She turned to Buffy. "So are you gay?"
"Nope," Xander responded for her. "I like girls and boys. Well, only three girls and one boy." He looked at Buffy. "I guess Angel counts as a boy."
Buffy and Cordelia tilted their heads and at last nodded.
"Uh, why wouldn't he count as a boy?" Mike asked. "Oh! He is transgender?"
"No," Xander replied. "He's just old. He's in his early three ... uh, thirties."
"And how old were you?" Kurt gasped.
Buffy and Xander flushed.
"About as old as you are now," Riley said.
"Hey, I was seventeen!" Buffy said.
"Me too!" Xander exclaimed.
The rest looked at Cordelia, who shrugged. "Only one and only once." She paused. "I didn't really think about it until just now, but he looked a lot like Xander." She scowled. "Minus the decency."
Xander and Buffy turned toward her and frowned.
"What aren't you saying?" they demanded.
She rolled her eyes and gestured. They leaned in and she whispered furiously.
"What!" they roared.
"I'm going to find him," Buffy seethed, "and make him suffer."
"It's not worth your time," Cordelia said.
"You're worth my time."
Cordelia offered a bashful smile.
"I'm calling Anya," Xander said. "She'll take care of it."
Buffy smiled poisonously.
"Angel already did," Cordelia said.
Buffy pouted. "Spoil our fun."
"How long have you guys been friends?" Tina asked. "I mean, you finish each other's sentences and everything."
"Almost five years running," Buffy said brightly.
"I wouldn't necessarily say we're friends," Cordelia said cautiously.
She smiled. "Well, at least not as long as you, Xander, and Willow."
Buffy nodded. "That's fair." She looked at the others. "Xander and I have been best friends since high school, along with another girl, Willow Rosenberg. Cordy was always a part of us, though. Even when she left for LA, she was still with us."
"Thanks," Cordelia whispered.
Buffy shrugged. "It's true."
"Willow and I had another best friend growing up," Xander said quietly. "His name was Jesse. He died not long after Buffy moved to Sunnydale at the beginning of sophomore year."
"I'm sorry," Kurt said. "What happened?"
"Gang attack," Buffy, Xander, and Cordelia immediately said.
"Rough school," Tina noted.
Buffy scoffed. "You don't know the half of it."
"And Cordelia was always with us," Xander added. "Jesse had been in love with her since we were seven. At the time, she and I were ... "
"Archnemeses," Cordelia interjected.
"That works," he nodded, "but after Jesse died, we put that stuff behind us and fell in love."
Buffy sighed. "But first Xander fell in love with me and Angel, I fell in love with Angel, Angel was in love with both of us, and Willow had been in love with Xander since forever."
"I was busy being awesome," Cordelia interrupted, examining her perfect cuticles.
The younger set looked at each other.
"And we thought Glee was dramatic," Mike said.
"Cordelia was really my first love," Xander, "and it was the only good decision I've ever made."
She nodded. "That's true."
Buffy and Riley laughed.
"So where are Angel and Willow now?" Kurt asked.
"Angel lives in Los Angeles," Cordelia said. "He runs a private investigation firm of which I was a partner. We had a third partner, but he was killed a few days ago on a case."
They fell silent at her admission, respectful of her grief.
"Willow's back in Sunnydale keeping an eye on my little sister, Dawn," Buffy said. "She's a lesbian now. Willow, I mean. Her girlfriend is named Tara and she's wonderful."
"Too bad Willow couldn't have come to that realization before stealing my boyfriend," Cordelia snapped. She looked up and forced a smile. "Still a little bitter."
"She broke you guys up?" Quinn asked.
Xander and Cordelia exchanged a look.
"I think it's more accurate to say we let her break us up," he said, "and even that's stretching the truth. I was just as responsible."
"And you took all of the blame," Cordelia barked. "She took none."
Buffy frowned. "That's true."
"Really?" asked a surprised Riley.
"We ... weren't kind to Xander during that time," she admitted. "I had unconsciously sided with Cordy and, well, I was always closer to Xan, so I was more disappointed in him. But Willow was just as guilty. She had a boyfriend at the time, but even he blamed Xander more than Willow."
Xander rubbed his jaw. "It still hurts when it rains."
"Oz shouldn't have decked you," Buffy said, "no matter how angry he was."
"Especially because Willow used a ... trick," Cordelia hissed.
Buffy's head swiveled toward her. "Wait, what?"
"Are you serious?" Riley demanded.
The kids had no idea what was going on but knew the conversation had much more depth than what was being said.
"Why didn't you ever tell me?" Buffy asked Xander.
He shrugged. "Because blaming ... that ... would have been the easy way out. No matter what was going on that night, I made my choice and it was the wrong one. I'll always regret it."
Cordelia gave a wistful sigh. "I'll always regret not ripping her kidneys out and feeding them to a stray cat."
Everyone stared at her until Brittany's phone began chirping.
"Sanny's here! I call shotgun!"