AUTHOR'S NOTE: And here we have the final chapter of "It's Just A Jump to the Left." I hope you've enjoyed the ride! Thank you to every single fabulous one of you who took the time to review. I love you all!

-o-o-o-

Part 8: Free and Clear.

-o-o-o-

"... worth listening to. Nothing but tripe now, though ... lyrics like the worst kind of poetry, all simpering love-sick crap."

This time, Xander really did trip and almost fell right on his ass, but Spike caught his arm just in time, leaving him pressed up against Spike, looking right into his eyes, his heart pounding in his chest. Xander froze.

But Spike let go of him when he seemed to have regained his footing, and Xander looked away, his thoughts racing. He couldn't believe he'd looped again. He'd thought Willow's spell had it all taken care of. He'd thought...

He'd thought that maybe Spike was finally starting to believe him.

When he looked back at Spike again, he couldn't help searching the other man's eyes, looking for the emotions he'd never noticed before. But Spike's face was carefully blank. Yeah. He probably got used to not trusting us - me - a long time ago. Xander's chest ached painfully.

Fuck. If I have to start over, at least this Spike doesn't think I see him as a whore. At least I can try and avoid that mistake again.

He remembered the pain and accusation on Spike's face, the self-loathing in his voice, the pure disbelief that Xander might actually want to touch him, the absolute assurance that he was nothing but an object to them, a tool, a Bot.

Unfortunately, just standing around in the cemetery thinking about this was going to get them killed. Xander cleared his throat. Here we go again. "Hey, Spike? I know this is going to sound weird, but we need to get to Willow's right away. I'll explain why when we get there."

Spike looked curious, but shrugged and followed Xander toward the tunnels. Just a patrol Bot, Xander thought to himself. Goes where we tell him. Does what we tell him. Fuck. How could I not have noticed?

It was while they were splashing through unidentifiable sewage that Xander rasped out, "Thanks for saving my life, Spike." He was facing straight ahead as they hurried through the darkness, his vision just a little blurred by ... something in his eye.

"Which time, whelp?" Spike sounded sarcastic and smug, making a mild joke at Xander's expense, sort of the extent of their friendship. At least, on Spike's end.

Xander tried to put everything he was feeling into his voice. "All of 'em," he replied seriously. "Every single time."

Spike was silent for a while. The only sound was their feet splashing through the water and the occasional squeak of what Xander really hoped were rats, because anything else would be even worse.

Splash. Splash splash squeak squeak. Splash splash splash. Squeak. Splash. Splash splash squish. Ew.

After what seemed like forever, Spike finally just said quietly, "You're welcome." And they continued on without saying anything more.

When they got to Willow's, the three of them sat in the living room with cups of coffee and Xander told them about the time looping. He knew he probably sounded bored and frustrated and annoyed with telling the same damn story AGAIN when he'd hoped he was through with all this, but he just didn't have a lot of strength in him right now to act like he was fine. He told them about the Jnok!'ha demons and the Jewel of Grathnak and the getting repeatedly killed and the time distortion. He also couldn't help but tell them that he had already told them this story a few times before and he was thinking about getting explanatory flyers printed up because he was really tired of his own spiel.

And then there came the moment when Xander realized he was going to have to do something uncomfortable. Well, two uncomfortable things, actually. He was going to have to tell Willow about the sex stuff, and he was going to have to tell Spike to go away while he did it. While Willow and Spike discussed possible methods of destroying the Jewel, Xander thought and thought. And then he realized there wasn't going to be any really good solution.

"Uh, hey, Spike?" he said nervously. Please don't let me hurt his feelings. Please don't let him think I'm ordering him around like a servant or a ... a patrol robot or something. "There's some sort of magic-specific stuff I need to talk about with Willow, but we might as well divide up our efforts. Maybe you can keep looking for more about this Jewel of Grathnak while she and I go talk in the kitchen?"

Transparent! That's so transparent! It's like ... Saran Wrap, it's so transparent! It's like the Invisible Man! Like a jellyfish! It's like a really really see-through transparent thing!

Spike narrowed his eyes, but nodded and pulled a book onto his lap, settling in to search for information about how to destroy the Jewel. Xander mentally wiped his forehead with relief.

Once in the kitchen, he sat down at the table and faced Willow and told her everything in hushed tones, hoping Spike wouldn't hear if he spoke quietly enough. And, okay, he didn't tell her everything everything, because he left out most of the details, but he told her enough that her face gradually became an interesting shade of fuschia which clashed horribly with her orange chenille bathrobe.

"It sounds," she said, and her voice sounded a little strained, like she was trying to pretend this was all perfectly normal when it really really wasn't, "like my spell maybe messed things up a bit." She gave him her "oops" face, and it was so cute that he had no defense against it. "I think the spell might have lasted for a little while, but then worn off. So when you bumped your head the first time, you started some sort of ... um ... loop recording or something ... but you didn't actually loop. And then when the spell wore off, you looped when you bumped your head again."

Xander gazed at her with complete incomprehension in his eyes. Me no understand. Me big dumb monkey. Me need pictures? Pictures show?

Willow took a sip of her coffee and gave him big apologetic eyes. "Just ... it looks like the sex thing was repeating because of my spell. At least, that's my guess." She smiled her "oops" smile again and Xander rolled his eyes with a chuckle.

"Well, gee, thanks, Will," he deadpanned. "I owe you a lot. Like my whole new sexual identity." She looked really confused. "If that stupid sex thing hadn't happened over and over and over again, I never would have developed this weird 'thing' for Spike."

Willow's eyes got big and she glanced toward the living room, then back at Xander. "You really...?"

Xander shrugged and looked down. Oh, there's that interesting blister on my thumb! "Yeah." He smiled ruefully. Then he lowered his voice to almost a whisper and insisted, "But he doesn't know. And he doesn't ... he thinks ... it's just going to be complicated."

Then Xander had a sudden thought and his face fell. He looked down at the tabletop, then back at Willow. He whispered softly, "I don't even know if he likes guys, or if he was just ... just doing that to try to ... I don't know ... win some kind of macho contest." Xander swallowed painfully. "Maybe we can at least be friends." He licked his lips and glanced toward the living room. "I do know that if I want to ... if I ... I'm going to have to go slow, 'cause Spike's got all these ideas about ... me ... and us ... and ... everything."

Willow nodded supportively, putting on her "best friend" face, which looked particularly adorable beneath the extreme bedhead. "But you're sure you want to ... with Spike?" She looked serious. Concerned Willow, Friend Extraordinaire.

Xander looked down at the fascinating tabletop and nodded again. "If Spike wants to. Eventually. I guess. Yeah."

Suddenly Willow grinned. "So you're going to have to like ... romance him, right?"

Xander blushed and looked away. "Oh, yeah. I'm the big Don Juan. Maybe I'll give him a necklace so he can throw it back in my face. Or maybe I can cast a love spell on every vampire in Sunnydale."

Willow's face was alight with excitement. "I can help!" At Xander's raised eyebrows, she clarified quickly, "Not magic help. Just ... friend help. Romance help."

Xander smirked slightly and quipped, "I don't know if your idea of romance and Spike's have much in common, Will." But then he remembered what Spike had told him about being a poet when he was human. Xander wouldn't tell Willow - or anyone else - about that, but it did give him a bit of hope for the whole romance thing.

Not that Xander was going to go writing any poetry, because that would nix things for sure.

Xander cleared his throat. Time for a change of subject. "So ... uh ... destroying this Jewel should stop the time looping?"

Willow frowned. "I think so. It seems pretty clear, but these old books aren't all that reliable on the details."

"Sounds like we should include Spike in this conversation, so let's head back," Xander suggested. But as they stood he took hold of Willow's arm and said quietly, "But don't tell anybody, okay? Not even Tara. Because if you tell Tara, then eventually Dawn will find out, and then she'll be giggling every time she sees Spike, and then Spike'll figure it out, and it'll be like junior high all over again. And Spike'll write me a note to tell me he hates me and have you pass it to me in Health class and then the teacher'll intercept the note and read it out in front of everyone and..."

Willow laughed, shaking her head and holding up a hand. "I get it. I get it." She didn't look very happy about keeping something from her girlfriend, but Xander met her stare and hoped she could see how serious he was, despite the babbling. He must have won, because she nodded reluctantly and crossed a finger over her heart, whispering, "Promise." Then she gave him a little smile, and Xander hugged her tight.

Back out in the living room, Spike had found some new info on the Jewel. Willow sat down to read the new stuff he'd found, along with the books and pages Xander had been able to recommend from previous loops. At a certain point, Willow decided to go wake Tara, and they both came downstairs fully dressed.

"I think we should go soon," Willow said seriously. "I know the demons are still out there, but we need to destroy this Jewel or Xander might loop again."

Xander interrupted quickly to add, "And that would be BAD. Oh, and nobody touch the back of my head, while you're at it."

Willow nodded and gave everyone the run-down. The plan was to head out armed for any encounter with the demons, so Spike and Xander would carry blades coated in alcohol.

"Wait," Xander said suddenly. "I don't think Spike should go. He should stay here and guard Dawn. We can take the Bot, instead."

Spike turned to look at him, obviously pissed as hell. "I'm not staying behind, whelp. If there's fighting to be done, I'm going."

Xander gritted his teeth. Then he pulled Spike aside and told him quietly, "I've seen these guys kill you dozens of times now. I think it would be better if you stayed here."

Spike screwed up his face in disdain. "Since when have any of you lot given a toss whether I was dust or not?"

Xander look Spike straight in the eyes and said, "I care. And I don't want you getting dusted again. Not because of me."

Spike gave him a strange look, sort of confused, sort of impatient, sort of waiting for the punchline. Then he replied only very abruptly, "I'm going." He pulled away from Xander and turned toward Willow. "How many we need, eh?"

Willow glanced uncertainly at Xander, then back at Spike. "Um ... I guess Tara and me for the magic stuff, since we aren't quite sure what we're getting into ... and Xander, since he's touched the Jewel and might be able to help us find it. And..." she glanced again at Xander, uncertain, "I guess we probably need one other fighter. Maybe two. Maybe both you and the Bot?"

Spike stiffened slightly. Xander had always assumed that he was uncomfortable around the Bot because it reminded him of Buffy, but now he wondered if it might be a lot more than that. He figured it probably was.

"No," Xander butted in suddenly. "I don't think we need the Bot." Spike shot him a surprised glance. "Leave the Bot here to keep an eye on Dawn. We'll be back before sunrise, anyway."

Willow shrugged obligingly and said, "That seems like a plan."

So she and Willow grabbed some various supplies that seemed like they might be useful, and Spike and Xander dug into the weapons chest. Once again, Spike stashed blades all over inside his coat, and once again Xander had to make do with a couple of large knives.

"Hey, you think you could show me how to customize my jacket?" he asked Spike. "It would be good to be able to carry more knives like that, when we're headed into big fights."

Spike nodded easily. "Only takes a few loops here and there, some leather pockets to keep you from getting cut. I'll show you."

Xander grinned. "Great! Thanks!" A step toward non-Botness! Almost a friend-like thing!

The walk through the cemetery was eerie. Well, it was eerie for Xander, but he figured it was probably business as usual for everyone else. But for him ... he kept seeing certain areas of the cemetery and remembering battles that no one with him had seen. It was like those battles didn't even exist, except inside Xander. He felt sort of like one of those war survivors ... they've gone through all this intense stuff that bonds them to their fellow soldiers ... except Xander's fellow soldier didn't remember any of it. So Xander felt all bondy ... but Spike didn't.

It was sort of ... lonely.

When the demons showed up, it was even more anti-climactic than last time, because Xander didn't really feel any need to make a show of killing the Creepy Little Guy. He and Spike together polished off the demons in only a few minutes' time, and Tara and Willow were suitably impressed, especially with Xander's heretofore unknown knife-throwing ability. "One of the perks of time-looping," he grinned, glad he'd gotten a chance to show off. He wondered if Spike had noticed. And then they were all continuing on through the cemetery, green-foaming demon corpses in their wake.

They finally got back to the Rolletti crypt, where Spike and Xander had first battled the spiny demons before Xander's first time loop. Xander looked around and tried to find the place where he'd been thrown onto the ground. Suddenly, his heart was racing, pounding, as if he'd been running for his life. "It's nearby," he gasped, clutching his chest. "My heart is beating fast."

Willow and Tara quickly cast a spell to reveal magical objects in the vicinity, and a rock on the ground began to glow faintly. Xander gingerly leaned down to pick it up, but his heart beat as if it would leap out of his chest and the bump on the back of his head was suddenly shooting sharp pain through his head. He almost fell down.

Staggering back, Xander explained, "I can't touch it. My heart is freaking out and my head is splitting."

Spike glanced at Willow. "This thing gonna start me hopping around in time if I touch it?"

Willow shook her head. "We've got protection spells on all of us. Plus, the spell we cast to find it should make it sort of ... weakened ... for a few minutes. So it shouldn't have much power now."

Spike nodded, glanced at the fairly normal-looking rock that just happened to be glowing a faint pink, and then asked, "So how exactly you want me to destroy this thing?"

Willow grimaced slightly. "We didn't actually find anything specific about how to do that. I hoped it would be clearer when we got here."

Spike added dryly, "But it's not."

Willow shook her head apologetically.

"Well," Spike said, straightening his shoulders and pulling himself to his full height, "here goes nothing." And then he leapt into the air, landing with both Doc Marten'ed feet on the rock. It seemed to sort of shimmer ... but it didn't go away. So Spike proceeded to stomp on the thing over and over again. One foot. Both feet. Switch to the other foot. Each time, the rock shimmered but didn't break.

Finally, Xander stepped forward and said, "It seems connected to me, so maybe I can help. Maybe I can touch the rock at the same time as you try to break it."

"Nah. Nearly sent you to the emergency room the first time you tried that." Spike frowned in thought for a moment, then reached out unexpectedly and grabbed Xander's wrist. And then with a wicked grin, he kept hold of Xander while he leapt into the air again and landed with both booted feet on top of the rock, which abruptly shattered, leaving no visible remnants.

Xander let out a whoop of triumph and leapt into the air, grabbing Spike into a celebratory one-armed hug, grinning. Spike patted him a bit, as if humoring him, and then released him right away, looking uncomfortable.

"How's your head?" asked Willow immediately, and Xander reached up his hand to feel for the bump. Then he smacked himself in the back of the head, just to be sure. Okay, yes, pain, but not time-loop pain in my ass sort of pain.

"The bump's gone!" he shouted. "It's gone! No more looping for me, mister! No more looping for me!"

Everyone was watching him with little smiles on their faces, but Willow suggested that she and Tara both see if they could sense any of the Jewel's magic still lingering on him. After they'd made a thorough magical investigation, the verdict was that he was free and clear.

"Woo hoo!" yelled Xander. "Yeah, baby! I'm free!" He wanted to dance Spike all around, celebrating the fact that they wouldn't be dying anymore, but Spike didn't remember any of the dying, so he didn't really have anything to celebrate. Plus, he'd probably think Xander was making fun of him or something.

That was a sobering thought.

Yeah, there was still the Spike problem. Xander found himself pondering it as the group of them headed back to the house. They needed to get Spike inside before sunrise, and Xander wanted them all together for some kind of breakfast or something to celebrate. Like a group thing. Specifically with Spike.

Okay. So I've tried this whole me-and-Spike thing a couple of different ways. And last time I apparently made Spike feel like a whore. Let's not do that one again. Like, ever. Um ... unless he likes that sort of thing. Okay, don't need those mental pictures right now. Nobody'll notice if I straighten my jeans just a bit right? Okay, so I was thinking about something innocent, right? Something innocent ... about Spike ... why does that sound so insane? But if I want to see if he ... well ... then I guess I'm supposed to romance him? What the heck am I supposed to know about romancing somebody ... let alone a hundred-year-old male vampire?

Xander glanced up and saw that Willow had discreetly pulled Tara a bit ahead of them, giving him and Spike just a bit of privacy. Xander smiled a tiny secret smile at her back. She was a good friend. And this was so pathetically junior high. Then he glanced over at Spike, who was striding along just like always.

Spike was, as usual, tossing his knife casually. Toss. Catch. Toss. Catch. And Xander got an idea.

On one of the tosses, Xander caught the knife in the air, making Spike turn to him in surprise. Xander tossed the knife in the air and caught it neatly. He'd never done the tossing thing - only the throwing at murderous spiny demons thing - but apparently the practice had paid off. He felt terribly excited that it had worked. I'm Xander the knife-tossing guy! But he tried to play it cool.

He tossed Spike's knife again and caught it, saying casually, "So. Want to go see Jonathan Richman at The Bronze tomorrow?"

Spike grabbed his knife on Xander's next toss and scowled, "Why would I want to do that?"

Xander shrugged, looking straight ahead as they returned to walking behind Willow and Tara. "I don't know. I sort of like those poet punk types."

He looked over and saw that Spike's eyes were narrowed, watching him with something like suspicion, something like defensiveness, something like anger ... something maybe like fear. Xander just smiled, trying to look as harmless as possible, and added, "Not like there's a lot of other stuff going on, anyway."

Spike looked away and started tossing his knife again, as if the rhythm were somehow comforting. "Sure," he said, affecting great boredom. "Should be good for a laugh."

And Xander smiled at him.

-o-o-o-

The End

-o-o-o-

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Okay, so there's a sequel to this fic, but I'm not sure if this site will consider it too racy. Perhaps I'll post the first chapter and see how it goes.