The Next Step


Summary: After tying up loose ends in LA, Wesley returns to Sunnydale High and confides his troubles to the new counselor.
Rating: PG
Story Notes: Up through Deep Down (Angel 4.1) and Beneath You (Buffy 7.2), after which canon and I go our separate ways. Follows Two Steps Back, Small Steps, and One Step Forward. For minim_calibre, who issued the challenge, and for Zortified, whose eloquent objections to where the characters started helped shape where they ended up. Thanks to thebratqueen for suggesting the title—sometimes the obvious escapes me. Thanks to viciouswishes for the beta read!
Disclaimer: All belongs to Mutant Enemy/Fox/Joss et al. I merely like to play in the no-network's-land of crossover.

Buffy wound her way through the basement corridors automatically. How many times had she done this? She didn't even have to count the turnings anymore, even in the M.C. Escher-with-Attention Deficit Disorder shifting maze that was the underbelly of the new, improved Sunnydale High. Buffy came to a second short flight of stairs and held onto the railing carefully. Nothing like losing your rapid healing to make you understand why combat boots don't come standard with Cuban heels, and this conversation was gonna be bad enough without making a hopping entrance.

She knew it was stupid to come down here alone like this. And if she hadn't known already, well, that was what she had Dawn and Xander for.

"It's stupid to go down there alone like that," they'd said. Well, more yelled.

Xander had even gone as far as "What, do you want him to -" before Buffy had turned The Look on him, and he'd suddenly remembered a very important bite of pizza that he needed to take right that second. Xander had very highly developed survival instincts. Buffy guessed almost marrying a vengeance demon would do that to a guy.

Dawn kept asking why she couldn't wait a day or two, until she was feeling better. It was a good question, and she didn't have a good answer. Or even a bad one, unless you counted, "I just have to." Which Dawn hadn't.

She didn't shriek. Buffy could've handled shrieking. She'd had lots of practice. She just gave Buffy those huge solemn eyes and said, "If you get hurt again and leave me alone, I'll never forgive you as long as I live." Which, she'd added, would probably be about a week without Buffy or Spike to protect her. And then she'd swept off to her room and slammed the door.

Buffy hadn't gone after her. What was there to say? Later, today, she'd go point out that she wasn't dead. Assuming, of course, that it was true.

But it had kind of put a damper on movie night, and it was hard to hear the dialogue with Xander muttering under his breath. Xander had loud breath.

Buffy guessed she couldn't blame them. Not like they'd gotten why she'd taken the wimpy shot in the first place. The Wesley they remembered was an overcompensating knock-off of Giles. A few distant nods in the hallway, or when Wes dropped her off at home, weren't enough to show them what he'd become.

Not like she understood it herself. But she'd given up on understanding what people had inside them[EM1].

Buffy thought she'd at least managed to convince them that they didn't have to get it, but she still had to do it. Or mostly Willow, the queen of where did that come from land herself, had. She'd sat through most of the shouting match with that sad, far away look she got these days.

But she'd raised her head when Buffy said she had to show Wes that she trusted him, and said to Xander, "I guess everybody needs a yellow crayon guy sometimes."

It was the first time they'd talked about that, at least when Buffy was around. Xander had turned all red and teary-eyed, and Willow had given him a long, hard hug. And, over his shoulder, she'd given Buffy a wink. She'd even kept Xander too busy with Nintendo to really argue when Buffy had taken off for Wesley's again instead of going upstairs to her own bed. Willow was a good best friend.

So Buffy tried not to think about the fact that she hadn't taken the stuff to show Willow that she trusted her. Or that, along with the really incredible sex, part of the reason she hadn't slept at home was that she still wasn't sure she did.

Was this walk taking a lot longer that usual or what?

Probably what. In bed with Wes was fine - okay, a lot better than fine. But as soon as she got out in the world, everything felt off. As long as she wasn't trying to fight stuff, Buffy didn't exactly feel weak — more disoriented. Like the way hearing your voice on an answering machine sounded wrong.

Buffy turned the corner, and there was Spike, curled up asleep on the air mattress she'd given him. Something in her chest gave a sharp squeeze.

She almost never saw him asleep. It was like he sensed her coming or something. Even when she'd been trying to sneak up on him - or sneak away, after - he'd open his eyes and give that infuriating smile and say, "Going somewhere, pet?"

That was how the whole post-coital punching tradition got started. But now he was dead to the world. Deader. Boy, he must really be tired, Buffy thought. I guess all the raving really takes it out of you.

Or - duh. He couldn't sense her Slayer powers because she didn't have them at the moment.

You know, she thought, there really isn't any rush. I could just wait till he wakes up on his own. Not that she was procrastinating.

She'd used the flextime that Wood had offered her in place of the even more flexible folding money to take a day off. After this she had a hunch she was gonna have her hands full figuring out what she was feeling, let alone total strangers.

Buffy carefully lowered herself to the floor, trying not to make any noise. Except for the whole heartbeat breathing thing, which she wasn't about to stop, even for Spike. But she figured if anything that would help with the sleeping. It worked for puppies.


Oh, yeah. Super balance was a Slayer thing too. Kryptonite Buffy crouched down okay, but she didn't stick the dismount. Her hand landed on the edge of the bare rubber mattress. The whole thing groaned and tilted, and Spike rolled toward her - and woke up.

"Slayer?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.

"Um, yeah. Hi. It's me. Obviously. I'm... I'm sorry I woke you."

"No! It's, I just wasn't sure. The dreams are so real. Are you real?" She could practically see the unspoken "this time" hovering in the air. Spike reached to touch her knee, and she flinched. And then he flinched, and snatched his hand away. And then she flinched at the flinching, and even Buffy could see this was going no place good.

"I'm sorry," they both said at once.

Buffy rushed into speech. "No, don't!" Too loud, again. She softened her voice with an effort - her chest felt tight, as if she had to force the words out. "Don't be sorry. Just - don't move."

Spike barely nodded. They sat in silence for a long minute, until her pulse slowed back to something resembling normal. "Just, stay still, okay?"

There was a hurt look in Spike's eyes that she had to ask twice, but Buffy couldn't spare the strength to deal with that now. She was too busy edging carefully around behind him. She saw his back tense - how come he could say more with his stupid spine than most people could with their whole bodies? She swallowed; she could do this.

Buffy sat on the edge of the mattress, which, of course, ballooned up on the other side and sent Spike sliding an inch or two towards her. She froze. Oh yeah. Definite savior of the world material here.

After a minute, she lay down, pillowing her head on her upper arm. There was maybe a foot between them. Spike didn't turn his head, but she could feel the back of his neck looking at her. The mattress did a little seasick dance and settled.

Right. Buffy took another deep breath. She couldn't remember what she'd done with the last one. She scootched her body ungracefully closer to him, making the plastic squeal again in protest, until her body was pressed up against his back, echoing his semi-fetal curl. She knew he could feel her heart tripping over itself, and hear her breath coming in shallow gasps. Maybe there was radon gas in the basement or something.

Buffy wrapped her other arm around Spike's chest and held on tight, not caring if she was painfully pinning his own arms. She was shaking.

So was he. Weirdly that lent her a little courage - enough to detach one thumb from the death grip and stroke the skin above his wrist soothingly.

"Hey," she said softly, "Hey, now. Sssssh," although he wasn't making a sound.

She felt a shudder run through him, and she realized he was crying - convulsed with it, and still trying to obey her, not to move. She should tell him it was okay.

She couldn't. She held on tighter. It was the only way she could hold on at all.

"I never thought you'd touch me again."

That was surprisingly sane sounding. Too bad she didn't have an equally sensible answer. I'm sorry? Neither did I?

"I can only say this if you don't look at me," she said at last, with a tiny laugh for the what goes around, comes around of it all. Spike in the church, hugging a cross; Buffy hugging Spike. Either way, searing, and the after-taste of smoke thick in her throat. Of course, that was the duster.

Amazingly, Spike laughed along with her, a wet gurgle of sound with an hysterical edge.

"You gonna tell me your big secret, love?"

"Something like that," Buffy's voice was quiet.

Spike's tone was as serious as her own. "Come to stake me, Slayer?"

"What? No!" Buffy lost the thread of her prepared speech. If that's what he was expecting, no wonder he got all tense when she moved behind him.

"I wouldn't have to hug you for that!" She pointed out indignantly.

His whisper was almost too quiet for her to make out. "Easier... if you don't see ... face."

"Well, still no. And I probably couldn't if I wanted to right now. I'm weak as a — non-strong person."

"What's wrong?"

"I took a dose of anti-Slayer medicine. Look," Buffy rushed on before he could ask her why too. "We can't go on like this. You need help and -"

"Don't deserve it." Spike interrupted.

Buffy tried to hold on to her temper. "Not really the point, Basement Bob. You need it, and I - can't give it to you."

"You think I can't tell but gold's too soft, it scars. I knew. I always know. It's always a good day at the end of the world."

"Stop it." Buffy could feel the hot prickle of tears starting. "Spike, stop!" She punched him in the kidneys. Her knuckles hurt.

"Turn over. Look at me." At least he heard that. Big pupils had all but swallowed up the blue. "I'm sending you to Los Angeles. To Angel. He's had the soul for a hundred years. He'll help you. He'll teach you... Spike?"

Spike was staring over her shoulder. That mobile face, that so many times had said more than she wanted to see, was just blank. Buffy wanted to whale on him with her fists.

"Go away, leave her alone. She doesn't deserve this," he said, but not to her.

Buffy caught his face between her hands. "Focus, Spike. I'm here. Helpless. Alone. In the dark. With you. I trust you, you stupid crazy jerk. Can you remember that much?"

He gave that sideways smile, and for one vertiginous second he was his old self again. "I remember everything, love."

In the end, it took both of them to get him settled on the bus. He was docile enough as long as Buffy was touching him, but he kept cocking his head like he was listening to something and then wandering away. Wesley had to put him in some kind of painful arm grip while Buffy went and told the driver about the special school and his brother that would be meeting them, though. It would be of the bad if the driver told Angel about the guy with the British accent.

Wesley shoved the cardboard box in the seat next to Spike. "Give it to Connor. To Connor. Angel's son," he repeated.

"Grandson, mate," Spike corrected, very much on his dignity.

"Not you, you pillock. Connor. Skinny dark haired lad with a grudge. Fast and strong. Darla's son. Give him the box."

Spike stared at Wesley as if he were trying to give him a secret message, but all he said was, "Think he'll open it?"

It was time. The driver was revving the engine. Buffy almost fell down the few tall stairs to the parking lot. Everything was swimming. She walked over to the station and stood next to a vending machine. Even with Wesley's hand under her elbow, that was as far as Buffy's feet would take her.

Thank god, he knew enough not to say anything until the bus had rumbled out of sight.

"Well," said Wesley, "that was... energetic."

Buffy laughed until her breath caught on a sob and turned her face into Wesley's coat. It smelled of suede and whiskey and, faintly, of her own perfume. Once she'd choked back the thickness in her throat, she figured she might just as well go on breathing.