Giles and Xander were in their little room, the one at the very top of the house under the eaves. Late-autumn rain spattered on windows rattling loose in their frames. The wind seeped in and chilled them, though the sweat of lovemaking was still hot on Giles’s face and chest.
The attic’s only advantage, from Giles’s point of view, was its isolation from the rest of the house. He and Xander could play their games together without disturbing anyone. And when he needed to read and think, he had a place to retreat to where he was not plagued by the noises of communal living. He’d been retreating often, these days, when not busy with building plans and city permits. Xander had been teaching him to how refinish floors as they worked on the space that would become their martial arts studio. Brute labor, sanding them smooth, even with the aid of machines. Giles sanded the boards smooth and clear, and tried to sort out the last year in Sunnydale in his mind. His whole time there. He’d written it all down, but the journals were lost. He had only the one he’d carried with him when they fled.
Giles rescued the coverlet from where it had fallen to the floor and spread it over them, up to their waists. Xander rolled to face him, with a wordless grunt of satisfaction. Giles resettled the pillows and arranged himself on his side. Xander reached out and brushed the hair from his forehead. He needed a haircut. Some would say that Xander did as well, but Giles had always liked him shaggy, dark hair falling over his eyes. Xander had looked like this when they’d first met, years ago now, before Xander had learned that vampires were real. It was strange to Giles that the innocence could still be visible in his face.
Xander smiled at him, for some reason Giles couldn’t guess, but it was full of affection. He leaned forward and kissed Giles’s forehead.
“That was good,” he said.
Giles kissed him back, but didn’t bother replying. It had been good. Nothing complicated, no games tonight. It was a night for coziness, for tea and kisses instead of whisky and fire. They’d been slow and tender with each other.
Xander caressed his face, then trailed a hand down Giles’s chest, exploring idly. Xander liked Giles’s scars, though Giles himself was less sanguine. Blots on his skin, reminders of times he’d slipped and nearly lost his life. He had fewer than he might have had, given how rough the years had been since he’d been sent to Buffy. Even the scars were blurrier now, smoothed down by the years.
Xander’s hand found the inside of his elbow, where a faded tattoo hid marks from another needle. Giles had never told anyone about that, not even Xander yet.
“The mark of Eyghon,” Xander said, resting his finger tips next to it. “You never got it removed, like Buffy did.” And Ethan, more violently.
Xander’s fingers traced around it, over it. Before Giles would have flinched away from the touch, which would have awakened unclean and uneasy feelings in him. But now that Eyghon was destroyed, the tattoo was inert, all its magic drained. The dark ink had faded down to an uneven greenish smear. It was merely another blot on his skin, a reminder that he still owed the world a debt of service. For the sake of the life Randall hadn’t had, the children he hadn’t fathered, the parents he’d left bereaved. He’d tried to explain Randall to Xander, but had found it all too complicated for words.
“It’s memory,” he said at last.
“Bad one, though.”
Giles shrugged. “Even the bad memories are mine. My life, mistakes and triumphs and the boring stretches between.”
Xander laid his hand across it. “I get it. Your journals are gone, but your skin is always yours. I’ve been thinking something like that. I wish I had a tattoo for everything big that’s happened to me. One for every apocalypse. One for every person I’ve been to bed with. One for you and me. So I can remember this.”
Giles had seen Xander lingering over photographs of tattoos, had heard him discussing them with Faith. And he had been delighted beyond words to have borne Giles’s knife-marks on his chest for the few days they’d lasted. Giles said, “You should get one, then.”
“Yeah, I know, I will, but, um, I meant would you get one with me?”
“If I got a tattoo to, you know, be the memory of you and me together, would you get it too? Same thing, on both of us.” When Giles said nothing at first, Xander hastened on. “Unless you’re squeamed out by the idea of tattoos after this thing.”
His fingers brushed the inside of Giles’s elbow again. Giles breathed out shakily and thought about it carefully. He was surprised by the answer that came to him.
“No, I don’t mind the idea. Never occurred to me. It was always something other people did. Not me. The permanence… It does rather frighten one, doesn’t it? There are things, though.”
“Things I’d choose to remember that way. Good things. Momentous things. Being Buffy’s Watcher. Giving power to all the Slayers.” He paused and tried to think how to frame his worry. “Xander–”
“Forgive me for saying this, but we might not always be together.”
Xander shook his head, and he seemed almost frustrated. Giles wondered what he’d missed.
“I might screw it up, yeah, I know that. There are a hundred stupid things that might happen, from one of us panicking to a vamp having a lucky day. Already I know I want to remember this, whatever happens. Never gonna regret it. It’s momentous enough, for me. I want to carry something that reminds me of you for the rest of my life. However long that is.”
Xander was silent for a while, watching him. Giles couldn’t speak, could only watch Xander’s face, where all his feelings showed. His eyes, the real one and the convincing replacement, the living and the dead. Life was fleeting and their line of work dangerous beyond words. But if their shared calling was merciful, Xander would outlive him. Twenty-five years between them, and even if Giles died a natural death, Xander would be left behind. He wondered if Xander had thought this through.
If the unthinkable happened-- Giles allowed himself to think it. Yes, Xander was something he wanted to remember. A joy and not a burden, written on his flesh, reminding him every time he looked at himself. Xander was the last relationship he’d ever have. Then he flinched at his own melodrama; he had no way to know it would be so. But he wanted it to be, wanted Xander’s body next to his every night from now until the last night he drew breath. Such a strange thing to think, that the awkward chattering boy in his library would have grown in his heart like this.
He would have said, until the night he’d shown Xander the knife, that only Buffy knew him better. But now Xander had seen more. He’d told him so much in the days since then, things he’d told no one else.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” Xander said, when Giles’s silence had stretched through minutes.
“I, I, I do want to.” His voice was thick, because his throat had closed up, and his stammer worse than it had been in years. “I’d be proud to wear your tattoo, and moved beyond words to see mine on you.”
Xander’s face lit up, then he grabbed Giles and was kissing him, hard and sloppy, all enthusiasm and teeth. Giles kissed back, but his mind was leaping ahead, thinking about specifics.
When Xander finally released him and he’d got his breath back, he asked Xander, diffidently, what he wanted the tattoo to be.
“Tribal, all black,” Xander said, and Giles knew from the speed of the reply that he’d been thinking about it, wanting it, for a long time. “Got it all figured out. Our backs. A shoulder piece. All the way across. Something kinda organic but abstract.”
Giles tried to imagine it. “All the way?”
Xander spread his hands to show Giles what he meant.
Xander obediently wriggled himself over onto his stomach. He leaned on his elbows and craned his neck around to see what Giles was doing. Giles gathered up Xander’s hair into a thick ponytail and lifted it away from his neck.
“Here,” he said, stroking his fingers across Xander’s shoulders.
“Yeah. And down.” Giles drew his fingers halfway down Xander’s spine. “To there, yeah.”
Large, then. Giles tried to imagine ink there, patterns in black across Xander’s skin. Inescapable, unlike his little blotch on the inside of his elbow. Inescapable. Whenever they had sex, whenever they showered together. Whenever Xander took off his shirt. Their tattoo. He almost demurred, then simply accepted. Whatever Xander asked him to do, he’d do. He traced curlicues across Xander’s skin, over the place where it would go. Xander shivered and made a pleased sound.
“Maybe I can find a design on the web,” he said, craning around to look at Giles again.
Giles shook his head. “I’ll design it. You’ve seen my journals. And I know the symbology.”
Giles’s lost journals had been full of ink drawings. Of places he’d patrolled, of the demons he’d fought, of the artifacts he’d found. Of the people he’d known and loved. Buffy’s face and form were there, many times. Willow. And often these days, Xander. He thought he could manage something abstract like what Xander wanted.
“Was hoping you’d say that.”
“Give me some time to think.”
“No rush. Better to do it right than do it fast.”
Giles worked on it over the next weeks, during his retreat time. He went to the public library and researched what tattoo enthusiasts meant when they said “tribal”. He consulted with Willow on the design: he wanted any magical resonance in the design to be pure. His fears burned him, and he nearly backed away entirely. Willow reassured him on several counts: The blade was a difficult symbol to pervert. Its use as a symbol of fidelity and dedication to each other made it doubly pure.
His first sketch of it turned out to be the one he developed into the final drawing. He rendered it in black ink in the size it would be on Xander’s shoulders, on bristol. He was nervous when he presented it to Xander at last, worried that it was too stark, too abstract.
It was a blade, asymmetrical, curving. The hilt was a black sun, and complex intertwined rays of light ran down their spines to form the blade, and out along their shoulders to suggest the hilt. A cross, a sword, the sunlight, all the key symbols of their vocations as Watchers were there. Xander ran over the lines with his forefinger, tracing each one out and around and back. His eyebrows had come together, and Giles couldn’t tell if he were pleased or puzzled. Then he tapped the black-patterned circle at the center of the hilt.
“Our initials. You snuck our initials in there. This stuff inside the sun.”
“If you mind I could–”
“It’s perfect,” Xander said.
The artist Xander had found for them was a woman named Sharp. She had a shop in one of Cleveland’s older neighborhoods, a place Giles had been to before only a night, armed. The outside of it nearly frightened him off-- a paint-peeled ancient storefront with equally ancient neon advertising tattoos-- but what he found inside made him feel better. It was cluttered. Every surface was covered with drawings and photographs. Flash on one wall; customers with finished work on another. Photographs of people with arms green with ink, of tiny animals on their ankles, of abstract whorls around their arms. Music played from the back, and Giles could hear the sound of a machine whirring. His younger self might have said it had a good vibe. His older self said nothing, but ceased its silent nosing around the shop to find his lover.
Xander was already deep in conversation with the artist. The pair were leaned over his drawing, discussing Xander’s wishes. The artist’s arms were bare, Giles saw, and covered with blackwork similar to what he’d drawn, similar to what he’d seen in photographs while researching.
“Nice work,” Sharp said, and then pointed out some places where he’d been too fine with the detail. She agreed to do the work; Giles hadn’t realized that her acceptance had been in question, but apparently they were on trial with her. She sent them away and told them to return tomorrow after lunch, when if they still wanted it done she’d do it.
Xander went first. Sharp smiled when she saw the magnificence of the back she would be decorating, and shared a few trenchant words with Giles about what a lucky man he was. Giles agreed privately, but said nothing in public, content to merely smile at Xander’s deep blush. Sharp set aside the banter and bent seriously to her work after that. She’d made stencils from his designs, he saw, and transferred them to Xander’s back with marker. Latex gloves and masks and antibiotics-- so much more planned and careful than when Ethan had done him with a steel needle and magical ink he’d mixed by hand.
Giles sat as near as he could and absorbed everything. The noise of the machine, the noise of the electronic music the artist worked to. Xander’s face sliding into serene trance state as the needles drove into his flesh. Giles remembered how he’d looked when he’d cut designs into Xander’s skin, how he looked when they played harsher games. Giles suspected he would seek out this experience again, as Faith had.
A few strokes of the needles, a swipe of the cloth to clear away blood and ink. Another stroke. The design slowly emerged on Xander’s shoulders. The Eyghon tattoos had been nothing until the magic awakened them. It had been faint and blurred even when new. This tattoo lived without magic. Though perhaps any blood-ritual like this would be magic for people like them, who lived on the edge of the mystical world. Pain and blood and ink working themselves around into a symbol of who he and Xander were. Watchers, weapons, bound to their duty and to each other. And to life. By life. Giles was no longer sure what it meant, except that it was a good thing.
Xander bore it well, though there was sweat on his face by the time it was finally done. Sharp was exhausted as well. She hid Xander’s back away under gauze and sent them home, where duty and chores snatched Giles away from Xander immediately. It wasn’t until long after dinner that they were alone again. Xander sighed, locked the door of the attic behind them, and pulled his shirt over his head immediately. Giles raised an eyebrow at him.
“Time to take off the bandage, the pamphlet says. Gotta keep it moisturized and breathing. That’s the job of the boyfriend. Which would be you.”
Xander tossed Giles a bottle of lotion and stretched himself face-down on the bed. Giles eased the bandage away from his back. There was some blood and fluid, but less than he’d feared. He touched Xander’s shoulder, just above where the tattoo began. Xander didn’t seem to mind, so he squeezed lotion onto his fingers and gingerly spread it over the reddened skin.
Xander wriggled underneath his hand. “Yeah, that feels good. It’s kinda started itching, almost. How does it look?”
“Simply amazing. So vivid, so intense.”
“It’ll mellow out a bit as it heals. In a few years it’ll be calmer.”
Calmer? Perhaps. Perhaps in thirty years it would be blurry and the blacks gone green, but it would still be there. Sun, sword, his initials and Xander’s. Giles followed the lines radiating out from the center, rubbing the lotion in. He’d been worried that it would ruin Xander’s lovely back, the lines of the muscle, but it didn’t. It was lovelier than ever. Sexier than ever. Even more so because Xander was so obviously pleased to have ink at last. He imagined more tattoos on that muscled back. At the base of his spine, disappearing down below the waistband of his jeans. Over that lovely arse, that arse that Giles would, he realized, be taking now. Right this instant.
Giles gripped the back of Xander’s neck and squeezed. “I’m going to take you now, Xander. To mark the occasion. Don’t move.”
“Not on your life.”
Giles could hear the laughter in Xander’s voice. He dove into the nightstand to find a condom and the bottle of slick. Xander moved anyway, despite his promise, but Giles could not fault him: he kicked off his jeans and was naked before Giles had managed to push his trousers halfway down his thighs. He was in too much of a hurry to take them off, almost in too much of a hurry to put the condom on properly. Giles knelt behind Xander and pushed his legs further apart with his knees. He leaned over Xander’s back, Xander’s tattooed back, and penetrated, faster and more roughly than he was ever wont to do. His urgency almost frightened him, and he faltered, went still.
But Xander said, “Fuck. Yeah. Don’t stop. Feels-- yeah. Hard, man, do it hard. Tomorrow gonna do the same to you. Can’t wait.”
Giles laughed, and obeyed. Xander, this absurd man, was his. He’d get to look at that image every time he took Xander, every time, and be reminded that Xander was his. Living magic, or just life. Perhaps this was all he owed the world: love for the people around him. Every single day from now until he could open his eyes no longer. Giles kissed the back of Xander’s neck and swore it to him, silently.