Knowing their limits turns out to be a lot like going to Koreatown and asking around. Killing a few easy demons for pay. Playing kitten poker and Xander's not sure what kitten poker has to do with saving the world - or even West Covina.
"Intelligence gathering," Spike says.
Xander fills the kitten chow bowl and watches their blue point gathered intelligence gorge its little furry tummy. "I don't think he knows anything, Spike."
"Bloke I shook down for him did."
"Did he tell you before or after you knocked out his teeth?"
"Very funny." Spike crouches down to stroke his ill-gotten winnings from ears to tail. It pushes its butt up into his hand. Xander sympathizes - Spike's got the magic touch. "Muurls don't have teeth. Got a funny little piece of cartilage under their tongues, looks like tractor tire. Never accept oral sex from a muurl."
Which is way more than Xander ever wanted to know about muurls - and possibly Spike's sexual history - but he feels bound to make an entry about it anyway.
His entries are a lot more interesting these days. "Okay - so what did he know?"
"Knew there's a cowboy in town asking after me."
"Cowboy," Xander repeats, when he finishes typing the part about the tire tongue with one good index finger. "Because our lives aren't weird enough, oh no. Prophecies at high noon."
"How'd you know there was a prophecy?" Spike looks up from little Gathered Intelligence.
"There's always a prophecy," Xander says and puts the kitten food away with his bad arm. Awkwardly. "So what's the prophecy?" He fills his own bowl with cereal and milk and takes it to the couch. Leaves the computer humming along in its foster home with the Frosted Flakes and Weetabix.
"Big showdown, blah blah, Angel's gone to the dark side, blah blah, new vampire with a soul takes his place. Something like that."
"Are there benefits?"
"Dying a heroic death."
Spike sits next to him with a beer and a bag of Doritos.
But Spike doesn't seem inclined to die a heroic death - or any death. In fact, he seems a lot more inclined to kick the shit out of the kind of demons he kicked the shit out of in Sunnydale and Xander's starting to get a powerful sense of deja vu. "Don't you have a prophecy to be getting to?" He gets around to asking it some time around the new year while Spike's kicking something big, purple and warty in the head - at least - Xander thinks it's a head.
When it's a detached head, Spike comes over, scrapes goo off his boot on the curb and steps back for Xander to take the photographic proof of slayage.
It's tacky but it really simplifies the invoicing.
"Prophecy can sod itself."
"This one looks pretty possible. Angel did go to work for the dark side and you are a vampire with a soul."
"Been talking to Watcher Prime again, have you?" Spike gives his boot a last disgusted scrape and shakes a cigarette out of the pack.
Xander flicks his Bic without looking up from the camera's viewfinder.
They have a routine.
He puts the camera and lighter away and steps upwind from Spike. "Technically - you know - I am working for the council. And that means consulting with Giles." He has the paychecks to prove it and who knew heroes were so expensive to support?
"Yeah right," Spike says, waving it away. "Too manly to admit you need a father figure so you call him for advice because you work for him."
"That's not actually what I said."
"What you meant isn't it?" He ashes into the topiary but Xander's pretty sure it won't make a difference. This topiary's headed for the 'stick in a pot of dirt' look. Maybe he should have become a landscaper. They made good money in the hills.
And dirt never jumped out at you with sharp teeth.
Or commented on your need for a father figure.
"Yeah - but prophecy," Xander says because someone's got to get back to the point and it's not gonna be Spike. "The whole point is they're supposed to happen."
"Look. I'm a bit more mystical than you and older than you and Rupert put together. I think I know a thing or two about prophecies."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Thing one," Spike says, holding up a finger, "It's all got to happen before it comes true. Thing two," he says and holds up another finger, "Never did like madmen who've been dead longer than me telling me what to do."
"So that's your plan? Say 'sorry but I don't wanna?'"
Spike considers it, head cocked, smokes his cigarette to the filter and flicks it into the street. "Yeah. Yeah, pretty much. Got a problem with it?"
"No. Not at all. Why should I have a problem with a plan like that?"
"Let Angel go after the sodding cup by himself didn't I?" Spike punches him in the shoulder, steadies him before he falls into a hedge. "Berk."
Of course it's not that easy.
Because it's never that easy and they should know it by now.
"She what Angel's what?"
"Hands, you big dork," Cordelia says because she's sitting on the other side of the table in Starbucks with a triple iced mocha frappuccino, extra whipped cream, chocolate sauce, like it's a totally normal place to be.
The triple iced mocha frappuccino with extra whipped cream and chocolate sauce should tip him off.
But Xander's gotta get better at reading the tips, "You're not a cyborg are you?"
She hits him - a lot less hard than a cyborg would. "Are you even listening to me?"
"I am all about the listening." Because his arm still aches when it looks like rain and Cordy's never been the holding back type.
"Then I don't have to tell you all about the insane-o slayer who chopped off Angel's hands." Cordy scoops up whipped cream and chocolate shavings with the end of her straw and makes a sound Xander's never gonna be gay enough to have immunity to.
He clears his throat. Focus on the chopped off hands. "He's really come down in the world with slayers."
"Tell me about it."
And it's a switch when Cordy springs for triple chocolate muffins too but Xander's got enough experience with girls not to ask any questions. He doesn't. He's all about the lying back and enjoying it and not asking questions where girls are concerned because it's worked for him up until now.
So when he gets home and Spike asks what the cheerleader wanted, he's got nothing but, "Chocolate."
"I brought you a muffin."
"Vampires don't eat muffins."
Xander rattles the bag.
There's a stare-down between Spike, Xander and the paper bag.
The muffin wins.
In hindsight, the triple iced mocha frappuccino with extra whipped cream and chocolate sauce really should have tipped him off.
Signs of the apocalypse are subtle that way.
"Spike! I know you're in there!"
"And I know you know. What's your point?"
Spike and Angel are yelling at each other through the door. So of course it's four in the morning and Xander really really wants to be asleep.
"So I'm gonna break it down if you don't open it."
"Oh yeah? And then what? Can't come in."
The pounding on the door stops abruptly. "You're human?"
"God, you're thick." Spike's lighter clicks and tobacco burns.
Xander groans and pulls the pillow over his ears. He can't remember what the pillow was once called and the novelty's worn so far off he's calling a pillow a pillow.
"The prophecy's not for you."
"You don't say!"
"Spike!" The pounding starts up again.
"Listen, wanker - I don't want your sodding prophecy!"
The pounding stops again and there's a lull. A lull Xander knows won't last. It's a lull made for dragging himself out of bed, jamming his patch on and stumbling to the door. And thank god for the whole uninvited vampires barrier thing or Angel would have hit him in the face.
"Xander?" Angel's wearing an expensive suit and a look of bovine confusion.
"Go away," Xander says and shuts the door.
"Yeah," Spike says, "go away."
"Yeah?" Spike's smoking. Looking smug. Barefoot.
Okay - edible - but it doesn't change the fact that it's four in the morning and Xander's so tired he can't clear his eye and everything in the world's in fog. "Keep yelling and you can go away too."
Spike follows him back to the bed. Casually. Gets in. "You don't mean that."
He's right. But Xander almost means it. He grunts and throws his patch on the night table.
Lies there while his boxers slide south - or east - or whichever direction it is when he's lying down. Hisses in breath because he's tired but his dick's always game and Spike's surprisingly good at what he does for a guy who's not a poof. "Spike?"
Wet kisses across his back and all Xander's gotta do is lie there and let it feel good - really really good. "Yeah?" The word buzzes up and down his spine.
"Angel's still on the other side of the door listening isn't he?"
Fingers and Xander's body's gonna take this crazy ride while his head's full of sand and thank god he never needed his brain for sex. "Yeah," Spike says again - eases in and sucks on Xander's neck in a way Xander's never gonna be prepared to think about too closely.
Says, "Was, anyway."
And gets back to business.
It's funny how there's still morning afters this far into his relationship with Spike.
And this is one of them.
And the problem with being sober is he gets to think about them and their pieces don't always add up.
Then again it was Xander's first time as far as putting on a good show for the lurking tom and he should probably have better questions than, "What is this?" But he's hung up on the pieces of him and Spike - or Spike and him - that don't add up and have never added up and he's pretty sure he's on the verge of turning into a girl.
Spike cranes his neck out of the couch too late to see the 'you and me' gesture Xander makes. Focuses on clothes, beer bottles, pizza and wings boxes. "A bloody big mess. Best call the housekeeper, pet."
"There is no housekeeper."
"Should be." Spike disappears back into the embrace of the couch and Xander seizes on the opportunity to preserve what's left of his manliness because asking relationship questions never got him anywhere and changes tack.
"This whole you and me in Angel's city thing. This whole Angel pounding on our door at four in the morning like the worst ex-girlfriend in the world."
"He's not the type of bloke to let things drop." Spike's not interested anymore and Xander doesn't remember owning an Xbox before he went to sleep last night but apparently he owns one now.
And Spike's kicking Ninja Gaiden ass.
The kitten goes wild.
Xander peels Gathered Intelligence off the television screen and slumps onto the couch. "So - what - he's too busy to send 'sorry the cyborgs broke your arm' flowers but he's not too busy to come all the way out here and rob me of my sleep?"
"Made it up to you, didn't I?"
Xander has to admit he did.
Even if the memory's a little fuzzy.
"Twice," Spike says.
Even fuzzily Xander's pretty sure he only remembers once. He points this out.
"Might've fallen asleep," Spike admits and saves the game. Plucks Intelligence out of Xander's lap and gives him a rub. "What? Didn't hear you objecting."
It's an argument Xander can't win.
And isn't actually sure he needs to.
Because there's things unsaid filling in the gaps between the pieces.
He's okay with unsaid.
But it's not all sex, comfortable non-declarations and mocking Angel in this, their new life together.
And it doesn't take long to remind Xander heroing's serious business.
Long or much.
Just standing in rubble that was a building a few seconds ago. And choking on potentially carcinogenic dust.
Just realizing Spike's still in there and Xander's gonna need a bulldozer to find him. Or maybe the jaws of life but he's beyond irony.
Just pulling Spike out of the hole he sticks his head out of and yells, 'Hey! Harris! Shift your arse!' And going back in for Spike's leg which only sorta kinda comes with him the first time.
Yeah. All those? Good reminders.
Hauling bloody trash bags out of the back seat of his car in the pre-dawn darkness and hoping nobody's gonna ask questions.
And it kinda surprises him how much he was not ready to see a building go down on Spike again.
"Y'know, we coulda been beach bums instead of heroes," Xander says to Spike's thigh bone and pushes the needle through skin. Pulls it tight and ties it off.
"Yeah - 'cause California's hurting for 'em," Spike says like Xander's not sewing pieces of him back together.
The vodka's probably helping.
The broken back too.
The couch will never be the same again.
Xander makes another pre-dawn trip to the dumpster, showers, post-dawn trip to the IHOP because this is the kind of thing that calls for pancakes or booze and he's not sure the butcher will sell him blood by the quart if he shows up soused.
He shows up bloated instead.
Goes home with blood and steaks and sits on the floor in front of the TV because they don't have a couch anymore and listens to Spike not breathe while he sleeps.
Makes an entry.
March 22: One Vampire Demolition Crew.
When he hears from Buffy the next day she sounds funny over the phone.
He doesn't ask why.
He'll ask why next week.
This week he's booked.
He wakes Spike up for another mug of blood.
As soon as Spike's up, kicking ass and not bothering to take names again, Xander turns into a helicopter sidekick.
Not the propeller beanie wearing kind.
But the kind who can't stop -
"Bloody hell, Harris! Stop hovering!"
"I'm not hovering," Xander says, hovering over Spike's shoulder because - hey - it looks dead but that doesn't mean it is dead.
As it turns out, it is dead but the other one isn't.
The one that comes up behind them and skewers Xander through the middle like a gherkin.
Which is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick as injuries go - and Xander knows from pokes in the eye - but it's a big slurpy experience he never wants to repeat.
Things get kinda fuzzy at this point but Xander's pretty sure he could identify the sound of a vampire's fist punching into a demon's belly in a lineup if he had to - that and about fifty million English ways to say 'die, demon scum' he really needs to remember.
He's also pretty sure he might not get the chance and doesn't want to pull his hand away from his stomach because there's something slick and twitchy against his palm. He doesn't wanna see it.
And he may never eat spaghetti again.
Then Spike's hovering over him.
"Stupid git," Spike says.
"It's only a flesh wound," Xander answers.
Because their romance is romantic like that.
But he's pretty sure Spike's hand is running through his hair and he hears something like a 911 call on his cell phone and he's profoundly grateful heroing doesn't extend to heroic gestures like picking him up and running to the nearest hospital because - ow.
He says it out loud: "Ow."
And Spike says: "Hush."
Apparently there's room for a little cliche in every romance, even the really romantic ones like theirs, and Xander thinks he's okay with that. He's not okay with the lying here bleeding on the concrete thing. But he's okay with the rest.
Spike's holding his hand too and Xander flexes his fingers in Spike's grip. It tightens. A thumb strokes his wrist.
"You're a romantic, Spike."
"Shut up, Harris."
There's a time in the morphine fog when Xander's feeling his face, wondering why the nurses took the bandages off his eye.
Sinks into the cool stroking touches on his face, in his hair.
"You don't have to stay here," he says at one point.
"Where else am I supposed to go?" Spike asks - like he's an idiot.
"Buffy needs you," Xander mumbles and goes down into the murky depths again like a little yellow submarine.
"Stupid git. Too sodding slow for work like this," Spike says again when Xander comes up for air and blinks in the brightness of the hospital room. Except he's not talking to Xander and there's nobody else to talk to in the room.
He's tired; he files it away.
Pulls it out again when Spike helps him down the stairs into their apartment with an arm around his ribs and Xander's keys in his hand. There's a new sofa in front of the television and Spike lowers Xander into it.
Xander opens the file. He chooses to sum up. "Thanks."
Spike snorts and stalks to the kitchen. Bangs the cabinets making tea and cereal. "Don't have anything to thank me for."
"Sure I do," Xander says, treading in dangerous waters and blaming the drugs because they're not like this. They don't talk about things - they talk around things. And this talk is very about. "You saved my life - and it may be a crappy life - but it's mine. And you saved it."
Spike slams a cabinet Xander's gonna have to put back on its hinges when he's able to wield a drill without aerating himself. "Are you done?"
Xander thinks about it and scans the file for anything he might've missed. Nods. "Yeah, I'm done."
Takes the mug of tea Spike wraps his hands around and rests it on his chest where it's a spot of heat through his shirt and watches Spike fidget in place. This is where an excuse goes. Something flippant and cutting. Putting Xander in his place and making sure he understands Spike didn't do it for him. Except it doesn't come.
Spike sits abruptly on the floor with his back to the couch and Xander frees a hand from the mug. Drops it into Spike's hair.
Spike's head falls against his thigh and Spike wraps a hand around Xander's ankle. Holds on.
There are no words.
They get more selective in their heroing. Sure there's a world of helpless needing to be helped out there but Spike and Xander are only two guys - or a guy and a vampire - but Xander's willing to argue for Spike's guyness. Spike's really a guy where it counts.
And Xander doesn't just mean sex.
They communicate in guy.
It's a whole secret language and Xander's fluent.
Buffy calls from Italy while Spike's sitting on the coffee table painting Xander's toenails black, an affectation Xander's too manly to question and Spike's too manly to explain.
It's contact and that's enough for both of them because they're still in this place where they need to be solid and real together. "What's the what, Buff?"
"It's more a who than a what." Buffy doesn't sound too worried so Xander's not gonna be too worried and it's hard to get too worried with Spike scowling at his feet.
"Who's the who?" Xander asks cooperatively.
Spike snorts and pokes him in the arch.
Xander jabs his toes into Spike's crotch and has his ankle grabbed.
"I'm here. What's the who's what?"
Xander flexes his toes and gets more comfortable. "You know, I remember a time when our lives weren't one cliche Apocalypse after another."
"We gotta do what we gotta do, Xand."
"And what do we gotta do? Find the treasure? Rescue the princess?" And Xander is forced to acknowledge the possibility he's been playing too many video games with Spike.
"Defeat the - . Excuse me?" Xander's got a long squiggle of black nail polish running from his middle toe up to his ankle.
He and Spike stare at each other.
"Both of you."
In the kitchen, Intelligence disembowels the empty Chinese takeout carton.
The lull in conversation gives awkward a bad name.
Buffy fills it in with, "Please."
It turns out Xander's still a sucker for Buffy's 'please' and Spike's a lot easier to hustle out of Dodge than Dawn was - and lucky for him because he's also probably a lot harder to chloroform and god knows Dawn wasn't easy.
"Why aren't you putting up a fight?" Xander asks at a truck stop outside of Bakersfield with a 48 ounce Coke and a big bag of Cheetos on the picnic table between them. The night sky of Los Angeles over the mountains is its usual dirty orange.
Spike takes a Cheeto. Crunches. Knocks his knee into Xander's until Xander looks at him. "You want to hang around while Angel pisses off every evil organization in Los Angeles? Did you hit your sodding head?"
Which pretty much answers the question but Xander's never stopped there. He slurps his Coke. He should buy something inside the truck stop for Intelligence before they drive off. "Well - no - but I thought you might've."
Spike snorts. "What do you take me for?"
Xander shrugs like it's the most obvious thing in the world - because it is. "A hero."
It's not really silence between them - with the truck engines and horns honking. Parents calling to kids. Kids screaming. Laughing. Running. Crying. Being kids. There's a dog barking in somebody's car and loud vibrations of Cheeto crunchiness in his own skull.
He works at a hunk of Cheeto in his molar with the tip of his tongue.
"I'm not really," Spike says. Takes a pull from a bottle of Mountain Dew like it's a flask. "A hero."
"All that puppy rescuing - just a hobby, huh?"
"I do not rescue puppies."
"Rescued a kitten."
They look toward the car. In the dark, the cheap cardboard box with Intelligence in it seems to be closed. But they both know looks can be deceiving.
Spike licks cheese dust off his thumb, leans back on his elbows. "Can't be a hero, anyway." Spike lights a cigarette and puffs. "Got something to live for." He tucks a hand behind his head and lies down, stares at the sky. Smokes with the other hand. "And the big hero always dies."
Xander lets that sink in along with the cold wetness of his coke. Stares at the glowing sign till it blurs red and white, then pink. "So what are you?"
Spike lifts a shoulder and lets it drop. Shifts his boots on the seat. "Never did like labels."
Xander's wearing a suit again - no tie required - but it is tweed and Spike looked him up and down and snorted when he bought it. "Isn't it redundant having a wake for someone who was already dead?"
"More redundant having one for someone who went from dead to alive," Spike mutters under his breath even though Xander's pretty sure Spike would sooner throw himself under the train than take on being human.
He kinda thinks Spike wouldn't be very good at being human.
Mostly because there's just too much Spike to fit into one human.
He lives large.
And Xander's got a front row seat. "You have a point," he concedes. "Why are we here?"
"Seemed important at the time." It's code.
Code for 'Buffy asked nicely.'
And he guesses it's the least they can do for a guy who died saving the world again - even if the world is only greater Los Angeles and the guy in question didn't stay dead. He'd ask what's up with the whole dead heroes not staying dead thing but he doesn't want an answer. More importantly, he doesn't want to give the powers that be any big ideas about restoring the natural order of things.
"She's not coming is she?" Xander fiddles with a cuff - it's a safer question. One he's already got the answer to.
Spike shakes his head, shrugs and lets it go. "Isn't her place anymore."
But not belonging somewhere never stopped Spike from showing up so there they are.
There's no coffin - just food and music and Angel, flushed and human and introducing everyone to Connor and he tries to remember it all so Buffy can see it even though she's not there. And sure - there's cameras - but they don't see everything. Buffy deserves more than that.
Which is really why they're here, propping up the buffet. Guarding the punch.
The punch is sickly pink by now. More vodka than fruit.
Xander helps himself to a canape - chews. "What's the official story on the dragon?"
Spike helps himself to an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels. "Vanished." Like the bottle which disappears into Spike's coat.
"How does a forty ton lizard vanish?"
Spike's opening the remaining bottles, sniffing them, putting them back. Selects an open Maker's Mark and tips it back. "With help."
Xander snorts but he doesn't turn down the bottle. But he just holds it. They stay there, leaning against the picked-over buffet table, scavenging. Sniping. Watching. Reminiscing. "Should have seen the look on your face when it passed us on I-5."
There's not much left to watch. Connor. Angel. Stragglers. The band's packing up their instruments and there's one canape left.
Xander eats it, chases it with a mouthful of Maker's Mark, hands it to Spike. Pushes away from the table's field of gravity and wipes his fingers on a napkin because he wasn't actually raised in a barn and he thinks about these things now.
"Where're you going?" Asked like it doesn't matter.
"To pay my respects to the deceased."
"What respect?" Spike drains the whiskey, shoves his hands in his pockets and cocks his head like he's trying to dredge up that crazy respect thing.
He could be.
"Well - he saved the world."
"Took all the credit, you mean."
Xander shrugs and leads the way. "Somebody's gotta, I guess. I mean - you really want to be the guy with the Powers knocking on his door at all hours of the night?"
"The Powers can sod themselves."
"Come on." Xander cajoles. "Respect. A couple seconds won't hurt."
Spike looks like he could debate the point but he doesn't.
The whole respects to Angel thing - it's awkward.
It's not quite painless but then it's over and they push through the hotel doors, stroll the parking lot and breathe in the Palo Alto evening air.
There's a dent in the roof of their car. They contemplate it together.
Spike's Zippo flares. "How'd you know dragons can't reach their own eyes anyway?"
"It was next to Draggoth in the Watcher's Compendium." Xander's done contemplating - a man can only spend so much of his life in contemplation before he starts wrapping himself in orange and passing out books on street corners. He opens the car door and gets in. "And we had that nest of Draggoths in West Hollywood in April."
Spike slides in after him, bumping him across to the passenger side. "Y'know - you're not bad, for a Watcher."
Xander's learned not to object. "You're not bad for a hero."
"You still talk too much, mind." Spike starts the car - fails to check the rear view before backing out as usual.
Xander checks out the space behind them in the side mirror. Breathes a sigh of relief. "Hero."
Spike shifts into gear. Smirks. "Tweed-wearing pillock."
Xander buckles his seatbelt. Checks it twice. Grins. "Billy Idol wannabe."
"I told you, Harris - "
They tear out of the parking lot, tires squealing because Xander's pretty sure that's the only way Spike knows how to drive.
Spike's hand finds Xander's. Pries it off the seatbelt and threads their fingers together.
And there's no sunset to ride off into but Xander's got a great imagination.