Xander'd never really been in charge before. It felt weird. Before Buffy's death, she'd always been the one barking out orders. Or sometimes, especially back in high school, Giles would tell them all what to do. Even Willow, now that she was all big with the magic, would tell them where to stand and what to do in order for a spell to work.
But nobody ever listened to Xander. He was never the boss, except a little bit at work, where the higher bosses were always telling him what to tell other people to do.
So it was weird to be the person really in charge. Especially with Spike, because Spike just wasn't the sort of guy who liked to be told what to do.
But every time Xander looped back to the beginning again, he was the only one who remembered everything they'd talked about before. He was the only one who remembered their plans, their ideas, their mistakes. And so he was the one calling the shots. Xander was the head honcho. Yep. That's me. Xander In Charge.
So when he looped back the next time -- after yet another failed race through the cemetery, this time in an attempt to get to the Summers' house to find Willow -- Xander just touched on the high points.
Some sort of time distortion.
Evil spiny demon guys.
Killed us lots of times.
Something about a jewel.
Need to kill evil guys.
Need to get Willow to find out how.
Spike was always remarkably calm in the face of such unexpected information. He'd apparently had experience with time distortion in the past, though nothing as significant as what Xander was experiencing. So he mostly listened to what Xander told him to do. It was kind of a power rush.
So Xander once again filled Spike in on the plan. Run to the Summers' house. Try to dodge as much as possible, don't fight the demons unless necessary (since they had a disturbing tendency to win), just move move move as fast as you can.
Then Xander had another thought. "Hey! I'm the one the demons seem to be after, so how about you just run ahead to Willow's and find out how to kill the guys?"
Spike rolled his eyes with a frustrated sigh. "Because, you moron, you'll get killed while I'm gone. And when you loop back, you won't know what Willow told me, now will you?"
"Oh." Xander's face fell. "Right." Yeah, that's why Xander wasn't usually the boss. Because he was stupid. Nobody wants the stupid guy in charge.
But Spike was talking again. "But you may have a good idea, there. We don't have to stay together, necessarily. If we run into the demons and they cause us trouble, I'll just keep 'em busy and you run on to Red's."
Xander frowned deeply. "Spike, that wouldn't work. They'd just kill you again."
"Well, yeah," Spike deadpanned, looking at Xander as if he were excruciatingly slow. "But when you loop back you'll have the info and I'll be fresh as a daisy again, eh?"
Xander shook his head. "No way am I running off while you get killed."
Spike was looking frustrated now, that little crease appearing between his brows. "It'd work. Just do it."
Xander crossed his arms, his mouth a tight line of stubborn disapproval. "No."
After a bit of a staring contest, they begrudgingly came up with a plan for a new path through the cemetery, a planned route along Blake Street, and an obstacle course of fences and alleys to get them to the Summers' backyard.
They didn't really agree on whether Xander would run ahead if they met the demons. They just planned as if the demons wouldn't catch them.
So when they were ready, they took off running through the rain, heavily armed as always, and were doing pretty well until they hit Blake Street. Suddenly, Little Creepy Guy appeared with his three goons, and things started looking decidedly less pleasant. "I can feel the Jewel," Little Creepy Guy said, just like he always did.
And that was when Xander turned to Spike and hissed, "Get out of here! They won't follow you, and you won't get killed!"
But Spike hissed back, "Sod that! 'M not running away from a fight. Not leavin' you here against these blokes on your lonesome."
The goons began to lumber forward, just like they always did, and Xander hurriedly threw his knife, which hit one of them right in the middle of the forehead, sending him toppling to the ground like a giant tree.
"I did it!" Xander cried in gleeful shock, grinning, hopping a very undignified hop of Yay Me! celebration. "I did it!"
Spike gripped Xander's upper arm in a hold so tight that it would leave dark bruises, and pulled him closer. He hissed into Xander's ear, "You got rid of one of 'em, so now I've got only three to fight. I should be able to keep 'em busy on my own, so now's your time to bugger off. Get to Red, find out what you need to know." Xander was shaking his head, but Spike's hold on his arm tightened even further. The two remaining goons were getting nearer, and Spike growled in to Xander's ear, "Fuck off! NOW!" and then gave him an abrupt shove.
And so Xander turned and ran. He ran faster than he'd ever run before in his life. He ran as if homicidal, throat-slitting demons were on his tail, planning to kill him. He ran toward Willow, hoping against hope that she'd be able to help him figure out how to fix this whole mess. And while he ran, he imagined Spike behind him, surrounded by spiny demons, fighting alone because Xander had run off and left him. And after a while, Xander realized there were tears on his face, though he didn't know why.
When he felt a strong arm behind him pulling him off his feet, he tried to turn his head. It was Creepy Little Guy and one of his goons. This means Spike is dead, Xander thought to himself suddenly. If they caught up with me, then Spike is dead. He barely noticed the demon holding him tightly, one arm around the front of his chest, the knife sliding across his throat, the wetness pouring down. I left Spike behind, and Spike is dead, Xander thought as his eyes slowly closed.
Sex with Spike. Before all this time distortion or time looping or whatever it was ... before all that started happening, Xander would have responded to the phrase "sex with Spike" with a shudder of revulsion and an exclamation along the lines of "I so do not need to hear about this!"
But now ... now ... it was different. He'd always thought -- not that he'd thought about it much, because eww -- that Spike would be really raunchy during sex, all rough and rude and blunt. And he was ... some of the time. But Xander was surprised how much he liked it. How much it turned him on. When Spike glared at him from across the room and demanded, "Come over here and suck me off," Xander felt like he could almost come just from that tone of voice, just from that ... that ... command. He could admit it here, since this was some kind of nowhere land inside the time loop ... he could admit that a part of him really wanted to know what it would be like for Spike to command him a lot more than that. Would it be as exciting as this bit was?
Because ... yeah. He wasn't really freaking out about the sex anymore. A part of him said he should be. A part of him kept saying, "You're not gay." But the rest of him had just slowly, gradually, inch by inch, bit by bit ... relaxed. Every time through, the whole thing seemed just a bit less scary, just a bit less strange, just a bit more normal.
He'd come to appreciate the skill with which Spike stroked his cock, giving him tingles everywhere. He'd come to know and appreciate every arch and curve and angle of Spike's body, every ripple of muscle, every flex and stretch. He'd come to eagerly anticipate getting to kiss Spike's mouth, feeling their tongues clashing, feeling their lips against each other, feeling their chests brushing oh-so-slightly.
And he'd come to enjoy the ... well ... the stuff with his butt. He still felt embarrassed about it, though, and didn't plan on telling anybody about any of this anytime soon, because he was pretty sure he would die from blushing too hard. But having Spike inside of him was ... intense. And kissing him at the same time was like ... it was like flying ... and falling ... and spinning ... or some combination of all those. He wished he could see Spike's face during those moments, wished he could have some idea of whether Spike was feeling the same things he was feeling. But they were always kissing, and Xander's eyes were always closed, and so he could only imagine.
And in his imagination, Spike's face was always just as awed and joyous and a little bit frightened as Xander felt inside.
Back to the cemetery, and this time around, Xander was telling Spike about their failed attempt to get to Willow at the Summers' house when Spike suddenly interrupted him. "Why didn't we take the tunnels?" he asked impatiently.
Xander felt like he'd been hit on the head with an anvil, like in cartoons. Little yellow "Xander is stupid" birds were flying around his head. When he found his way back to what was currently presenting itself as reality, Xander mumbled, "I guess it was because I was making the plans."
Spike paced from one side of the crypt to the other, shaking his head and distractedly tossing his knife as he walked. "Well, that's what I get for listening to you, eh? Dead. That's what I get. Dead."
Xander paled and looked away. Spike was right, of course. All these times they'd gotten killed, it was because Xander had been the one making the plans. What sort of sick joke was this, that Xander was the only one who looped, so Xander was the only one with the information to make plans? It was cruel, is what it was. It was like making the kid from the Special Ed class do your geometry homework.
Spike was still muttering to himself. "Right. Got me all turned around with the time loop mumbo jumbo 'til I was daft enough to let Xander bloody Harris tell me what to do."
Xander thought that was a bit harsh. "Hey, I'm not that bad."
Spike raised an eyebrow. "How many times you get us killed thus far, mate?"
Xander winced hard enough that it was probably visible. He turned away and walked to the crypt door, looking out at the rain, trying not to cry, because wouldn't that just be even better? Cry in front of Spike, who already thought he was a pathetic loser, when Xander had thought they were sort of friends or something. Xander fought the irrational and childish urge to just run out in the rain and find the stupid demons and get himself killed again because it was all so meaningless.
But Spike had walked up behind him and his voice was near when he said reluctantly, "Look, I didn't mean that, all right?"
Xander didn't turn. "No, you're right." His voice was kind of choked. He hoped Spike didn't notice.
But Spike replied immediately, "No, I'm not right. I'm just being an obnoxious tosser, just like always. Takin' the piss. You're supposed to say something back, you know? Say maybe it was because your brain was fried by the blinding whiteness of my skinny torso when I took off my shirt."
Xander looked down, awash in self-loathing, and mumbled, "You're not that skinny."
Spike's voice sounded a little surprised and confused when he said, "Didn't think you noticed, Harris."
Xander stood there a long moment, trying to think of something jokey and snarky he could say to lighten the mood, but he just couldn't think of anything. Finally, he said quietly, very earnestly, "I'm sorry I got you killed..."
But Spike interrupted him, turning Xander around and grabbing his chin in one hand so that he could look Xander in the eyes. "Look, from what you say, we've been through this a lot of times now, yeah? You ever see me back down from the fight? You even once see me walk away?"
Xander slowly shook his head a bit in Spike's grip.
Spike nodded firmly. "That's right. That's because we go down fighting together." Xander began to interrupt, but Spike shook his head. "So we made a plan last time that split us up, but we were still both fighting. Ain't nobody getting anybody else killed unless you want to talk about them demon fellows." Spike seemed to calm down a bit and released Xander's chin. They both stood a bit straighter, still watching each other's eyes, as Spike said, "So maybe this time-loop business got us both a bit confused, not making the best plans for a bit, but we've got a clean shot at it now, yeah?"
And that made Xander smile with a bit of hope. Yeah, Spike was right. They had another chance right now, so it didn't matter if they'd messed things up -- if he'd messed things up -- before. Maybe there was a lesson in there somewhere, but he didn't have time to think about it right now. Right now they needed to pack up and head out and hope that the demons didn't know about the tunnels.
Spike seemed pretty confident that the tunnels would be safe. These spiny fellows were a bit too big, apparently, to make sewer tunnel travel comfortable. So Spike and Xander ran and scuttled and splashed their way to the sewer entrance less than a block from Buffy's ... er ... the Summers' house.
There was a bit of a nervous dash to the front door, with both of them watching expectantly for a spiny demon to suddenly appear, rambling about feeling jewels, but the next thing they knew they were inside the house and Xander was yelling his head off.
"Willow! Willow! Cast a protection spell or something! There are demons coming to kill us!" He and Spike warily inspected the downstairs of the house, wanting to make sure the bad guys hadn't preceeded them somehow.
Willow emerged at the top of the staircase looking decidedly dishevelled. "Xander?" she said quietly, frowning in confusion as she peered down at them. "And Spike? You're going to wake Tara and Dawn."
Xander ran forward, partway up the stairs, and explained quickly, "Some very bad, very spiny, very creepy demons are trying to kill us. Can you cast some kind of spell on the house to keep us safe here?"
Willow ran a hand through her messy hair and clutched her orange chenille bathrobe more tightly at her throat. "Xander, Tara and I keep a shield of protection around this house all the time now. Since ... since ... we want to keep Dawn safe. Nobody can come in without an invitation."
Xander glanced back down the stairs at Spike and they both heaved a sigh of relief, then grinned at each other. Spike asked Xander, "Is this the first time this happened?" and Xander nodded eagerly.
"We never got this close to figuring out what's going on before."
Willow cleared her throat, still looking rather grumpy and half-awake with the pillow creases on her face. "You mind telling me what the heck you guys are talking about?"
So Xander filled her in on all the details -- well, not all the details, since some details just really didn't need to be shared at this particular juncture in time, if ever -- and she trudged upstairs to wake up Tara and Dawn.
Yeah. All aboard the late-night emergency research party train. It was like a flashback to Xander's youth. But not an actual flashback, because there were quite enough of those going on these days, thank you very much.
The girls came downstairs dressed rather hurriedly, with shirts half-tucked and everything rumpled, their hair haphazardly combed, all rubbing their eyes and trying to look as if they were prepared to face imminent disaster and ward it off before immediately falling back asleep. Dawn, however, had a bit of an extra spring to her step which Xander easily identified -- based on his own youthful experiences -- as the Woo hoo! I get to be up really late! effect.
Willow pulled out dozens of Giles' old demon-identification guides, and they all ranged themselves around the living room and started looking for the spiny demons. After all, the first task, according to Willow, was to figure out what these demons were, so that they could have a better chance of figuring out why they were there, what they wanted, and how to kill them if necessary.
Xander and Spike had exchanged a look when she said that, then looked back at her, saying dryly in unison, "If necessary?" Then they'd looked at each other again and grinned. Yeah, they were gonna kill these things. They settled down with their extremely boring books to find out how.
The room was quiet except for the occasional turning of pages. Tara seemed to have a bit of a sniffle, though it was quiet and only sporadic. Xander found himself nodding off over the musty pages in his lap, and so stood and stretched. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him.
"What? Oh ... right ... sorry. I've just ... it's been a really long night and I'm bushed. I'm gonna go get some fresh air to help sharpen the old frontal lobes. But I'll be right back for more of the researchy goodness."
Everyone just sleepily nodded and went back to their demon-hunting, except Spike. "I'm gonna go have a smoke," he said, standing, "and make sure donut-boy doesn't fall asleep on the lawn."
Hearing Spike's comment as he walked away, Xander rolled his eyes, then stretched his head from one side to the other. It really had been a long night. He couldn't even remember how many times he'd gone through this whole thing since he got off work today. How many hours had it been since he'd slept? Did time looping hours still count as hours he hadn't slept?
As he approached the back door, he turned toward Spike and asked, "You think the back porch is covered by the protection spell?"
Spike shrugged carelessly. "We'll leave the door open. If any of the nasties show up, you can just duck inside."
Xander nodded tiredly -- too tired to even object to Spike's use of "you" instead of "we" -- and went out onto the porch, sitting on the top step and leaning forward to rest his arms on his knees. It wasn't really the spell that made him feel safe out here. How crazy was it that, even after all these times they'd gotten killed, Spike made him feel safe?
Spike sat down beside him and lit up a cigarette.
Xander looked out at the darkness, his eyes feeling sore and dry, like he'd been awake far too long. "So, Spike," he began, still looking straight ahead, "how many times you figure you've saved my life?" He turned to look at Spike then.
His cigarette poised half-way to his mouth, his lips parted slightly in surprise, Spike seemed momentarily frozen. But then he was moving again, lifting his cigarette to his lips, drawing on it, exhaling a gray plume of smoke slowly into the darkness.
"Thought all this round and round was about me not saving your ass," Spike said.
Xander thought of all those times, of Spike fighting to save him, of Spike's face when he knew that he hadn't been able to save Xander. He cleared his throat. "I mean before this," Xander explained. "How many times have you killed some demon that was about to shishkebab me, while I was just laying there on the ground rubbing a bump on my head?"
Xander looked over at Spike again and saw that he was frowning. He looked a bit disgruntled, like he was feeling like he should say something he didn't want to. After a pause, Spike griped, "You're not always entirely useless. And you wouldn't be out on patrol if it weren't for me, anyway."
Xander's eyebrows went way up on that one. "Whoa! Back up there, buddy! Because I am not out on patrol because of you. I'm out on patrol because of Buffy, same as you are."
There was a long silence. He'd used her name, and they weren't supposed to do that. Spike was very still, as if frozen in place. So was Xander. They were like two statues in the backyard that was once Buffy's, still there even long after she was gone. Neither of them said anything, but there was a slight wind in the trees. It only seemed to make it more obvious that they weren't talking.
When Xander couldn't bear the silence anymore, he risked it. He asked quietly, "If you could bring her back, would you?"
Spike threw his cigarette out into the lawn, a small orange light arcing through the dark. "Nah." Spike's voice sounded a little weird, like he was being strangled, but Xander thought he sort of understood. This was tough stuff to talk about, for both of them. Even just mentioning her name was like a shock. "If there's a heaven," Spike continued in that choked voice, "then I figure little blond girls who save the world are probably first in line to go there. She paid her dues in full."
Xander watched Spike's face, which seemed more peaceful than he would have expected. "And you're okay with that?"
Spike looked down at his hands, weaving his fingers together between his knees. His voice sounded even more strained when he replied, "You know as well as I do that she never would've loved me. She told me often enough. Hell, you told me often enough." Xander winced and opened his mouth to say something, apologize somehow for past unkindnesses, but Spike was still talking. "Nah. It's time for me to move on. Figure out what to do next. That one's had me stumped these past few months. Not quite sure what I'm about now."
Spike cleared his throat and shook himself slightly, then looked over at Xander with a hint of a smile. "How 'bout you? You ever wish your demon would come running back?"
Xander smiled sadly. "No, that's over."
"What happened there?"
"With Anya?" Xander sighed heavily and shook his head, looking down at his hands, picking at a callus at the base of his thumb. He glanced hesitantly over at Spike, not wanting to bring up those painful memories again, memories they'd never actually discussed in any detail, memories they had danced around and avoided at all costs before tonight. "I don't think..."
"Just spit it out, whelp. I know it was right after ... I won't go bat-shit just because you mention her name again."
Her. Not Anya, of course. Her.
Nodding hesitantly, Xander went back to rubbing at his callused thumb. It was nice and distracting.
"It was right after..." Xander cleared his throat. Why was this so hard? Was it only because they'd waited so long to talk about all of it? His voice was a bit stronger when he started again. "It was right after Buffy died." But he couldn't help the catch in his voice, and he couldn't help noticing the utter stillness of the man at his side. Xander stretched his neck to one side and then to the other, trying to ease the tension. "After Buffy ... and, you know, Anya was pretty badly hurt ... and with everybody injured and hurting ... well ... Anya ... I guess she was feeling scared ... and she wanted ... she said she wanted to 'create life'."
Spike's head jerked back slightly with obvious surprise. Turning to look at Xander's partially averted face, Spike repeated with a slight smile, "Create life?"
Xander rolled his eyes, waiting for the mockery. "Yeah, yeah. I think she used the word 'spawn', too. It was all very romantic."
Spike was grinning now. "So the bint decided she wanted to start squeezing out puppies and you made a runner, eh?"
"What?" Xander exclaimed, offended. "What are you talking about? I didn't make a runner! No runners were made! Or, hey, if anyone was making runners, it was Anya!"
Spike just cocked an eyebrow in a wordless expectation of more.
Xander sighed again and looked at Spike out of the corners of his eyes, then down at the step beneath his feet. He'd forgotten about the callus on his thumb now, and his hands lay still between his knees. "I said no," he explained quietly, and there was still some sadness there as he said it. "I thought I was okay with getting married, but there's no way I'm ready to be a dad right now, especially with the example I had to learn from. So Anya decided to find a more willing sperm donor."
A slight frown wrinkled Spike's forehead between his brows. "So, you weren't willing to knock her up, so she took off in search of anybody willing to fuck her 'til she plumped?"
Xander winced. "Nice imagery there, Spike. Thanks ever so." But it didn't bother him, not really. Anya had done what she needed to do, and he missed her, but he was fine with it. It was the right thing for both of them.
He'd never really talked this openly with Spike before. There'd been the companionable silence, but there hadn't been the talking. Xander wondered if maybe it was because of the sex stuff he kept seeing when he looped. He would have expected something like that to make him feel disgusted or at least embarrassed, but he'd just gradually started feeling ... calm. He'd felt glad to hold Spike, to put that look in his eyes. He'd felt close, and it had felt really really good. So it didn't feel strange to talk to him about Anya. It felt ... right.
Spike was looking out into the dark backyard again, his eyes serious. Xander looked away, looked out at the yard, because Spike's face seemed too vulnerable just then, though he wasn't sure why. And then Spike spoke. "At least she loved you, mate. You had that. Mightn't have been forever, but you..." Spike paused, cleared his throat, then went on, "I was with Dru a hundred years, more, but she never loved me. Angelus had broken her so she didn't know how to love anymore."
Xander tilted his head and looked over at Spike, then quickly look away again, because Spike's eyes were shining and he was sure Spike wouldn't want him to see that. Xander asked gently, "What about when you were alive? When you were a poet?"
The sudden complete stillness next to him made Xander grimace slightly. He'd thought Spike was still before, but that was nothing compared to this. This was the stillness of the small animal hiding from a predator. This stillness had a faint air of desperate fear. Oh, shit. I hadn't told him I knew that.
Xander glanced over at Spike with an apologetic look on his face. "You told me, one of the other times we looped around."
Spike raised an eyebrow, obviously trying to look casual. "Can't imagine a situation in which I'd do that, but it's obviously true. Nobody to tell you 'bout it, since nobody knows."
Xander nodded quickly, "Exactly. You told me that, too."
Spike leaned forward, his forearms pressing into his thighs as he stared out into the dark. He rubbed his hands over his face then looked out at the darkness again. "I guess this time loop crap really is true, eh?"
Xander pulled a face. "Afraid so."
Spike turned his face away. "Wasn't full certain, but figured I'd go along because what the hell. Time distortion. Well, bugger me. Pain in the ass, that is."
Xander nodded emphatically. "I'd have to say a big YES to that one."
They were quite another moment before Spike asked in a voice that was probably intended to still sound casual, "So, what'd I tell you about Cecily?"
Xander frowned in confusion, "Cecily?"
Spike glanced back, then away again. "Yeah. Posh bint I fell in love with, wrote poetry for. Thought I had a chance, poor sod. Never had a chance." Spike's voice got quieter as he continued, "Never did, not with her, not ever." By the end, Xander could barely even hear him. Then, after a long silent moment, Spike sat up straighter and brushed his hands against his denim-clad knees. "Fuck that!" he blustered. "I don't need that crap. Give me something to kill and I'm set."
Xander was watching him now, trying to read Spike's face. Was this where so much of that Big Bad attitude came from? Was he trying to prove that he didn't need people to care about him? And was that why he'd been so quiet these past few months? Because he couldn't pretend anymore? Because it got to just be too much?
Xander thought of Spike, naked, blustering and acting all tough, with his eyes all confused and frightened. He thought of Spike always acting like he didn't need this, when he did ... he obviously did ... just like Xander did.
Lost in his thoughts, in his confused memories, Xander reached out a hand to touch Spike's hair, causing the other man to startle. He turned to look at Xander, and Xander realized they were actually sitting pretty close. He wouldn't have to lean very far...
Spike was watching him with obvious confusion and a bit of suspicion as well. That same look in his eyes in all Xander's confused time-looping naked memories.
Then Xander leaned forward that tiny bit, and then his lips were on Spike's. Spike's lips were soft and surprised, not fighting Xander, but not really cooperating, either. Xander kissed those lips gently, trying to communicate everything he'd felt during those times when they'd had sex, and he thought maybe Spike was just beginning to kiss him back when suddenly ... out of nowhere ... he heard a throat clear behind them.
Xander pulled away and turned guiltily to see Willow standing silhouetted in the bright kitchen doorway. Even in shadow, her face looked curious and concerned and Xander knew they'd be having a really uncomfortable conversation sometime soon.
But Willow didn't ask any questions. She just held up a fairly ragged book in her right hand and said, "I think I found your demons."
"They're called Jnok!'ha demons," Willow explained, yawning immediately afterward and then blushing and murmuring, "Sorry."
Xander peered at the grainy drawing and verified that those looked like the guys, complete with spines, slit pupils, sharp teeth, and noselessness. The drawing was black-and-white, so he couldn't see if their eyes were yellow, but it seemed like a good bet. Dawn seemed to find the lack of noses particularly gross. "How do they breathe?" she asked. "With their mouths open all the time, like big pointy goldfish? Ookie."
Spike was sitting as far as possible from Xander, leaning over at an awkward angle to investigate the drawing curiously. Right. This Spike, this loop's Spike, hasn't actually seen the demons yet. He's been kissed by me, though, and avoided eye contact ever since. Way to go, Xan Man!
Spike looked up at Willow and asked calmly, "So how do we kill it, then?" and Xander grinned. He couldn't help it. Yeah, a vampire after his own heart.
Except ... not in a vampiry tear-your-heart-out sort of way. And not in a Valentine's Day hearts-and-flowers sort of way, either. Just ... I mean ... in a "let's go slaughter those spiny demons who keep killing us" sort of way. A manly demon-killing sort of way. Not a hugs and cuddles sort of way. Even if he does have fluffy hair sometimes and it's kind of cute. Even if I did kiss him and freak him out.
Xander rubbed his forehead in confused frustration. He'd been missing part of the conversation, obviously, because Willow and Spike were arguing something about the demons. Tara was nodding off in a chair in the corner, her nose a bit red. Xander wondered if she was coming down with a cold, and then felt guilty for dragging her out of bed. Dawn, on the other hand, was bouncing lightly on a couch cushion. When she caught Xander's eye, she grinned. "Can I go with you?" she asked eagerly. But Xander shook his head.
"These things are bad news, Dawnie. They killed Spike and me a lot of times. We're gonna get 'em this time, but I don't want you out there getting hurt. Maybe next time, okay?" He smiled slightly.
"The next time some demons are killing you, I get to come, too?" Dawn's grin was even wider now. Had she been drinking coffee with the rest of them? Because she looked about ready to go into orbit.
Xander gave her a look. He hoped it was kind of coolly sardonic like Spike when he raised one eyebrow. Then he told her, "It would depend on whether you were there to help or not."
Dawn smirked. "Help who? You or them?"
Xander rolled his eyes.
Then Spike abruptly stood up. "You ready to go kill something?" He glanced over at Xander expectantly, but still did not make eye contact.
"These particular somethings?" Xander asked eagerly. "That would be a big YES. As in right now, please. As in can I kill them even deader than usual? Because I am so sick of having my throat cut." And watching you get dusted. "You know, the first twenty times weren't so bad," he quipped, "but it got really old after a while."
Spike was hefting a sword now and once again shoving knives into various loops and pockets inside his coat. Xander armed himself as well as he could, but he didn't have the nifty weapon accessorizing ability that Spike apparently possessed, so he was seriously outclassed. Still, he did manage to grab a couple of nasty-looking knives.
Xander glanced around. "So how do we kill 'em?"
Spike looked at a spot somewhere over Xander's right shoulder and growled in frustration. "Weren't you listening?"
Xander sighed. "Why do you ask questions when you already know the answer?" And how badly exactly had he fucked things up out on the back steps?
The girls seemed to be watching them with some interest. Xander wondered if he was acting different than usual. Even with the post-kiss weirdness, he definitely felt more comfortable with Spike now than he had before the night that wouldn't end. He'd always felt like Spike was smooth and graceful, but Xander had always felt like a big clumsy lump next to him. Now ... now he felt like he was on more equal footing. He felt like he knew how to move with Spike, whether it was in a physical fight or an argument. Or ... on my bedroom rug. He felt like he knew Spike now.
Willow piped up again, as if wanting to inject a bit of non-testosterone logic into the conversation. "You can puncture their brain somehow" -- Xander grinned, remembering the knife he'd thrown smack-dab into the demon's forehead Go me! -- "or you get alcohol into their blood stream," she finished. She was looking a bit cranky, which Xander thought might just be the lack of sleep ... or maybe she and Spike had been fighting about something that ticked her off.
Reflecting on what she had just said, Xander asked sarcastically, "So, what? We take 'em to The Bronze and get 'em wasted? Because I'm thinking these guys might not really be much for the club scene."
Spike held up a pretty scary-looking knife and rubbed it with a cloth. Then he poured something from his flask onto the cloth, then rubbed the knife again. He raised an eyebrow.
"Oh," Xander nodded slowly. "Cut them and get alcohol in their blood. Gotcha. Okay, let's go!"
He and Spike were already opening the front door when Willow fretted behind them, "Xander, I really want to do some research on this jewel stuff before you..."
But Xander couldn't wait to watch these demon guys die. The tension between him and Spike was making him even more antsy, and he just wanted to get out there and kill something. He finally understood why Spike had said that so many times. He finally knew what it felt like.
"We'll talk about it after, Will. Right now, gotta motor. We're a couple of well-armed men on a murderous mission." He didn't look back, but he was willing to bet she had resolve face and wasn't very happy.
But he and Spike really were on a mission. They walked down the street like old fighting compadres. It felt good. He occasionally caught Spike casting a discreet glance his way, but Xander just rubbed whiskey on his knives and smiled grimly in anticipation. He had never met a demon that deserved to die more than these ones did. Nobody killed Xander Harris twenty times in one night and got away with it!
The fight, when it came, was almost anti-climactic. They met up with the demons in the Shady Rest Cemetery, and the smaller demon recited his now extremely familiar mantra of "I feel the Jewel." But this time, Xander strode right up to the creepy little jerk and slashed his whiskey-smeared knife across the wide-eyed demon's throat, surprising him so thoroughly that he didn't even swipe at Xander while he thrashed.
The actual knife cut didn't seem to bother the demon much, but the alcohol was causing some kind of rapid chemical reaction. Green bubbles were foaming up from the wound, causing the demon to look down in horror. Xander stood there and watched the demon's face as it became more and more afraid.
Yeah. Welcome to my world, asshole. Welcome to my fucking nightmare. Now die. At least you only have to do it once.
Xander breathed deeply and watched. Until now, until he finally got to end it, he hadn't realized how scared he'd been, how horrible the night had been, dying over and over again, watching Spike die over and over again ... Wait ... Spike?
Xander turned and saw Spike standing off to one side. Three hulking spiny demon corpses lay around him, all of them foaming from wounds here and there. But Spike just stood there and silently watched Xander with a look on his face Xander wasn't sure he'd ever seen before. It looked like it might be respect. Or maybe Xander just had something on his face.
When the smaller demon collapsed to the ground and lay still, Spike hopped up to sit on a large square granite gravestone. He lit up a cigarette and surveyed the spiny corpses in the moonlight. He nodded in approval and smiled slightly.
Xander realized suddenly how tired he was -- god, what a night! -- and staggered over to another gravestone, far enough away from the dead demons that he could see them without feeling like he was actually sitting among their foamy corpses. He leaned a hand against the cold stone and then slowly sank to his butt, scooting to sit with his back against the granite. He looked over at Spike, who was all silvered by the moon. Xander thought he looked gorgeous like that, and the thought frightened him. It was all the sexy butt hallucinations' fault! They made him lust after Spike! Except he knew it wasn't just lust. He liked Spike, too. Fuck.
Heaving a heavy sigh, Xander decided to do the brave thing. But he couldn't look at Spike while he did it. "Hey, Spike, about earlier ... back at the house ... on the steps ... when I ..."
Spike took a deep drag off his cigarette and exhaled slowly, looking out at the cemetery, away from Xander. "Right. What was all that about?"
Xander sighed again. What was he supposed to say that wouldn't freak Spike out even worse? "Well," Xander began, "see..." and Xander leaned his head back to rest on the gravestone behind him. Except he was so tired that he let his head fall back a bit too quickly and the stone collided with his head bump in a painful jolt that made him wince and grumble, "Ouch!"
And helloooo, naked Spike. Fancy meeting you here ... in my bedroom ... where you've never been ... except in bizarro world. And, why yes, you do still look pissed off at me. Not all that different than you did a minute ago in the cemetery actually. But I'm gonna take a wild stab in the dark and guess that this time you're actually going to want me to put my manly lips on your pale yet supple flesh. Am I right? Oh, wait, I forgot. Well, I didn't really forget, but go with me here. I'm being sarcastic. Or ironic. Or ... damn, I can never remember the difference between those. And you were a poet, so you probably know. You're probably laughing at me behind that sullen exterior. Yeah, I'll bet you are. Making fun of me. Evil kiss-avoiding, fun-making jerk. Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right. You can't hear me at all. Because I'm not fucking here! I'm ... well ... I'm not here, but still fucking. How weird is that?
You want me to get down on my manly knees and suck you off? Sure, Spike, old buddy. Why not. I've got some time free. Can't imagine I'll be going anywhere for the next several minutes. You mind telling me why you seem so ticked at me, though? I mean, I could understand it before. I sort of freaked out and kissed you when we weren't in bizarro land. Broke the rules, right? At least you didn't punch me or something.
But why're you still being such a pain in the ass -- er, no pun intended -- when you're all naked and sticking your dick into various lubricated orifices of my body? Doesn't that warrant a little smile? A bit of cheerful good spirits? A spring in your step and an evil song in your heart? Your dick sure seems happy enough. So what's with the long face, Mr. Mopey Pants? Or should that be Mr. Mopey Pantsless?
Well, hell. At least in this reality you want my bod -- with those impressive pecs you noticed back at the crypt that one time. Yeah, I remembered that. I'm pathetic. But in the other reality, I kiss you and you become Mr. Avoidy. I think I prefer Mr. Mopey Pantsless. You're an enigma, but a naked enigma with its hand on my dick. And, hey, that makes up for a lot of flaws.
"... worth listening to. Nothing but tripe now, though ... lyrics like the worst kind of poetry, all simpering love-sick crap."
Xander didn't really trip or stumble anymore when he wound up at the beginning of the loop in the cemetery. He'd gotten disturbingly used to the whole thing, and so now he mostly just gave a sort of surprised twist of the hips. A little jerk of "okay, and now there is suddenly nothing in my ass anymore" adjustment. He always felt a little strange in his pants -- both fore and aft -- for a few moments after the loop, but hey. It was nothing he hadn't done a million times before, right? There were probably dimensions and universes where a guy could get used to this. Xander, on the other hand, was getting really really really really ... tired. He just wanted everything to be fixed. He didn't want to be taunted by sexy Spike anymore if he didn't get to keep him.
Spike had stopped walking and caught his knife in mid-air, as always. He looked back at Xander expectantly, and Xander geared himself up to give the whole spiel again. He closed his eyes and sighed. Fuck it. I'll kill two friends with one stone. Or ... wait ... that sounded bad. I'll tell him and Willow at the same time.
"We need to take the tunnels over to Willow's house. Come on. We've gotta hurry." Xander knew he sounded tired, and maybe a little crazy, but he didn't care anymore. He just started walking toward the tunnel entrance.
Spike hesitated a long moment, obviously puzzled, but then followed Xander's retreating form. He probably figured he'd better stick close to Xander or "the whelp" might get himself killed. Little did he know.
When they got to the house, Xander didn't yell or do anything to wake everyone up. He let himself into the house, secure in the knowledge that it was protected by Willow and Tara's spell, and ushered an increasingly curious Spike in behind him. Spike quite casually began rummaging through the refrigerator, leaving Xander free to tiptoe up the stairs. He knocked very quietly at Willow's door and then motioned her out when she peeked out through the crack.
When they got downstairs to the living room, Xander explained quietly, "I didn't want to wake Tara up, since she seems like she's getting a cold."
Willow tilted her very lopside-haired head to the side -- which made her wacky bedhair almost symmetrical -- and seemed suddenly far more alert. "How did you know that, Xander? Did you talk to her today? Because she didn't say anything..."
Xander sighed. "It's a really long story. You might want to make some coffee or something." He thought a minute. "But for god's sake don't give any to Dawn." He rubbed his forehead again. It was getting to be a habit. A habit grown out of dying a gazillion times in a row and not getting any sleep and watching vampires for whom he did not previously have strange feelings get dusted repeatedly and ... well ... and all kinds of crappy stuff, and therefore not a long-term habit, if Xander had any say in the matter.
Willow shot him a funny glance and then shuffled off in her orange chenille bathrobe. Xander heard her and Spike speak in low tones in the kitchen, probably commisserating over having an insane friend.
When they came back in with three cups of coffee, Xander told them the whole story. Anytime one of them seemed skeptical, he'd pull out some bit of time-loop knowledge. He pointed out when it was going to start raining, not long after they'd arrived. He demonstrated his improved knife-throwing abilities (which resulted in a tight-lipped Willow regarding the unfortunate section of living room wall and reminding him of his excellent spackling abilities). He talked about Tara having a red nose and a case of the sniffles, and he told Spike very discreetly that he knew "about Cecily," which made Spike go even more pale than usual. He narrowed his eyes and watched Xander considerably more closely after that.
Then Xander told them about the Jnok!'ha demons and the killings of him and Spike, and how to kill the demons in return. He also told them that killing the demons had not, as Spike had originally speculated, stopped the time-looping. So something else was causing the time-looping, and Xander was figuring it had something to do with the weird bump on the back of his head, since so many of his loops or shifts or whatevers seemed to begin or end with his head hurting.
As Xander began to wind down his babbling extravaganza, Willow walked behind him and inspected the bump closely. She rested her hand very gently against it, not pressing at all. And, after a moment, she admitted that she could sense a very slight aura of magic radiating from the area.
"Magic? In my head? Get it out! Get it out!" Xander was sort of exaggerating to lighten the mood, but mostly not.
But Willow just kept asking him questions, and they got to talking about the demons who kept talking about the jewel, and Willow said that their next research project should be identifying this jewel, since it seemed likely to have something to do with the time troubles.
So a couple hours later saw the three of them scattered around the living room, searching a bunch of dusty books for any reference to a "jewel" that could be "felt" and which might want someone to have a "heart beating in the palm of his hand" to "lead him to it," with an option on mysterious painful head bumps. It wasn't a lot of information and it wasn't very specific, but it was all they had. Xander was glad that he had at least memorized what the demon had said, thanks to Spike's prompting. He glanced over at Spike, who was sprawled in the armchair nearest the kitchen. Probably planning to raid the fridge again. He looked very serious, reading intently. But then he looked up, right into Xander's eyes.
"Problem, Harris?" he asked abruptly. Xander shook his head, blushing, and immediately looked down at his own book. During research time, there shall be no thinking of anything involving bizarro world! Bad Xander!
And then he suddenly felt a rapidly growing sense of disquiet. Damn. What if the stuff -- the very very private stuff -- that Xander wasn't telling them was important, somehow? What if it was the key to solving the whole thing? Xander felt like he was probably turning green. Just thinking about it, he felt like he might throw up ... though that could just be the effects of four cups of coffee. But the idea of telling Spike...
Wait. Willow was the wily wicca. No need for Spike to know. Xander cleared his throat. "Hey, Will? Could I talk to you about some ... uh ... sort of private stuff?" Spike looked suspicious, probably wondering why he was being excluded. "It might be important," Xander explained quickly, "but it's ... um ... kind of embarrassing." He could feel his face on fire. He wondered if there were actual flames.
Spike rose from the chair with that incredible physical grace he had and lifted his chin slightly in a motion Xander had started to interpret as defensiveness or hurt or something like that. "I'll go have a nice long smoke, then, won't I?" He was wearing an expression that Xander recognized now, an expression he remembered from a lot of times before this night-that-wouldn't-end. It was Spike getting invisible. Pulling inside himself. Going silent and ... well ... invisible. Xander had noticed the phenomenon these past few months, sort of, but he'd never realized that Spike did it on purpose. He suddenly wanted to call Spike back and apologize, but Spike was already gone and Xander didn't really want to say this stuff in front of him, anyway. The whole situation sucked.
So Xander sat across from Willow in the Summers' living room and finally told the whole truth. He explained about how the sex-with-Spike thing always appeared sort of right at the middle of the time looping somehow. He didn't give a lot of sex details, because that was so not necessary and Willow was already looking wide-eyed and pink. It was weird, because the sex stuff had gotten to the point where it seemed completely comfortable when it was happening, it didn't freak him out anymore at all, but talking about it was horrible. It was like some secret world where normal rules didn't apply, and talking about it in the normal world was just ... way wrong.
He also told her about the kiss on the back steps. Once he started confessing, it just all seemed to come out.
When he was done, Willow was quiet for a long time. "So, do you really want to ... you know," she made a sort of cute embarrassed face with her eyebrows and shoulders subtly wiggling, "with Spike?"
Xander glanced nervously toward the back door. Still no Spike. Good. "I don't know, Will. It kind of seems like not the important thing right now, you know? Maybe I'll worry about it if I ever stop repeating the same day over and over again like that episode of 'Xena'."
"Xena?" Willow looked amused now.
"What? You don't watch 'Xena'? I thought it was a rule. All lesbians must watch 'Xena'."
"So what are you doing watching it?" she teased.
"I have one word for you, old pal o' mine. And that word is 'breasts'." It was nice to be back on comfortable footing. Yeah. Nothing strange here. Good old heterosexual Xander.
Willow frowned slightly, making that little wrinkly thing over her nose. Then she looked at him and said apologetically, "I don't know what the sex stuff means, Xander. Maybe it's some kind of hiccup in the time loop or something. Maybe it's something that's going to happen a long time from now?"
Xander shook his head slowly. "I don't think so." He plucked at the gray cloth on his chest and said, "This t-shirt was on the floor. That seems like a really big coincidence."
Willow glanced over toward the kitchen and the back door, then leaned toward Xander and whispered, "Maybe it's something that's going to happen today. On one of the loops."
Xander blushed again. "That seems really unlikely. Spike wouldn't even look at me after I kissed him. The chances of him ... of ... that just seems ... I don't think so."
Willow looked at him for a while, long enough to make him start feeling self-conscious, and then she suggested hesitantly. "Maybe it keeps happening so you'll think about whether this is what you want. Because ... I've gotta say ... the way you talk about it? You kinda sound like you want this."
Xander picked at that blister on his thumb again. Ah, sweet blister, source of distraction in the face of awkward situations! He deftly dodged, "I had a thought. You know, this keeps happening over and over, and the loop is happening, too. What if I keep seeing this because it's something I need to do in order to stop the loop? What if it's the solution? Like I have to have sex with Spike or it'll never stop."
Willow frowned like he was talking Romanian. Except she probably knew Romanian, being the brainy gal and all. Oh, but she was talking. "That doesn't seem very logical, from a magical stand-point, unless this is a really specific spell someone cast on you. Who would do that?"
Xander shrugged. He had no answers. He'd already given his best idea and gotten shot down.
Willow reached out and touched his hands, stopping him from fidgeting. "Let's do the book thing and find out about this jewel, okay? And then we'll -- I don't know -- we'll figure out the rest of the stuff later."
Xander nodded reluctantly, then he went out back and asked Spike to come back in. He started to apologize as they walked through the kitchen, but Spike just interrupted him. "We still book-worming for this bloody jewel?" Xander nodded and Spike walked away, collapsing into the chair he had vacated earlier. He picked up the book he'd left behind and ignored Xander entirely as he began turning pages.
Xander went and sat down again and tried not to look at Spike. Man, he just kept messing things up. Xander slowly turned the pages of the sort of crusty, flaking book in his hands, his eyes so heavy with fatigue and defeat that he was barely even seeing what was written there.
Barely seeing it, that is, until some familiar words seemed to all happen together.
"Um, guys?" he said hesitantly, trying not to get his hopes up. "I think maybe I found it."
Both Willow and Spike looked up from their reading, their expressions curious. Xander read aloud, "Jewel of Grathnak. Power center prized by many species of time- and/or dimension-traveling demons. The Jewel can be disguised in any form, but legend says that the it can be located if the seeker removes the heart of one who has touched it. The heart must be held upon the open palm, and it shall begin to beat when the Jewel is near. This legend, however, seems based purely upon superstition and is worthy of little regard." Xander was feeling a bit woozy. He looked over at Spike. "You mean that guy was going to tear my heart out?" Xander decided now would be a good time to drop the book and put his head between his knees.
Fighting demons is one thing. Having my heart torn bleeding out of my chest ... that's just ... not something I'd like to imagine. Unfortunately, my friends, that particular horse is already before the cart. Whatever that means.
Willow was suddenly there with a glass of water, kneeling down to peer into his face. "Here. Drink something. You look a bit ... swoony."
Xander tried to pretend that hadn't been a completely humiliating choice of words and simply nodded, sitting up a bit and avoiding looking in Spike's direction. Oh, yes, I am the manly demon-fighter. I shall swoon with manly squeamishness!
There was a lot of papery rummaging noises happening from the Spike direction of the room, though, so eventually Xander turned to look. Spike had several different volumes on his lap and was marking his place in one with a finger, paging through another with the other hand, holding some books open with the weight of other books. He was muttering to himself, "Could've sworn there was a section on Grathnak somewhere..." He looked surprisingly Gilesy. All he needed was a pair of glasses and a handkerchief to polish them on.
With Willow's help, they found a few different references to Grathnak in different books, and the information all pulled together seemed to make some sort of sense, in a crazy-sense kind of way. Willow's theory was that Xander had accidentally touched the Jewel, which could be disquised as anything, and it had caused the bump on his head. And some kind of remnant of the Jewel's magic had attached itself to him, which was why the demons could "feel the Jewel," and was also probably why he time-looped whenever he hit that part of his head too hard.
"So ... what now, Wills? You're the wise and witchy woman. Now we know sort of what's going on ... how do we make it stop?"
Willow frowned in thought and stroked a hand up into her hair, which didn't help the lopsidedness at all. In her orange bathrobe and with the extreme bedhead, she looked sort of like a fluffy orange Gumby. But a very smart fluffy orange Gumby. "I'm not sure," she admitted, blowing Xander's whole smart fluffy orange Gumby idea out of the metaphorical water. Okay, she was still smart. She'd come up with the answer. Because Willow always came up with the answer. She was the answer girl. She of the bodacious brain.
Willow was still reading intently. "It looks," she mumbled, as if to herself, "it looks like we can stop the time distortion if we destroy the Jewel."
"But how do we find it if it can be disguised as anything?" Xander was feeling increasingly frustrated by the fact that right now he just really wanted to sleep. Willow's bathrobe looked very cozy. He wanted one of his own. And maybe a pillow. All time loops and no sleep makes Xander a dull boy.
Then Spike spoke directly to him, and that woke him right up. "Xander, do you remember when you hit your head? It was in that first fight with the demons, right? Near the Rolletti crypt?"
Xander nodded thoughtfully. Yeah. That was when he got the bump on his head, when he got knocked down in the fight. He looked into Spike's eyes and said, "That must be where the Jewel is."
Willow stood up in the center of the room to get their attention and said, "I think we should all go as a group and find this thing and see if we can and should destroy it. We don't know if we'll need you and Spike because you were there the first time, or if we'll need Tara and me for magic, or" -- she glanced apologetically at Spike -- "or even the Bot, for extra strength. So we should all go together."
Xander nodded slowly, but pointed out, "It's almost light. We can't go now or Spike'll get hit by the sun coming up." Spike glanced at him curiously, as if surprised that Xander would consider his safety. It hurt Xander somewhere in his chest, because it probably meant that he hadn't been a very good friend before this.
Willow agreed, "Yeah, I think we should go first thing at dark. Because we want Spike with us, but we also want to get this done as soon as possible." She smiled down at Xander where he sat on the couch and she added, "And I think I have a spell that should protect you. It should keep the demons from sensing the Jewel on you, and it might even keep you from the time-looping."
Xander smiled weakly, "That would be great, Will. Then I can go home and sleep until dark."
She frowned in obvious concern. "Can't you sleep here? We have a guest room, you know. I don't think it's really safe to go out again."
Xander sighed heavily. "You have no idea how long this day has been. I have been killed dozens of times. I've watched Spike get dusted dozens of times. I have run through cemeteries and been whacked in the face by branches. I have run through sewers, splashing through stuff I'd really rather not think about. I have done a whole lot of stuff that I never intended to do tonight, but the one thing that I have not done is lay down in my own bed. And that's what I'm going to do now. I think I've earned it."
And, with that determined pronouncement, he stood up and trudged toward the door.
"Wait!" cried Willow apologetically. "At least let me get the ingredients for the protection spell. It might not last the whole day, but it should keep you safer, at least on the way home. And we'll all be there to meet you tonight at sunset, so you don't have to go out when the demons might sense the Jewel."
Xander waited wearily at the front door. There seemed to be some quiet conversation back and forth between Willow and Spike, and suddenly Spike was standing by his side. "Let Red mojo you up and then we'll head out. Got plenty of liquored-up knives in case we meet any demons, and I could use a place to kip for the day."
Resigned, Xander nodded and asked, "So what do I have to do?"
It didn't take long, and less than half an hour later he and Spike were on their way to Xander's apartment. And Xander was so tired that he didn't even take a moment to consider what that might mean.
Him and Spike.
His gray Babylon 5 t-shirt.
Convergence was imminent.